Language matters more than ever when the conversation turns to climate change

George Marshall says Alberta is taking leadership on the issue of climate and the oilsands, but is still viewed as part of the problem, not part of the solution

Drop the shame and blame, environmentalist says, and that will help start a meaningful conversation

Author George Marshall says that language matters when talking about the energy sector, and the important thing is recognizing and respecting the opinions of others. (Submitted by George Marshall)

George Marshall has been writing and speaking on climate issues for 25 years now.

The author of Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change spoke to Russell Bowers on Daybreak Alberta Saturday. Marshall is in town for the Pembina Institute's Alberta Climate Summit, to deliver a message that if Alberta doesn't want to be left behind, it needs to lead the climate change conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How much did you know about the feelings around energy extraction?

A. I'm well aware Alberta has really taken a strong leadership on the issue, but I have to say the general impression [of Alberta out in the world] continues to be one of the dirt and damage done by the oilsands and a sense of Alberta being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

I think what's very interesting coming here is you see an immense potential for change and an enormous willingness for change too. 

Q. Calgary author Chris Turner talks about the idea of resources as a form of communal identity. What do you think of that notion?

A. The important thing to say is — to take a step back — is that climate change as a whole, as an issue — and indeed renewables — are always bound up with people's values and identity.

A big mistake [we have all made] from years and years of talking about these things, is thinking that because they're led by science — which of course they are — that we can talk [about them] in this very rational, abstract, scientific way: Here's the data, here's the parts per million, here's the projection — not realizing that people see and interpret everything they hear through the lens of their own values and their own identity.

And that can be positive and negative. If people feel that something threatens who they are, they can push it away, regardless of the substance of it. It's interesting visiting Alberta from outside, realizing how completely resources are bound in with people's identity here.

As a pioneering province, that pioneering spirt is still strong. This is a province built on resources.

The Great Canadian Oil Sands facility north of Fort McMurray, Alta., opened with great fanfare on Sept. 30, 1967. It was the first large-scale commercial operation of the oilsands. (CBC Archives)

Q. You're from Wales. What's the identity of the community like there?

A. Wales has an economy built on resources — built on slate, built on lead, built especially on coal. We did a lot of work with the Welsh government a number of years ago to design the way they could talk to people about it — and it was very clear there that dissing coal — dirty filthy coal — was really undermining people's sense of pride in their heritage.

So it's clear it needed to be discussed and framed in terms of saying, we are a resource economy. Our wealth is built on the prosperity of the resources, of natural resources we have.

We can transfer those kinds of lessons directly to Alberta  — talking about 'natural resources' I think is very powerful.

Fossil fuels are a natural resource and then therefore, [you say that] moving from one natural resource to another is not going against what happened before — it's building on it in a positive way.

British author George Marshall says in the conversation about climate change, the language employed is crucial to ensuring the conversation moves forward. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Q. How do you do that?

A. This is a resource economy, this is an energy society — and energy is a positive word too.

Energy is not just of the fuels, it's the energy of the people, it's the drive, the ambition, it's the positivity — it's a high energy society. And now let's look not at abandoning the past, but let's look at bringing online a more diverse, more balanced form of energy sources.

That balance thing is an important part of the equation too. In my conversations here, it's pretty clear to me that many people are well aware and have in many cases, been badly hurt by the overdependence on a single energy sector — so let's say OK.: Let's have a balance.

We have different forms of natural resources and can spread the learning experience. But from an identity perspective — making people proud of what's been done before. The ingenuity, and hard, dirty work — let's face it — that has built the wealth and the health services, and everything which people are so proud of here — that's something to be respected and validated and indeed extended in the future in new forms.

With files from Daybreak Alberta