Climate coverage cools as planet heats up

Even as dust storms rolled over Phoenix, fires ravaged Texas, tornadoes flattened towns like Goderich, Ont., and rivers flooded many regions, mentions of climate change in newspapers and on broadcast media in North America decreased substantially, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 15.

According to the Virginia-based news aggregator, coverage dropped by 20 per cent from 2010 and by more than 40 per cent from 2009.

Meanwhile in Canada, not even the Alberta oilsands Keystone pipeline protests and our withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol at last month’s UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa have produced a bump in coverage.

“Partly it’s a feature of the typical news cycle, but it’s also a general, and quite dangerous, ‘climate fatigue’ that is spreading far and wide,” offers York University business ethics Professor Andrew Crane, co-director of the Centre of Excellence in Responsible Business [Schulich School of Business]. “Keystone and Kyoto have kept climate issues in the news, but the facts about climate change have tended to be relegated behind the meatier news stories about political brinksmanship and raw national interests.

“And then you’ve got the deliberately distracting debates about ‘ethical oil’ from the tarsands, which are aimed at getting people to focus on anything other than climate change. The recent banana boycott of Chiquita is one such example.

“I don’t particularly blame the media – climate change in itself simply isn’t news any more – but they could work harder at finding an angle at putting climate issues at the forefront of our attention again,” says Crane.

“The danger though is that ‘newsworthy’ often requires some kind of debate or criticism, which ends up giving undue attention to climate deniers who have been discredited by now but still get air time in the interests of pseudo ‘balance’.”

Nortel ghost still haunts nation

Inevitably, the four-month trial [of former Nortel executives] will reopen old wounds by forcing former employees, irate shareholders, despondent pensioners and Canadian taxpayers, who plowed billions into the company in generous research-and-development tax credits, to relive the pain and ignominy of Nortel’s spectacular flameout, wrote the National Post Jan. 14.

“I think there’s a cautionary tale to be learned from Nortel,” says Andrew Crane, a professor of business ethics at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Nortel was “a symptom of its time,” he argues. “It’s not just an issue of fraud and accounting irregularities. To focus on that misses some of the broader elements that contributed to its failure.”

“The danger of cases like this is that it’s not just an issue of accounting fraud,” Crane says. “We can look at what happened at the leadership level of the company, but clearly there are broader issues to explore, such as the responsibility of the board, shareholders who are happy when things go well but when they don’t, suddenly expect a level of accountability.”

Editorial: Where is innovative action on pensions?

It’s a good time, then, to review the state of Ontario’s pension rules, wrote the Law Times Jan. 16, in an editorial. While employers may try to enact or negotiate changes such as raising the retirement age or increasing employee contribution rates in order to address their liabilities, a 2008 report on pensions by former York University president Harry Arthurs offered a number of reforms that could address the problems more generally.

While the province, which commissioned Arthurs’ report, has moved on some of his recommendations, it has yet to take action on this one beyond preliminary changes and a commitment to explore target-benefit plans as an option for single employers.

It arguably involves more innovation and potential controversy than many other recommendations, but given that we’re once again in funding difficulties and looming uncertainty, it’s time to act more boldly.

Give People Shares of GDP

Here’s an audacious alternative, wrote Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University, in the Harvard Business Review Jan. 16: Countries should replace much of their existing national debt with shares of the “earnings” of their economies. This would allow them to better manage their financial obligations and could help prevent future financial crises. It might even lower countries’ borrowing costs in the long run.

Mark Kamstra of York University [Schulich School of Business] and I have mapped out how these new national shares could work. We propose that they pay a quarterly dividend equal to exactly one-trillionth of a country’s quarterly gross domestic product, the simplest measure of national earnings. We could call these shares “Trills”.

Trills based on GDP have the great merit of being simple. Other measures of national earnings might seem more accurate than GDP but would sacrifice simplicity.

Can you be shocked thin?

Shock and gross-out. Those are the tactics officials at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are using to scare the public into eating less, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 16.

Such warnings may appear gruesome, but studies have shown that they can be effective…. But according to Toronto marketing expert Alan Middleton, while these kinds of blunt strategies are meant to threaten people into changing their health habits work, they do so only on people at the low end of the risk. “It’s most likely to [work with] people who are worried about it, who may be either trending slightly toward overweight with themselves or their family, or just paranoid about being this way,” says Middleton, who is an professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “What it won’t work with…is with the people with the significant problems and the significant risk.”

The reason those at greatest risk aren’t swayed by shock ads is because they tend to block out such warnings. “People, by and large, say ‘I know, I know, just don’t tell me. I need another cigarette to help me. I need that pork pie. I need to go to McDonald’s’,” he says, noting that aggressive ads can elicit more avoidance of any behavioural change.

Middleton says anti-obesity campaigns would be more effective if they focused on how people can take small steps that accumulate to sustainable behavioural change. After all, he says, it’s not their attitudes about obesity that need changing; it’s their behaviour. People who go on crash diets out of panic, for instance, rarely succeed in long-term weight loss.

Overstating the effects of a health problem can backfire though, Middleton warns. “In the point of exaggeration, it begins to lose credibility.”

Friendship dinner in Toronto celebrates intercultural dialogue

The seventh annual Dialogue and Friendship Night was held in Toronto on Sunday to celebrate the historic multiculturalism of Canada and its diverse immigrant community, wrote Istanbul, Turkey’s Today’s Zaman Jan. 15.

Sponsored by the Toronto International Dialogue Institute, the event saw hundreds of guests crowd into the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto.

York University President [& Vice-Chancellor] Mamdouh Shoukri also spoke at the event, explaining his first journey as a student to Canada 40 years ago. An Egyptian-born engineer, Shoukri became in 2007 the first Muslim to be appointed as the permanent head of a Canadian university.