Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Al Gore and Setting the Record Straight on Energy Politics and Resource Development

“If [people] make statements that are clearly exaggerated or untrue, we have to set the record straight.” 

-Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver

The above quotation seems like good advice, especially when given to media, whose historic task has been to un-spin political spin, and ferret out truth.  Setting the record straight used to be a noble pursuit.  Unfortunately, when it comes to energy politics in Canada in the second decade of the 21st Century, exaggeration and “untruth” are reported uncritically as facts to be consumed by Canadians.  This uncritical reporting is detrimental to having the sort of necessary adult conversations we need in order to start moving beyond the rhetoric and towards real discussions on public policy.  This lack of critical analysis on the part of the media has been on display over the last few days as a result of some remarks made to the media by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner, Al Gore.

Words as Pawns

Just what did Gore say about Canada’s energy sector, which set off cabinet ministers, opposition MP’s and media pundits?  What Gore said was….well, what Gore said was a matter of debate itself, depending on which mainstream media outlets you rely on for your news.  It seems that in today’s day and age, real words spoken or written can be used with impunity out of context, in order to misrepresent the speaker or author’s position in an attempt to discredit.  While this has been a tool used by politicians for some time (especially in party paid-for television advertising), critical media have in the past taken issue with this approach and called out the fabrications.  In 2013, in Canada, this appears to be happening less and less, especially when the story has to do with energy politics.

There is no question about what Al Gore really did say, as his words were reproduced in the Globe & Mail’s story headlined “Al Gore isn’t overly pleased with Canada” (the Globe & Mail, Saturday May 14, 2013).  Responding to the question, “Have the oil-sands boom and pipeline debates affected Canadian-U.S. relations?”, Gore gave the following answer: 

“Yes, and I think that ultimately it hurts Canada. The so-called resource curse is most often understood in the context of small nations whose revenue streams are dominated by the exploitation of a single resource. It’s a bit more complex than that with Canada, but the resource curse has multiple dimensions and [that includes] damage to some extremely beautiful landscapes, not to mention the core issue of adding to the reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer.”

There proved to be a couple of points raised by Gore in these few sentences which aroused the concerns of government officials and media pundits.  Specifically, the reference to a “resource curse” and the use of the term “open sewer” were seen by some as being over the top.  Let’s look at the “open sewer” comments first off.

Opinions as Lies

Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver went off on the “open sewer” remarks, claiming that Gore was lying about the tar sands.   I’m not sure how an opinion can become a lie (and an opinion is really what Gore was expressing), but that seems to be what Oliver was saying, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Canada Strikes Back: Attacks Al Gore for ‘Open Sewer’ Oil Sands Comment”, Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, May 7 2013).

Here’s Oliver’s full quote:

“If [people] make statements that are clearly exaggerated and untrue, we have to set the record straight,” Mr. Oliver said. “If [Mr. Gore] goes beyond the facts, then I should call him on that, or else those comments are out there, unopposed. That’s not in the national interest to let inaccurate accusations stand there, uncorrected.”

“Untrue” statements can only be considered “lies”.  “Lying” about something presumes that there are one set of facts on which there is a universal agreement.  Without a universal set of facts, statements made which are not in keeping with one’s own perceptions can be considered in contradiction to one’s opinion, but clearly they aren’t lies. 

Labelling Gore’s opinion as “untrue” is very telling.  To believe that an opinion is a lie, Oliver must believe that when it comes to the tar sands and Canada’s energy policy (which he calls “the national interest”), there is a universal agreement about a set of facts, and that statements which contradict those facts must be false, or in this case, lies.

Say what you want about the tar sands, but suggesting that there is universal agreement on how they should be developed is simply absurd.  There isn’t.  Sure, it may be your opinion that there should be universal agreement on the “national interest”, but the fact is, there isn’t.  And that’s a fact.  We need look no further than to Al Gore when it comes to offering a dissenting opinion.

Yet Minister Oliver, in his arrogance, wants Canadians to believe that there is only one “right” and everything and everybody else is wrong.  And the media pundits who report this story seem to lap it up, and in some cases, go beyond the pale, by completely misrepresenting opinion statements made, in an effort to make the speaker look foolish.

Media Manipulation

On CTV’s “Power Play with Don Martin”, host Martin repeated the assertion that Gore had called the “oil sands” an “open sewer” (Monday, May 6th 2013).  After NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie called Martin out on that assertion, CTV continued to provide a banner headline running along the bottom of the screen which seemed to suggest that Gore really had called the “oil sands” an “open sewer”. 

If it’s not what Gore said, then why is it being reported in such a way?  It’s probably because our media is not unbiased, and tends to favour the views of some over others.  And when it comes to energy politics, most of the mainstream media wants to marginalize anything having to do with climate change.  And so commentators, policy analysts and even elected officials who express concern about a rapidly warming climate (and who therefore call on a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) end up misrepresented, misinterpreted and often made to look foolish.  CTV clearly employed this tactic with the Al Gore story.

Just Not True

It’s not just the media, of course.  With regards to the “resource curse” remark made by Gore, Federal Natural Resources Parliamentary Secretary David Anderson decided to take a shot at NDP Leader Tom Mulcair over remarks that Mulcair has never made.  Anderson said:

“(Mulcair) said yesterday that he agrees with the claim that our resources are a curse," said Anderson. "First a disease, then a curse. This is a real embarrassment to all of us, that the NDP never miss a chance to oppose Canadian jobs."  

(from “Environment Minister Kent wades into oil sands feud”, Daniel Prousallidis, QMI Agency, published online in Sun News, May 7 2013). 

Mulcair has never claimed that Canada’s resource development is a disease, or a curse, or that the NDP opposes Canadian jobs.  But misrepresentation seems to be the rule of the day.  I guess that it’s just so much easier to put words in your opponents mouth than to actually listen to what they’ve said and respond intelligently back.

And it's not as if an intelligent response couldn't be formulated.  It's not even clear to me that many Conservative MP's even understand the economic concepts of "Dutch Disease" and the "Resource Curse" which Al Gore referred to.  Economists have long discussed and debated the validity of these concepts.  They are not new ideas.  But clearly, those in the media seem to have trouble grasping that Dutch Disease and the Resource Curse are economic concepts, and not the "over the top rhetoric" that Conservative politicians like Joe Oliver (who probably knows very well what they are) want Canadians to believe.  By not discussing these economic concepts as economic concepts, the media has been doing an injustice to the economic debate around the issue of climate change, and what's really in Canada's national interest.

From Media Bias to Propaganda

Sun Media, of course, is probably the worst when it comes to reporting facts, even when it’s not being snarky with those facts, such as claiming that Gore’s move “An Inconvenient Truth” was “docu-fictional”.  The Sun has moved beyond bias and into the realm of propaganda, at least on issues related to energy politics and climate change.  The following are taken from an editorial appearing in the Toronto Sun on May 6, 2013, “Cleaning up after the Al spill”.
“In an interview with the Globe & Mail, however, America's answer to Canada's enviro-dollar exploiter David Suzuki, was allowed to pump the garbage that the oilsands of Alberta represents a "reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth's atmosphere as if it's an open sewer."

Sun Media just can’t seem to let any opportunity go to denigrate David Suzuki, even in an article which has nothing to do with Suzuki.

And then there was this gem, about how emissions from the tar sands have been reduced 26%.  Sun media suggests that Oliver said this, but I don’t think that’s the case.  Whoever put it together though is absolutely incorrect.  Emissions from tar sands development have only gone up.  While it may be the case (or , while it used to be the case, but no longer is) that the intensity of per barrel emissions has gone down, the fact is that overall emissions have gone up.  And that’s contradictory to what’s being reported.

As Oliver was forced to point out, for the umpteenth time, continuing technological advances have already seen Canada reduce oilsands emissions by 26% and that developers are committed to returning the mined land to its natural state and are already proving it was no ploy.

And then there’s the “dirty” oil issue.  The Sun maintains that the world’s dirtiest oil comes from the Middle East, presumably by using a definition of “dirty” which speaks more to the political regime in which the oil is pumped than the amount of greenhouse gas emissions for which it is responsible.  Interestingly, by doing so, the Sun lumps some of Canada’s historic allies onto the “dirty” side of the leger, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, two nations which Canada defended during the 1990-91 Gulf War, while ignoring countries like Nigeria, Venezuala and Russia.

"There is no such thing as "undirty" crude but, even if the European Union presently buys very little oil from Canada, this directive already dividing Europe must be challenged by Oliver as a little too precious to peddle when the truly "dirtiest" oil comes from the Middle East, home of some of the most horrendous human-rights abusers on the planet."

Time to Set the Record Straight

If our media is too biased or too focused on creating propaganda to set the record straight on exaggerations and untruths, and if indeed they are contributing to creating those untruths in the first place, by misrepresenting statements made individuals, which are later repeated by other pundits and politicians as if they were real, then we’ve got a lot of trouble ahead in the future.  I say this because I know that discussions related to energy politics and climate change are going to continue to dominate the Canadian political scene for decades to come.  These discussions will be difficult enough to have on their own, given the ideological predisposition of the Conservative Party to refuse to acknowledge the real and present impacts of a warming planet in any meaningful way.

Our media needs to get with the program, as there is a clear lack of understanding of the economic case being made by opponents of the status quo.  The economics of resource development are not new discussions in front of the media, yet the media can’t seem to grapple with the notion that there exists another economic paradigm when it comes to resource development.  Indeed, in some respects, the media seems to have bought into Joe Oliver’s notion that there is a universally accepted truth about resource development, and other ideas and notions which are incompatible with these facts are exaggerations and lies.  

Energy politics is going to remain at the forefront of political discussions.  As a result, for the benefit of media consumers (and ultimately for the benefit of all Canadians), it makes sense that the media start to acknowledge that there is a different approach to economic development being advanced.  It’s not a question of “economy” vs. “environment”.  It’s “economy” vs. “economy”.  The whole idea that the “environment” can be discretely cordoned off and treated as its own separate issue has for too long been accepted by those in the media (and many in politics) as being one of those “universal truths”.  Accepting this paradigm without critical analysis really says a lot about those who believe it be true, as clearly they just don’t get it. It’s time for the media to begin to set the record straight, and to critically report the positions of those who believe that the economic impacts of climate change outweight the short term gains of runaway resource extraction.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)