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Why is climate change still so controversial to some people?

Global News with Stephanie Whitney and Jackie Dawson 26 September 2019

 

Climate change is a fact.

Not only is it undeniable but it is also one of the top three concerns for Canadians in the federal election campaign, according to an Ipsos poll for Global News.

But despite that, some people still have doubts or reject entirely the scientific evidence that global temperatures are rising and with them, the risks posed to people in countries around the world.

So what exactly is behind that disbelief?

Experts suggest it boils down to a couple of key factors that leaders in both the scientific and political spheres need to get better at addressing: poor scientific communication, mistrust in public institutions, and an either/or mentality about how people should be tackling climate change in their daily lives.

“Scientists aren’t always the best communicators to the public so there might be an issue on that side,” said Robert O’Brien, a professor of political science at McMaster University who has focused on the political economy of climate change.

He suggested that scientific jargon can feed into another aspect of the problem: people who don’t understand the science can turn to “opinion leaders” in their particular communities to try to understand how they should think and feel about a problem.

“So if there’s an opinion leader within whatever community they’re in which is disparaging climate change science or raising doubts about climate change science, then people may pay attention to those opinion leaders as opposed to investigating it themselves.”

Jackie Dawson, a professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, added that part of that is growing mistrust in public institutions.

“I think there’s been a lot of spinning and there is a lot of mistrust and I do think that plays into it to some degree,” she said.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer recorded its largest-ever gap in trust of public institutions between what it calls the informed public — individuals with a post-secondary education, who reported significant media consumption and are in the top 25 per cent of income earners in their country — and everyone else.

That global survey found that the general public’s trust in institutions like government, business, non-governmental organizations and the media was 20 points lower than the trust the informed public reported having in the same institutions.

In Canada specifically, an annual survey done by Proof Strategies suggested just 39 per cent of Canadians trust their public institutions.

That was down from 45 per cent in 2018, 43 per cent in 2017 and 45 per cent in 2016.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer recorded its largest-ever gap in trust of public institutions between what it calls the informed public — individuals with a post-secondary education, who reported significant media consumption and are in the top 25 per cent of income earners in their country — and everyone else.

That global survey found that the general public’s trust in institutions like government, business, non-governmental organizations and the media was 20 points lower than the trust the informed public reported having in the same institutions.

In Canada specifically, an annual survey done by Proof Strategies suggested just 39 per cent of Canadians trust their public institutions.

That was down from 45 per cent in 2018, 43 per cent in 2017 and 45 per cent in 2016.

One other expert agreed and said polarization can also affect how people talk about including others in the movement for change.

“For me, the most important thing about this issue being polarized is the way it’s expressed, whether it’s through media or through the platforms, as being mutually exclusive outcomes,” said Stephanie Whitney, associate director and postdoctoral fellow at the Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Like, if you care about the economy you have to be pro-pipeline, or if you care about the environment you must stop driving gasoline-fuelled cars. I don’t think it necessarily has to be so mutually exclusive.”

She suggested environmental advocates need to do a better job of fostering a conversation around climate action that includes a range of actions people can take to reduce their environmental impacts, and avoid talking about those actions as requiring drastic personal changes.

“Proponents of climate change that frame sustainability as requiring personal sacrifice do themselves and the environmental movement in general a disservice,” she said.

“I think if it’s done well, it shouldn’t require personal sacrifice.”

Stephanie Whitney is an associate director of VERiS and a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

Jackie Dawson is a research chair in Environment, Society, and Policy.