Critical issues deserve a higher standard

From government scientists to First Nations citizens and environmentalists, pretty much everyone working to protect the air, water, land and diversity of plants and animals that keep us alive and healthy has felt the sting of attacks from sources in government, media and beyond.

From government scientists to First Nations citizens and environmentalists, pretty much everyone working to protect the air, water, land and diversity of plants and animals that keep us alive and healthy has felt the sting of attacks from sources in government, media and beyond.

Much of the media spin is particularly absurd, relying on ad hominem attacks (focusing on perceived character flaws to deflect attention from or invalidate arguments) that paint people who care about the world as greedy conspirators bent on personal enrichment or even world domination! It would be laughable if so many people didn’t take it seriously.

Government tactics have been more insidious, often designed to silence anyone who could stand in the way of massive resource extraction and export policies. Politicians in the U.K., Australia, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere have created a false dichotomy between the environment and the economy in efforts to downplay the seriousness of issues like climate change and the need to address them. The arguments are wrong on so many levels.

First, the economy is a human invention, a tool that can be changed when it no longer suits our needs. The environment is the very air, water, land and diversity of plant and animal life we cannot live without. Why not work to build a healthy, prosperous economy that protects those things?

Volumes of research also conclude that ignoring climate change will be far more costly than addressing it. The massive bills for cleaning up after events related to extreme weather, such as flooding, are just a start. Climate change is also affecting water supplies and the world’s ability to grow food, and is contributing to a growing number of refugees. According to the World Health Organization, close to 150 million people are already dying every year from causes related to global warming — and that doesn’t include death and illness related to pollution from burning fossil fuels.

In Canada, the rush to exploit fossil fuels and get them to market as quickly as possible has sparked a concerted effort to muzzle anyone who would stand in the way, including the government’s own scientists. A recent survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found many have been told to alter or exclude information from government documents for non-scientific reasons and prevented from speaking to the public or media about their work. The survey also revealed cases where political interference actually compromised the health and safety of Canadians and the environment.

Meanwhile, a recent Environment Canada report says Canada is failing to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord. With the federal and some provincial governments relying on oil sands and gas fracking — mostly for export — as the cornerstones of both economic and energy policy, the situation is likely to get worse.

The campaign to promote fossil fuels over clean energy has also been taken up by others. In several cases, it has devolved to the level of schoolyard taunts and bullying — in government, but even more so in certain mainstream media. Some outlets have stooped to ignoring ideas and rational argument in favour of lies, innuendo, exaggeration and personal attacks.

Ironically, one source is a media personality with government ties who has demonstrated a pattern of using bogus arguments and faulty reasoning, leading to a string of libel charges and convictions, censure over violations of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ethics code and complaints about racist statements.

It’s sad to see so much of our media and governance in such a sorry state that we can’t even expect rational discussion of critical issues such as climate change and energy policy. And there is room for debate — not over the existence of climate change or its causes; the science is clear that it is real and that we are a major contributor, mainly through burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests.

But there’s room for discussion about ways to address it. And address it we must. We won’t get there, though, if we hinder scientists from conducting their research and speaking freely about it, and if we allow the discussion to be hijacked with petty name-calling and absurd allegations.

Online:

• Media spin is absurd: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/panther-lounge/2013/10/false-allegations-pollute-the-well-of-public-discourse/

• World Health Organization – death from climate change: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/index.html

• Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada: http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/bigchill

• Survey: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/muzzling-of-federal-scientists-widespread-survey-suggests-1.2128859

• Canada failing to meet emissions targets: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-failing-to-meet-2020-emissions-targets-1.2223930

• Pattern of bogus arguments: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra_Levant

Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki wrote this column with Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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