28 October 2019

Roger Grimes: the unlikely reactionary #nlpoli

What is happening in Newfoundland and Labrador is not merely polarization in public opinion.  Polarization implies that people are within the same community or see themselves as being within the same community.   
What we are seeing increasingly is the tendency to fragmentation. People do not listen to differing opinions.  They do not see or understand what is happening in their own province but identify with and frame their world in the context of what is going on elsewhere. 
If you think Roger Grimes is a reactionary, then we are in a far darker place as a society than anyone currently realises.
 Roger Grimes used to be head of the provincial teachers’ union. He got into politics after that, served in several cabinet posts, including natural resources and then wound up as Premier for three years.  This past summer, the provincial and federal governments appointed him as chair of the organization that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry.

Given his experience, Grimes is a logical choice.  In the new role, he chairs the board and that’s all.  The job used to be combined with the administrative head of the organization but the two governments who share management of the offshore through it decided it was a good idea to split the two jobs. That gives him a bit more latitude to speak his mind on subjects, something Grimes has never been afraid to do.

He spoke to an oil industry meeting on Thursday.  His message was simple:
“Don't ignore them [climate change activists].  Engage with them. Educate. Make sure that everybody understands — and I'll say it one more time — everybody needs to understand that it's not an either-or proposition.” 
“You can [develop oil and gas resources] and save the planet at the same time.”
Someone at CBC wrote a story about the speech and an editor approved it and published it, but the CBC story isn’t really about the speech. It’s about what someone wrote who wasn’t in the room during the speech and didn’t speak to Grimes to confirm what he meant.  It’s about interpreting Grimes’ words, putting them in another context, and giving them a meaning they didn’t have. That makes it an opinion piece and not a news story.

That’s not just a difference of opinion between your humble e-scribbler and CBC  about what Grimes meant and what he said. 

Allnewfoundlandlabrador.com interviewed Grimes and he quite happily explained his comments. 
Your humble e-scribbler emailed him and asked for a copy of his speaking notes and Grimes quite readily supplied them. It wasn’t hard.  Grimes is quite open, as he has been for the 30-odd years your humble e-scribbler has known him.

The curious thing is that the quote above is in the CBC story.  It’s just buried way down in the nearly 1700-word piece.  About 650 of them are devoted to other things, by the way, as you will see.
The headline on the CBC was “Oil industry at risk of 'losing the battle' to climate change activists, warns Roger Grimes.”

And the first three paragraphs read like this:
A former premier and the current head of Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil regulator told a room of oil industry representatives Thursday to be just as loud as people like Greta Thunberg to ensure it's not only young people controlling the message around climate change. 
Roger Grimes, chair of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, said the climate change issue was "almost dominating" debates during the federal election, and he wanted to encourage the industry to be vocal — just as Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, has done. 
"She speaks very passionately and she's convinced that leaders like me, in the 20 years that I was at it, made some decisions that have endangered the very planet on which she lives," Grimes said, "and that somebody else better start doing things a bit differently or there's not gonna be a similar type of planet for her to grow up in."

The piece then discusses Thunberg, as if readers were unfamiliar with her advocacy against climate change.  She’s also been the target of criticism online, with a noticeable number being from older white men who make a big deal about her age and with it her immaturity and naivete.

The fact Grimes mentioned Thunberg and her age seemed to be a key point for the CBC writer since that reference to Thunberg and age is at the front of the CBC story that is supposed to be about Grimes’ speech and his point. It comes back later on with the note that Grimes mentioned her and her age quite a bit.

It’s just that there is no context in the CBC’s story for *why* he mentioned Thunberg and her age and the age of the climate change activists.  That context is missing entirely from the CBC piece. it's important if you want to know what Grimes meant as opposed to what the folks at CBC imagined he meant.

Grimes’ notes make it clear that he was talking about the fact that the people who are now protesting, mostly young people and academics, will be in leadership positions 20 years form now.  Grimes quite clearly believes the key problem with that is their belief – in his interpretation, rightly or wrongly – that they see the current climate issue as a stark, binary choice.  It is either oil or development.

Grimes clearly believes it is possible to develop oil resources and protect the environment at the same time.  People can disagree about that but his belief in a balanced approach or a middle position between the stark choice between oil or the environment does not make Grimes an adversary of environmental action, as the CBC piece presents him.

Grimes’ notes include an explanation that “Because physical climate change is generally acknowledged to be real, political climate change is occurring rapidly.”  His notes include references to changes in the oil industry globally to reduce its carbon emissions, in response to the science of climate change and widespread public opinion. Grimes’ notes also point out that it isn’t good enough for the oil industry and its supporters to talk about economics and jobs. 
"I don't mind telling people personally I am a champion, I always have been, in my public life, my political life and now as an individual, of 'Let's develop,'" Grimes said. 
"But we got to do it sensibly. You got to do it practically.  You got to do it in an environmentally proper fashion.  You got to do it safely. You got to do all those things, but let's focus our energies on finding ways to do it."
Those words appear in the CBC piece, although well away from the start of it.  What’s striking is the way the CBC writer and editor take a speech admonishing the industry representatives in the room to engage in a public discussion about the future of their industry and presents that as a negative thing. One CBC reporter characterized him on Twitter as a promoter of the industry. That’s as simplistic  - and wrong - a view as one could get.

Most of the online comment on Grimes’ speech was highly critical of Grimes but it is important to recognize that they were reacting to CBC’s opinion piece, not Grimes. The structure of the CBC story pushed Grimes’ message to middle and bottom of the story, well below the points where most people these days read in any news story, if they read at all.  You cannot have any experience in public communication and not understand that. 

The CBC piece is less reporting and more opinion than would have been the case even a decade ago.  The pressures of modern newsrooms may explain why something presented as a news story was written by someone who didn’t speak to the speechmaker, let alone sit in the room for the speech. The point is that not so long ago, that would have been enough to kill a story or delay its publication. The fact that 600 of the 1600 words were devoted to things that weren’t about the speech but context for the CBC interpretation should also have given pause to the writer and the editors.

But it didn’t and that’s what makes this piece worth talking about.  Climate change is an important public topic.  Grimes is no ordinary speaker.  Reporting his speech should have included a concern for accuracy about what he meant not just the concern that his words got used but with a context that gave them a different meaning.  Grimes should have been able to speak for himself.

Fractured Politics

This style of reporting and the online controversy it engendered have greater implications. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need for democratic reform in Newfoundland and Labrador. While the proponents of reform spend all their time talking about changing organizations, the real change that will need to happen for meaningful democratic reform is in the local political culture.  That culture has to support discussion.  It has to make room for views that aren’t the dominant ones.

In the context of this topic and this story, there’s no doubt concern about climate change and action to prevent or mitigate it are dominant, Grimes noted the action being taken within the oil industry in response to the changing political environment. 

It is troublesome, then, when a person in a position of power and influence is encouraging people to engage in public debate about how to move forward in a balanced way and yet is effectively shut out of the conversation or cast in such a negative light that he is effectively shut out.   There is more than bit of irony in his warning that the current discussion of climate change of oil is framed as a stark choice between one or the other and that CBC presents the case as precisely that, with Grimes on the wrong side.

Grimes’ point is legitimate and is reasonable, even if you disagree with him.  You can find his actual words in the CBC story.  You just have to hunt for them. You can find his words in another news outlet but unfortunately it is limited to subscribers only.

If you read Grimes’ words alone, without the frame placed on it by the CBC writer and editor, you’d actually have a hard time understanding where anyone got the idea he was shilling for the oil industry or attacking the climate change activists. 

The simple answer is that he wasn’t.  His point is actually one that we all need to bear in mind as we address the challenge of climate change.  Very few regard climate change as a myth. Very few believe that we should ignore climate change entirely. Most understand that, as Grimes put it, the physical climate has changed and so the political climate is changed.

Grimes clearly advocated that we need a conversation about how to move forward. Conversation, after all, is the exchange of sometimes contentious views among people, with the objective of achieving a common understanding.  Grimes encouraged people in the oil industry to engage with climate change activists and others, not to shout them down, drown them out, or be just as noisy.  Grimes wanted to allow for development while at the same time protecting the environment.

The CBC story says Grimes didn’t give examples of how that was possible.  His notes contain examples.  Lots of them, in fact, including local ones. He could easily have mentioned the decision by Equinor to sell its heavy oil assets in the oil sands of northern Alberta.  Heavy oil has a huge carbon impact in its extraction and has a larger impact yet again to turn into usable products for consumers and industry.  That move away from heavy oil is hurting Alberta, which is one of the reasons people there are going through a had time economically and politically, but the move is a sign that the oil industry is responding to climate concerns.

Getting out of heavy oil as part of a climate change strategy would affect the Hebron project in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s something that might happen here or need to happen here.  There are implications to climate change that we need to work through.  We would need to work through them not with protest marches but with discussion, with conversation.  But that’s a conversation you cannot have when an advocate of dialogue and a balanced approach is characterized as being an opponent of climate change and an unrelenting promoter of old thinking.

Grimes was speaking to an audience in Newfoundland and Labrador, where discussion of public issues has all but vanished. Most organizations these days, including government and industry, shrink from public discussion of controversial topics. That’s what makes Grimes’ speech even more significant.  

Grimes’ speaking notes, and by the looks of it, his speech actually tackled that head on. He was admonishing the oil industry representatives locally to engage in the sort of political discussion Grimes was used to during his career but that has become less common. Losing the battle, in the sense Grimes used the phrase, was about allowing a world to develop 20 years hence that was based on the false premise that we face the choice today of either oil or the environment.

There’s even more to it.  There’s already a tendency in Newfoundland and Labrador for people to shut out opinions that don’t match with theirs or to treat those who don’t agree as implacable enemies.  There’s another tendency - it shows up in this CBC piece - for opinion shapers like reporters and editors to take their cues from outside the society rather than frame discussion in a local context.  There is also a  tendency to avoid open disagreement.

What this creates is not merely polarization in public opinion.  Polarization implies that people are within the same community or see themselves as being within the same community.  What we are seeing increasingly is the tendency to fragmentation. That would be a situation in which people do not see connections between themselves and a very narrowly defined group of people.  We do not even listen to differing opinions.

What is happening in Newfoundland and Labrador is not merely polarization in public opinion.  Polarization implies that people are within the same community or see themselves as being within the same community.   

What we are seeing increasingly is the tendency to fragmentation. People do not listen to differing opinions.  They do not see or understand what is happening in their own province but identify with and frame their world in the context of what is going on elsewhere. 

And so within Newfoundland and Labrador, as people connect more with those outside the province than those within,  as they lose any understanding of what is happening in the community in which they live, as they become more closed-minded and refuse to engage or see a call to engage as a call to battle, developing a consensus on complex issues with no easy solutions will only become increasingly difficult if not impossible. 

Roger Grimes is the most unlikely reactionary anyone could find.  If you think he *is* a reactionary, then we are in a far darker place as a society than anyone currently realises.