BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company, scientist David Suzuki on capitalism and climate change.
DAVID SUZUKI: The fossil fuel industry knows that fossil fuel use is at the heart of climate change, but the problem is their job as CEOs and executives is to make money for their shareholders, and they’ll do it.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Last week, the scientist David Suzuki was here to tell us what he thinks should happen to politicians who ignore or deny evidence that the earth is heating up:
DAVID SUZUKI: Our politicians should be thrown in the slammer for willful blindness. If we are in a position of being able to act, and we see something going on and we refuse to acknowledge the threat or act on it, we can be taken to court for willful blindness. I think that we are being willfully blind to the consequences for our children and grandchildren. It’s an intergenerational crime.
BILL MOYERS: The problem is, if that should happen, if politicians were to be convicted of willful blindness to the fate of the earth and future generations, there would have to be mass arrests and lots more funding for new prisons. We’re not talking about a mere handful of culprits, it’s hard even to know where to start.
Perhaps with Marco Rubio, Republican Senator from Florida. Back when he was a state legislator, Rubio favored cutting carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. But now he’s thinking about running for president in 2016 and has changed his tune, as ABC’s Jonathan Karl learned this past weekend:
MARCO RUBIO on ABC News A Closer Look: I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. That’s what I do not. And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it. Except, it will destroy our economy.
BILL MOYERS: As Paul Waldman wrote in “The Washington Post” this week, just about every potential candidate yearning for the Republican nomination publicly questions the scientific evidence of global warming. Among them:
Ted Cruz, who says “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming.”
Bobby Jindal decries global warming as “…left-wing environmental theory.”
Rick Santorum calls climate change “a beautifully concocted scheme.”
And Rand Paul says “the Earth’s 4.5 billion years old…and you’re going to say we had four hurricanes and so that proves a theory?”
These contenders have plenty of company, including the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell of coal-rich Kentucky, who says he doesn’t buy climate change and regularly scorns President Obama for talking “about the weather.”
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher says global warming is “a total fraud,” and he’s from California, where every inch of the state is under siege from epic heat and drought.
Then there’s Representative Joe Barton, former GOP chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who hails from Texas, which, the story goes, was created in only one day by the Almighty who spent the rest of the week drilling for oil. Smokey Joe Barton says that Noah’s “Great Flood is an example of climate change, and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy.”
I’m not making this up. They really say these things. But they’re not actually stupid. Playing dumb is just their game, to appease the base of Tea Party Republicans who watch only Fox News and don’t really know better, and, of course, to keep the campaign contributions rolling in from the fossil fuel companies and predatory billionaires. But haul these fellows up on charges of willful blindness, and I’ll wager they would all take the Fifth.
No one knows the ways politicians undermine action to stop global warming better than David Suzuki. This geneticist and zoologist, author, and broadcaster is known to many as the godfather of the environmental movement.
DAVID SUZUKI in The Nature of Things: This is “The Nature of Things.”
BILL MOYERS: Since 1979, he has hosted the Canadian TV series “The Nature of Things,” making science understandable and entertaining to audiences around the world. In his native Canada he’s fought hard against those science deniers in positions of power who have turned a blind eye to the future and the truth. Welcome back, David.
DAVID SUZUKI: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You once believed that if people were showed the valid science about global warming, they would understand. You were wrong about that. It's not the case that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.
DAVID SUZUKI: Yes, the discussion platform has been very, very badly polluted. I really did believe, and my whole life, I had, did my first television series in 1962 when even you were a young man too. And my belief was and still is that if we can have a conversation about the facts, that ultimately we can make the proper decisions.
Well, it's a much more complicated affair. And what I'm realizing now is that as long as we carry on the conversation within a frame that is dictated by economics, then we’re going to lose every time. And again, let me tell you a story. I, many years ago the Lytton Indian Band, they call themselves, came to me and said, our government has given a permit to log our sacred valley. The sacred valley's now called the Stein Valley. They gave a permit to Fletcher Challenge, a New Zealand forest company. And we don't want any logging to take place.
So I said, okay, but before I work with you, I'd like to see what you're fighting to protect. So I took my family, we went camping in the valley for five days. And it's a magnificent valley. So as we were coming out, we met a big party of people. And the women were all dressed in high heels and dresses and the men in suits and ties. And I said, this is not a camping party.
But you know, anybody on the trail you talk to. And so very quickly I realized, holy smokes, this is the CEO of Fletcher Challenge. And very quickly he realized, oh my God, this is that troublemaker David Suzuki. And so we got into, let's say a heated discussion. And finally he said in frustration, listen Suzuki, are tree-huggers like you willing to pay to protect those trees? Because if you're not willing to pay for them, they don't have any value until someone cuts them down.
And that was a big insight for me because I realized, holy cow, you know, you, it's, he's absolutely right. In his world he could tell me how many jobs will come, how many board feet of lumber, how many cubic meters of pulp, how much profit can be made out of there.
And what do I do? If I'm arguing in his frame and say, well, gee, you, every year we can pick a few berries and there are some salal bushes that we could use for flower arrangements and maybe, maybe we could find a cure for-- like, we have no chance against that argument if we stay within an economic frame.
Because the real reason we're fighting for the forest is that it's taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting oxygen back in it. Not a bad service for an animal like us. But economists don't have a place for that in their construct.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how would you expect otherwise, when as you point out, the fossil fuel industry has deliberately embarked on a program to cast doubt on the science of global warming? They say you and others like you are practicing junk science. And they are winning the propaganda.
DAVID SUZUKI: In the United States.
BILL MOYERS: In the United States.
DAVID SUZUKI: Yes. That has worked. What we do know from the magnificent book, "Merchants of Doubt."
BILL MOYERS: "Merchants of Doubt."
DAVID SUZUKI: You sow doubt. Since the 1990s the fossil fuel industry has known just as the tobacco industry knew years before they finally admitted it, that smoking caused cancer, the fossil fuel industry knows that fossil fuel use is at the heart of climate change.
But now the problem is their job as CEOs and executives is to make money for their shareholders, and they'll do it. And if they begin to frame the discussion a different way, the chances are they'll be booted out of their position. So they've got no choice.
BILL MOYERS: The paradox as you speak is that I saw a poll that said almost 90 percent of Canadians really take global warming seriously and know that we contribute to it. And yet their government is taking actions that are in direct contradiction to their understanding of global warming.
DAVID SUZUKI: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: The citizens understand.
DAVID SUZUKI: Our government has come down hard. So environmentalists are called enemies of Canada--
BILL MOYERS: By the prime minister?
DAVID SUZUKI: By the prime minister, well, his mouthpieces, his various ministers. We are called radical extremists. We have one minister who said you have these extremist terrorists like Bin Laden, and environmentalists. So that's how we're being demonized by being lumped in as terrorists.
DAVID SUZUKI: And this is a very effective thing that we know that it's been done by the tobacco industry, it was done by, it's being done by the fossil fuel industry. If you attack a person on the basis of their trustworthiness, their ulterior motives, anything to get away from dealing with what the issues they're raising.
Then, oh, but those darn scientists, they keep speaking out. So shut them down. We have fired a huge number of scientists working for Environment Canada.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I did read that the government, your government has closed libraries in the Department of Oceans and--
DAVID SUZUKI: Fisheries and oceans.
BILL MOYERS: --Fisheries and Oceans in--
DAVID SUZUKI: That's right. Actually thrown out manuscripts into the garbage.
BILL MOYERS: That’s like the burning of books.
DAVID SUZUKI: --exactly, exactly. And they've muzzled the scientists that work for the government. Scientists cannot go out and talk to the public about what they are finding in their area of expertise. They have to go through the government and be vetted by the government in terms of what they can say.
DAVID SUZUKI: That really sends a chill through the scientific community. Because other scientists who aren't working for government but are in universities depend on government grants in order to carry out their research, much more cautious in speaking out.
It sends a chill. And that really scares me because if you can't have scientists telling you what the grounds, the scientific information is on various issues, who then do we go to for the authority? Do we go to the Bible? Do we go to the Koran? Do we go to these rightwing think tanks? In Canada we have the Fraser Institute, the very rightwing think tank that gets a lot of play in the press. Is that what our source is going to be?
That's why it's really important to me that scientists not only be freed but be recognized as the most authoritative source of information on these various issues.
BILL MOYERS: There was a Gallup poll in this country a few weeks ago that said despite rising temperatures and all of this strange weather we've been having, the percentage of Americans who care a great deal about global warming has been dropping from 41 percent six years ago to 34 percent today. What is it about human nature that wants to believe the worst can't happen?
DAVID SUZUKI: I don't know. I don't know. But I will tell you this. We think, or at least the science indicates, humans evolved, and I know in the United States the word evolution is loaded with all kinds of triggers, but in Canada we use evolution all the time because people accept it.
The science suggests we evolved in Africa 150,000 years ago. And for 95 percent of our existence we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. We had to follow plants and animals through the seasons. When you're a hunter-gatherer, you know darned well you are utterly dependent on nature for your wellbeing and survival.
10,000 years ago, we begin this big transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Agricultural revolution ushers in this huge change. Now we don't have to follow. We can raise our food right where we live. And in 1900, there were about 1.5 billion people in the world, only 14 cities with more than a million people. Most people still lived, and if you look at a map of the United States in 1900, the Midwest is dotted with all kinds of towns and villages, 150, 200 people. Those were the way that people lived.
We lived in rural village communities because most people were involved in some aspect of agriculture. Come ahead a hundred years to 2000. Now there are four times as many people, 6 billion people, more than 400 cities with a million people or more. Now in North America, the vast majority of people live in big cities.
And in a big city it's easy to think, well, as long as we have parks out there somewhere where we can camp and fish and play, who needs nature? In, you know, in a city my most highest priority is my job. And you know, the average child in Canada today spends eight minutes a day outside and over six hours a day in front of a television, computer or a cell phone screen. So when you're living that way, who needs nature? Who even worries about the weather unless there's a tornado or some kind of a freak event?
And so we act as if these things are really not relevant to the way we live. I remember when William Nordhaus, one of the giants in economics at Yale said, the impact of global warming is trivial economically. And I think that it's--
BILL MOYERS: We now know that's not the case.
DAVID SUZUKI: Of course, of course. See, young kids often ask me, Mr. Suzuki how can I save the world? And I say to them, well, look, the world's not in trouble. We're in trouble, but the world's not in trouble. So don't worry about the world.
But if you want to look to the future, environmentalism isn't a discipline or a specialty like being a dentist or an artist or a musician. Environmentalism is a way of seeing our place in the world and seeing our relationship with the biosphere. And we need everybody to see the world that way. So I tell young kids, follow your heart, but whatever your activity is, if you're a dancer or a musician or an athlete, see the world that your activity is made possible by good old Mother Nature, and treat her with more respect.
BILL MOYERS: So you say the world's not in trouble. But when I read some of what you've written and when I look at photographs and video of the tar sands, seems to me the world's in serious trouble--
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, the world--
BILL MOYERS: --and you have a microcosm of it.
DAVID SUZUKI: The world, the planet is undergoing immense changes. Humans now are the major force shaping the properties and the functions within the biosphere. That's why scientists refer to this as the Anthropocene epoch, a period of time when human beings have become a geological force. We're altering the physical, chemical and biological features of the planet on a geological scale.
So there's no question the planet's undergoing change. But the planet is going to be here long after we're gone. The planet will continue to go on in this altered state. I have no doubt life will persist. We've gone through periods of tremendous extinction. There are five great extinction events that happened. We don't know why, but one of them when the dinosaurs disappear may have been caused by this collision with an asteroid and a cooling period. But the reality is it takes 10 to 20 million years for life to recover after one of these great extinction crises. And I don't know if you've interviewed Elizabeth Kolbert who's just--
BILL MOYERS: Read her book.
DAVID SUZUKI: --written a book, "The Sixth Extinction." And there's no question that we're in a new extinction phase. But now it's being caused by one species alone which is us. Life will go on. Even if we heat up the planet to what is being projected as 4 to 6 degrees this century, which to me is unimaginable, life I'm sure will persist but in a radically different form.
BILL MOYERS: So tell me, the series that you've hosted for over 30 years now called “The Nature of Things,” can you boil down to a few sentences here at the end what you've learned about the nature of things? Can you give me a nugget of experience we can pass on--
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I--
BILL MOYERS: --to the audience?
DAVID SUZUKI: --I don't know about the experience through television. Of course it has given me the opportunity to meet so many amazing people. But the most important person I didn't, I never met, but she had as great an influence on my life as anybody I've known was Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson in 1962 published Silent Spring. And I was a hotshot geneticist then. I'd spent eight years in the United States getting my education and I was going to be this hotshot in Canada. And I read this book and it just changed my life. And it, what it said is the lab is not the real world.
You know, you can do all kinds of experiments in a test tube or in a growth chamber. But in the real world the wind blows, sun sets, night falls, it rains, all kinds of things happen that you don't get in a controlled chamber. That's point one. And the second point is in nature everything's connected to everything else.
What we do when we look at the world through science or even through the media is we isolate and we look at little segments as if they're not interconnected. And those, that was really the important message to me. The lab is not a miniature replica of the real world. It's an artifact in a way. And everything in the world is connected, so everything carries responsibilities.
BILL MOYERS: Three years ago, you said you would likely die before your children became mature adults and have their own children. But you said you were filled with hope to imagine their future, and I'm quoting, rich in opportunity, beauty, wonder and companionship with the rest of creation. As the climate crisis has worsened over the last three years, what has happened to your hope?
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, a lot of my colleagues have now said it's too late. Clive Hamilton, an eminent eco-philosopher in Australia wrote a book, “Requiem for a Species.” And we're the species it's a requiem for. I've read everything, the entire book, and there's nothing I disagree with there. James Lovelock, the man who invented this idea of Gaia, says 90 percent of humanity will be gone by the end of the century.
And Sir Martin Rees, the royal astronomer in Britain was asked what are the chances humans will be around by 2100, and he said 50/50. So there are a lot of my colleagues are saying we've passed too many tipping points to go back. My answer is thank you for the message of urgency. We don't know enough to say it's too late.
And this isn't some kind of Pollyannaish idea. I base that notion of our ignorance on reality. In, the most prized species of salmon in the world is the sockeye salmon. It's got that bright red fatty flesh that we all love. And the largest sockeye salmon run in the world is in Canada in the Fraser River.
We like a run of about 20 to 35 million salmon is a good run, that's a lot of fish. And in nineteen, sorry, in the year 2009, just over a million sockeye came back to the Fraser. And I said to my wife, that's it. There isn't enough biomass to get them to, they're going extinct. A year later, and we, the government set up a royal commission to look into what the heck happened to the sockeye salmon.
A year later, we got the biggest run of sockeye in a hundred years. Now, I like to cite this not to show how stupid I am. Nobody knows what happened. But nature surprised us. And I believe that nature has many more surprises if we can pull back and give her room. And that's the basis of my hope. And that's all I'm left with. I see where the curves are all going. But I still cling to hope as the thing that we've got to grab onto if we give nature a chance.
BILL MOYERS: So what if our species is not the apex of creation? Are we assuming that the very species that can pollute and destroy our habitat is the one worthy most of saving?
DAVID SUZUKI: I definitely do not believe that at all. It's, life is the miracle on this planet. UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program say over 50,000 species, and there are big ones and small ones going extinct. And I grieve for them, I grieve for my kin, the other species that occupy this planet. I certainly don't regard us as the apex. But I love my children. And that's what drives me is that I want my children and grandchildren to live in a world where they can have the joy of being alive and human. And I will fight for that.
Now, at this point at the end of our show and at this, towards the end of my life, one of the great gifts that I got was one, you know, I used to spend so much time going, we got to finish this project, like, we've got to get going. Like, we don't have time, we, and my family paid the price. I was at the office long hours and traveling.
And one day I looked in the mirror and I said, who the hell do you think you are? There are 7 billion people on the planet. You think you're so important? Of course you're not. The only way this change is going happen is when there is a body of people working together, a lot of drops will fill any bucket.
And your, it's not your responsibility. It's your conceit to think you're so special you've got to do it. And that relieved me of a tremendous amount of pressure on my part. All I want is to be able to say to my grandchildren, I did the best I could. I'm one human being, that's all. And if there are enough people like that, something big could happen, I think.
BILL MOYERS: David Suzuki, thank you very much for being with me.
DAVID SUZUKI: Thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, we debunk some of the biggest lies of the climate change deniers and ask environmental scientists and activists what could be done right now to fight global warming.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.