Climate Change Communication in Canada
Summary and Keywords
The immense geographical and cultural breadth of Canada includes a significant Arctic region and many distinct indigenous and rurally located peoples who are profoundly affected by climate change. However, most of Canada’s population is located in the urban south, in major cities. While Canadian media coverage of climate change has been more than the global average, it has generally tended to focus on policymaking at the national level, with a secondary focus on energy and economics. Unlike its close neighbor, the United States, Canada has had consistently positive public attitudes and media coverage toward climate change, but this hasn’t necessarily translated to policy or action. Canada’s steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest per capita in the world.
Canada is the home base for highly visible environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation, which have successfully framed and mobilized on many issues, including climate change. Canada’s resource-based economy includes the controversial oil sands in the western province of Alberta. Scholars note that media coverage of both the oil sands and the proposed and existing pipelines through British Columbia to tidewater are complex because of the way that oil interests have been represented by think tanks and aligned politicians, and, in some regions, because of lingering skepticism and doubts about the ability of political institutions to address climate change. Regional differences on all these points matter immensely, as does framing by environmental groups, indigenous groups, media, and industry proponents.
A further complication for Canadian media coverage relates to both the Arctic and indigenous peoples. The Arctic has not been central to Canadian coverage of climate change, nor have the climate justice issues associated with the disproportionate impacts that this region will experience. Most of the Canadian north is inhabited by indigenous peoples, who have been the primary representatives of climate justice and human rights as frames for media coverage. However, Canadian media has usually either not represented or misrepresented indigenous peoples. Emerging self-representation through Internet-based media provides some hopeful alternatives. In general, taking into account the vast structural changes that are sweeping Canadian media is a key area that new scholarship should attend to, particularly given that most scholarship to date on climate change and media in Canada has focused on national newspapers.
Canada has enormous geographical and cultural breadth, including a significant Arctic region. Many distinct indigenous and rurally located peoples are profoundly affected by climate change in Canada, even while the majority of the population is located in southern urban centers. Canadians have had generally positive public attitudes and media coverage of climate change, and Canada was one of the first countries to act on climate change. However, steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada are among the highest per capita in the world.
During the past 25 years, government policies and stances in Canada have swung rather dramatically, from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 1992, to behaving in “a recalcitrant and even obstructionist manner” at the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) meetings, to sending a full delegation and enthusiastically signing on to the Paris Agreement in 2015 (DiFrancesco & Young, 2011, p. 518). Not surprisingly, then, scholars who have looked closely at media attention in Canada since 1999 have found that policymaking has been the most common thematic frame for national media, followed by energy and economic interests and science and technology (Stoddart, Haluza-DeLay, & Tindall, 2016). The latter reflects Canada’s resource-based economy, which includes the controversial oil sands in the western province of Alberta. Canadian interests also stand to benefit from a warmer north that portends more mineral extraction, as well as potential shipping and other marine-related development throughout Arctic waters, even as policymakers are still debating circumpolar sovereignty issues.
Paradoxically, Canada is also a nation that has given birth to highly visible and globally active environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation. Social scientists and historians are likely to point out that Canadian identity is shaped by a strong connection to both wilderness landscapes and climate, where iconic imagery runs a gamut that includes Arctic tundra, glaciers, outdoor hockey rinks, majestic coastlines, rivers, and forests, along with charismatic megafauna like grizzlies and polar bears—all of which will be deeply affected by climate change (DiFrancesco & Young, 2011). Canada is also a multilingual country with two official languages, French and English, and many distinct indigenous languages spoken across its northern and Arctic regions. English-language media is predominant except in Quebec, where French-language media dominate. This article will first outline Canada’s media scholarship, and then it will specifically discuss how media changes, energy and economics, Arctic issues, indigenous voices, and environmental activism affect and shape media coverage and climate change communication for diverse and geographically dispersed Canadians.
Canadian National Print Media Overview
Canada has a robust media landscape and is also heavily influenced by the widely available U.S. media. Canadian audiences are likely to use U.S. broadcasters and online American news sites on a regular basis, often daily. However, most scholarship on Canadian climate change coverage to date has focused on print media, with some attention to imagery (DiFrancesco & Young, 2011).
Canadian print media have not followed the dominant patterns associated with U.S. coverage of climate change (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004; Boykoff, 2011). Instead, during the past three decades, scholars have found that, compared to American media, Canadian newspapers were more likely to report on and acknowledge the significance of climate change. In a comparative study of U.S., Canadian, and international media in 2007 that included 15 Canadian regional and national newspapers, Good (2008) found that Canadian newspapers were three times more likely to feature climate change stories than their U.S. counterparts. Canadian newspapers were also more likely to use the term climate change and to mention the Kyoto Protocol. In the same time period (2006–2007), Antilla (2010), in a comparative study that involved 19 Canadian newspapers, found that Canadian and European newspapers were better at reporting on complex scientific findings than U.S. newspapers.
Canadian scholars have only recently begun to look closely at the framing of climate change in the two national newspapers in the country, and in so doing provide a more complex and less rosy picture of the role of print media. Analyses of frames, which are cognitive shortcuts that give meaning to news events and issues, “examine how complex social and political issues are communicated to audiences by media workers and news sources” (Stoddart et al., 2016, p. 220; also see Broadbent et al., 2016; Boykoff, 2011; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007; Benford & Snow, 2000). Frames in Canadian national news have shifted over time to reflect the importance of debates about policymaking, potential solutions, and economic interests.
Young and Dugas (2011) were the first to analyze Canadian print media and climate change by itself. They noted that very little had been done at the time of their study to understand the ways in which climate change was being narrated for Canadians. The study looked at three distinct periods (1988–1989, 1998–1999, and 2007–2008) of Canada’s two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post. They found that while U.S. news was very influential in Canada, the “balance as bias” or “conflict among experts” problems (See Boykoff, 2011; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004) were not present in Canadian media (Young & Dugas, 2011, p. 11).
Canadian media tend to report on and with scientific consensus, and instead, conflict frames, when present, are seen among varied levels of governments within Canada. However, Stoddart et al. (2016) and Stoddart and Tindall (2015) made a distinction between the coverage approach of the two national papers during overlapping, interstitial, and later periods (between 1997 and 2010), noting that the National Post was much more likely to question climate science when reporting on it. The Post is considered the more conservative of the two papers. It was started in 1998 by Conrad Black, and in 2000, it became part of the Postmedia news network and serves as a notable example of the concerning consolidation of media ownership in Canada (PPF, 2017).
A larger shift since the late 1980s occurred in relation to national news hooks. Hooks (also known as news pegs) are the rationale for a story and its timeliness (e.g., what event or other reason makes a story newsworthy). News hooks for climate change stories shifted markedly during the past three decades, from ecological events and scientific discoveries or publications to policy debate, political events, and proposed solutions (Young & Dugas, 2011). This is consistent with broader transformations in both U.S. and global media (Broadbent et al., 2016; Trumbo, 1996). However, this transformation also means that risk frames have shifted from being centered on the environment to focusing on risks related to economic changes caused by climate change action. Young and Dugas (2011, p. 17) conclude:
In the Canadian print media at least, we argue that climate change talk has been increasingly banalized rather than radicalized over time. In other words, climate change has been incorporated into the status quo rather than acting as a subversive or transformative agent. Our main reason for reaching this conclusion is the observation that climate change coverage has simultaneously become more voluminous but less complex and contextual.
Reaching a similar conclusion, Stoddart et al. (2016) studied framing in Canada’s two national papers longitudinally between 1997 and 2010, with intensive frame analysis in 2007 and 2008. They found that among 19 countries, Canada has one of the highest national news shares for climate change (Broadbent et al., 2016). Comparatively, Canada mimics trends in the ebbs and flow of global coverage. Canada stands out as one of the few countries that focuses strongly on policymaking as a frame for covering climate change. The second and third most common frames are economic and energy interests and science and technology, respectively. However, the study also notes that “according to deliberative democracy literature, some would expect such signs of vibrant, mass-mediated public debate to correspond to productive policy outcomes” (Stoddart et al., 2016, p. 228).
This has not been the case in Canada up until the hopeful signs following a recent change in federal leadership that saw the nation, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fully participate in the Paris Agreement. Stoddart et al. note that during the prior period, under successive Conservative governments led by then–prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada received a “Lifetime Unachievement” award and several “Fossil of the Year” awards from the Climate Action Network. In other words, Canada has become a case study in understanding how robust media debate contributes to political inaction—rather than the expected outcomes of deliberative democracy models.
In a follow-up study of media coverage in national newspapers during 2012, Young and Archibald (2014) reported a steep decline in both mentions of climate change and substantive coverage of the issue in Canada’s two national newspapers. In a year that saw the largest-to-date retreat of Arctic ice cover, serious drought, and Superstorm Sandy, the lack of coverage was notable and surprising. They further argue that in the wake of “Climategate” in 2009, where several British researchers were accused of misconduct (but later exonerated), Canada’s national newspapers retreated to more cautious and increasingly deradicalized coverage.
Canadian print journalists are generally aware of the challenges of covering climate change. In 2006, the editor of The Globe and Mail, Edward Greenspon, publicly made climate change coverage an editorial priority (Sheppard, 2006). At the beginning of 2012, Canada’s near-national paper, The Toronto Star (which has a higher circulation than the national papers despite its regional focus and reach), took a reflexive turn and reported on Canadian climate change coverage directly (Zerbisias, 2012). The news hook is based on an American news site, the DailyClimate.org, which reported on major declines in U.S. and Canadian media climate coverage. The article cites non-peer-reviewed tracking of five Canadian newspapers (two national and three regional, including The Toronto Star) by Andrew Weaver, a prominent Canadian climate scientist (and the leader of the Green Party in British Columbia since 2015). The accompanying graph, credited to Weaver, shows a year-over-year steep and steady decline in climate change stories since 2007.
Various experts, including Weaver and U.S. climate media scholar, Maxwell Boykoff, are quoted as suggesting that climate skepticism, fatigue with the issue, and a turn to alternative sources for climate news may be the rationale behind this decline. Notably, prominent Canadian scientists like Weaver (2010, 2011) and Stewart Cohen and Melissa Waddell (2009) have written books about climate change aimed at the wider Canadian public. Canadian scientists have also mobilized to form a group known as Sustainable Canada Dialogues to help inform public policy and politicians (Potvin et al., 2017).
Political Economy, Media Change, and Climate Change
Like many other technologically developed countries during the past two decades, Canadian media has undergone immense changes as a result of digital technologies and widespread Internet use. Newspapers have been especially hard hit, and television is beginning to wane as its audience ages and advertisers shift their focus to younger demographics. The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy, and Trust in the Digital Age, an influential 2017 Public Policy Forum (PPF) report, predicted the near-demise of print publications—whereas in 1950, there were 102 newspapers sold per 100 households, that number in 2015 is 18 and is projected in 2030 to be 2. The same report argued, “The failing fortunes of the traditional news media are not just the result of an older medium faring poorly against a new competitor. The advent of computer-mediated networks of social communication amounts to a profound structural change” (PPF, 2017, p. 27). It further points out that advertising dollars are migrating to “global entities with no commitment to civic-function journalism, Canadian or otherwise” (PPF, 2017, p. 31).
This structural change reflects broader scholarly observations of new media realities, where hybridized ecosystems are composed of old and new forms of media that blend and overlap in complex and interdependent ways (Chadwick, 2013; Castells, 2009). Taras (2015) described the changes in Canada as a kind of “media shock,” both because of the prior conditions (i.e., concentration of media ownership) and the onslaught of new conditions (global connectivity, big data, customizable media, permeation into all aspects of daily life). PPF (2017) argued that existing concerns and inquiries into the concentration of mainstream media ownership need to be taken into account in thinking through what kinds of government intervention might be required in order to navigate new platforms, audiences, and advertising conditions, with dominant platform companies like Google and Facebook now in the market. What this means for future climate change coverage in Canada is still unclear.
With the exception of Gunster (2012, 2017), very little has been examined in relation to broadcast or online media or the proliferation, impact, or practices of newer Canadian national and regional sources like, for example, The National Observer, The Tyee, and Discourse Media, or the fairly well established international climate news source, the DeSmog Blog. All of these sources notably are based in the westernmost city of Vancouver, far from the usual centers of Canadian media in Toronto and Montreal. In addition, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada’s public broadcaster, has made concerted efforts (unstudied by scholars) to both cover climate change and represent northern and Arctic perspectives, not only through radio and television, but also through their online entities, which include Radio Canada International’s influential blog, Eye on the Arctic.
A further area of interest is the role of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, which have become key sites for distributing news, but also for organizing, accountability, and directly addressing those who are only minimally covered by mainstream media (Callison & Hermida, 2015; Rodgers & Scobie, 2015). This is particularly important concerning indigenous peoples, as a later section of this article will more closely detail. However, there is an added complexity in thinking about these platforms because they are not only about direct address or social movements. For example, Facebook is key to the reach of the CBC, whose French- and English-language pages get 15 million users a month. This sounds like a lot until one considers that Facebook claims that it has 17 million users every day in Canada, and only three of the top websites that Canadians use are actually Canadian (PPF, 2017).
Scholarship that sheds light on the quality, complexity and breadth of public discourse will likely become key through this transition. Boykoff and Yulsman (2013, p. 10) pointed out that the cultural politics of climate change are “situated, power-laden, mediated, and recursive in an ongoing battlefield of knowledge and interpretation.” They argued that while individual journalists can and do make a difference, they are often “swimming upstream,” and they suggested that institutional features of media coverage need to be improved and rethought, as do broader relations among science, policy, media, and civil society. Hulme (2009) and ethnographic approaches that involve varied media and social movements also support this conclusion (Marino, 2015; Callison, 2014; Wilkinson, 2012). Olausson and Berglez (2014) have suggested that media and climate change researchers need to further pursue the processes of media production and reception, embedded power relations, and the ways in which traditional and digital media intersect with and inform one another.
National print media in Canada are arguably still important for similar and nested reasons. Specifically, Stoddart and Tindall (2015, p. 402) argued that newspapers of record may have a decreased general Canadian audience, but “politicians, academics, NGO [nongovernmental organization] leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to attend to these media.” Newspapers thus remain important as “publicly visible spaces for engagement” among multiple social groups (p. 403). Stoddart and Tindall drew on discourse network analysis, which uses qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the “cultural dynamics of multilevel climate governance” apparent in Canada’s national newspapers between 1999 and 2010. They find a divergence after 2002 between the two papers that reflects larger North American trends—The Globe and Mail focuses on government responsibility and accepts the legitimacy of climate change, while the National Post is more likely to follow U.S. frames that position climate change believers against skeptics. Both papers, however, focus on national government, international political negotiation, and scientific knowledge construction. Stoddart and Tindall (2015) pointed out that this seemingly paradoxical focus on both cosmopolitanism and national policy leaves out and reduces the complexity of multilevel governance. Less attention is paid to nonstate actors and to local and provincial levels of governance by national media.
Regional Differences and Media Scholarship
The lack of attention by national media to regional and local differences is not an insignificant problem in a country like Canada where linguistic, cultural, and geographic diversity mean public discourse, provincial and territorial policies, media, perceptions, and experiences with climate change vary significantly. Canada has 10 provinces in the southern half of the country, and 3 territories in the northern part of the country. Territories and provinces, while similar, have different relationships with the federal government, hence the distinction. Provinces have at least one major urban center with a mix of media, and smaller towns and cities are likely to be reached by these media and, depending on size, also may have their own radio and newspapers. The CBC is mandated to serve all Canadians via radio, television, and the Internet and has region-specific stations in all provinces and territories.
Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia (B.C.), was the first jurisdiction in North America to enact a carbon tax in 2008. In the wake of the implementation of this tax, and during COP 2009 in Copenhagen, Gunster (2011) examined B.C. media in order to address the lack of scholarship examining either regional media coverage of climate change or a mix of alternative and legacy media. British Columbia provided a particularly rich site for both of these aspects. Gunster looked at eight sources during the period of December 7–22, 2009: two popular radio weekday radio shows (public and private broadcasters), two dinner-hour TV news shows (public and private broadcasters), two local newspapers, and two alternative news sources (a weekly alternative newspaper and a daily online news magazine and blog). This is the only published study of Canadian media coverage of climate change to include public broadcasting, and the only study to look at media on such varied platforms. Gunster found that across all media, although they were markedly different in treatment, platform, and scope, commentary and opinion articles often fomented skepticism about climate science. News stories tended to report scientific facts accurately and with authority, which perhaps exacerbated a division between commentary and news, where commentary reflected oppositional distrust in both science and the political solutions related to its findings.
The idea that regional media, and in particular commentary and opinion are sites that support skepticism, is not surprising. In a study of letters to the editor in eight regional daily newspapers in Canada, Young (2011) concurred that letters to the editor, which fall under a different editorial rubric, were more likely to keep distrust in climate science alive. Hoggan and Littlemore (2009) argued in their book on climate skepticism that regional and local papers were specifically used as platforms by climate skeptics and denialists. Gunster (2011) sketched a broader picture of skepticism beyond climate change as an issue in and of itself, finding that those both skeptical and in favor of action on climate change expressed disdain and dissatisfaction with the political process. Gunster points out that “denial, indifference, and pessimism … are as much symptoms of our anemic political culture as our scientific illiteracy” (2011, p. 498). The gauntlet for media, he argues, is to frame climate change as a challenge for which there are possible solutions, as opposed to a threat that overwhelms existing political processes and institutions.
Far from what Gunster observed in British Columbia, Young and Dugas (2012) looked at regional differences between media in Quebec and the rest of Canada. They pointed out that French-language media are more likely to articulate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus and focus on ecological dimensions of climate change. Quebec media are also more likely to position climate change as an international issue and link it to social justice concerns than English-speaking Canadian media. Young and Dugas concluded that French-language media are much better at addressing complexity and nuance related to climate change, both in terms of reporting on it as a scientific problem and as a sociopolitical issue. Stoddart and Smith (2016) also noted that climate justice is not a frame generally used by Canadian national media, even when confronted with the complexity of covering regions like the Arctic, where climate change impacts are already being felt, and the southern population centers, notably including the Alberta oil sands, from which Canada’s carbon footprint largely stems.
A study comparing The Toronto Star with The Globe and Mail from 1988 to 2007 found that both papers generally portray climate change similarly, as a “large-scaled, national, and international/global problem” (Ahchong & Dodds, 2012, p. 55). Both newspapers are located and headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, despite The Globe’s national reach, and this study covers the 20-year period prior to the downturn in climate reporting noted earlier. Even though The Star is a regional paper, Ahchong and Dodds (2012) advocated that much more media focus is needed at the regional level throughout Canada to account for the differences in climate change impacts and to push for the policies required to address these impacts at the regional level. They also suggested that more articles are needed that would connect individuals to climate change in their everyday lives through issues related to health, education, defense, and social order. Most of the articles covered international agreements, conferences, and cooperation, with energy articles becoming prominent in both newspapers between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ahchong and Dodds didn’t mention the Arctic, but they did note that many Canadians may not see the warming effects of climate change as a bad thing because some studies have shown that some Canadians and some industries will benefit (citing Dodds & Graci, 2009, but see also Graci & Dodds, 2008 and Burch, 2010).
Regional Differences and Public Opinion
Natural resources have long been important to Canada’s economy (Innis, 1933). The importance of different resources has varied over time, and in different regions of Canada. In any discussion on climate change in Canada, it should be highlighted that oil and gas have been economically important in western regions, particularly in the province of Alberta, and to a lesser extent in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, the oil and gas sector has long been the most important and powerful part of the economy. Further, Conservative governments, both at the provincial levels in Alberta and Saskatchewan and at the federal level, have been outspoken boosters of a petroleum-driven economy. The Conservative federal government under Prime Minister Harper from 2006–2016 made the expansion of oil and gas production and exporting of these resources the central plank of its economic development strategy. The Conservative Party power base was situated in Alberta at that time, and thus it is not too surprising that they adopted such a strategy.
Social scientists consider regional economic and occupational factors to have some importance to the way in which the general public views environmental issues (Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980). This notion can be illustrated in Table 1, which provides selected findings from a representative survey of the general public designed by Tindall. Some methodological details are provided in Tindall and Piggot (2015). Table 1 shows the percentage of members of the general public who state that they mostly agree or completely agree with questions 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the percentage who are very concerned or extremely concerned with regard to question 5. There are several interesting patterns in the table, but due to space limitations, we will focus only on those associated with Alberta.
Table 1. Percentage of the General Public Who Mostly/Completely Agree (or are Very Concerned/Extremely Concerned) Regarding Statements About Climate Change and Energy (by Region) in Canada
Sask and Man
Q1: To what extent do you agree that Canada should live up to its commitments under the Kyoto accord?
Q2: To what extent do you agree that climate change is a myth—there is no compelling scientific evidence for it?
Q3: To what extent do you agree that Canada should focus more intensely on developing the oil and gas sector of the economy?
Q4: To what extent do you agree that Canada should place more emphasis on alternative energy sources such as wind power, solar energy, and biofuels?
Q5: How concerned are you about the effects of climate change?
Nationwide probability sample of the general public in Canada. Total N = 1007. N may vary by question due to nonresponse for some questions.
Graph credit: David Tindall.
Generally, given the threat that dealing with climate change entails to the oil and gas industry and the centrality of the oil and gas sector in Alberta, we would expect Albertans to be less concerned about climate change and less supportive of measures to deal with climate change. Table 1 shows that Albertans were the least likely to think that Canada should live up to its Kyoto Protocol commitments. They were also among the least concerned about climate change (along with Saskatchewan and Manitoba). A higher proportion of Albertans than residents of any other region agreed with the statement that climate change is a myth. Further, Albertans were least likely to agree that more emphasis should be placed on alternative energy. The only somewhat inconsistent finding was regarding whether Canada should focus more intensively on the oil and gas sector. But given that this sector was already the most emphasized in Alberta, perhaps it should not be surprising that Albertans were not the most vocal about giving it further emphasis. The importance of oil and gas in Alberta, the lower levels of concern about climate change, and higher levels of climate skepticism in this province, as well as the fact that the federal government derived much of its power from this region, likely played a role in Canada’s relative inaction on climate change during the Harper years.
Covering Climate Change in a Resource-Based Economy
Canada is on track to become one of the largest oil exporters, should the Alberta oil sands continue its expansion and production. Oil sands (or tar sands, as they’re sometimes called) are based on a “dirty,” or carbon-intensive, production process involving bitumen. The oil sands have garnered international attention and remain a central aspect of Canadian policy debates that involve climate change. Stoddart et al. (2016) pointed out that energy and economics are the second-largest frame for climate change coverage in national newspapers. Their discourse analysis further argued that Canada’s coverage of climate change is higher than global averages, in part because of “ongoing, often vigorous Canadian political debates over policy responses, which affect Canada’s oil and gas sector” (p. 223).
Canadian media do not always connect climate change to the oil sector, however. Stoddart and Tindall (2015) found that the complexity of coverage in national newspapers has varied over time and that the treatment of issues also varies between the newspapers. “Coverage that treats Canadian dependence on oil as a barrier to effective action on climate change is more visible in the Globe and Mail than in the National Post, which focuses more on the negative economic impacts of responding to climate change for industries such as the Alberta oil sands” (Stoddart & Tindall, 2015, p. 412). So even when oil production becomes an issue, it is present as either a climate action problem or an economic issue—hardly ever both.
More troubling, however, is the complexity of analysis that is required to understand who is saying what, and for whom, in Canada. Stoddart, Tindall, Smith, and Haluza-Delay (2017) looked at Canadian discourse in newspapers and found that the importance of the oil sector did not mean that representatives from this sector were speaking. Instead, they concluded that “though oil industry actors have low mediated visibility, other news sources may communicate their interests directly” (Stoddart et al., 2017, p. 397). These other news sources included politicians from either the federal government, Alberta, or think tanks. In their comparison of Canadian and Australian government responses to climate change change, Young and Coutinho (2013) made broader claims. Following McCright and Dunlap (2010), the Canadian government under Harper employed antireflexive tactics in order to lower public consciousness about climate change. Similarly, Raso and Neubauer (2016) found that much of the media coverage of pipelines tended to favor elite sources, such that a “new right” coalition has emerged that promotes extractive projects and conservative logics.
The final section of this article will more fully discuss tactics by this new right in relation to the environmental movement. Media visibility, then, does not also indicate influence in the political sphere, and this has significant implications for understanding the efficacy of social movements and the role that media plays in informing and educating diverse publics (Hroch & Stoddart, 2015).
Nikiforuk (2010, p. 176), a well-known business and environment journalist, has called Canada a “petrostate” and repeatedly suggested that Canada do more to consider the complexity of the global energy crisis and Canada’s role in it (see also Nikiforuk, 2013). He has argued that the country has not had “a national debate about the rate and scale of tar sands development and its mammoth implications for sovereignty, water security, the petrodollar, nuclear energy, and climate change” (Nikiforuk, 2010, p. 198). Media, he further argued, have not provided either the insight into the complexity of the energy challenges facing Canadian publics nor provided a democratic forum that might help Canadians to understand the underlying ideologies that animate policies. Dominant policies in Canada on energy issues support consumption rather than conservation and rely on a view of resources as being unlimited rather than finite. Canada, as many scholars have pointed out, also doesn’t have a national energy plan, leaving much of the decision-making a patchwork of provincial prerogatives (Axsen, 2014).
Certainly, this becomes that much more problematic when considering research in British Columbia, where two decades of public education related to the carbon tax have still largely resulted in low levels of public understanding and knowledge of climate policy. Rhodes, Axsen, and Jaccard (2014) found that awareness of the existence of a carbon tax and knowledge of that policy’s existence are not associated with greater public support for climate policies. They suggested that, consistent with findings elsewhere (Cvetkovich, Siegrist, Murray, & Tragesser, 2002), climate science and policy are complex and distant from everyday life, and more public knowledge and support are not required for effective climate policy. Instead, they cited drivers associated with support for climate policy as being related to more generalized values, trust in environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs), and belief about negative climate change impacts. On the other side of Canada, Finnis, Sarkar, and Stoddart (2015) looked at how climate variability and complexity in Newfoundland and Labrador factored into a regional campaign to encourage low-carbon consumption. They concluded that acknowledging the variability of scientific knowledge, particularly in regional settings and scales, and public interpretations of climate change could improve “the quality and efficacy of the climate change discourse” (p. 8).
British Columbia provides a special case within Canada, not just because of the carbon tax, but also due to the fierce recent resistance and debate surrounding two major pipelines that would carry Alberta oil to tidewater in the province. Hoberg (2013) observed that 2011–2012 saw intense media coverage that pitted the B.C. premier against the Alberta premier and the federal government under Harper. Unfolding around the controversy was also the indigenous-led Idle No More movement, responding to Harper’s coincident overhaul of environmental legislation during this period.
The two pipelines, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP) and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP) are quite different propositions, but each has enrolled many of the same discursive networks and both seek to supply Asian markets. NGP would carry oil between northern Alberta and northern British Columbia and involve crossing the territories that belong to 16 different indigenous groups (referred to as First Nations in British Columbia, where there are very few treaties and many outstanding land claims) and require the development of a new deepwater port in Kitimat, British Columbia. TMP would twin an existing pipeline that also runs from the same area of Alberta but ends in the metropolitan Vancouver area.
Early on, NGP was the more controversial proposal in part because of dense and unified opposition from First Nations. Veltmeyer and Bowles (2014) situate NGP within a broader economic development context of extractive capitalism in the Americas. Indigenous resistance is significant in British Columbia because it cuts across varied indigenous and nonindigenous communities, engages the environmental movement, and resists internal colonialism in Canada. As will be discussed in later sections, indigenous people have also been challenged by a long history of lack of and/or misrepresentation by media. McCreary and Milligan (2014, p. 119) noted that one indigenous organization, the Yinka Dene Alliance, bypassed Canadian media and instead “initiated a campaign to bring their stories to the Chinese media to pressure the Northern Gateway’s intended markets.”
Much of the resistance to the pipelines stemmed from the risk of accidents, especially with tankers descending the pristine northern coast (Hoberg, 2013). Axsen (2014, p. 264) has found that the general public does not associate NGP with climate impacts, and at the same time, the public is likely to employ a broader set of values when considering the predominant framing of the pipeline as a “tradeoff between perceived economic benefits and environmental risks.” In November 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that he would approve TMP and reject NGP. It’s too early to tell exactly how the character of either media coverage or resistance will evolve in relation to TMP, but early protests indicate similar coalitions and discursive networks will be involved.
Canada’s Arctic region is little covered by national and Southern news sources except for short bursts of dramatic attention. It is the area of Canada that will undoubtedly suffer the most climate-related changes. In 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) brought together scientific and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) from indigenous communities to establish that the circumpolar Arctic as a region that would be disproportionately affected by climate change. Where southern parts of North America might feel a 2°C increase, the Arctic could be conversely looking at an increase of 10°C or more. The subsequent massive ecological changes to glaciers, sea ice, permafrost, hydrology, animal habitat, and other elements will change seascapes, landscapes, and lifeways for communities throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic (Cochran et al., 2013; Watt-Cloutier, 2015; Bravo, 2009).
The territories with Arctic regions in Canada, from east to west, are Nunavut, the Northwest Territories (NWT), and the Yukon, which borders on Alaska. All territories have Arctic and sub-Arctic regions within their jurisdictions. Unlike Alaska, with a population of over 700,000, the populations of these territories are quite small, between 34,000 and 44,000 each. Nunavut is a relatively recently formed territory, split from the NWT in 1990 as part of a land and governance settlement with Inuit, who are the predominant residents of Nunavut. Media in Nunavut is in both English and Inuktitut, the Inuit language. NWT and the Yukon have multiple indigenous languages (including Inuktitut in NWT) spoken by their residents, in addition to English. While their media is predominantly in English, there are broadcast programs and some print in other indigenous languages at both private and public media outlets. There is one French-language newspaper in the Yukon, and the public broadcaster provides radio and television in French across the north. However, as the following section will more fully discuss, the Arctic has been and remains a site of ongoing experiments with multiple media platforms, particularly among indigenous communities.
Many northern regions of southern provinces are considered sub-Arctic and are linked culturally to indigenous groups in these territories. For example, northern Quebec has reporters who broadcast in Inuktitut on CBC. Therefore, the division between these territories and the provinces geographically situated below them is very much a porous, dotted line. Generally, however, when Canadians think of the north and the far north, it is these territories that come to mind. The majority of media and the Canadian populace, as noted earlier, are situated far to the south in major cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
The Arctic, Stoddart et al. (2016) argue, is one of the key reasons why the rest of the world should pay attention to Canada. Debates about Arctic sovereignty are set to increase as the ice changes. Yet the Arctic has only recently begun to be featured as a focus for scholars researching media and climate change. In their study of The Globe and Mail and The National Post between 1997 and 2010, Stoddart and Smith (2016, p. 326) found that “the Arctic is not central to Canadian news about climate change.” They pointed out that the north has been subject to increasingly dual and dueling narratives that see the Arctic both as an “unchanging wilderness” and as a region with immense extractive resources such as oil, gas, and minerals (Stoddart & Smith, 2016, p. 321). In their discourse analysis, Stoddart and Smith found that the main issues in national Canadian media were that climate change is transforming the Arctic and harming polar bears, and that new shipping routes are now open in the Arctic. Each of these issues continually puts dual narratives into friction with each other, as dramatic ecological changes are juxtaposed with new economic opportunities—some of which will be explored further on in this article. These narratives and frames, they noted, are “overwhelmingly done by news workers, media corporations, and economically and politically privileged news sources in southern Canada, and consumed by a predominantly southern Canadian news audience” (Stoddart & Smith, 2016, p. 321).
This core-periphery issue underscores the lack of regional focus or coverage in national papers. Pincus and Ali (2016) found that general English-language media coverage of the Arctic, tracked via Google News, has been on a steady increase since 2006. They identified three common frames for news about the Arctic as being (a) a “race for the Arctic,” (b) a “new Cold War” between the United States and Russia, and (c) conflict between oil interests and environmental groups (Pincus & Ali, 2016, pp. 88–89). Such frames all involve national or international views and conflict.
Besides these frames, major climate events or striking representations have shined a spotlight on the Arctic, such as the recession of sea ice in 2007, which Christensen, Nilsson, & Wormbs (2013, p. 4) refer to as a “media event” where multiple modes of connectivity are utilized to report on and discuss it. Similarly, Marino (2015) and Callison (2014) noted the ways in which Shishmaref and Kivalina in Alaska have been the focus of media coverage that seeks to show how climate change is already happening, with dire consequences. Marino (2015) argued that media coverage frames Iñupiat (Alaskan Inuit) residents of Shishmaref as victims, ignoring the ways that vulnerability and risk are related in large part to colonial practices and structuring of the village. The next section will more fully address this aspect in Canada.
While these events and framing provide periodic coverage of climate change in the Arctic and instrumentalize it for Southern audiences, Stoddart and Smith (2016) have argued that climate justice could be a potentially transformative frame, particularly in Canada. They contended that the national lens in Canadian media is limiting and doesn’t facilitate a discussion of the “regional or local differences in climate change responsibility, vulnerability, and capacity to adapt” (p. 333). They also argued that a climate justice frame does not promote a “unified vision of Canada” and would better address the way that positive and negative climate change impacts are “unequally distributed, and largely pose risks to northern communities” (p. 333). Climate justice framing would stand in contrast to “presenting opportunities for economic and political elites that are often located beyond these communities in Southern Canada or in corporate headquarters around the world” (p. 333). Stoddart and Smith (2016) looked to Arctic communities and groups like the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) as intervening voices that reflect climate justice framing by destabilizing national views in favor of seeing the Arctic as a region that is particularly vulnerable. The interscalar focus can link the local, regional, national, and global, such that multiple perspectives and experiences, as well as just and appropriate measures, become more visible.
Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Canada
Indigenous people make up over 4% of the Canadian population according to a 2011 census. However, indigenous populations are not evenly distributed geographically. Indigenous people are over 86% of the population in Nunavut, nearly 53% in NWT, and over 23% in the Yukon. The provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are 15–17% indigenous. Population only gives one picture of the diversity of indigenous peoples, however; language provides another. There are 13 language groups, with over 60 distinct languages spoken across the country. While over 50% of indigenous people live in southern urban centers, the rest are located in rural communities largely located north of the urban south. Despite where they might live, the vast majority of indigenous peoples maintain deep connections to their communities, lands, and cultures (Environics Institute, 2011). Indigenous people in Canada are also referred to separately as First Nations or Aboriginal, Inuit, and Metis. Given that all these terms have histories and refer to specific groups in Canada, indigenous is a good umbrella term for referring to all peoples whose ancestors are the original inhabitants, prior to European contact and settlement, of what is now known as Canada.
Like indigenous peoples around the world (see “Climate Change Communication and Indigenous Publics”), indigenous peoples in Canada are often closely connected with ecological systems in their region and are deeply affected by climate change. In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, predicted futures are stark and disproportionate, as the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment lays out, using both TEK and scientific knowledge. TEK, also known as Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Indigenous Knowledge (IK), is defined by Kimmerer (2002, p. 431) as “rational and reliable knowledge that has been developed through generations of intimate contact by native peoples with their lands” (see also Climate Change Communication and Indigenous Publics for a full discussion of TEK). TEK, diversely articulated depending on region and indigenous group, provides an indigenous framework to historically situate ecological changes and their meanings, indigenous lifeways, and to forge resilient pathways for adaptation going forward (e.g., see Bodenhorn & Ulturgasheva, 2017; Cruikshank, 2005; Ford, Berrang-Ford, King, & Furgal, 2010; McGregor, 2004; Turner & Clifton, 2009; Wenzel, 2004; Whyte, 2013b).
Sheila Watt-Cloutier has often been a spokesperson for the human rights framing of climate change, especially when media turn to Inuit perspectives because of her prominence as the former vice-chair of ICC of Canada and later the international ICC chair (Callison, 2014; Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2013; Stoddart & Smith, 2016). ICC represents Inuit in Russia, Greenland, the United States, and Canada. In 2005, Watt-Cloutier, while international head of the ICC, brought a human rights petition on behalf of Inuit across the circumpolar Arctic. The petition drew on TEK and oral testimonies from Watt-Cloutier and 62 Inuit, who described the immense impacts of climate change for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Watt-Cloutier, 2015). The petition also drew on the ACIA’s combined indigenous and scientific knowledge and claimed that U.S. inaction on climate change was directly responsible for the impacts being felt by Inuit. The petition was well covered by media when initially announced, but no substantive follow-up coverage resulted when it was rejected, or when Watt-Cloutier was later called to testify in 2007 for all indigenous people (Callison, 2014). Watt-Cloutier was later nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
Watt-Cloutier’s autobiography (2015), The Right to be Cold, details how her work on the petition grew out of both watching the land and seas change, as well as her advocacy work related to persistent organic pollutants that travel from industrial sources in the south to the Arctic. This framework and experience informed how she thought about the connectedness of the Arctic to the rest of the world. She describes how difficult it was to communicate the importance of ice for Inuit lifeways to those from much warmer Southern climates. Watt-Cloutier also connects the challenges around climate change to the legacy of colonialism in Canada, where she grew up and still resides.
Indigenous people have suffered under colonial rule in Canada, such that their land was annexed both with and without treaties, and human rights were abrogated through federal policies that mandated enclosure, displacement, forced assimilation through multiple means, prohibition of language and culture, flexible inscription of identities, and removal of livelihoods and legal recourse (e.g., see Simpson, 2014; Coulthard, 2014; Mawani, 2005). Therefore, climate change impacts, as argued elsewhere in ORE, are intertwined with the structuring realities of colonialism that amplify existing vulnerabilities and risk (Callison, 2014; Marino, 2015; Wildcat, 2013; Whyte, 2013a). Media, too, have been pointedly criticized in Canada for their historic and ongoing complicity with colonialism (Anderson & Robertson, 2011), and this is reflected in the lack of media coverage of climate change impacts that either include or focus on indigenous peoples’ experiences.
Digital Media and Indigenous Perspectives
In the few media content analyses that look at climate change, media, and indigenous peoples, most find silence on these topics even where and when indigenous people are active participants at UNFCCC COPs. For example, Roosvall and Tegelberg (2013) looked at the framing of indigenous peoples in four Canadian and Swedish newspapers during COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009 and found that The Globe and Mail featured no articles (out of a total of 129 during the COP) on indigenous peoples. Stoddart and Smith (2016), which studied both national papers between 2006 and 2010, found that not only was the Arctic not central in news about climate change, but indigenous peoples were rarely quoted despite being the majority population in two-thirds of Arctic territories. Callison similarly found that even at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, neither national paper quoted northern indigenous peoples and the Arctic was the focus of their COP 21 coverage only once (See Bodenhorn & Ulturgasheva, 2016).
Critical race and media scholars have consistently pointed out that mainstream media in Canada have generally failed in the representation and inclusion of indigenous issues and voices (Anderson & Robertson, 2011; Lambertus, 2004; Mahtani, 2001). Mainstream media in Canada are likely to represent minorities (and in particular, indigenous peoples) in either a negative or stereotypical light, riven with inaccuracies, or to exclude their perspectives from mainstream coverage altogether (Hirji & Karim, 2009; Mahtani, 2008, 2009; Jiwani, 2006; Lambertus, 2004; Henry & Tator, 2002; Fleras & Kunz, 2001). Roosvall and Tegelberg (2013) found that indigenous peoples, and Inuit in particular, were often framed as hero-witnesses or victim-witnesses of climate change. The heroic part stemmed from TEK, which was seen as a possible global and scientific resource. Stoddart and Smith (2016) noted, however, that TEK is always juxtaposed with scientific knowledge, such that legitimacy and authority hang in the balance.
Compounding these more recent framings of Arctic peoples is the prevalence of entrenched misrepresentation stemming back to the early 20th century through films like Nanook of the North. Isuma Productions, led by acclaimed filmmaker Zachary Kunuk, has largely sought to challenge these stereotypes and misrepresentations, both with regard to the Arctic and its indigenous peoples through films like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and multimedia and new media experiments online which include Qapirangajuq, a documentary on Inuit knowledge of climate change that is entirely in Inuktitut (with English subtitles).
Kunuk is not alone in his counter to mainstream media. Social media platforms are also providing a much needed “middle ground” that becomes obvious when indigenous social movements like Idle No More (Callison & Hermida, 2015), and #sealfie expressions are considered (Rodgers & Scobie, 2015). Callison and Hermida (2015) found that Idle No More, an indigenous-led social movement that emerged in 2012 in response to new federal legislations that removed environmental protections, included “processes of multi-vocal articulation where a crowdsourced elite composed of a greater proportion of indigenous and alternative voices rose to prominence” thus contributing to the emergence of a middle ground (p. 713). Indigenous people used the retweet function on Twitter to elevate and amplify voices that resonated with and reflected the movement and were markedly different in character and volume than the lack of indigenous voices in mainstream media. Wood (2015) also noted the importance of Facebook as an organizing tool for Idle No More because it facilitated both online and offline social ties. She concluded that Idle No More made it more possible for indigenous groups to mobilize in the future.
Rodgers and Scobie (2015) found that Twitter enabled Inuit self-representation through the hashtag #sealfie in response to efforts by antisealing environmental groups. Using the popular platform to show images of “Inuit, young and old, wearing sealskin clothing in traditional and contemporary designs in photos on Twitter” (p. 92), they concluded that participating Inuit and other indigenous people utilize a tactical approach that is “consistent with the ‘primitivisation’ of the Inuit and interrupt historical attempts to marginalize their participation in the debate” (p. 92; see also Ginsberg, Abu-Lughod, & Larkin, 2002). Stoddart and Smith (2016) found this powerful counter was marshaled by many of the same people and organizations who voiced dissent when the polar bear was placed on the endangered species list as a result of climate change predictions (Callison, 2014; Wright, 2014). Much like antisealing campaigns, listing the polar bears completely ignored sustainable hunting practices for subsistence, cultural reasons, and commercial purposes that support Inuit communities’ lifeways. Mainstream media ignored Inuit perspectives when reporting on polar bears, and social media provided an avenue for creative activism and direct address when it later came to sealing.
Indigenous peoples’ use of new media grows out of a long tradition of adapting to new technologies and tactical use of media toward self-determination. Scholars and journalists have documented indigenous communities’ use of media and communication technologies since the early 1970s (Alia, 1999; Anderson & Robertson, 2011; Ginsberg et al., 2002; Hafsteinsson & Bredin, 2010; Hansen & Poisey, 1991; David, 2012; Roth, 2005; Callison & Hermida, 2015; Rodgers & Scobie, 2015). Interest in media among many indigenous groups began concurrently with new forms of activism in all regions of Canada. There were particularly strong calls for self-determination across the circumpolar Arctic in the 1970s, which resulted in multilingual news and current affairs shows on radio and television on CBC North and the formation of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, TV North, and Northern Native Broadcasting (Alia, 1999; Roth, 2005). Since its 1999 founding, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) now shows most of the programming that was on these stations and is seen across the country in the North and South (David, 2012; Roth, 2005). APTN has not been well studied by scholars, either in relation to its coverage of climate change or in comparison to mainstream media coverage.
While activism has been an important driver for indigenous peoples, media technologies and tools are also being used to explore pathways for resilience and social connectedness. Toronto-based NGO, Journalists for Human Rights has recently wrapped up three years of training indigenous community journalists in Northern Ontario, and plan to launch more training in other provinces in the future. Social scientists working with the Inuit community of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, in Labrador examined the potential of youth-led participatory video and found that video may provide a platform for youth to engage in sharing their insights and knowledge about climate change (MacDonald, Ford, Willox, & Mitchell, 2015). The experience also led to greater social connectedness between youth and their communities, as well as more involvement in the planning and decision-making processes. MacDonald et al. (2015) concluded that participatory video may be a useful tool to “enhance resilience of circumpolar indigenous youth” (p. 486).
Civil Society and Social Movements
The phrase civil society refers to groups and organizations outside of government and business. Some of the indigenous and anti-NGP groups already discussed fall into this category. Other examples include churches, sports clubs, ethnic associations, and environmental groups, among others. These actors are important in democratic society in a variety of ways, including in some cases actors who try to shape policy on issues such as climate change. This section will concentrate on social movement organizations. Social movements are groups of people who act collectively to achieve or resist social change. There are a variety of social movements that are concerned about climate change in Canada, including social justice, labor, indigenous rights, and environmental movements. The previous sections of this article have already covered some of these movements. This section will focus primarily on Canada’s robust environmental movement.
The environmental movement has a long history in Canada, and has been one of the highest-profile and effective movements in the country. Indeed, Greenpeace—one of the most famous international environmental organizations—was formed in Vancouver, Canada, in the early 1970s. Some environmental social movement organizations based in Canada are distinctively Canadian (or provincially based within Canada), such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre. Others are Canadian affiliates of U.S. or international organizations, such as the Sierra Club of Canada, the World Wildlife Fund, and 350.org.
Environmental organizations have been involved in a wide variety of activities relating to climate change and other environmental issues, including raising awareness of issues through information and education campaigns, consulting with governments, and organizing protests, to name a few. Formal organizations also need to engage in a variety of activities in order to mobilize resources, including supporters and materials (McCarthy & Zald, 1977).
Some groups, such as the Sierra Club of Canada, are generalists, engaging in a variety of activities ranging from research and education to participating in peaceful protests. Other groups, such as Greenpeace, focus mostly on norm-breaking (and sometimes lawbreaking) activities to get media attention and disrupt the activities of their targets. The Pembina Institute provides a good example of a group focused on research and policy, especially on the topics of energy and climate change. The Climate Reality Project Canada, the Canadian affiliate of the Climate Project, an organization founded by former U.S. vice president Al Gore, focuses on education. In contrast, Canadian climate activist Naomi Klein argues that in order to solve climate change, a major restructuring of the economy is necessary (Klein, 2015). Klein has articulated this position in a best-selling book called This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate, as well as in a documentary of the same name. Other actors, like Climate Reality, or World Wildlife Fund play a more neutral role vis-à-vis governments and the corporate sector. For instance, Climate Reality presenters emphasize the role that green technology and carbon pricing can play in solving the climate crisis.
Historically, many social movements have focused on getting media coverage (Gamson, 2004). Getting attention and coverage in newspapers, radio, and television is important for several reasons. One goal of many social movements is to change values, attitudes, public opinion, and behavior—getting messages into the media is important for these objectives. Another reason is that media coverage, especially of things like mass protests, can serve as a kind of scorecard for public support for a movement’s goals. Politicians and other policy actors pay attention to media in order to gauge support for different policy and political options.
However, getting into media is not without its problems (Smith, McCarthy, McPhail, & Augustyn, 2001). Social movements need media to some extent, but this is not a symmetrical relationship. Media coverage is affected by a variety of factors outside the control of social movement actors, such as media industry norms, the issue-attention cycle, the ideological stance of certain outlets, and the resources of media outlets. When accessing mainstream media is difficult, social movement actors turn to other outlets. In recent years, Canadian environmental activists have been quite prolific in writing for alternative digital media outlets such as The National Observer, the DeSmog Blog, and The Tyee in order to disseminate messages about climate change and related issues, such as opposition to the expansion of fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure. A number of prominent Canadian environmentalists have written books, including David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, and Tzeporah Berman. Another option is to engage with others through social media.
Increasingly, legacy media are turning to social media as a source for their stories. One example came about during the protests over the proposed TMP pipeline expansion. A lawyer representing Kinder Morgan, the pipeline operator, claimed that protesters made threatening faces at a Kinder Morgan representative. This led to environmentalists engaging in a campaign of satire on Facebook and Twitter in which individuals took selfies with their phones and posted their “Kinder Morgan face.” Initially, this story was not picked up by the mainstream press, but after the “Kinder Morgan face” meme (#KinderMorganFace, or #Kmface) started trending, traditional media picked up the story.
Social Networks and the Environmental Movement
Over the past several decades, communication within the environmental movement has changed along with changes in technology. Groups have moved from communicating with members via newsletters and phone trees to doing so via e-mail, webpages, blogs, and social media. Environmental organization members and supporters receive information from a wide variety of sources today. Tindall conducted a nationwide probability sample survey of environmental organization members in 2007. (Methodological details of the survey are provided in Tindall & Piggot, 2015.) Figure 5 provides the percentages of people who report receiving information about environmental issues by different sources.
At that time, legacy media sources were relied upon quite heavily. About 84% of people received information from newspapers, 81% from magazines, 76% from television news, about 60% from radio news, and 88% from television documentaries. Almost 80% received information from environmental organizations via newsletters, pamphlets, and bulletins, and about 50% received information from family and friends. At the time of the survey, about half of environmental organization members reported receiving information about environmental issues from the Internet. These numbers have likely shifted somewhat toward digital sources since 2007. However, given that environmental organization members tend to have higher levels of education than the general public, it is also likely that they have relatively higher rates of consumption of some legacy media as well.
In the environmental studies literature, some skepticism has been expressed about the nature of formal environmental organizations. Arguments have been made about the “Death of Environmentalism” (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004). One version of this argument is that formal organizations have become largely bureaucratic entities run by professional staff, and the average member has little engagement other than making periodic financial donations. Critics argue that this stifles commitment and citizen engagement.
Tindall’s survey research (methods details provided in Tindall & Piggot, 2015) contradicts aspects of this narrative. He found that environmental organization members talked quite frequently with others about environmental issues—about 60% talk with others about conservation and other environmental issues at least once a week. About half encourage others to participate in ENGO activities at least once a year (or more often), and over 60% are encouraged by others to participate in ENGO activities at least once a year (or more often). About 68% of environmental organization members encourage others to participate in the environmental movement at least once a year (or more often).
In several studies, Tindall has examined the role of social networks in the environmental movement (Tindall, 2002, 2004; Tindall, Robinson, & Stoddart, 2014, Tindall & Robinson, 2017). In these studies, he looked at the way that a social network is an independent variable affecting participation in the movement. The argument is that people with more ties to others within the movement become more active. This is due to increased communication, flow of information, network-based recruitment, social pressure, and increased collective identity resulting from being more embedded in the movement social network.
Tindall and Piggot (2015) also examined linkages between the environmental movement and the general public. They studied a nationwide probability sample of the general public in Canada, focusing on members of the general public who did not belong to an environmental organization. They found that members of the general public who were not themselves a member of an environmental organization were more likely to have a plan to deal with climate change if they had social network ties to people in environmental organizations. This effect persisted even when things like concern for climate change, general orientation toward the environment [measured on the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) scale; Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, and Jones (2000)], and various sociodemographic variables were statistically controlled. Tindall and Piggot (2015) argued that this is an example of a “social influence effect,” where members of the environmental movement influenced members of the general public through social network interaction (p. 548).
Climate Change Framing and the Environmental Movement in Canada
Environmental movements have been some of the key actors endeavoring to frame climate change communication in Canada. Some images include polar bears stuck on melting ice flows, melting glaciers, and dramatic images of the oil sands in Alberta to illustrate devastation on the landscape. Indeed, whether the term oil sands or tar sands is used is an example of framing. Oil sands is the preferred term of the petroleum industry because it is thought to convey a more neutral connotation. On the other hand, tar sands is the preferred term of environmental activists. The second author of this article (Tindall) was informed by an editor of one of the major Canadian print media outlets that its policy is not to use the term tar sands.
As alluded to earlier in this article, a great deal of environmental movement activity has been devoted to opposing the expansion of oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. In some cases, environmental groups have worked with indigenous groups, but they have largely separate goals and structures. For example, oil pipelines cross indigenous lands that are not covered by treaties in British Columbia and require consultation and consent from First Nations. The primary motivation of environmentalists is to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to limit further greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature increases (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). Environmentalists in Canada, especially British Columbia, have been more likely to frame pipeline issues in terms of the risks of oil spills instead of climate change. They note the increased oil tanker traffic that will occur along the coast, refer to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, note the threat to resident orca populations of coastal British Columbia, and point to pipeline leaks, contamination of land and fresh water, and threats to terrestrial animal habitat (illustrated, for example, by pictures of waterfowl dying in contaminated ponds in Alberta). Most environmental movement leaders are primarily motivated by the threat of anthropogenic climate change, but they calculate that framing issues in these terms (e.g., the consequences of oil spills) is more immediate and that local threats are easier for people to visualize.
As noted earlier in this article, the United States is polarized regarding climate change discourse—at least in the context of politics and the media. In the United States, Dunlap and McCright (2015) documented the climate change denial countermovement. While the characteristics of the climate change denial/skeptic countermovement are quite different in Canada, there are elements of countermovement activity. The oil and gas industry is a significant component of the Canadian economy, was the centerpiece of the economic strategy of the former Conservative government, and remains an important part of the strategy of the current Liberal federal government. Hence, successive federal and provincial governments have heavily promoted the oil and gas sector (Davidson & Gismondi, 2011).
Industry organizations such the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) play an important role in discourse about energy and climate change policy. Companies such as Enbridge have flooded the airwaves with television and radio advertisements (Hamilton, 2012). Oil and gas companies periodically publish so-called advertising supplements that make up entire sections of newspapers in Canada (such as the Vancouver Sun). The conservative American billionaire Charles Koch has been a major donor to the Fraser Institute, a conservative Canadian think tank that has published a number of reports skeptical of both climate science and policies to address climate change (DeSmog Blog, 2017). Thus, actors supporting the oil industry have considerable power and resources at their disposal, including the power to communicate and frame climate change issues based on their perspective and interests.
Part of this countermovement (Staggenborg & Ramos, 2016) has involved the federal government. Several members of the cabinet of the former Conservative federal government, including the former prime minister Stephen Harper, expressed skepticism about climate change, and the Conservative government pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Agreement. Harper, as well as former natural resources minister Joe Oliver, referred to environmentalists as “foreign-funded radicals” (O’Neil, 2012). On the surface, this was because some environmental organizations receive funding from outside the country, but as an exercise in framing, the idea was to suggest that foreign interlopers were trying to influence domestic affairs. Left unsaid was the fact that foreign investors, such as the right-wing Koch brothers (important players in the conservative climate change denial countermovement in the United States) were among the most significant investors in the oil sands (Caplan, 2012). During the Conservatives’ time in office, a crackdown was undertaken against NGOs that had charitable status, taking the form of audits. According to reports, only environmental and ideologically progressive organizations that had been critical of the government were included in this crackdown (Caplan, 2014). No ideologically conservative organizations were audited.
A number of prominent members of the media also have contributed to this skepticism in Canada, including long-time opinion columnists such as Rex Murphy with the National Post (formerly at The Globe and Mail), and Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail. One of the most prominent media climate skeptics is Lawrence Solomon, who writes for the National Post (and formerly the Globe and Mail), and is a cofounder of the Energy Probe Research Foundation. These writers do not have known academic expertise in climate science, but nevertheless they consistently cast doubt on scientific claims about anthropogenic climate change in print, on television, or both, and often ridicule environmentalists engaged in working on climate change issues. The most overtly activist climate change skeptic is Ezra Levant, who worked in print and broadcast journalism with the defunct Sun Media, and now has formed his own outlet, The Rebel Media. One particularly high-profile book produced by Levant (2010) is Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. This book won the National Business Book Award in 2011. In it, he argued that Canada has a moral obligation to produce as much oil as possible because in contrast to oil produced in other parts of the world—notably the Middle East, where human rights violations are prevalent—oil produced in Canada is produced in the context of a moral society. He has been a hostile critic of environmentalists working to stop climate change (Gatehouse, 2013).
Canadians are challenged by both a huge oil and gas infrastructure and generally consistent public concern about and media coverage of climate change. The Canadian national media have tended to frame climate change in terms of policymaking, with energy discussions as a secondary framing and a highly implicated issue in policies. There are enormous complexities in this coverage when it comes to representing oil interests, such as when political figures and think tanks speak for industry interests. Similarly, regional differences in Canada reveal varied concerns about climate change and differentiated media coverage of the issue. Some of this is event- or issue-driven, and it is particularly palpable on the western side of Canada, which has seen a carbon tax in the province of British Columbia and intensive debates about pipelines carrying oil between Alberta and British Columbia.
Even though Canada has an enormous Arctic region, it is not a region that has been substantively and regularly covered by Canadian media. Climate justice and human rights are potentially transformative frames that would recognize that most emissions are produced in the south, while the north will disproportionately experience the impacts of these emissions. Inuit, an indigenous people with communities across the circumpolar Arctic have often been the spokespeople for this framing, which raises the problem of entrenched negative stereotypes and representations of indigenous peoples generally in Canadian media. Canadian media do not tend to represent contextual factors stemming from colonialism, the expertise derived from TEK, or perspectives from indigenous communities that might help to develop adaptive and resilient pathways in the face of climate change impacts. Internet-based media provides a hopeful counterweight to this as indigenous peoples use social media platforms and other forms of self-expression and representation online.
Environmental groups have been active in Canada concerning climate change, and even more so about issues related to oil pipelines. They are generally separate from indigenous groups in terms of their goals and organization, even though they may work together on specific protests or issues. Environmental groups tend to have wide social influence among the Canadian public and have been actively using varied forms of media and media platforms. These groups have been targeted by the former federal government officials and jostle for public attention in a lively public sphere, which includes prominent members of mainstream media who write skeptically about climate change and positively about oil sands development.
The media in Canada are also in the midst of massive structural change, even as new sources emerge online. John Cruickshank, a former editor at The Toronto Star and former head of the CBC, summarized it this way: “The daily picture of our local and national life provided by Canada’s news media is already less complete, less nuanced, less authentic, more sensational, more staged, and more negative. As the business crisis worsens, the news media’s representation of Canada becomes less reflective of our collective reality” (PPF, 2017, p. 20) This has real implications for considering what role journalism and other forms of public communication might play in relation to climate change. In such circumstances, it behooves scholars to push forward with studies that recognize both the silences and gaps in media coverage and scholarship and the hybridity of media sources and usage going forward.
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