flickr_arnoud boekhoornSurveys show Canadians want action, vision, and leadership on climate change. In fact, Canadians’ concern about the environment is off the charts (see recent numbers at the bottom of this post). There’s a real opportunity here for Canada’s leadership to win hearts and minds with decisive climate policy.

But what they’re getting in Canada is doublespeak. Aspirational targets for reducing carbon intensity? That may sound positively “green”—even uplifting, but on closer inspection it’s simply gobbledygook. In a speech excerpted by the Vancouver Sun this week, Jim Hoggan, president of  James Hoggan & Associates—which has recently completed “the most comprehensive [opinion] research project on sustainability and the environment ever undertaken in Canada“—PR-speak that obscures inaction on climate change is making Canadians cranky.

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  • Canada’s political leaders—including Prime Minister Stephen Harper—are calling for a reduction in “carbon intensity,” which is the ratio of carbon emitted per unit of production. It may sound fine and dandy. But that’s exactly the idea—it sounds a lot like you’re reducing carbon emissions—but if productivity increases, so do greenhouse gases. For example, Canada’s Suncor Energy brags online about significantly reducing “carbon intensity” over the last decade. But they forget to mention that they actually increased greenhouse gas emissions by 131 percent. Not insignificant if you’re one of Canada’s top emitters. (“Carbon intensity.” Where have we heard that before? Oh, right, that’s been the Bush Administration’s mantra on climate change, too. )

    Another term, “aspirational targets”—batted around by APEC members (Canada included) in the “Declaration of Climate Change, Energy Security and Clean Development” issued after September 2007 talks in Sydney, Australia, has a positive, feel-good ring to it. But as Jim Hoggan, puts it, “…even Microsoft’s spell-check software rejects that as spin. ‘Aspirational’ is a marketing term which, like many words in the PR lexicon, is designed to suggest that you’re doing something when you’re really doing nothing.”

    This kind of deceptive wordsmithing just isn’t flying with an electorate that’s deeply—and genuinely—concerned about global warming. If Canada’s leaders are listening, they’ll turn down the PR-speak and crank up some meaningful action.

    A snapshot of Canadian opinion on climate:

    • Ever since 2005, Canadians have been telling pollsters that the environment is their number 1 concern (in the US, environment rarely makes the top 10).
    • 89 percent of Canadians say they are “very worried” about the environment.
    • 60 percent reject the Harper’s proposal of “intensity-based” targets.
    • Asked in a March Angus Reid survey who they trust on environmental issues like global warming, 77 per cent of Canadians said they trust scientists and 62 per cent said environmentalists.
    • 82 percent placed sustainability as a high priority or a top priority (it’s noteworthy however that the term “sustainability” stumped Canadians—53 percent had never heard of the word. Even among those who “knew” it, only 30 percent could define it. Once they understand the language, however, Canadians “get it” immediately and they care deeply about the concept of sustainability.)
    • Eighty-one percent of those recently polled said, “PR experts help deceive the public by making the environmental performance appear better than it really is.”

    Flag photo courtesy of Flickr user Arnoud Boekhoorn under a Creative Commons license