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  • Who, me?

    David Broadland

    Increasingly, Canadians hate each other over politics. Here's one thing we can do to reverse that trend.




    A SURVEY OF 1300 AMERICANS conducted by Yale University earlier this year showed that the most polarizing issues in that country are global warming and environmental protection. Not abortion, not immigration, not health care.

    The survey asked people to rank 29 issues in order of importance in deciding whom to vote for in the 2020 presidential election.

    Conservative Republicans ranked environmental protection at 25th place and global warming dead last.

    Liberal Democrats ranked environmental protection as the second most important issue and global warming as third.

    No other issues had such dramatic differences in opinion as to whether they were even a priority to address.

    Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program on climate change communication, and one of the principal investigators for the survey, noted, “Climate change is now more politically polarizing than any other issue in America.”

    Canadians are becoming increasingly politically polarized, too. Earlier this year, MacLeans published a story headlined, “One in four Canadians hate their political opponents.”

    The story was based on the results of a survey conducted by the polling company Abacus Data. According to MacLeans, Abacus “defined polarized Canadians as those who say they ‘hate’ either Liberals or Conservatives and who dislike compromise or think of people who don’t vote like them as their enemies. Using those criteria, Abacus found that 26 percent of the population are deeply entrenched in their political views, while 74 percent are more open-minded.”

    Of the Canadians who said they “hate” their political opponents, 47 percent are supporters of the Conservative party, and the other slightly-more-than-half are distributed amongst Liberal, NDP, Green, and Bloc Québécois supporters.

    Political polarization is damaging to a democracy. It’s widely agreed that deep political division makes it harder to solve real problems. Take global warming, for example. Scientists, almost universally, tell us that global warming is caused by carbon emissions from human activities. Those emissions eventually need to be eliminated altogether if we are to avoid passing tipping points—like the melting of Arctic permafrost, or the Amazon rainforest losing its ability to generate rain—where we would lose any chance of controlling global temperature rise. Scientists have been telling us that for many years. Reducing emissions is long past due, but global emissions were estimated to have risen 2.7 percent above 2017 levels during 2018.

    In the latest year for which data on Canada’s carbon emissions is available—2017—our national emissions rose by eight megatonnes. Not coincidentally, emissions from oil sands mining and processing also rose by eight megatonnes in 2017.

    In Canada, as in the US, there’s strong division between voters on the question of whether there’s an urgent need to address our nation’s role in global warming. One side claims our emissions are just a drop in the global bucket. If 1.6 percent is just a drop, they’re right. The other side says, also correctly, that Canadians have the highest per capita emissions (about 22 tonnes per person) of any country on the planet, and so we have the highest per capita responsibility to reduce our emissions.

    Differences in per capita emissions between Canadian provinces is another point of division. Alberta’s per capita emissions are five times higher than British Columbia’s. Any further development of the oil sands projects will increase that divide. With both the federal Liberal and Conservative parties supporting further expansion of the oil sands, that means deeper division between British Columbians and Albertans is inevitable. According to Abacus Data we already “hate” each other, to some extent.

    Unless we change how we talk about this issue, national enmity is going to grow, and we won’t be able to work together to address our collective concerns about global warming, climate change, sea level rise and ocean acidification. Moreover, unless we shift from divisive talk to meaningful action, our national emissions will continue to grow.

    The first part of that shift would be to stop fuelling the division. Let’s consider how you and I might be unintentionally stoking that polarization.

    A story by Dan Kahan in Scientific American, “Why Smart People are Vulnerable to Putting Tribe Before Truth,” explained the dynamics of this critical problem. His insights apply to all sides of the discussion around the impacts of carbon emissions.

    Kahan is a Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. His piece in SA follows on research summarized in the study “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks,” published in the science journal Nature Climate Change.

    Kahan affirms that “scientific evidence is indispensible for effective policymaking” and that “for a self-governing society to reap the benefits of policy-relevant science, its citizens must be able to recognize the best available evidence and its implications for collective action.”

    I agree with that; I expect you might, too.

    But, Kahan says, this is a dangerously incomplete understanding: “Unless accompanied by another science-reasoning trait, the capacities associated with science literacy can actually impede public recognition of the best available evidence and deepen pernicious forms of cultural polarization.”

    That oft-missing trait is what Kahan and others call “science curiosity.” Without it, “as ordinary members of the public acquire more scientific knowledge and become more adept at scientific reasoning, they don’t converge on the best evidence relating to controversial policy-relevant facts. Instead they become even more culturally polarized.”

    This outcome, Kahan says, has been documented experimentally. “Experiments catch these thinking capacities ‘in the act’: proficient reasoners are revealed to be using their analytical skills to ferret out evidence that supports their group’s position, while rationalizing dismissal of such evidence when it undermines their side’s beliefs.”

    Kahan says “it is perfectly rational to use one’s reason this way in a science communication environment polluted by tribalism.”

    According to Kahan, any mistake we make personally about the best available scientific evidence will have “zero impact” on ourselves or anyone we care about. Adopting the “wrong” position in interactions with our peers, however, “could rupture bonds on which we depend heavily for emotional and material well-being.”

    So instead, Kahan says, we “use our reasoning not to discern the truth but to form and persist in beliefs characteristic of our group, a tendency known as ‘identity-protective cognition.’”

    On the other hand, Kahan says, “Curiosity has properties directly opposed to those of identity-protective cognition. Whereas the latter evinces a hardened resistance to exploring evidence that could challenge one’s existing views, the former consists of a hunger for the unexpected, driven by the anticipated pleasure of surprise. In that state, the defensive sentries of existing opinion have necessarily been made to stand down. One could reasonably expect, then, that those disposed toward science curiosity would be more open-minded and as a result less polarized along cultural lines.”

    Kahan’s description of science curiosity— “a hunger for the unexpected, driven by the anticipated pleasure of surprise”—may not be adequately explanatory for some of us, so I have found a recent local case where scientific evidence was presented to readers as fact, but it was left to the reader to find out what the evidence was and where it came from. If you read this story in the Times Colonist and talked with someone else about it but didn’t follow up by searching for the source science behind the story, you may be part of the cultural polarization problem. Yes, you.

    The story was an op-ed by David Suzuki in the August 18, 2019 edition of the Times Colonist titled: “Amid climate crisis, we must change the way we look at land.” Suzuki referenced an article by Guardian columnist George Monbiot, in which Monbiot argued that a recent IPCC report had failed to acknowledge the real emissions contribution of animal agriculture. Suzuki wrote, “Monbiot argues the report authors underestimate agriculture’s contribution to emissions by failing ‘to capture the overall impact of food production,’ noting, for example, that producing one kilogram of beef protein uses an average of 1,250 kilograms of carbon—‘roughly equal to driving a new car for a year, or to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.’”

    That was Suzuki quoting Monbiot. There was no additional explanation of where that “1,250 kilograms” came from.

    I was startled by the fact that “one kilogram of beef protein uses an average of 1,250 kilograms of carbon.” In 2017, per capita beef consumption in Canada was 26.4 kilograms. According to Suzuki, then, Monbiot was claiming an average Canadian’s annual beef consumption alone would produce 33,000 kilograms of carbon (26.4 times 1,250 kg). Compare that to the official per capita emission for Canadians: 22,000 kilograms. That’s all emissions, not just our beef consumption.

    I suspect that a lot of the people who read that op-ed would not have questioned the apparently science-based information that Suzuki—perhaps Canada’s best-known scientist—was providing. They would simply have absorbed another fact that supported what they already believed about climate change.

    I went looking. It turned out that Monbiot’s argument was based on a study published in the science journal Nature that assessed the carbon costs of different types of food agriculture. The study’s authors included in that accounting the “carbon opportunity cost,” which is the carbon that could be absorbed by land that was currently being used for different types of agriculture if that land was restored to its natural state.

    This is significantly different than the claim in the Suzuki op-ed in the TC that stated, “producing one kilogram of beef protein uses an average of 1,250 kilograms of carbon.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I would like that statement to be true. I’ve been a vegetarian/vegan for 48 years and would like to believe that my choice has had some positive impact on the environment, and the more the better. But Suzuki’s statement is misleading. If you absorbed it as scientific fact, you may be part of the polarization that is holding us back from finding a consensus agreement on how to address climate change. “Who, me?” you ask. Yes, you.

    Science has confirmed that any restoration of land to its natural state would likely result in more carbon being absorbed than if that land remains “developed.” But this idea isn’t confined to animal agriculture or even agriculture in the broadest sense. It also applies to land used to grow trees for harvesting timber and fibre, and the land that has been set aside for such human needs as airports, highways, hospitals, schools, housing—and even bicycle lanes. If bicycle lanes were replanted with trees and cyclists could be turned into pedestrians, much more carbon could be absorbed. But that’s not going to happen either, is it?

    Suzuki, who is inspirational as a social commentator, was using scientific information to, in Kahan’s words, “not discern the truth but to form and persist in beliefs characteristic of [his] group…”

    To understand that, I had to exercise what Kahan calls “science curiosity.”

    We all live in a civilization that, to maintain economic stability, has grown deeply dependent on the energy contained in fossil fuels and the destruction of natural ecosystems. To prevent catastrophic climate change, we need to find a way to reduce emissions and stop ecological destruction. But just as urgently, we need to learn how to stop fuelling division.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.

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