Tunnelling through the Wall of Hate

By Amy Reiswig, July 2011

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver’s new book is an appeal, partly on ethical and moral grounds, to young people.

Summer has finally returned to Victoria, and as people run to the sun they should stop and think, not just about the weather but about our overall changing climate. Or so says one Victorian who more than most knows what a changing climate means for the future, locally and around the world. 

Dr Andrew Weaver holds the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at UVic and is part of the university’s Climate Modelling Group. A local, raised in Victoria, Weaver is often referred to as Canada’s top climate scientist and has garnered global recognition. To date he has authored or co-authored around 200 peer-reviewed publications as well as the book Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (Viking, 2008); he has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, among other honours; and he was a lead author in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the group that, with Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Humbler in stature but of no less importance to Weaver is his latest publication: a compact, 123-page book put out as part of Orca Publishers’ “Rapid Reads” series. Aimed at what the publisher calls “reluctant readers,” Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming (April 2011) is a simply-worded, accessible explanation of climate change science, of the potential impacts of climate change, what we can do about it, and the reasons why we should care.

This book, which he sees as perfect for grade 10 science classes, allowed Weaver to step away from the scientific jargon, and he tells me: “This one was the most fun I’ve had writing anything.” 

Despite his über-serious academic work, the affable Weaver is the antithesis of the antisocial scientist stereotype. Casual, well-spoken and quick to poke fun at himself, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the man. Yet one thing he shows me during our meeting at his UVic office is what he calls “the Wall of Hate.” 

The hallway features a bulletin board papered with emails and articles, all attacking Weaver and his work—everything from misspelled conspiracy theory rants to articles in mainstream media denouncing his conclusions and competency. For such a likeable guy, Weaver has attracted a lot of venom.

Global warming has long had its deniers, from scientists to cranks. But the debate about climate change science ramped up after the so-called “Climategate” of 2009 and skeptics began to be more vocal about a climate change conspiracy. In some ways, it is precisely Weaver’s outspoken, gregarious, public-focused approach that has made him a target for that renewed critical debate.

On the back cover of Generation Us, David Suzuki is quoted as saying that Weaver is “one of the few scientists of his generation with the courage and conviction to put his career on the line and speak out.” Weaver is not the kind of scientist who stays in his lab or confines his views to the academic community. He gives interviews, speaks in videos, talks and writes—as he does in this new book—on not just science, but societal attitudes and how they need to change. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

In statements like “North Americans have not had to live in a world where duty and greater good are placed before personal entitlement and individual needs,” Weaver’s book shakes the foundation of me-ism, of personal privilege. He dares to talk about “ethical and moral judgements that must be made.” Weaver also takes on Big Questions like “What do we see as our own role as a species on Earth?” and “Do we have any responsibility for the well-being of future generations?” As he writes, “Unfortunately, science cannot provide an answer to this question. It must be answered by society as a whole.”

These steps into ethics, morals and even moral prescription—“we must move away from a culture of fear and denial to one of excitement and empowerment”—makes the climate change issue very, very personal. Weaver accepts that when people feel their way of life and the means to justify it are threatened, the attacks flow—and the Wall of Hate grows.

While laughter and good-natured self-mockery are some ways Weaver responds to media attacks, another is more solemn: through the courts. Currently, Weaver has filed statements of claim for two libel lawsuits. One, filed in February 2011, is against climate change denier Tim Ball over an article that appeared on the Canada Free Press website in January. The other, filed in April 2010, is against the National Post and some of its writers over four separate articles from 2009 and 2010.

Weaver said he was unable to comment on the lawsuits, but his lawyer Roger McConchie told CBC, “He’s only bringing this action because he sees this and the law as the only mechanism that will allow him to correct the very public world-wide record.” And in Weaver’s own statement released at the time of filing the National Post suit, 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.” 

Given the nature of the internet, the articles in question had been reposted on many websites, and Weaver’s suit seeks a court order requiring the newspaper to assist him in removing the defamatory National Post articles from the internet. As he stated at the time: “If I sit back and do nothing to clear my name, these libels will stay on the internet forever. They’ll poison the factual record, misleading people who are looking for reliable scientific information about global warming.” 

The statements of claim—available online—allege some straightforward fact-fabrication, for instance, concerning things Weaver said or did not say about break-ins at his UVic office. Those kinds of statement are easy to refute: he either said X or he did not. But the list of defamatory comments also includes statements about Weaver’s knowledge, for instance that Weaver does “not…understand what solar climate theory actually involves,” and about certain elements of climate science. He rebuts the latter with a list of what are called “true facts”—for example, “The allegation that annual global mean temperatures stopped increasing during the past decade has no basis in reality.”

Both the new book and his legal suits ultimately flow from Weaver’s understanding that public understanding is crucial in addressing what he sees as the most important issue of our time. Response to climate change is not going to come strictly from policy-makers but from ordinary, average citizens—people who read newspapers, people who elect policy-makers, who become the policy-makers of the future, and who are individual decision-makers right now. Their ability to make informed choices to address global warming is at stake.

Self-described as “pessimistically optimistic” about human nature, Weaver tells me that “change can’t be about just protest. It has to be about doing. It’s got to be driven from the bottom up. That’s why I think this issue is so empowering.” 

Never until reading this book and talking with Weaver have I thought of global warming as an empowering issue, but that’s one of Weaver’s talents: communicating the subject of climate change afresh. Which is precisely his hope for this new, slim volume: “I’m hoping we can change the discussion.” 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig was pleased to learn that our Nobel winner is a regular guy with a heavy metal ringtone.