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Climate Change

We don't have enough evidence to make a convincing case either that climate change is man-made or that it is not man-made. I realize that this sounds suspiciously like fence sitting, so kindly allow me to elaborate. I don't know what is happening to our climate, but I can certainly imagine the various possibilities. If the alarmists are right - and it's a very big IF - then the consequences could be absolutely devastating on a global scale. Now, let's assume that this is not the most likely outcome. Let's even go so far as to assume that the likelihood of devastating, man-made climate change is quite remote. Are we simply going to sit back and hope that we're right?

I mean, what if we're wrong? We've been wrong before, even when we were quite certain that we were right. Look at the mad cow fiasco. Well over a decade ago, British scientists realized that some of the dead sheep that beef producers were feeding to their cows had died of Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. They had the imagination to wonder if there was any possibility that the disease could jump species to cows, and that it could also jump species to the people who ate the cows. They had no proof, but they recognized that there was a possibility, however remote. They went to their managers in government and in the agribusiness industry and presented their concerns. They asked that the practice of feeding ground sheep to cows be suspended until they could do more research, a very prudent and conservative approach.

The managers asked the scientists if they had proof, to which the scientists admitted they did not. Without proof, the managers announced, it was irrational to stop a perfectly economical way of feeding cows, and they even refused to explore the possible dangers. The managers argued that admitting the possibility would 1) cause the public to become hysterical, 2) damage the beef industry, and 3) hurt their credibility as managers. The scientists were bound by employment contracts that gave their employers ownership over their ideas, so they couldn't go public.

Of course, the worst scenarios of the scientists played out in gruesome detail. The disease did jump species (twice), over 100 people were killed, the British beef industry was destroyed and the managers lost all their credibility.

So what's my point? Not that we need to panic and automatically assume that the worst is true. That truly would be alarmist. Instead, I think we need to maintain a prudent awareness of possibilities when we're dealing with systems we don't fully understand. When we don't understand what we're doing, we ought to slow down, choose our steps more carefully, and clearly investigate what we're doing before plunging headlong into decisions with potentially far-reaching consequences. To do anything else is profoundly irrational and completely irresponsible.

The analogy of mad cow disease is illustrative of the problems with demanding proof before exercising caution, but the key distinction is that the beef producers had lots of ready alternatives to feeding their cows ground up sheep. In the climate change debate, on the other hand, we are already deeply committed to using petrochemicals to power our society, and ready alternatives to which we can switch do not presently exist. Suddenly the possible dangers of curtailing our oil and coal consumption loom almost as menacingly as the possible dangers of not curtailing it. Which is the prudent course?

First, we all need to stop automatically labeling the oil industry as a corrupt conspiracy of demonic people who secretly want to destroy the world. This is not middle-earth, and Imperial Oil is not Sauron. These companies certainly have a tremendous vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and they will naturally resist any arguments that might characterize their activities as harmful - just as the managers of the British beef industry resisted arguments that might have characterized their activities as harmful. But oilmen are not demons, merely interested parties. Having said this, we also need to recognize that oil companies regularly do endorse atrocities in their pursuit of stability and profitability. There is no question that, for example, Royal Dutch/Shell bears a great deal of responsibility for the appalling human rights abuses in Nigeria. Shell helps finance the corrupt dictatorship that, in turn, provides the company a cozy business environment, looks the other way during oil spills, and imprisons or executes dissident citizens who try to interfere with Shell's activities. Shell may not have created the political climate in Nigeria, but like any teleological entity, Shell has no qualms about exploiting that climate absent basic ethics. Of course, if Shell does not exploit its advantages, it cannot compete with other companies. So it is operating in a medium that rewards amoral behaviour and punishes ethical behaviour. While the oil industry as a whole might not be evil, corporations are amoral (not immoral) by definition, and so many abuses do occur. The instrumentalism of the corporation tends strongly towards absolutism. Still, the people who manage the oil companies are human beings, and we cannot just assume that they are evil.

Second, we need to stop labeling environmentalists as flaky and alarmist. Their concerns are legitimate, even if they don't have proof, and their insistence that we cannot afford to ignore the possibility of climate change is perfectly sensible. Undoubtedly, some environmentalists simply have a hate-on for the oil industry, and clearly a few of them really are as flaky as oilmen would like us to think they are. However, environmentalists are operating in a medium in which they are generally excluded from the mainstream of the decision making process, and as a fringe group they are not always bound by the conventions of discussion. Where the environmentalist movement is allowed to participate, it is as just another interested party in a stakeholder meeting. When the interests collide, environmentalists turn just as defensive and absolutist as the oilmen on the other side of the table.

Third, we need to stop saying that we know this or we know that about climate change. No one knows. Period. Not the oil industry, not David Suzuki, not the aliens hiding in the basement of the Pentagon. If only we can stop yelling about who has the biggest pile of facts, then we can perhaps start to discuss viable means of hedging our bets, of taking the prudent path between environmental terror and economic disaster. But before that can happen, the debate must be moved out of stakeholder meetings and into the public realm, where a variety of ideas and approaches might be able to break the false dichotomy of oil vs green.

So I don't claim to have any answers, and I'm very skeptical about anyone on either side of the divide who makes that claim. At the same time, the uncertainty of climate change science is no excuse to do nothing. Industry spokespeople who argue that acting on climate change must mean destroying our economy are dealing out a false alternative. The big question is, how do we get past these false alternatives and explore real options?

Since the scientific evidence is moot, we need to take the discussion out of the hands of experts and move it into the public domain. A democratic debate can gradually turn from an exchange of volleys to a pragmatic discussion of ideas and options. This, if anywhere, is the dynamic from which useful solutions can emerge.

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