When the Stern review on global warming was released this week, and I'd had the chance to catch a few of the headlines it inspired, I thought immediately of Joey Smallwood.
Mr. Smallwood liked big numbers. Especially big numbers preceded by dollar signs. If a road somewhere on the South Coast was about to be paved, a new trades school built, or a new industrial project launched, Joey would wind himself up and find a microphone. "This new road (school, industry) is going to cost NOT 10 million dollars, NOT 20 million dollars, but FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS!"
He could find nearly infinite rhetorical variations on a simple number (breaking it down into its constituent "hundreds of thousands"; pluralizing -- 50 MILLIONS of dollars, etc., etc. and etc.) The trick was to bludgeon Newfoundlanders, not accustomed even to the sound (never mind the actual possession) of great amounts of cash, into a state of catatonic awe at the nearly inconceivable heaps of money this project or that was going to cost.
The trick grew stale. After a while, being told how many $20s were in a stack of $50-million became tedious, and the long tease of "not 10, not 20, not 30 but . . . X millions of dollars" became a risible bore. Another failing of the technique was the fading power of the word "million." He upgraded. By the end of his fractious reign, the campaign speeches rang with allusion to hitherto unapproached altitudes of "billions of dollars."
When arithmetic is rhetoric, each new speech must have a bigger number. Let us call it Smallwood's Law.
The Stern report on climate change illustrates Smallwood's Law in a way that would make the old conjuror proud. It projects a cost to the world, if measures are not taken to mitigate or halt global warming, of 7 TRILLION DOLLARS. Even in these days of Enron-scale frauds, and income trust cancellations, a trillion dollars is an astronomical number. Seven trillion summons all the galaxies and all their wheeling stars.
I look at that number more as an instrument to arrest attention, than as a real figure. If Sir Nicholas Stern had said nine trillion or six trillion, would he have been pounced on by accountants and academics the next day saying, "He's up by two trillion, or down by one?" I don't think so.
When we enter the area of projecting costs in the trillions of dollars, based on the wild variables of planetary weather patterns over the next 45 years or so, and speculations on the industrial growth of 162 nations over the same period -- a marriage, let it be noted, of two roulette tables: weather forecasting and the stock market -- any claim of exactitude is at best a mirage, at worst a carney's bark.
I know that skepticism over global warming, or as it has been more tactically rebranded, "climate change," is less and less a popular stance. In some quarters, it even approaches being socially unacceptable -- as, in the old days, talking in church. On the not so far fringes of Gaia-consciousness, the phrase "climate change denial" is being tested out.
It is a worrisome development. The ardent advocates of climate change are more than a little imperious in their certitudes. Every counterargument or qualification to their view of things is discounted as being "paid for" by the oil industry. Or, it is labelled as being a denial of "the science." They cast yesterday's hurricane as "evidence" of extreme weather brought on by greenhouse gas emissions in the full knowledge that what we now call one "weather event" is, or can be, proof of nothing.
In my view, it cannot be emphasized sufficiently that the climate-change movement is at least as much a subcategory of rhetoric -- the art of persuasion -- as it is a branch of science. It is at least as much a partisan exercise (partisan in the sense of supporting a cause) as a harvest of neutral experiment and observation.
The science is not complete. The models are not perfect. The projections, economic or meteorological, over the next 50 to 200 years are most unobligingly and massively complex: Prediction on this scale is necessarily wildly fallible.
Journalistic skepticism on climate change is a rare orchid indeed. Too many journalists are advocates, and that -- whatever the cause -- is a fatal mixing of mutually exclusive categories.
Most pernicious in this context is the attempt to declare, "The debate is over." It isn't over. That declaration is unsupported assertion. It is rhetoric's oldest trick. Just as declaring the arguments of those who see things differently as being corrupted by other interests is not a counterargument but a commonplace ad hominem evasion.
It is in this same territory that I place the Stern review's $7-trillion warning. It is not a number. It is just a gorgeous and late-blooming illustration of Smallwood's Law. How Joe would have worked it -- a 7 and then that whole mile of 0's.
I can, alas, hear him now.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.