interview by Giles Slade
For a generation now, David Suzuki has been working vigorously to raise public awareness of global warming and marshal a worldwide response. In 1988, before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed, Suzuki advocated for the creation of a similar international body at the Changing Atmosphere Conference in Toronto. In 2007, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster, and activist toured his country in a diesel bus, speaking about climate change and urging compliance with the Kyoto Protocol (which he helped frame). The author of 43 books, Suzuki is now 71 years old and would like to “slow down a bit” by working only four days a week. But that will have to wait until the Bali summit on climate change is over. I met Suzuki a few weeks ago in Vancouver, where we both live, to talk about the U.N. conference and what we should hope for as the world’s nations start to hash out Kyoto’s successor.
Some people say that environmentalism is a fashion that will soon pass.
Yeah, the fear is that it will be a fad. The media have jumped on it now; it’s the flavor of the month. The problem is that when O.J. Simpson gets sentenced the media will have a heyday and forget about these other issues, so it really is important for us to make sure it stays on the agenda.
What are your best hopes for Bali?
I hope that the vast majority of countries will stay on target, that they will take the lead of England and accept that we’ve got to go past the Kyoto times now and talk about heavy cuts, especially in the industrialized world, before 2030.
We’ve got to bring emissions down. People are talking about 80 percent cuts by 2050, [but] much sooner than that we’ve got to make major cuts. The big question is whether there’s the will to do this and, of course, whether China and India are going to be willing to start looking toward those deep cuts.
What about the purely technical question of how to go about achieving really substantial cuts worldwide?
In 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor it could have been argued then that “We can’t afford to do anything about this. They’ve now destroyed the Pacific Fleet and it’ll ruin the economy.” But what you got instead was the response: “Now we have no choice. Now we have to do everything we can.” And look at the consequences!
Not only did the United States win the war, but they pulled out of the Great Depression and were going full blast by 1945. You know, in 1988 public concern about the environment was at the absolute peak, and George H.W. Bush ran for president saying, “If you vote for me I will be an environmental president.” There wasn’t a green bone in his body, but Americans had put the environment at the top of their agenda.
That’s what’s needed now.
So you foresee a global mobilization to arrest carbon emissions and combat climatic changes?
Yes. Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich [author of 1968’s The Population Bomb and the founder of the Zero Population Growth movement] says that there are a thousand ecological Pearl Harbors going on at once, and we need to marshal effort worldwide.
You know, whenever you go to a science fiction film about aliens threatening all of humanity, the first thing you see is the American president calling the Russian president or the Chinese president. In the movies, when there’s an invader from outer space, everybody recognizes a common interest and they pour whatever they can into it. This is exactly what we need now, except the invader is us. We need to pour that effort into the common good and get on with it. The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report that just came out is an attempt to say, “Look, it’s urgent.”
The sense of urgency is what we need most of all. We can’t piss around anymore. We have to make those deep cuts.
Thanks for doing this…
Please, just get the word out. What happens at the Bali Summit December 3-14 will affect all of us.
Footnote: Suzuki is right. Things are happening very fast. Just a few weeks ago, the anti-Kyoto government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard fell to a Labor party that has promised to commit Australia entirely to Kyoto and Bali. Soon America will be the only Kyoto Protocol signatory that has still not ratified the agreement, making it law. Of course, just as George H.W. Bush did in 1988, every current presidential candidate is clamoring to make pro-Kyoto, pro-Bali statements. But it will take much more than campaign promises for humankind to survive in our children’s century.
Giles Slade is the author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Harvard University, 2007). He’s currently working on a book called Our Children’s Century, about how climate change will create waves of environmental refugees throughout North America.