5 ways to sort substance from spin in climate politics | CBC News

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It might sometimes feel as though you need a PhD to sift through the “blah blah blah” of political rhetoric around climate change, as activist Greta Thunberg calls it, but as negotiations at the COP26 summit continue, policy experts say there are ways to ignore the spin and figure out what leaders are really saying. 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood behind a podium at COP26 and encouraged the world to follow Canada’s lead to limit warming to 1.5 C, the target set under the Paris Agreement.

The prime minister pointed to the example set by his government’s carbon pricing framework and announced that Canada would also start capping oil and gas sector emissions because “what’s even better than pricing emissions is ensuring that they don’t happen in the first place.”  

The problem, climate experts point out, is that since Trudeau’s plan doesn’t cap oil and gas production and exports, that policy won’t actually prevent emissions from happening.

It’s just one of many ways that leaders have a tendency to cherry pick and paint themselves in the best light when it comes to tackling climate change. 

Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in climate policy, has been attending the summit in Glasgow, an annual meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP), the global decision-making body set up in the 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

She also noticed how Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were dressing up their “already-unambitious” targets with language such as “circular economy.” 

A circular economy aims to tackle climate change and pollution by reusing and repurposing existing products as much as possible.

“That sounds good,” Harrison said. “Except their plan for carbon capture and sequestration, essentially injecting waste underground, is not consistent with the idea.”

CBC  asked Harrison and other experts for some advice on how to sort substance from spin:

Tip 1: Trust independent experts, not politicians 

Taryn Fransen, an international climate policy expert and a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute, said her main advice is to pay attention to what independent climate analysts are saying.

“There are a lot of independent experts out there who will give you their unvarnished view about how ambitious the target is,” she said.

“All politicians want to paint their performance in the best possible light.”

Tools such as the Global Carbon Atlas, the Climate Action Tracker and this interactive graphic created by the World Resources Institute can also help compare countries and track progress without selective framing. 

Leaders can be quite slippery in how they measure their country’s progress in cutting emissions, because nations were allowed to choose different baseline years under the Paris Agreement.

Concordia University assistant professor Sam Rowan, whose research focuses on climate politics, said that leads to a panoply of targets that aren’t always connected to reality.

“Scientists and researchers are able to kind of sift through the noise, but it makes the whole discourse more difficult,” he said.

Trudeau, right, takes part in a panel discussion on oceans at COP26 Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Tip 2: Listen for policies not pretty words

COP26 has been a non-stop parade of global leaders announcing new emissions-reduction targets and percentages, and policy experts say people should look beyond those promises to see if there’s any substance to back them up. 

“You want to think about what policies the government has put in place. What concrete steps are governments taking to meet their promises? Because these percentages don’t tell the whole story,” Rowan said.

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Harrison said she’s noticed a lot of countries have been throwing around net zero as a goal with no real plan.

“Net zero is an increasingly prevalent concept that can hide all manner of sins,” she said. 

“Some countries are committing to net zero in the distant future but not backing it up with more near-term reduction commitments, which are needed for that to be credible.”

Tip 3: Ask a lot of questions

Another way to cut through the noise of political spin is to ask questions — either to your elected representative or an independent expert. 

It’s not just about whether leaders have plans to meet their climate targets, Harrison said. It’s also important to find out what the expected impact of that plan is.

“That’s important because policies that sound good, such as subsidies, often won’t accomplish as much or will cost more than policies that are less popular, like carbon pricing,” she said.

Finally, she said, people should be asking whether climate action plans are fair.

“It’s critical that our climate policies respect Indigenous rights and avoid imposing greater costs on low-income communities.”

Tip 4: Remember almost everyone needs to do more

One red flag in climate talk, experts point out, is when leaders say they’re already doing enough.

Fransen said to limit global warming, countries need to be phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, eliminating deforestation and promoting forestation. 

“If your government is really doing all it can on those fronts, then that’s great and you can feel good about it. But for nearly everybody in the world, that’s not the case,” she said. 

In defence of Canada, some will argue the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions are a small part of global emissions compared to China’s or America’s. While that’s true, when emissions are broken down per person, Canadians are among the worst emitters in the world.

According to the Global Carbon Atlas, the country ranks fifth in carbon emissions per capita, producing an average of 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. 

“It’s true that if only Canada did anything, we wouldn’t hit that [1.5 C] goal, but it’s also true that if only China did anything or only the U.S. did anything, we wouldn’t hit that goal,” Fransen said. “We all need to get there; otherwise, the math just doesn’t work.”

WATCH | Why half a degree can make a big difference when setting climate targets:

How an extra half degree of warming could ramp up climate danger

Limiting global warming to 1.5 C instead of 2 C could keep some islands above water and save some species from extinction. 4:55

Tip 5: Demand robust reporting of emissions data 

It may be a fool’s errand to hope that politicians will stop using rhetoric to play to voters. That’s why policy experts say it’s important they and the public continue to have access to emissions data from world governments.

“Even if a country is setting a target that is relative to a base year or metric that is favourable to its particular circumstances, as long as the accounting and reporting rules are robust, we’ll be able to make sense of that,” Fransen said.

Some reporting and accounting rules of the Paris Agreement are currently under negotiation in Glasgow under the enhanced transparency framework. Fransen said she has colleagues who are watching closely. 

While politicians might dance around numbers and percentages, the climate crisis is a global issue that pays no mind to borders and political ideologies.

“We need to get to net zero emissions globally,” Fransen said. 

“No matter where you are or where you’re from, you can always find some line to spout about why you shouldn’t be responsible for this … [but] this moment is about leadership. It’s about stepping up. It’s about everybody figuring out what they can do and doing it.”

A banner on a building in Glasgow ‘All talk no action.’ Policy experts say one way to filter out the noise of climate politics is to focus on whether governments have concrete measures to back up the goals they’re announcing. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

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