Friday, June 17, 2016

Anti-Reality Positions on Climate Change Have No Place in Mainstream Discourse

It must be difficult being a climate change denier today.  It’s not that any sudden flood of facts and evidence have suddenly been made available which quashes any serious dispute about the validity of anthropogenic global warming aka climate change.  No, that science and evidence has long been available, and has been the subject of a massive number of peer-reviewed academic articles, 5 assessment reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and innumerable popular publications.  The “greenhouse effect” that drives global warming due to industrial emissions of carbon dioxide has been in the mainstream of scientific thought for over a century. 

So it’s not that anything new with science has been making life difficult for climate change deniers lately – but rather, it’s the shift that it is so evidently underway in the mainstream media and the public – away from the use of non-evidence based sources as a starting point in any and every discussion around climate change, and towards one which uses reality as a starting point.

In other words, it’s just no longer acceptable to deny the existence of the climate change paradigm.  If you deny anthropogenic global warming is occurring, you’re in conflict with reality – and that’s a difficult starting point for any conversation about climate change.

Climate Change Deniers: Down on Their Luck

Which kind of leaves climate change deniers like Tom Harris out of luck.  Harris, one of Canada’s most notorious conspiracy theorists, has long held the position that climate change isn’t real. 

More importantly, the hypothesis that carbon dioxide emissions from human activity is damaging the climate has been thoroughly debunked by reports such as those of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change,” Harris wrote in response to a piece from the Heartland Institute on wind turbines being a health hazard (see: "Heartland Institute Experts Comment on Wind Turbines Being a 'Human Health Hazard'," October 29, 2015).  Clearly, for Harris to make such a wild claim which conflicts with our scientific reality, he must subscribe to radical conspiracy theories which have been disproven as fiction time and again.

Harris and other anti-reality climate change deniers have become increasingly marginalized by a media and a public which have moved on to a conversation about climate change that’s focused on what we’re going to do about it – and not whether it actually exists.  This must be personally frustrating for someone like Harris, who got used to the spotlight through fossil fuel-funded denier activities. In the past, Harris tried to take on some truly important and lofty people and organizations in his bid to convince the public that global warming is actually a global conspiracy.  In today’s media environment, apparently he’s found himself reduced to challenging what amounts to Joe Blow members of the public who understand and believe in the reality of climate change.

The Myths Climate Change Deniers Believe

To my surprise, Tom Harris turned his sights on me this past week – and if that’s not a sign of how low the might have sunk, I’m not sure what is.  I’m a member of the Green Party, and a blogger, who writes a column published in my local newspaper once a month.  I’m hardly in the same league as David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, or the United Nations – which have been the target of Harris’ anti-reality diatribes in the past.  But I guess when you’re down on your luck, you pick the fights you think you can win.

And for Harris, this really is the sort of fight that he can mail in, after doing his climate change denial schtick for over a decade.  Harris claims that I used a “misleading” term in a piece published by the Sudbury Star.  The term in question is “carbon pollution”, something Harris claims is really just carbon dioxide, which he states is “anything but pollution”.  With this, he’s evoking the classic denier myth that carbon dioxide isn’t harmful – a myth the denial industry continues to perpetuate, even though it doesn’t stand up to even a base level of scrutiny.

Harris’ critique of my column actually doesn’t say anything that’s new.  It’s almost as if he’s running a Google Search of the term “carbon pollution” and has a pre-written Letter to the Editor template that he uses, substituting only the author’s name in key passages.  The attack isn’t exactly cutting edge.

Nor does it take a lot of energy on my part to refute his core thesis, mainly because others have done so time and again.  Yes, carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas in our atmosphere.  It helps plants grow. Without it, there would be no human civilization.  And that’s why the term “carbon pollution” is an important one to use when discussing anthropogenic global warming – aka “climate change”, because really we are not talking about naturally-occurring carbon dioxide, but rather the additional carbon dioxide that humans are emitting into our atmosphere through our fossil fuelled industrial processes.  That’s the key.  But Harris and other conspiracy theorists want to confuse people about that.

Why "Carbon Pollution" is a Thing

The term “carbon pollution” is both a scientifically supportable term and an acceptable colloquialism. To my knowledge, I’ve never used it in an inappropriate context. But don’t take my word for it – instead, check out Skeptical Science, who can be counted on to referee these sorts of disputes.

How we choose to define the word 'pollutant' is a play in semantics. To focus on a few positive effects of carbon dioxide is to ignore the broader picture of its full impacts. The net result from increasing CO2 are severe negative impacts on our environment and the living conditions of future humanity.” (from: “Is CO2 apollutant?” Skeptical Science)

I’ve always maintained that language is important, and as a result, I’ve always tried to be very careful about the words I use to convey the ideas that I’m writing about.  I’ve also considered it important to use fact and evidence as the primary vehicle for advancing a thesis, although like any writer, I’m sure that I’ve used my share of emotion and rhetoric as well.  What I deliberately try not to do, however, is make up facts and evidence to suit my own needs – a rule that climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists like Tom Harris clearly don’t subscribe to.  For example, even in his mailed-in attack on me, Harris insists that carbon dioxide emissions remain a topic of “intense debate in the science community,” a statement clearly contrary to reality.

Moving On

Tom Harris continues to preach his anti-reality nonsense to whomever will still listen to him.  I don’t expect this leopard to change his spots no matter how much fact and evidence is made available to him. Nor am I going to waste my time pointing out to him the error of his ways, or engaging him on meaningless and irrelevant red herring discussions about levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere during the Jurassic.

What surprised me most this week, however, was not that Harris would choose to turn conspiracy theory vitriol on me (although, as indicated above, why he’d want to take on a Joe Blow blogger is a little boggling), but rather that our local newspaper chose to print his screed at all – especially when he starts the conversation from a point of view in complete conflict with reality.  Publishing this sort of nonsense does nothing to further any “conversation”.  It only succeeds in giving nutters like Harris a platform to perpetuate their strange, strange point of view. 

Earlier this week, we read about the situation where an argument between individuals over whether the Earth is flat led to property damage (see: “Cops called after fight breaks out over Earth’s shape in Ontariopark,” the Sudbury Star, June 14 2016). That’s pretty hard to believe in this day and age – but there are people out there who hold views about the physical world which are contrary to reality.  And although sometimes these views can come into conflict with the evidence-based views most of the rest of us hold, it’s not often that Flat Earthers are given a public platform from which to rant.  Tom Harris and other climate change deniers are no different from Flat Earthers – both fail to “believe” in science, whether that’s physics or chemistry.

What’s clear to me is that the Sudbury Star – the paper that I write for – needs to join the rest of society and move on from the “discussion” about whether climate change is real.  There’s a lot that can be said about how we’re going to deal with the climate crisis – it’s not as if the media is going to run out of things to print.  But denying the existence of climate change is out of step with reality – and as such, it’s really not a myth that our media should be promulgating. I hope that the Sudbury Star, and other media, think twice in the future about giving precious space to those who use anti-reality beliefs as the starting points to whatever position they are arguing.

Take a moment to share your thoughts on this with your local media outlets.  If you'd like to let the Sudbury Star know that you're not in favour of seeing anti-reality pieces in their paper, you can send a message to the Editor by filling out this form.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be considered consistent with the policy and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Active Transport Still A Challenge in Sudbury

The Commuter Challenge kicked off this Sunday, June 5th. People are encouraged to walk, cycle, carpool or take the bus to work. Participants can track carbon emissions saved and calories burned.  Local workplaces compete for bragging rights. In Greater Sudbury, events are planned throughout the week, including a Kid’s Bike Exchange on Saturday, June 11th at the Farmer’s Market.  It’s the one week of the year where the community comes together to celebrate active and healthy transportation.

For the other 51 weeks, we’ll continue to celebrate the car.  Not necessarily because we want to – but because we’ve designed our cities in a way that makes it convenient for drivers, and inconvenient for all other transportation users.

We know the benefits of active transportation – walking and cycling are good for our health, which is important in Sudbury where 32% of the adult population are considered obese (see: Obesity (adjustedBody Mass Index)” Sudbury & District Health Unit).  And when we’re not driving our motor vehicles, we’re not burning gasoline, so we save money and carbon emissions.  We all know that we would benefit from making active transportation choices, but it’s just so easy to reach for those car keys.

Let’s face it: cars get us to where we want to go, fast and comfortably. Over the years, our roads have swelled in size to accommodate more cars, travelling at faster speeds.  Even in cities like Greater Sudbury where the population has been stagnant for decades, we’ve prioritized building public infrastructure to cater to car convenience – often at the expense of healthy transport options.

Perversely, we’ve widened our streets in the name of safety, and built more of them to battle congestion.  We know now that wider streets lead to faster-moving vehicles, creating less safe environments for all road users.  And we know that due to induced demand, the more streets we build, the more congestion we get.

With this in mind, one might expect that we would prioritize healthy, active transportation choices over widening and building more roads. But the lure of free-flowing traffic is still the Holy Grail of traffic engineers, and over-designing our streets remains the order of the day.

Of course, retrofitting our cities for healthier transportation choices isn’t something that is going to happen overnight.  The poor choices we’ve made in the past will ensure that there will be added costs to build a minimum grid for cyclists and create complete streets for all users. Going forward, we can save money by including active transportation infrastructure on all of our new roads, and add it to the mix when we refurbish our existing roads.

This year, the City of Greater Sudbury will be rehabilitating Lorne Street.  Plans shared with the community earlier this year revealed that the new Lorne Street will look much like it does today, only with fewer potholes (see: "Rehabilitation work proposed on Lorne Street," CBC, April 6, 2016). Lane widths will be expanded for cars, but there will be no new infrastructure set aside for the exclusive use of cyclists.  Area residents have petitioned the City to include separated cycling infrastructure, but the City appears poised to miss yet another opportunity to transform a major arterial into a truly complete street, with safe dedicated space for all road users. 

Sudburians are increasingly discovering that there are already many ways of safely getting around the city without a motorized vehicle. Yet, challenges for commuters remain.  We know the benefits of getting people out of their cars – a healthier population, lower emissions, and less congestion on our roads.  It's time we take what we've learned and build the City that a prosperous future requires.

For more information on the National Commuter Challenge, please visit the Sudbury Cyclist Union’s website.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as, "Active transport still a challenge in Sudbury," in print, and online as, "Column: Active transport a challenge in Sudbury," June 4, 2016. Some minor updating has occurred to reflect the timing of publication in this blogsite.