Oxford Dictionaries recently named post-truth the Word of the Year. And for once, Oxford has chosen a word and concept that really matters. The timing is also impeccable, with global representatives discussing the future of humanity at the UN climate talks in Morocco.
The phrase post-truth politics implies that the public is allowing truth to become irrelevant in politics. And maybe we have been. Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, says "I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time." Naming a problem is an important step toward finding solutions. And resisting the trend towards post-truth climate politics is essential for avoiding catastrophic climate change.
Oxford attributes the first current meaning use of post-truth to late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in a 1992 Nation magazine article. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich wrote "we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world." British Columbia seems to have begun a descent into this post-truth world.
For example, under Premier Christy Clark, the government of B.C. routinely claims that urban highway expansion projects reduce climate pollution. This is nonsense worthy of a Trump tweet. And Transport Canada blasted the province for making the same claim about the Port Mann Bridge megaproject in environmental assessment documents. More importantly, most of us know it is not true and understand that urban freeway building is a major cause of increased climate pollution. But where is the outrage?
It is well established that you can’t build your way out of congestion, and wider roads lead to worse congestion and more climate pollution. We know that proposed projects like the McKenzie interchange in Greater Victoria and the $3.5-bllion-plus George Massey Tunnel replacement would make the climate crisis worse. We know that better public transit is the way to relieve the stress of commutes and reduce pollution. But for the most part, we don’t even blink at our provincial government’s claim that a 10-lane freeway bridge to replace the Massey tunnel will reduce climate pollution by 70 percent.
But truth can still prevail. Nobody takes those who still outright deny climate science seriously. In May, while the Fort McMurray fire was still burning, Clark said the increase in fires was caused by global warming. But Clark’s post-truth climate politics has the same effect as outright climate denial.
Across the U.S., tens of thousands of people have been protesting against the master of post-truth politics: president-elect Donald Trump. One objective of these protests is to prevent Trump's racism, sexism, and climate denial from becoming perceived as normal. And, to some extent, the displays of outrage and determination from ordinary people seem to be working. But Trump is just one politician. If human society is to survive, post-truth climate politics can’t become normalized.
Clark’s ridiculous claims about freeway expansion and climate are only an extreme example, not the most important. More plausibly, Clark also claims that exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) will reduce climate pollution. But the truth is that LNG made from B.C. fracked gas has about the same carbon footprint as coal. And the main competition for LNG is wind, solar, and geothermal power. The potential climate pollution from fracked gas exports dwarfs that from road expansion in B.C.
The good news is that truth and ethics still prevail where people stand up. Hawaii recently cited climate pollution and cost as the primary reasons for giving the thumbs down to LNG from B.C. in favour of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. The remarkable decline in renewable energy costs is a truth that fossil fuel exporters must face up to. Doing the right thing for the climate is now often less expensive than burning fossil fuels like fracked gas.
The high school students who have walked out of class in cities across the U.S. to protest Trump’s post-truth agenda are doing what they can to create a future where truth still matters. It is time to get off the couch, and fight for truth and real climate action in B.C.