Voters should look to local heroes

(October 23, 2018)

When election time rolls around, I really do my best to avoid repeating the lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson in my head:

“Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it, you lose…”

Politics of all kinds these days, not just the American variety, leave us wondering where the heroes have gone, why the leaders we have today seem so far removed from the ones we remember.

When people reminisce with fondness about the arrogant disdain Pierre Trudeau had for mere mortals, or hail Jean Chrétien as the “green” prime minister, or remember Stephen Harper for his humility, there is something seriously wrong with our political compass — and with our moral compass — as well as with our memory.

Marvel Comics has touched a nerve in the last decade with all of its various superhero films. Our world does need heroes, of all sorts, but the ones we see in the news most frequently are the ones most lacking in leadership essentials.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees (Oct. 8), combined with Category 5 hurricane Michael hitting the Florida Panhandle as the worst ever recorded there, provided a fitting context for American economist William Nordhaus sharing the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on carbon tax and greenhouse-gas emission reduction.

Flip to Manitoba the same week, and Premier Brian Pallister flops by cancelling his Made in Manitoba Climate and Green Plan’s carbon tax — apparently to the surprise of his caucus, as well as the dismay of Manitobans of all political stripes. We now have no carbon tax, as well as no plan what to do with carbon tax revenues to reduce emissions if the federal government follows through on what it promised.

The rest of that Green Plan will now probably be kicked to the curb, because Manitoba can’t afford any of it without carbon tax revenue, but Pallister can still weakly claim that he tried.

At least when Alberta’s Rachel Notley makes a hash of things, she does it with some literary flair. She pompously announced, “In Alberta, we ride horses, not unicorns,” to a bunch of teachers who have already figured out that Albertans don’t ride nearly enough horses to save the planet, as that province is Canada’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly from fossil-fuel combustion.

Ontario’s Doug Ford, on the other hand, is crying into his now-more-expensive beer. Climate change will wreck barley production and drive up the price of what Ontario voters seemingly wanted more than a healthy future for their children.

As another example of the fiscal responsibility we have come to expect from recent Conservative governments, Ford’s fit of pique in cancelling the cap-and-trade system and other green initiatives will cost Ontarians upwards of $3 billion and, for next generations, much more down the road.

Throughout all of this political nonsense, Mother Nature just keeps on warming, ignoring our seriously misplaced sense of self-importance and leaving us to sow the seeds of our own doom.

It doesn’t have to be this way — but that would mean finding leaders who really lead, on the issues that threaten the world as we know it.

Sometimes I wonder if we are looking too high up the ladder. Perhaps we should be looking not for global heroes, but for local ones.

Canadians are not alone in this predicament. Elsewhere, when national governments fail repeatedly to address the causes of global warming and climate change, regional governments are stepping up. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to sue California and other states to stop their climate initiatives, essentially saying the federal government has the right to endanger their children, too.

When regional governments also fail, local governments — especially in cities — are still stepping up to make a difference. More and more people live in cities, and in many ways the global effort to change course will be won or lost in the places where most people live.

The mayor of Winnipeg (who is elected directly, unlike the premier) manages the lives of three-quarters of Manitoba’s population. City councillors are responsible for a very large budget, in a defined local area, where they have the authority to do some things differently, if they choose, regardless of what the province says.

If the mayor and council (and the Manitoba Capital Region municipalities) decide to work together for a sustainable future, it would give everyone a place to contribute, right here where it matters most — close to home — however inadequate the provincial effort might be.

On election day, get out and vote for some local heroes — for people who want to make a real difference where they live, who will work for serious change and not just continue to do business as usual.

Heroes? We need them.

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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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