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#Elxn44: Climate Messaging Can Connect to Local Concern for Safety, Health, Cost of Living

Our continuing coverage of Canada’s federal election September 20 carries the #Elxn44 tag. You can use the search engine on our site to find other stories in the series.

Over the last month of election campaigning, much of the climate conversation has necessarily focused on familiar campaign themes like emission reduction targets, pipelines, fossil fuel subsidies, and how to elect more climate champions to Parliament.

But on a parallel track, some organizations have been listening for issues that connect the climate emergency back to voters’ day-to-day concerns—like community safety and vulnerability, staying healthy in a global pandemic, the cost of living, and the need for basic fairness in the transitions that lie ahead.

“All issues are related to climate change, as climate change is making contrasts more extreme,” said Montana Burgess, executive director of the West Kootenay EcoSociety in British Columbia. “Wealthy Canadians are able to hide from its impacts, and low-income Canadians are falling farther behind and more at risk of climate impacts.”

During the election, Burgess said EcoSociety volunteers hoped to place 5,000 calls to help people in rural communities make voting plans, then stay safe on election day, during an “especially bad period” for COVID-19 infections.

“That’s a lot of volunteer calling hours,” she said. “We hope we can show the meaningfulness and effectiveness of our work together in this get-out-the-vote effort, then help build those volunteers’ leadership to get involved with deeper engagement on climate change and other issues beyond a single election.”

Emergency physician Courtney Howard, a former president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, agreed that staying safe is paramount for her community.

“Most people’s main goal is to be well now, and for their families to be well into the future,” she told The Energy Mix. “I believe this is a universal desire. That may be why presenting climate change in a health frame is the most effective way to motivate populations to take action across the political spectrum.”

With pollsters treating health and climate change as rivals for top spot among the issues on voters’ minds, “we mostly try to help people make the links and recognize that they’re in fact the same thing,” Howard added. That means spending a few minutes going through the health consequences of climate events like wildfires, floods, and extreme heat.

“Climate has been in in the environmental box for so long that often people do need a bit of help to see that it also belongs in the health and health systems box.”

But as the impacts of the climate emergency deepen, forcing themselves into more peoples’ day-to-day lives, “we need to recognize that contemplating climate change itself is a mental health ask for people. So the more we can really emphasize solutions in our narrative, the easier it will be for people to interact.” For the last five years, Howard said, she’s tried to balance her message as two parts solution to one part problem, for every audience and form of interaction.

“If you notice people ducking into the bathroom when they see you coming, that’s a sign that maybe your ratio is off,” she advised.

But the real way to connect is to listen for what matters most to people, then take that as the starting point for the conversation that ensues.

“As an emergency doc, I’m always listening to people at 2 AM about their most urgent priorities,” Howard said. “When somebody tells me it’s about a lack of housing, or distress about the graves recently found near former residential schools, or the fact that they just lost their job, I fully honour those priorities and factor them into their need to seek help.”

While the election presented an opportunity to bring climate issues to the fore, Howard said that was really only realistic as part of a longer-term strategy.

“We’re seeing higher levels of mental illness in emergency departments across the country than any of us have seen in our practice lifetimes,” she said. “People are trying to get their kids back to school in the middle of a pandemic. Health providers are coping with situations we haven’t seen before in our professional lives. I think we need to realize that we are at a moment of overlapping planetary health emergencies, and we need to be addressing these problems in parallel,” making the connections step by step so that the narrative is clear by the time more people are in a position to engage.

In West Kootenay, Burgess identified the “affordability of life in general”, affordable housing in particular, as the issue at the top of the public agenda.

“One of the best ways to link climate change to affordable living is to share how houses built to be highly energy efficient with excellent insulation, windows, and doors are affordable housing for people living inside them,” she said. Any affordable housing project has to deliver low monthly bills for the people who live there—and it must be built in an accessible part of town, rather than “creating a new suburb with no access to services,” she said. Investing in transit and other public infrastructure is another climate solution that “improves the lives of lower-income Canadians”.

With those priorities on the agenda, “we don’t even need to talk about climate,” she added. “We just need to talk about affordable housing and transportation to get the benefits of less carbon pollution.”

Burgess also pointed to fossil fuel subsidies as an issue that can create consensus—and strong opinions—across the political spectrum.

“Many voters get upset about the way their tax dollars are used, and when they understand the federal and provincial governments are still giving their tax dollars to big corporate oil and gas companies, they’re usually outraged,” she said. “Small ‘c’ conservative voters ideologically want less government and lower taxes, and we see those folks often being the most angry about subsidizing oil and gas extraction with their tax dollars. It all comes back to affordability.”

The same approach to listening and connecting is alive and well in Alberta, where Alison Cretney, managing director of the Energy Futures Lab, said she engages with a “wide diversity of people, organizations, and communities working on the future of energy in the province”—from academics, to engineers, CEOs to local artists and advocates. Much of the discussion centres on an inclusive energy transition for workers affected by the need to rapidly decarbonize, discovering “how we can build on these workers’ skill sets in a way that contributes to a low-emission future.”

Connecting what people care about to climate change means “communicating with language, examples, and opportunities that resonate for them, and avoiding ‘trigger’ or judgement-laden terms where possible,” she added. In Alberta, climate communicators have learned to “talk about the future of energy as the opener, with a focus on economic opportunities in a low-emission or net-zero economy, rather than the end of fossil fuels. We also make connections between different points of view, so that people can start to see how their top-of-mind issues are part of a bigger story that includes climate action.”

For the Energy Futures Lab, building on the province’s strengths includes repurposing oil and gas infrastructure and abandoned well sites for “new energy uses”, or capturing the lithium in oil and gas wastewater for use in electric vehicles and storage batteries, Cretney said. “While it’s not always a mainstream consideration, there are truly many solutions and opportunities that can help Alberta not only survive energy transition, but actually thrive as a result of these changes.”