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David Suzuki: Time to Get Real on Climate Change

Bill Moyers talks with a scientist who has sounded the alarm about the dangers of climate change for decades.

Part of the Series

This week, as the White House issued a landmark report detailing the frightening affects of global warming on our country and President Obama took to the airwaves to drive home that message, Bill Moyers talks with a scientist who has sounded the alarm for decades.

For nearly 35 years, David Suzuki has brought science into the homes of millions on the Canadian television series, The Nature of Things. He has become a godfather of the environmental movement, and in a poll of his fellow Canadians last fall he was named that country’s most admired figure. Nonetheless, his outspoken views on climate change and the government’s collusion with the petrochemical industry in developing Canada’s oil-rich tar sands have made him the target of relentless attacks from his nation’s prime minister, corporations and right-wing ideologues.

“Our politicians should be thrown in the slammer for willful blindness. …I think that we are being willfully blind to the consequences for our children and grandchildren. It’s an intergenerational crime,” Suzuki tells Moyers.


BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…

DAVID SUZUKI: Oh, the market! Praise the market! Free the market! It’ll do — we invented the damn thing. What’s going on here? Like, we act as if these are forces of nature. I just, I don’t get it. If it ain’t working, change the darn thing.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. When David Suzuki was born, his Japanese-Canadian father worried that his son’s diminutive size would put him at a disadvantage in the world. So he named him after little David of the Old Testament, the young warrior who slew the mighty Philistine giant Goliath and became the King of Israel.

Suzuki’s father would live long enough to realize with pride that his son had lived up to his name. David Suzuki has become famous around the world for using science to fight the predatory giants who ravage the earth for profit.

DAVID SUZUKI in 1992: I can tell you everybody who looks at that knows in the pit of your stomach this is wrong. You do not treat Mother Earth this way.

BILL MOYERS: Now he’s in the fiercest and most urgent battle of his long life – to reverse the warming of our planet caused by the global emissions of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

It’s an uphill struggle. Just this week the White House released the latest National Climate Assessment which reports that global warming is real, that “summers are longer and hotter and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced.”

This is far from the first time David Suzuki has witnessed the worst but carried on the battle. His childhood was spent in a Canadian internment camp during World War II. Facing lingering bigotry after the war, the family was forced out of British Columbia and moved to Ontario. After getting his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago, David again encountered racial intolerance, this time in the segregated American south when he did postdoctoral work in genetics at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Undeterred, he began a 40 year teaching career in higher education.

His knack for translating difficult scientific principles into something understandable and exciting made him a natural for television – since 1979 he has been the host of the Canadian Broadcasting science series, “The Nature of Things,” seen over the decades in more than 40 countries.

DAVID SUZUKI in The Nature of Things: Welcome to the first show in a new season of “The Nature of Things.”

BILL MOYERS: His name appears on over 50 books as author or collaborator. And in a poll of his fellow Canadians last fall, Suzuki was named the country’s most admired figure.

Nonetheless, his outspoken views on climate change and the government’s collusion with the petrochemical industry in developing the country’s oil-rich tar sands have made him the target of relentless attacks from Canada’s prime minister, corporations, and right-wing ideologues.

He takes these in stride and now sees himself as an elder, like the oldest of his First Nation tribal friends in northwestern Canada. Elders, he recently wrote me, “are freed to speak the truth that comes from our hearts,” to “sift through our lives for those nuggets of experience to pass on to the generations that will inherit the world we leave.” Welcome.

DAVID SUZUKI: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: How old are you now?


BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think that we hope to grow old but dread old age?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, yes. I mean, no one, I called myself an elder reluctantly. But having seen the role of elders in First Nations communities, it’s something that I now feel very proud to say I am an elder. Elders in a First Nations community, go to a feast or an event, when an elder walks in the room they’re like rock stars, you know. They’re the repository of all of that long traditional knowledge that’s been again hard won over thousands of years. And that is passed on.

BILL MOYERS: What would you like to pass on? I mean, what are some nuggets of experience from your own life that you think might be instructive and helpful to future generations?

DAVID SUZUKI: They’re all about stories. And one that comes to mind immediately, we were doing a show, a two-hour special on forestry. And I arranged with MacMillan Bloedel, one of the big logging companies, to interview three loggers on Vancouver Island.

And so we rolled up and pulled out our camera. The loggers saw us. They were waiting and they came out of the bush, they’re cussing me and saying, you XX enviros, you’re taking our jobs away. And I started arguing. And it was great television, you know, people love that. But at the end of this exchange I said, you know, I don’t know a single environmentalist who’s against logging. We use paper, we use lumber. We’re not against logging. We just want to be sure your kids and grandchildren will be able to log forests as rich as the ones you’re cutting now.

Right away one of the loggers jumped in and said, there’s no way my kids are going into logging. There aren’t going to be any trees left. And that’s when I understood or I realized that we weren’t talking to each other. They were talking about, look, I’ve got to put food on the plate every day, I’ve got to pay for my car and my mortgage.

They’re looking at it in terms of immediate needs whereas what we were arguing was the long term protection of the forest that could continue to yield wood and pulp forever if we do it the right way. But we’re arguing in different ways. And I think that’s one of the most important lessons is when we begin a conversation, let’s at least start from a common ground so that we know what we’re talking about. Otherwise we’re just talking past each other.

BILL MOYERS: How do you reach common ground there?

DAVID SUZUKI: If we can both agree that the health of the forest is critical. As long as those trees are healthy, that forest is healthy, loggers can make a living at it. And those forests, that forest, will provide the services that all of humanity needs which is taking carbon out of the air and putting oxygen back in and holding the soil so it doesn’t erode and providing habitat, those are the kind of ecological services I’m interested in.

But if we both agree the health of the forest is the source of our wellbeing, either as a logger, see, that’s where I think the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs is so relevant. You know, as long as the goose is fat and healthy and you take care of it, it would lay a golden egg every day. But you get greedy and kill the goose, there’s no golden eggs to be got.

BILL MOYERS: In her forward to your book, “The Legacy,” Margaret Atwood says you have lived the life of the great prophets, “those whose messages go unheeded because they tell us things we find uncomfortable.” But there was a time when your messages were heeded. And you helped win some very important battles back there in the ’70s, and the ’80s. Now you’re, seems to me, you’re fighting those same battles all over again. What does that tell us?

DAVID SUZUKI: That was the shock to me. We celebrated great victories in the 1970s and ’80s, stopping clear cutting of these forests or drilling for oil off the coast of British Columbia, stopping big dams that were to be built in Brazil and northern British Columbia, stopped supertankers from Alaska going down to Seattle. And here we are 30, 35 years later and we’re fighting the same battles.

And what I’ve said is that this is a signal that we as environmentalists have fundamentally failed. We’ve failed to shift the perceptual lenses through which we see our place on the planet. You see, we thought if we stop that dam, whoa, we’ve won, that’s it. And we didn’t point out why are we stopping the dam. What does it mean? What are the values inherent in that battle and that victory? We just saw the battle as the issue. And we never saw it as simply part of the symptoms of a greater change that’s needed.

And so we failed the common expression is to shift the paradigm. And that really is the challenges of environmentalism is really about seeing our place in the world in the way that humans have always known up until very, very recently that we’re part of nature and utterly dependent on the natural world for our wellbeing and survival.

You know, when I think of our evolution as an animal in Africa, when we appeared on the plains of Africa you got to admit, we weren’t very impressive.

We weren’t fast, we weren’t big, we weren’t strong. We didn’t have special sensory abilities. I mean, who could have imagined that in 150 millennia we would take over the planet?

Well, of course our secret was hidden, it was the two kilogram organ buried deep in our skulls. And one of the things that brain did was it enabled us to create this concept of a future. No other animal has a sense of a future as we do. And because we invented the idea of a future, we’re the only animal that understood that we could affect the future by what we do today.

BILL MOYERS: But at the same time you have said that we are a special predatory species.

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, we are very special in that we’ve amplified our ability way beyond any other species through technology. And—

BILL MOYERS: We used to think technology would save us in these crises, such as the one we’re—

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I think that there’s no question we need technology. The problem we face is that when we go for big technology, we invariably wake up and find, oh my goodness, I didn’t know that this was going to be a consequence. I mean, when DDT was found to kill insects, we thought, wow, that’s great. You know, we’ll spray it on fields and kill pests. The guy that discovered that, Paul Müller, won a Nobel Prize in 1948. But only years later we find hey, guess what? DDT doesn’t stay in a farmer’s field, and it’s biomagnified up the food chain. We only discovered that—

BILL MOYERS: Into the breasts of women.

DAVID SUZUKI: Into the breasts of women, the shell glands of birds, that’s why eagles were disappearing. And over and over again we get tripped up because we can invent a powerful technology, but we don’t know enough to see the ramifications. So I think there’s a way out. And that is if we show nature more respect. I mean, after all, every species has had the same problem we do. I mean, they’re had to get rid of their waste. How do, what do you do when you get sick? Even bacteria get virus sicknesses that kill them.

How do you get your food? How do you have kids and raise them safely? How do you find shelter? I mean, these are all common problems of other species. But nature’s had 3.8 billion years to solve them. Could we not find ways that nature’s done it, then make that our technology?

BILL MOYERS: But what those species didn’t face was a tsunami of money and power arrayed against them the way you and all of us now are facing the power, greed and wealth of these big fossil fuel companies. Is it practical to think we can change the paradigm when we’re up against that wall of money?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I keep saying that the economic system is a human invention. The idea of capitalism, free enterprise, corporations, markets, these are not forces of nature for heaven sakes. But you talk to a neo liberal and you say economy, the market and they go: oh, the market! Praise the market! Free the market! It’ll do — we invented the damn thing. What’s going on here? Like, we act as if these are forces of nature. You know, there are some things in nature we have to live with. Physics, chemistry, biology, those tell you things.

BILL MOYERS: Reality, right.

DAVID SUZUKI: But why is it we bow down before human-created ideas? We can change those things. We can’t change our dependence on the biosphere for our wellbeing and survival. I just, I don’t get it. If it ain’t working, change the darn thing.

BILL MOYERS: Some young people in California are suing government agencies here for failing to act on climate change. They’re part of an organization called Our Children’s Trust. And they’re invoking the public trust doctrine that says sovereign governments have a duty to safeguard public resources for the use of subsequent generations.

DAVID SUZUKI: But they just lost.

BILL MOYERS: But they’re going to take it up to an appeals court—

DAVID SUZUKI: Good for them. I’ve been saying for years that 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. Unfortunately there is no category for that kind of criminal act. There are over a hundred countries in the world that guarantee some kind of right to a healthy environment. So this is my last big endeavor. In Canada we’re starting a campaign in September. I’m going to go on a bus and we’re going to drive from the east coast of Canada, across, until November.

And we’re pushing for a constitutional amendment to make the right to a healthy environment enshrined in our constitution. Now, you would think, of course, we all want a healthy environment for our children. But even though more than a hundred countries have such guarantees in their constitution, we don’t in Britain, we don’t in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

BILL MOYERS: Are there countries getting climate change right? Are there countries that are doing the right thing?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, lots, lots. I mean, the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, other than Canada which withdrew, have all met the target, which was a small target. Sweden, I hold up as this shining example, they instituted a carbon tax in the 1990s, I think it was around 1992.

They now pay $130 or $140 a ton to put carbon in the atmosphere. They’ve reduced the greenhouse gas emissions by more than 8 percent below 1990 levels. And during that time their economy grew by more than 40 percent. So this whole argument that a carbon tax putting a price on carbon is destructive of the economy is really bogus if we look at a country like Sweden.

But you know, Germany is well on its way to shutting down all of their nuclear plants and 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 or something. Denmark, Sweden, they’re all well on their way to transitioning off fossil fuels. So Bhutan, Bhutan is this tiny country that, well, they’ve got 70 percent of the land is covered with forest and they’re determined to keep it. And they’re committed to all organic agriculture in the country. And their goal is not economic growth but gross national happiness.

BILL MOYERS: You once said, quote, all it takes is the imagination to dream it and the will to make the dream reality. But is imagination enough against our addiction to fossil fuels and the enormous wealth and power of those who feed our addiction?

DAVID SUZUKI: Yes. Well, I think this is the problem. I think, you know, in Canada we have this immense battle going on now which is the future of oil in our country. And we have a prime minister who’s determined to make Canada an oil superpower.

BILL MOYERS: A petro-state.

DAVID SUZUKI: A petro-state. And the heart of his energy policy is the tar sands in Alberta. Now, unfortunately for him the tar sands are landlocked. They got to get that oil out. And the way they’re going to do it is with a pipeline to the west coast of British Columbia or down south to Texas, the Keystone Pipeline.

Well, I have got, worked with the, all of the coastal First Nations communities, nine of them. We started in the 1990s going into these communities. And every one of them, the first thing they told my wife and me was, we need jobs. We need economic development.

They are desperate for jobs. The government and Enbridge, the company that wants to build the pipeline, has offered them millions of dollars just to sign on the line and let that pipe go through their territory. And yet they are absolutely adamant that there is no pipeline going through their land.

And what I keep telling, trying to tell the government is, can’t you hear? They’re telling us there are things more important than money and you’re just not getting it.

But one of the problems we face is that so much money has been invested in building the infrastructure. You know, tens and tens of billions of dollars have been invested. The Chinese alone have invested over $20 billion. You have all that asset, you’ve got to get that value out. You know, it’s those stranded assets business that impels you to continue on what we all know is a destructive path.

Now, I had thought triggers would be a crisis. So after Hurricane Katrina, I thought maybe that’s it, you know. When 70,000 Europeans died of heatstroke, I thought maybe that’s it. When Sandy occurred, I thought, that’s it, but— in 2008 with the economic meltdown, I thought that’s it. I think in terms of the power of corporations, most big corporations are bigger than most governments in the world. It’s going to take a massive meltdown and a lot of people are going to suffer as a result. So it’s a pretty apocalyptic view of what’s going to help us get on that path.

BILL MOYERS: I heard a psychology professor at the Earth Institute here in New York say that, quote, scare campaigns and visions of apocalyptic futures backfire. They only work when there’s something simple you can do to remove the danger. Can you present climate change, the dangers and the threat with a—


BILL MOYERS: —simple enough, positive solution that enables people to accept, absorb and act on it?

DAVID SUZUKI: Yeah, well, it’s difficult, I think. I mean, there are all kinds of positive possibilities. But the important thing is to take the challenge seriously. And that’s what we seem to be having trouble getting over that hurdle now. I was starting the, my last year in college in 1957. And on October 4th, 1957 the Soviet Union electrified the world by launching Sputnik. Now, you remember what it was like.

I mean, I didn’t even know there was a space program. And every time that satellite passed overhead, we heard that beep, beep, beep which was kind of like a reminder, you know, a nose up, a finger up your nose saying, look at us, how great we are. And America just said, we got to, we got to do something about this. I mean, it was a glorious time. Americans spent money like, here I was, a Canadian in the United States, and all you had to do was say, I like science. And my goodness, there were scholarships and all kinds of things.

And, you know, meanwhile the Russians launched the first animal, a dog, Laika, the first man, Yuri Gagarin, the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova. Americans didn’t say, oh God, we’ll never get up, catch up to them. They’re too far ahead. It’ll break the economy if we go after them. And when Kennedy announced the moon as a target, we just, you threw yourselves into it.

And I keep using this, think of what happened as a result of the commitment. Not only are Americans the only country to land human beings on the moon, but all of the things that happened that we couldn’t have predicted, you know, 24-hour news channel, well, maybe that’s not such a great thing, but GPS and cell phones and whole, more than just jobs, opened whole new areas that we didn’t know were possible. And every year for 50 years when Nobel Prizes are announced in science, guess who gets most of them? Americans, because after Sputnik, America said, we’ve got to take the challenge and beat these guys. And I think it’s un-American to say, this’ll destroy the economy. This is a challenge for heaven sakes. And where is that gung-ho American, you know, that let’s go and get on with it spirit?

BILL MOYERS: We’ll be back with David Suzuki next week unless we’re too busy treading water.

A new report in the journal “Nature Climate Change” says it might take a while, but if global warming melts a certain chunk of eastern Antarctica, sea levels could rise as much as 13 feet, with profound consequences for life on earth.

Look at this animated chart from CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. In just a minute and a half, it shows 800,000 years of carbon dioxide emissions and their sudden, dramatic jump in just the last few decades. Greenhouse gases, now burning up our planet.

Nonetheless, David Suzuki tells us on next week’s broadcast that the situation is critical, but it’s not hopeless…

DAVID SUZUKI: A lot of my colleagues have now said it’s too late. 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, 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: At our website, more from David Suzuki and a closer look at some nations that are getting climate change right.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

Producer: Candace White. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns.