“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
– Confucius, Analects
Confucius demanded clarity in political discourse and 2,500 years later, George Orwell did the same in his famous essay Politics and the English Language.
The dangers of unclear or deliberately misleading communication are now evident to all of us in an age of “fake news” and the Internet torrent of millions of unchecked voices screaming their messages.
The debate surrounding climate change produces many assertions that are simply untrue, the chief of which is the claim of the existence of “a 97 per cent consensus among scientists that humans are the cause of global warming.”
But there are other sorts of misleading language than simple lies. One of these is the declaration of a environmental emergency, which is a fad.
Following disruptive sit-ins on the streets of London by the activist Extinction Rebellion and a visit by Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish global warming activist, the British Parliament on May 1 became the first national government in the world to declare an environment and climate emergency.
It joined 22 Canadian cities and hundreds of others around the world that have made the same gesture. We’re told that there are now tens of millions of people living under national, city and local declarations of a climate emergency around the world.
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In Ottawa, the federal government is apparently preparing a motion calling on the House of Commons to declare a national climate emergency, and profess continued support in meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets.
Not to be outdone, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, desperate to keep ahead of the Liberals on this issue, has tabled a motion calling on the government not only to declare a climate emergency, but to bring forward a climate plan that prioritizes Indigenous people, supports workers, eliminates all federal fossil fuel subsidies and cancels the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
There are problems with this sort of bloviation. The first is that ‘environmental emergency’ already exists as a meaningful category in federal and international guidelines. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, an environmental emergency is defined as “an uncontrolled, unplanned or accidental release of a hazardous substance into the environment, or the reasonable likelihood of such a release into the environment.”
The law sets up regulations, requires certain actions of officials, and aims to mitigate local disasters. It has nothing to do with real or imagined climate dangers that may occur decades from now. This means that the term ‘environmental emergency,’ as bandied about by the federal government, is a phrase meant – contrary to the demands of Confucius and Orwell – to obfuscate and obscure.
From such a hollow declaration playing to a general anxiety about the future will come ill-considered actions with real consequences.
A shadowy attack on an American destroyer in 1964 prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave the American president power to take “all necessary measures … to prevent further aggression.” This justified a massive escalation of the Vietnam War.
So a vague climate declaration may result in actions that will harm the Canadian economy, hamper resource development and fuel the power of activist groups (many of them in receipt of American money).
We hear much talk these days of hate speech. The real danger to our democracy comes from dangerous speech, talk that doesn’t advocate violence but does prepare the groundwork for radical action by creating an atmosphere of suspicion and turns citizens against each other.
Canadian politicians who play Quebec against the rest of Canada, who set Indigenous against non-Indigenous, who demonize the energy industry, and who use terms like ‘emergency’ in a cynical way are eroding the people’s trust in the electoral process.
Canadians need to have honest and open debates, unclouded by gassy emissions of language without clear meaning and without clear consequences.
The climate debate has suffered too long from crying wolf. Let’s demand politicians say what they mean and mean what they say.
Gerry Bowler is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.