Climate change: How do we start caring again?

Simon Jackson on the need for environmentalists to change and broaden their messsage.
Sierra Club activists in Cancun for the UN climate change talks in December 2010 bury their heads in the sand. But is anyone really watching? (Gerardo Garcia/Reuters)

In the wake of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's dramatic documentary on the perils of global warming, many came to equate environmental protection only with climate change.

The result was a meteoric rise in public consciousness for the issue and corresponding demands on our politicians to do something about it.

But then came the economic crash in 2008 and in the struggle for fiscal recovery concerns about the environment, global warming in particular, nose-dived from their historic levels.

A year ago, world leaders and media by the scores descended on Copenhagen for some very high-level arm-twisting over climate change. However today it is a much smaller contingent of lesser lights who have showed up in Cancun, Mexico, for less of the same.

And the general public, it seems, is largely apathetic to whatever it is they are doing.

So how do we get the environment back into the public conscience and generate the needed political will to move forward?

In the U.S., Barack Obama has been unable to legislate even minimal carbon reductions, mainly because of push back from those fearing regulation-induced spending.

While here in Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper tied his climate agenda to that of the Americans, action on the issue is next to non-existent.

Even provincial and municipal governments are shifting priorities away from green initiatives and focusing on cost-cutting measures, which is understandable. Up to a point.

With high unemployment, historic budget deficits, spending cuts and fears of another recession, the public has its plate full of issues in the struggle to survive the here and now.

Compounding the problem is the fact that green issues — climate change especially — are hard to visualize.

Its impact on our lives can't be readily seen until it's too late and this lack of a clearly understood crisis hurts the conservation message at the best of times.

Change the message

So, if global warming is to once again reclaim the public's attention, it is clear green advocates must change their approach.

What's needed is for environmentalism to become a reflection of the apparent public desire for change. To do this, it needs to become an engaging, multi-partisan, positive, family values-driven issue that inspires innovation and economic sustainability.

How to achieve this? First, change the political message.

For too long, the environment has been an issue of the left. The result is that too many activists have narrowed their political base by aligning green issues with socialist-leaning causes, especially those related to the economy.

The unfortunate by-product has been the political alienation of conservatives who represent a solid portion of the electorate and the governing body in many jurisdictions.

With a political climate today that screams economic populism — and also increased voter engagement (just look at the turnout in Toronto's mayoral election) — environmentalists must reframe their issue to be accessible to citizens of all ideologies and to take advantage of a public that appears to have a new-found interest in policy.

Fellow Albertans. Preston Manning gives the thumbs up to former Supreme Court justice John Major as they were invested into the Order of Canada in December 2008. Manning argues that oil sands development should be charged the full rate for water use and other environmental costs. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This shouldn't be mission impossible. The first important North American politician to embrace the environment was a conservative, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, a century ago.

And, in Canada, today's Conservative party is largely grounded in the vision of one of the country's most unique environmental advocates, former Reform party founder Preston Manning.

Manning has demonstrated that the Canadian right embraces more than just Blue and Red Tories.

There are also Green Tories, an unappreciated voter base that swings between the Greens and the Conservatives, which suggests that there is no reason why the environment can't be the one issue that unites the left and right.

After all, no one survives without clean air and water, and no one ideology holds the political domain on human survival.

Small steps

Of course, realigning environmentalism on the political spectrum will require many greens to check their personal ideologies — and their righteousness — at the door.

Rather than staging futile attacks on Stephen Harper for his environmental failings on the big international issues, why not take the initiative and spend the time and money developing green innovations on a more bite-sized scale?

If solutions can be developed that demonstrate tangible results for the environment, without affecting the livelihoods of people in specific regions like, say, Fort McMurray, then there is no reason why an oil sands employee couldn't support a conservation agenda.

And then we will have taken that first step in breaking down the knee-jerk political polarization that often keeps us from moving forward.

If there is one thing the current economic situation, with its attendant fears, has revealed it is the environmental movement's failure to connect the dots between the big climatic concerns and most people's daily lives.

A big reason for this is the near fixation on creating some kind of all-encompassing multinational agreement to slow global warming.

Though the cause merits an all-hands-on-deck approach, we shouldn't forget that local actions, purposefully carried out, can add up to global change.

Protected lines on a provincial map can be comprehended and understood far better than a UN agreement on global carbon reduction.

Time to re-think?

If environmental advocates use traditional conservation issues as a starting point for a multi-partisan approach, then, I would argue, climate change as a whole will be better understood and accepted.

At Cancun, China confirmed that it had passed the U.S. in overall energy consumption in 2010. Beijing, however, acknowledges that it has a huge pollution problem to deal with. (Reuters) ((Reuters))

Of course, changing the dial on this conversation will take time and time might not be a luxury.

But if there is a silver lining in all of this, it is the fact that hard times almost inevitably mean less demand for resources and, thus, less impact on the environment.

In fact, in 2009, worldwide carbon emissions declined — albeit only by half as much as predicted.

In the process, though, China and India saw their emissions continue to grow, further underscoring the challenge of engaging emerging economies in the fight for a healthier planet.

If today's undeniable step backwards in public interest about the environment can be used as an opportunity for a new, much less shrill approach, real progress on this front might still be achieved. 

For all of our sakes, here's hoping.