How asbestos made me a better journalist

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a 21-year-old journalism student spending a couple of weeks as an intern at Science Dimension, a government-funded magazine (there weren’t any private science magazines in the country). I was assigned two short features while there: one on canola bioengineering and another on Canada’s asbestos industry. Both amounted to free publicity for industries heavily supported by the Canadian taxpayer, but I think the canola story withstood professional scrutiny. The asbestos piece? Not so much.

That story continues to haunt me. The only good thing I can say about it is I learned a hard lesson about the need for skepticism, especially when tasked with interviewing scientists whose livelihoods depend on something other than following the facts wherever they might lead. I bring it up thanks to Jon Stewart’s Daily show team, who recently discovered that Quebec and Canada continue to dump the province’s asbestos onto developing nations despite the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities that it’s a powerful carcinogen.
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It is what it is


The main thing is they are in absolute, abject and catastrophic denial about a straightforward set of facts that is probably the most important set of facts we face as a nation, and as human beings on planet earth. They have turned their faces away from climate change in a way that is simply and utterly unforgivable. They now apparently DO feel entitled to their own facts, and they live, campaign and purportedly do their jobs in a zone of outright lies. Lies they have every reason to understand are lies, and lies that will almost certainly result in massive destruction and death. Exactly how would you be “fair” to these people? — Tom Toles

Which brings to mind Ed Brayton’s quotation from Isaac Asimov:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

The target

I like Tim’s Lenton’s style, and his substance. He has his detractors — and his latest essay in Nature is a little light on supporting data — but he’s almost always worth reading. This one is probably a doomed to be ignored because it advocates focusing climate policy efforts on the complex issue of radiative forcing instead of politician-friendly temperature rise, but he’s probably right. A teaser:

Ongoing negotiations for a new climate treaty aim to establish a target to limit the global temperature rise to 2 °C above the average temperature before the industrial revolution. But that is not enough.

The target is linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. But that noble objective is nearly 20 years old and is framed too narrowly, in terms of the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere”. Long-term goals to limit temperature or concentrations have so far failed to produce effective short-term action, because they do not have the urgency to compel governments to put aside their own short-term interests.

Extrapolating from the same reasoning, others have reached similar conclusions. James Hansen would have us try to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down to no more than 350 ppm, and many small island states would like to reduce to the temperature target to 1.5 °C, both of which logically follow from worrying more about radiative forcing. But again, does anyone really expect to be able to convince even educated politicians about just what radiative forcing is?

Canada returns to discontinuous tyranny

Climate change activists in Canada are understandably depressed by the results of Monday’s federal election, which produced a majority Conservative government run by a party with zero interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are shards of good news lying in the rubble, although they only hint at the possibility of progress in the far-off future.

The fact that the new Official Opposition, the New Democrats, support cap-and-trade legislation isn’t as positive a development as it could be, considering that they have no chance of influencing government.

More interesting is the election of the first Green member of a national legislative body in North America. Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party and a supporter of aggressive carbon taxation, managed to handily defeat a government cabinet minister in her hippy-heavy constituency on the Left Coast. She too will have zero parliamentary sway, and her party received only half the popular vote it got three years ago (in part a consequence of the Green’s strategy of focusing almost entirely on getting their leader elected rather than running a serious national campaign).

However, this means that May will be included in the next federal leaders televised election debate four years from now, and May is a formidable debater. Given that the New Democrats’ historic showing this time round is being tied to their leader’s debate performance, this could prove critical to the Green’s future electoral success. Of course, the notion that the Greens were excluded from this year’s debate but will be included in the next one despite losing half their voting base only proves how silly are both Canada’s electoral system and the criteria used by the television networks to determine debate inclusion.

Meanwhile, Quebec has finally gotten over its fetish for separatist politics, booting out all but a rump of Bloc Quebecois MPs in favor of New Democrats. From an environmentalist’s point of view, this is marginally a good thing, in that the Bloc, while ostensibly progressive ideologically, had little real interest in anything that didn’t enhance Quebec’s ability to do its own thing. This strategy is increasingly at odds with the growing realization that intergovernmental cooperation is essential to solve the real problems facing civilization. Not that Quebecers thought about that consciously when they went to the polls Monday.

Canada had a chance to move on climate change in 2008 when the Liberal Party embraced a carbon tax and was soundly defeated in the polls. This time around they more or less ignored energy and climate policy and lost even more support, ending up with the smallest share of the popular vote in history. Not that anyone took that into account when they went to the polls on Monday.

All of which means, the real lesson for all the losing parties and their supporters is that radical change is required. Existing strategies have failed. Even the New Democrats, which saw their best showing ever, now have less influence than that they did last week, thanks to the return of Canada’s traditional form of government, which can best be described discontinuous tyranny. It’s as if the country agrees to grant the winning party leader absolute dictatorial power, although only for a few years at a time. This is no way to run a country. In a sensible world, Canada would rise up and demand electoral reform. But it won’t. And even if did, the majority government that the country just elected would pay no attention. Why should it?