National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

With an election on the horizon, Justin Trudeau wants to start planning our transition to a green economy and he’s asked Bill Morneau to develop an “economic argument” that will get Canadians on side. My advice is to start with the premise that we have no choice; responding to climate change really is a matter of life and death.

According to the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the impact of climate change is already apparent, but in the coming decades things will get much worse. The panel gives us about twelve years to substantially reduce GHGs or face catastrophic consequences.

If this is accurate, transitioning to a sustainable economy should be an easy sell. Indeed, it would be the only option for the future. Moving quickly would also be economically smart. As the effects of climate change surface, the world will lurch toward green technology and Canada could be there to pick up the business.

But is the IPCC’s analysis accurate and, if so, how hard will it be to persuade Canadians of it? These are serious and contentious questions. Political leaders like Andrew Scheer, Doug Ford, and Jason Kenney are working hard to convince Canadians they have nothing to worry about, that everything is under control – and their pitch may be working.

As Dan Gardner argues, humans aren’t very good at processing this kind of evidence. Twenty-five years ago, we faced a similar situation with cigarette smoking. Researchers had the data to show that it causes cancer, but smoking was cool, we did it everywhere, and tobacco firms spent millions trying to discredit the evidence. People kept on smoking, and far too many died.

Today, 97% of the scientific community agrees that the data on climate change is conclusive. Unfortunately, much of it is highly technical and most people have neither the skills nor the time to review and evaluate it. If no one convinces them to take the science seriously, they are not likely to demand action until the sky really is falling.

Trudeau’s plan, as I understand it, is to try to persuade Canadians by crafting a different kind of argument – a story or “narrative” – that includes evidence, but also makes strategic appeals to people’s emotions, say, with the promise of new markets and wealth or by stoking fears about our children’s future.

It’s a worthwhile effort, but I doubt it will get Liberals the buy-in they need. This story will still have to compete with the counter-narrative from skeptics like Scheer, Ford, Kenney and others, which focuses on things that are immediately relevant to people, like jobs and income. And as everyone keeps pointing out, in a contest between the economy and climate change, the economy wins every time.

However, there is a way to significantly strengthen this transition argument. The basic premise – that climate change is a matter of great urgency – could come from a group of people with a very high degree of public trust and respect, rather than from the Trudeau Liberals.

What if the government convened a panel of, say, 20 of the country’s most trusted persons from diverse fields, such as academia, business, law, and literature? It could call them together and ask them to try to arrive at a decision on the most important question of our day: How urgent is the threat from climate change?

While these people would be intelligent and highly-accomplished, they would not be experts in the field of climate science. This would be a panel of exceptional Canadians whose principal task would be to exercise their best judgement in arriving at an answer to the question – much like a jury.

A planning committee of climate change experts would support the panel. For example, it would design a program to ensure panel members had the information they needed to work through the issues and arrive at an informed conclusion.

The committee would line up experts in the field – including skeptics – who would explain the issues and the research to the panel and answer their questions about it. The process would be scrupulously non-partisan and fully transparent; and the planning committee would operate at arm’s length from the government.

The panel would meet regularly over, say, 10 weekends to deliberate on the evidence. That should be enough time to reach a conclusion. Panelists would have to commit to acting in good faith. And there would be rules: panelists would have to listen to one another, consider all viewpoints, and weigh evidence together.

The process would conclude with a short, highly readable report explaining the issues the panel had discussed and how they arrived at their conclusion on the urgency of climate change. The panel would not make specific recommendations on how government should respond to its findings. Nor would the government be bound by the panel’s findings; it would be free to respond as it sees fit.

The report would be released to the public and panel members would be free to speak out about their experience and what they learned, possibly traveling the country to help inform Canadians.

No one can say for sure what this panel would conclude about the level of urgency around climate change, but I suspect it would find that transitioning to a sustainable economy is a moral and economic imperative. I also think it would find ways to factor into its calculations the interests of those who are dependent on the oil and gas industries.

Most importantly, however, I believe it would help establish a much-needed benchmark for how Canadians should view climate change and the challenges it poses for the near future. And that is the main reason to convene it.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
Click here for more political news headlines