Jan 24, 2014

Spreading a fossilized view of the tar sands


It is lamentable that commentator Rex Murphy, who sometimes acts like a resident apologist for the fossil fuel industry, on January 17 devoted his weekly commentary on CBC television’s The National, to undermining rather than encouraging citizens working against massive vested interests, for a habitable planet for future generations.

Specifically, Murphy tore into Neil Young’s comments on his cross-country Tar Sands tour. Yes, Young’s comparison of the Athabasca bitumen sands project to Hiroshima was overwrought. But it’s not unreasonable to consider the project an environmental war crime. It has been estimated that 300,000 extra deaths per year are already attributable to the consequences of global warming – in terms of sheer mortality, the equivalent of over two Hiroshimas. The amount of oil to be unleashed over time by the Athabasca bitumen sands has been estimated to have the potential to raise the planet’s average temperature beyond the generally accepted tipping point of 2 degrees – on its own.

Calling rhetorically for a balanced discussion, Murphy went on to offer a one-sided encomium on the project’s presumed benefits, and denounced Young for his “one-sided and overtoxic condemnations…Young has failed to be fair; and therefore, he has also failed to be persuasive.” Seemingly without irony, the speaker speaks of himself.

Perhaps, in combining his literary proclivities with his “fossilized” politics, Murphy wishes to brand himself a new species of dinosaur – Tyrannothesaurus Rex.

But the main issue isn’t Mr. Murphy. It’s CBC and its responsibilities as a public broadcaster. Kudos to CBC science correspondent Bob MacDonald for identifying climate change as one of the top ten science stories of 2013. It’s time to stop denying its reality, he said, and get on with finding solutions. Bravo. But where on the National, are the stories, the sources and the sustained attention that could help Canadians understand and address what is possibly the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced? Why is it that Rex Murphy appears regularly on the National, while voices of environmental sanity like David Suzuki or Naomi Klein don’t?

To be sure, CBC is still capable of the excellent watchdog journalism for which it has been renowned in the past; a recent collaborative series on offshore tax havens is an example. But informed long-term observers like the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting worry that faced with political and funding pressures from the federal government, CBC is at risk of sliding down a slippery slope, from a respected public broadcaster, to a state broadcaster on an increasingly tight leash to the government of the day. Off the record, respected CBC journalists talk about “leftwing phobia” and political timidity at the level of management.

If we want a society alert to the danger of climate change, excessive dependence on fossil fuel exploitation and consumption, and the violation of aboriginal treaty rights, then revitalizing CBC’s journalism needs to be part of a more hopeful picture.

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