University’s climate change ad sparks controversy

A University of Alberta advertisement in Edmonton touted the benefits of climate change, causing heavy backlash from the public.  |  Jeremy Simes photo

A controversial University of Alberta billboard advertisement touting the benefits of climate change has caused concern among producer groups.

The ad, which read “Beefier barley: climate change will boost Alberta’s barley yield with less water, feeding more cattle,” drew heavy criticism because many people thought it conveyed the message that climate change is good, even though scientists have long warned it is detrimental for the planet.

Following the backlash, university officials said they were removing the advertisement and that it would have never been approved if it went through proper vetting. The vice-president of university relations, Jacqui Tam, resigned after the controversy.

The ad was based on research in 2017 that found Alberta barley might improve in growth and require less water if the climate is warmer and wetter.

With climate change, however, weather might become more unpredictable and different crops might need to be grown.

While producer groups support the peer-reviewed research, which was funded in part by the former Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, they say the ad could have offered more context.

Charlie Christie, chair of the Alberta Beef Producers, said the ad was delivered poorly.

“It delivered no context,” he said.

“It delivered the message that there is an upside to climate change, but that’s not a message we want to convey. We want to convey that climate change is an issue to deal with.”

However, Christie also took issue with how the public reacted to the ad.

He said people should be able to have discussions about adapting to the warming climate without fear of being labelled as a climate-change denier.

“It worries me that when we bring up anything about how we adapt, it gets misconstrued and blown out of proportion, where we are the bad guy,” he said.

“Guys in our industry are working at good stewardship and working on environmental impacts because it bodes well for our businesses. The stronger we are in our environment, the better off we all are.”

Tom Steve, general manager with the Alberta wheat and barley commissions, said the organization was surprised by the over-simplification of the research.

It wasn’t representative of the complete story, he said, adding it hit a nerve with the general public and clouded the research.

“I can understand concerns,” he said.

“The purpose of research is to inform future decisions, and we need to know all the impacts of climate change on crop production or we will find ourselves in a difficult situation.”

Steve said he was also concerned with how quickly the university distanced itself from the advertisement.

Tam’s resignation was an over-reaction, he added.

“This is the same university that gave David Suzuki, who has attacked conventional agriculture, an honorary science degree,” he said.

“We objected to that and the university defended it.”

He said the public needs to appreciate all the work farmers are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to improve soil health.

In a statement posted on the university’s blog, The Quad, Tam said the billboard failed to communicate the meaning and complexity of the research.

“The messaging on the ad called the reputation of the University of Alberta and its extensive research on climate change into question. As vice-president (of university relations), I apologize for this and take responsibility.”

Stan Blade, the university’s dean of agriculture, life and environmental sciences, criticized the ad.

He said on Twitter that while he supports science that helps people better understand the impacts of climate change, he won’t support the messaging in the ad, noting his department colleagues weren’t engaged before it went public.

Other university alumni also weighed in, saying they were embarrassed and disappointed by the message.

However, before her resignation, Tam defended the billboard in the university blog, writing that the university was trying to highlight the complexity of its research.

“Different, even divergent, approaches are pursued by researchers across the University of Alberta; this is necessary work, even when it challenges expectations and assumptions,” she wrote.

The university said it now plans to review its approval process for advertisements and figure out what went wrong with the barley campaign.


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