Children urge adults to heed science

(December 24, 2019)

Thirty-nine years ago, I wrote the first Christmas editorial for the (independent) Winnipeg Sun. It was about the magic of Christmas, answering again the question first asked by Virginia in 1897, that yes, of course, there is a Santa Claus.

Certainly, the Hallmark people believe it. Their “Countdown to Christmas” floods the airwaves with jolly Santas and various romantic miracles involving over-decorated homes, lavish parties and one-kiss happy endings — some shot right here in Manitoba.

We put up with the predictable plots and the painful dialogue because we know no blood will be spilled and everything will untangle and work out just nicely, in 90 minutes.

If only things untangled as easily and as quickly in the rest of our lives — and in our world!

Instead of a Hallmark holiday wish list, with all the items delivered by that jolly old elf and his helpers, the children this year are — figuratively — getting a lump of coal. However hard it might be for you to believe in Santa Claus, children right now are finding it much harder to believe in the wisdom of the adults in their lives.

Told to study science, to learn about the world as it is; told to think critically about what they should do; lectured to make wise decisions for how they live — they are instead given a textbook lesson in “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The bizarre picture of children unsuccessfully pleading with adults to “Listen to the science” and to make wise choices for their future would have been rejected as a movie plot 40 years ago. And yet, here we are.

The examples of idiocy are easy to find, close to home and on the other side of the world.

As Australia battles the worst wildfires in its history, and prepares somehow for record temperatures of 50 C (which few organisms can survive), its government approves new coal plants, argues against climate mitigation and tells everyone just to put another shrimp on the barbie.

There is something profoundly wrong when the children are forced to be gritty realists, while their parents wallow in the Hallmark fantasy world of party planners and Christmas tree lots.

The imagination of young people can be a powerful lever for change, taking what the adults see as impossible situations and turning them upside down.

I remember the 1980s, as we marched against nuclear weapons, joined hands with members of trade union Solidarity in the streets of Poland — and then watched U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev walk the world back from the nuclear brink. It was a time of glasnost, of perestroika, of major changes that saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Apartheid ended in South Africa, elections were held in Zimbabwe. It seemed like another world was more than simply possible: it was just ahead. Young people took their energy, their imagination, their hopes out into the street — and, against all odds, things changed.

But this year, there was no Miracle in Madrid. The COP25 conference concluded with weak outcomes (or none at all) on the key barriers to making the Paris Agreement work. Billed as the last, best chance to put the planet on a path to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, the climate conference was a failure. No timelines were agreed to, no measures were taken to ensure countries met their targets — nothing of any significance at all.

It was about power, but not solar or wind; just plain power, with the hegemony of the large industrialized nations ensuring that nothing was decided that would undermine their national interests. While the doors were closed on civil-society participants who protested the lack of action, the oil and gas lobby smugly continued to schmooze inside.

In terms of multilateral negotiations for a planetary future, COP25 marks the turning point in the culture of globalization we have been fed since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. A “One planet, one world” solution to the climate crisis no longer seems possible by negotiation.

There will be action, instead, from those children who now know for certain that the political and economic structures of the global system are rigged against change, against science, against the very survival of the next generation — against them, personally.

In 1980, the Winnipeg Sun editors tagged my piece as “The Magic of Innocent Imagination.”

Today, it would read “The Power of a Child.”

That, after all, is the real story of Christmas — that the birth of a child, laid in a manger, was enough to transform the most powerful empire in history and turn its values upside down.

The leaders of COP25 should not be congratulating themselves. They have just guaranteed that when change comes, they will be on the outside, pleading to get in.

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We can’t afford to delay climate action

(March 12, 2019)

“Climate delayers are the new climate deniers.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rookie member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is popularizing this phrase as she promotes a Green New Deal in Congress.

It’s not a new idea, nor is it a new tactic. Delay what you can’t stop — and when the delaying isn’t working, then distract. AOC (as she is known) has already forced Republicans (and old-guard Democrats) into “distract” mode — a young woman of colour who understands the social media that her elders only fumble with and who posts video of herself dancing into her congressional office, where she pays her staffers a fair wage.

Given that Congress these days reminds me of British men’s clubs of the 1930s, with old, white, cigar-smoking men wheezing into glasses of port as the world descends into chaos, AOC is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Fresh air is what Washington needs, like all of us, especially when it comes to creating the necessary common-sense responses to climate change and ecological justice. Doing nothing has been the response of governments for too long, which means climate action will be an important issue in political campaigns to come.

Or so we hope. Provincially, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s many green pronouncements have done little to address global warming. Given the scale, urgency and complexity of the sustainability problem, Manitoba has done nothing substantive toward creating a greener world since the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2016. If anything, we have gone backwards, despite myriad consultations with a broad spectrum of Manitobans.

We need to go from doing less than nothing to doing more than a lot if we expect our children and grandchildren to inherit anything that looks like a sustainable future. In fact, the bluntly accurate message that young people are (finally) bringing to the table is that we are stealing their future because of our inaction.

So, if climate delayers are the new climate deniers, then Pallister leads the Manitoba list. By dithering for three years on the climate file, he has made our province less secure and less sustainable for all Manitobans, present and future.

Instead of mobilizing Manitobans of all parties (or none) to work together for our own Green New Deal, he has polarized the province, alienated the federal government and squabbled with the City of Winnipeg. His posturing on a made-in-Manitoba carbon tax also left us out in the cold.

We could have had a revenue stream that offered incentives for people to make lifestyle changes of their own, providing greener alternatives than the provincial budget could otherwise afford.

Two years ago, that’s what business, industry and environmental organizations agreed was the best idea, as long as low-income families were protected by rebates from the increased costs to basic services from a carbon tax.

Instead, we are stuck with the Trudeau government’s revolving-door carbon tax (where the left hand takes money for burning fossil fuels and the right hand returns it). Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservative Party’s proposals on carbon emissions are even worse.

Stop, stall or sabotage — whatever works. That’s what the climate deniers and delayers do at every chance to undermine those people who are trying to do something instead of nothing.

Down south, AOC has been getting this kind of malignant opposition to her Green New Deal. I fear things will only get worse toward the next U.S. presidential election.

One of the tactics the antagonists use is to make it seem like there is a debate among climate experts about what to do or how to do it — and how soon. So, until we have better information, they say we should wait, in order to do the right thing.

Yet, there really isn’t much of a debate. We need to listen to the science, but it’s not rocket science.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Summary for Policy Makers of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 will be approved at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. It is a public document, as is the whole report. Read it for yourself. You may not be a rocket scientist, but you don’t need to be.

After all, AOC isn’t. She got mad and got elected — without being funded by the special-interest groups that try to undermine American democracy. A year ago, AOC made her living as a waitress and as a bartender — two professions that require common sense and wisdom. Today, she is in Congress where she belongs, fighting for her future and for ours.

I’ll drink to that. I just wish Pallister would join me.

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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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