Scientists around the world are warning countries of the effects of climate change, yet some people still aren’t convinced global warming is real.
Recently deemed as one of the biggest issues of our time by the United Nations, experts say we are seeing the consequences of a warming planet in 2019: melting glaciers, wildfires and endangered species, to name a few.
While the majority of Canadians believe in climate change, there is some debate around how much humans have contributed to the state of the environment, said Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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While he teaches in the U.S., Mildenberger is Canadian and his research focuses on climate change beliefs in Canada. He says there are some common reasons why people may be global warming skeptics or outright deniers.
One of the main reasons? Politicians who downplay or deny environmental issues.
People listen to leaders
“Many people form their policy preferences listening to politicians and to leaders who they rely on to help them make sense of difficult issues like climate change,” Mildenberger told Global News.
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“When you have political leaders who are promoting climate skepticism, or climate denial, that’s going to trickle down and become part of the public’s perspective — particularly the public that relies on those leaders.”
In Canada, Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed doubts about the legitimacy of climate change. As a result, Elections Canada recently warned that discussing climate change during the upcoming federal election could be deemed partisan activity.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump has previously called climate change a hoax and pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017.
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Mildenberger said that both in Canada and the U.S. groups and sectors that depend on producing carbon pollution for their profits lobby hard for their interests. In turn, this can affect a politician’s stance on environmental issues.
This is a problem, Mildenberger explained, as climate change policy should not be up for debate; our planet needs protective measures.
“Those companies are seeking to try and delay climate reforms even at the expense of the public well-being,” Mildenberger explained.
“They’ve been successful in and sort of inducing or recruiting political leaders to join them in this quest to delay action, and then those political leaders, in turn, are communicating climate denialism and climate skepticism to the public.”
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A 2018 Gallup poll found that global warming has become a partisan issue in the U.S.: “about seven in 10 Republicans think the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated in the news.”
For Democrats, 64 per cent think the seriousness of global warming is underestimated.
Misunderstanding of the seriousness of climate change
While some people may not understand the science behind climate change, resulting in denying its existence, Mildenberger thinks the larger issue is that people underestimate how many scientists believe in climate change.
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The majority of scientists say climate change is human-made, but not everyone realizes that, he explains.
“Ninety-seven per cent or more of scientists are certain that climate change is real and human-caused, but the public often estimates far more division within the scientific community than that,” Mildenberger said.
This is largely because of the way climate change has been covered in the media.
For example, Mildenberger says that over the last few decades, newspapers and TV news shows have created a “balanced” perspective on climate change, meaning they would share the views of a climate scientist as well as the views of an industry official or someone to counter the scientist’s point.
This has made the issue look like it was up for debate when it isn’t.
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“The whole way that climate coverage has been structured for the last few decades has actually misled the public and done them a disservice by giving them a sense that there is controversy when in fact there isn’t any controversy,” Mildenberger said.
Climate changes affects more people every day
The bad news is that climate change is affecting more people every day, but experiencing the effects of global warming can affect how seriously you take it, Mildenberger said.
For those who have survived a wildfire or watched floods wash over their community, they may be more likely to take action and advocate for environmental policies.
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On the other hand, if you’re a climate change denier, losing your home to a fire or seeing images of starving polar bears doesn’t mean your mind will be changed.
“It doesn’t necessarily convert people who are not already engaged in thinking about climate change an issue, because they’re not filtering or experiencing these events through with an understanding that they’re actually victims of a changing climate,” Mildenberger said.
The need to take action
Canada is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world and that warming is “effectively irreversible,” a recent scientific report from Environment and Climate Change Canada noted.
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This means that it’s incredibly important for people to understand the realities of climate change, and work to take action — regardless of political lines, Mildenberger said. Leaders need to communicate the realities of global warming so skeptics or deniers can better understand its threat.
“It’s an issue that cuts across political and ideological divisions as it should. It’s something that’s going to harm everyone equally.”
— With a file from the Canadian Press