2017: The Year of Peak Climate Hysteria?

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Surely 2017 will be remembered as the year of peak climate-change hysteria, irrespective of anything that might actually be happening to the Earth's climate.

For decades NASA and the IPCC trained dutiful citizens everywhere not to confuse weather and climate. But the cluster of extreme weather events in mid-2017—and hurricanes Harvey and Irma in particular—proved too media-rich to resist. Perceiving, perhaps, that the Paris accord was faltering, or that global public interest was waning, or (worst case) that the skeptics were nipping at their heels, the media-relations wing of the climate-change establishment rolled the dice and introduced a bold new dispensation: henceforth specific destructive weather events may indeed be linked directly to catastrophic climate change, but only in cases in which the science and the politics are mutually reinforcing. As Stanford professor of earth system science Noah Diffenbaugh attested just yesterday in the New York Times, "There is now ample evidence that global warming has influenced extremes in the United States and around the world through such factors as temperature, atmospheric moisture and sea level. This doesn't mean that every event has a human fingerprint. But it does mean that we can expect more years like this one, when our old expectations no longer apply."

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The calculated ambiguity of this new paradigm—climate change if necessary, but not necessarily climate change—is obvious even to the Skeptic-in-Chief Donald Trump, who tweeted Thursday that icy North America could use a bit of that "good old Global Warming." Not realizing, evidently, that the weather/ climate binary had been superseded by the new extreme-weather doctrine, Trump's critics pounced, ridiculing him for his failure to acknowledge the difference between weather and climate ("Plz complete 3rd grade," tweeted one wag). But, of course, it is Trump himself who is laughing. He is like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes, the naïf willing to say what no one else will. And he will be laughing even more heartily when the "Arctic cold mass" now covering most of the continent is added to the catalog of extreme-weather events heralding the climate apocalypse, as it inevitably will be.

As we bid adieu to 2017, in short, the hyper-politicization of the already-impoverished climate debate has ended much like the Dr. Seuss classic The Sneetches. The Sylvester McMonkey McBeans of the climate consensus have had us in and out of the their Star-Off machine so often that we poor, confused sneetches no longer know what we're supposed to think.

Beavers: 'Agents of Destruction'

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According to the New York Times, beavers are "agents of destruction," migrating north beyond the treeline and exacerbating the effects of climate change in the Arctic (not this week, mind you, when North America is suffering under the worst cold snap in memory, but during the balmy summer months). It is true that beavers are also being reintroduced into Britain, where they are said to mitigate flooding and regenerate woodlands. But though the British beavers look much like the Castor canadiensis, they are genetically distinct. Sadly, under the terms of the Paris accord, there can be no quid pro quo, no beaver cap-and-trade schemes, no voluntary beaver offsets.

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Plainly, the Government of Canada must act. The prime minister must issue a full-throated apology, preferably at the U.N., following which we must move without delay to decommission the beaver as a national symbol. All Canadian nickels in circulation must be smelted forthwith. All the sentimental twaddle in our public-school history books about the beaver's role in nation-building, etc., must be expunged, preferably under the guidance of the ETFO.

On Driverless Trucks

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For reasons that are not immediately apparent, much of the Canadian business press appears to be drinking the Tesla Kool-Aid and imagining that the ascendancy of driverless trucks is not only inevitable but imminent. One factor is the "vicious competition" driving the North American trucking industry, which is estimated to be five times larger than the smart-phone industry. In Canada alone, an estimated 300,000 jobs would be rendered obsolete if trucks were fully automated—a sea change in our national economy, given that the transportation sector is now the leading employer of Canadian men. Another is that Transport Minister Marc Garneau has already visited Tesla headquarters, presumably to gauge the hype for himself in advance of his department's promised January 2018 report on the future of automated commercial vehicles.

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Driverless-truck mania hinges on three related claims. The first is that robotic vehicles will be less expensive to produce, operate and insure, making them both more cost-effective and more profitable. The second is that, because driverless trucks are already in use at remote resource-extraction sites, the transition to their general use is really just a matter of perfecting the technology. The third and most contentious claim is that driverless trucks will be safer than those bearing human drivers. The upshot for driverless-tech boosters is that we're so close to the transportation revolution that little remains but to brace for it.

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One person who doesn't buy any of this is veteran British transport journalist Christian Wolmar. "Let’s face it, we’re talking about a technology that will never happen," says Wolmar. "The hype is being driven by carmakers, desperate to lay claim to the future, and tech giants, who have all this footloose capital that they don’t know what to do with. In fact, most of the driverless-car experiments we read about are actually cars containing drivers who can take over in an emergency." The best-case scenario, according to Wolmar, is analogous to the pilot/autopilot relationship that underwrites the safety of commercial air travel. "Drivers probably avoid 1,000 different accidents every mile," he observes. "You judge things. Our eyes are an incredible asset. The first animal that developed eyes came 350 million years ago, and it took most of that time to develop these sophisticated eyes of ours. The computers are nowhere near doing that. And the artificial intelligence of computers is still binary."

Wolmar is right. Most truckers driving today won't live to see any Canadian government license fully automated 18-wheelers for use on our commuter-clogged, snow-bound thoroughfares. The distance between the human-driven status quo and our much-prophesied driverless future may look like a short haul but, in fact, we have miles and miles of winding road ahead.

The End of History II

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Last fall, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson gave a short speech entitled "The Decline and Fall of History" in which he correlated the declining popularity of university-level history with the proliferation of boutique courses designed to "judge the past by the moral standards of the present." His main complaint is not that taught history is more diverse or less elitist than in the past, but that its overt politicization has made it increasingly arcane and thus irrelevant. "Undergraduates looking to increase their familiarity with publicly significant topics in modern history would be justified in feeling shortchanged," he concluded.

Here in Canada, professional historians have been bemoaning declining enrollments and waning relevance for decades. But it is in the realm of politicization that we now find ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. This week the Council of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) proposed to decommission the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, awarded annually to the best book in Canadian history. (CHA members will hold a ratification vote at their spring 2018 meeting.) "Historians are always mindful and alive to questions of commemoration, and how they reflect our knowledge of the past," association president Adele Perry is quoted as saying. "These were decisions that were arrived at for a variety of reasons, and I think it's a good time for us to revisit them."

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It is undoubtedly a fine thing that historians are mindful and alive—although, come to think of it, Sir John A's foremost biographer, Donald Creighton, is neither. But in any era other than our own, the association representing Canada's academic historians would have understood that a proposal to jettison a prize named after our founding PM should be accompanied by an explanation. Instead, to judge from the paltry press the matter has attracted, members of the CHA executive appear content to allow primary-school teacher Felipe Pareja to speak for them. Pareja, author of the August 2017 ETFO motion to remove Macdonald's name from Ontario's public schools, claims that our first PM was "the architect of really what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island." 

What is surprising here is not that Macdonald's legacy is contested in the present, but that his name can be breezily pronounced non grata by an association of professionals whose job it is, ostensibly, to allow the past to be the past. Niall Ferguson's pessimism, in short, is entirely warranted. "I have come to doubt that the pathologies that I have described within our history departments can be cured," he laments. "Strange though it seems, those who have driven this transformation of history are too deeply entrenched and too committed to their cause to pay heed to the declining enrollments."