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Katia Opalka, a Montreal-based environmental lawyer and professor at the School of Environment, gave a talk recently entitled “What a fool believes (in 2012): Journalists, Scientists and End of the World-ists.” I interviewed her shortly afterward to talk about environmental protection, education, faith, and Canadian politics.
MSE: Your talk opened with a contrast between knowledge and belief, and one of your big themes was the fact that the empirical evidence supporting phenomena like climate change seem powerless in the face of industry and politics. Might we need more faith in science along with pure scientific knowledge?
KO: Anyone in the scientific community will tell you that science is just as political as anything else: who gets funded, what they research, who gets published, what the information gets used for.
I think that in order for there to be a public shift in the direction of [not] just believing stuff because we don’t know whom to believe and believing science, there needs to be a framework, which is honest, and which says to the public: “Look, we understand why you are just as wary of science and scientists as of any other claim that someone has made. It’s reasonable for you to be distrustful, you’re not stupid.”
One of the things is that you need to promise is that the disagreements that scientists have over the interpretations of findings [will be made public]. A lot is being asked of the public – major shifts in consumption, in transportation, and not only that. The public as a whole is getting worried with the storms that have been going on. People I think are rapidly going to move into a state of serious worry, and once people are afraid for their personal safety and personal livelihood, it’s not going to be hard for them to say, “forget science altogether, I’m going for God.”
MSE: As someone who teaches, what kind of role do you think education might have in getting a way out of the situation we’re in?
KO: Much more attention needs to be focused on the factors that affect how theory gets translated into practice. People need to be able to list off those factors the way kids sing the alphabet song.
In universities, while it may be difficult for students who haven’t been out there in the market or in the world and maybe can’t appreciate these real world factors, it’s amazing to be taught them because it helps you see afterwards when you’re out doing things, what’s going on.
I think that McGill could do a better job in trying to do what the MSE has started to try and do, which is to say: “If you have an environmental objective – say trying to preserve biodiversity in Canada – there are very clear answers to what’s going to prevent that from happening.”
Maybe in other fields, it’s okay for things to remain at a theory level, but in environmental protection, my measure of success for any environmental document is to ask “is it better for the environment that you wrote this thing?”
MSE: A lot of your talk was about Canada, and one of the things you mentioned is that you’d like to see the next election play out between a renewed Liberal party and moderate Conservatives. Do you think that could be enough to get us out of the quite dark picture you painted?
KO: Really, really far. I believe that to understand Stephen Harper’s agenda for oil and gas and the environment, you need to look at George Bush and Dick Cheney. And it’s exactly the same, except that it’s much harder for an American president to just ditch all environmental laws and get rid of the EPA, as I said in my speech. As we saw in Canada, it’s really easy for a Canadian prime minister to do that.
-Emilio Comay del Junco