As an environmental scientist, I am regularly asked why I seem so critical of environmental activists and environmental NGOs. My answer is simple: because the people who should be speaking out when environmental activists and environmental NGOs make ridiculous claims are failing at the task. As an example, this weekend the news was highlighted by an environmental protest that snarled traffic in Vancouver. The protestors were members of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver. One of the Extinction Rebellion’s “demands” is:
Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
Read that demand again because it should be the first thing anyone talks about when discussing Extinction Rebellion. They are demanding that we GET TO NET ZERO EMISSIONS BY 2025. “Net Zero” means we have to replace every ambulance, fire truck, bus, train and/or transport truck with a non-fossil fuel version. It means we eliminate the essential tools necessary to feed our community, protect the elderly and aid the ill. Moreover, they aren’t asking for this in 10 or 20 years; they are DEMANDING it be done in 4 years.
As I have written previously, Extinction Rebellion’s demands represent nothing less than magical thinking. There is only one means to accomplish their goals in that time frame and that would be to eliminate the vast majority of the human population. Absent genocide, their demands are impossible.
Reading the commentary about the protest, I could not find a single member of the activist community calling out Extinction Rebellion Vancouver for making such ridiculous demands. Where are the serious thinkers in the NGO community arguing that neither magic, nor genocide are acceptable means to achieve our climate goals? The answer is they are either missing or don’t exist.
That is why you see me asking these questions on social media. I am a pragmatic environmentalist with the education and expertise to recognize when activists are making impossible demands. Absent high-profile activists doing this, someone must bring the discussion back from “let’s use magic” to “let’s find what we can do to achieve our goals”.
So where are the environmental leaders who should be doing this task? My suggestion is that they don’t exist. To my mind, today’s environmental movement leaders are the students I helped teach in the 1990’s. These students were brought up in an academic environment I remember well. It was one where universities were building new schools and departments of Environmental Studies and those schools, like my own, were dominated by social scientists and historians with little-to-no interest in the natural sciences and few-to-no required natural science classes in their course loads.
The result is a generation of students who were not taught environmental science. Most lack the ability to crunch the numbers and understand why policies may or may not work in the real world. They use words like “toxic” without understanding what those words mean. When I talk about specific gravity and how it affects the behaviour of an oil spill in freshwater environments and why that differs from a similar spill in saltwater their eyes glaze over. It may as well be Greek to them. Absent a grounding in environmental science they are left to trust their guts on these topics and their guts often get it wrong because this topic is complex and sometimes the informed response is counter intuitive.
That is how relatively intelligent and well-educated activists can “demand” the impossible. They lack the wider experience (and scientific education) necessary to even recognize that their demands are impossible. They let their hearts make their decisions. They seek to “Move the Overton Window” while making a splash in the media; getting “likes” on their social media feeds; and generating donations to pay for their continued activism.
Consider this tweet from Naomi Klein:
When people engage in the fiercest forms of land, water, and planet protection, they do so from a place of love. If they’re trying to stop a pipeline, it’s not because they hate cylindrical metal things. It’s because they love their water. And they’re willing to fight for it.
This is about the fight against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX). A project that will reduce the risk to our aquatic environments. By fighting the pipeline, they increase the risk to our shared waters. Their love may be real, but their actions will not help achieve their goal. This reminds me of that old expression about good intentions and where they lead us.
Let’s consider some more examples where NGOs should have known better.
Most of you are too young to remember that in the early 1990’s Greenpeace was engaged in an all-out campaign to get the element chlorine banned from use in industrial products. As a Chemistry graduate student at the time this made no sense to me. Chlorine is responsible for preventing hundreds of millions of waterborne infections a year and Greenpeace was trying to get it banned.
What was even more ridiculous to me was that an international organization decided it was possible to ban an element from environmental chemistry. Seriously, it reminded me of the famous Steve Martin “Hostages” sketch where he suggested that a hostage taker demand that the letter “m” be stricken from the English language. His argument, in the sketch, was you had to make one crazy demand when you were in a hostage situation so if you got caught you could plead insanity. Except Greenpeace wasn’t trying to plead insanity, they actually wanted governments to ban the use of chlorine. I suppose no one walked them through the chemistry of table/road salt.
But enough with the 1990’s, let’s look at the present. In 2021, Greenpeace is fighting to prevent the poor in Southeast Asia from getting access to a cheap and effective means to prevent blindness in children. According to UNICEF, approximately 1.15 million children die ever year from conditions associated with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Golden Rice was designed to address this problem. It is a strain of rice that has been genetically modified to be rich in Vitamin A. Golden Rice will provide a cheap and effective dietary mean to address VAD. Yet Greenpeace has been actively fighting Golden Rice because it goes against their general fight against genetically engineered foods.
Greenpeace has no data to suggest that Golden Rice itself causes specific harm; they fight it because it is genetically engineered, and they don’t like genetic engineering of foodstuffs. Their fight has delayed the distribution of Golden Rice and is directly responsible for untold suffering in the developing world.
Want more examples? Most of my readers know my stance on the TMX. As I have repeatedly shown, the TMX will move existing oil production from Alberta more safely and with a lower greenhouse gas footprint. But fossil fuels are considered bad by the environmental community, so any project to move fossil fuels safely must be inherently bad and so they oppose the project. The result will inevitably mean more oil-by-rail, more emissions, more incidents and worse environmental outcomes.
How about BC LNG? The climate math makes it clear that BC LNG can help reduce global emissions. But once again we are talking about fossil fuels and if you take a parochial view you can claim that exporting LNG will increase our domestic emissions. The problem is that global warming doesn’t care about domestic emissions, it cares about total global emissions and BC LNG will decrease total global emissions.
It is not just the big-ticket items. Environmentalists have been getting it wrong for years on topics where life cycle analyses say one thing and their intuition says another. On topics from soccer fields, to ocean plastics, to BPA their intuitive approaches fail them. Heck they even got wrapped bananas wrong.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if all their uninformed opinions and direct actions were harmless, but they are not harmless. As I noted above, fighting Golden Rice results in hundreds of thousands suffering needlessly every year. Fighting the TMX will cost the economy while simultaneously putting our communities and watersheds at greater risk, while increasing overall GHG emissions to boot. Each action by Extinction Rebellion increases antipathy towards their cause and decreases the likelihood they will convince the greater public of the importance of their cause.
As a subject matter expert and pragmatic environmentalist, I simply cannot sit idly by while activists and activist NGOs demand policy alternatives that will increase the risk to human and ecological health because it makes them feel good and gets them “likes” on social media. If we are going to make the changes necessary to fight climate change and preserve the ecosphere it will take individuals with expertise and training to speak out when activists and NGOs demand the impossible while fighting against the good.
Great article, more need to read.
It’s actually worse than you (and I) thought…
I don’t know how extreme activists sleep at night given the consequences of their advocacy. Denying developing countries access to low cost fossil fuel energy condemns hundreds of thousands to at best a miserable life and worst a miserable death. For example around 600,000 Africans, many children under 5, die every year from respiratory complications resulting from domestic cooking using animal dung.
The concept that ideology justifies one group of humans to sentence another much larger group to death now over an unproven consequence of a 0.001% increase of a trace gas sometime in the future is the definition of irrational behaviour.
Personally, I’d sentence all members of Extinction Rebellion to a year living in an off the grid mud hut somewhere in Africa but then, if they survived, they’d probably still have no empathy.
“The human minds capacity for self deceit is beyond belief” – Arthur C Clarke
Better they be sentenced to a full year living in the Canadian Arctic with no fires or shelter!
I didn’t see a speck of science in your article. Lot of stuff re: science and how much you know it, but still no science.
Then you may want to read the cited articles and their embedded references. This one is a summary that links to articles with the primary references…you are welcome.
Great article! Shows the nonsense that supposedly counts as eco-activism in today’s world!!
Keep up the great work and frequency of your well written and well-thought out pieces. I thoroughly enjoy them and often refer others to them because they provide many well-thought points to balance out so much wrong out in the media and politics.
Having read this post and your previous one “A pragmatic environmentalist’s view on climate change, BC LNG and the Trans Mountain Pipeline project – not either or but all of the above”, I have a couple of comments.
Before I get into it, I want to say that I am so happy that you have owned and discarded your “Lukewarmer” opinions. I respect you for that.
I completely agree that insisting that we get to net zero by 2025 is pointless. But I will insist that, as an environmental scientist who’s “views represent the middle of the mainstream on the topic”, you do not have the right to be patronizing unless you propose an alternative timeline.
You see, regardless of where your views sit w.r.t. the mainstream understanding, the impact of climate change will get worse the less we do. That impact would exist if we achieved net zero tomorrow (i.e. the global temperature will still continue to rise and, even if it stayed the same, the glaciers would continue to melt). There will be a greater impact if net zero happens in 2025 (it won’t), greater still if it happens in 2050 (it probably still won’t), etc.
What I want you to take away from my comment is that there are two sides to that math:
1. The side that you focus on — how achievable net zero is. You do an excellent job working to quantify this, so thank you.
2. What the potential impacts are the longer we delay and what a person is willing to accept before they get really angry — even to the point of making impossible demands.
The potential impacts will be measured by biodiversity loss, by drought, by famine and eventually by rising oceans. It will be measured by the number of people that die or are displaced by those things and, let’s face it, that won’t be us. We will be impacted, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that Canadian house prices and the stock market will probably be fine.
No, the impact will be experienced disproportionately by the poor. And when I say “disproportionately”, think “I live in a house in a beautiful place where wild animals still live nearby” vs. “My home is gone and millions of us have to walk huge distances with what’s left of our families, with no reliable access to food or water so that I can get to a refugee camp with no hope of any country ever wanting to take us. Oh, and there is a war going on — lots of people just want us dead.”
Look. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. We all look past injustices in the world and we always have. But maybe some people just have a threshold that they can’t see past.
You are very good at explaining why net zero by 2025 is an unreasonable expectation, but that’s a really low bar. What would be helpful would be an alternative date, how it is achievable and what the impacts are likely to be.
I fully understand that you don’t respect the people that you are criticizing. Your complaints about things that the environmental movement has gotten wrong are sadly correct (at least I concur regarding the ones that I am familiar with).
So yeah, the environmental movement has occasionally gotten it wrong — but, to be fair, so have you (um, that whole Lukewarmer thing). That doesn’t mean the contribution to society of the environmental movement is net negative (same for you!).
To summarize: Don’t shame net zero 2025 advocates. Educate them with your own date — show your math, both sides of the equation. That’s a high bar, but you accomplish little by aiming below it.
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