Rex Murphy's fear of a green planet

The longtime commentator has polluted the national conversation for far too long
Photo: Province of British Columbia
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With the media’s attention on the national protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ struggle against a natural gas pipeline, the decision of Teck Resources to withdraw its application to open a new tar sands mine, and now the Alberta Court of Appeal ruling the federal carbon price is unconstitutional, this is a crucial moment for advancing the national conversation on how Canada will do its part to address the climate crisis in a just and ambitious way.

That’s why it’s also a good time to ask why Rex Murphy, a man once described as “Canada’s most famous climate denier,” still has a prominent place in the mainstream media landscape from which to pollute and degrade the conversation.

His latest unpleasant medley of columns for the National Post includes “Climate zealots have taken Canada hostage. And our PM is missing in action” (Feb. 14), “The Liberals' silver lining: as Canada grinds to a halt, emissions decline” (Feb. 21) and “The Teck decision is the culmination of Trudeau's anti-oil agenda” (Feb. 24).

In them, he describes a Canada under siege by “anti-industry, anti-energy, anti-Alberta, climate-change save-the-worlders who have been harassing the country for years” and whose job it is “to make sure that no one else can get a job.” Emboldened by the “anti-oil and anti-Alberta policies” of a Trudeau government engaged in a “useless crusade against carbon-dioxide emissions,” these “rabid environmentalists put a blowtorch to the hopes and dreams of thousands of Canadian workers every time.”

It was a demand for false balance, not significantly different from a conspiracy theorist insisting that political journalists covering elections also report on the Illuminati.

These fevered imaginings are emblematic of the views on climate politics that have precipitated Murphy’s plummet from a once-respected national commentator to a man who today leaves audiences aghast.

And while it is understandably tempting to dismiss Murphy as a joke — to call him a kook, or a nasty nattering climate change denier, or even to make his views on climate change into a (longrunning) subject of satire — that isn’t enough.

Because Murphy is not just some garrulous uncle the effects of whose outmoded ramblings go no further than the family dinner he’s ruined.

Through Canada’s biggest media outlets — at first the CBC, then the Globe and Mail, and now the National Post — he has been pushing arguments intended to prevent political action on climate change here and abroad. His work, to this day, is recommended on news feeds, travels widely over social media, and nourishes think pieces on denier blogs. It lends a sheen of legitimacy to views worthy of none.

A close analysis of his writings and comments on climate change shows that for almost twenty years Murphy has been callously peddling unsubstantiated nonsense disguised with false analogy and polysyllabic ranting, all apparently in service of prioritizing his ideology above preventing the loss, devastation and human suffering caused by the major crisis of our time. His disgraceful oeuvre deserves wide condemnation before being forgotten forever.

‘Wonderfully comprehensive and fearless’

As far as I can tell, Murphy has always been distrustful of climate science. It took some time, however, for him to turn into the vehement contrarian he is today.

The earliest of his pieces on climate that I've come across is an undated commentary for The National reprinted in Points of View, his 2003 collection of columns and commentaries. Called “Brrrr-ing on That Global Warming,” it’s a silly piece where Murphy doubts global warming because it snowed in Toronto that April. If this weren’t a refrain he would return to over coming years (more on this later), it could be dismissed as a harmless, if obnoxious, joke of a kind people made back then. A 2002 column shows him becoming a bit more aggressively skeptical, but it’s not totally clear that he’s too far gone at that point.

In [April 2006, however, you can see Murphy starting down a path that he will never return from. The proponents of the theory of global warming, he said,

are calling for massive and swift intervention in most of the world's economies, with concomitant political and social implications on a scale that is difficult to imagine.

Before those commitments are made, before the route to a solution is hammered in steel, it is surely the moment for the most diligent and neutral assessment of all the science, and the policy projections flowing from that science. It is emphatically time for the most scrupulous and disinterested inquiry to determine the solid core of what is really known about the subject, separated from the great clouds of speculation, advocacy, geopolitics and calculated alarmism that overhang and shadow that core.

That motivated distrust of the science was now here to stay.

No one could possibly believe that any global political negotiation process works anything like this.

By November of that year, Murphy was insisting that the debate between climate scientists and the so-called skeptics wasn’t settled (“It isn't over. That declaration is unsupported assertion. It is rhetoric's oldest trick”), and he began decrying journalists’ failure to cover contrarian views: “Journalistic skepticism on climate change is a rare orchid indeed. Too many journalists are advocates, and that — whatever the cause — is a fatal mixing of mutually exclusive categories.” Environmental reporting, he wrote in 2009, “is so wretchedly somnolent on the major controversies of environmentalism, global warming itself being the principal one, as to constitute a form of evangelism.”

Readers of the time would be right to wonder exactly why Murphy felt the debate wasn’t over, journalists to wonder where they could find evidence of these “major controversies” they were being “so wretchedly somnolent on.” Murphy very rarely offered to share the basis for these views, but in a rare exception in 2009, he obliged the curious:

Perhaps I could recommend to people who study or report on the weather a wonderfully comprehensive and fearless book on the subject by Australian geologist Ian Plimer called Heaven and Earth: Global Warming - The Missing Science. If there are any willing to hear some truly inconvenient truths on the stampeding advocacy of global warming, Mr. Plimer’'s book is a collection of some of the sternest.

This immediately discredited work, which includes such internal contradictions as “Temperature and CO2 are not connected” and “CO2 keeps our planet warm,” was written by a man who, despite (repeated debunkings), continues to push falsehoods about climate change today.

(Perhaps tired of waiting for journalists to throw away their careers by reporting the baseless views of non-scientists and non-experts, Murphy took matters into his own hands in January of this year when he posted his hour-long interview with the long-discredited climate contrarian Patrick Moore on his RexTV YouTube channel.)

To have praised a source like Plimer’s (and to today be interviewing someone like Moore) means that Murphy’s call for a “disinterested inquiry” was a veneer. It was a demand for false balance, not significantly different from a conspiracy theorist insisting that political journalists covering elections also report on the Illuminati. It was a sensible-sounding but utterly empty appeal hiding behind it a man growing ever more motivated to endorse unscientific views.

Social-order warrior

But why would he be endorsing such views in the first place? Murphy isn’t ignorant or opposed to science in general. He does not doubt, for instance, the science on vaccinations, nor does he call on journalists to report on some other side of that debate.

Over the last decade or so, there has been much progress in understanding why climate change denial is so concentrated on the political right. (Interested readers can start with research by Dan Kahan, Aaron McCright, Riley Dunlap, and Stephan Lewandowsky.)

To put it simply, if your sense of identity is based on a particularly rigid political conservative ideology, you are more susceptible to buying into climate change denier arguments. This is not because you are a gullible person, but because climate change is uniquely threatening to the worldview that forms a crucial foundation of your individual and group identity.

Say, for example, you believe deep in your core that a good society is necessarily one where governments largely get out of the way of the free market and leave a lot of deregulated space for capitalist industrial production to make the most of the resources of your country. Say that you believe these arrangements justly reward bold enterprise, innovation, and hard work, and are essential for limitless growth, prosperity, and progress. And say you believe that tampering with these arrangements — whether to redistribute wealth or protect the environment — is to invite economic ruin, or instability, or even a loss of cherished Western values.

For all his famous verbosity, Rex Murphy leaves much unsaid.

How then might you deal with climate science and its implications for society? You could accept them, and accept that the government will need to step in and do things like price carbon, deny permits for fossil fuel projects, ban future internal-combustion engine sales, or maybe even raise taxes on the rich to finance a response. But that would go against so much of what you believe in and informs your sense of who you are.

So, there’s another option, one you might even be motivated to choose: to discount as much of the science as possible. That way, you don’t have to entertain the thought that maybe there are problems with your worldview, and you can believe that everything can continue as normal with the social order still intact.

Something like this appears to be going on with Murphy. Notice how in his April 2006 piece the prospect of a “massive and swift intervention in most of the world’s economies” is what leads him to immediately begin insisting on a “diligent and neutral assessment of all the science … the most scrupulous and disinterested inquiry,” as if this were not what the science already was. It’s like it cannot really be saying what it seems to be saying.

This kind of motivated reasoning would explain why Murphy considers people to be credible voices on climate change for simply offering the comforting illusion that nothing needs to change. It explains why he cannot help but see the climate movement as an ungrateful antithesis to modernity and the industries that make it possible, as heard in a speech he delivered at an industry event late last year:

I’ve watched what the self-appointed, self-declared, uninvestigated, duplicitous, fundraising, and reckless environmental organizations, NGOs from all over the world have done to a greater industry. We are blessed by providence or God with the greatest energy resources probably third to anyone on the planet ….

The industry that brought us to the level of prosperity that we now have and has given us security…. We are so safely taken care of — we have all the modern tools. We have the internet, we have the grand connections, we have the best universities. Then we turn around and curse and then demonize the very industries that brought us to this pitch. Modern environmentalism cannot exist except in a society that industries like oil and gas, energy, and food production have brought to such a state of success that it can afford a semi-suicidal impulse as a side entertainment.

And there’s no coming back from this. For him to suddenly accept the science on climate change and accept that the government might need to regulate and phase out the fossil fuel industry would be to lose credibility with the few who still praise and respect him and have paid to have him speak. He would lose invitations for headline speaking engagements at oil and gas shows, Alberta business forums (where he earns standing ovations for saying it should be illegal to price carbon until there are enough pipelines), and Manning Centre conferences. No matter the evidence to the contrary, Murphy will always need to believe in what he’s saying.

‘The grand orthodoxy of our day’

But Murphy’s belief that there was some credible other side to the climate debate must have left him with a dilemma: how could there be so many people worried about something that could not possibly (be allowed to) be true?

He soon came upon a solution. As he wrote in a 2009 postscript to a 2007 piece, “Too many people, I among them, have noted the overlap sometimes tending to perfect symmetry between environmentalism and the more rigid varieties of religious adherence.”

This overlap was never established, only asserted.

And yet Murphy committed hard to this false analogy, turning to it when he needed to suggest — because he could not actually show — that belief in climate science is little more than dogma. As he put it in 2008, “The contentious and agenda-riven field of global warming” is the “grand orthodoxy of our day,” one according to which “right-thinking people” may not but “speak in tones other than those of veneration about its high-priests, such as Mr. Suzuki or Al Gore,” lest they be subject to “a response uncomfortably close to what in previous and less rational times was reserved for blasphemers, heretics and atheists.”

As the Paris Agreement was being negotiated in 2015, he doubled down on the religion analogy to the point of incoherent excess.

It’s like complaining about a government wanting to do something about wastewater because water is necessary for life.

The conference was a “Conclave of Catastrophists,” he wrote, where “the modern monks of the High Church of Global Warming” (presumably state negotiators) consult the works of “Reverend” Al Gore and “Cardinal Emeritus George Monbiot” whenever “the ‘settled science’ does not serve their needs” (what this means, he never clarifies). Here, the “priests of Climatology” can turn to the “Oracles” of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club to know “how many polar bears can dance on the edge of an ice floe.”

No one could possibly believe that any global political negotiation process works anything like this. It reads like some spiritualist swindler claiming a place is haunted just to be called in for its exorcism.

This sort of thing never stops, incidentally:

  • “With just about every government and sub-sovereign government in the world on side, every progressive university in full harmony, every pseudo-science radio and TV program treating global warming with the reverence only found these days among Scientologists and faith healing sorcerers.” (Sept. 22, 2017)
  • “the Jesuitical mandarins of Pembina and Greenpeace and Sierra” (Jan. 5, 2018)
  • “Religious pretenders, in particular, have demonstrated a fondness for the imagery and idea of extinction and collapse and none quite so gluttonously as the modern sectarians of the environmental movement.” (Oct. 12, 2018)
  • “A terrible hubris and arrogance walks with the world-savers. And I suppose if you think you’re the one to save all the world, it will inflate the ego a tad. It will also make you reckless, careless about lesser people, the ‘unanointed’ — those outside the light, people who are not prophets and saviours, but who work, raise families, scrape by as best they can.” (Aug. 9, 2019)
  • “[Greta Thunberg] is now the anointed one, and her dour, immature sermonettes a fresh gospel for our times.” (Sept. 27, 2019)
  • “The elevation of the doomsday cult of global warming” (Feb. 14, 2020)

And why would it stop? If you were incapable of accepting the reality that all credible authorities on the subject, all principled politicians, all reputable media, all popular democratic movements have, how else might they appear to you — how else would they need to appear to you — but as clamouring ranks of the fanatically devoted? And once you’ve established in your mind (though never convincingly in your work) that this is all they are, why would you ever feel a need to engage seriously with what they say?

(Unsupported, unclear) Point of View

There’s an imperfect art to crafting a column. It demands a delicate balance between engaging writing (so the audience stays with you to the end), a point of view worth sharing (so the audience gains something from giving you their time), and reasonable effort to clarify what’s informing it (so the audience can trust you), all in a space that forever seems too small to do each part justice.

Murphy gets around this balancing act by dispensing with all but the first part.

It’s emblematic of his shift away from advancing nuanced and supported views to becoming, as one critic of his work put it, “a lazy columnist, one who increasingly makes stupid points without thought or consideration. He's opted to spout easy nonsense, rather than stop to ponder the implications of his own nationally syndicated words. Where once there was depth, now there is demagoguery. Where once there were thoughtful attempts to get at the truth for its own sake, now there are easy, loosely related lines strung together into articles with no discernible overall point.”

Or to put it another way, Murphy’s primary rhetorical tool is to rant. And it’s this tendency to resort to bloviating, tenuously strung together hot-take ravings that makes it a challenge to know exactly what his understanding of climate change really is. It’s too bad. Because if his readers knew, they could compare it against what the science actually says and be able to determine whether this man should have been weighing in on this crucial issue for close to two decades now.

It is then incumbent upon him to give some sense of where we might find the alternative version of physics he subscribes to.

For all his famous verbosity, Rex Murphy leaves much unsaid. What he actually understands about climate change and its science has to be inferred from rare fragments recovered from a dense stratigraphy of filler verbiage and overlong, dubiously relevant introductions.

Take his pieces (which includes one as breathtakingly recently as January of this year) on how there’s reason to doubt climate change because sometimes it’s colder than he thinks it should be. What can we infer from passages like the following, written during a cool Toronto summer?

What we do not hear from [weather reporters], from any one of them, is the slightest indication of puzzlement over how or why so suddenly, in this age of the greatest emergency our planet has ever faced - global warming - things have gotten cool. Not a furrowed brow among the lot over the consideration that, contrary to the visions of Al Gore and David Suzuki or NASA’s own anti-global warming Nostradamus, James Hansen, the great trend line of an ever-warming world is being contradicted nightly in their own forecasts.

When he writes this sort of thing, we have to wonder whether he interpreted the term “global warming” too literally, whether he believes it can’t be real unless every year is warmer than the last and above average temperatures occur everywhere all the time at the rate and degree he has imagined credible voices said it would. (I was wondering how Murphy would react to someone trying to explain that climate change is so complex that a warming Arctic can actually lead to bitterly cold winters in some places, and whether he would turn to the “That’s why they changed ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’!” myth, and then I found out that’s exactly what he did.)

Or what are we to make of it when, complaining about the Liberal government’s carbon pricing framework, Murphy writes the following:

This is the first government in the history of the world that has declared war on one of the constituents of the atmosphere — carbon dioxide. I guess nitrogen and oxygen were just lucky to escape the fatwa, but who knows, perhaps their day is coming. Maybe the government will get even more expansive and take on the table of elements. Down with Deuterium.

But with carbon dioxide being the life-supporting substance it is, they knew that when they decided to put a tax on it, calling it by its proper name — i.e., a carbon-dioxide tax — wouldn’t do. So they call it instead a “carbon” tax, which of course it is not and could not be….

Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and they know this.

The article is ostensibly about proper language use, and even if it is these are inane points; it’s perfectly reasonable to refer to an unwanted byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that has destructive consequences for our climate as it rapidly accumulates in the atmosphere well beyond its historically average levels as a “pollutant.” It’s like complaining about a government wanting to do something about wastewater because water is necessary for life.

But there’s something else going on here. You don’t have to squint hard at the way Murphy lumps carbon dioxide in with nitrogen, oxygen, and deuterium — the way all he has to say about CO2 here is that it is part of the atmosphere, supports life, and isn’t a pollutant — to get the impression that maybe, just maybe, he’s suggesting that increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would not exacerbate climate change.

Because if he is — hardly an unfair conclusion to draw given his record — it would be an extraordinary claim, one totally at odds with the well-established understanding of physics that explains the greenhouse effect and why increasing atmospheric CO2 enhances it. It is then incumbent upon him to give some sense of where we might find the alternative version of physics he subscribes to.

Maybe I’m wrong, and he’s not saying these things he seems to be saying. But the maybe is the point. In place of stating his understanding of climate science and what credible basis he has for questioning it, Murphy substitutes his rantings. As a result, his body of work looks like a protean jumble, always ready to assume, unconvincingly and incompletely, the form of the quickest argument he can spin a rant around to avoid engaging with reality: “The science isn’t settled!” or “Environmentalism is a religion!” or “But it’s cold!” or “They used to call it ‘global warming’!” or “CO2 is necessary for life!”

If insisting that a debate is over is “rhetoric’s oldest trick,” as he put it, ranting emptily around an unsubstantiated claim is its minutes-younger twin.

The great inversion

But Murphy reserves still another trick for responding to people actually trying to do something about climate change: attempting to trigger conservative fears about the social order breaking down.

When Elizabeth May talked about the serious issue of how to ensure Alberta’s oil and gas workers would not be left behind in the necessary shift away from a fossil fuel economy, Murphy became incensed that she would seek to transition workers, to “rearrange the order of the economy and re-engineer” people’s lives.

(Murphy often presents himself as a defender of Alberta’s oil and gas workers. But countries are increasingly turning to carbon pricing to shift demand away from fossil fuels, governments are considering banning sales of new cars powered by internal combustion engines, and the possibility is growing that the U.S. will have Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for presidential candidate. It’s difficult to see much of an ally in a man angered with a politician considering how to transition working Albertans away from dependence on an industry the world is leaving behind.)

I wonder too whether Murphy considers what legacy he will leave behind when he takes his long overdue retirement from public life.

In the midst of last September’s climate strikes inspired by student activist Greta Thunberg, Murphy detected “a great inversion” of society in which adults willingly surrender leadership subserviently to children who don’t want the world they grow up in wrecked.

And then, there’s his reaction to the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal, he wrote in February 2019, “is the Trojan Horse of the progressive social-justice warrior left. It sees environmentalism as a lever to pursue a far-larger agenda, the great ‘transformation’ (to use O-C’s [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s] word) of society at large. To move from the industrial economy that has brought modernity and progress to the West, to refashion the institutions and values of the West to yet another mad leap to a socialist nightworld.”

He continued in this vein in August of that year, railing against the Green New Deal because “the greatest economy in the world has to be, root and branch, transfigured and to a certainty, devastated in the process. Global warming, naturally, demands it.”

Murphy can entertain “to a certainty” the possibility of social and economic devastation brought about by responding to climate change in a way he never could the destruction brought about by climate change itself because the former was his real fear all along. Here, come to life, and communicated by a popular and capable politician, was his growing concern from way back in 2006 about massic economic intervention and political and social change.

Forgetting the callous

There was a period in the very early ’00s when, wanting to better understand the craft of writing, I looked forward to Rex Murphy’s Point of View segments on CBC’s The National. There was almost always a winsome turn of phrase or a new word (like “winsome”) to learn from his prodigious vocabulary.

I wasn’t alone in enjoying these segments. As a veteran producer for The National would put it, "Very few Canadians turn off the set when Rex Murphy is on."

Murphy’s fall from nationally respected commentator to what he is now is staggering.

I can’t help but wonder how it is that for almost 20 years someone could do what he’s been doing. And the most plausible answer is this: Rex Murphy is a deeply callous person. He does this because it does not matter to him that countless other people around the world would suffer the consequences of his words. He does this because what apparently matters to him most — far more than the human displacement, food and water insecurity, devastating disasters, destruction of livelihoods, risk of cultural loss, and all the rest being brought on by climate change — is assuaging the discomfort of having his worldview undermined. He deserves no respect, recognition, or audience.

I wonder too whether Murphy considers what legacy he will leave behind when he takes his long overdue retirement from public life. It’s hard to imagine there will be much of one. People concerned with truth and decency are unlikely to look back on his disgraceful oeuvre for any timeless words of wisdom for fighting for a better world or an inspiring example of a man using his status and prestige to do right.

Murphy sometimes opens his columns on an obscure bit of Canadiana. And it is in this form, perhaps, that he will one day be remembered. Maybe, a generation hence, a future columnist musing about some prominent voice using their position to pollute the national conversation on an important issue will recount the cautionary tale of a man named Rex.

Having honed his prodigious gifts, Rex became a familiar and respected voice throughout the nation, even a hero to some. But one day, he was confronted with a difficult truth. Instead of having the courage and honesty to accept it, he decided to fight against it mightily, to the point of disgrace, for no reason other than to protect a suddenly, dangerously irrelevant point of view.

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