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The week in politics: Populism and polarization in Canada and the U.S. – Waterloo Region Record

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WASHINGTON—Next Wednesday, I’ll be appearing on a panel at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Democracy Dialogues to discuss the question, “Is toxic partisanship destroying democracy?”

In preparation for that, one of the questions the moderators asked me to consider is why Canada seems so far to have avoided the kind of bitter polarization that’s overtaken the U.S. during the Trump era. A different question, which came up this week while I was talking to Canadian pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research, was whether Canada is actually still avoiding it.

“The mood of the country coming out of the pandemic, it’s terrible. It’s polarized in ways that it’s never been,” he said. “When I asked Canadians, what’s the number one cost, when you look back at the pandemic … they say it was the degree to which the country’s become polarized on issues around the vaccine.”

And that polarization, once in place, doesn’t just exist on one issue. Graves went on to say that when polling Canadians’ opinions on the war in Ukraine, he sees those who are unvaccinated agreeing with Russian talking points to an astonishing degree. Those points come out of the same misinformation ecosystem that drives the right-wing extremist support for Donald Trump in the U.S.

And even as the U.S. continued to grapple with the results of that this week, when the public hearings of the Jan. 6 Commission began Thursday night outlining a moment of “maximum danger” for U.S. democracy, as I wrote Friday morning, Canada may be in for the same kinds of grappling.

“In his quest for the national Conservative leadership it seems there are no limits on what Pierre Poilievre is prepared to say to curry favour with the angry anti-vax constituency in his party, the same people prone to disappear down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about globalist plots to run the world,” the Star’s editorial board wrote on Wednesday, about the man who appears destined to be the next leader of that party.

Graves told me Poilievre is running the textbook campaign to appeal to “the northern Trumpist crowd,” a constituency with an authoritarian political outlook that has grown to be a substantial chunk of Canadian voters. He said that may be a recipe for electoral success even in a general election, in a country where a majority government could be won with less than 35 per cent of the vote. “Yes, he could definitely win. In fact, I would bet that he would win if there was a vote in the next year.”

That last fact of the first-past-the post electoral system led the editorial board to call for change to the voting system on Thursday, reacting to a system that saw Doug Ford win re-election late last week with only 40.8 per cent of the vote, while only 43 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

That the combined votes of the other parties represented an actual majority was another topic of debate this week. “NDP-Liberal merger talks were in the air a decade ago, as they are now,” Susan Delacourt wrote, although she concluded the option was “not likely.”

“I have one message for the Ontario Liberals — resist the temptation,” former Liberal cabinet minister John Milloy wrote on Monday of a potential merger. Among his reasons? “An NDP-Liberal merger might fuel polarization,” he wrote. “Although Canadian society is divided, we have thankfully avoided the ‘you are either a Democrat or Republican’ phenomenon we see south of the border. Being forced to self-identify as either ‘left’ or ‘right’ has created two growing solitudes in the U.S. We don’t need it replicated in Ontario.”

Interestingly, major recaps of the Ontario election campaign focused on how Ford — who, in my days in Toronto in the not-that-distant past, was the most polarizing politician around — won in part by portraying himself as a uniter, not a divider. The “populist who likes to be liked,” Robert Benzie wrote on Thursday, shunned the anti-vax wing of his party, diversified its candidate pool and made appeals to working-class voters in traditional NDP areas to become “the big-spending ‘party of yes.’”

“He is not a partisan or ideological guy at his core. He’s comfortable working with people who have traditionally been in the other side of the fence,” Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke told Benzie. “There are whole swaths of ridings across Ontario that we’re only competitive in because of his brand.”

As I say, this is fascinating for me — having covered Ford as a municipal and provincial politician when he regularly villainized his opponents and the “downtown elites” who voted for them — to observe. At least rhetorically, as Graves told me on the phone, Ford has moved away from rage-fuelled populism — even if his base of voters hasn’t.

Graves said the same authoritarian outlook that drives Trump voters in the U.S and is driving Poilievre’s federal Conservative campaign was “highly predictive of Doug Ford’s supporters.” The same block of voters, Graves said, also supported Ford’s brother Rob as Toronto’s mayor, and have been with him a long time. But Ford also has a high degree of support from self-defined “upper class” voters, a crossover that may be possible because of the softening of his rhetoric to appear less polarizing.

While Poilievre is leaning into Trump-style polarization, Ford has been backing away from it while retaining the support of those it appeals to, at least for now.

Former NDP strategist Robin Sears wrote Sunday that whether Ford sticks with that transformation of his image from angry populist to an apparent trusting partnership with Trudeau’s government “to lay the foundations of a more appealing, more enduring legacy” is the most interesting question in the years ahead. “Will he slide back into his old populist cant, or will he continue evolving as both a person and a leader?”

In considering the question of whether Canada is heading toward the kind of U.S.-style toxic partisanship I’ll be discussing at the panel this coming week, the different approaches of Ford and Poilievre — and the reaction of voters to them — may be one key to determining the answer in the near future.

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Politics Podcast: Does DeSantis’s Strength Spell Trouble For Trump? – FiveThirtyEight

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FiveThirtyEight

 

In last week’s Jan. 6 congressional hearing, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson outlined the days leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol and testified that then-President Donald Trump and some people in his administration were aware of the threat of violence. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew discusses how this hearing could affect Americans’ views of Trump and the Republican nominees running in the midterm who support Trump’s “Big Lie.”

The crew also analyzes a new poll from the University of New Hampshire that garnered quite a bit of media attention for complicating the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. And Kaleigh Rogers and Nate Silver compete in an Independence Day-inspired statistics game where they guess how many Americans know the country’s national anthem and how many prefer burgers over hot dogs.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

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St. John's MP 'grateful' for political panic buttons amid rising safety concerns – CBC.ca

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St. John’s East MP Joanne Thompson is one of several politicians who have used a panic button due to personal safety concerns. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

A federal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador says she’s grateful she carries a government-issued panic button as threats and harassment directed at politicians rises in Canada.

St. John’s East MP Joanne Thompson is one of several members who have used the buttons, also called mobile duress alarms, in recent months. The buttons alert the Parliamentary Protective Service or local police of a safety concern when pressed.

While Thompson said she hasn’t had to use the button while working in St. John’s, she often carries it while in Ottawa.

“Early in the fall, not long after the election, I did have a worrying encounter with a constituent in the riding. And it was at that point I did see the panic button and I was quite grateful for that,” Thompson told CBC News Thursday. 

“I was in Ottawa was when I used it the most often. You know, walking to work in the dark, returning in the dark. It was an extra precaution, so I’m grateful for that.”

Thompson said most of her concerns come from emails and social media, saying the rhetoric of others has intensified in recent months. Other MPs have shared stories of harassment, death threats and dangerous messages that caused them to use a panic button.

When asked about how safe she feels in her job, Thompson said she doesn’t allow herself to think that way.

“I don’t engage in back and forth on social media … and I don’t want to really travel the road where I begin to question my safety,” she said. “The people who are sending those messages, I think that’s what they want.”

Police panic buttons like these are used to alert law enforcement when politicians feel they are in imminent danger. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Scott Matthews, an associate professor of Political Science at Memorial University, says increased use of the panic buttons is likely a response to how people are feeling about the current state of Canadian politics as tension rises between parties.

“People who like one party or feel close to one of the parties tend to feel very far away from and very negatively toward the other parties. This is especially the case between Liberals and Conservatives or between New Democrats and Conservatives. They really dislike each other in a way that isn’t the case in the past,” Matthews told CBC News.

Matthews says he’s seen that trend go through waves in recent decades, but adds the politics of COVID-19 have amplified discord in the short-term.

He believes it could continue when it comes to future elections, especially in areas where races are more contentious.

Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.​​​​​– Scott Matthews

Asked about what could be done to tackle the overarching issue of rising threats, Thompson said she believes it begins in the classroom.

“We have to create a shift in how we access news, how we question sources…and also how we speak to each other,” she said. “Respect matters, and personal and public safety matters. How we conduct ourselves has a significant role to play in achieving that.”

MUN associate professor Scott Matthews says panic buttons aren’t a true solution to the problem of increased threats in the political landscape. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Matthews says things can be done by the politicians at the centre of the issue, especially regarding the use of hateful rhetoric.

It’s one thing to disagree, he said, but it’s another to suggest that disagreement creates enemies in politics.

“Panic buttons, and more generally kind of securing our political system against conflict, is not any kind of solution. That’s the sign of a problem, in fact,” he said. 

“What we kind of need to be doing is finding ways to reduce the heated rhetoric and to depolarize our political system.… Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.”

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The Nightmare Politics and Sticky Science of Hacking the Climate – Canada's National Observer

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This story was originally published by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

One way to fight climate change may be to … do more climate change. “Geoengineering” is a broad term encompassing distinct techniques for hacking the climate, split into two main groups: There’s carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which could mean sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with machines, or simply encouraging more vegetation to grow. And there’s solar radiation management (SRM), which might include brightening clouds or spraying aerosols in the atmosphere to bounce the sun’s energy back into space.

These two methods are sort of like different approaches to battling a seasonal flu.

Carbon removal is like taking an antiviral, which helps your immune system banish the virus from your body; deleting carbon from the atmosphere similarly targets the root cause of the climate change problem. On the other hand, solar radiation management is more like taking an aspirin to reduce the fever the flu is causing. It doesn’t obliterate the problem-causing agent, and only treats symptoms.

Each technique comes with huge risks—be they political or planetary, obvious or hidden—that scientists are just beginning to explore. But they’re worth thinking about now, because some scientists are taking geoengineering seriously and urging more studies to consider it as a way to bring down global temperatures while governments tackle decarbonizing the world economy.

Risks All the Way Down

Let’s take solar radiation management first, specifically stratospheric aerosol injection, or SAI. The idea is to introduce sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would generate aerosols that would cool the planet by wrapping around it like an energy-reflecting blanket. (Volcanic plumes do the same thing naturally.) At least theoretically, SAI would immediately bring down temperatures, exposing fewer people, animals, and plants (including crops) to heat stress.

You might think you’d need vast squadrons of planes to spray every inch of the sky, but the atmosphere actually does this dispersal itself. The neat thing about the stratosphere is that you can inject it with something—let’s say pink glitter—and it’ll spread all over the world, turning the skies shiny and rosy. If that’s the kind of thing you’re into.

The nightmare politics and sticky science of hacking the climate. #ClimateChange #Geoengineering

But who would be desperate enough to take this chance? It probably depends on where people live. How badly a region is suffering from climate change—and is projected to suffer in the future—will define its politics regarding geoengineering. As world governments drag their feet on reducing emissions, some nations might grow desperate to try SAI as a stop-gap measure.

“It’s in general called ‘the thermostat problem,’ the problem that countries actually have different preferences over where the hypothetical global thermostat would be set,” says Duke University political scientist Tyler Felgenhauer, who studies the risks of SAI.

Climate risks like supercharged hurricanes, flooding, and sea-level rise have disproportionately affected coastal nations. “There are indications that people, for example, in small island states, which are more threatened by climate change, might be more willing to accept risks from SAI,” says Christine Merk, deputy director of the Research Center Global Commons and Climate Policy at the Kiel Institute, who researches public perceptions of geoengineering. And that might mean they are willing to take risks with consequences that may be borne elsewhere. “What do you weigh higher: the lives of people threatened by climate change, or the lives threatened by SAI?” she asks. “That’s in the end a moral judgment.”

How governments make that judgment will likely have to do with whether citizens and their legislators are convinced there is a climate emergency. “If you’re afraid of the breakdown of the climate system, you might accept this fix,” says Merck.

And, says Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, leaders will have to be convinced that taking drastic but risky action is better than doing nothing. “You cannot look at the risks of [solar radiation management] in isolation—you have to look at the risk of doing versus not doing, and then compare which world is going to be better or worse,” he says.

Altering the climate will affect every nation on Earth. We all share one atmosphere. So who gets to make such a momentous decision? “One has to include the key different stakeholders that will be impacted in different ways. It is very easy to say this—it’s extremely difficult to do it,” Pasztor says. “But that’s what we need to do. And so the international community needs to start serious conversations about how one actually does that.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine (ideally) getting buy-in from all the nations of the world, much less the competing political and cultural factions within those nations. The United Nations tried in 2019 with a resolution calling for more research of geoengineering, but the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil blocked it. Even within a single country, this idea can be contentious. For example, last year Sweden rejected a small-scale test of stratospheric aerosols. It is, perhaps alarmingly, easier to imagine a rogue state from going it alone, or an eccentric billionaire taking it upon themselves.

And if getting political consensus before deployment might be difficult, imagine what would happen afterward if things go wrong. Consider a scenario in which the world somehow agrees on an SAI program, and cooperates on rolling it out. All seems to be going smoothly, until a hurricane or drought strikes a particular country, whose political leadership blames it on geoengineering. “The problem is that as you ramp up a program, there might be some climate catastrophe somewhere in the world that people may blame on solar geoengineering, when in fact it’s actually just climate change,” says Felgenhauer. “Those first few years, it might be hard to distinguish between: Well, was that event climate change, or was that due to the solar geoengineering gone poorly?”

Unintended Consequences

While solar geoengineering research is still preliminary, already there are hints that it might lead to some particularly strange and unexpected side effects. A paper published in April in the journal Nature Communications concluded that the global cooling caused by SAI might actually expose more people to malaria. (Hotter conditions make it harder for mosquitoes to survive and transmit the malaria parasite to humans.)

“Most of the focus has been on: Would it work? Do we have the technology to do it? Do we think we could actually bring down temperatures worldwide?” says Georgetown University global change biologist Colin Carlson, lead author of the study. “There’s been a lot less focus on the kind of questions that we’re asking in this study, which is: OK, well, how would this affect people?”

Malaria transmission won’t go up or down uniformly across the planet as temperatures rise, according to the researchers’ modeling. They found that cooling caused by geoengineering would put millions of additional people in West Africa at risk of contracting malaria, but in East Africa, it would actually shorten the transmission season, putting fewer people at risk. “All of these kinds of generalizations and rules of thumb that we use, all that sort of mental math that’s like, ‘OK, geoengineering will probably save lives’—that may not work at a global scale, and it definitely doesn’t work for a lot of countries,” says Carlson. “What people want to do with the health impacts of this is to say, ‘Well, it probably won’t be that bad.’ I’m not sure the data is going to come out saying that.”

In a separate study, Carlson posited a different X-factor: The possibility that geoengineering might reduce monsoon rainfall in South Asia. That would make less water available for crops and people. Monsoons also dilute the concentration of the bacteria that causes cholera, which is found in drinking water—if the storms are weaker, more people might get sick.

Let’s imagine that something goes wrong enough that world leaders pull the plug on their geoengineering program, or there’s a global recession or a world war, and it becomes impossible to fly the planes. The spraying suddenly stops. What happens next?

Any climate problems that had been suppressed would resurge, because, like an aspirin, SRM only brings down the fever—it doesn’t eliminate the underlying malady. One 2018 modeling study found that the aerosols would persist in the atmosphere for a year or two after abruptly stopping their distribution. After that, surface temperatures would rise almost a degree Celsius each decade. (For reference, the Paris Climate agreement is designed to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming since the dawn of the Industrial Age.)

Plant and animal species have adapted to less severe temperature swings throughout Earth’s history, but nothing like this. The rapid heat rise would kill people and crops, and damage oceans. Particularly sensitive species, like amphibians, wouldn’t stand a chance. “Obviously, if you had a strong SRM program ongoing and then it suddenly stopped,” says Felgenhauer, “that would be catastrophic environmentally.”

Sequestration Questions

Surely carbon removal would be a less controversial method of geoengineering, right? It seems inherently less risky to filter carbon out of the atmosphere with machines or, even better, restore forests to sequester carbon the natural way. But as it turns out, there are plenty of ways this, too, can go wrong.

The right way to use trees to capture carbon is to encourage the regrowth of whole ecosystems, which simultaneously addresses the biodiversity crisis. The wrong way is to grow a monoculture of trees of a single species, which is the approach often used by carbon credit programs. These programs have some allure: They raise money from corporations, which can then boast to the public how much carbon they’re capturing. But tree farms are nowhere near as efficient at capturing carbon as an intact forest, and they don’t save other species in the process. “A lot of the time, it’s assumed that these kinds of biology-based carbon-removal techniques will automatically create co-benefits, and that’s not true at all,” says Cardiff University social psychologist Emily Cox, who studies public attitudes toward carbon removal. “They have the potential for co-benefits, but the co-benefits need to be very, very carefully managed.”

And exactly how much carbon they remove can vary quite a bit based on variables like the health of the vegetation. “One of the major risks of some of these biology-based proposals is that an assumption gets made that you can easily equate X number of trees to X million tons of carbon without actually looking at what kinds of trees they are, and where they’re being planted,” says Cox. The amount of captured carbon might end up being negligible. “You have a lot of trees, which is brilliant. You haven’t necessarily got the climate benefits.”

Another technique known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, also relies on a monocrop, usually fast-growing grasses. In this case, the vegetation is burned to produce energy, and the resulting emissions are sequestered underground. But it also comes with its own set of dubious side effects—it would require vast tracts of crops, and huge amounts of water, to make a dent in atmospheric carbon concentrations: A paper that published last month found that in the US alone, scaling up BECCS would expose 130 million Americans to water stress by 2100.

But in a global climate gone bonkers, there are even risks to restoring forests to their former glory, because that glory is increasingly perilous. Supercharged wildfires are now obliterating forests, instead of gently resetting ecosystems to make way for new growth. If you spend a lot of time and money restoring one of these forests to sequester carbon, and then it burns, all of that carbon goes right back into the atmosphere. Or if a given country’s political regime changes, and goes from supporting reforestation to deforestation, you’d have the same problem. Just look at what’s happening in the Amazon.

“I would argue that many proposals for land-based removals could be risky,” says Cox. “Because you’ve got a very, very high risk that either the carbon removal doesn’t happen in the first place, or that it happens, but then in 10 years’ time is reversed.”

The Dreaded “Moral Hazard”

Researchers have developed a way to mimic natural carbon sequestration with a technique called direct air capture, or DAC. These machines suck in air, pass it over membranes to remove the carbon dioxide, and pump it underground, locking it away forever. The tide may be shifting towards DAC in the US. Last month, the Biden administration threw in $3.5 billion to back direct air capture. (That comes five years after a California congressman introduced a bill that would fund the research of geoengineering, but it never went anywhere.)

But this, too, faces two big issues. The first is that DAC exists at nowhere near the scale needed to make a dent in excess atmospheric carbon. One plant that came online in Iceland last year is only capturing the equivalent emissions of 870 cars. A 2021 study calculated that it would take an investment of 1 to 2 percent of global gross domestic product to capture 2.3 gigatons of CO2 a year by 2050—and that’s only a fraction of current annual emissions, which are around 40 gigatons. “There is the risk that we cannot scale and deploy fast enough,” says Benjamin Sovacool, who studies the risks of geoengineering at Aarhus University in Denmark. “It’s looking like the rate at which we’d have to deploy these is unlike any previous energy transition we’ve had, because the scale is so immense.”

The second issue is one of “moral hazard,” or the temptation to lean on DAC as a crutch, instead of doing what’s necessary: dramatically slashing greenhouse gas emissions. If a nation’s leaders anticipate being able to remove emissions via DAC, they don’t need to worry about cutting those emissions in the first place. It’s like waiting for a miracle antiviral—except the requisite dose doesn’t yet exist.

There’s a chance that the extreme and desperate nature of geoengineering might do the opposite—instead of encouraging complacency or a reliance on last-minute technology fixes, it may alarm the public enough that they’ll start to treat climate change like an emergency. But, says Sovacool, “politicians might be even more susceptible to the moral hazard, because they’re only thinking in the present terms. They’ll gladly push as much to future generations as they can.”

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