Tyler and Winslow were in business together. Tyler was from Alberta and Winslow from Toronto. Their business relationship began during the recent plague-induced travel lockdowns. Although all their communications had been by Zoom, text, email, or occasionally old-school cell phone – never in person – the arrangement had become mutually profitable. Both saw great value in the relationship and wanted to cultivate it. This was good, because their first face-to-face conversation proved tricky. Strong incentives were needed to preserve civility.
It turned out that Tyler, who had made his career in Alberta, held views on climate change that did not square with the strong opinions of Winslow. Tyler agreed that the climate was changing, and ’twas ever thus. Taking a long view of the Earth’s history, the current changes were not unusual nor, in his mind, should they be panic-inducing. By contrast, Winslow regarded climate change as an entirely man-made and imminent existential threat to the biosphere, one requiring maximum effort and sacrifice to avoid a world-ending disaster.
The topic of climate change was new for them. Their communications to date had been all-business – plus a bit of hockey banter – and had not included public policy issues, let alone this contentious topic.
Tyler flew to Toronto to meet Winslow. Winslow held a marketing degree and had a work background in web development, social media influencing and sales, skills and experience that Tyler had come to rely on. The day before their agreed lunch meeting, the federal government’s second carbon tax increase came into effect. The media coverage was intense, so the topic was almost unavoidable.
Wanting to learn more about Tyler, Winslow opened by saying, “I imagine that Albertans take a dim view of the carbon tax.” Tyler paused, and replied cautiously, “I can’t speak for Albertans, nor would I think you could speak for Ontarians. But what are your own views?” With strategic timing, he took a bite of his burger.
Seeing that Tyler couldn’t speak while chewing, and wanting to preserve conversational decorum, Winslow was forced to answer. “I feel the carbon tax is undoubtedly needed. We’re in a climate disaster right now, Tyler. I feel it’s a crisis like humanity has never faced before. Temperatures are going up, and every scientist knows that CO2 emissions are the main reason. We’ve got to cut way back on greenhouse gas emissions. We should have started years ago. I don’t know whether we can even avoid the collapse of the world’s ecosystem.”
Tyler’s temperament tended to calm and included a deep reservoir of politeness. This was fortunate, for inwardly he was shocked at Winslow’s leap into the debate, landing with both feet in what Tyler saw as a mere puddle of science and economics. “Interesting,” Tyler mused cautiously. “Can you elaborate? I’m interested in the details.”
Winslow launched with the confidence of one wholly convinced of his position. “Where to start? I suppose at the beginning. We’ve been abusing our world for millennia, pouring our gases and fumes into the atmosphere. CO2 levels are at historic highs and still rising, the atmosphere is warming, ocean levels are rising. Unless we beat this, we’re facing extinction, like all the species we’ve already extinguished.”
Tyler nodded, believing his luncheon partner was through. Mistaking the nod for agreement, Winslow ploughed on: “We’ve made great progress with garbage and water pollution. But now, we need to make the same progress with our atmosphere. We need the courage to make the changes to our economies and societies that will push down those greenhouse gas emissions – all the way down to Net Zero.”
Tyler took a sip of local craft ale and, hoping to salvage their conversation by remaining diplomatic, interrupted: “I suppose your big concern is the tipping point you see looming, from where there’s no turning back. The point made by Jared Diamond when he speculated on the Easter Island deforestation. He argued that Easter Island started with a thick forest, but for centuries the islanders used the trees, cutting and cutting, until they harvested one tree too many. That was the tipping point, and after that there was nothing that could save the forests.”
Missing Tyler’s cue to move to a less contentious topic, Winslow replied, “Exactly! You see my point!” He put down his cutlery and began to expound. “We have to act right now, and move fast,” he urged. “If anything, the federal carbon tax should be higher and it should go up faster. We have to drive incentives to transition away from hydrocarbons to a green economy. The Liberal government is right in saying that the carbon tax is just one of the many tools that we have to pick up and use. We’ll need more regulations and more financial support for electric vehicles, and for solar and wind power. And you know, frankly we should restrict people’s travel. We can see how the Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions were great for the environment, because those grounded planes and less travel really helped lower emissions. But we need more.”
Picking up his wine glass and lifting it forward to emphasize the point, Winslow concluded, “Sorry, my man, but starting soon we’re also going to have to keep Alberta’s oil and gas in the ground. That’s the only place where the planet is safe from it.”
Tyler was nonplussed. On the one hand, he valued his flourishing and money-making business relationship with Winslow. Where Tyler was well-organized, a diligent operations manager and sweated the technical details of product development and quality control, Winslow was a brilliant marketer with insights into what product features customers needed – and, above all, what marketing words and images made them decide to buy. They were a truly complementary team. Respecting Winslow, Tyler was shocked that anyone with such good business acumen could accept the official dogma of climate change so completely. Tyler continued to eat with deliberation, giving him time to hear Winslow out and consider what to say next.
Finally, Winslow ran out of steam and tried his bowl of pasta. Hoping for some common ground, Tyler ventured a few cautious objections. “Won’t higher energy prices create the greatest problems for people less fortunate than us? I can afford the high gasoline prices – and you’re doing well enough that you didn’t even have to finance your new Tesla. People like us can absorb higher electricity costs, pay the airlines for carbon offsets, and bear the other new costs that will be built into everything. But millions of Canadians are already living close to the edge, and even small increases in gas and heating can cause a lot of stress and force them to cut back on everything else. I think the Europeans even have a term for it: ‘energy poverty’.”
Winslow didn’t miss a beat. “Well, we are Canadian,” he declared with a hint of smugness and condescension. “We’ll look after our neighbours: governments will step in with programs, subsidies and tax credits for lower-income people. But everyone will have to share a part of the burden. After all, we all benefit from saving the planet.”
Clearly, Tyler realized, common ground was not to be found in this area. He tried a different tack: “Winslow, are you completely satisfied with the available data and information on the trends and processes of climate change and what will happen?”
“Absolutely! The science is settled,” Winslow replied. With that, Tyler saw a window to respond without giving offence, and a chance to lift the discussion.
“That raises an interesting point,” said Tyler, “You know, it occurs to me there’s a higher level in the science of climate change that’s being overlooked. It’s been a long time since my undergraduate days at the U of C, but I recall reading that science is a process, not a ‘thing.’ In fact, brother, we used to refer to the scientific method as a verb, not a noun. And, if I remember right, science rests on the proposition that our knowledge continues to unfold and that many current theories will be proved flawed or even false. The scientific method itself doesn’t aim primarily at confirming theories – at least not directly. It seeks the truth by ruthlessly testing and actually disproving hypotheses and ideas. Which means that science is, by definition, never settled.”
Winslow was now becoming mildly annoyed and therefore missed the chance to avoid an argument. “Don’t be splitting hairs with me,” he replied, “This issue is way too important. You know exactly what I mean. All responsible scientists agree that man-made climate change is an existential threat, so quibbling over words isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
Tyler leaned back; avoiding conflict would be more challenging than he thought, so he focused on one particular point: “Do you think CO2 is the big problem?”
“Without question, it’s the biggest problem – and the one that we can fix.”
“I thought you might say that,” Tyler replied. “But you know, Winslow, some experts have suggested that a higher level of CO2 in the atmosphere could actually be beneficial. There’s quite a bit of scientific literature on this – and some articles in specialty magazines. One that I read said that more CO2 in the atmosphere would increase global food production and reforestation. I was pretty amazed by this, and skeptical, till I remembered that plants absorb and basically ‘eat’ CO2; they need it. Without it, there’d be no plant life at all. Some greenhouse growers even buy and pump CO2 into their facilities to stimulate growth. And the article went on to point out that in today’s era we’re actually at a pretty low point in atmospheric CO2. There’ve been periods in the Earth’s history when CO2 was much higher, and all of that came about naturally, without modern human inputs.”
Now it was Winslow’s turn to be stunned. “Jesus, Tyler, what the hell have you been reading?” he erupted. “I knew there was misinformation to spare in Alberta but I had no idea you’d swallow anything so ridiculous. Even if plants ‘eat’ CO2, and even if we could improve food production, taking your premises to their conclusion would mean we’d end up with a lot more people. And you know, what we need are fewer people, not more. We’ve got to reduce the number of humans on this tiny, threatened planet or we’ll destroy it.”
Tyler smiled; now he saw a path to conversational freedom: “Buddy, you may well be right. Thanks Winslow, for sharing your views and insights. Your honesty is commendable.” Tyler then inquired, “Are you still interested in my views?”
Winslow missed the nuance of Tyler’s comment. He did not think to question what Tyler meant by “honesty.” And he felt obliged to hear his friend out. “Sure, go ahead,” he said, “It’ll give me a chance to dig into this delicious penne with eggplant.”
After another sip of his beer, Tyler began, “Look, I agree with you that climate change is important. But with all important problems, I try to start out at the highest level, with first principles and foundational premises. That stuff often gets lost with controversial topics. My thinking on climate change is based on a first principle, a highest value.” Tyler paused for emphasis.
“My first principle and highest value is this: I like people. In fact, I love people, I love human beings. I think humans are great. And what we’ve done through our existence on Earth is great. As a species, we were given a world that, on its own, had a carrying capacity of maybe one or two billion people – at a subsistence level with short lifespans. But thanks to human management and engineering – especially over the last 250 years – our planet now has a comfortable carrying capacity of 10 to 11 billion people.” He paused again to let that sink in. Winslow thankfully was chewing and did not break in.
“And still, living conditions are getting better all the time,” Tyler continued. “Thousands of people are being lifted out of poverty every single day. Potable water is safer and more available every year, and food production is incredible, growing more and using less land. In fact, pretty much all metrics of material existence have been improving. A tradesman lives in greater comfort in our cold climate than a king of bygone days. We’ve overcome natural calamities, plagues and pestilence. So that’s why I say it: humans are great and we’re still getting better. That’s why I oppose anything that kills humans or reduces human flourishing. And that’s also where I start my views on climate change.”
“You know Winslow, quite a few leading environmentalists have actually called humans a virus or a cancer on the planet. They say we need fewer humans. Driving down the population is a feature of the policies that they’re pushing. So I part ways from those folks long before we even get to a carbon tax discussion or an argument about the meaning of science or the right or wrong data. We’re divided on our first principles. So, thanks for letting me share my views. Now, my friend, let’s focus on growing our business.”
Winslow was surprised by Tyler’s take on the climate change debate – more puzzled than anything else – but didn’t have the time for the concept of first principles to sink in. Plus, he too was eager to talk about their company. “Great, I’m all done my penne, and I hope that burger met Albertan standards. There’s lots to talk about. I’ve found and signed on some awesome in-country reps for our expansions into Japan and North Africa, so we should go over their sales plans. Plus, I wanna’ get your feedback on my picks for the names and tag-lines for the new products.”
Some days later, Winslow became uncomfortable. At a cocktail party, a fellow Torontonian described a benefit of the pandemic: it killed off millions of victims, reducing the number of people around the world. And, to Winslow’s shock, most of those listening agreed that this was a fine outcome, for fewer people – more human deaths – meant less stress on the environment.
At that jarring moment, Winslow realized just what Tyler had meant by thanking him for his “honesty.”
Andy Crooks is a retired Calgary lawyer and a movement conservative with leadership roles in constitutional law, tax policy, health care, addictions, the fine arts and parks.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.