“Addressing climate change means fixing the way we produce energy. But maybe it also means addressing the problems with the way we produce stories.”

— writer Rebecca Solnit

A question for you, dear reader: When you reflect on the climate communications you hear and see from our federal and provincial governments, does any of it seem like an emergency to you?

Nope, me neither.

And that’s a problem. Because we do indeed confront an existential threat, and the 11th hour is upon us.

Emergency responses need to look and sound and feel like emergency responses, otherwise, the seriousness of the crisis itself lacks credibility. Emergencies require that leaders tell the truth about the severity of the crisis and what is required to combat it — frequently, consistently and coherently. And in the face of a civilizational threat and generational challenge, our governments should be calling upon all of us to join in a grand societal undertaking.

Yet, nothing about the climate communications we currently hear and see comes close to approximating such an invitation.

All emergencies start with a period of collective denial — none of us welcome the news that our lives are about to be upended or transformed. It takes leadership and hard work to mobilize the public, shift the zeitgeist and move us into emergency mode.

Canada needs a new approach to the #climate emergency. @SethDKlein writes for @NatObserver #ClimateCrisis #ClimateEmergency #cdnpoli

The leaders we best remember from a previous existential crisis, the Second World War, were outstanding communicators who walked a careful line. They were forthright about the gravity of the threat, yet still managed to impart hope. Their messages were amplified by an arts and entertainment sector keen to rally the public, and by a news media that knew what side of history it wanted to be on (the CBC, then just a radio service, offered daily coverage of the war). The National Film Board produced dozens of wartime films that played in movie theatres and community gatherings. The government created a Wartime Information Board (WIB) to strengthen public mobilization, its work guided by experts and academics in education and social science. The WIB crafted sophisticated messaging for differing audiences and populations and sought to link the war effort with other societal goals, not least a commitment to reduce inequality.

The public was awash in posters and advertisements and notices telling them how to contribute to the mobilization — a co-ordinated information campaign communicating that a massive collective effort was underway. Where is that today?

Similarly, during the first year of the COVID pandemic, we witnessed our governments modelling emergency communication. The messages were ubiquitous and consistent. The public received daily press briefings. We heard regularly from public health officials. Journalists, faced with the first lockdown, quickly retooled their kitchen tables and took seriously their duty to provide necessary information on a daily basis. Government leaders and the media listened to science and health experts and acted accordingly. And with remarkable speed, the arts and culture sector, under exceptionally challenging conditions, began producing visual art, films, TV programming, music and other forms of artistic work that gave emotional expression to the extraordinary events we were all living through.

None of this consistency and coherence, however, is present with respect to the climate emergency. When our governments do not act as if the situation is an emergency — or worse, when they send contradictory messages by approving new fossil-fuel infrastructure, subsidizing high-polluting industries or permitting fossil-fuel advertising — they are effectively communicating to the public that it is not an emergency.

The federal government’s March 2022 Emissions Reduction Plan (Canada’s official plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030) talks about a “net-zero communications” plan. But so far, the plan is only notional — there is no budget or agency leading it.

For now, the public information produced and promoted by the federal government is woefully inadequate and uninspiring. A flavour of what the government now produces can be found on the Environment and Climate Change Canada website here. (You can scroll down to see a sample climate action video from the federal government.) The web content is a snoozer, while the videos are ridiculously cheery and trite. Crisis, what crisis?

And where pray tell, is the public advertising? Where are the online, TV, radio and print ads from our governments telling us, meaningfully, about their climate action plans? Where are the ads informing us about zero-emission vehicle subsidies, electric heat pump rebates, and the benefits of e-bikes? Where is the public information showing us step-by-step how to fuel-swap our homes? Where are the campaigns urging us to switch to public transit? Where are the promo ads inviting young people to train as renewable electricity technicians and installers, building retrofitters, high-speed rail designers, community planners or electric vehicle manufacturers? And where are the public notices advising people that, within a few short years, they will not be able to pipe fossil fuels into their homes or fill up their cars at a gas station, so they can plan accordingly?

If anyone should be algorithmically targeted for such advertising, it’s me. But with rare exceptions, it’s been mostly crickets.

The current official communications (or lack thereof) are producing a form of cognitive dissonance — is this an emergency or not?

That confusion needs to end.

Public climate education greatly needed

Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, to which Canada is a signatory, commits our government to improving climate change education and public awareness. That education is desperately needed. Polling of Canadians on climate reveals a confusing mix of opinions and understanding, showing that we face a problem of basic climate literacy.

First, the good news: In the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and extreme weather events, we are witnessing a shift in the public opinion terrain. Canadians are increasingly anxious about climate change. They understand it to be an emergency and a major threat to their children and grandchildren. And importantly, a solid majority of Canadians are prepared to accept significant and bold policy responses.*

The bad news? Many Canadians are confused and ambivalent. They could be convinced to embrace speedy and transformative action, or not. A sizable chunk of the public is simply unsure of how ambitious we can be. Moreover, people’s prioritization of climate wanes when economic anxieties and affordability challenges are heightened. And so, we need leadership that seeks to link these issues and animate the ambition in us all.

As polling further reveals, these contradictory views are sustained by some profound weaknesses in basic climate education. For example, in a 2022 survey of over 4,000 Canadians conducted by Leger, only a little over half of respondents (55 per cent) answered correctly that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are the primary cause of climate change. A strong majority of Canadians (80 per cent) feel they need more information about climate.

Similarly, Climate Access, in its recent review of the Canadian polling literature, finds that “Canadians do not have an understanding of the measures needed to address climate change and do not feel well-informed. Less than half think transitioning away from fossil fuels would be very effective for reducing carbon emissions… Most people still think of solutions in terms of recycling and plastic straws.”

Too many people do not understand that the combustion of oil and gas in our vehicles, homes and buildings produces CO2 emissions and is a major contributor to climate change. They do not realize a large volume of our electricity in Canada is still produced by the burning of coal or natural gas or diesel fuel, and thus produces GHGs. And they do not know that methane — a particularly potent greenhouse gas — is a major byproduct of our agricultural and waste systems and is being constantly leaked in large amounts from our production and distribution of “natural” gas. The list goes on.

Clearly, we have our work cut out. The level of public education on all these matters has been woefully inadequate, and our educational institutions, media and political leaders have not done nearly enough to rectify this. That needs to be urgently remedied.

Moreover, scientific facts and policy ideas need to be woven together into a compelling vision — something worth fighting for.

The lack of a clear vision holds people back. We are asking people to embrace dramatic change, and yet the picture of our future new life remains quite fuzzy. And with economic insecurity and the rising cost of living, asking people to consider possible sacrifices and further uncertainty is a hard sell.

Given this, some very basic and entirely reasonable questions must be answered for the general public in order to overcome resistance to change:

  • What will my home and community look like in this new world?
  • How will I make a decent living for my family?
  • How will I get around?
  • Where will our food come from?
  • Where will our energy and electricity come from?
  • How will I play? (Can I still travel and enjoy my leisure time in a satisfying way?)
  • How will we collectively pay for the huge public and private investments needed to get us from here to there?
  • What must be sacrificed and why? and,
  • Who decides? Meaning, will we all be included in a deliberation about how we achieve the transformation needed, or will the policy agenda be imposed by governments with little appreciation for the economic security of those without political power?

The good news is that answers exist for all these questions, and the picture that emerges of a transformed society can be very appealing, one where we live healthier and more satisfying lives, are more connected to our communities and neighbours, and where we have dramatically reduced poverty, homelessness and inequality. In short, it is a good life, a better life.

Given how alienated people are from our politics today, effective climate communications need to come from varied sources and employ participatory processes. But where are the widespread and innovative community engagements, the citizen assemblies and town halls that invite our fellow citizens to deliberate on the best path forward? There are many models for such innovative engagement exercises, but our governments are not employing them.

We need to train a large brigade of well-informed and compelling speakers and educators ready to lead these public conversations in every corner of the country. We need spokespeople who reflect the diverse ethnic and gender makeup of Canada more accurately than our legislatures and government cabinets. Opinion research indicates that people want passionate and charismatic speakers who are seen as ethical, knowledgeable and non-partisan, and who talk less about economics and instead appeal to our collective humanity and values.

Canada needs a Climate Emergency Information Board

We need a new, well-resourced climate communications agency — a Climate Emergency Information Board (CEIB) ­— modelled on the Wartime Information Board.

A CEIB could lead and co-ordinate an ambitious program of public education and engagement, an extensive and sustained effort designed to secure the support and involvement of Canadians in the climate mobilization. The agency could produce and disseminate captivating information to ensure the public possesses the climate knowledge it needs. It could guide people to meaningful individual and community action, and offer popular resources for how to adopt low-energy and sustainable lifestyles.

A CEIB could produce informational materials in all forms (videos, print, social media, radio, etc.) and multiple languages, and develop an ambitious and ubiquitous advertising program; recruit and train trusted experts to speak on the issue in the media and to public audiences; and convene citizen assemblies and town halls. The agency could also partner with news media and broadcasters to develop climate programming (I’ll have more to say on that subject in a future column), and partner with educational institutions (secondary and post-secondary) to enhance climate understanding.

As noted, every great mobilization needs the arts, and the climate mobilization is no different. Mobilizations need to appeal to our hearts as much as our heads. A CEIB should therefore enlist, empower and fund the arts and culture sector to help educate and inspire Canadians about our climate objectives. We need the arts to bring that picture of a good new life into focus. We need to be invited not only to think about how to practically decarbonize our lives, but also to reflect on what kind of people we want to be, and how we wish to be remembered in this task of our lives. That latter task isn’t well suited to technical climate policy experts — it’s a job for artists, writers and creators.

Given eroding public trust in political institutions, the work of a CEIB needs to be strongly evidence-based and its spokespeople non-partisan. The agency will require political independence and accountability to an independent body of experts. Its activities should be guided by trusted climate scientists, social scientists, and experts in behavioural psychology and cultural shifts, and informed by expert understanding of how to combat misinformation, as outlined by the Canadian Council of Academies’ recent panel on the socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation. The agency should be staffed by people skilled in climate communications and public engagement. And the CEIB would require a significant budget.

Overall, the CEIB’s spokespeople and public information need to communicate a delicate balance of threat and hope — just as occurred during the Second World War. We need a robust agency that speaks forthrightly about the emergency because failure to communicate that we are heading toward catastrophe leads to complacency. And Pollyanna messaging is no longer credible; people need to hear that this transition will involve some hard work. But we also need our leaders and spokespeople to tell us that accomplishing this task is possible — that we have collectively achieved great things before, and can do so once again.

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You're brilliant and inspiring Seth. We'll see if we can incorporate some of this messaging into our activism in Thunder Bay.

Thank you for this and I agree that we need to start treating Climate Change like the emergency that it is. I like your idea of a Climate Emergency Information Agency which is independent from government and which has independent government oversight.
As a retired educator, I've been involved in Climate Change education (off and on) for the past 25 years or so: in the schools, my community, presentations to local government etc. Anyone remember the One Tonne Challenge? I don't feel like any of it had much impact.
I agree that many Canadians are not well- informed about Climate Change. They've heard about it on the news, but they don't know enough to connect the dots to actions in their daily lives. Many who are informed feel powerless.
I would suggest that, for starters, a high school Climate Change course be required for every student in every Canadian province and territory.

Yes...a great starter. Why won't it happen...? I can think of several reasons.

The analogy of WW2 and the climate crisis is very apt, and our historic capacity and will to make changes isn't in question. One critical difference is that Canada had never linked itself with the Nazi government, whereas Canada has generously funded and supported fossil fuels and continues to do so, even well after the point at which we came to know it is a global suicide manoeuvre.