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After nine years of suffocating silence under the Harper administration, Trudeau’s Liberals have offered a breath of fresh air on climate change. But decades of dependence on fossil fuel exports has left Canada culturally ill-prepared to talk about what’s needed to transform our society and protect our communities from this threat. Let’s be honest: the fossil free future we need is frightening for people who work in and around this industry. We are worried about their future — and Canada’s — if the world acts to stop climate change.
The result is a trend of “climate conservatism” in our national conversation. It’s now impossible to reject the science of our disrupted climate, and so a new form of climate denial has taken root. Unlike those who pretend global warming does not exist, this denial acknowledges the climate emergency as a real problem, yet rejects measures that respond to it in an adequate or timely way.
When Canadians like Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insist that we must build fossil fuel export pipelines to fund climate action, it’s easy to see why those who believe that we must act more urgently to protect lives and communities threatened by climate change would choose to stay silent -- and how a vicious cycle of self-silencing takes hold.
False consensus and pluralistic ignorance on climate change
Two discoveries from the field of psychology help us understand why this might be and what we can do about it: false consensus and pluralistic ignorance.
Start with a simple premise: people can’t read each other’s thoughts. To get along in society, we have to make assumptions about the thoughts of people around us. Research shows this leads to biases where people either overestimate or underestimate the extent to which their opinions and beliefs are typical of others.
The national media frenzy criticizing The Leap Manifesto was a perfect example of false consensus. Pundits and politicians from across the political spectrum viciously attacked the Leap Manifesto as being unimplementable and out of touch with Canadians, who they claimed would overwhelmingly reject the policy recommendations of The Leap.
In the weeks that followed, polling showed just how false this consensus belief is. Majorities of Liberal, NDP, and Green voters support the ideas in the plan. Several governments, including Vancouver’s, have already implemented or planned some of the policies proposed. John Horgan, Rachel Notley, and others were simply wrong when they naively assumed more Canadians shared their views on the Leap Manifesto than truly did. They are victims of a false consensus and their words have dangerously intensified an anti-climate action bias in Canada.
Worryingly, new research in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by Nathaniel Geiger and Janet Swim of Penn State University, shows that people “self-silence” when talking about climate issues, because of a related pattern called “pluralistic ignorance”. Here, people mistakenly believe their peers don’t agree with them and fail to speak frankly about their own views. The report authors conclude that “the more an individual’s perception diverges from the reality that others share their concern about climate change, the more hesitant they may be to speak up.”
When Canadians are mistakenly led to believe there is a national consensus on new pipelines, or that building more fossil fuel infrastructure is compatible with climate science, it’s natural that those who disagree will be silent. When, in some parts of Canada, speaking out against fossil fuels can even cost you your livelihood, it’s understandable for people to keep their beliefs to themselves for fear of professional or social consequences.
The combination of false consensus and pluralistic ignorance leads to a vicious cycle of self-silencing. Not speaking up means others are reluctant to speak up, and so on, creating a paralyzing feedback loop.
This is what makes the People’s Climate Plan, a coalition of organisations encouraging Canadians to show up and speak up for bold action in the federal government’s national climate change consultations, such a powerful vehicle for change. Since May 1, more than 2,000 people have come out to People’s Climate Plan events and MP-led town halls across Canada.
Already, citizens across fifteen cities have told their MPs and Liberal government that we must keep fossil fuels in the ground, and dozens more town halls are scheduled to take place this summer. Watching Canadians call for bolder action on climate change — from Fredericton to Esquimalt — I felt my own cognitive biases falling away. With every new speaker urging investment in 100% renewable infrastructure or re-training for oil sands workers, I was less ignorant about what my fellow citizens thought.
Don’t self-silence-- have the courage and confidence to show up and speak up. Together, we can build a new consensus on climate action.