SAVING THE WORLD
Tactics for turning back the clock on global disaster
Here's the problem: the current public policy on the question of climate change is based on a lie — a carefully constructed, aggressively disseminated lie. In saying so, and before everyone named in this book starts dialling up their libel lawyers, I want to make something clear. I am not referring to the first definition in my dog-eared 1996 edition of the Oxford English Reference Dictionary, "an intentionally false statement (tell a lie)." Rather, or more frequently, I am thinking of a variant within the second definition, "imposture; false belief (live a lie)." We are all living a lie, all ambling along as if everything is going to turn out fine with the climate and the future, even if we currently find it "impractical" to make any realistic gesture to ensure that that is so.
I also want to be clear that in invoking the campaign of misinformation and in complaining about the lack of leadership, I am not, for example, accusing Alberta premier Ed Stelmach of being a liar. Neither am I suggesting any such thing about the oil executives in my directors course, the men and women who gave me such a hard time about the David Suzuki quote. These people live in a world in which acknowledging the reality and the dangers of climate change is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It's difficult because facing the true threat of the climate crisis flies in the face of their own self-interest. In making this point in his public presentations, Al Gore often raises a favorite quotation from the American novelist and politician Upton Sinclair, who said, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it."
It's also difficult for your average rising oil executive to take a bold environmental position on climate change — to speak, or even know, the truth — because very few people in the executive offices in Calgary or Houston are likely to stumble accidentally across unvarnished science. If you rely for most of your information on the reports, blogs, and newsletters of the oil patch, or if you confine yourself to newspapers like the Calgary Herald, the Wall Street Journal, or Canada's National Post, you will be consuming a steady diet of stories that, even today, suggest that some aspects of climate science are still in doubt or that overcoming the challenges will be so difficult and expensive that in the short term, we should maintain the status quo.
I am sympathetic to my director colleagues, but I'm not at all forgiving of political leaders like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has so successfully avoided reading anything that might clear away his aggressive misinterpretations of climate science. I'm not forgiving of Alberta premier Ed Stelmach. He, like Senator Inhofe, has a responsibility, not to the oil companies who pay for his campaigns, but to the citizens he represents, people who deserve to have their interests — and their lives — protected from oil companies that can add US$46.6 million in a single year to the US$82 million that they already spend trying to influence politicians on Capitol Hill.
We have seen the power of that kind of money. We have in the preceding pages seen both the ruthlessness and the resources that can be brought to bear. In a world where mainstream media are overwhelmed, and sometimes caught napping, a well-financed campaigner can recast reality or redefine the character of a political opponent. Consider the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Marc Morano and company attacked the good reputation of John Kerry. There is no question that Kerry is a war hero. There is documentary evidence, and witnesses will stand by his side, decades after the fact, and attest to his courage and selflessness on the rivers and in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet Morano's compatriots were able to marshal the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and, for long enough to affect a presidential vote, throw Kerry's good reputation into doubt.
The people who want to continue burning coal, selling oil, and mining tar sands have been equally effective. They have told us that their resources are the only ones that will run our economies affordably, and they have ridiculed environmentalists as agenda-driven loonies — "chicken littles" who scream nervously about a sky that is getting oppressively heavy. Sometimes, the most aggressive people in environmental organizations have contributed to that image. Sometimes in moments of frustration or desperation, they have chained themselves to trees or smashed their ships into whaling vessels, adding to the image of environmentalists as inherently radical.
That tide is turning. Go to any event featuring Al Gore or David Suzuki today and you will see a crowd much bigger and much less apologetic than what you might have seen ten years ago. There is a gathering community of leaders — people like General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Virgin brand owner Sir Richard Branson, and Interface Global CEO Ray Anderson — who have come to understand the problem and who are refusing to let the lie linger any longer.
But they need your help. Susan Nail Bales, president of the FrameWorks Institute, always says that the media set the public policy agenda, and if the media are timid or are being manipulated, the agenda will slip into the hands of those with the most power or the best strategy for affecting the public debate. It can take a long time in that environment for truth to emerge of its own accord, and climate change is not an issue that leaves us a huge budget of time.
So what to do? First and most critically, you must inform yourself. My best advice might be that you should survey a variety of sources just to help confirm — or challenge — what you have read in this book. I am confident that it will stand up to scrutiny, but I am even more concerned that you be rock solid in your own understanding, in your conviction, of what has been happening in the global climate change conversation.
Then, if you haven't done so already, you should read up on climate change science. Read the summary of the latest IPCC report. Read one of the books I mentioned in Chapter 2, or just google New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert's Climate of Man series. There is enough information there to whet your appetite, perhaps even to upset your sleep.
While you are reading, you should be hypervigilant about sources. I made a passing reference in Chapter 11 to the rules of evidence that prevail in North American courtrooms. I have a law degree from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and while I have never practiced, I know some of the conventions. One is that experts in a court case have to be "qualified" by the court. The lawyer who wants to use the expert must first submit to the judge or the jury the expert's credentials. You can't just drag someone off the street and call him a climate scientist.
That's the standard that should prevail in the public conversation, but given the job currently being done by many reporters, you have to take it upon yourself to "qualify" experts yourself. When I hear someone holding forth, I always ask myself these three questions:
1. Does this "expert" have relevant credentials? For example, have they trained in an area of science that is at the very least connected to climatology or atmospheric physics?Charming and articulate voices abound out there. People like Björn Lomborg seem sincere, and their arguments would make it easier to remain complacent — to doubt the certainty of science or, in Lomborg's case, to neglect action on the basis that some other, equally neglected, priority is higher. But this is not a time for easy answers. This is a time for right answers, which you will find only if you insist on the best sources, the respected journals and national science academies that have no agenda other than advancing the scope of human knowledge.
2. If an "expert" is talking about science, are they still practicing science? Are they still conducting research and publishing in legitimate peer-reviewed journals? Or are all of their "scientific" pronouncements appearing on newspaper opinion pages, edited by people who think it's just great to provoke debate?
3. Is this "expert" taking money from vested interests or is he or she associated with ideological think tanks — the people who rely for their employment on promoting the agenda of their major funders?
I must warn you that reading very much of this material can be incredibly depressing. As in the scenarios from Gwynne Dyer's dire Climate Wars, a future in which we fail to address climate change includes death, disruption, extinction, and suffering on a massive scale. It's horrible to consider. I believe that's one of the reasons that lie has survived so long: few people really want to sit down and contemplate that dark future. But I wager that if you dig further into the literature about climate change, you will come away with renewed vigor and a righteous sense of justifiable anger at those who have manipulated the climate conversation to date. You will join the neighborhood watch of people who will no longer stand for disinformation to be passed around your social circle — or to go unchallenged when uttered by your local politicians.
That's what we need: vigilance. Eyes on the street. Actually, we need feet on the street, and in large numbers. We need crowds of people demanding that politicians face this issue directly and sincerely. As New York Times writer Thomas Friedman argues in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, we need a social change force on the scale of the civil rights movement — and given the urgency of the climate change threat, we need it to be running at ten times the speed.
We need leadership. That doesn't mean enabling today's "leaders" to keep their positions and expand their power. It means searching out and supporting people who understand that true leadership involves faithfully representing the interests of the people who have asked you to lead. True leaders don't spend their time in self-promotion, advancing their own position at the expense of those around them. True leaders create an opportunity for everyone to make a greater contribution — and to enjoy a greater benefit. We will need leaders like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stood up to the auto industry in an effort to reduce fleet emissions. We need leaders like British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell, who risked the wrath of voters by passing the first carbon tax in North America. And if those leaders are to survive — if President Barack Obama, for example, is to live up to the expectations of his most optimistic supporters — they will need our support, on election day and every day.
I think again about David Suzuki and the leadership he has shown, and his periodic impatience that has sometimes stirred controversy. A year or so after he got caught dismissing the leadership credentials of the Alberta premier, David was in Montreal speaking to a group of students at McGill University. He was quoted in the McGill Daily as saying, "What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there's a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they're doing is a criminal act."
I spoke to David afterwards, and he suggested that the writer might have lost some of the subtleties of his point while wrestling his words onto the page, but I suspect the quote was largely correct. It was also interesting that in the first mainstream newspaper report of the story, Craig Offman at the National Post actually investigated the literal possibility of jailing our leaders, finding that in Canada, for example, the federal cabinet was in violation of a Canadian law requiring the government to abide by the immediate-term commitments of the Kyoto Protocol.
I don't think that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to punish any of his ministers or volunteer for jail time himself, but it got me thinking again about what must be going through David Suzuki's mind. He has dedicated his life to searching out and sharing knowledge about the environment and the prospect of human sustainability. It's all he thinks about. He brings to bear an incredibly sharp mind, a specific expertise in genetics, and a prodigious work ethic. He's always reading.
I am therefore not the least surprised that he is outraged, that he periodically snarls. I am angry enough, and I haven't read a fraction of the material that David regularly consumes on science and the environment. So at the end of the day, I come back to the question of whether, as "David Suzuki's public relations advisor," I would ever have told him to say that a premier was unfit for office or that a governor should go to jail. The short answer, probably, is, "no." I wouldn't have told him to say it.
But the more I think about it, the more I think that he's right. (And I must stress that this is not — on my part or David's — a reflection of David Suzuki Foundation policy.) If our current politicians won't take responsibility for dealing with climate change, then we have to find some who will. If governors and senators will not hold the coal companies to account, then we must cast off the blue T-shirts and the white hats and start demanding truly clean coal — or no coal. If oil companies insist that they need to invade ocean bottoms and nature preserves in search of new supplies, even while they make little or no investment in researching alternative energy, we must reject their demands out of hand. If municipal politicians want to spend money on roads and bridges rather than buses and bike lanes, we have to start writing letters and showing up at meetings — or at the very least supporting those who we know are advocating for the right things. And if fossil fuel-funded think tanks are paying people to phone opinion-page editors and flatter them each time they run an article suggesting that climate change is a ruse, then we must phone at the same time and offer a more appropriate critique and, if necessary, a cancellation of our subscription. We need to wrest the public policy agenda away from those who are pursuing self-interest, and return to the notion of public interest.
We have to get informed, and we have to get active. Because if we don't, if we don't all take the initiative and demand of our leaders that they start fixing this problem, beginning today, it will indeed be a crime. And the punishment will be visited on our children and on their children through a world that is unrecognizable, perhaps uninhabitable.
If you are not near a window, a park, or a garden, I encourage you to go find one. Stand under a big tree or contemplate a small flower. A fragile beauty and a tenuous balance both exist in the natural world. Scientists such as NASA'S James Hansen tell us that we have upset that balance. They also suggest that we might still undo what we have done. They say that in fifty years our children or theirs may still enjoy the same variety of bird-song and butterflies. There may not be nuclear devastation on the plains of India or in the mountains of Pakistan. The oceans may still lap the shores of Bangladesh and Holland rather than coursing through the streets, dispatching desperate refugees to neighboring countries already in crisis.
There can be a good future if we make it so. But if we stand about, if we allow energy-industry flunkies to control the conversation — or even if we just let it ride, cynically accepting that politics is inherently corrupt and that nothing we do can make a difference — we will all have time to regret the passing of a beautiful and sustainable world.
So please, be bold. Be courageous. Be positive. Act and demand action. This, for our sake and for the sake of all those who follow, is a fight that we can and must win. For this bears repeating: the world is worth saving.