The good news about climate change

by Sam Williams, October 2010

Is Postmedia placing a new bet on global warming?

According to a story in the September 15 Times Colonist, “Climate change could make Canada’s North an economic hothouse.” The article was based on an interview with UCLA geographer Laurence Smith, author of the new book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. The story quotes a “UCLA summary of Smith’s vision” as saying “While wreaking havoc on the environment, global warming will liberate a treasure trove of oil, gas, water and other natural resources previously locked in the frozen North, enriching residents and attracting newcomers.” This same story appeared in Postmedia’s daily papers across Canada.

The following day, another benefit of global warming appeared in Postmedia’s dailies under the headline: “Warming expected to reduce polar storms.” The story referred to a study done by Matthias Zahn, an Earth scientist at Britain’s University of Reading, who, according to Postmedia, says, “polar lows, which often develop ‘explosively,’ whipping up near-gale-force winds and freezing rain, threaten offshore shipping and gas exploration in the North Atlantic...” Postmedia quotes Zahn as saying, “As the climate warms, there likely will be far fewer polar lows and the ones that do occur will be farther north.” You can see the good news in that, can’t you?

Do these stories reflect a new direction for the oil, gas and auto industry-dependent papers? Until now, Postmedia (formerly Canwest) dailies have been known more as havens for climate change skeptics than for doing stories that use the words “climate change” or “global warming.” Especially the National Post, Postmedia’s flagship paper. What might have propelled them in this new direction?

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but in April, Victoria’s Dr Andrew Weaver launched a defamation suit against the National Post. That climate change story wasn’t covered by any of the company’s dailies, not even the one in Weaver’s hometown. A climatologist at UVic, Weaver was a lead author in the Nobel Prize-winning organization Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a statement released at the time the suit was filed, he said, “I asked the National Post to do the right thing—to retract a number of recent articles that attributed to me statements I never made, accused me of things I never did, and attacked me for views I never held. To my absolute astonishment, the newspaper refused.”

His suit named National Post publisher Gordon Fisher, Financial Post Editor Terence Corcoran, columnist Peter Foster, reporter Kevin Libin and unidentified editors and copy editors. Weaver asked for general, aggravated damages, special and exemplary damages and legal costs in relation to articles written by Foster on December 9, 2009 (“Weaver’s Web”), Corcoran on December 10, 2009 (“Weaver’s Web II”) and January 27, 2010 (“Climate Agency going up in flames”), and Libin on February 2, 2010 (“So much for pure science”).

Weaver’s allegations were detailed in a 48-page statement of claim. (http://focusonline.ca/sites/default/files/Andrew%20Weaver's%20statement%20of%20claim_0.pdf)

A second and perhaps related blow to Postmedia came in July when National Post Managing Editor (Comment) Jonathan Kay urged a radical change in direction for conservatives in a piece titled “Bad science: Global warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause.” Kay pointed out that some of his colleagues’ fixation on the views of a “tiny 2-3 percent sliver of fringe opinion” within the community of climate scientists had produced “Fine sounding rhetoric—but all of it nonsense.” A well-established voice of conservative thought in Canada, Kay said, “[W]hen it comes to climate change, many conservatives I know will assign credibility to any stray piece of junk science that lands in their inbox...so long as it happens to support their own desired conclusion.” Kay suggested that in the hands of non-scientists, science is malleable, “something we customize to reduce cognitive dissonance between what we think and how we live. In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism—and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned—is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement.” 

Kay went on to caution fellow conservatives that screaming out imprecations against Al Gore—and here one can easily imagine he might have said Andrew Weaver instead—or using slogans and rants “aren’t the building blocks of a serious ideological movement. And the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper in a century when environmental issues will assume an ever greater profile on this increasingly hot, parched, crowded planet. Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined—and discredited—by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists.”

And so, faced with an unexpected counter attack by one of its intended victims—Andrew Weaver—and a public pounding by one of its own intellectual leaders, the Post and its satellite dailies may have been forced to sit in a new corner. No more “It’s a hoax.” Now it’s “Climate change will be good for Canada.” 

But tell that to a forestry worker in Quesnel. British Columbia’s mountain pine beetle infestation has affected 16.3 million hectares of Crown forest. The infestation took off during several consecutive mild winters and dry summers, conditions that have been attributed to climate change.

Now, in a year that meteorologists say will be either the hottest or the second hottest ever recorded, oceanographers are warning of the possibility of a massive die off of coral reefs from Thailand to Texas, a direct result of extreme heat. According to the New York Times, “What is unfolding this year is only the second known global bleaching of coral reefs. Scientists are holding out hope that this year will not be as bad, over all, as 1998, the hottest year in the historical record, when an estimated 16 percent of the world’s shallow-water reefs died. But in some places, including Thailand, the situation is looking worse than in 1998.” If the bleaching leads to die off, food fisheries important to many millions of people will be affected. Not being “good news” about climate change, you probably didn’t read about it in Postmedia papers.

In its aspirations to provide information to all Canadians, Postmedia would do well to tell the whole story on climate change, an issue that has ripped holes in the fabric of Canadian civility as deep as did the fight over abortion. It could do worse than to start by apologizing to Andrew Weaver and taking Jonathan Kay’s advice to heart.

Sam Williams is a pen name used by the publisher of Focus Magazine, David Broadland. He’ll be back on the bridge next month.