A Calgary billboard declaring “The sun is the main driver of climate change. Not you. Not CO2.” has provoked a debate about the freedom to billboard in Canada. But the sign and its back-story point to a perhaps less existentially significant debate concerning the role of money and industrial influence in shaping Canada’s political discourse.
The billboard itself is the product of Calgary’s Friends of Science Society, a group whose goal is to question the relationship between human activity and climate change.
Beneath the billboard is the familiar small, blue “Pattison” sign, indicating that the space is owned and operated by Pattison Outdoor, an advertising display company owned by Jim Pattison, the Vancouver businessman who has defended his company’s decision to refuse space on his company’s billboards to display messages from Greenpeace or Inquiry Canada (a group promoting atheism), in favour of messages from Friends of Science or the anti-abortion group Signs of Life, whose ads Pattison Outdoor also designs. Pattison Outdoor also rejected billboard space for an ad by Vancouver-based Voters Taking Action on Climate Change in 2011.
The Friends of Science Society was formed in the curling lounge of Calgary’s Glencoe Club back in 2002 by the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, mainly to strategize an opposition to Canada’s endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol. The Society has significant financial ties to Alberta’s oil industry, as well as a working relationship with the American Heartland Institute which also sponsors climate skepticism on behalf of industry in the United States. The Friends of Science Society then concentrated on pressuring the government of Stephen Harper to walk away from its commitment to Kyoto, which it did on December 31, 2011. Canada is the only Kyoto signatory nation to have done so.
On one hand, the billboard is a straight story of free speech and an advertisement company denying or granting airtime to messages its chairman personally approves or disapproves of. On the other, it closely parallels a general ideological hardening of orthodoxy, shaped by the magic of lobbying, that causes people who might broadly subscribe to the objectives of one particular ideological group to tacitly support other stupid or outrageous things they might not actually believe or take seriously themselves.
There is no lack of nonsensical orthodoxies that people who self-identify as leftists feel pressured to accept if they hope to be accepted as a member of the tribe, and obviously this has always been true on the right and for acceptance into groups generally. But it has always been at least possible for people from all points along the political spectrum to exercise judgement that might be revised in light of new evidence and to openly question ready-made talking points.
Theoretically, this is still possible. But it seems to be getting more and more difficult.
Until recently in the United States, it was possible to hear John McCain say, “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen climate change, and I know it’s real, and I’ll be glad to continue this debate with my colleagues and people who don’t agree with that,” or for Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich to appear in a PSA together rallying support for humans to mitigate our effect on climate change.
How long ago those days seem.
McCain, among others, has adjusted his stance on climate change owing to the fact that officeholders looking for financial support from lobbying groups like Americans For Prosperity, which represents the interests of the legendary Koch brothers, must sign a pledge promising that they will not support any legislation that undermines the financial bottom line of the oil industry.
Climate change denial, whether you personally subscribe to it or not, is increasingly regarded as the “price of admission” for access to power and influence and funding, at least in the United States. With Pattison holding something close to a monopoly on outdoor advertising space, it’s no stretch to suggest that a similar dynamic, with oil industry interests shaping public discourse, exists up north too.