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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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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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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