While on a visit to Washington recently in order to promote the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada's Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver jumped on the occasion to criticise James Hansen. Hansen, who last month retired from NASA, is considered one of the world's leading climatologists and was listed as one of the most influential people on the planet in 2006 by Time magazine.
In a New York Times article published last year, the scientist wrote that if Canada continues exploiting oil sands, it will be "game over for the climate." Unimpressed by Hansen's credentials, Oliver responded: "Well, this is exaggerated rhetoric. It's frankly nonsense."
The minister is right.
The point here is not to debate climate change but to discuss the excessive nature of Hansen's comments. He is saying that the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of one province and one particular industry. Yet, as the minister reminded us, oil sands emissions actually represent only 1/1000th of global emissions.
Environmentalists have been making a lot of "game over" predictions over the years. Fortunately for us –and for the fortune tellers themselves, even if it has meant a loss of credibility — none of them has become reality.
This type of prediction has been around since the dawn of civilization, but Earth Day 1970 seems to have been a turning point for extreme statements by modern day scientists and environmentalists.
In 1972, the Club of Rome predicted in its The Limits to Growth report that as of today, ten natural resources, including gold, petroleum and natural gas, would already be depleted. Needless to say, those resources are still abundant and widely in use today. The think tank went at it again last year with its follow-up report: "2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years," predicting all kinds of catastrophes for the next couple of decades.
One cannot talk about failed predictions without mentioning American biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, another book warning about the limits to growth. In a speech at the British Institute for Biology in 1971, he declared that "By the year 2000, the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people… If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
Last time I checked, England was still there.
In March 2009, Prince Charles, who I'm sure is not starving and fortunately will still have a kingdom to reign upon when he becomes king, made an astonishing statement on climate change in Rio de Janeiro. He said that "we only have 100 months to act" if we want to "avoid bequeathing a poisoned chalice to our children and grandchildren." So, according to Charles, it will be too late to act precisely by July 2017. That's quite a gift of foretelling!
The truth is that the world is a lot more complex than that. Trends do change, people adapt, and we cannot exactly predict what will happen in a couple of years, let alone 50 years from now. By then, human ingenuity will have translated into technological advances that are inconceivable today.
So, let's stay positive instead of falling prey to the exaggerated nonsense of fear-mongers. We'll have a much better chance to find realistic solutions to the world's problems.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon est président et directeur général de l'Institut économique de Montréal. Il signe ce texte à titre personnel.