The campaign for Kyoto is in high gear. This week David Suzuki headed a press conference, put on by some Canadian doctors, to tell us that "Kyoto is about saving lives" -- 16,000 people dying each year in Canada. They're dying mainly from the effects of global warming, we must presume. Otherwise, there would be no point alerting us at a press conference designed to deepen support for ratifying Kyoto.
Questions occur. The most salient are about the number of "Canadians dying every year." How rigorously is this connected to global warming? Is the number "scientific" -- backed by evidence, tested by observation, obedient to objective laws, insusceptible to massage or spin?
One thing I have no question about is that we were meant to take the number as scientific. That was the point of its precision, its emphatic particularity. We weren't told that a vague "lot" of Canadians have medical problems that are aggravated by smog and pollution, which are themselves aggravated, it is thought, by global warming. We were offered, instead, a shiny, hard, round number.
It was also the point of having Canada's most ardent environmentalist flanked by physicians to deliver the message. Herd a crowd of doctors into a room, and David Suzuki -- all you need is to throw in a few beakers and a chart of the periodic table (wall mural of Isaac Newton, massaging his head and frowning at the apple) and you've got yourself a state-of-the-press-conference lab.
That 16,000 Canadians die every year is a very particular claim. It must be scientific. And if it is a piece of proven science that 16,000 of us die every year because of global warming, then only those people who don't care about the deaths of a horrifying number of fellow citizens would oppose ratifying Kyoto.
I don't buy the "science" of the press conference for a minute. These are "advocacy" numbers. They have as much science, in the strict sense, as that phrase "more dentists recommend . . ." that used to pop up so unpersuasively in toothpaste commercials. The point of advocacy numbers is to pump a cause, not make a finding. Advocacy numbers are the rhetoric of an age that can't write perorations; they are argumentative quickies, meant to sidestep the preliminaries, finesse the intermediate niceties, and get the meeting over with.
There was yet another point to Mr. Suzuki's brandishing of 16,000 Canadians heading early to their plots should Kyoto not be signed. The number was meant to put paid to another, more awkward number. That number was "200,000" and it was a number Canadians almost didn't get to hear about at all.
It's the number of jobs that Kyoto may cost; it was apparently deleted from a briefing paper prepared by federal officials for the cabinet. Unemployment is not a trivial misery: It comes attended with all sorts of stress, anxiety, depression. Not to mention that the absence of a paycheque on a regular basis can play havoc with the mortgage and the diet. Unemployment, would you believe, is a major health problem. Poor people die sooner -- would "prematurely" be the right word here? -- than those who are not poor.
But death trumps unemployment, even in Canada, and if 16,000 are going to die every year if Kyoto is not ratified, then I guess 200,000 lost jobs is a small, though uncomfortable, price to pay. Better the pink slip than the waybill from the undertaker.
I point all this out mainly to remove from the minds of the few people who still hold it the idea that the debate over Kyoto is a scientific debate. It's a public relations war. Further, I do it to highlight that the much-touted consensus over Kyoto is not a "scientific" consensus.
A lot of scientists agreeing on something is not the same thing as a scientific consensus. Any sentence that begins "A majority of the world's scientists agree . . ." is not reporting a scientific finding; it's announcing a preference. It's a poll. Real science doesn't do polls. E = MC 2 wasn't arrived at by a show of hands; the equations that spell out the workings of the universe were not put to a vote.
When we hear of a consensus on global warming we are being told -- covertly, but told nonetheless -- that it isn't a scientific fact. And when we're told that it "contributes" to the death of 16,000 Canadians, even when we're being told by David Suzuki, we're being hectored, as opposed to informed.
The other side is hectoring, too. But at least they don't wear lab coats and drag in the actuarial tables. Ratifying the Koyoto Protocol is a real debate, has real costs, is a mix of guesses, best estimates and conflicting claims, with real consequences whichever way it's decided. For the sake of the debate, let's lay off the science unless it is science. Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.