Editorial / Op-ed
David Suzuki is starting to sound like a grumpy old man
His exaggerated, over-the-top claims distract from his environmental message
DAN GARDNER, CanWest News Service, May 03, 2007
Yes, I know David Suzuki is legendary, revered and possibly even worshiped deep in the woods of Vancouver Island. I respect him, I really do. But still I have to say it: David Suzuki has become a cranky old man.
I know. That's harsh. But really, a couple of weeks ago, he sounded like Grandpa Simpson.
John Baird, the environment minister, had just released a report claiming that the only way to meet the Kyoto targets on time would be to take steps that would plunge the economy into recession. Baird emphasized his report had been endorsed by leading economists. Suzuki's reaction? "First of all, let's stop listening to the goddamn economists."
That's not a good sign. Anyone who has spent time around cranky old men knows they make liberal use of the adjective "goddamn." Goddamn weather. Goddamn back. Goddamn Leafs. Goddamn economists. True, Grandpa Simpson doesn't say "goddamn," but that's only because the censors don't let him.
More evidence followed. Suzuki said climate change itself threatens economic disaster: "Twenty per cent of the economy will disappear. It will cost more than World War I and World War II put together. We'll go into a kind of depression we've never, ever had in all of history."
To his credit, Suzuki did not quite say "the world is going to hell in a handbasket." Nor did he complain about kids these days.
But there's something odd about that "20-per-cent" number he cited. It comes from the Stern report, a study of the economic effects of climate change commissioned by the British government. It is called the Stern report because the man responsible for it is Sir Nicholas Stern, who was, until recently, the World Bank's chief economist. So Suzuki griped about how we pay too much attention to goddamn economists and then directed our attention to an economist. Confusion is another mark of the cranky old man.
So is muddling up simple facts. You see, the Stern report did not say "20 per cent of the economy will disappear." It said the damage done by climate change will come off future growth, not the current economy. That's still very serious. But it's a lot less serious than losing one-fifth of the status quo.
Nor did Stern say the figure would be 20 per cent. He said it would fall somewhere between five and 20 per cent. Again, that's still very serious. But even the dumbest criminal knows that a sentence of five-to-20 is a lot better than 20.
The goal of every alarmist is to be alarming without telling outright falsehoods, but Suzuki went too far. Cranky old men do that. Younger, hipper alarmists don't. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Homer-Dixon, University of Toronto professor and author of The Upside of Down, said the Stern report found "the annual worldwide costs of damage from climate change could reach 20 per cent of global economic output."
Now that's nice work. You simply drop the bottom figure from the range and say the damage "could reach" the top figure, thus ensuring the reader sees only the biggest and scariest number and has no idea that the report actually said the damage could well be three-quarters less. Sheer genius. It's alarming and yet technically true -- just as it would be if I were to run down the street shouting "we're all going to die!"
Of course, to be declared a cranky old man, one must have more than one bad day. I'm afraid that's the case with David Suzuki.
Consider a 2005 op-ed article Suzuki wrote in which he warned that Canadians were beset by an "epidemic of cancer" caused by chemical contamination in the environment. Most cancer scientists think chemical contamination is a very minor cause of cancer, but leave that aside. Is there really an "epidemic of cancer" at all?
To make his case, Suzuki cites a couple of personal anecdotes of the sort that make scientists wince. And he has this: "This year, for the first time, cancer has surpassed heart disease as our No. 1 killer."
Actually, it didn't. It was close to doing so, however, so it's no big deal that he got that wrong. What does matter is that he simply assumes that if cancer passes heart disease as the No. 1 killer, it must be because more and more people are dying of cancer. But there is another possible explanation: Fewer and fewer people are dying of heart disease.
And that is in fact the case. The rate of cancer deaths is actually declining. But the rate of heart-disease deaths is falling faster, which is primarily why cancer is passing heart disease as the No 1. killer. Good news, right? Anyone can see that.
No, not anyone. No news is ever seen as good news by cranky old men. For them, there's only one direction for the goddamn handbasket we're all in: straight to hell.