Let’s NOT Talk: Silencing the Climate

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Earlier this month, I gave a presentation at the Climate Change: Views from the Humanities Conference. It was hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara, and it was billed as a “Nearly Carbon-Free Conference” because it took place entirely online.

As explained on the conference’s home page, “had this been a traditional fly-in conference, our slate of speakers would have had to collectively travel over 300,000 miles, generating the equivalent of over 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the process. This is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of 50 people living in India, 165 in Kenya. A conference that takes up the issue of climate change while simultaneously contributing to the problem to such a degree would be simply unconscionable.”

This is quite a departure from traditional high-profile, large-carbon-footprint conferences, which host speakers from around the world who deliver papers live to their audiences. Instead of flying to California, I recorded my presentation, and it was uploaded to the conference website. I don’t feel cheated. This is an enormous step forward for our profession, and I’m immensely honoured to be a part of this progressive initiative.

Apart from the obvious benefits, I found that the online discussion was far richer than typical conference Q&A. Posters had time to reflect upon the presentations, the questions, and the answers, so the discussion was thoughtful and in-depth. I believe that having this vast resource archived and available for public viewing is also a benefit. Often we hear that the public doesn’t have easy access to academic work, but that is not the case here. The conference presentations are now a public resource.

You can watch my presentation here.  I encourage you to check out the other talks included in this link: Matthew Fledderjohann’s talk: Al Gore’s Armageddon? The Persuasive Binary of Apocalyptic Rhetoric within Climate Change Discourse and Sheryl-Ann Simpson’s Snap, Tag, Share: Seeing the Small Picture of #OurChangingClimate.

Below you will find the transcript for my talk: Let’s NOT Talk: Silencing the Climate. If you would like more information about my sources, feel free to ask:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. — the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report

Today we confront an unprecedented threat: Climate change is endangering our environment, our species and our way of life. Yet there are ongoing obstracles to the implementation of meaningful policy changes that would mitigate the worst of climate catastrophe. Even though over 97% of climate scientists agree that current climate-warming trends are due to human activity, (NASA) we still face climate denial and apathy.

According to Dale Jamieson, scholar of environmental ethics and analyst of climate change discourse, climate science has been muddied by an organized campaign utilizing “influential opinion leaders, backed by large sums of money, [who] have successfully worked to cast doubt on mainstream climate science.” This has led to confusion, climate denial and “policy paralysis.”

Let me use a personal example to illustrate. A few weeks ago, I responded to this Facebook post: “Is global warming man made and it can be reversed, or is it just happening anyway? Recently 31,000 scientists gathered and could not reach a consensus, and after reading so many articles, I have no idea.” I assume the “recent” gathering this poster was referring to is the 2008 petition project initiated by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. At the time, the Institute was trying to cast doubt on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. The petition received the endorsement of 31,000 “scientists.” These scientists included almost anyone with a Bachelor of Science or higher in fields ranging from engineering to medicine. (Sceptialscience.com) But these more subtle details are often lost on social media.

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of denialist posts on the internet, but this one stood out. It seemed to sincerely question, as though its author was confused by the choices presented by a Facebook scroll or Google search. It made me wonder where we’ve gone wrong. Why are so many people still confused about the origin of climate change? How can we better communicate about climate change in a way that motivates action?

The campaign of climate denial has been led by the fossil fuel industry, conservative think tanks, and outspoken right-wing pundits. (Dunlap) With the help of a few “contrarian scientists,” this coalition of doubters has sown enough uncertainty about the science of climate change and the motives of the global community that a significant portion of the population — 56% of Canadians and 66% of Americans — still don’t see climate change as a “very serious” issue.  (Ipsos Global Advisor December 2015)

Bill Nye the Science Guy has fought tirelessly against the climate denial movement. He believes that “the climate denial movement is running out of steam.” (mic.com; Lewis) Bad puns aside, Nye is likely right, at least in the long run. Millenials are far more likely to believe that climate change is the result of human activity than seniors. (Pew, 2015) While demographics are on the side of climate science, accepting that we are responsible for climate change is challenging for a multitude of reasons (many beyond the scope of this discussion).

Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial, points out that knowledge of climate change conflicts with individual and collective senses of identity. It challenges our longing to be “good.” Even more culturally problematic according to Peter J. Jacques (2012) is that “climate change science provides an imminent critique of industrial power, Western modernity, and the ideals of Western progress. It would challenge the central workings of ‘modern’ society” (p. 11)” The logical sequel to climate science could be somewhat uncomfortable. If we’re honest with ourselves, the future is uncertain. We still can’t know what we will lose as a result of climate change nor what sacrifices will need to be made once we confront our own culpability. If denial is the first stage of mourning the loss of our current privilege, we may still have a long way to go.

Climate denial may be “running out of steam,” but it still hasn’t run out of hot air. The top running candidates for the Republican party are both self-proclaimed deniers. On the campaign trail Ted Cruz has embraced climate denial by claiming that “the scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming,” and he suggests climate science is, in essence, a plot by “liberal politicians who want government power over the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.” (npr.org) Donald Trump is another denialist: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he tweeted. (Twitter, 2012) More recently he reaffirmed his position: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop” (Twitter, 2014) Either of these men could become the next president of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

It’s no surprise that the frontrunners for the Republican party nomination are noted climate deniers. Belief in climate change has become politicized, a matter of identity. The PEW Research Center’s (2014) poll results tell us that 27% of Republicans believe climate change is caused by human activity in contrast to 71% of Democrats.

We often make the assumption that people need “the facts.” Once they have the right facts, they will come to the proper conclusions, and they will make the right decisions. But this assumption has proven to be false. Dan Kahan (2012, 2013) believes that climate denial is ideologically motivated — that “positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.” In other words, people will evaluate facts based upon their “cultural community.” It is not reasonable to expect people to want to isolate themselves from their peers by adopting beliefs that are at odds with those with whom they work, live and socialize. Instead they are more likely to “acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand” (2012). People may be aware of the facts, but if those facts are not coming from a respected source, their validity may be discounted. Countries or regions economically dependent upon the fossil fuel industry are presented with yet another cognitive challenge.

My home province of Alberta depends on oil revenues to balance its budget. These days over half of that revenue comes from the Alberta oil sands, the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world. But the oil sands present a number of challenges. Oil (or more accurately bitumen) extracted from the oil sands produces significantly higher GHG emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Alberta has another problem. It is a landlocked province without the infrastructure to move large volumes of bitumen to a world market.

The province recently elected Rachel Notley of the New Democrats, a traditionally left-wing, progressive party. After a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, many environmentalists assumed the province would be governed by a party that would put a stop to the region’s pipeline controversy or at least be more moderate in its approach. Under the previous government, cabinet minister Doug Griffiths said that the energy sector “sucks the life out of every other aspect of Alberta.” He was later heavily criticized for this moment of honesty. (Thomson) This economic dependence is at the heart of the government’s push for pipeline construction. Alberta’s past Finance Minister, Ron Liepert, said it best: “If we don’t get moving on these pipeline projects, our greatest risk in Alberta is that by 2020, we will be landlocked in bitumen.” Past premier Ralph Klein incentivized unfettered oilsands growth, joking that global warming was caused by “dinosaur farts” while Past premier Alison Redford was tireless in her push to build the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Our newly elected progressive premier has released a “Climate Action Plan,” but the plan fails to address oil sands emissions in any meaningful way. Of the Trans Mountain expansion, Notley said the National Energy Board should “recommend approval of the project” (Globe and Mail, Jan. 12, 2016). She pushed hard for Energy East, “It’s critical to the future of our country and to the well-being of every Albertan and every Canadian.” She’s even softened her oppositional stance on the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline. Any of these pipelines would allow for further expansion of the oilsands and a much larger GHG footprint for Canada.

Yet a recent research study published in the journal Nature found that if the world wishes to stay below the 2 degree internationally agreed upon ceiling, the most efficient plan includes “negligible” production within the oil sands by 2020. That’s the prognosis if we wish to stay below 2 degrees, not the 1.5 degree aspiration of COP 21.

After years of obstructing international climate negotiations, Canada did make impressive commitments at the Paris Conference, but the federal government has no effective plan in place to reach its 30% GHG reduction commitment by 2030. According to Canadian climate scientist and leader of BC’s Green Party Dr. Andrew Weaver: “The tar sands remain the largest source of GHG emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” Leading climatologist, James Hansen, has declared continued development of the oil sands means “game over for the climate.” It would appear that there is a profound disconnect between green rhetoric and effective policy.

Norgaard views climate denial as a form of privilege. She points to Norway’s economic advantage, which results largely from its oil extraction in the Northern Sea. She explains that privilege “produces new possibilities for denial,” and writes, “Privileged people are protected from full knowledge of environmental problems by national borders…and their own fine-tuned yet unconscious practices of not noticing, looking the other way, and normalizing the disturbing information they constantly come across.” (Norgaard, 219) The problem of climate change can seem esoteric or impractical in the face of job loss or economic uncertainty.

William Freudenberg (2005) uses the term “double diversion” to describe the privilege of society-environment relationships within the global setting. The first diversion refers to “strikingly unequal patterns of privileged access to environmental rights and resources” (pp. 89&90). Privileged access to resources are often framed within the context of necessary jobs, economic security and energy independence. The second diversion is the diversion of attention. Rather than being called into question, the inequalities of distribution “are almost universally unchallenged.” The expectations that accompany privileged access become “normalized,” — “the social construction of quiescence or ‘non-problematicity’” (cited in Murray, 335).

The communication power of the media is at least partly to blame for this. Raymond Murray (2015) claims that the media is culpable in transforming “what science concludes is a problem into a societal non-problem.” (335) With “Power relationships … [ultimately] defending productivism and consumerism at all costs” (338).

People often become uncomfortable when climate change is linked to industries that support economic security. I’ve noticed a growing acceptance of climate science in my home city of Edmonton, but many Albertans are not willing to accept that the oil sands are a major GHG contributor. The People’s Climate Marches of 2014 and 2015 both drew large crowds of at least several hundred people. Yet I’ve attended a number of rallies protesting various oil sands projects, and I’ve never stood with more than a handful of protesters, a couple dozen familiar faces.

This contrast offers some insight into how to engage citizens and create consensus. Alberta is too close to the oils sands to see its downside with any objectivity. We not only depend upon the sands for our economic wellbeing, oil and gas is part of our cultural identity. The silhouette of the pump jack framed by the prairie horizon is an Alberta icon. When the Edmonton Oilers, one of Alberta’s two professional hockey teams, come onto their home game ice, they skate through a symbolic oil derrick as dry ice fog rises and coloured lights flash. The oil and gas industry may not define Alberta’s identity, but it is an integral part of it. We must be careful that in our haste to engage in climate action, we do not threaten Albertans’ sense of cultural belonging.

Kahan (2010) suggests that information should be presented in a way that “affirms rather than threatens people’s values.” And in the case of Alberta, we must also offer solutions to our economic dependence, solutions that promote progress. This is precisely the tactic that Greenpeace Alberta has chosen.

Greenpeace Canada opened its Alberta office in 2007 with the “Stop the Tar Sands” campaign, a series of high-profile actions meant to draw the world’s attention to the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands. They succeeded in their task, but they made few friends in the province itself.

In November 2014 Greenpeace changed its tactics. They launched their “Go Solar” campaign by climbing the historic Leduc drilling derrick that launched Alberta’s oil boom 70 years ago. There they hung a large banner declaring “Go Solar: 100% Climate Safe.” At the foot of the derrick, they installed a solar panel that powered their sound system. It was a small action, but it marked a transition for the NGO. Two days later, the Royal Alberta Museum phoned Mike Hudema, Greenpeace’s Alberta-based Climate and Energy Campaigner, asking for the banner to add to their collection. This marked a symbolic shift for a province integrally connected to the petroleum industry. Since then Greenpeace messaging has focused on sustainable energy, green jobs and promotion of the solar sector. These are messages that virtually everyone in the province can get behind. They suggest innovation, progress and economic growth.

Kahan also suggests that scientific evidence should be vouched for by a diverse set of experts. By including advocates who appeal to the audience, people feel they can consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

This is the reason Pope Francis’s strong stance on climate change is important to engaging with over a billion Catholics worldwide. In his encyclical, Pope Francis points to “very solid scientific consensus [which] indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” He calls on humanity “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming.” (LS 23)

Two months after the Pope released his encyclical, Muslim clerics, Islamic scholars and environmental advocates met in Istanbul to call for action on climate change. “Islam teaches us: ‘Man is simply a steward holding whatever is on Earth in trust,’” says Sheikh Shaban Ramadhan Mubaje, Uganda’s grand mufti. The declaration calls on all Muslims (1.6 billion worldwide) to “recognize the corruption that humans have caused on the Earth due to our relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption,” and the ultimate consequence of these actions: climate change.

These declarations reach populations that may not accept scientific consensus. They change the conversation from an esoteric scientific debate into a moral imperative for a significant segment of the world’s population.

The climate denial movement may be losing steam, but we must continue to build consensus in a way that avoids further polarization of the issue. We must follow a strategy that includes rather than excludes. For too long we’ve pitted ourselves against opponents instead of embracing potential allies, and we need all the allies we can get in the fight against climate change.





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