Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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Carbon tax isn’t perfect, but it’s something

(August 15, 2018)

We are in the midst of a global heat wave that makes predictions of a warmer planet by 2050 seem painfully absurd.

If you still have a climate change denier in your house, invite them to lie down outside and catch some rays — and then fry an egg on their forehead.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, things will get worse before they have a chance of getting better. We need to prepare for living in a world where extreme heat events are the norm, not just the latest headline — and not down the road in 2050, when most forecasts predict, but perhaps as early as next summer.

What this unusual weather reveals is our inability to predict just how fast the extreme weather events of a climate-changing world could crash the ecological systems on which we depend.

With summer heat waves and forest fires from the Arctic all the way down to the equator, the past four months have been a nightmare in many places. And when we mercifully shift into winter, the southern hemisphere can expect to experience its own dry, fiery nightmare.

That’s not just the climate that future generations will have to manage. It is our future, too, coming at us faster and faster, just around the bend ahead on the highway to ecological disaster.

Yet to the politicians driving the bus, this is alarmist nonsense. Can’t be true, so it isn’t true. Don’t want it to happen, so it won’t. Turn up the A/C and have another cold one.

Worst of all, because they can’t figure out how to solve the problem, they do nothing at all. It is easier to get re-elected if you promise a chicken in every cooking pot, even though you know doing nothing means there will be no chicken and no pot — just a lot of fire, and more people getting cooked instead.

As you roast this summer, think of how your federal government uses your tax dollars to invest in pipelines and further subsidize the fossil fuel industry — literally turning up the heat, instead of investing in solar energy. Diesel oil may be in short supply, thanks to global politics and our reliance on a single refinery in Alberta, but there is lots of sun for everyone, if we would only use it.

As for that minimal federal carbon tax, forget the prime ministerial rhetoric that introduced it. Concerns about ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive in a global market seems to mean it will be watered down even further, to the delight of rogue elements among the provincial premiers.

Pessimists can be forgiven for questioning whether it is worth the effort to have a carbon tax at all. Given other options, I still think a carbon tax is a good way to free up money toward mitigating the blistering effects of the climate changes that are almost here.

The $25-per-tonne carbon tax is peanuts, however — a nickel a litre, when gas prices go up and down by a dime every weekend. The argument has been made many times that unless that carbon tax is increased to $300 per tonne, consumer behaviour is unlikely to be changed by it.

What the carbon tax money would do, instead, is to fund alternatives for individual citizens, so they can choose on their own to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is hard to take a bus if there isn’t one, or take light rail if it hasn’t been built. Want to drive an electric vehicle, powered by Manitoba’s hydro? Buy it on your own time. Switch to electric heat? If you can pay for it yourself, go ahead. Solar panels? If you want.

And so on. As the temperature rises, the Pallister government continues to be breathtakingly ineffectual on the greenhouse gas file. They have managed to exempt from their carbon tax most of the emissions from the largest point sources. They have ignored flurries of consultations and advice from many Manitobans and intend to return the tax collected on fuel to emitters in ways that avoid funding any alternative choices. The “made in Manitoba” climate plan has produced little more than press conference emissions.

Unfortunately, it is the same elsewhere.

As the political games continue, global temperatures go up.

The Chinese proverb that “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” needs to be rewritten for a climate-changing world:

Whether you think it will make a difference or not, it is better to blow out one candle than to curse the fire.

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Foresight puts Ireland ahead of the curve

(July 28, 2018)

You may have missed the significance of recent headlines from Ireland. The Irish saved civilization once before, and they are trying to do it again.

The lower house in the Irish Parliament voted to remove all of its national fund investments (over $13 billion worth) from the fossil-fuel industry — coal, oil, gas and even that most Irish of fuels, peat — as soon as practicable, likely within five years. (The upper house can delay the passage of the bill, but not block it.)

Ireland becomes the first country to do this, following on the trillions of dollars divested from the fossil fuel industry by universities, cities, pension funds and religious organizations.

To put it one way, the leprechauns have decided that the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow is not disguised as a barrel of oil.

Put another, the descendants of the Irish people who sent missionaries to establish monastic communities all across Europe, as far away as Italy, and kept the lights of learning, scholarship and culture alive during the Dark Ages 1,600 years ago, are doing it again.

In Thomas Cahill’s engaging 1995 book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he claimed that much of our heritage of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature would have been lost without the Irish scribes, who copied and preserved the manuscripts in which these books were written for 300 years.

After the Viking invasions started and effectively trashed the Irish homeland, the lights they carried elsewhere continued to burn in the midst of the Dark Ages.

Medieval culture and society would not have been possible, nor would our modern world have been born out of the Renaissance, had it not been for the Irish monks who made such scholarship their life’s work.

These individuals had their own brand of Celtic Christianity and a worldview that had never been crushed by the boots of the Roman legionnaires, a world view that integrated spiritual and physical worlds, weaving everything together like the distinct patterns in their art.

The Roman Empire fell because of spiritual rot at its core, along with shallow and incompetent leaders, who focused on maintaining their own privileges and who believed their own press. The end was only hastened by the hordes of barbarians from Europe pounding on the gates.

Those barbarians rejected the lofty philosophy at the core of Roman laws and government. Instead, they wanted plunder — silver, gold and anything not nailed down that they could sell.

In our day, it is the fossil-fuel empire and the economies dependent upon it whose days are numbered, which lasted 100 years before the cracks started to show — nowhere close to the 1,200 years of Rome.

The irony is everywhere because this empire is run by the descendants of those barbarians who kicked in the gates of Rome. They are still focused on silver and gold and anything they can sell.

Spiritual rot is a reason for its failure, too, while the current imperial leaders are replicas of the last of the Romans. This time, the barbarians at the gate are the 99 per cent who don’t have silver and gold, whose future is at risk in a climate-changing world, and who believe that when a system can’t be fixed, it needs to be overthrown.

The problem with revolution is that once it starts, no one can predict what will happen next. It is always easier to throw out a rotten system than it is to replace it with a new and better one.

This is why, of course, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE led to chaos for hundreds of years before the culture of the High Middle Ages — led by those who were educated in the monastic schools — civilized the barbarians.

So, where the Canadian government buys a pipeline to nowhere for billions of dollars that we don’t have, and threatens to hurt people who oppose it, the Irish government takes a long look at itself, at the situation, and at the people massing outside the gates, and instead chooses to divest from fossil fuels.

Call it wisdom, if you like, but the Celts never needed to be told that all things weave together and that there is spirit in the land and its creatures, as well as in its people.

They knew it, they lived it and they chose to act. We are all the better for it.

Their descendants have embraced their identity and done the same, in our generation.

Someone has to lead and do the right thing, whether anyone else follows or not. As our prime minister’s own youth council has reminded him, it certainly isn’t Canada.

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