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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Speaking of pirates…

(September 24, 2018)
The G7 environment ministers conference opened in Halifax on Wednesday, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

These international conferences always need a theme. While plastic pollution in the ocean might seem like a good theme to the public, it is very hard to organize fun side events on something so ghastly. (Besides, plastic-filled sushi for lunch is hard to digest.)

So, (pirate) hats off to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna for her sense of timing and clever choice of locale. Instead of focusing on boring speeches that go nowhere and proposing actions that are always too little, too late, the visiting ministers could have opted to wear eye patches and go on the sailing ship Pirate Tour of Halifax Harbour.

Afterward, they could have followed up with a solemn inspection of the Titanic artifacts in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and perhaps some gawking at the devastation depicted in the exhibits of the Halifax Explosion that wiped out much of the city in 1917. The day could have been rounded out by stepping across the street into the Alexander Keith’s brewery for something local.

Pirates, the Titanic and giant explosions, with beer as a chaser to escape the reality of the G7-led buccaneering, plundering, arrogant miscalculations and mistakes that have brought the whole planet to the brink of disaster — what a perfectly themed first day to their conference!

Aaarr, mateys…

Now, I am too much the nice Canadian to suggest these G7 ministers should all have been made to walk the plank in the Halifax Harbour, but there would have been some justice in doing that.

After all, given the pathetic efforts being made internationally to address global warming and stop rising sea levels that threaten to swamp small island developing states, the G7 is effectively telling the people in these countries to tread water.

McKenna has been having a grand time lately, touring about Canada and showcasing cool stuff to take everyone’s minds off pipelines, but her tone would be more sombre if, like the government of Kiribati, she was trying to figure out where in the world Canadians could move after the water levels rise and wipe out the whole country.

Thankfully, the island of Fiji has agreed to let the Kiribatians come aboard, but as the planet warms, moving to another small island is only a temporary solution.

At the same time the G7 environment ministers might have been adjusting their eye patches and getting to know their parrots, United Nations secretary general António Guterres was giving an impassioned speech saying we have less than two years to dramatically change course if we are to have any hope of avoiding runaway climate change.

Paris was not enough, he said. We have to do more, and much faster, if we want to have anything more than a nightmare future after 2020.

Manitoba might be one of the few places where people can mostly avoid the effects of rising sea levels and, to a lesser extent, extreme weather. We just watched a Category 4 hurricane hit the U.S. East Coast, at the very same time as a Category 5 super typhoon hit the Philippines and spun off toward China. As the planet warms, we could see several such storms hit, one after the other, in the same season.

Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat and tornadoes — we’ve seen them all this year. The cost in economic and human twerms has been enormous… and will get worse, rapidly, if we do not do something definitive about changing how we live together.

That sense of urgency is clearly not felt by our three levels of government. The mayoral candidates could not even all agree on getting rid of single-use plastic bags. Nor would everyone agree that our transportation systems need to be reworked to eliminate the fossil fuel consumption that (literally) drives climate change.

At the provincial level, Premier Brian Pallister has to stop congratulating himself for not being as bad as Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford. His government has an appalling record of inaction, dithering and poor decisions on those crucial environmental issues that threaten not just our children’s future, but our own.

No doubt he will swap out the sustainable development minister again before the next election, so the new one can shrug helplessly in response to the inevitable critique and say, “I just got the file,” when Pallister himself has been the roadblock to green opportunities all along.

There isn’t enough space left here to say much about our pirate-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It seems naive to complain you were cheated or misled by a pirate, after all — that is what they do, whether it is about promises of gold aplenty or oil pipelines.

As the world continues to burn, we are all walking the plank together.

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Environmentalism is for everyone: #RiseforClimate September 8

(September 6, 2018)

It’s back-to-school time again. Many parents of first graders have sent their kids off to school for the first time, with all the excitement that surrounds that milestone. Whether it is figuring out the complexities of school-supply lists, packing lunches or dealing with early morning wake-up, parents have a lot to handle.

In other words, I don’t think they have done the math. This year’s Grade 1 cohort will finish high school, all things being equal, in the year 2030. Should we want a sustainable future for life after graduation for these kids, that’s the year by which the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals need to be achieved.

Many readers will not know much, if anything, about these goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is not something most families discuss at the dinner table.

Yet a lot of people around the world were involved in the largest and most complicated consultation process ever attempted, leading by a kind of consensus to 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that go with them, which were approved by member states of the United Nations (including Canada) in 2015.

It is a long list, obviously, a list on which many of the targets — even some goals — seem irrelevant to the perspective most Canadians have on their own lives. We live in a wealthy country that is part of “the North” for many more reasons than its geography, so it is too easy to skip past such goals as goal No. 2 (“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”) without realizing how many Canadians worry about these things every day.

Drilling down to the targets that lead to these goals, we are not working very hard on target 2.4 (“By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality”).

That would require leadership at provincial or federal levels of government in Canada, which has been missing so far.

Looking at target 2.1 (“By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round”), it’s much worse. We are not doing anything to achieve this target for ourselves, let alone working on it for people in developing countries in the global south.

And 2030 is also the year that the climate change curves (the ones that used to predict catastrophe by 2050) now come together. Given the extreme weather and the fires, heat and drought of this past summer, if nothing changes, by 2030 we will have run out of forests to burn.

So, for the sake of those ankle-biters heading off to Grade 1 this week, I am an ­environmentalist. So should be anyone who really cares what kind of world these kids will face when they graduate.

Environmentalists catch a lot of flak they don’t deserve. We want everyone — even the internet trolls — to have clean air, clean water, enough good food to eat and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of being alive on the Earth.

If you think the same, that makes you one of us. If you tell someone else they need to change how they live, or if other people have noticed how you have changed your own lifestyle first, that makes you an activist, too.

Environmental activists want the best for every person, regardless of who they are, where they live, the colour of their skin, their religion or how much money they have — not just today, but tomorrow, too, all the way out to the seventh generation.

Sept. 8 is #RiseforClimate Day around the world. Sponsored by 350.org — an organization that has no real leaders, just ordinary people who care — we are mobilizing a planet full of people who care but don’t know what to do next, creating a political force that will shape the mess around us into the world — and future — we want.

What you choose to do matters. When you change how you live, even in small ways, it makes a difference for you, your family and your community.

Join us. Do something on Sept. 8 and support #RiseforClimate.

Ultimately, we will change the world — and if the politicians can’t lead or won’t follow, they had better get out of the way.

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