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opinion

David Suzuki has stirred a minor controversy, recently, by some remarks he made in a speech to 600 students at McGill University. A report in the McGill Daily tells us "he urged today's youth to speak out against politicians complicit in climate change …"

"Complicit" is the damning word there. People are complicit only in dark and pernicious undertakings. He went on to suggest the students "look for a legal way to throw our current political leaders in jail for ignoring science," drawing rounds of cheering and applause.

Well, this is a turnaround of some proportions. In the old days, the really old days, it was the foes of science, the enemies of what we have come to call the Enlightenment, who used to call for the rack, the stake and the dungeon for those who challenged religion's pre-eminent authority to both speak and know the truth.

We generally look upon it as a backward moment when the Catholic Church put the bridle on Galileo, subjected him to house arrest and the tender rebukes of the Inquisition. So it's at least mildly disconcerting to hear of a celebrated son of the Enlightenment, in the person of one of Canada's star communicators, urging a university audience no less, to seek to "jail" those whom he perceives as "ignoring science." I think it's fairly clear he doesn't really mean science in general here, but rather a very particular subset of that great endeavour, the contentious and agenda-riven field of global warming.

I am under no illusion about the force of the global warming consensus.

It is the grand orthodoxy of our day. Among right-thinking people, the idea of expressing any doubts on some of its more cataclysmic projections, to speak in tones other than those of veneration about its high-priests, such as Mr. Suzuki or Al Gore, is to stir a response uncomfortably close to what in previous and less rational times was reserved for blasphemers, heretics and atheists.

But wherever we are on global warming, and on the models and theories supporting it, it is not yet The Truth, nor is it yet Science (with a capital S) as such. And to put a stay on our full consent to its more clamorous and particular alarms is not, pace Dr. Suzuki, either "ignoring science" or complicity in criminal endeavour. Nor is reasoned dissent or dispute, on some or all of the policy recommendations that global warming advocates insist flow, as night follows day, from their science.

It's worth pausing on this point. What global warming is, what portion of it is man-made, is one set of questions properly within the circle of rational inquiry we call science. What to do about it - shut down the oil sands, impose a carbon tax, sign on to Kyoto, mandate efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars - are choices within a range of public policy that have to be made outside any laboratory whatsoever. Global warming's more fulminating spokespeople are apt to finesse that great chasm between the science and the politics. They are further apt to imply a continuum between the unassailable authority of real and neutral science and their own particular policy prescriptions. (I notice that late in the week that something called Environmental Defence has hailed the Alberta oil sands as "the most destructive project on Earth." It goes on to say that "your desire to tackle global warming is being held hostage by the Tar Sands."

I'm not sure how they latched on to that "your" there. Is Environmental Defence elected? But let that pass. It is the tactic that is familiar.

Global warming is the truth. So shutting down the oil sands is also the truth.

If global warming is primarily a "man-made" phenomenon, then what to do about it is a political discussion before it is anything else at all.

If Environmental Defence or Dr. Suzuki thinks shutting down the oil sands is not a political choice, I advise both the group and the man to visit Alberta and acquaint themselves, while they are at it, with the history of the national energy program - and what its consequences were for the West and Confederation.

Shutting down the oil sands would make the storm over the NEP feel like a soft rain on a sultry day by comparison. It would break the Confederation.

So, far from jailing our politicians if they continue to debate what should be done, I'm in favour of leaving them where they are for now. If that's a soft stance, all I can say is that I favour discussion over imprisonment. Dr. Suzuki will surely agree that truth, like science, is not under the ownership of either any one group or any one man. To argue that those who question a prevailing orthodoxy should, even metaphorically, be tossed in jail is radically inconsistent with the essence and spirit of science itself, the essence and spirit that Dr. Suzuki in his better moments so clearly reveres.