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Living in Denial in Canada

Posted on 1 March 2013 by Andy Skuce

In an earlier article, I reviewed sociologist Kari Norgaard’s book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life in which she records the response of rural Norwegians to climate change. She analyzes the contradictory feelings Norwegians experience in reconciling their life in a wealthy country that is at once a major producer and consumer of fossil fuels and, at the same time, has a reputation of being a world leader in its concern for the environment, human development, and international peace.

Canada shares many characteristics with Norway; they are both northern lands that distinguish themselves from larger southern neighbours by their cold climates and progressive social policies. Both countries are wealthy, thanks in large part to exploitation of their abundant natural resources. In this article, I will try to look at Canada through the same lens that Norgaard used in her study of Norway. Because I am not aware of any kind of field study in Canada similar to the kind that Norgaard did in Norway, I will rely on how socially organised denial expresses itself through Canadian political discourse on climate change.

According to polling by Environics a majority of Canadians in 2012 (57%) are convinced that the science is conclusive that global warming is happening and is caused mostly by humans. Only 12% believe that the science of global warming is not yet conclusive. Majorities are also in favour of carbon taxes in most areas of the country. It is also worth noting that none of Canada's political leaders take a denialist stance on climate change. In a speech in Berlin in 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper affirmed his government's commitment to "...the fight against climate change, [is] perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today." Later in the same speech he acknowledged; "But frankly, up to now, our country has been engaged in a lot of "talking the talk" but not "walking the walk" when it has come to greenhouse gases".  It is that disengagement between thought and action that is at the heart of implicatory denial.

Norway on the Pacific

I live in the Canadian Province of British Columbia (BC), which shares many geographic features with Norway: mountains, glaciers, fjords and endless evergreen forests. Similar-sized populations enjoy very high standards of living, with economies in both places based on exploiting timber, hydroelectricity, fish, minerals, oil and natural gas. British Columbians take pride in their environmental leadership, with strong popular support for the western hemisphere’s first economy-wide carbon tax. The largest city, Vancouver is considered to be among the world’s most liveable cities and has firm intentions to become the world’s greenest city by 2020. The Provincial Government has a legislated target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 2007, by 33% in 2020 and 80% by 2050. BC voters, in 2011, were the first in North America to elect a Green Party representative, the party leader Elizabeth May, to serve in a national assembly.

All is far from well on the ground, though. The pine forests of central BC in recent years have suffered one of the biggest impacts  anywhere related to climate change. A vast area, comparable to a mid-sized European country, has suffered massive tree mortality since 2000 due to an unprecedented mountain pine beetle epidemic, linked to a series of unusually hot, dry summers and mild winters. 

Forest mortality in BC between 1999 and 2010. Modified from part of Fig 1 from Maness et al (2013) (paywalled). The outline of Ireland has been added to provide scale.

Although BC’s carbon tax, now set at C$30 per tonne of CO2, is popular and effective —fossil fuel use since 2008 has dropped faster in BC than in the rest of Canada—the prospect of the province achieving its own legislated emissions targets will not be realized if plans to exploit huge fields of unconventional natural gas in the NE corner of the province come about. The proposal is to transport the gas by pipeline to Kitimat, a deep-water port at the head of a fjord on the northern coast, where it will be liquefied and exported to Asia. The project has support from both major political parties in the province, as well as from the aboriginal groups who live along the transportation corridor. BC’s carbon tax does not currently tax emissions from leaks or from deliberate venting of carbon dioxide, which comprises 12% of the gas in some deposits and is stripped from the methane at processing facilities and is simply vented without penalty into the atmosphere.


So long as you're not a lodgepole pine.                       Image source

British Columbia is facing some very difficult choices over the next few years as it decides between natural gas exports and meeting its self-imposed emissions targets. The politicians who believe that both can be done—along with the people who may vote for them—are living in denial.

Ethical Oil, an attempt to exploit socially organised denial

In 2010, Calgary lawyer and conservative political activist, Ezra Levant, wrote a book titled Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands in which he made the case that Canada’s petroleum industry does not deserve the harsh criticism that it has received for the exploitation of the oil sands, because the critics give the country and the corporations insufficient credit for their good record on human rights and economic and social justice; especially when compared to other oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela. Norgaard identified similar attitudes among her Norwegian subjects, which she classified as a “claim to virtue”. Of course, such arguments are entirely beside the point; good behaviour in one domain does not excuse bad practices in another.

Alykhan Velshi, a policy analyst and former ministerial aide, set up a website called Ethical Oil to promote the oil sands, using Levant’s ideas to compare Canada’s “Ethical Oil” with the “Conflict Oil” of developing counties belonging to OPEC. Both Velshi and Levant have numerous links to senior members of the Conservative government. Velshi became Director of Planning for the Prime Minister’s Office in late 2011.


Posters from the Ethical Oil campaign in 2011. These examples and others (including spoofs) can be found on a Google image search for Ethical Oil.

The Ethical Oil website produced a series of posters promoting the oil sands, contrasting Canada’s progressive politics with repression and abuse in OPEC countries. (Leo Hickman has written an article in the Guardian, with more examples.) Few people could have fallen for the argument that because gay oil-field workers can get married in Fort McMurray—the boomtown at the hub of the oil sands—that this somehow negates the very real environmental negatives associated with producing bitumen. Mellissa Blake, the mayor of Fort McMurray objected to the use of her photo in the Ethical Oil image.

This clumsy attempt to exploit Canadians’ “claim to virtue” was counter-productive; by exaggerating the ethical claim it highlighted its absurdity and irrelevance. The adverts are no longer prominent on the Ethical Oil website. Having learned from this error, the Canadian Government is now using focus groups to hone a new $9 million ad campaign on Responsible Resource Development, designed to be uplifting and to appeal to patriotic sentiment. There’s an example video here and another here.

Mon pays, c’est l’hiver

My country is not a country, it's winterGilles Vigneault

The Republican political consultant Frank Luntz met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 and advised him: “If there is some way to link hockey to what you all do, I would try to do it” (Montreal Gazette). Harper has spent many years during his time as Prime Minister working on a book on the history of hockey, which is reportedly to be published in 2013. (Luntz, of course, is notorious for the advice he offered to George W. Bush in 2002: Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…).

Hockey (never Ice Hockey) in Canada is more than a sport, it is a nationally unifying cultural activity like no other. It is popular throughout the country: in both English and French-speaking regions; among recent immigrants and in aboriginal communities; as a professional spectacle and as an amateur sport on small-town rinks, frozen ponds and in backyards. Climate scientist Simon Donner made a short video in 2011 about his family’s Christmas tradition of playing hockey on a frozen lake. Climate change threatens this tradition, as the lake can no longer be relied upon to freeze over in time for Christmas.



Donner’s blog post provoked angry responses from climate contrarians, which ran the full gamut from the Luntz-inspired “the science is not settled”, via Climategate and, naturally enough, the “hockey stick” historical climate graph. None of the commenters actually contested the simple observation that water bodies are tending to freeze over later in the winter.

A study by researchers in Quebec published in Environmental Research Letters in 2012, demonstrated that the outdoor skating season has decreased statistically significantly in many regions of the country, particularly in SW Canada. They conclude:

The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of Canadian identity and culture. Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not [be] available to future generations of Canadian children.

There is a website called RinkWatch, which is a citizen-science project, gathering statistics on outdoor rinks. The map on the home page handily shows the outdoor rinks across Canada that are skateable or not on a given day.

The Nunatsiaqonline reports that, because of climate change, the community of Cape Dorset on Baffin Island can no longer rely on cold weather to keep its indoor rink frozen for the hockey season. It has purchased an ice-making system called eco-glace from a Quebec company. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and climate change has at least now made it possible for enterprising southerners to sell ice to the Inuit. 

The back of the current Canadian five-dollar bill. The quotations in small print are in French and English, from Roch Carrier’s story The Hockey Sweater: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink”.

All Canadian banknotes are being redesigned and the new five-dollar bill will have an image of the Canadian-built robotic arms used in space exploration. Great care goes onto the selection of the images. Using the Access to Information Act, The Canadian Press obtained heavily censored documents that record the deliberations of the team reviewing the banknote image options for the Bank of Canada. Among the comments were, incredibly:

  • Pictures of wind turbines and solar panels were rejected because “clean energy is a controversial concept.”
  • Images that included snow “may become more controversial should global warming progress,” and are best avoided, said some.

The review panel showed that they were sensitive to nuances of political iconography, but were not so much when it came to botanical accuracy: stylized leaves of Norwegian maples were used on the new twenty-dollar bill instead of the iconic Canadian maple leaf.

Carbon emissions continence, but not yet

Denial of the science of climate change—the rebutting of which is the main goal of Skeptical Scienceis undoubtedly an obstacle to progress. But as Kari Norgaard has shown, even people who accept the science and care deeply about the environment find ways to justify continuing to live as if their lifestyles were not part of the problem. 

Developed, progressive countries with economies dependent on large fossil fuel resources, like Norway and Canada show the clearest examples of implicatory denial of climate change. But by no means do these societies have a monopoly on it. Wealthy people in all countries have been slow to change their lifestyles, including even those who are the most informed.

Climate scientist Erica Thompson, in a Viewpoint article in the journal Weather, argues that climate scientists, in particular, need to make their actions consistent with their predictions. Conferences, such as the AGU Fall Meeting, where 20,000 scientists converge every year from all corners of the planet, cannot be maintained, over coming years, if we are to meet the emissions targets advocated by many of those same scientists. As Thompson argues:

…we have a responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with that belief [the belief that the balance of evidence suggests climate change represents a real threat]. That means making real and meaningful efforts to reduce our own carbon footprints, both at an individual and institutional level.

And in any case, we have no choice. The UK’s ‘legally-binding’ target of an 80% reduction means that, by 2050, one long-haul flight per year will use up more than an individual’s fair share of emissions. If we are going to continue to do good science in a low-carbon future, then we need to find more efficient ways of working.

Many of us who are alarmed about climate change nevertheless continue to act, as if we were repeating some version of St Augustine's famous prayer: Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. I feel that Norway and Canada don't have rights to the denialist population. I believe the U.S. is definitely a member of that party. It is amazing in the U.S. if I make that simple statement and include Obama's pending extended reliance on shale fuels, and potential bitumen from Canada I get flamed by his loyalists. I was making the argument regarding a Wall Street Journal article speaking of the American shale fuel growth through 2040 which coincides with several instances where the president has referred to the 100 year supply of natural gas sources opened by fracturing. More of the population is understanding that climate change is associated with changing water availability, fire, and increasing weather extremes to name a few. But both houses of congress are pushing the president to approve the XL project. Latest environmental impact out for comment states no significant risk of installation. Too often the 'ethical' oil/gas argument is 'financed' by quick land leases. I worry when studies talk about peaking U.S. carbon somewhere between 2016 and 2020 and business is jumping with joy about the economic recovery riding on the natural gas industry.

    So I guess the lens works just as well when applied to the neighbor south of the Canadian border.

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  2. News just in at DesmogBlog with regard to the whole "Ethical OIl" argument:

    Does Gary Doer Know Canada Buys $780 Million in Crude Oil from Hugo Chavez Every Year?

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  3. Would love to post this on my FB page for my friends. But because of the headline they will feel like I am preaching to them.....

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  4. Possibly off-topic comment: An important issue is raised in this post without concrete suggestions for dealing with the issue. Moreover, dealing with the issue is probably outside the mission of the SkS site. Nevertheless, I continue.

    The issue: What to do about implicatory denial?

    Example of a vague (non-concrete) suggestion for dealing with the issue: We each need to behave consistently with our belief that AGW is a serious threat.

    I think one of the reasons for implicatory denial is the lack of a clear, detailed, articulated vision of how we want to be living in 2050 with the problem "solved." In other words, not knowing exactly where I want to be, it is hard for me the think about where to go next in order to finally get there. My first rule of thumb for attacking a difficult problem is: Begin at the end.

    Briefly, here are a few skeletal suggestions for a 2050 vision. Non-permitted commercial emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is treated in the courts (including the International Court) as a crime against humanity, similar to genocide. We live and work in shelters (homes, office buildings, factories, etc.) that are maximally energy efficient, that produce useful energy forms and carriers, and that are connected to intelligent energy grids as both a sink and source of energy, depending on the variable circumstances. We move ourselves and physical materials and products the minimum needed and most efficiently. Our healthy diets are produced sustainably. And so on.

    The development  and communication of a consensus vision for 2050 might help to free people from the stasis of implicatory denial.

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  5. BillEverett @4, emission of CO2 is not a crime against humanity.  It should not be treated as such and suggestions that we should do so are out of order.  If we regulate emissions, as we should, then it is a simple matter to penalize unregulated emission.  One simple expedient would be a fine set by law to equal 2 or 4 times the maximum value paid at auction for emissions permits (in a cap and trade system) or at 4 times the carbon tax rate.   If unregulated emissions are discovered several years after the event, the rate used to set the penalty should be the maximum rate over the intervening period.  Such a penalty ensures that compliance is always cheaper than non-compliance regardless of the price on carbon at a given time.

    It may be that keeping emissions of the books may appear a commericially viable means of evading carbon prices.  In that event, an additional fine equal to the cost to the company in concealing the emissions plus the cost to the government in uncovering it should also be levied.  Again, this ensures the commercial cost of non-compliance exceeds the cost of compliance.

    Finally, directors and senior offices of the company should be made civilly liable to company losses resulting from non-compliance.

    There is no need to criminalize commercial activity, even non-compliant commercial activity.  There is absolutely no need to invoke the measures used in cases of crimes against humanity.  Attempting to do so will only turn ours into a society not worth saving.

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  6. Bill Everett you seem unaware that the majority of humans don't dwell in the G20 countries.  All of the items on which you comment are well beyond the financial abilities of many of the countries in the so called third world.  Unfortunately the denizens and the governments of these countries have food, shelter, treatment of endemic disease, increasing population longevity, reducing deaths in childbirth, as far higher priorities than lmiting their CO2 emissions.  And Tom Curtis if you really, really want Australia to cut CO2 emissions,  agitate for the abolition of coal and iron ore exports by Australian companies.  As you must know even though on a per capita basis Australia is a high CO2 emitter, the small population means we don't contribute much to global CO2 levels from our own use of fossil fuels.  Interestingly, I wonder why the government excluded petrol  and diesel oil fron the CO2 tax.  Perhaps that omission should be remedied.  And why, do you think, is the European ETS now trading at around $6 per tonne rather than $23 per tonne?

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  7. Ray @6, it would help if you were better informed.  Specifically, diesel and petrol are not exempted from the carbon tax.  Rather, the tax is charged against them by withholding of fuel tax credits equal to the value of the carbon tax.  As fuel tax credits are only available to business as a means of defraying the cost of the fuel excise, this means only business the carbon tax on petrol and diesel, just as (by design) only business pays the carbon tax directly at all.

    You are equally misinformed about iron ore, which can be turned to steel with low or zero CO2 emissions either by using arc furnaces and/or by using charcoal as the reducing agent.  Consequently there is no need to limit the export of iron ore per se.

    While it would be desirable to limit coal production, this is best done by the purchasing countries imposing their own carbon tax at sufficiently high rates, whereupon Australian coal will become uneconomic as a fuel source.  Reducing coal production by this method minimizes economic disruption both in Australia and for our trade partners.  In that context, it is noteworthy that the major purchaser of Australian coal, China, is introducing a carbon tax.  However, I certainly am against expansion of Australia's coal industry and consider moves to do so by Campbell Neuman (Queensland's Premier) foolhardy beyond belief.  That is both because of the long term threat of global warming, and because if CO2 emissions are not curtailed soon Queensland's Great Barrier Reef will soon (withing forty years) be destroyed.  In that event, Neuman by expanding coal exports when he should have been preparing for their reduction will justly be titled the Premier that destroyed Queensland's greatest natural treasure.

    The EU's carbon price is low because of two design flaws, the allowing of stock piling of carbon credits; and the legislated allocation of carbon credits that did not respond to the fall in economic activity generated by the global financial crisis in 2008.  These are desing flaws that can be avoided by learning from experience, as for example, by California

    Following your approach of finding in each little obstacle an absolute barrier to furthe progress, we would have abandoned democracy long ago because Hitler was democratically elected.  We, however, do not need to be so foolish.  The task before us is managable provided we act now and not hide from the facts because we might find an appropriate response inconvenient.

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  8. Tom Curtis@5, I won't debate what might or might not happen by 2050 regarding the legal status of non-permitted emissions nor whether criminal penalties ahould be added to civil penalties, etc. It's off-topic. I won't discuss the details of possible 2050 visions here unless those details are directly relevant to assessing whether the existence of a widely shared vision of the future, now only 37 years away, might be useful in reducing implicatory denial. The question I raised is what to do about implicatory denial, i.e., the large middle (in many cases, the majority) of people distributed from active denialists to climate researchers and activists. The middle believes the science, believes AGW is a serious problem, believes something should be done about, BUT continues BAU and doesn't demand appropriate action from government and business. My question is why are they in the implicatory denial state and what might suffice to make some of their behaviors conform to their beliefs.

    Ray@6, I have a good idea of the distribution of wealth and life styles around the globe and can envision a quite different world in 2050, for example, a world in which almost nobody cooks with wood or animal dung.

    In Calhoun's 1968 lecture at the AAAS meeting in Dallas, Texas, a simple model was presented involving five historical revolutions and two future revolutions. The historical revolutions were identified as the traditional-sapient revolution (about 33710 BC), the living-agricultural revolution (about 8157 BC), the authoritarian-religious revolution (about 519 BC), the holistic-artistic revolution (about 1391 AD), and the scientific-exploitive revolution (about 1868 AD). The future revolutions were identified as the communication-electronic revolution (about 1988 AD) and the compassionate-systems revolution (about 2018 AD). It seems to me that Calhoun was reasonably accurate regarding the communication-electronic revolution, a "new perspective of life as an information exchange network and ... the development of theories and electronic technologies for the transfer and condensing of information as the means for enhanced coping," which is particularly surprising to me given the simplicity of his model. If his prediction regarding the compassionate-systems revolution is just as accurate, which I hope it is, then the world will be very different two decades from now.

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  9. Bill Everett@8 You're forgetting the expansion in the human population plus the desire of those in third world countries to attain the living standards of the first world will alsmost certainly lead to higher CO2 production.  And Tom Curtiis@7 you state iron ore can be turned to steel using arc furnaces or charcoal.  But is this actually happening?  And as for the Clifornian Cap and trde the auction in February was $US13. 62 (about $A13 for each 2013 allowance and $US10.71 (about $A10.00 ?for  each 2016 allowance.  Neither is close to the $A23.00 price set by Australia.

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  10. Ray @9, so what?  Australia can afford its $23 AU per tonne carbon price applied to the largest poluters only.  California, presumably, can afford its $13 AU per tonne carbon price applied to a wider range of entities.  The fact that the two carbon prices apply to different ranges of entities means a simple comparison of price does not tell you the relative costs of the schemes, but that is beside the point.

    The key point is that both Australia and California, by implimenting a carbon price, will find their economies adapting to a low carbon economy.  That means both will be well placed economically when global agreements on carbon pricing are eventually implemented, at which time their carbon prices will be brought into line with each other, either by design or by trading between different carbon markets.

    In contrast, nations and states with no carbon price will either come into a global carbon pricing system with high emissions because they have not already started adapting; and hence at high cost - or worse, based on the fear of that possibility will hold up the implementation of a global scheme to the disadvantage of us all.

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  11. Ray@9, I am not forgetting population expansion

    I hope the third-world people have the desire to raise their standard of living, but I don't know to what extent it is true

    To see the world I would like to see in 2050, it would be absolutely necessary to raise their standard of living, but this needs to be done by leapfrogging the old model of technological progress and providing distributed clean energy sources on a massive scale. There exist analyses indicating that this is technologically and economically feasible.

    We have been able to adequately feed the entire world population for at least the last twenty years but have not done so: political will and/or skill has been lacking. Perhaps (maybe most likely) the 2050 I envision also will not happen because of lack of political will and skill.

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  12. Nice work Andy. Public surveys show that +80% of Canadians want their environment protected EVEN if it slows economic growth or costs them money. (Environics Research pdf)

    I wonder if denial is truly at heart of the matter or simply lack of awareness that Canada is fouling its own nest and profitting from what might one day be known as 'the crime of the century'?

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  13. Thanks, BobLoblaw, for the link to the article about where we Canadians are getting our oil. I've been pretty obsessively watching climate science for ten years and although I walk the walk in my vegetarian lifestyle, I have no illusion that this individual action does anything but make me feel a bit righteous. However, I certainly have had my head in the sand regarding the sources of our fossil fuels. It's a tricky thing to argue. We live in a country where just about all of us live in homes that use at least $1000 a year in fossil fuel or electricity for heating. Vaclav Smil points out that we could make the biggest difference if we stopped eating so much meat and if we stopped burning fossil fuel to generate electricity. He believes we could transition to very efficient motor vehicles over one decade, if that efficiency were legislated. He's all for well-insulated buildings, but it's unimaginable that we could retrofit every one.

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