Greenpeace stunt wrong approach to climate change: Bob McDonald

When Greenpeace used the famous Nazca Lines of Peru to promote its message about climate change, it did more harm than good - not just to the heritage site, but to the cause of climate change itself. What is needed is massive investment in alternative energy research.

Group's defacing of Nazca Lines hurts climate change cause

Greenpeace activists stand next to massive cloth letters next to the hummingbird geoglyph at Peru's sacred Nazca lines. The Peruvian government is pursuing criminal charges against the activists. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

A stunt by Greenpeace activists, intended to draw attention to the climate talks in Lima this week, did more harm than good.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, has officially apologized to the government of Peru for defacing that country’s worldfamous Nazca Lines

Defacing historic monuments is illegal and immoral. In this case, 20 Greenpeace activists trespassed on the huge line drawings on high plateaus of Peru, made 1,500 years ago by ancient Nazca people.

These incredibly precise geometric lines, running hundreds of metres across high desert plateaus, depict animals, fish and flowers that are best discernible from surrounding hills or from the air. The lines were made by carefully moving thousands of dark stones on the desert floor, exposing the lighter sand underneath, which makes them very vulnerable to foot traffic. In fact, some lines have already been permanently damaged by desert adventurers on ATVs.

That’s why the lines are now off-limits to pedestrians and considered part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Defacing the Nazca Lines for the sake of one group’s propaganda is essentially eco-terrorism. It does draw the world's attention, but to the act itself, not the to the cause of climate change.

This kind of extreme action not only damages the credibility of the organization, it actually makes progress towards a solution to the climate problem more difficult.

Dealing with climate change is a complicated issue, involving the environment, the economy, industry and politics. While scientific data indicates that fossil fuels are at the root of our warming world, change will not come about easily by characterizing oil companies as evil and environmental activists as saviours.

This confrontational, white hat/black hat mentality leads to name-calling, so each side digs in their heels and nothing moves forward. Extreme posturing  is like a revolution, where one side battles the other - it triggers violence, destruction of property and, usually, an aftermath of chaos.

A more constructive way forward is through evolution, not revolution. That is when we look at the present situation and find ways to evolve that into cleaner, better solutions to turn the wheels of civilization, keep ourselves warm and power our electronic devices.

It has to be a gradual transition away from fossil fuels, not an overnight revolution, because our current infrastructure is so huge.

To make the transition to a more climate-friendly technology, we can work with the current system and take the economic approach of investing in the future. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Imagine all the jobs that would be lost if fossil fuels were instantly banned altogether. The oil and gas industry, from the wellhead to the gas pump, would be shut down; the automotive sector, along with all the parts and service people, would also disappear. Millions of people would lose their jobs, bringing down the economy of the entire world, all at once.

No government leader is going to let that happen. But that doesn’t mean there is no clear path forward.

To make the transition to a more climate-friendly technology, we can work with the current system and take the economic point of view. It’s called investing in the future.

It would be in the best interest of the fossil fuel industry and government to take the long-term view and create a dedicated fund, exclusively for the development of clean alternative technology. (Some government funds for alternative energy do exist, but they are tiny and ineffective).

This fund, which should be in the tens of billions of dollars, would come out of the considerable profits currently being made by industry, and the considerable tax income being generated by government.

According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), Alberta can expect $350 billion in royalties and $122 billion in provincial and municipal tax revenue from the oil sands over the next 25 years, for example. It wouldn’t be too difficult to skim some of that income into a future fund that would be managed by an independent agency to support research on more efficient solar cells, energy storage, or existing technology that has remained on the fringe - due to lack of funding - and creative new ideas that haven’t been imagined yet.

With that kind of investment, there will be alternatives in place as fossil fuels run out or become so unpopular no one wants them. In the end, oil companies become energy companies, still delivering products - just different ones - still making profits and still paying taxes.

A model for this type of fund already exists in the health industry. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) fund innovative new research in medicine and health across the country.

The same could be done for energy.

Investing in the future of the economy and the environment; they don’t have to be mutually exclusive and we don’t have to fight a revolution to get there.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.