A minority government is a win for Canada’s climate agenda — but communication will be key

With the Liberals, NDP and Greens working together on policy, there is a chance to push a progressive climate agenda — if the right stories are told.

By: /
October 23, 2019
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks to the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, on October 23, 2019, following his re-election on October 21. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
Kamyar Razavi

PhD candidate, Simon Fraser University, and television news producer

In his victory speech on Monday night, newly re-elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to talk about climate change. “Canadians…voted in favour of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change,” Trudeau proclaimed less than a minute into his speech at the Palais des congrès in Montreal.

By then it was clear Trudeau would remain prime minister, with the Liberals winning 157 seats, 13 shy of what they needed to regain a majority government. The Conservatives, though they received nearly 250,000 more votes than the Liberals overall, earned 121 seats, the Bloc Quebecois 32, the New Democratic Party 24, and the Greens three.

The Conservatives secured 34 percent of the vote. But, as Chris Hatch wrote Tuesday for the National Observer, nearly seventy percent of Canadians “voted for parties pledging to up Canada’s fight for a safe future.” By late Monday night, a petition had already gone live on leadnow.ca, calling for the Liberals, NDP and Greens to “cooperate for climate.”

Indeed, with a minority government, Trudeau will now have to find like-minded partners to stay in power. Climate change, which was supposed to be a big issue in this election, was often sidelined during the campaign. But with an environment-focused agenda about to dominate the conversation in Ottawa, and a solid sea of Conservative blue in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the divide between Canada’s energy producing powerhouses and the rest of the country could not be more clear. The fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline, carbon taxes and other regulations will all be the subjects of future negotiations in order to try and make Parliament work.

The competing interests at play might make it seem like there is a national unity crisis waiting to happen. But Monday’s election result is an opportunity for the new government to ease divisions by working to bridge the climate divide. Canadians, including Albertans, are concerned about global warming. However, the climate conversation means different things to different people across the country. Greta Thunberg’s visit to Montreal drew tens of thousands of people to the streets last month. In Edmonton last week, she was met with “I love oil and gas” signs. She will no doubt receive a warmer reception in Vancouver this Friday.

Finding consensus on climate begins with communication that resonates well with different groups, including those for whom the climate crisis is not the number one priority right now. For many people in Alberta, the fate of pipelines is intricately tied to concerns about job security and putting food on the table. Those concerns cannot be overlooked.

For far too long, climate change communication, which includes climate journalism, has assumed that people would act if only they had more alarming facts about global warming. The reality of climate change communication is far more complex. Shovelling more facts at people does not necessarily translate into more concern. People’s worldviews and values play a crucial role too.

The Alberta Narratives Project is an initiative that has been working to change the way people talk and think about climate change in the province. This community-based effort has held dozens of workshops around Alberta to see how people with different values and opinions engage with the subject. According to one of the group’s reports, the goal is to “replace a combative and acrimonious debate with a constructive conversation based on shared values and respect for people’s different ways of seeing the world.”

This more nuanced communication strategy builds on the standard of mutual understanding, respect and empathy. For climate communication to be effective, environmental messages must frame the climate crisis as a cultural gain as opposed to a loss, according to Andy Hoffman, an environment and sustainability professor at the University of Michigan.

“All too often, the climate conversation is centered around what experts, politicians and bureaucrats have to say about it.”

Importantly, there is also an interest, including in Alberta, for an economy of the future that has climate change considerations baked into it. “We need to diversify” is a message the Narratives Project authors said resonated loudly in the province.

Yet, too much of the discourse around climate change still steers clear of potential economic opportunities, focusing instead on predictions of economic chaos or ecological collapse. That’s unhelpful. Instead, positive, relatable and ordinary visions of change can have a huge impact. Seeing a trusted friend making environmentally friendly choices that also save money is a powerful driver of change. So too are oil workers who call for jobs and investment in renewable energy.

The key to effective climate change communication is, then, first to simply have more conversations about it. As the climate communication expert George Marshall writes in Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, talking about global warming is not easy. The issue is highly complex, it has many moving parts and there is no single solution to the climate crisis. Climate change can also be scary, making it a tricky dinner table conversation. It requires people having to make undesirable lifestyle changes such as flying less.

But fear of having those conversations can be lessened if the issue is framed as a way to help people enjoy a better life: quieter cities, cleaner air, better food. Journalists play a crucial role. They can report stories about individuals or groups that are leading the way. More and more reporters are already painting the picture of what a low-carbon future will actually look like — a world where tailpipe emissions are a thing of the past and where cars are charged like cell phones.

All too often, the climate conversation is centered around what experts, politicians and bureaucrats have to say about it. But climate change should and must also be about community. Public forums at universities and libraries, town halls with local politicians, and roundtables and community discussions like those initiated by the Alberta Narratives Project are crucial to making climate conversations accessible where people live.

Finally, descriptions of a world that takes climate change as its basis cannot be built simply on blaming the fossil fuel industry, which has helped the Canadian economy grow. Instead, as the Alberta Narratives Project report stated, “[a] transition to new energy sources can be presented as building new infrastructure toward a positive objective (clean energy, diversified economy, new opportunities).” The fossil fuel industry — as the larger energy sector — can be a part of this conversation.

But, ultimately, the pressure must come from the street — from ordinary people pressing their politicians for action. Stories about political action and collective mobilization, long absent in the climate change narrative, are now rising to the top, thanks to the efforts of people like Greta Thunberg and others.

“[W]e can make transformation the touchstone of our national conversation,” Matthew Hoffmann, the co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, wrote for OpenCanada after the 2015 election. “[T]he change towards assuming transformation must be accompanied by a focus on the justness of transformation.”

For Canada’s incoming Parliament, the need to facilitate such a transformation is more urgent than ever. Bridging the clear gap between the ‘West’ and the ‘rest’ can, ironically, happen with better climate conversations. But it’s how those conversations get framed that will make all the difference. The best climate communication isn’t just about crisis. It’s also about the possibilities for prosperity in a brave new world, and every Canadian wants in on that.