Canadian governments and media spurn Extinction Rebellion demand to tell truth about perils of climate crisis

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      Warning: This article is longer than what you ordinarily see on media websites.

      I work in the media in Vancouver.

      I know how easy it is to be distracted by election campaigns, rezoning applications at city council, crime and mayhem in the community, and the latest #MeToo scandal in the world of politics or entertainment.

      We've all seen how much media attention has been given to Justin Trudeau's brownface and blackface scandals, Andrew Scheer's résumé inflation, and the fact that Rihanna is following Jagmeet Singh on Instagram.

      For editors and reporters, these are easier topics to address—from an emotional standpoint—than educating the public about the potential disappearance of the human species.

      But we have a crisis on our hands. And those blowing the whistle—the decentralized international group known as Extinction Rebellion and Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg—could use more assistance from the Canadian media. 

      Extinction Rebellion and Thunberg are demanding that governments tell the truth about how deadly the situation is and asking people to behave as if the truth is real.

      "I want you to act as you would in a crisis," Thunberg told the world's super elite in Davos earlier this year. "I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is."

      Extinction Rebellion Canada's website's first demand is that governments "must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do".

      That's not happening.

      As a result, we can expect the protesters to continue staging theatrical displays of peaceful civil disobedience, including blocking traffic, until this demand is met.

      That will lead to the inevitable backlash from those who think it's sheer idiocy to force transit vehicles to go on detours to take passengers to their destinations.

      This criticism invariably comes from people who haven't studied the success rate of peaceful civil disobedience in forcing large-scale societal changes without bringing on dictatorships.

      If what's happening in Britain nowadays starts occurring in North America, law-enforcement agencies will soon be seeking more powers to curb growing climate demonstrations.

      What was first seen as a quaint good-news story—adolescents walking out of classes on the occasional Friday—has the potential to erupt into a full-scale adult rebellion in the coming months and years.

      To date, most of the Canadian media's coverage of Extinction Rebellion's protests, including its "snakewalk" through downtown Vancouver last night, has focused on what demonstrators are doing—blocking traffic—rather than educating the public about the magnitude of the crisis.

      Here's what individual reporters can do to improve on that: in every story about an Extinction Rebellion protest, devote a bit of airtime or at least a couple of paragraphs to the scientific research that has led these dedicated citizens to risk arrest by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience.

      Better yet, the journos could prepare entire feature stories on the issues underlying these protests.

      Our nationally owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation still hasn't created a climate unit or a single radio program devoted to the climate to educate Canadians about the crisis. It's a shocking abdication of its responsibility as a public broadcaster.

      Keep in mind that the climate uprising is really about shifting the Overton window. That's a shorthand term to describe the frame within which acceptable public conversation takes place.

      The same thing occurred when Mahatma Gandhi was leading the anticolonial movement in India and when Martin Luther King Jr. was mobilizing civil rights activists in the United States.

      Extinction Rebellion is trying to focus citizens' attention on what's really happening and what could occur as human beings continue spewing tonnes upon tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere.

      It's the most serious issue that humanity has ever faced as a species.

      In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions in British Columbia actually increased over the previous year. That was a shameful development, but it wasn't accompanied by any sense of outrage in our popular media.

      Here's one thing you'll likely never hear in a media report about an Extinction Rebellion direct action: the World Wildlife Fund has pointed out that the population of mammals, birds, and fish fell by 58 percent from 1970 to 2012.

      Mull over that for a moment. 

      It's also highly unlikely that the media will insert a mention of the albedo effect in any story about an Extinction Rebellion protest.

      Some readers might be asking: "What the hell is the albedo effect?" Here's a simple explanation.

      White ice reflects the sun's radiation back into the atmosphere. But as the planet warms due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, more heat from the sun bears down on the white polar ice cap. And more of it melts.

      The growing body of dark water then absorbs more heat from the sun, rather than reflecting it back into the atmosphere.

      This creates a vicious cycle of more heat, more melting, more heat, more melting, et cetera. This accelerates global warming.

      When Extinction Rebellion wants governments to tell the truth, it means an end to politicians spreading fiction that we can export more and more fossil fuels and then using these proceeds to invest in green alternatives to save humanity on Earth. 

      We likely don't have time for that in the face of the albedo effect and other positive feedback loops that are on the verge of being unleashed on Planet Earth.

      A study published in Nature on July 1 demonstrated that current plans to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure will make it impossible to achieve the climate targets in the Paris Agreement.

      The graphic below describes what could cause human beings to lose control over the pace of climate change under so-called Hothouse Earth conditions. 


      It reveals 15 different feedback loops. The temperature increases in the graphic are in comparison to the average world temperature at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

      Even without these feedback loops occurring, the Earth is on track with current emissions for a nearly 4 C rise in average temperature this century from the pre-industrial era.

      Here's one way in which Extinction Rebellion differs from other climate groups: it welcomes grief and encourages people to be mindful of the impact that a full understanding of the crisis can have on a person's well-being.

      It urges people to be kind to one another even as they acknowledge that climate change can be nonlinear and can kill many millions (or, if feedback loops kick in causing abrupt, nonlinear climate change, possibly even billions).

      Much of the public is still in denial. Some are angry. Others in the climate movement have endured depression. (For more on that, I recommend B.C. lawyer and writer David Boyd's excellent book The Optimistic Environmentalist.)

      The final stage of grief, acceptance, enables people to move forward with a plan to respond to the situation.


      Some in the movement have been influenced by a report called What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop.

      In the forward, the European Union's senior climate adviser, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, points out the shortcomings in his field of research.

      "Expressed in plain English, experts tend to establish a peer world-view, which becomes ever more rigid and focussed," he writes. "Yet the crucial insights regarding the issue in question may lurk at the fringes, as this report suggests.

      "This is particularly true when the issue is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless."

      At the same time, Schellnhuber praises the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change researchers.

      Video: Hothouse Earth conditions could result from pushing the "on" button to positive feedback loops that cannot be reversed.
      Stockholm Resilience Centre

      In fact, the climate pessimists on the fringes in his field have tended to be closer to the truth with some of their forecasts.

      A case in point is the melting of Arctic sea ice, which occurred far more rapidly than was expected a couple of decades ago.

      The lack of risk-assessment with regard to climate change was highlighted in a paper published in 2017 in Environmental Research Letters.

      "For example, in the IPCC lexicon, future outcomes are considered 'unlikely' if they lie outside the central 67% of the probability distribution," it states. "For many types of risk assessment, however, a 33% chance of occurrence would be very high; a 1% or 0.1% chance (or even lower probabilities) would be more typical thresholds."

      One of those climate pessimists, retired NASA scientist James Hansen, is more on the fringes when it comes to how quickly we'll see dangerous increases in sea levels as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

      But he says that models for ice-sheet melting are far more primitive than models for the climate and oceans.

      Video: Scientist James Hansen explains that the models measuring the melting of the ice sheets are primitive in comparison to atmosphere and ocean models.

      The "Amazon dieback" is another one of those risky scenarios that could create havoc. It would turn a large carbon sink into a carbon producer.

      Vox recently reported that other forest diebacks have occurred in recent decades in Hawaii and the United Kingdom. 

      But a study published in Nature in 2013 concluded that the risk of this occurring in this century in the Amazon at just 0.24 percent (with conditions).

      Another study conducted for the World Bank in 2011 found that the probability is highest in this century in the Eastern Amazon and lowest in the northwestern section.

      So does that mean we shouldn't worry about it? Here's what the leader of the World Bank study, Walter Vergara said in a videotaped interview.

      Walter Vergara conducted a study on the Amazon dieback for the World Bank. In this video, he expresses concerns about the impact of disrupted hydrological cycles.

      Anyone who watches the videos embedded in this story will quickly realize that there are many variables interacting in sometimes unpredictable ways that are putting our species on a dangerous trajectory.

      This is serious business. We all have a role to play, especially those of us in the media, in ending Canada's sleepwalk on climate that threatens our collective future.

      On Wednesday (October 23), Extinction Rebellion will hold a free public talk, "Heading for Extinction & What to Do About It", at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral.