My most recent post on the Fort McMurray fire lit up my social media feed and the most interesting replies came from a number of climate activists who suggested that I was going about my blogging all wrong (“walking the wrong way” as one commenter put it). The consensus amongst this minority was that climate change was a sufficiently important topic that we should take advantage of every opportunity to advance the cause. They suggested that when in doubt we blame climate change irrespective of whether the particular issue at hand (in this case the Fort McMurray fire) can actually be directly linked to climate change. My reply was to point out that I simply want to ensure that scientifically defensible data is used in the discussion and for that I was repeatedly called a “denier” and was told that I am “detracting from required action”.
I am not a “denier”. Rather as I have written numerous times at this blog; I accept the reality of climate change and strongly believe that we need to move towards a fossil-fuel free future. As for my being a paid shill? The only type of shill that applies to me is as an unpaid shill for evidence-based decision-making. What I am is a pragmatist and as a pragmatist I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on the topic of climate change. There are legitimate scientists who feel that while climate change is happening the future risks posed by climate change are being overblown and, yes, there is quite certainly a small cadre of people who will fight against any action because it upsets their favoured status quo.
Of particular concern, the vast majority of Canadians don’t have an informed opinion on the subject of climate change. They are the people who are busy living their lives and raising their kids and do not have the time to become experts in a field of this complexity. This mushy middle needs to be brought onside because it is their tax dollars that will pay for the changes and their votes that could quash any move to make the changes. Insulting their intelligence will get you nowhere and being insensitive to the plight of the residents of Fort McMurray will only win you enemies in their ranks.
Regarding the whole “This is Climate” thing; generally when people say things like that I like to use the analogy of the boy who cried wolf. Too many times the activists have cried “this is climate change” to extreme weather events that are clearly not climate change. Extreme weather happens and would happen irrespective of climate change. As a consequence, the public has started to tune them the activists out as the recent University of Montreal study showed. In the fable the wolf is real and he eventually arrives and the boy’s sheep are devoured because no one believed the boy, all because he cried “wolf” too many times. I explain that we are trying to build the consensus necessary to make huge changes and you don’t build consensus with tall tales and misrepresentations. Tell the people the truth, and only the truth, and they will begin to believe you. Exaggerate or mislead them and you will get caught out in your exaggerations and half-truths and when you are caught out you will lose them and with them any hope of making a real difference.
Well it is clear that my analogy, while apt, is getting stale. That being said, I would like to suggest a second analogy that describes my personal approach to climate change. It is built on my past experiences as a running coach and so if you will indulge me for a paragraph or two I will explain.
As a younger man, I was a semi-competitive runner. I raced the steeplechase at university to some small success. Our coach was old-school and believed in paying back to the community. So in addition to coaching us, he trained us to coach other athletes. As a consequence, we volunteered at local high-schools teaching track and when I stopped running competitively I still helped teach running clinics through the local community center. In my time, I have introduced many people to running by coaching learn-to-run clinics and I helped a similar number looking to improve their times in 10 km and half-marathon clinics.
Learning to run long-distances is not a natural thing for many people. You have to break long-held habits, you have to change the way you eat and you need to be careful to ramp up your ambition slowly to avoid overuse injuries. Most healthy adults can work themselves up to finishing a 5 km in a matter of weeks and most recreational runners can improve their fitness to run a good 10 km. Most serious runners, meanwhile, can stretch themselves out to run a reasonable half-marathon. It is only at the marathon distance that you need to be a truly dedicated runner to get the job done. Running the marathon takes dedication. You have to put in the hours and have to build up your base gradually or you will injure yourself and be out of luck. It means getting up early and running 4+ times a week including at least one long run each week, rain or shine.
Now let’s bring this topic back to climate change. Beating climate change is like preparing for a marathon. It means getting a lot of people on your side and working hard on a day-to-day basis. It means a lot of honest, hard work and that work can’t be faked. You can’t cheat. You have to build that base fairly. You have to tell the truth; make the best case you can and admit when you don’t have all the cards or all the answers. If you try to build that base by misleading the public or stretching the truth then it is like skipping your long runs, on race day you will start out fine but peter out long before the finish.
Keeping to the running theme, when I think of the Leapsters who suggest that we can get off fossil-fuels by 2030 it brings me back to my marathon analogy. Right now Canada is a relatively healthy non-runner and suggesting that we can get off fossil-fuels by 2030 is like suggesting that this non-runner can win next year’s Boston Marathon. Now, the Leapsters and the 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight folk, repeatedly argue that it is theoretically possible and that is technically true, But let’s be honest, it is not actually possible. Maybe, if we work incredibly hard we can qualify for the race; but there is no chance we can actually win the race in the limited time provided. Betting your life savings on winning the race might certainly be the sentimental choice but it is not the pragmatic one. Especially when you know that spending those same dollars on a balanced energy plan can actually make a real difference.
If I have to leave this post with only one message it is this: don’t mislead people by saying “this is climate change” about things like the fire in Fort McMurray when others will point out, quite correctly, that this is an expected consequence of an El Nino weather event. Instead put it a different way. Explain to them that this is a foreshadowing of a future to come under climate change. Right now the worst fire seasons typically follow an El Nino and only come around every 4-5 years. But under a climate change scenario it will be like having an El Nino year every year. We can do the work to avoid this bleak future but need to start taking action now. A message like that can resonate, and more importantly it can’t be turned around on you like a half-truth can. If we are going to make the changes we have to do the hard work and part of that is living with the data we have, not the data we wish we had. It means telling the truth and admitting we don’t have all the answers, because and once more I going to be honest here, we really don’t have all the answers.