For years most politicians didn’t want to touch the climate change issue. Perhaps they saw it as a political loser, or they were afraid to scare people. And, of course, talking about climate change would mean they’d be expected to actually do something about it. Now, as people start to see the impacts of climate change on their daily lives to a greater degree, the public is realizing that action is necessary. This provides an entry point for governments to step up and provide both direction and leadership to the public on this issue. I see transparent communications with the public as an essential component of good leadership. Governments should honestly advise the public about the risks they face, and the responsibilities they will bear, in a changing climate.
Other provinces are already doing this. Newfoundland launched a public communications campaign called Turn Back the Tide in 2012. The government plainly lays out what the climate change impacts will be for the province and what individuals, businesses and others can do. British Columbia has partnered with municipalities to create a climate action toolkit to help communities implement climate action. Quebec has linked the issue of climate to health and created a web hub for information. Other provinces and territories, such as Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, have specific government websites dedicated to climate change.
In other countries, politicians are increasingly making public statements about the need to act on climate change. Since his landmark speech in June 2013, President Barack Obama has engaged in an ongoing public communications campaign on climate change – including tweets and speeches – alongside making important climate policy announcements.
However, governments can also face backlash when communicating about the risks of climate change to the public. The UK government spent £6 million on climate change television ads in 2009 which received many complaints, including those that doubted the validity of climate change science and others who felt that the advertising campaign was sparking fear. As a result, the UK government was investigated and cleared by the independent communications regulator. The head of the climate and energy department at the time said that he didn’t regret doing the ads and felt that the government had a duty to inform the public about the risks of climate change.
By contrast, Ontario has been relatively timid about communicating with the public about climate change; however, that seems to be changing with the new majority government. I encourage senior members of the government to open up a two-way dialogue on climate change with the people of Ontario. Warn them of the risks; yes, but also engage with them about climate change in the context of the things that matter to them: their homes, their families, their jobs and their communities. People need to see themselves in the climate conversation, and how it relates to their daily lives. When the risks (and opportunities) become personalized, people will clearly see the need for action on climate – at both the individual and collective levels.