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The Years the Locusts Ate

Shame on enemies of action on global warming.

Rafe Mair 5 Feb

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. You can read previous ones here. Mair's website is and his latest book, Over the Mountains, is at your bookstore...or it damn well should be.

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Too late now?

Thank God it's finally over! The blockbuster environmental report put out last week by a blue ribbon panel of scientists permits no argument except that of a fool. The increasing greenhouse gases and the results will be very serious if we start doing something now, and catastrophic if we don't. In fact, the most important message from this report is that the dramatic consequences we once just feared are already with us and worsening by the day.

What a shame. What horrible governmental neglect -- deliberate neglect at that! The years we should have learned and acted, our governments permitted and even encouraged the horrible practices that now threaten the very existence of our species on this planet. This shameful time, the past 25 years, are, as Churchill would likely have called them, the years the locusts ate.

Let's look at what happened. The public relations people spent the whole time telling the world that the climate concerns were stuff and nonsense. Exaggerations! Bad science! What was happening either wasn't happening or, if it was, it was just one of Mother Nature's cyclical things that would come and go.

Dropping our best defence

Public relations people are not hired to pass judgment on how their clients ply their trade. They are hired to put the best possible face on everything they do. I know a bit about it because I briefly did some consulting work, 20 years ago, for a large PR firm. Some of what the flack does is pretty routine stuff and relatively harmless. When, however, they jump the line between true and false, they do enormous harm.

Their most effective weapon we, through our politicians, handed to the environment despoilers long ago.

We -- our society -- placed the onus of proving harm upon ourselves, not the user.

At the same time, our governments took away from us the former policemen in the environment, namely, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the provincial Ministry of Environment.

These two agencies still exist but they have been thoroughly politicized, and now they too put the onus of proving harm on the public and in fact shill for the industries they are supposed to monitor!

On environment issues, therefore, the public has no friends save themselves and environmental organizations they support.

Bring back the precautionary principle

The onus of proof must be placed back where it belongs -- on those who would use the environment. Moreover, the onus of proof -- and this is critical -- must be accompanied by the precautionary principle which argues that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the action must not take place.

In days gone by, this principle was at least the stated policy of government. While I don't want to belabour a constant issue of mine, the classic breach of the precautionary principle was the farming of Atlantic salmon in B.C. waters.

Put shortly, 15 years ago, when the fish farms came seriously to our coast, there was an abundance of evidence from Norway, Scotland and Ireland demonstrating that it was hugely dangerous to have fish pens near migrating salmonid smolts because the sea lice from these cages would destroy them.

Between 1997, the time the NDP government placed a moratorium on Atlantic salmon farms, and 1991, when the Campbell government lifted it, independent science poured forth and unanimously supported the evidence from Norway, Scotland and Ireland.

The Campbell government ignored the science, thereby saying "get stuffed" to those who pled the precautionary principle.

Flacks versus facts

What the removal of the precautionary principle does is play right into the hands of the PR flack because instead of having to defend his client, all he need do is raise doubts, with disinformation as his main weapon. The actions taken by the fish farmers are remarkable examples of how independent science has been downplayed and often ignored. Let me give you one example.

After years of denying that lice from fish farms attacked salmon smolts in the Broughton Archipelago, where tiny smolts have to run a gauntlet of millions of sea lice from these cages, the farmers and their buddies in government argued that no one had proved that it was these precise lice that were doing the damage!

Even when some fish pens were left fallow during salmon migrations, and there was a bountiful return, the flacks, wonderfully aping the ink fish, raised all manner of silly possibilities as explanations.

I only use the fish farm example because it's current in our bailiwick. The shifting of the burden of proof onto the public instead of it remaining on those who would advocate taking the action, is worldwide.

We have a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (federal) and a B.C. Environment Ministry both of which have laws to administer which clearly place the burden of proof on those who want to take the action.

Yet, instead of enforcing these rules, both ministries, on orders from their political masters, have taken upon themselves the duty of helping the potential spoilers with their licensing requirements, turning a blind eye to their transgressions, and promoting the industry they are supposed to monitor. (In one case, the B.C. government actually returned fines levied against the fish farmers!)

We're out of time

This may all seem like legalistic nit-picking but it's far from that. The shifting of the burden of proof away from those using the environment has meant that the work governments are supposed to do as policemen of the environment not only doesn't happen any more, but worse, the government "policemen" are on the side of the despoiler!

What has all this to do with global warming?

A hell of a lot. For if the governments are going to support obvious causes of global warming and other environmental degradation, it will fall to the people -- not those they elect to look after their interests -- and environmental groups they may support to demonstrate the harm.

The only way we can tackle both the big problems and the lesser ones is for governments to place the onus of disproving harm squarely on the user.

Given the recent history of both the federal and provincial governments, that won't be easy. But, unless we put the burden of proof where it belongs, we have zero chance of making headway in our long delayed fight for our planet's survival.

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