Rethinking Stephen Harper’s Climate Strategy (Part Two): Part Two: U.S. experience shows that Canadian government must lead public opinion if we are to avoid another Kyoto

Commentary, Climate, Tom Harris

In part 1 of this article, I outline how developed nations are being hoodwinked by the United Nations again on climate change. Our governments are pulling us into another Kyoto Protocol where only developed countries will be held to emission limits. Canada, and all developed nations need to withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) that spawned the Kyoto, Cancun and Durban agreements in the first place.

Last month’s Angus Reid public opinion poll found, almost three-in-five Canadians still believe that global warming “is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.” Government strategists have obviously therefore concluded then that they must continue to play along with the climate scare until public opinion changes. Consequently, the Government continues to support alarm, telling us that “scientists agree”, we are causing a climate crisis and so we must reduce GHG emissions to prevent a two degree temperature rise. That none of this makes sense is immaterial. Government cannot lead public opinion, they assume.

But recent research shows that this is not the case at all.

In “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S.” published in February in the scientific journal Climatic Change, Professors R. J. Brulle of the Department of Culture and Communications at Drexel University in Philadelphia, J. Carmichael of McGill University and J. C. Jenkins of Ohio State University showed that the stated positions of politicians and other “elites” in society is the major factor driving public opinion. Their analysis, based on the construction of “aggregate opinion measures” from 74 separate surveys over a 9-year period, supported the 2009 conclusion of Harvard University’s Susan McDonald that “When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators…to make up their minds.”

Brulle and his colleagues showed that, beginning in the first quarter of 2006 and continuing until the third quarter of 2007, when prominent Republicans worked with the Democrats in support of the dangerous human-caused global warming hypothesis, the public was far more supportive of this position. ”These elite cues worked to increase concern about this topic”, Brulle et al said, as did the release of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

But starting in 2008, the Republicans split with the Democrats on climate change, and coupled with increased unemployment, this led to a sudden drop in the fraction of the public who ‘"worried a great deal" about climate change”’ – see graph here.

Brulle explains, “when politicians focus on climate change, their statements are transmitted to the public via the media. The media will cover the issue if it deemed newsworthy. This then influences public opinion. So by not talking about climate change, the politicians diminish media attention to the issue, and thus public concern goes down.” 

There are important lessons in this for Canada’s Conservative Government:

1 – Support for the climate scare remains significantly higher in Canada than in the U.S. largely because the issue has become mainstreamed with all party support in our country, while political opinion on the issue is polarized in America. Clearly, Environment Minister Peter Kent’s strong advocacy of the climate scare must stop if the Government wants Canadian public support for action “to stop climate change” to diminish;

2 – Climate alarmism needs to be quietly purged from Canadian government Websites and other communications. Even a neutral stance is preferable to David Suzuki-like proclamations on Environment Canada’s Website.

3 – The Government must talk about the issue much less. Instead of making child-like assertions about stopping climate change, which is of course impossible, they need to quietly set the stage so that the public can more frequently hear the voices of qualified, independent skeptics. Supporting an advertised-as-neutral climate science and energy conference, inviting in experts from all reputable points of view, would be a start. So would occasionally bringing up, in the House of Commons and interviews, the growing credibility of the worldwide skeptic (AKA “realist”) movement, as a reason for going slow on (and eventually cancelling) greenhouse regulations. 

The Harper government has made a small start on this already, with the Senate leading the way. On the morning of December 15, 2011, The Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources heard from four expert witnesses about the science and economics of climate change – see here. This was the first time since 2005 that scientists who do not accept the hypothesis that humanity’s carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are causing dangerous global warming were permitted to testify before a Canadian government committee. This was followed by important climate realist speeches in the Senate by Senator Nancy Greene-Raine of British Columbia and Senator Bert Brown of Alberta. Hearings into the realist view of the science of climate change should be repeated by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development as soon as possible. Listening to scientists from only one side of this intensely controversial issue, as this committee has done for many years, is irresponsible.

4 – Kent and his cabinet peers should support adaptation to climate change as a more cost effective and humane approach to the file, devoting the bulk of our resources to helping real people today cope with deadly threats such as droughts and floods. Putting the vast majority of climate change monies into vainly trying to stop what might happen late in the century, as is happening around the world today, is irrational and immoral, the Government could say.

Simply waiting for public opinion to change while the Government itself helps feed the fire that threatens to burn down our economy, is obviously a serious mistake. It’s time for the Canadian government to help lead public opinion if Canada is to avoid another Kyoto.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (