Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming

Article excerpt

CANADA HAS FAILED TO ACT SIGNIFICANTLY on the issue of global climate change despite decades of political rhetoric and debate. While Canada was one of the first nations to commit to climate change action in the late 1980s, it is now well-known internationally that this country is among the most recalcitrant in the developed world. While some innovative policies have been implemented at municipal and provincial levels, for the past 20 years successive federal governments have talked the good game of restricting greenhouse emissions while foot-dragging on the difficult political choices required in order to achieve meaningful reductions.

There is no one reason for this inaction. Numerous commentators have argued that Canada has a strong political--economic incentive to avoid regulating greenhouse gas emissions (Nikiforuk 2008; Paehlke 2008). As a northern, vast, and resource-exporting nation, additional costs from climate regulation would be acutely felt by both producers and consumers, and it is unclear at this time whether Canada's relatively weak manufacturing and knowledge sectors would be able to take up the economic slack. Looking beyond Canada, we see that few nations have succeeded in implementing effective climate policies, despite global opinion polls that show strong public awareness of the issue and support for mitigative action (BBC 2007). Explanations of this broader failure include the abstractness and scientific complexity of the issue (Lahsen 2005), the overwhelming challenges of international negotiations (Depledge 2006), the capture or appropriation of the climate change issue by corporate and industrial interests (Linder 2006), and the success of the "skeptic" movement in sowing public doubt about anthropogenic causes of climate change (Hoggan 2009; McCright and Dunlap 2003).

This paper presents preliminary findings from a research initiative entitled Public Discourses on Climate Change in Canada, which aims to analyze various aspects of the public life of the climate change issue in this country, including media, political, and activist treatment of climate change arguments, symbols, and ideas. Anchoring this project is our assertion that "talk matters" in understanding climate politics. As others have pointed out, the vastness of the climate change issue means that it is difficult for many people to grasp, particularly the great majority who have not directly experienced climate change in a serious way (Ungar 2000). This means that most people's contact with climate change comes foremost through various types of claims that are advanced in the public sphere. Ours is not a purely constructionist approach: we do not argue that climate change is "produced" by language or claims, and we firmly expect that many of the political and cultural debates now under way will ultimately be settled by occurrences in the physical world (Murphy 2004). At the same time, climate change has broken free of the natural environment to play a major role in our society, as a set of scientific and moral ideas, an expression point for conflict and controversy, and, increasingly, as a trope or metaphor. In other words, climate change has both a "natural life" and a "social and cultural life," both of which are capable of affecting the other (directly and indirectly). Our attention here is on the latter, but with an eye to the fact that the outcomes of current debates, claims, and talk will have physical expressions and consequences in the near future.

This research is also driven by recent claims by prominent social theorists that ideas and narratives about climate change are increasingly playing a structuring role in the broader social and political sphere (e.g., Beck 2009; Giddens 2009; Swyngedouw 2010). For instance, Beck (2009) has argued that ideas about global climate change are spurring a deepening of reflexive modernization across all sectors of society. According to this perspective, climate change is transformative because of its inherent globality (creating a condition of "enforced cosmopolitanism"), multi-causality (being the product of individual, industrial, and state (in)actions), and ability to penetrate and make radical demands of nearly all social and political institutions. …