Ground Election Coverage in Climate Science, Not the Horserace, Adams Urges Media
With Canada’s federal election less than nine months away, veteran journalist and public opinion researcher Paul Adams is out with some advice for reporters covering the campaign, while public engagement specialist Don Lenihan questions Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans to pitch the transition to a green economy.
“We are now entering an election year in Canada, in which issues related to climate change—the carbon tax and pipelines—are likely to be at the centre of the debate among the parties,” Adams writes. While Canada is lucky that big distractions like Brexit and Donald Trump tweets haven’t “squeezed the media space devoted to climate change,” he adds, reporters on the campaign trail “need to be careful that in reporting on climate-related issues, they do not unthinkingly fall into some of the habits of election coverage.”
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Adams recalls the 1993 federal election campaign, when he suggests that evidence-based arguments on the year’s vote-determining issue—the economy and deficits—were judged harshly at the ballot box. The difference this year is that “the political system—indeed, humanity—faces a far more significant challenge that even the most hysterical worriers about the deficit ever argued.”
That places an obligation on reporters to rethink two standard tendencies in election coverage—to “step back, let the politicians argue, and then let the people decide,” and to “treat every statement about policy in terms of political strategy.”
While it’s a reporter’s job to question a politician’s motivations, “this kind of horserace coverage also systematically underweights the likely substantive effects of policy on our collective future,” Adams writes. Which means “elections nowadays—elections in which climate change is an important issue—should not be covered the way we watch a horserace or a hockey game, cheering on our favourite but going home afterward having been entertained, whoever wins or loses. That’s lazy when the stakes are this high.”
At a time when the real question is not whether to address the climate change, but how to get decarbonization done and how quickly, “media have a role in that debate, grounding coverage of what our politicians say in what our scientists know,” Adams concludes.
Lenihan opens his opinion piece for National Newswatch by pointing to the IPCC’s 12-year deadline to set the global economy on course to keep average global warming below 1.5°C. “If this is accurate, transitioning to a sustainable economy should be an easy sell,” he writes. “Indeed, it would be the only option for the future.”
So “my advice is to start with the premise that we have no choice; responding to climate change really is a matter of life and death.”
But that may not be what Trudeau had in mind when he asked Finance Minister Bill Morneau to come back with an “economic argument” that Canadians will embrace.
“Trudeau’s plan, as I understand it, is to try to persuade Canadians by crafting a different kind of argument—a story or ‘narrative’—that includes evidence, but also makes strategic appeals to people’s emotions, say, with the promise of new markets and wealth or by stoking fears about our children’s future,” Lenihan writes.
“It’s a worthwhile effort, but I doubt it will get Liberals the buy-in they need. This story will still have to compete with the counter-narrative from skeptics like [federal Conservative leader Andrew] Scheer, [Ontario Premier Doug] Ford, [Alberta opposition leader Jason] Kenney and others, which focuses on things that are immediately relevant to people, like jobs and income. And as everyone keeps pointing out, in a contest between the economy and climate change, the economy wins every time.”
Instead, Lenihan recommends setting up a non-partisan, fully transparent expert panel to review the evidence on climate impacts and solutions and deliver a “short, highly readable report” on its findings.
“No one can say for sure what this panel would conclude about the level of urgency around climate change, but I suspect it would find that transitioning to a sustainable economy is a moral and economic imperative,” he writes. “Most importantly, however, I believe it would help establish a much-needed benchmark for how Canadians should view climate change and the challenges it poses for the near future. And that is the main reason to convene it.”