B.C. government failing to engage citizens on climate change

Polls suggest people are grappling with conflicting ideas — revenue from LNG is good, but many oppose greenhouse gases LNG will generate.

BY: MARIO CANSECO

In 2007, the environment briefly supplanted health care as the top issue facing Canadians in several national surveys.

The economy was in great shape, health care problems appeared to be localized (at the time, Quebec and Alberta were more likely to complain about hospitals and doctors than British Columbians or Ontarians), and other issues — such as public safety and education — were not causing much dismay.

Among the several factors that led to the emergence of the environment as the top issue in Canada was the fact that former U.S. vice-president Al Gore was touring the world with his PowerPoint presentation, discussing the threat of global warming.

The topic was not new. Time magazine had named Earth “Planet of the Year” in 1989, in an issue that included an essay by then-senator Gore on the “global ecological crisis.” Back then, Gore attempted to appeal to upper-house colleagues who were in denial. In this century, Gore’s communication skills amounted to a call to action for a younger generation.

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, the environment fell to single digits in most surveys. The economy emerged as the top concern, and has remained there. Still, while the environment may no longer be “top of mind” for most Canadians, there are certain aspects of it that have not seen a reduction in the level of concern.

B.C. led Canada in the fight against climate change during the tenure of premier Gordon Campbell. His decision to implement a carbon tax, accompanied by a glossy advertising campaign that evoked the beauty of our province, was well received. At the time the carbon tax was implemented, roughly half of British Columbians believed that global warming was real.

Support for this notion has only become stronger. This summer, 68 per cent of British Columbians polled by Insights West said climate change “is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.”

Across the province, only 10 per cent of residents consider global warming a “theory that has not yet been proven.”

Men, residents over the age of 55 and people who did not attend post-secondary institutions are more likely to be, to borrow the term, “climate change deniers.” But even in these three demographic groups, agreement with the idea that global warming is an “unproven theory” does not reach 20 per cent. The consensus in British Columbia on “man-made climate change” is abundantly clear.

The challenge for the current provincial government is not the carbon tax, but getting the public behind the plan to export liquefied natural gas. There has been little information on how this push for a new revenue source will coalesce with the government’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2050.

Understandably, when compared to the intrusive nature of pipelines and the yet unfulfilled agreement with Alberta to get a “fair share” of profits (if and when bitumen travels through B.C.), LNG seems to be an ideal project. Yet, more than a year after it emerged as the bedrock towards a “Debt Free B.C.”, the public is confused about what it is. While half of British Columbians polled by Insights West would welcome the revenue LNG plants would generate, a similar proportion is opposed to fracking to collect the gas in the first place.

British Columbians, along with Quebecers, are the most environmentally friendly Canadians. The Campbell carbon tax worked because it appealed at the same time to the fiscally savvy centre-right voter and the ecologically conscious centre-left voter. At this point, there seems to be little effort to bridge these two solitudes again.

The push for LNG cannot be based solely on the promise of revenues that will solve problems. The benefits of the industry have not been properly explained to the population, starting with an effort to discuss, openly and honestly, how fracking is conducted in our province and how it differs from the practices that have been met with massive disapproval in Ohio and New York.

However, with two thirds of British Columbians viewing global warming as a reality that is caused by humans, the conversation on fracking will not be enough. The province will need to undertake a more intensive effort to explain how LNG will help combat climate change.

The previous administration took action and asked us to do our part for the planet. The current one has not even begun to engage with citizens who are preoccupied with global warming.

 

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Photograph: Steve Jurvetson