On the culture and consequences of climate change denial in Newfoundland and Labrador…

Andy Wells’ recent letter in The Telegram denying anthropogenic climate change would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Not because having the head of our province’s Public Utilities Board publicly declare global warming a hoax is akin to paying a self-declared creationist to oversee the development of a new history curriculum for the Department of Education, but because yet another glaring opportunity to make sense of, and address, our enormously problematic and dangerous culture of climate change denial is passing us by.

To be blunt: Andy Wells is not the problem. It’s all of us.

The former St. John’s mayor might be our province’s token denialist, grasping in the dark for any claim that feeds his delusion that he is right and the world’s leading climate scientists are all wrong, but let’s be honest, because we can and because it’s time: Climate change denial is not binary. You don’t believe global warming either exists or it doesn’t. Most of us know or have heard it’s happening, but for a variety of reasons those in a position to better understand it, or even join efforts to address it, don’t.

In other words, because our actions largely do not reflect the urgency the situation warrants, we are all denialists to some degree. Maybe not to the extreme exemplified by Wells’ letter to the editor, or his recent intervention in St. John’s City Council’s attempt to buy a couple of electric cars, but certainly we deny climate change enough that our inaction has set the table for the decision-makers of our province and country to do business with the fossil fuel companies that are profiting from the wholesale destruction of our climate. Together they are forging ahead with partnerships made possible by government policies that minimize, or outright ignore—and therefore exacerbate—the same reality Andy Wells so vigorously denies.

Just as there is overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are causing global warming, and that we must act now to avoid the worst consequences of it, there are also good explanations as to why we, individually and collectively, are responding with such underwhelming interest and urgency.

Why we look away

It’s not that we don’t know climate change is happening and that it’s a serious problem, says sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who views global warming as “the most significant moral crisis” in the world today.

Norgaard argues that although people care they often “block out or distance themselves” from information about climate change that, in her research, has been found to elicit feelings of guilt, fear of the future, and helplessness.

Naomi Klein says climate change is so hard for us to look at because we are bound up in an “industrial project linked to fossil fuels,” our lives—including our values, beliefs and principles—are intricately tied to the mechanics of deregulated capitalism, and that to adequately address the climate crisis we would quite literally have to “change everything,” including the economic system that has, over time, come to fundamentally influence how we experience, understand and behave in the world.

“Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere,” Klein wrote in The Guardian last year.

“We also have to confront how the mismatch between climate change and market domination has created barriers within our very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of humanitarian crises with anything more than furtive, terrified glances,” she continued. “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real – let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.”

The good news, Klein concludes, is that “humans are blessed with the capacity for advanced reasoning and therefore the ability to adapt more deliberately – to change old patterns of behaviour with remarkable speed. If the ideas that rule our culture are stopping us from saving ourselves, then it is within our power to change those ideas. But before that can happen, we first need to understand the nature of our personal climate mismatch.”

If the ideas that rule our culture are stopping us from saving ourselves, then it is within our power to change those ideas. — Naomi Klein

It’s no surprise that the strength and efforts of the fossil fuel lobby grew alongside the mounting evidence of anthropogenic climate change. The stronger the evidence got and the more climate scientists asserted the urgency of the situation, the louder and angrier grew the denialists, most of them free market fundamentalists with ties to the fossil fuel industry, right-wing think tanks or conservative political parties.

They funded the few remaining climate scientists whose claims that humans were having no impact on the climate were being increasingly overwhelmed by the growing body of evidence that proved otherwise, a process that could have been much swifter and less damaging had mainstream media not given so much time and space—applying the principle of objectivity in such mindless ways—to the climate denial propaganda they were being spoon fed by oil and gas companies and prominent public figures, like Andy Wells. (It is astounding that in 2015 The Telegram would even consider running Wells’ letter and knowingly feed their readers such dangerous information without immediately distinguishing fact from fiction.)

The fossil fuel industry lobbied governments too, including the Harper administration, to maintain relevant legislation favourable to expanding fossil fuel development. Today still, in Newfoundland and Labrador, oil companies continue to bombard us with the message that they are good corporate citizens, funding educational programs, parks, museums and all of the things that matter in an immediate sense but pale in comparison to the importance of limiting global warming.

“Since the mid-1990s, the fossil-fuel industry has made common cause with old cold warriors, maverick scientists and conservative and libertarian think tanks to undermine climate science,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote in the New Statesman in 2010. “The obvious reason is that climate change is what Nicholas Stern calls ‘the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen’. If the free market has failed, then governments will need to act. “’Climategate’, and the wider attacks on climate science, had nothing to do with the science itself, and neither did the entire earlier history of global-warming denial we have studied,” they wrote. “Scientists have just been an easy target. The real issue is the politics of defending the free market.”

Climate change denial in NL

For the first time in millions of years carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere have reached 400 parts per million, and the global mean temperature is around 1 degree Celcius above pre-Industrial times. Labrador is warming at twice the global rate, rising ocean temperatures pose a significant and imminent threat to the fish and other aquatic species that have been the backbone of the Newfoundland economy for hundreds of years, and we can expect to continue seeing high-intensity precipitation events occurring more frequently in the coming decades.

Scientists, youth, elders, academics, and others are continuously sounding the alarm on climate change and proposing possible solutions despite repeatedly being met with ignorance, complacency and a general lack of concern. In light of the facts and the science, outside of university classrooms and activist circles there is no meaningful and adequate discussion on climate change in our province.

Regardless of their positions on current and future fossil fuel development, our provincial political parties are, for all intents and purposes, silent on climate change. There is no pointed opposition—on climate change grounds—to the fact that we are presently looking for new places to drill for offshore oil, including in the fertile and ecologically sensitive spawning grounds of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or to the fact that we are looking for new ways to get oil out of the ground too, with the dirty and controversial extraction process of hydraulic fracturing currently under provincial review. (There’s a “Fracking Review Submission Party” happening in St. John’s Thursday for anyone interested in a fun and collaborative way to offer their thoughts on fracking to the review panel.)

Before pulling their support, our government made huge concessions in CETA—behind closed doors—by relinquishing our economic sovereignty for reduced tariffs on exported fish to Europe without even considering the fact fisheries scientists have no idea what species of fish, and how much of them, we’ll have in our waters in 10 or 20 years time due to global warming. By investing in the hugely controversial $8 billion Muskrat Falls mega-dam we’ve chosen destructive, large-scale, GHG-producing hydro development over much less destructive networks of small-scale hydro, wind, and solar projects across our province. Together, the provincial government and Memorial University are breaking bread with big oil in an effort to lead the Arctic Oil frontier, a scenario that climate scientists warn would mean game over for limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celcius.

At precisely the moment we need to be reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and engaging in a healthy public discussion about how to transition to a low-carbon economy—for the well-being of our province and the planet—our denialism is so ubiquitous that as a province we have, in quite discernible and meaningful ways, buried our head so deep in the sand on climate change that we’re left talking out of our ass about it.

Despite the fact the International Panel on Climate Change has warned that developed nations need to reduce GHG emissions 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-90 per cent by 2050, in order to have a 50/50 chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celcius, our province has committed to only a 10 per cent emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. In their 2011 Climate Action Plan the governing Progressive Conservatives admitted that “in the absence of any new measures to control GHG emissions, provincial emission levels will continue to grow and the province will not meet the 2020 target.”

A populace whose interest and passion reflected the science and urgency of climate change would be in the streets over this. Paul Davis attended a premier’s climate summit in Quebec City earlier this month to discuss how the provinces and territories could lead on climate and energy policy in the absence of any such action from the Harper Government.

In an interview with The Independent the following day the premier acknowledged that climate change is happening, that we’re seeing the impacts here in the province, that those impacts are already costing us, that there are further costs to mitigate them, that it’s “important that we do make investments” in mitigation measures, that 2 degrees warming is an “accepted scientifically-based target” beyond which we do not want to go, and that industrial development in Newfoundland and Labrador—largely the extractivism industries—accounts for roughly 50 per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians choose to profit from the destruction of the climate and the resulting toll on the environment and human lives while looking the other way, then we are not who we thought we were as a people and a province.

“At the same time,” he said, since there is a demand for oil “around the world,” we have a “responsibility” to meet that demand, we have to find the “best way”—or the “balance”—to “effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions while we continue to have a thriving economy,” and we have a responsibility to extract oil “in a way that is as environmentally-friendly as possible.”

Moreover, Davis claimed, “there is a long-term future for oil and gas business in Newfoundland and Labrador.” But that future is dependent on the “markets,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think the oil and gas markets are going to end in the next decade or two.” (Emphasis added to ensure you didn’t miss the giveaway that the future of our province rests on a wager.)

Now that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that extracting and burning fossil fuels directly contributes to global warming, and that climate change is currently responsible for upward of 150,000 deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization, if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians choose to profit from the destruction of the climate and the resulting toll on the environment and human lives while looking the other way, then we are not who we thought we were as a people and a province.

To willfully participate in the continued extraction of oil and gas without proving that such activity is part of a larger, collaborative, strategic move away from fossil fuels toward a low-carbon economy and society is to knowingly and willingly participate in systemic violence against the world’s most vulnerable people. And as global warming intensifies, its direst consequences will inevitably reach us right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“So that will all be part of what we present in our budget,” Davis concluded in our interview a couple weeks ago, “and then people will get a better understanding of what we believe the direction is we need to go in to work our way through this very difficult year now and the difficult years that are going to follow.”

Any government can outline a path forward based on profiting from economic activities whose devastating costs fall on others. So on Thursday the onus is on Paul Davis and his government to explain in their budget how their “best way” forward does not contradict or deny what Davis has already acknowledged he knows.

If willfully pushing a person off a cliff for economic gain is immoral, as is creating the conditions for that cliff to deteriorate and eventually crumble at a time when you know people will be standing on it—out of economic necessity, of course—then isn’t it immoral to remove hydrocarbons from of the Earth and burn them, or sell them to be burned, at a time when doing so outside the context and strategy of a concerted global effort to reduce GHG emissions means further damaging the climate and putting human lives at risk?

Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity today, and it could be the last if we don’t at least start talking about it. I’m just as disturbed and frightened about it as the next person. We all should be.

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