Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
 Changing the Meaning of Climate Change Changing the Meaning of Climate Change

Changing the Meaning of Climate Change

With the 2019 federal vote being dubbed Canada’s climate change election, Convivium’s Peter Stockland says all sides must change rhetorical theatrics into serious reasonable solutions.

Peter Stockland
6 minute read

Announce boldly in any bar where two or more are gathered that modern humans owe our existence to climate change. You’ll be ridden out of town on a rail – or carried about in a sedan chair like an old-style pope.

Yet that’s precisely what serious academic researchers, announcing their findings not in a honky-tonk but in the respected journal Nature, essentially did this week. They’ve concluded that changing climate about 200,000 years ago in the “Makgadikgadi-Okavango paleo-wetland of southern Africa” allowed “anatomically modern” human beings to spread northeast and southwest, carrying themselves and their DNA out of our common homeland.

They were able to follow “green corridors” opened by “increased humidity” as the climate shifted. Those who headed southwest seemed to have adapted to foraging in new waterways for fish and other marine life allowing them to “achieve population growth… as supported by extensive south-coastal archeological” findings.

“Taken together, we propose a southern African origin of anatomically modern humans with sustained homeland occupation before the first migrations of people that appear to have been driven by regional climate changes,” says the abstract of the Nature article published Oct. 28.

So… that means this whole climate change panic is just, like, just one big scam, eh, worked by socialist propaganda bots trying to make us freeze in the dark while our kids become greenie vegans, right? Or… it means that even the august organs of credible scientific research such as Nature have, woe betide us, fallen into the hands of greedy capitalist oil industry spinmeisters intent on spreading the lies – how dare they!? – of earth-burning climate deniers.

Ah, well, no. It actually means neither of either, confusing as that might be to those who wish it did for their one side of the debate. What it really means is many things, not the least of which is that climate change itself has not one but many meanings, not the least of which, as well, is that it can mean different things at different times in different places to different people.

Ask the green corridor trekkers of 200,000 years ago whether it was a good thing, and they’d probably say that being able to put the forerunner of Cajun spicy shrimp on their prehistoric pizzas was a lot better than the boring grub they got in the Makgadikgadi-Okavango paleo-wetland. Ask the Trojans, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Chinese and starving Neolithic Irish farmers about the devastating climate change catastrophe of 1159 B.C. to 1141 B.C., and they might not be quite so chipper.

Looked at over that kind of timeline, one of the current meanings of climate change is that it’s something we must consider as a matter of communication as much as of science. Arguably, the present debate over climate debate is almost purely a function of well-intentioned people communicating misunderstood science very, very badly. Two tip-offs of that are a) the declaration that “the science is settled” on climate change and b) the caustically derisive snorts that such a claim invariably evokes from those opposed.

To take the first one first, science by its very nature is rarely ever wholly settled. Hey, it kept going until well into the 20th century chasing after the real meaning of something as basic as gravity, and even then, it remained itchy for years about the whole black holes bit. To personify science in its pure form, picture an adolescent jumpy with the dregs of three cans of Red Bull energy drink and afflicted with a chronic case of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) syndrome. Science is always questing after the next question, driven by its own native questions: “How can we know for sure?” and “Yes, but what if….”

Beyond that, even if it were possible for science to fully settle, how is it that in the space of the fewest of years a change in weather has altered its meaning so radically? It has gone from concerns about global warming to fears about climate change to a climate change crisis to a climate change emergency to a climate change panic.

If the science had settled things so clearly in the beginning, as we were told it had, wouldn’t we have just gone straight to five-alarm banshee mode right off the bat? Wouldn’t it have skipped the intermediate stages of scary and scarier altogether? An unsettling conclusion is that either the science isn’t all that settled, or persons unknown have been misusing it to manage the devices and desires of their own hearts.

In no way, however, does that conclusion justify those who insist any ambiguity in climate science, or the exploitation of that ambiguity for political or ideological purposes, immediately discredits every concern about climate change. Logic simply doesn’t allow such a justification.

There’s no definitive proof of climate change? Well, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. Black holes exist. So did Albert Einstein, who denied their existence, and who now no longer exists. Things are or they are not. Or they are and we just don’t know it yet. (See: “How can we know for sure?” above.)

Similarly, just because panic mongers have misled us in the past about the perils of overpopulation based on wrong-headed Malthusian arithmetic, or nuclear winter, or the collapse of capitalism, it doesn’t mean those speaking out now against climate change are either panic mongers or wrong-headed. Nor does it logically mean all who seek to refute climate change are level-headed oracles of truth.

The tobacco industry was up to its nicotine-stained back teeth in lies about smoking having no connection to cancer. It took years, and the patient accumulation of research data, to produce irrefutable proof of the link. The link was always there despite the lies, albeit buried for a long while underneath them. But because things unproven have been lied about doesn’t mean all things that we can’t prove are lies. We can – indeed must – be prudent in what we choose to believe. Our choice to believe or disbelieve doesn’t affect the trueness of the truth one wit.

What that brings us to is the realization that we need not go on barring the door against each other, or railing at each other, when it comes to an issue such as climate change, and how best to respond to what we know about it as fact and as reasonable potential. Both are important considerations. Because they are, those with deeply held and well-intentioned fears about the effects of climate change need to cease turning the debate into a branch of theology or, worse, ideological hysteria. They need to stop their non-factual talk about “saving the planet” or making the claim that “the earth is on fire.”

The “planet” is a 5,974,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilogram orbiting spatial body with a solid inner core, a molten outer core, and a 2,800-kilometre thick mantle. It has survived an asteroid collision so monumental it actually did set the surface world on fire. Real fire. As in what we now think of as part of India burst into flames because of the combustion near what we now think of as Latin America. But we weren’t there to put it out. We wouldn’t have been a match for it if we had been. When it comes to saving “the planet” as a whole, we still barely make a pinch of difference.

But that does not, and will never, translate into lamely accepting the shoulder shrugs of some climate change sceptics who insist it makes no difference whether or not we continue to pump extraordinary amounts of waste into the atmosphere to preserve our relatively recent hyper-abundant way of life. Such a posture defies physics, chemistry, and the iron law of plugged toilets. You simply cannot go on adding effluent to any system faster than its ability to clear what’s already arrived. To continue doing so is a recipe for disaster because it replicates a template of bad stewardship. 

Whether or not earth’s climate is changing as drastically and as perilously as some voices insist, we have to change. Seriously have to change. The change will require far more than the Band-aids of carbon taxes, for example, or the improvisational moralism we saw in the recent federal election campaign. It will mean deep, and no doubt costly, restructuring of what we consider urban life, of century-old habitation and consumerist patterns, of getting used to walking where once we would ride. But, hey, even the old-style popes learned to walk when they abandoned their sedan chairs. Just so did we all when we started walking out of the Makgadikgadi-Okavango paleo-wetland 200,000 years ago.

We did it then. We can do it again. We just have to start communicating properly, respectfully and seriously instead of insisting on winning the argument or changing the subject.

You'll also enjoy...

Laugh or Cry After COP26

Laugh or Cry After COP26

Peter Stockland notes theopoetics of Christian leaders and 277 Canadian delegates at the recent Glasgow climate conference equal bupkas unless we tackle climate change profitably.

Changing the Climate for Faith and Science

Changing the Climate for Faith and Science

Katharine Hayhoe, one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, appreciates both science and faith. Hayhoe states: "I don’t accept global warming on faith: I crunch the data, I analyze the models, I help engineers and city managers and ecologists quantify the impacts."