• Terra Observer

Be it climate or COVID-19, there’s no denying Ontario’s denier culture

One in ten Canadians don't consider climate change to be a threat, and new studies suggest that one in ten Canadians believe a COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

Catherine Morrison, Contributor | Opinion

Despite years of public protest and climate change research, denial of the crisis persists. (Markus Spiske / Unsplash)

Climate action has been a long time coming—after all, the first theories forging a link between the burning of fossil fuels and a warming climate appeared in 1896. In the last decade, the climate crisis has taken a stronger hold in public discourse and has been spotlighted by news media more frequently. The majority of the world’s scientists have recognized climate change as a profound challenge compromising the future of the planet.

But despite 30 years of ample scientific evidence of human-induced climate change, some continue to deny its existence. A 2018 survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that one in ten Canadians don't consider climate change to be a threat.

This isn't terribly surprising, considering climate change denial exists at both the level of government and of the public. However, Canada is seeing a new group of deniers emerge on the scene—those who don’t believe that COVID-19 exists, or at least disagree that the global pandemic poses a serious public health threat.

While scientists around the world urge countries to implement measures that will slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some people aren't listening. A preliminary study from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec surveyed 600 Canadians about the pandemic's psychological impacts. The study found that ten per cent of survey respondents believe in a COVID-19 conspiracy theory. Nearly a third said the virus had been created in a lab and 15 per cent speculated pharmaceutical companies were involved in spreading it. Coronavirus as a lab-grown biochemical weapon or a byproduct of 5G technology are some of the conspiracy theories in circulation. In the United States, deniers have even started using the hashtag #FilmYourHospital to encourage civilians to investigate local hospitals and to find out if the virus is a hoax.

There's a culture of denial in Ontario which negates the existence of both COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

Both the government of Ontario and a number of its residents have disregarded the scientific evidence proving the climate crisis as well as the health crisis.

On the environment front, Ontario Premier Doug Ford in particular has been a vocal opponent of green energy. Since Ford took office, he has reduced funding to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. Last year, Ford spent over $230 million to rip up the province's green energy contracts. He also launched a taxpayer-financed gas pump sticker campaign against the federal carbon tax, cancelled the cap-and-trade program which capped greenhouse gas emissions, and dismantled important positions like the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. Provincial Green Party leader Mike Schreiner even went so far as to call Ford one of the most anti-environmental leaders in generations.

Despite the fact that Ford is a rather polarizing political figure, his handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been largely professional. For the most part, his public addresses have been free of the political bias and denialism he's exhibited before. Expressing urgency throughout the last few months of the pandemic, Ford has been working with his team of officials to implement social-distancing-based measures that control the spread of the virus in Ontario.

However, these measures have been met with some resistance. Not all Ontarians are willing to self-isolate or abide by social distancing regulations. With over 30,500 cases, Ontario has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Canada. Despite the fact that the Greater Toronto Area alone accounts for two thirds of the province’s cases, it's where protests against provincial and federal recommendations to combat the virus have taken place.

In early May, around 300 individuals gathered on Ontario legislative grounds in Toronto to protest isolation rules. The protestors, who Ford later called a "bunch of yahoos," demanded that the provincial government lift COVID-19 restrictions and end the economic shutdown.

The organized protest demonstrated a vocal, outright lack of cooperation from some Ontarians. Yet a more subtle denialism has also persisted in the form of residents who flout isolation rules out of carelessness, effectively disregarding public safety. On a sunny May weekend, thousands of people—including Toronto Mayor John Tory—visited Trinity Bellwoods Park. The mass gathering, which the city later called "unacceptable" in a May 23 news release, broke physical distancing regulations so blatantly that some said the park resembled a music festival scene.

Scenes from an earlier, April 25 protest at Queen's Park in Toronto. (Michael Swan / Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Examples of civil disobedience like anti-isolation protests and the Trinity Bellwoods Park gathering demonstrate a pervasive culture of denial in Ontario, as do largely-circulated COVID-19 conspiracy theories. This denial is both active and passive, and perhaps it’s due to factors like a mistrust of government, lack of education, or selective exposure to particular media and political parties. Whatever the reason may be, there is a significant portion of the population that does not trust the government or the news media. It seems that there are always people who turn to pseudoscience, unverified claims and personal hunches for their information, in both the climate crisis and the global pandemic.

Regardless of the underlying cause of denier culture in Ontario, it’s essential that we come together as a province and acknowledge these issues and work collectively to make positive change. We must effectively inform and communicate with deniers about the impacts of climate change and COVID-19 at individual and community levels.

It's difficult to encourage people to change their opinions. Yet despite the deeply-held convictions that some deniers have on political, cultural, or environmental issues, it's possible to motivate passive citizens to become allies and change-makers with the right messaging. Now more than ever, we are seeing the power of collective action and the change it can effect.

So let’s get to work. Without provincial collaboration, it’s impossible that national and international catastrophes can be avoided.