Peter Stockland: Climate changing around ‘R-word’

  • September 18, 2019

At Montreal’s Concordia University, where I study the wonders of Ireland north and south for several hours each week, a large sign asks students how they feel about climate change.

Now, before going a degree Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin further, let me say that as a devout Catholic, I am utterly agnostic on climate change. I just don’t know. I hear information about melting ice caps, rising sea levels and sun-baked penguins and say, well, hmmm, there must be something there, especially if the United Nations is in charge of the data. 

Then I read some fiendishly clever climate-change debunker “proving,” by citing a three-year statistical regression analysis, that tree ring counts which purportedly substantiated climate change in the Gobi Desert between 1942 and 2008 were wildly overblown dendrochronology, and I think, man, that guy really needs to get a life. But maybe he’s right. Maybe overblowing is afoot. 

So, I come down firmly on the unassailable neutral ground that this is God’s Creation and we must do the best job possible to keep it spic, span and tidy. Emphasis, of course, on the best job possible part. I know. It’s the climate change equivalent of the little kid who cleans his room by shoving everything into the closet before saying a silent prayer all his toys won’t topple out on his mother’s head when she opens the door.

It’s also why I smile when I see that Concordia sign. In part, it’s because of the multiple-choice way it asks how students feel, which is approximately this (only slightly paraphrased): Are you angry, furious, livid, fearful, terrified, panicking or optimistic about the climate crisis? 

I do not know climate change. But after an adult lifetime in journalism, I know something about hornswoggling a question for the answer needed to justify a spin. 

I don’t know it’s possible to call yourself optimistic about anything in response to a question that declares it is already a crisis. “The kids’ video games were crammed into their closet so tight all their toys spontaneously combusted and the house burned down; we’re optimistic fire as a life-changing crisis is overblown.” Hmph.

The other thing that makes me smile is the resemblance of this student political exuberance to the way journalists covering the federal election campaign have responded to the emergence of religion as a hot topic. 

Climate change, ethics and that old evergreen, the economy, were supposed to dominate discussion. Nope. As noted in the National Post, the “R-word” has unmistakably injected itself into the conversation. Journalists are floundering to figure out what to do. Hey, there’s a surprise. 

Jagmeet Singh has been a high-profile turban-wearing politician since he won the NDP leadership two years ago. Andrew Scheer has been a very public Catholic only since becoming an MP almost 15 years ago. Anyone who’s spoken with Elizabeth May since she became Green Party leader knows her dream of becoming an Anglican minister went on hold for political life. 

Yet those covering federal politics never thought to ask whether with such a re-alignment on the Hill, not to mention thousands upon thousands of new Canadians firmly attached to their faiths pouring into the country, public debate around religiosity would change? Uh, no, it turns out, they didn’t. 

Despite my confessed agnosticism on actual climate change, I do believe I know why journalists were caught off guard on religious climate change. Their understanding of how to ask about religious faith clearly mirrors the Concordia student take on climate. It’s approximately this (slightly paraphrased): Are you a religious fanatic, a mad dogmatist, a wild-eyed evangelical, a papist oppressor or a gentle non-committal spirit child who knows that in Canada faith must forever be kept private? 

To ask, of course, is to foreclose the answer. That’s something people of faith in this country have felt the heat of for years. How cool that it’s changing. How typical so few journalists even noticed the signs. 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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