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Social norming, agenda setting and discourse about climate change

Written by Sherwin, published on June 27, 2013

An aerial photo of Calgary, the Stampede grounds, flooded

In the days and months following the bombing of the world trade centers, there was a kind of smothering of public conversation. The range of things one could say about the event was really quite limited. If you strayed from the sanctioned talking points, you got yelled down. You were told that you were a monstrous traitor or a commie bastard or a fringe lunatic or an angry feminist or a marginal activist with a pet hobbie.

It was more subtle here in Canada. In the US, it was more of a chokehold. People spoke about their concerns and questions only very privately or not at all. Don’t believe me? Ask someone who lived through those days, living in the US.

Hearing about these experiences from friends has caused me to remain fascinated by what constitutes the limits of “respectable” public discourse. This phenomenon is related, in part, to the Overton window, which is the set of concepts that are considered politically acceptable by the dominant culture.

But I am even more fascinated by the social limits and what constitutes the limits of “respectable” public discourse in the wake of a human tragedy. Human tragedies sometimes attract and hold the interest of large numbers of people. I say sometimes because it’s really only true within certain contexts. We humans are really very fickle about the human tragedies that we care about. Tried and convicted state sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua? Who cares, right? Tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians die from the bombing of critical infrastructure? Who cares, right? Human deaths due to Climate Change? Who cares, right? Climate change related floods in Bangladesh? Who cares? Thousands dying in India due to, among other things, floods related to extreme weather events? Who cares.

Well regardless of who doesn’t care about those tragedies, most Canadians, including me, care about the flooding in Southern Alberta. It’s terrible. I lived in Sunnyside. I have family, friends and colleagues in Calgary. Many people have lost their homes and some have lost their loved ones. And because of the importance and seriousness of these events I consider it a duty to discuss them fully. And I expect the Canadian Press to do so too.

Unfortunately, there has been an absence of media discussing climate change. And unfortunately, those that are, are often saying the wrong things. I will concede that over the last two days there has been some improved reporting. But I think my main point stands: there is a distinct gradient or current of acceptable speech that strongly favours right wing denials of climate change.

The voices telling people to shut up and to stop saying “socially inappropriate” things are powerful. These voices, joined by the silence of the mainstream media, results in powerful social norming. People slowly accept these ideas, these frames, and these agendas.

It wasn’t just Ezra Levant and Mike Moffat telling David Suzuki to shut up. Stephen Taylor, Director at the National Citizens Coalition and Vice President at Fleishman-Hillard, and Conservative spokesperson, called David Suzuki a jerk for asking people to think about climate change. Self described policy wonks called David Suzuki an opportunistic twat. BC Conservatives called David Suzuki a vulture. Alberta conservatives called Suzuki a ghoul. Even self described Catholic mom’s got in on calling Suzuki a disgrace.

Charles Adler is a national radio personality and  a Sun News television correspondent. So opposed to any talk of global  warming or climate change is he, that he contradicted himself within the space of two tweets.

David Suzuki never passes up an opportunity to exploit misery. Good Morning Alberta http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/david-suzuki/alberta-flood-climate-change_b_3480005.html?utm_hp_ref=tw … #YYCFlood

Just call it what it is #GlobalBoring. Even the most paranoid of pot heads now unresponsive to the words Global Warming #ShowMeSomeFear

And it’s not just folks trying to shout down David Suzuki. Regular beer drinking Calgarians told earnest bloggers like Mike Soron to shut up. And Eric Weder, the lead engineer at Madden Engineering Group has responded to a reasonable article calling for a tax on carbon by calling global warming a “widely ridiculed scam.

Much of what I’m saying is, as far as I know, unsupported by hard data. I believe it, but I’ll understand if you don’t. But consider these four small pieces of tangential evidence.

1. Some clever folks at UBC and Memorial University followed the publishing at the National Post and the Globe and Mail for thirteen years. They found that “our national newspapers – the Globe & Mail and National Post – are failing to provide their readers with a complete picture of global warming and climate change issues in Canada.” This interview by April van Ert is worth a read.

2. John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli, at the Guardian, point out that a lot of media have been running stories lately that declare that global warming has either stopped or slowed, or that climate models, and climate science, are broken. This is, they say, because of the misuse of recent surface temperature data. I found their article super timely because I have personally noticed the rise of this soundbite in comment threads and Postmedia publications. Even this otherwise good article by David McLaughlin makes poor use of this soundbite – also, I wish authors would link to their source material.

3. A slate of articles have been recently published in a variety of Canadian newspapers denying that climate change was a factor in the Alberta floods. Jon Ferry at the The Province denies that climate change is a thing, or played a role in the Alberta floods. Lorne Gunter denied that climate change played any role in the Alberta floods and called environmentalists alarmists. While this is no surprise to those that have been following Gunter’s articles at the National Post or at the Sun News Network, his timing and the fierceness of his derision is telling.

4. A Member of Parliament has recently said, on television, that climate change played no role in the Alberta floods. Since initially being omitted from print on the CTV website, this fact has popped up in a number of places, including the Economist. And yet not a single author or member of the press has published saying that he has said something crazy. Kenney’s denial that climate change played a role in the floods is dumbfounding. It’s completely unwarranted. This claim is no more correct than declaring that climate change caused the floods. But he has gone completely unchallenged. Yes, people are reporting what he said. No, people have not said that Kenney is daft for having said it. And why not?

The fact that no one has bothered to correct him, is strong evidence of a powerful current of “acceptable” speech.

Photo by Becky Cory.

An aerial photo of Calgary, the Stampede grounds, flooded

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Archived comments

  1. Tim Irvin says:

    Thank you for this insightful piece. This morning I heard some people saying that it is too soon to discuss whether or not climate change was implicated in the Alberta floods – that it is a necessary discussion…but not yet because it is insensitive to the people affected.

    Presumably those people are concerned about being called ghouls or vultures, so they conform to the social norms, or niceties, you are referring to. Can we not sincerely acknowledge the tragedy and also discuss major phenomenon that may have contributed to it? Why is that so hard? Why is that so wrong?

    I say bravo to David Suzuki for opening that discussion. He didn’t even say the floods were caused by climate change, but that the floods should get us thinking harder about this critical issue. I think that is fair and important.