(Image Credit: Michael A. Orlando via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
Out of the many disappointments as an immigrant in Canada, a major one for me is the often-pedestrian quality of commentary by members of the punditocracy, who are generally regarded as oracles or founts of wisdom.
HOPE & DISAPPOINTMENT
One common occurrence that I observe, both in the physical as well as the cyber world, is that when immigrants express disappointment that the reality in Canada sometimes does not match up to the vision of it that they had before immigrating here, their views are dismissed. Depending on which side of the political divide the dismissal comes from, it ends with either a version of discrediting the immigrant’s opinion (usually from the Left) or a stern rebuke to ‘Go back to where you came from, then, if you are so unhappy’ (usually from the Right). Both these are unhelpful, of course. The immigrants are here to stay, and so is their disappointment. What we need is a way to close the gap between expectations and reality.
What immigrants expect from Canada depends on their hierarchy of needs which, in turn, is a function of what went into their conceptualization of what constitutes a ‘good life’. This is not to suggest that this conceptualization is free of any bias – far from it. As humans, we all have our biases, preferences and predilections. In my case, it was an all-pervasive belief in the society where I grew up that ‘the West’ was vastly better than India because of its superior intellectual class, which kept the society on a positive track all the time. Looking back, I can see how slanted (or perhaps outright fallacious) this thinking was, given the disaster of the Vietnam war and other missteps that various countries of ‘the West’ had made just before I was absorbing this belief.
Nevertheless, when I arrived in Canada, I had this impression / expectation that the commentariat in Canada would be top-notch. I had heard the derogatory term ‘talking heads’ in relation to the US media because I had been consuming the content of pretty much all the major MSM outlets of the US that existed at the time, such as CNN, New York Times et al, for a decade by then – but didn’t think it would apply to the media in Canada. Possibly, this was because I had not been exposed to Canadian media at all prior to coming here.
As chance would have it, the first car that I bought in Canada had its radio tuned to Newstalk 1010, perhaps the biggest radio station in southern Ontario (at least at the time). Upon discovering that its schedule consisted almost entirely of talk shows, I decided not to move the dial from that station. In my initial years in Canada, I had to do a lot of running around – which actually means driving around – so I got to listen to many, many hours of talk shows on that station. This was ‘immersion’ level of introduction to the socio-political issues in Canada, and I am grateful for all the information that I was able to absorb listening to the radio.
However, given human nature, once I had absorbed the basics, I often found myself questioning or doubting whatever sage opinion was offered by this or that host or their guest. Initially, this was mainly in the area of foreign affairs (naturally), especially in the context of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were raging beyond control. I found the views of the hosts and their guests to be woefully ill-informed at times. For example, once Andrew Coyne was on a show as a guest and said (of the government of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan), “This is the first time in history that Afghanistan has a civilized government” (emphasis his). I found this to be such an ignorant take that I had to switch off the radio. “When does history begin for you, Mr. Coyne?” I yelled in my car. Before Afghanistan’s troubles began in the 1970’s, for nearly 40 years, the reign of King Zahir Shah had seen such a peaceful Afghanistan that the country had been a well known stretch on the hippie trail. Before him, in the 1920’s, King Amanullah Khan had tried – ultimately unsuccessfully – to bring his country at par with other countries. And so on.
On another occasion, the late Christie Blatchford, who was otherwise an excellent journalist and who was in Afghanistan at the time, said that the killing of 82 Taliban in a battle meant that they had lost about 10% to 15% of their fighters. For all my respect for her otherwise, I had to wonder how she thought Taliban fighters were coming into existence – it had been known for a couple of decades that the porous ‘border’ with Pakistan (which has never been accepted by Afghanistan as a border; they always refer to it as ‘the Durand Line’) enabled Pashtuns from the Pakistan side to cross over and join the fight for the Mujahideen, and later the Taliban. Her assessment completely disregarded the fact that the Taliban ranks could be – and were – continually replenished with fresh fighters. I felt let down by a journalist whom I respected a lot. This was the period when my dissatisfaction with socio-political commentary in Canada began.
ASSUMPTIONS & INCONSISTENCIES
With that background, let us come to the reason that prompted this article. On Friday, Globe & Mail published an article by Andrew Coyne on the ongoing discussion about the wildfires across Canada and climate change. Before I proceed, let me emphasize that I am not singling him out for criticism; as you know, in many of my articles (especially those related to Covid measures) I have pointed to the shortcomings of articles by other journalists as well. The article that I want to talk about today resembles those in terms of faulty assumptions, inconsistencies and assertions that are not backed up with sources by the author.
To start with, Mr. Coyne has always used the term ‘carbon pricing’. Pardon me if you have seen me point this out earlier, but the substance in question is not ‘carbon’ (C )but rather ‘carbon dioxide’ (CO2); calling it ‘carbon’ is akin to calling water (H2O) as ‘oxygen’. I believe that the distinction is significant – the word ‘carbon’ conjures images of soot in the unsuspecting reader’s mind. It is associated with dirtiness and pollution. Whether the misuse of the word ‘carbon’ is intentional or not, it needs to be avoided.
Furthermore, the use of the word ‘pricing’ is conceptually wrong for carbon tax – an external cost that is imposed by the diktat of the State cannot be called a ‘price’, for the simple reason that there is no market mechanism that enables the participants to arrive at its level. The ‘price’ is not a function of demand and supply, but rather imposed via the coercive power of the State.
In his arguments, Mr. Coyne concedes, right off the bat, that (a) the wildfires are probably not the result of global warming (as an aside, this displays the interchangeable manner in which the two terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are often used), and (b) wildfires have been declining as a trend over the past 30 years. Then in the very next breath, he makes this breathtaking statement: “It is not necessary to believe that climate change is responsible for any particular climatological event to agree, as a general proposition, that it is happening, that it is harmful, and that it is mainly caused by human activity, the evidence for which is overwhelming.”
Excuse me? On one hand, we have a whole assortment of politicians, activists and the rest of the commentariat pointing stridently to each ‘climatological event’ to strengthen their claim that these are the result of climate change. If it is not necessary to believe those assertions, then on what grounds do we conclude, ‘as a general proposition’, that climate change is happening? For a phenomenon of such dire consequences, it ought to have some observable impact somewhere. What are those impacts and where are they occurring? What is the evidence ‘which is overwhelming’ and which Mr. Coyne has not adduced in his argument? Can we look at those impacts and evidence? Or are we to conclude, as an article of faith, that the ‘general proposition’ is a valid one? I believe that here, Mr. Coyne wants us to believe that evidence-free conclusions are acceptable.
He then compounds his illogic with this, yet another bold assertion: “If climate change is not responsible for this spike in wildfires, that does not mean it will not lead to more, on average, in the years to come. Or to more extreme weather events in general, which is really the point.” So what happened to the 30-year trend in wildfires which shows a decline? On what grounds did Mr. Coyne conclude that this trend will be reversed, to lead to more wildfires? Having lured the unsuspecting reader into accepting totally uncorroborated assertions as ‘conclusions’, Mr. Coyne launches his screech: “So we are, at the very least, being given a glimpse of the future – and of the stakes.” In other words, having assured us at the start that ‘climate change is not necessarily responsible for any particular climatological events’ he is telling us that increased incidence of ‘climatological events’ (for which increase he hasn’t offered any proof), Mr. Coyne offers the wild claim that climate change will cause such events, and then talks about the future (which is stark) and the stakes (which are very high). I would be prepared to accept his conclusions and assertions if they were backed up by corroborating information, but not otherwise.
SEEDS OF DOUBT
It is fashionable on the Left to mock ‘climate deniers’ (a meaningless term), but a lot of people do feel uneasy with commentary such as this one. Their unease is not helped by what Mr. Coyne says next: “If the current disaster, whatever its cause, helps mobilize support for serious policies to address the threat of climate change – both to limit it and, as important, to adapt to it – well, Paris is worth a mass.”
A climate skeptic’s translation of the above might go like this: “We know that these wildfires are not necessarily caused by climate change, and we also know that wildfires have been trending down for 30 years, but since their numbers are higher this year, let us hype up that fact to get people to agree to pay more in carbon tax and/or to other uses of public money for our cause.”
To be fair, Mr. Coyne does concede that Canada’s contribution to CO2 emissions is too small to be significant in the global scheme of things: “At 1.6 percent of global emissions, Canada is a bit player, next to the Chinas and the Indias of the world. We could cut our emissions to zero, and it would make no difference to the Earth’s fate.” But then he makes a crucial mistake, one that is preordained when someone approaches an issue with ideological blinkers on: “But the advocates are right to respond: every little bit helps.” The disconnect between the two statements would have been startling for me some years ago, but now I have more or less come to expect it. To put a fine point on it: If it makes NO difference to the Earth’s fate whether we cut our emissions to ZERO, then how is our ‘bit’ going to ‘help’? We would merely be sacrificing Canadians’ welfare for no gain globally, meaningful or otherwise.
Then follows a piece of logic that was discredited (in trademark hilarious fashion) by Joseph Heller in Catch-22. Mr. Coyne says: “If every country adopted this line of thinking, and used it as a pretext for inaction, the problem would never be solved”. This reminded me of the scene in Catch-22 where Captain Yossarian, who was adamantly committed to avoid personal danger by refusing to fly bombing missions, declared that “From now on, I am thinking only of me”. In response, he was asked by one Major Danby, a psychologist, “But suppose Yossarian, everyone felt that that way”. Yossarian’s reply was, “In that case, I would be a damned fool not to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”
The plain fact is that other countries, particularly the large emitters, are not exactly jumping at the opportunity to cease their ‘inaction’. They value the economic impact of certain measures, such as ceasing the use of fossil fuels or imposing additional tax burden on their citizenry, more than they value their participation in the fight against climate change. I know for a fact that there is a vigorous push for renewable energy in India – but they are not interested ceasing their use of fossil fuels, or even slowing down the growth in that use. All that Canada is doing is to offer itself as a sacrificial lamb, and pundits like Mr. Coyne are enabling it by lending their voice and credibility to the ill-conceived strategy in the Canadian government.
The next segment of Mr. Coyne’s article is a veritable jumble, where he oscillates between the likely adverse economic impact of the push to reduce emissions on one hand, and declaring anew his faith in ‘prices’ to reduce emissions (all this, notwithstanding his earlier – sane – statement that globally, it wouldn’t matter one whit if we cut our emissions to zero). He talks of subsidies and regulation to ‘get us there’, ignoring the fact that these measures also have economic implications. In fact, when it comes to subsidies, there is a market, and a ‘price signal’ – but in the other direction. It is governments, as ‘buyers’ in the market for projects such as EV battery plants, that are sending a ‘price signal’ to the corporations that would own such projects, as to the ‘price’ (in subsidies) that the government is willing to pay to lure the project to their jurisdiction. In classical terms, this would be called ‘corporate welfare’, but in the lingo of climate change, we are supposed to believe that the government is looking after our welfare by turning over billions of dollars of public money to private enterprises.
To add to the jumble, Mr. Coyne says that “by my calculations, carbon pricing accounts for a third or less of actual and planned emissions reductions”, forgetting his hitherto ardent support of the ‘price’ (carbon tax) on emissions.
Then, no doubt unwittingly, Mr. Coyne points out an absurdity in Canada that few people have objected to in the commentariat so far: The US, which does not have a carbon tax, is proposing to levy it on imports. The absurdity is this: Canada does the opposite, thus putting Canadian manufacturers at a disadvantage, whose carbon-tax paid products must compete against carbon-tax exempt imports. Since the US tax would be based on the ‘carbon intensity’ of products, our failure so far on reducing emissions (despite the carbon tax) would make Canadian products subject to the US tax, making them even costlier in the US, and thus even less competitive.
In the concluding part of his article, Mr. Coyne turns his gaze to the political implications of a climate / carbon policy. He suggests that since the Liberals’ embrace of ‘carbon pricing’ is half-hearted and incomplete, the Conservatives could, instead of co-opting the Liberal plan, leapfrog over it (which I understand to mean a higher carbon tax than what the Liberals have planned). Here, it is noteworthy how the former CPC leader Erin O’Toole’s proposed carbon policy caused a flame-out for the party at the ballot box. My assessment is that the Conservative base is in no mood at all to see their party go in that direction – and with the inflation and other assorted financial troubles that have developed since the last election, I suspect that this attitude now goes far beyond that base. I think what Mr. Coyne proposes would be suicidal for CPC.
Mr. Coyne says that “The lesson of the past three elections is that carbon pricing has become table stakes in federal politics…”. My contention is that the CPC lost the election in 2021 partly because they played along with the table stakes that the Liberals had set for them, rather than sticking their necks out and taking a radically different stance. Given the current economic realities, it would make even more sense for the CPC to stick their necks out on this issue.
Coming back to my original point, my disappointment with the quality of socio-political commentary in Canada is intense. My expectations were a lot higher than what is on offer. I know that the problem is with my expectations – the reality is what it always was. The situation reminds me of a couplet from a poem by the Urdu poet Haider Ali Aatish:
Maut maangun to rahe aarzu-e-khwaab mujhe
Doobne jaaoon to darya mile pa-yaab mujhe
(If I ask for death, all I can aspire to is a dream
If I go to drown myself, I find the river to be shallow)
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