The last few months have illustrated how we now argue in public in Canada and the picture is not encouraging.
I’m referring to what many think of as the great pipeline debate: the pros and cons of the Kinder Morgan diluted bitumen Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from the Alberta oilsands to tidewater in Vancouver.
We have a project approved by the National Energy Board, sanctioned by the federal government, beloved of Premier Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP, and opposed by the B.C. NDP, who under Premier John Horgan, with the support of three Green Party MLAs, seek its pre-construction demise.
The demise argument is supported by several B.C. First Nations, who seek injunctive relief from unwanted trespass on unceded territories.
There are numerous allied opponents in the environmental sector, engaging on issues ranging from opposition to oil tanker parking and anchor dragging off the Gulf Islands, to the maintenance of urban forest in Burnaby, to the dangers of pipeline fractures on the banks of the Fraser River, to grey whale and orca strikes on tankers in the Salish Sea, to the combusting of hydrocarbons after their eventual refining in China, and the consequent addition of atmospheric CO2.
There are also numerous corporate lobbyists and institutes, some of which are ‘dark-money’ funded, who weekly supply diatribes to websites and remaining old media, belabouring the lack of government action, and desiring immediate constitutional prohibitions by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Finance and energy sector CEOs are also contributing opinion pieces that make the case for energy investors fleeing Canada, and with them good-paying pipeline jobs for our sons and daughters.
Members of the general public are weighing in as well, in novice opinion articles, in thousands of Internet comment threads appended to published media, and in lecture hall and classroom debates across the country.
You’d think as a result of all the cacophony, there would be a general raising of the quality of debate.
In fact, the quality of discourse is polarizing, ad hominem in the extreme, largely scientifically illiterate, reliant on law based on ancient precedent rather than contemporary reality, and largely disinterested in cultivating any middle ground. Let’s consider these points one at a time in the cause of better argumentation.
Much of the discourse is framed for already-committed adherents. Preaching to the choir is a well-established skill of many corporate proponents (e.g. the Fraser Institute), but it’s also practised by highly skilled, well-funded communications teams in multinational green non-governmental organizations (e.g. Greenpeace). The net effect is building one-sided awareness of specific arguments, often very well argued but not to the benefit of achieving compromise, and rarely considerate of any shared fact base.
Ad hominem debate
The recent spleen-venting about Dr. David Suzuki’s umpteenth honorary PhD (this time from the University of Alberta) has produced multiple novice opinion pieces and driven angry readership to unheard of new highs, but at the cost of trivializing debate. Angry sentences rip into Suzuki’s propensity for air travel, his hypothetical real estate holdings, even his scientific credentials and practise. Rarely, if at all, do these attacks on him consider what he says about pipelines.
Rarely do I see a consideration of the peer-reviewed science in the mass of argumentative pieces on the pipeline debate. The general public, I submit (as the past executive director of an academic scientific institute), is woefully ignorant of the scientific method, the practice of peer-review and the relative importance of scientific journal publications. As a result, ideological opinion often passes for fact in the current debate.
As the holder of a law degree, I increasingly struggle with regulatory tribunal and court decisions (and resulting precedents) that have a demonstrated scientific underpinning. To the degree that scientific issues are ill-considered at trial, ill-considered decisions may result. In the context of accelerating climate change, such precedents are potentially dangerous to future generations.
We need public debate on pipelines that is focused on compromise rather than polarization; resolute in refusing ad hominem argument; rigorously scientifically literate; and based on legal decisions that are premised on carefully weighed and understood scientific argument.
At this juncture, anything else is a waste of time, a commodity we’re running out of.
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