By Ian Pattison

As a record-shattering heat dome covers the boiling cauldron that is Western Canada this week, we are reminded of just how serious the rising rate of climate change has become. And of how important that people in authority willing to speak the harsh truth are to our comfort, security and ultimately our survival on this abused planet.

Catherine McKenna was one of those people. The Ottawa MP got into politics because she wanted a front-line opportunity to act on her climate concerns. Appointed environment minister in 2015, she set off almost immediately for the Paris climate talks where she negotiated a stronger climate plan for Canada and told Canadians that it was necessary to put a price on pollution.

Almost as quickly, critics began attacking McKenna over the government’s climate agenda (in fact, its targets still are not enough to make the difference needed). Right-wingnuts on social media coined the term “Climate Barbie” after the blond-haired doll and Conservative MP Gerry Ritz was intemperate enough to use the term in Parliament. He later apologized but the signal was sent from the seat of government that McKenna was fair game.

Climate change deniers and misogynists hurled abuse at her online and even when she was out with her children in Ottawa. Someone spray-painted a particularly vulgar term on her constituency office. At times she was assigned a security detail.

On Thursday, McKenna announced she will not seek re-election this time. Instead, she will spend more time with her children and, as important, plan how to focus on climate change in other ways.

Reflecting on the abuse that was heaped upon her by those who would put off effective action against Earth’s faulty furnace, McKenna called it “just noise.” But of course it is more than that. It is indicative of a human subset that finds empowerment in the casual way it posts abuse online from the anonymity of a laptop or a phone.

It’s a bit like talking behind one’s back but at least in those instances there are apt to be listeners who talk back face to face and urge a kinder tone -- and factual information. With no such filter in one’s living room, those without scruples feel they own a form of licence to spew whatever crud they feel like.

Anyone engaged in service of the public can tell you stories about this tendency. Store clerks, restaurant wait staff, health care personnel, cab drivers and, yes, journalists are often subject to the extremes of human behaviour.

Vancouver journalist Joanna Chiu wrote this week that she’d forgotten how many threats she’s received until she had reason to compile screenshots which included one in which someone implied a threat to come to her house and behead her.

Some people do take their threats to another level. A Maryland man upset with media coverage of his criminal harassment case walked into the Capital Gazette in Annapolis in 2018 and opened fire with a shotgun killing five journalists. Going to such extremes became more likely in the U.S. as former president Donald Trump routinely maligned media and individual journalists as enemies of the people.

A certain level of decorum in public exchanges used to be the norm but McKenna’s case shows that declining respect is leading to increased violence in the tone of public discourse and a loosening of the hold that conscience used to have on behaviour.

Public figures are particularly prone to this abuse. Those who enter public life usually do so with the best intentions to improve the human condition. Politicians, journalists and others whose work impacts directly on the general public often say that such abuse “comes with the territory.” It shouldn’t, and the fact that perpetrators of online threats rarely face consequences shows the growing danger to people made vulnerable by their work and the need to attack this phenomenon with a lot more vigor.

McKenna may have had more than the safety of herself and her family in mind when she announced that she’s stepping away from politics. Despite her committed leadership on climate, which drew provinces including Ontario to challenge the carbon tax in court, Prime Minister Trudeau transferred McKenna to the infrastructure ministry after the 2019 election which saw the Liberals reduced to a minority, largely over that provincial opposition. And she was forced to toe the party line on pipeline support.

It appears that her decision to step away caught Prime Minister Trudeau off-guard. His only comment was a warm but brief Twitter post.

“McKenna says climate change will still be part of her future, but it felt like the real change she was seeking on Monday was in the political climate,” wrote Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star. Why put up with vicious abuse while working so hard on the climate change file, only to be yanked away from it?

Politics can be cruel, in more ways than one. So can the truth. Those who question McKenna’s agenda and scoff at the reality of climate heating need only read coverage of a terrifying report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was obtained this week by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

What is happening in Canada this week is not a meteorological fluke, but a hard look at the immediate future of the planet. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas — these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” reports AFP.

“There’s not hyperbole to really describe how extreme this is,” said Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada in B.C., as the town of Lytton set a new national heat record more than a month before summer’s typical heat was expected. “It’s beyond our scientific wildest expectations.”

Hours after Castellan’s warning, Lytton was largely destroyed as wind-rushed fires overwhelmed the village. More than 700 sudden and unexpected deaths have been reported in B.C. during the heatwave, three times more than what would normally occur during the same period.

Questioning human-caused climate change, doubting it, fearing it are common. But the breathtaking scope of today’s fearsome climate reality is irrefutable. Nothing else matters if we don’t change just about everything.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.