Montreal, March 15, 2008 No 254




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.




by Bradley Doucet

          The science of global warming is settled, thinks Canadian celebrity and one-time scientist David Suzuki and if you disagree, you can go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Okay, I'm exaggerating just a little. Suzuki only said that politicians who disagree with the "consensus" science should go to jail.


          Suzuki was giving a speech at McGill University in Montreal recently when he raised the ugly spectre of imprisonment for climate skeptics. The story first appeared in the pages of The McGill Daily on February 4. Sarah Babbage, the author of the piece, wrote, "He urged today's youth to speak out against politicians complicit in climate change, even suggesting they look for a legal way to throw our current political leaders in jail for ignoring science drawing rounds of cheering and applause. Suzuki said that politicians, who never see beyond the next election, are committing a criminal act by ignoring science."

          Even if there weren't and there are legitimate grounds for skeptics to doubt the conclusions and policy prescriptions of environmental activists, Suzuki hit a new low by suggesting that skeptics should be silenced and neutered using the penal system.

Rex Murphy vs. David Suzuki

          Suzuki's comments drew immediate criticism from the National Post and from several Conservative politicians, but you don't need to be to the right of the political spectrum to find his suggestion disturbing and offensive. Noted television, radio, and print news commentator Rex Murphy dug into Suzuki in the February 16 edition of The Globe and Mail in a piece entitled "Science and the new Inquisition." Murphy called the global warming consensus "the grand orthodoxy of our day," and lamented the debate-quashing ambitions of those who push that orthodoxy. "Among right-thinking people, the idea of expressing any doubts on some of its more cataclysmic projections, to speak in tones other than those of veneration about its high-priests, such as Mr. Suzuki or Al Gore, is to stir a response uncomfortably close to what in previous and less rational times was reserved for blasphemers, heretics and atheists."

          Murphy also pointed out that while the questions about the causes and consequences of global warming are matters for scientists to debate and eventually decide, what is to be done in light of the science is a political choice. On this latter question, scientists (and former scientists turned celebrity activists) have no special qualifications. As Murphy put it, "Global warming's more fulminating spokespeople are apt to finesse that great chasm between the science and the politics. They are further apt to imply a continuum between the unassailable authority of real and neutral science and their own particular policy prescriptions."

The Debate Rages On

          Despite the best efforts of ideologues like Suzuki, the debate does, in fact, rage on. The science is young and the many issues involved are complex and contentious. But just how much disagreement still remains, and over which issues?

          A new website, Climate Debate Daily, attempts to provide some guidance. The site "is intended to deepen our understanding of disputes over climate change and the human contribution to it." Unlike most other sites on the Internet devoted to the issue, which advocate strongly for one side or the other, "As a matter of editorial policy, Climate Debate Daily maintains a studied neutrality, allowing each side to present its most powerful and persuasive case. Our object is to allow readers to form their own judgments based on the best available information." Links to new articles pro and con are added on a daily basis, as the site's title implies.

"As I am a firm supporter of freedom of speech, I do not think Suzuki should be thrown in jail for his blusterous nonsense, dangerous though it may be. He should be allowed to say what he pleases."

          The website is edited by Denis Dutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and editor of the popular website Arts & Letters Daily, and Douglas Campbell, who is currently completing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Arizona while teaching philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The two are likely to keep each other in check, for Dutton is skeptical about the human contribution to current global warming, while Campbell believes current global warming is largely manmade and requires immediate action. Both agree, however, that "The best way for science and public policy to proceed is to keep assessing evidence pro and con for anthropogenic global warming."

          What kinds of articles are being highlighted at Climate Debate Daily? In the "Calls to action" column, I found a long New Yorker article by Michael Specter who, while clearly believing in the need to address global warming, nonetheless poked holes in the fashionable notion of so-called "food miles," pointing out that items grown halfway around the world can sometimes have less of a carbon footprint than products grown fifty miles away. In the "Dissenting voices" column, I found a Daily Express article discussing how this winter is the coldest the northern hemisphere has seen in decades to which my latest heating bill, 33% higher than last year, will attest with Arctic sea ice coverage also making a dramatic comeback. I also found there a Cato Institute article by Patrick J. Michaels asking why his and Ross McKitrick's recently published scientific paper, demonstrating that the planet may only have warmed by half as much as is commonly thought, has been virtually ignored by mainstream media.

          Over the years, I have been steered to many a thought-provoking and edifying article by the Arts & Letters Daily webpage. The fact that the editor of that fine site has, with some help, decided to turn his attention to the climate debate is good news for those of us who believe that the competitive confrontation of opposing ideas is the best way to separate fact from fiction.

The Essence and Spirit of Science Itself

          Although I was pleased that Rex Murphy took it upon himself to point out that aspiring emperor Suzuki was wearing no clothes, I still think he let him off a little too easily. Murphy ended his piece by writing, "Dr. Suzuki will surely agree that truth, like science, is not under the ownership of either any one group or any one man. To argue that those who question a prevailing orthodoxy should, even metaphorically, be tossed in jail is radically inconsistent with the essence and spirit of science itself, the essence and spirit that Dr. Suzuki in his better moments so clearly reveres." But is this really so clear?

          In that same speech at McGill University, Suzuki went on to bash DDT, the infamous but very useful pesticide about which the WHO has recently changed its tune. He also trashed GMOs, which are created using techniques that are more accurate than hybridization techniques that have been in use for centuries. On both of these issues, by my count, it is Suzuki who is, at the very least, out of step with the current scientific consensus.

          What is to be done about these clear instances of Suzuki "ignoring the science?" As I am a firm supporter of freedom of speech, I do not think Suzuki should be thrown in jail for his blusterous nonsense, dangerous though it may be. He should be allowed to say what he pleases. But given his clear lack of reverence for the essence and spirit of science, I think the least we could all do is agree to stop calling the man a scientist.

          I was at a friend's birthday party a few weeks ago when, invoking birthday privileges, my friend asked the dozen or so of us gathered in his living room each to answer the question, "What is the most important thing, period?" As we were taking too long to respond, my friend offered up an answer of his own: Truth, he said, is the most important thing. Although his answer appealed to me, I posited that freedom is even more important, because without freedom, we can be forbidden from pursuing the truth like Galileo, forced by the Catholic Church to recant his heliocentric theory and spend the final years of his life under house arrest.

          But it is not only that we must be free to pursue truth. If we wish to have any real confidence in the truths we think we have identified, others must also be free to challenge what we think is true. It is precisely in resisting and surviving such challenges in a free marketplace of ideas that purported truths prove their mettle. Only the best ideas endure, and no one person gets to declare that the debate is over. This is what the editors of Climate Debate Daily clearly appreciate, and what David Suzuki just as clearly does not.