This blog will look at environmental and political issues that will affect the quality of life for future generations of all species. Including; sustainability, media labels of "environmental issues," and different kinds of resistance to environmental oppression. I will also post on anything I think someone interested in the aforementioned would be interested in...
Sunday, March 2, 2008
3:58pm Monday, Feb 25
Ouch, ouch. I thought there were rules against piling on, or was that just for sports? I've always thought it was unfair to beat up an old man, especially one wearing glasses!
I have been astonished at the response of columnists and letter writers to remarks I made in Montreal that were reported in the McGill student paper and then quoted and misquoted extensively, thereby fostering an impression of my remarks that bear little resemblance to what I remember saying.
Hey, I've been a journalist a long time and I know that controversy sells and that what I say is open fodder for those who disagree. We all see the world through the lenses of our own values, beliefs and biases, and I understand that. I happen to believe that the back-and-forth debate about ideas is what moves us along. I don't expect responses to me to be fair or unbiased, but at least let's start with what I actually said. For what it's worth, here's the context for my talk and ideas.
Human beings are animals, biological beings that are as dependent on clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity as any other living organism. In fact, all life on Earth inhabits that thin layer of air, water and soil that is called the biosphere. If the planet were reduced to the size of a basketball, the biosphere would be as thin as a layer of varnish. That's it, it's finite and fixed.
Ecology and economics are based on the same root, eco, from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. Ecology is the study of home while economics is its management. Ecologists try to define the conditions and principles that govern life's ability to flourish. It makes sense that to ensure long-term sustainability, we should not interfere with or degrade those conditions and principles.
When some of our governments inform us that action to combat climate change must not slow down or disrupt the economy, that reflects the elevation of economics above ecology, and that is dangerous. In a finite world, steady growth forever is not only impossible, it is suicidal. Such a goal blinds us from asking important questions like what is an economy for, are we happier with all of the consumptive goods generated by that economy and how much is enough? Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Alberta is its wealthiest province. If we can't ask questions about growth and the purpose of the economy, how can we expect poorer developing nations to consider them as they strive to emulate us?
Humanity has undergone a sudden shift in our presence on the planet, and because it has happened so suddenly, we haven't been able to fully recognize the responsibility that comes with it. Human beings now outnumber all other mammals on the planet and just the basics of life for each of us - air, water, food, energy, clothing, shelter - lead to a heavy ecological footprint. But of course, we are not like other mammals; we have a huge amount of technology to generate the things we use in modern society, and that amplifies our footprint enormously. Add to that our rising consumptive demands and a global economy, and human beings have become a new kind of force on Earth. No other species has been able to alter the biological, chemical and physical features of the planet as we are doing now, and that makes our need to find a sustainable path even more urgent.
For 20 years, leading scientists have warned us that the climate is changing and that human beings are a major part of it. Around the world in 1988, the public ranked the environment as its top concern, and when George H.W. Bush ran for office, he promised to "be an environmental president." Once ensconced, he showed how little campaign promises meant, and his son appears to have inherited the trait. In 1988, participants at a major conference of atmosphere scientists in Toronto were so alarmed by the evidence that global warming was happening that they signed a news release calling global warming a threat to human survival second only to nuclear war and recommended a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1988 levels in 15 years. If we had followed their recommendations, we would be far beyond the Kyoto target and well on our way to the deep reductions called for now.
Brian Mulroney was re-elected prime minister in 1988, and to show his concern for the environment, he appointed his brightest star, Lucien Bouchard, as environment minister. I interviewed Bouchard two months after he was appointed and asked him what he felt was the most pressing environmental issue. He immediately responded, "Global warming." I asked him how serious it was. He said, "It threatens the survival of our species," and called for immediate action.
So scientists had issued an urgent call and politicians seemed to hear it, but nothing was done. Why? I don't know, but I can speculate on one problem. To achieve the reductions called for would have cost Canadians tens of billions of dollars, but studies done in several countries at that time indicated there would be net savings far beyond the dollars invested. Unfortunately, any politician making the commitment would take a tremendous beating for spending so heavily (as we are seeing in the Gordon Campbell government's green budget) while someone else would take the kudos for achieving it and saving the money 15 years later. In other words, it doesn't make political sense.
The Nature of Things did the first special on global warming in 1989. Back then, I said that we had to act now but that climate change represented a "slow-motion catastrophe," because I thought at the time that we wouldn't see any effects for decades. To our surprise, every year since then, the evidence has come in that even with a 0.7 C rise, nature is showing unmistakable signs of responding, while in the Arctic, Inuit have been telling us for years their environment is changing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up to examine the scientific evidence on climate change, has been very cautious in examining tens of thousands of scientific reports and in concluding that human beings are the major cause of climate change and that it is an urgent challenge to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by large amounts.
The eminent economist Sir Nicholas Stern, former senior economist with the World Bank, was asked by then-finance minister (now U.K. Prime Minister) Gordon Brown to calculate the cost of acting on climate change. He told me when he began that he didn't know much about the subject and had no opinion on it. He sought information from the scientific community and concluded that every effort should be made to reduce emissions so that temperature does not rise by more than two degrees this century. To achieve this would require heroic effort at a cost of one per cent of annual GDPs for decades. But when he considered the cost of dealing with runaway climate change by not taking steps to reduce emissions, he found up to 20 per cent of the global economy could disappear -- more than the cost of World Wars I and II combined! Faced with a one per cent cost versus an unprecedented depression, it seems to me there is no choice: We have to make the effort and pay the price.
National organizations of leading scientists, from the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) to the Royal Society of London (U.K.), Royal Society of Canada and the academies of France, Germany, Japan, China and India, have all called for urgent action to meet the challenge of climate change. The science is in, the leading scientists have issued a call to action and each day that goes by without acting ensures that the problems for our children and grandchildren will become ever greater.
In a democracy, we elect people to look out for our interests and to lead us into the future. Many of the decisions made in forestry, fisheries, agriculture and mining have repercussions that reverberate for years to come. Of course, the electorate can register its approval or disapproval of those politicians during an election. But what mechanism do we have to ensure accountability of those people for actions whose effects we will only see decades or generations away? Of course, they do the best they can with the information at hand, but when top scientists and their societies cite overwhelming scientific evidence and issue calls to action, only to find their advice ignored or even, in some cases, deliberately tampered with by politicians, what are we to do? What other authorities do we accept as guides for action or inaction: the Bible or the Koran, the Dow-Jones average or any economist who fails to acknowledge limits and nature's importance?
That's the background behind my suggestion that by ignoring the best scientific advice, politicians and governments are leaving huge problems for our children and grandchildren, and that could be seen as an intergenerational crime. My suggestion is that we explore this issue of intergenerational accountability where ignorance is not an excuse.