Jillian Oliver: Don't let horse race journalism sell you on the necessity of weak climate policy

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      By Jillian Oliver

      Months out from the 2019 election, we’re seeing a proliferation of overwrought opinion pieces arguing that, even though the Liberals approved a pipeline in the midst of a climate emergency, we must accept them as the lesser of two evils. Coverage with this baked-in speculation risks sending the message to the growing cohort of voters who are urgently concerned about climate change that we have no hope for a better option. 

      Scientists say we cannot expand fossil fuel infrastructure and meet the Paris Agreement climate target of 1.5 ° C of global warming above the average before the Industrial Revolution. Warming above that level will be catastrophic for human rights, the economy, and life on earth in general.

      The government’s policies are consistent with at least 4 ° C of global warming. Because of knock-on effects, the impacts of that level of warming are difficult to predict, but a good estimate is that would constitute at least nine meters (30 feet) of sea-level rise. Knock-on effects that could melt the polar ice caps would raise the seas by 79 metres (260 feet). 

      You don’t often hear facts like these because they tend to get supplanted by speculative political news coverage. People who work in politics—myself included—have the least in common with the average voter. Our idea of fun is talking among ourselves about the kind of inside baseball that would bore you to tears. We do this because we enjoy watching politics, especially the drama of it, just like other people enjoy the drama of sports and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

      All this constant thinking about political minutiae can lead to a phenomenon called “horse race journalism”. Researcher Paul J. Lavrakas defines this as how “rather than foregrounding issue positions, candidate qualifications, or policy proposals, journalists instead tend to cast these features...as secondary to a focus on who's ahead and who's behind in winning the campaign or a policy battle, the principal players involved, and the shifting gamesmanship strategies and tactics employed.”

      This week, National Observer editor Sandy Garossino wrote that Trans Mountain pipeline expansion opponents are not sufficiently supporting the government’s environmental efforts. On Twitter, she argued that environmentalists are “abandoning Trudeau to help elect Harper’s team”.

      In April, professor Mark Jaccard, a long time opponent of Trans Mountain, wrote a piece urging Canadians to instead focus on the good the government has done on climate. Neither mentioned that the government’s policies are consistent with 4 ° C of global warming, nor what the implications of those levels of warming are.

      While both pieces include the Liberal government’s policy details, as Garrosino’s tweets reveal, they are also premised on the authors’ bias that the only possible outcomes of the fall election are either a Liberal or Conservative majority. No doubt, authors have seen the polls and are fearful of a Conservative outcome. But polls, especially ones months out from an election, are wrong more often than not.

      Most pundits said Hilary Clinton was a shoe-in and Trump had no chance at the presidency, contributing to disproportionate coverage of her emails over his Russia ties. No matter how sure we feel about a candidate's viability, no one can predict the future. We cannot let speculative assumptions taint coverage of the most pressing facts and issues facing Canadians.

      In the 2017 provincial election, the B.C. NDP’s key message against the B.C. Greens was that they would split the vote and re-elect Christy Clark. But the Greens ended up bringing them into government for the first time in 16 years. An analysis from CBC shows that in many cases, the B.C. Greens actually split the vote with the B.C. Liberals, enabling the B.C. NDP to pick up crucial seats. Together the two parties have worked to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and enacted the strongest climate plan in the country.

      The 2017 B.C. election proves two things.

      First, you can’t strategically engineer elections through voting for your second choice. If more B.C. Green voters voted B.C. NDP, we might have a B.C. Liberal government right now. This year, Canadians will have at least two candidates on their ballot who support stronger climate action. The only thing that will elect more of these MPs is more people voting for them. 

      Second, Canadians have many democratic tools beyond voting. The B.C. Green breakthrough happened because people like Andrew Weaver, Sonia Furstenau, and Adam Olsen stepped up to run for office, because staff took a risk in their careers to do something they wholeheartedly believed in, and because thousands of individuals donated money and dedicated their time to make calls and knock on doors. This spring, Paul Manly was elected as Canada’s second Green MP through a grassroots campaign that mobilized hundreds of volunteers. Most pundits didn’t predict that win either. 

      If you care about seeing stronger climate policy in 2019, don’t listen to horse race journalism that says this election is a binary choice between the no climate policy and lacklustre climate policy. Listen to facts and focus on the issues. Find candidates who support stronger climate policy and do what you can to get them elected.

      In some communities it’s not too late to encourage climate-focused candidates to run for a party nomination. You might even be able to snatch the nomination from an existing MP who has let you down—that’s how Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat.

      Finally, remember this: our government belongs to you, not established political parties. The Liberals and Conservatives have big party machines, but those machines are simply comprised of replicable elements like strong candidates, good fundraising, and motivated volunteers. Nobody has a monopoly on your vote. If you want different representatives who will enact different policies, you have the power to elect them.

      Jillian Oliver was press secretary to the B.C. Green party caucus and communications director for the Paul Manly by-election campaign in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.