By Alexander Kelly
Editor’s note: InvestigateWest correspondent Alexander Kelly will be covering the upcoming international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is an edited transcript of an interview he conducted earlier this year with Canadian environmental leader and scientist David Suzuki. More information on Suzuki is available at the website of his Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation.
InvestigateWest: You are a scientist serving the public interest by stepping outside of academia in order to address the public directly. There are those who are losing hope in the face of findings from such scientists as James Lovelock, James Hansen and yourself. What is it that you really want the public to do?
David Suzuki: In Canada, we’re still left with an administration that is very much in the Bush mode. They are trying to suppress information from the scientific community, manipulate the scientific knowledge, have opposed any admission that climate change is real and we have to act on it, and I think for Canadians, it’s been very frustrating, because for the last two years, climate change has been at the top of the agenda for Canadian concern, and yet politicians aren’t doing anything. So what I say is that people have to inform themselves, and they have to begin to demand change on a large scale. That’s a big thing to ask, but I’ve seen it in the past. I’ve seen it in the civil rights movement. I’ve seen it in the anti-Vietnam movement. I think this is what we have to marshal. . . .
The problem is the speed with which this is occurring and the unknowns. or example, the methane clathrates that are frozen in the permafrost and the methane deposits at the bottom of the ocean that are frozen, if they begin to melt and they are released – and they are, already in the Arctic — all hell breaks loose. Methane is 22 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. We start adding that mass of methane – the computer models can’t handle that…
InvestigateWest: My next question is who else –
Suzuki: I’m sorry. I’m still thinking of your first question because I think I didn’t answer properly… If you were to look at the popular media like television and newspapers, and say ‘Let’s see what the most important priorities are for North America by the amount of space and time we devote to various issues,’ we very quickly decide that North Americans really see as their highest priority politics, economics, sports and celebrities. Not necessarily in that order. We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on those things, and that reality ignores the fact that the most powerful factor shaping our lives today is none of those areas. It is science… When I was a kid, there was no such thing as jet planes. There we no computers, no satellites, no cell phones…
All of those things have radically altered the way that we live. They render the way I grew up as a boy extinct – an ancient civilization now long gone. Now what’s on the horizon is artificial intelligence, machines that can think. We have genetic engineering and cloning. We’re going to have space travel, and all of these things have enormous repercussions on what we think of ourselves as a species, as human beings, and where is the public discussion about these things?
Right now, these technologies and new scientific insights are held by people with special knowledge, and yet the ramifications of the application of their knowledge will reverberate through the lives of all human beings, and that’s why I began my television career in 1962, even though I was a scientist. I felt that the only way to control these very powerful forces impinging on their lives was to become scientifically literate, so that we can begin to act in a democratic way. What’s happened in the last forty-some odd years … is … the scientific and technological experts are becoming more and more entrenched with their knowledge and far less understood by the general public.
InvestigateWest: So do you see our culture – the culture of the West, at least – moving in that direction?
Suzuki: I see the culture being shallower and shallower, and being less and less able to do anything about the great forces impinging on our lives, so that if you ask someone about stem cells or cloning, or artificial intelligence, or climate change – people are aware of these things in a kind of sensational way, but their understanding of what really is it, is very, very shallow.
InvestigateWest: So… whom else should the public listen to?
Suzuki: Well, I can give you the whole list of people who have authority, but of course they’re people that I happen to agree with…
If we look to the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the Marshall Institute or these right-wing think tanks, and that’s what you want to believe in, well, there’s all kinds of stuff coming out. Exxon-Mobil has spent tens of millions of dollars creating web sites saying global warming is junk science and supporting a handful of skeptics.
The problem we face today is the great information revolution has meant that we’re overwhelmed with information. You don’t have to change your mind about anything! If you want to believe that aliens came to the planet, rapes women and had babies, there’s a website for that! You know, you want to believe in pyramid power, the Flat Earth Society’s got a website. It all comes at you! And so, you never have to change your mind because you can always find somebody or some book or some website that will confirm what you want to believe. This is the great challenge we face. It’s that people are overwhelmed with information they don’t know how to make sense of it all.
InvestigateWest: So then, extra-terrestrial website pressures aside, if you were able to choose who the public would listen to, who would you choose –
Suzuki: Well I would be very worried about me being set up as an authority; I’d be worried about anybody being set up as an authority. Uh but, you know there are lots of people that I look to, you know, Paul Hawken, a former businessman, he wrote the book The Ecology of Commerce. Uh, there are dozens and dozens of people like Bill McKibben and David Orr and Gary Snyder, the poet. I mean, the list is very long, I mean, Ray Anderson who is the CEO of Interface Carpets. Bill McDonough who is the Dean of Architecture at the University of … Virginia who has talked about cradle to cradle cost accounting. I mean, there are dozens and dozens of people and literally thousands and thousands of leaders or experts in this area.
InvestigateWest: You mean leaders of countries? Companies?
Suzuki: Leaders of companies. Leaders of the environmental movement… I spent three days at a very intense conference with about 50 leaders that were selected from Europe, the United States and Canada, and the basic question was: Why is the environmental movement failing? The environmental movement has been very successful at raising a lot of issues…
But the reality is, we’re going backwards. In 1988, I want to remind you, a guy ran for President of the United States and said ‘If you vote for me I will be an environmental president.’ Do you know who that was?
InvestigateWest: Who was that?
Suzuki: George Bush. George H. W. Bush. There wasn’t a green bone in his body, but he said it because the American public had put the environment at the number one level. In 1988, Jim Hansen first testified before Congress and said: climate change is happening and humans are at the heart of it. We’ve got to do something. In 1988 a conference of 300 atmosphere scientists in Toronto, Ontario, and they were so concerned about climate change that they issued a press release that said, ‘This represents a threat to human survival second only to nuclear war,’ and they called for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 15 years. If we had done it, if we had taken their warning seriously, we would be way past the Kyoto target, we would be saving tens of billions of dollars in energy conservation.
We would be well on our way on a different path, but we didn’t do it. Why? Because companies like Exxon-Mobil began to spend millions and millions of dollars trying, and very successfully creating confusion in the minds of the public. They said ‘No, this is junk science. The evidence isn’t in, this is a natural cycle. Sunspots…’ All this stuff.
And the media fell into the trap, because they said “Oh, well if we’re going to give a report on climate change, well we’ll have lots of people saying yes, it’s happening, let’s do something, but we have to ‘balance’ our report,” so even though it was absolutely unbalanced in terms of the number of scientists in the two areas, in the name of balance they’d have one saying do something and one saying ‘No, this is junk science.’ To the public, they look at that and go ‘Oh, I guess the scientists haven’t made up their minds.’ So I talked to Al Gore about this, what he said was, ‘What’s happened is absolutely criminal. This whole attempt to muddy the waters, all in the name of profit, I’m sure will be seen as an inter-generational crime in the decades to come.’
InvestigateWest: Well, in all the work that’s being done to prevent an environmental apocalypse in the future, which we all fear, do you believe that we should also be preparing for one, in the meanwhile?
Suzuki: I think that you have to do the best that you can. All indications are that we, in many areas, we’ve already passed the thresholds…
The rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causing climate change are also having enormous repercussions in the oceans because the carbon is dissolving in the oceans as carbonic acid and acidifying the oceans. And on land, the fact is that it’s destroying forests – B.C. has lost 65 billion dollars in pine trees because their winters aren’t cold enough to kill the mountain pine beetles. What’s happening is all over you see these warning signs…
We are dependent on the rest of nature and yet we are treating nature as a garbage can. Any rational being coming to our planet from outer space would say ‘There is a species here that has gone insane.’ It is destroying the very things that keep it alive and claims – that species claims to be intelligent. It doesn’t make sense.
InvestigateWest: So, given the understanding that by a vast majority, our actions on this planet are insane, or definable as insane –
Suzuki: Do you think the vast majority of human beings understand that?
InvestigateWest: If aliens were observing us, they would probably call us insane. Do you feel that there’s ever a threshold or a point at which it is time, or justifiable to put away conventional means and take more radical action?
Suzuki: Well, that’s a – that is a really tough one. I think that so long as the Earth is as generous as it’s been, you’ve gotta just do everything you can. You see, the problem is that the ends, it’s very, very difficult ever to justify the means by saying the ends are just unbearable. And so I, knowing full well that the future for my grandchildren is very, very bleak., I know that they have nothing like a planet as resilient as it was when I was born. I know that this is an intergenerational crime. I know they’re in for a very tough time, but, all I can do is try to work to bring about that change within the system that I am a part of.
I know that people are feeling desperate and that a lot of people who’ve been, I don’t know, putting sugar in gas tanks and stuff, or putting nails or spikes in trees are called eco-terrorists. I feel that they’re eco-warriors. I’m not willing to go that far, but the real eco-terrorists are the people that are willing to rush in and clear cut a forest without knowing a damn thing about how you grow a forest. The people that will go in and rape the oceans without having a clue how to manage the oceans. That’s eco-terrorism if you ask me.
InvestigateWest: I understand. David Suzuki, thank you very much for your time.