Why environmental professionals and policy specialists are often frustrated with the climate strikers

What parent hasn’t experienced this situation? Due to circumstances outside your control you are going to be late for a family commitment. You got out of the house late, or an accident on the highway has you stuck in traffic. In either case, you simply aren’t going to get to that commitment in time and from the back seat comes a plaintive cry: “dad, you have to drive faster, we are going to be late!”.

We all know that a child who is going to be late for their soccer game, doesn’t understand that all the cars are moving at the same speed and there is nothing you can do. They are concentrating on their own issues. They don’t understand what it will take to get to our destination. They only want to get there faster because “our coach said we HAVE to be there by 5:15 pm“.

We have all been that parent. We can cajole. We can try logic. But all we get from the backseat are complaints that we are not going fast enough and are going to be late. As parents did we appreciate those moments? Of course not, we are doing our best and are struggling within the limitations of the world around us.

Well that is what it likes to be an environmental professional being lectured by the children of the Climate Strike about energy policy. They are the metaphorical kids in the backseat, demanding that we go faster without any realization of what it will take to achieve the outcomes they seek.

Now I know a lot of you are going to say that my analogy trivializes the risks associated with climate change and my response is that you are missing the point. Demanding that we “drive faster” while providing no other insight as to how to achieve that goal simply does not help. Like the coach example, they often point out that their position is supported by the IPCC. But the IPCC projections won’t bend space-time to allow us to reach our goals on time.

I know people talk about moving the Overton Window and “enhancing public awareness”, but the reality is that polls agree we are already at a state where people want to fight climate change. The hard part is figuring out how we can achieve that goal. I keep listening to the demands from the Climate Strikers and it is all about stopping all fossil fuel use now and blaming the previous generations for the conditions of the present. I read that:

What Thunberg and her fellow protesters want from their governments is to “keep fossil fuels in the ground, phase out subsidies for dirty energy production, seriously invest in renewables and start asking difficult questions about how we structure our economies and who is set to win and who is set to lose,” 

What I don’t hear is a recognition that we currently have a transportation (and thus food supply) system that is utterly dependent on fossil fuels and will be for the next 20+ years. We simply don’t have widely available fossil fuel-free options for transport trucks, container ships, cube vans or airplanes. Were we to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” our food supplies would quickly dry up and people would starve. This means to fight climate change we need to figure out how to address non-transportation uses while we innovate in the transportation field.

In addition, climate change, while an important priority, is not the only priority for world governments. Climate change has the potential to kill millions in the future, but energy poverty is killing millions today. We live in a world where 1.1 billion people live in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Governments in developing nations are going to prioritize the health of today’s people over those of tomorrow.

The thing climate strikers have to understand is that there are no short-cuts to cutting our carbon emissions. It is easy for climate strikers and their activist supporters, who go to bed well-fed and warm in Canada and Europe, to tell the world they should use less energy. But the governments of China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight and will ignore those cries because they are dealing with louder and more pressing cries of citizens who need food and shelter today.

The climate strikers talk about how our emissions are going to condemn them to a life of squalor and misery, except that is not true. Kids today enjoy their lifestyles because generations before them built the world we have now. We have a smaller percentage of humans living in abject poverty than we have had in history. By virtually any measure you can identify the lives our kids enjoy is better than the lives their great-grandparents lived.

Moreover, if we actually implemented the changes they demand these same children would be on the streets protesting those changes. Any attempt to completely change-over our economy, in the timeline presented, would necessarily take massive resources away from other priorities. It would mean less money for schools, universities, hospitals, sports facilities, roads and sewers. As long as the battle is in the abstract these students are all for it, but tell them that they won’t have seats in university, that the sports and music programs in their schools are being shut down and that their grandparents can’t get the surgery they need and all of a sudden priorities change.

There is a reason we don’t leave complex policy decisions to well-meaning children, it is because while they may be well-meaning they are not trained to understand the consequences of their demands.

Consider Ms. Thunberg’s recent trip across the Atlantic. No one can deny that the young lady endured discomfort and not insignificant risk to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat. But unfortunately her journey typifies the empty symbolism of the Green movement. You see, her highly symbolic trip actually resulted in higher emissions than if she had simply jumped on a trans-Atlantic flight with her dad.

Assuming she took an economy flight with her dad, the return trip would have resulted in 4 total Atlantic crossings (2 each way). By sailing, however, the trip has resulted in a minimum of 6 crossings as two crew that traveled with her on the ship to the US will be flying back to Europe, while 4 crew from Europe will be flying over the help bring the sailboat home. The net effect of this trip was a substantial increase in total emissions for the trip.

This is what happens when you seek simple solutions to complex problems. It was a gesture, but one that generated a net excess of emissions. Just like clearing rain-forests to build palm oil plantations for biofuels; cutting US low-land forests to provide wood pellets for UK power plants; and shuttering nuclear plants in Germany and then needing to use more coal to replace the lost nuclear power. All these bad ideas were implemented because well-meaning people suggested solutions but didn’t understand the complexity of the problem they were attempting to address.

Now I recognize that we need to raise the bar when it comes to our fight against climate change. We need to do more, but as someone who has been working to bring about change I have had just about enough of being blamed for things outside my control and being told it’s my fault that we are not going to meet a deadline that literally didn’t exist when we were designing our plan to meet a different deadline.

So no it is not misogyny, it is simple frustration at being told again and again that we are not doing enough by people who don’t understand the topic enough to understand what it will take to achieve this goal.  

Do I resent the climate strikers? No of course not. I am simply tired of being told I need to drive faster by individuals who don’t yet understand how to drive.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Why environmental professionals and policy specialists are often frustrated with the climate strikers

  1. Andrew Roman says:

    I keep reading that those who say “Drive faster Dad” do so because they mean that “we” have to do something about GHG emissions faster/sooner. But who do they mean by “we”? Who is the “we” that must do something faster? The Green New Deal in the US and its derivatives in Canada mean “our government”. That’s Daddy. But that is also nationalistic hubris. That’s not the Daddy that is doing most of the driving, so the kids are in the back seat of the wrong car.

    In the US it is argued that if American dedication to a goal was able to put a man on the moon the US can solve the “climate crisis” by good old American initiative. And we in Canada have a similar illusion. Yet Vaclav Smil has calculated that if we shut down the oil sands entirely, China would make up for the emissions saved in just 17 days.

    The US represents just 13% of global CO2 emissions. Thunberg’s home country is even less able to make a difference. China, India and other developing nations will rapidly overwhelm whatever the developing countries are doing. Canadians may be pressured into leaving our oil in the ground, but China, India and others won’t be pressured by EU and North American protesters into leaving their coal in the ground.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mdander says:

    Whereas your analogy suggests that we can’t “drive faster” because there’s too much traffic, you clarify that we can’t do so “while providing no other insight as to how to achieve that goal”.

    I just want to point out that, whereas I agree that Ms. Thunberg’s demands cannot be directly made into policy, I have yet to read any constructive post on this blog that translates into a policy that will help us “drive faster” w.r.t. climate change mitigation.

    Let’s compare your approach to science vs. that of Ms. Thunberg — I’ve noticed that she makes reference to the IPCC reports to substantiate her concerns.

    Your previous post, for example, featured a kind of “scientific rebuttal” of a recent paper by Dr. Howarth that suggests that shale gas exploitation is driving increases in global atmospheric methane. You presented some quotes from that paper and another one that suggests the opposite. Arguing that we should believe the latter, you wrote “A friend (who happens to be a geochemist) I spoke with on the topic pointed out that isotopic fingerprinting of shale gas is simply not as clear cut as Dr. Howarth suggests it should be.” Sorry, that’s not a valid scientific reference.

    You also wrote “As a scientist, I decided to go look at the data from the methane tracker and was surprised to see that there is no signal of massive increases in methane emissions that would be necessary to tip the global balance. The spike is simply not there.” Saying you read something “as a scientist” doesn’t make your observations any more relevant to a critique of Dr. Howarth’s paper — that would require you to be specific and show your work.

    The two papers contradict one another. I read your post “as a scientist” and it did nothing to support one over the other. I’ll look elsewhere.

    The truth is that you haven’t done any more actual climate science than Ms. Thunberg. You are both interpreting and communicating science in a way that supports beliefs that you are very passionate about.

    Many voters in Canada have been inspired by Ms Thunberg to make climate change an important factor in who they vote for in the upcoming election. This, in turn has helped ensure that each of our national parties have made a clear statement about what they intend to do about climate change — from Unrealistically Aspirational (Green) to Evidence Based but Insufficient (Liberal) all the way to Mostly Absent (Conservative).

    The Greens won’t win, but every vote they get will highlight the inadequacies of whoever does — and they may represent the balance of power in a Liberal or Conservative minority government. Fine by me.

    Ms. Thunberg has lit a fire under our politicians that might just motivate them to craft better policy.

    Your posts have lit a fire under our politicians to do what? Keep on driving with the flow of traffic?

    The reality is that we’re all in the backseat. Our politicians and our industry leaders are in the driver’s seat. Your whining sounds like sour grapes that maybe they’re paying more attention to Ms. Thunberg than they are to you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andrew Roman says:

      Have you considered the possibility that there may not be any way to drive faster with available technology? A lot of scientists and economists (see the William Nordhaus article of August 2018 in the American Economic Review) believe that. The CO2 emissions from the developed nations represent less than 1/3 of total global emissions, while the developing nations represent 2/3. The developing nations are increasing their emissions faster than the developed nations can decrease theirs without freezing in the dark. Electric airplanes, trucks and ships don’t exist, so we can’t transport food from farms to cities without fossil fuels. Electric cars are still a small percentage of cars sold today, and they are charged by grids transporting electricity generated in large part from fossil fuels. The tons of cement and steel and fibreglass to make, transport and install a wind generator requires lots of fossil fuels. And the electricity they generate is intermittent, requiring massive fossil fuel generation backup.

      What are “our” politicians going to do when Canada represents 1.6% of global CO2 emissions while China is 27% and rising rapidly. And India is expected to catch up to and surpass China. And there is Indonesia, etc.

      Greta Thunberg means well, but if Sweden disappeared tomorrow it would make very little difference. Sweden, the poster child for low emissions, started its carbon tax some 20 years ago, but until 2018 a lot of its emitting industries were partially or totally exempted. And a lot of its investment in emitting industries went to China and other countries, so for every tonne Sweden emits from its territorial borders it imports 67% of that from other countries. By exporting its emissions from an electricity grid with lots of hydro generation to countries manufacturing these goods using coal, the country is better looking statistically but the planet is actually worse off.

      CO2 emissions are not a national issue but a global issue. If you read the Paris Agreement text and the promises made by countries under that agreement you will see that India promised massive increases in emissions, not decreases, and China promised to make its best efforts to peak in its emissions by 2030, without stating what that peak would be. And there are no sanctions if China (or any other country) continues to increase its emissions and doesn’t keep its promises.

      So what solution would you suggest that our Canadian political and industry leaders implement? Condemn China and India at the UN for wanting to improve the lot of their hundreds of millions living in great poverty and without access to any electricity? Invade China and India to blow up their existing and coal plants under construction, thereby starting WW III?

      The hard question we need to address for any “green” plan is: do you want to look good, to feel good, or to do good? If you want to do good, provide a global emissions reduction plan and a way of enforcing it. Otherwise your plan is to feel good or look good, while achieving nothing for the planet.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Alison Malis says:

      Climate change shouldn’t be part of any Canadian political party’s platform. Not unless the response to climate change, if there is in fact a necessity to have the kind of response posited by Thunberg et al., (which is never actually defined, right), is something more than taxation.


  3. mdander says:

    Some may expect me to point out that Canada’s 1.6% of emissions are from just 0.5% of the global population. Or maybe to ask what portion of China’s 27% is industrial emissions from manufacturing products consumed by Canadians. But that’s been done to death. Aren’t you tired of arguments where people snipe at each other from their respective filter bubbles with their respective quivers of pointed factoids?

    A broad survey of un-debunked climate science would convince anyone who doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories, that we have to find a way “drive faster”. I seriously doubt that Blair King is into conspiracies. He does advocate passionately that we shouldn’t “drive recklessly” (to push the poor analogy a bit further) — and I agree with him. But in the absence of solutions that will “get us out of the slow lane”, his writing is increasingly pointless.

    Better Canadian government policies aren’t going to be enough. Awesome new technology is just as unlikely to get the job done by itself. Nothing short of a free market transformation — getting people to vote better, to invest better and to consume better — will make a substantial difference.

    Unlike Greta Thunberg, nobody writing on this blog is likely to stir those waters, but I do believe in the value of the clear and accurate communication of scientific evidence, something that Blair King has occasionally proved himself to be very good at. I wish he’d do more of it.


  4. Gary Blidook says:

    The technology IS here this is doable. We can get off coal, oil and gas within a few years if we get serious but there are so many excuses to prop up the “we can’t” argument that the negative nellies have and will continue to use to prevent any real meaningful change. This is an absolute disaster and a whole barrel full of BS.


  5. Tom Feigs says:

    100 million barrels of oil equivalent every day is consumed around the world and this consumption is growing. There are a billion people on earth in energy poverty. We (globally) need to find sources of cheap energy of any kind to help lift these people out of poverty. The technology does
    not yet exist to replace all forms of fossil fuel consumption. Even if it did, we still have the problem of distributing energy to all corners of the globe and cheap enough to be affordable.
    The plight of the poor is not BS and fossil fuel will be part of the energy solution for some time to come.
    Transitioning energy consumption from coal to natural gas is very doable. Natural gas emits 40% less emissions than coal (to produce the same amount of energy). If Canada were to ramp up natural gas production and ship it to China to offset burning of coal, Canada would potentially help reduce more global emissions then Canada currently emits in total. China is harvesting energy in every way possible: hydro, nuclear, wind, solar and still relies heavily on coal.
    The energy equation is not simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chester Draws says:

    We could drive a lot faster. Going all out nuclear would do that. But the kids in the back seat refuse to take that route.

    They aren’t serious. If they really thought the world was going to end because of carbon emissions, they’d be all over nuclear.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your analogy fails to recognize that for most of the trip, the driver refused to recognize the existence of the soccer game. And even now that they acknowledge it, the response is “well, we can’t make it on time so we might as well drive slowly and enjoy the scenery”. And the parents spend way too much time listening to radio suggesting the soccer game is a hoax.

    I’d rather try to make it to the soccer game 30 minutes late than give up and enjoy the scenery.

    Your cheap shot at Greta’s carbon footprint fails to acknowledge the actions she’s inspired in millions of others. How many are cutting their meat consumption or refusing to fly now because of Greta. I’m pretty sure she’s done more for the environment in the past year than you have in your entire life.

    There’s so much we could be doing right now and aren’t. The US doesn’t have a carbon tax. We might lose are carbon tax in Canada. We still subsidize animal agriculture, but we should have a methane tax. We could be spending more expanding public transit and less expanding the oil sands. We could be changing land use rules to increase density and reduce urban sprawl.

    It might not get us to the soccer game on time but it at least acknowledges that we’re running late.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blair says:

      Why is it a cheap shot to point out the carbon emissions of the boat trip? One can be inspirational and make mistakes and to put individuals on a pedestal and imagine they can make no errors is to ignore our shared humanity with all our flaws.


      • She didn’t make a mistake. The climate change skeptics would have had a fit if she flew to the conference. Instead she took a boat, garnered loads of media attention, inspired countless young people, and brought flygskam into the mainstream in North America. Anyone who thinks her boat trip will be anything but carbon negative (even when considering the flights of crew members) is underestimating the effect she’s having.


      • Andrew Roman says:

        The purpose of the transatlantic sailboat trip was a message: stop flying in aircraft. Yes, she got a lot of media attention. But then what? Should we ban transatlantic and transpacific aircraft flights and all take sailboats, to follow her leadership? If not, what point was she making?

        Consider the life cycle of a sailboat like hers with a fibreglass hull, auxiliary ICE engine, crew and passenger capacity. How many sailboats with how many crew members would it take to carry the same number of passengers cross the Atlantic or Pacific? What cradle to grave environmental impacts would all these sailboats have, to match the transatlantic aircraft passenger capacity? If we all switched from aircraft to sailboats would the planet be better off?


      • Andrew Roman says:

        I would agree with her if she was making that point about air travel within Europe, with its relatively small distances between major cities. Many European travellers take the inexpensive flights for short trips, where taking the train is a reasonable substitute. But that was not the point she was making. She didn’t take a train across the Atlantic, she took a sailboat.

        Presumably the point she was making was that we should all follow her example. But is it reasonable to expect business people, or even vacationers, to take a week on a sailboat Instead of flying from Montreal to Paris in 5 hours? What about in winter? What would a transatlantic sailboat trip cost, with food requirements and a much higher crew to passenger ratio (Greta had a crew of 4)?

        Greta has tried to set a good example, to be inspirational, but not everything she does is inspired. The sailboat trip was not her best point.


      • What should she have done? Fly? Do you honestly think that would have been better? The coverage would have been non-stop about how she’s a hypocrite. You see it about David Suzuki all the time. Her only alternative was to not go at all, which is exactly what the climate change deniers wanted. Instead she found a clever workaround that let her attend the conference and garnered positive media attention.

        No one is claiming ship travel should replace transatlantic air travel. The only people fixated on her boat ride are those who disagree that we’re in a climate crisis.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. DMacKenzie says:

    CdnVeg, you mention the proper solution which is that she should not have gone to the conference if anyone was really concerned about emissions. She has no climate science expertise, no logistical implementation experience, not a single conference topic can benefit from her input. She is simply a team mascot. It’s about the pageantry, not the emissions.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Andrew Roman says:

    I agree. When a celebrity movie actor or movie host with no climate science background or specialized knowledge flies around to conferences and other publicized events lecturing ordinary mortals about saving the planet I see that as self-intereted, hypocritical branding. By playing the fame game the celebrity gets useful publicity, while none of the knowledgable conference participants learn anything from the celebrity. Why should people give added credence to the opinions of people whose job it is to pretend to be other people or to make nice music? Popularity in no way imparts wisdom.

    On the other hand, I see no self-intereted hypocrisy in scientists with genuine climate expertise sharing that with others by flying to the appropriate conferences. The moral question for Greta Thunberg is the same as for the scientists: whether their intellectual contribution to the conference would have justified flying there. If not, why go at all?

    The sailboat trip was a clever bit of staging for the media. But was her contribution after sailing there any greater than the celebrity branding exercises of the movie actors? I can see how Greta’s garnering favourable media attention is helping Greta, but how is it helping to reduce the environmental challenges for the planet?


    • mdander says:

      Here’s one serious problem with filter bubbles: it makes people think in binary.

      Greta is correct: Without drastic increases in climate change mitigation efforts, the lives of her generation will be adversely affected and, yes, it is the fault of my generation as we have done next to nothing after almost four decades of progressively convincing scientific evidence to that effect.

      Blair is also correct: The proposed policy changes proposed by activists that rally behind Greta Thunberg, taken at face value, would wreak economic havoc and not accomplish their goal.

      Government policy can have an impact: A carbon tax; subsidies for renewable / nuclear energy projects; incentives for EV purchases; electricity transmission infrastructure upgrades; changes to the industrial / residential building code; etc. Sadly, it is clear that, taken together, they’re not even close to enough to keep us below 1.5C of warming.

      Climate activism isn’t going to get us there either, but the one thing that could have a large impact is a large scale change in the behavior of the free market.

      I can guarantee you that Greta Thunberg’s actions have resulted in some people deciding to fly less; some people deciding to purchase a more fuel efficient vehicle; some people deciding to eat less meat; some people pressuring their pension funds to divest from fossil fuel investments in favor of renewables; some people deciding to buy less made-in-china plastic crap; some people deciding to make climate change the most important issue when they vote.

      Greta Thunberg is not just having this effect in Canada, but in wealthy, high-emissions generating countries globally.

      That’s just my opinion. You can go back to arguing about whether we should tell her to shut up or not.


  10. Peter S says:

    Thanks for the article. I could not have expressed my own view better. After 30 years of repeated talkfests, meaningless argy bargy, politically induced subsidies etc etc Total Primary Energy Supply world wide is still 80% dependent on fossil fuels. Renewables, excluding hydro make up only 2%. Facts are sobering.


    • Robbie says:

      There is interesting news on this front. The Copenhagen Consensus group rates R&D into green energy that can actually replace current sources as paying off at $11 to $15 per dollar spent respecting future warming costs.

      I have also seen optimal carbon tax levels as being about $10 – $15 per CO2 ton at this point.

      We have a policy option that can make a substantial difference in the future rate of decarbonization in R&D while the current optimal carbon tax is not high.

      Subsidies and direct CO2 restriction efforts essentially have zero payoff in costs vs benefits at this time. Unfortunately they are the primary current policy and will have essentially no positive effect on warming costs. The Paris Accord is projected to cost 1 to 2 trillion dollars a year and fully implemented to reduce 2100 temperatures by a fraction of a degree.


      • Andrew Roman says:

        I have been skeptical of the efficacy of a CO2 tax in changing human behaviour without the government telling us from what to what. For example, if an increased tax on gasoline is to encourage public transit usage but there is no public transit or it is at capacity, how will the tax change behaviour?

        I was at first persuaded by the logic of the Copenhagen Consensus group until I began thinking about it. Economic theories don’t always work in practice. As someone who has had to cross-examine economists in the course of my legal career I learned to ask them to demonstrate how they got from A to Z, in particular, to explain their assumptions.

        I have never seen how R&D into green energy that can actually replace current sources was calculated to pay off at $11 to $15 per dollar spent. This number is just put out there and reported in the media as superior to a CO2 tax. If it is detailed somewhere I haven’t found it.

        Without knowing today what new technology this expenditure might produce after several decades of research and testing, and how effective it will be, how can they provide us with any number? I can see how to quantify the dollar input, but how do you quantify an unknown output?

        Another question is when they talk about spending billions or trillions on R&D, who would spend how much of this, allocated how? You can’t just request or order the private sector to do some unspecified green R&D on its own. National governments would have to tax and collect this money in a “Green R&D Tax” that replaces, and is much higher than any actual CO2 tax. Would that be politically acceptable to the yellow jackets and others who don’t want new taxes without clear benefits?

        And then comes the practical problem: governments picking winners in distributing the R&D funds. Governments are notoriously bad at picking technology winners. What if they pick the wrong winners and all that R&D tax revenue is wasted?

        And then there’s politics. Would Donald Trump oppose any of this R&D money going to China, and vice versa? How much would Canada get, and which companies would get how much, for how many decades?

        Without persuasive answers to these questions I am unable to endorse the Copenhagen Consensus group’s R&D solution.


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