Studies Show When Government Is Skeptical About Climate Change, People Listen

Before winning a minority government in 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to get to the bottom of the climate change file and handle the issue properly. Neither he, nor most members of his party, believed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities were causing a climate crisis. Emission reduction regulations were clearly not necessary, they said.

In a 2002 fundraising letter for the now-defunct Canadian Alliance, Harper called the UN climate process “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

Somewhere along the road to power, everything changed. Now, like the Chretien and Martin Liberal governments before them, the Conservatives officially support UN negotiations to “stop dangerous climate change.”

In a futile attempt to mollify their opponents, they now make GHG reduction pledges they have no chance, and, undoubtedly no intention, of keeping. They dump billions of dollars into projects that will do nothing to change the climate no matter how one interprets the science, since the UN treaty now being created includes an out clause for developing nations. These nations are the source of most of today’s emissions. The “first and overriding priorities” for developing countries, the base document asserts, are “economic and social development and poverty eradication” -- not GHG reduction.

So why does the Harper government support a process they so vehemently opposed before? The answer is simple: they are following the common perception that Canadians want them to work with the UN on climate change mitigation.

Last month’s Forum Research poll concluded that a majority of Canadians “believe the earth’s climate is changing,” “blame it on human activities,” and do not think “the federal government is doing its bit to combat climate change.”

Other polls show the same, although Canadians are never asked whether they think we are causing climate change that would in any way be dangerous. Regardless, government strategists have concluded they must play along with the climate scare until public opinion appears to have changed.

Government cannot lead public opinion, they assume. But recent studies show they are wrong.

In “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S.,” published in the journal Climatic Change, researchers at Drexel University, McGill University, and Ohio State University showed that the stated positions of politicians and other “elites” in society is the major factor driving public opinion.

The analysis, based on an examination of 74 separate surveys over a nine-year period, supported the 2009 conclusion of Harvard University’s Susan McDonald:

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.

The Drexel/McGill/Ohio State study showed that when prominent Republicans worked with the Democrats in support of the dangerous global warming hypothesis, the public was far more supportive of this position.

However, after the Republicans split with the Democrats on climate change in 2008, there was a sudden drop in the fraction of the public who “worried a great deal” about climate.

Public support for climate mitigation remains higher in Canada than in the U.S. largely because the issue has all party support here, while political opinion on the issue is polarized in America. Clearly, the Canadian government’s strong advocacy of the issue must stop if they want Canadian public support for GHG regulations to diminish.

Instead they do the opposite: every few years, they make yet another hopelessly unattainable GHG reduction commitment.

Besides Harper’s nonsensical commitment at the June 7 – 8 G7 meeting in Germany to do away with hydrocarbon fuels entirely by 2100, here is what Canada has promised over the years:

May 2015: Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 and may consider buying international carbon credits or offsets to do so.

2009: Canada will reduce GHG to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

1993 to 2006: reducing emissions to an average of 6% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

1984 to 1993:  reduce emissions to 20% below 1988 levels by 2005.

Instead of making more GHG reduction commitments, the Harper government needs to set the stage so that the public can more frequently hear the voices of leading skeptics. Supporting an open, unbiased climate science conference and inviting experts from all reputable points of view would be a start. So would occasionally bringing up the growing credibility of the worldwide skeptic movement as a reason for going slow on GHG regulations.

To talk sensibly about climate change in advance of the UN meeting in Paris, Canadian MPs need to educate themselves about the field. This means listening to both sides of the debate, not just the side David Suzuki wants them to hear.

An ideal opportunity to quickly get up to speed on the skeptics’ position is taking place in Washington, D.C., on June 11 and 12. There, leading scientists, economists, and policy experts will participate in the Tenth International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC-10), an event designed to help policy makers understand what is really going on in the field. Every presentation will be broadcast on the Web in both real time and afterwards.

ICCC-10 will demonstrate that Harper’s original position was right all along. Rather than trying to control climate as if we had a global thermostat, Canada should support adaptation to natural climate variability as a more cost effective and humane solution.

It’s time for Prime Minister Harper to lead on this if we are to avoid being sucked into another Kyoto Protocol. Simply waiting for public opinion to change while the government feeds a fire that could burn down our economy betrays us all.