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The Governor General Made Some Statements About Climate Change and God, Oh My

Some people on Twitter were mad about it, which in turn made me mad also.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

The Canadian Press

Before her current life as Canada's Governor General, Julie Payette was an astronaut —which is presumably why she was the keynote speaker at Canada's ninth annual Science Policy Convention in Ottawa on Wednesday. Her speech was mostly about how good science is and how it should be promoted for the good of society, which is the sort of thing you would expect an astronaut to say at a science conference.

Payette's comments appear to have been mostly well-received by the audience, but some critics online have suggested that some of the things she said were unbecoming of her office. Specifically, she made two facetious remarks suggesting that all debate about both climate change and God's relationship to the origins of biological life were scientifically settled. The headline: Governor General of Canada declares man-made climate change real; the God of Abraham, not so much.

"Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we're still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period?" she asked.* "And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process."

(Not so quick sidebar about constitutional monarchy before I get into this. The Governor General represents the institution of the Crown in Canada while the literal monarch who wears it is not in the country. This current Queen of Canada happens to be Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Barbuda and Antigua, Belize, and a bunch of other places. All of these jurisdictions have their own institutional Crown [and their own representative of that Crown] separate from ours. It's also important to note that the Governor General represents the institution of the Crown itself, not the individual person who may or may not be wearing that crown.

Queen Elizabeth II also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which designates her the final political authority in jurisdictional matters for the mother church of the international Anglican Communion. This has nothing to do with either the Anglican Church of Canada or the Crown of Canada, despite what this guy is saying on Twitter.)

Naturally, some Upper Canadians were aghast that the Governor General would voice these kinds of dismissive opinions about Her Majesty's otherwise loyal subjects. And fair game on one count, anyway: Julie Payette probably shouldn't go around belittling religious beliefs where she can help it.

I'm personally inclined to agree with the GG's personal skepticism of a cosmos characterized by a deity who routinely violates the order of nature. But I am also not the head of state for a country where the first sentence of its Charter reads: "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." Also, the entire structural fiction at the heart of the monarchical order is ultimately only justified by an appeal to the authority of God, so this is probably not a fabric Julie Payette wants to start pulling threads from. Anyway, on the whole, pretty fair point that she should probably watch the way she pronounces on religion.

For anyone else upset that she voiced her "opinion" on the "climate change debate," I don't really know what to tell you. As far as science can settle anything—and there certainly are some epistemic limits to the scientific method —the science on anthropogenic climate change is settled. There is no debate.

"Are the benefits of a given pharmaceutical product worth the adverse side effects?" is a debate. "Is astrology a useful heuristic for self-knowledge, or does rehabilitating an ancient pseudoscience cause more harm than good?" is a debate. "Does burning lots of carbon alter the planet's climate?" is not a debate. It is a real thing that's happening, and only in a country up to its entrails in ideological and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry could anyone, anywhere, ever frame Payette's comments as someone "wading into the climate change debate." If certain political, economic, and media interests want to frame it that way, then vaya con Dios, mis amigos, and you can explain yourselves to Him.

So that's today's kerfuffle over Canada's monarchical marginalia. Join us next time when a Royal will fart on a plane over Canadian airspace and CBC programming executives will spend three days in a heated argument over whether to give it just one week of round-the-clock-coverage or three.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

*Updated November 2, 7 PM ET