Is it possible to be a "climate-change agnostic?" And what would that even mean?
It's easy to identify a climate-change atheist, like the President of the United States. He has said that the idea of global warming and its effects are a hoax, perhaps concocted by the Chinese government.
Believers are also easily spotted, like veteran climate hawk David Suzuki. As stated in his 2013 Carbon Manifesto, his position is that rising carbon levels caused by human lifestyles are having a detrimental, if not destructive, effect on the entire planet.
If those two positions exist on the opposite end of a bell curve, related actions do as well. One side pursues a mandate of economic development, including and enlisting fossil fuels; the other prioritizes alternative energy, plus planning for a warming atmosphere. An agnostic, then, would sit in the middle, either unconvinced the problem exists, or unconvinced that action is necessary.
It's a curious position, one highlighted by Bret Stephens's first column for The New York Times last week, in which the self-proclaimed climate-change agnostic laid out his position. Yes, the "modest" warming of the Earth in the past 130 years is "infallible" truth, as is the fact that it was caused by human activity. What's not as certain, Mr. Stephen writes, is that we need "abrupt and expensive changes" in our behaviour.
Projections of what climate change will look like in the future are unproven hypotheses, he wrote, so the path forward isn't as clear as some say. And it's the unwillingness of climate fundamentalists to entertain dissent, Mr. Stephens stated, that leads only 36 per cent of Americans to "care a great deal" about climate change.
"Abrupt and expensive" is a matter of perspective, says Catherine Potvin, a professor at McGill University and the Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests. She emphasizes that Canada is a nation of believers.
Climate change is an accepted fact here: a 2015 Nanos poll found that 73 per cent of us agree or somewhat agree that "climate change presents a significant threat to our economic future." Dr. Potvin is right to caution against letting the United States lead the discussion, lest it "slip backward."
She agrees that it would undoubtedly be pricey for Canada to build the type of mass rapid transit she longs for, the type that exists in Europe and Asia. But it's not cheap to keep relying on cars. Aside from the working time lost as we all sit in traffic, many financial organizations have predicted climate change itself to be extremely expensive.
In 2012, the World Bank released the report Turn Down the Heat, which lists a number of climate-related events, including infrastructure collapse, crop failure and disaster relief, since 2000, along with their costs, which total billions of dollars. Canadian insurers agree: insurance payouts from extreme weather events, like storms and flooding, have increased steadily here since the 1980s, and that industry considers climate change a factor.
As for discussion, fossil-fuel production is definitely a political issue in Canada but "there is way more consensus than dissent," says Dr. Potvin, who works with many scientists and researchers from Alberta. She's thrilled, for example, by Iron and Earth, a group of laid-off oil sands workers trying to diversify both our energy sources and their own economic opportunities.
What they have, what we all need, is courage. "There is a great fear what it will do to the economy of Canada to divorce from oil, but the fact is, we just have to," she says.
Agnostic is a religious word, one for a person who isn't quite sure if there's a divine spiritual purpose to life, or whether this is it. The idea of climate-change agnosticism, then, suggests that there's still time to theorize what it all means. "It suggests this is a belief, but it's a fact," says Dr. Potvin. "You can't be agnostic about facts."
Religious agnosticism affects no one but the individual, and each of us will get a chance to refute or confirm our beliefs about the meaning of life in our own time. "Climate-change agnosticism," though, is nothing more than a cop-out, one with wide-ranging effects.
But no matter how witty the phrase, it can't quiet the guilty angel whispering "what will you tell your grandkids?" on one shoulder – especially when you're capitulating to the devil whining "that sounds hard" on the other.