How Shoddy Reporting is Stunting Canada’s Climate Change Conversation

This week, Natural Resources Canada released a major report on climate change and its potential impacts in Canada. The report is novel-thick, the first significant NRCan missive on climate change since 2008, and it rattles off a list of near-future worries that will be familiar to anyone watching climate news closely — heavier rains, more extreme weather events, rising sea levels and acidifying oceans.

You can be forgiven if this is the first you heard of it, since the report was published without so much as a press release. I can only assume this is because the report represents a straightforward, data-driven, thoughtful analysis of the status of the planet’s climate and the likely impact of a changing climate on Canada’s environment, economy and society. And this kind of serious talk is just not how you talk about climate change in Ottawa these days.

I speak often to a wide range of Canadian audiences – from conventional and renewable energy professionals to academic crowds to municipal officials – about the status of the green economy’s vanguard, much of which is situated in western Europe. And I frequently encounter some variation on the same question: Why has Canada lagged so far behind in building a low-carbon society? There’s no single answer, but when I’m in need of a shorthand, I say that we’ve failed for the most part to develop and maintain a serious public conversation about climate change. We talk about climate change – a ubiquitous, universal problem of epochal scale – as something distant in time and space, self-contained and inconsequential, unworthy of intense and sustained scrutiny. Sometimes, our government doesn’t even tell the public when it has issued a major report on the subject.

Another textbook example of Canada’s stunted climate conversation transpired just days before the NRCan study’s launch, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott paid a visit to Stephen Harper in Ottawa. It was a perfunctory state visit for the most part. Harper and Abbott had no big announcements to make, no agreements to sign or policies to peddle. There was a photo op, then a press conference at which a joint statement was delivered. The media, in Harper’s preferred style, were strictly limited to four questions, two from the Aussies and two from the Canadians. Later in the evening, there was a formal dinner, which the Aussie press corps didn’t bother sticking around for. As Colin Horgan put it in a Guardian post-mortem, the whole thing was “a lesson from political message makers on how to create nothing out of something.”

And yet there was some news generated by this Seinfeldian summit. It emerged when one of the Australian reporters who’d been granted the rare privilege of a question asked about Barack Obama’s recently unveiled climate plan. Abbott and Harper, who take evident pride in being two of the world’s least enthusiastic climate change warriors, used the question as an opportunity to lecture the rest of the world on its irrationality and hypocrisy regarding the climate file.

A shrug and a sneer at climate change

The full responses of the respective prime ministers to this question are in this post from Mike De Souza if you’d like to read the whole thing. The takeaway was a two-parter, a shrug and a sneer at taking action on climate change. Abbott handled the shrug. “It’s not the only, or even the most important problem that the world faces,” he said. Then he aimed his rhetorical sneer at do-gooder wastrels like the ones who’d passed a carbon tax in Australia. “We shouldn’t clobber the economy and that’s why I’ve always been against a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme because it harms our economy, without necessarily helping the environment.”

Harper, not to be outdone, switched into the smug lecturing mode that has become his default approach to international policy discussions of this sort. “No matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that.” He also indulged in a dusty old NDP-bashing talking point, thanking Abbott for cutting taxes, “most notably the job-killing carbon tax.”

A shrug – climate change? No big deal, guys – and then a sneer at treehugging lefties who’d rather have us wreck the economy to do barely anything at all about climate change anyway. The daily press dutifully reported on the limited story they’d been given, the CBC explaining that both PMs “took a hard line” on climate change and the Globe & Mail noting the “unapologetic tone” both shared on the subject. The Globe story placed the exchange in the context of the forthcoming Northern Gateway pipeline decision, while the Ottawa Citizen filled out its story with a bit of background on Harper’s relationship with previous Australian leaders.

All in all, though, nothing much to see here. Move along.

But let’s be just a little more frank, shall we, about what actually transpired in this summit about nothing. The leaders of two G7 countries met in the wake of a major climate plan rollout by the United States – a policy package that appears to be the signature initiative of the president’s second term – and just ahead of a G20 summit in Australia at which one of them (Abbott) is doing everything he can to keep climate change off the agenda. Both of them glibly dismissed the very notion of taking meaningful action on an issue that the other of them (Harper) once called “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.”

Reporters transcribe glib comments … and that's about it

And Canada’s mainstream press, conditioned to ignore that which official Ottawa shrugs at, filed the most rote and routine of stories. They transcribed the glib comments, padded them with a bit of vaguely relevant context. And, like the hapless stormtrooper convinced by Obi-Wan’s dismissive Jedi hand wave that these aren’t the droids he’s looking for, they moved along.

Try to imagine this response in another context. Let’s say Abbott and Harper were discussing national defence and the global security situation. Someone asks about the Middle East, the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. Abbott says really it’s all been overblown, nothing to worry about. Harper says devoting government resources to something as trivial as the conquest of Iraq by jihadists would get in the way of higher priorities, then takes an offhand dig at Trudeau.

In this context, is it plausible that any reporter would file a story with no contextual detail at all about, for example, the actual situation on the ground in Iraq? Would there be barely a word about previous policy positions on the Middle East or the strategic importance of the region or the rather shockingly indifferent tone being taken regarding such a grave crisis? Would the coverage marvel at what a non-event this was? Of course not. War is serious business. Global security issues are always a top priority.

But climate change? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Consider each PM’s soundbite comment on the subject, the ones that marked off that “hard line” and struck such an “unapologetic tone.”  Abbott: “We shouldn’t clobber the economy.” Harper: “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth.” Both of them are referring to a carbon tax. The one Australia has, which Abbott is dead-set on repealing (though his government hasn’t yet, despite Harper’s suggestion otherwise, which not a single report on the summit bothered to correct). And the one Harper wields as a Question Period bludgeon, that “job-killing” threat which is just one reason why only his government should be trusted with the keys to the treasury.

Here's a thought: how about verifying climate change claims?

In the midst of this non-story, how is it that not one reporter thought to verify these claims? Given that both PMs spoke explicitly about carbon taxes, why didn’t reporters fill out their stories with detail on what carbon taxes are and what they do? Does a carbon tax actually clobber the economy and destroy jobs and growth? Australia’s economy has operated under a carbon tax for nearly two years. British Columbia’s had one for three times that long. Do either of these economies resemble a punchdrunk boxer in the late rounds of an epic beating?

Well, actually, Australia’s GDP has grown by three per cent or so in 2012 and 2013. Electricity prices are up a bit, but the carbon tax is not the sole cause of that. And at the same time, Australia saw its biggest drop in greenhouse gas emissions in 24 years, refuting Abbott’s claim that such policies don’t help. Similarly, B.C.’s carbon tax has utterly failed to kill jobs or clobber economic growth. Again, fuel prices are up a bit, but B.C. consumers have responded, as expected, by consuming less. And this week a new World Bank report actually indicated seriously tackling climate change could increase GDP.

But hey, maybe carbon taxes are too esoteric, too wonky, too “inside baseball.” What about at least some discussion of the state of the planet and what climate change is doing to it and what the costs might be – today and in the future – if we continue to shrug at the problem and accept as fact the unproven argument that dealing with it would wreck the economy?

With the exception of Aaron Wherry at Maclean’s, who at least quoted an NDP MP talking about current climate change costs, the Canadian press was again mostly silent. Or what about that perennial Hill reporter’s favourite – the reading of the Harper tea leaves? To go from claiming (falsely) that the government will meet its climate change targets to saying they don’t really matter represents a significant shift in rhetoric if not necessarily in policy. Wouldn’t that warrant a bit more substantial discussion? Evidently not.

This is, after all, not the only or even the most important problem the world faces. Why bother reporting on it like it matters at all?

Image Credit: RHL images via Flickr.

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CHRIS TURNER is one of Canada's leading voices on sustainability, livable cities and the global cleantech boom. His latest book…

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