Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Harper passes legislation to suspend Murphy's law

According to a late-breaking CBC report, the Harper government intends to introduce a bill that suspends Murphy's law.

In Parliament today, Harper said "This old law, introduced by the former Liberal government, is the cause of much misery in the country today. Canada's New Government does not condone such a law, and with our new legislation nothing will go wrong ever again."

Under this new law, none of the following can occur:

  • Bridges collapsing due to lack of municipal infrastructure funding
  • People slipping and falling on ice
  • Hurricanes hitting the Atlantic due to global warming
  • Train derailments and car collisions
  • Melting of the Greenland ice sheet (Denmark has filed a diplomatic objection over Canada's attempt to extend jurisdiction)
  • Airplanes falling from the sky due to security service bungling
  • PMs taking bribes while still in office (or at least the press discovering such bribes)
  • And, of course, no more nuclear accidents are allowed - at all - at any time!

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

One down, two to go!

John Howard is gone. We are counting down the days to the end of the Bush administration (only 422 more sleeps!). Can the Harper government be far behind? For the sake of the planet, we can only hope we they either get with the program, or get turfed out in February.

For now, Canada is attempting to block real agreements on climate change. How embarrassing!

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Earth Set" From the Moon -- What We've Got to Lose

All we are, all we have, all the life that we know of... For a timely reminder, press Play below and wait a few seconds for the Earth to appear.

If we mess up this planet, what will we have left? The lifeless terrain rolling away from the camera at the bottom is fairly typical of the rest of the Solar System...

The original was apparently shot in HDTV by a Japanese spacecraft orbiting the Moon. I'll post a link to a full-resolution HD video file if I can find it.

More about this video, plus related videos and images:
In related news:
"Astronauts report that seeing the Earth from space creates
a powerful experience called the 'Overview Effect'

"'The Overview Effect is the experience of seeing the Earth from a distance, especially from orbit or the Moon, and realizing the inherent unity and oneness of everything on the planet. The Effect represents a shift in perception wherein the viewer moves from identification with parts of the Earth to identification with the whole system.' – Frank White, author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution."

(Source: Space Frontier Society)

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Green Party of Canada Support Grows, Conservatives Stagnant Despite Liberal Woes: CTV Poll

"Stephen Harper has fraudulently played down the dangers of climate change and should be removed as prime minister as soon as possible, says the head of the Green party [of Canada, Elizabeth May]" (CP News via While the Earth Burns).
According to the latest CTV News poll, a growing number of Canadians seem to agree. The Liberals have lost 4% in popular support due to troubles since August 10-12, 2007, but the Conservatives have gained only 1%. The Green Party of Canada, on the other hand, has gained 4%. Are Liberals disaffected by Dion's ineffectual leadership and party infighting moving over to the Greens? The longer-term trends, since the last elections, show that the Greens must be gaining supporters at the expense of other parties as well:
"The Green Party has more than doubled its support since the 2006 election, suggesting the party is benefiting from voter discontent with the traditional parties: (percentage-point change from 2006 results in brackets):

* Conservatives: 34 per cent (-2)
* Liberals: 29 per cent (-1)
* NDP: 15 per cent (-3)
* Bloc Quebecois: 10 per cent (-1)
* Green Party: 12 per cent (+7)

"On Monday, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said her party is ready if Prime Minister Stephen Harper triggers an election over the throne speech.

"So far, she's the only party leader who has publicly said she wants a fall election.

"'This may be naive, but I have faith in democracy,' she told reporters in Ottawa.

"'Most Canadians do not like Mr. Harper's policies. Most Canadians are desperate for leadership that really speaks to issues and is respectful about them. Most Canadians want a politician who keeps his word, or her word. They don't see that in the Harper government.'"

"May's press conference coincided with the release of her party's 160-page Vision Green, the official six-part policy document."
For more on her party's platform: see Green Party Press Release and the Green Vision document.

I have not had the time to read the entire document. From what I've read so far, the federal party 's "tax shift" strategy also aims to reduce poverty and make income taxes more progressive. May's federal proposal seems to be more balanced than the Green Party of Ontario's platform during the recent provincial election. This could help the federal Greens to gain broader appeal.

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There Goes a Rocky Mountain Glacier

Here's another part of our heritage that the Harper Conservative Government is willing to sacrifice by resisting meaningful and binding GHG emissions targets: the Athabasca Glacier.

Image Source: Ben W. Bell, Wikipedia (click for copyright info)
"Since 1843, its toe has retreated 1.5 kilometres and more than half of its volume has vanished. In winter, the mass is now exhaling at a rate of about 15 metres a year and gasping back in summer at a pace of at least 25 metres. Scientists have detected car exhaust, DDT and other pollutants in its layers of compressed snow dating to 1932.

"Over all, less snow has been falling each winter to maintain the glacier's mass, while meltwater bleeds along blue-tinged streams earlier each summer. But there is increasingly less of it to feed the appetites of people, agriculture and industry who depend on it in Alberta, across the Prairies and the western United States.

'The Athabasca Glacier is the single best accessible example in what we are seeing happening in the world because of climate change today,' says Bob Sandford, author of The Columbia Icefield. 'The scale is monumental.'

"The signs erected by Parks Canada leading to the toe of the glacier explain that there is strong evidence that greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity is to blame for the incredible shrinking ice.

"'If the glacier continues to recede at its current rate, there will be very little left in 100 years,' a placard notes. 'Within the next three generations the Athabasca Glacier and the water it provides to communities across western North America may almost disappear'
"Sandford, who is Canada's chair with the United Nations International Decade for Action, Water for Life program, says every Canadian needs to visit this place. Once there, he says, they will see that if we simply carry on, there's more at stake than just the magic disappearing" (Globe & Mail story).
Ron Stevenson commented on the Globe & Mail site:
"The most ironic thing about the article... recommending to drive a car to see the very thing that we are losing faster because of green house gases" [ellipses in the original].
That's a good point, but you can get to the Athabasca Glacier by VIA RAIL from most major cities in Canada. Train travel would reduce per-visitor carbon emissions significantly. Unfortunately, the Globe & Mail neglected to mention this option.

This has been a Blog Action Day post, honouring this year's theme, Environment. Of course, this entire blog is about a major environmental issue, but it's nice to see so many other bloggers participating in this year's event, many of them taking time out of their main themes to write about environmental issues and solutions.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Climate Worsening Faster Than Predicted - But Canada "Voting for Apocalypse" at UN Talks

Sounds nice -- until you think about it:

"... Enjoy it while it lasts, because you 'know what's ahead.'" --Environment Canada's David Phillips

Sure, there's some cold weather ahead this winter -- but what about a few years from now? Could we have more of this:
"'We've got an invisible disaster going on [in Toronto and area],' Mr. Phillips said, adding that the ground in some parts of the region has become so dry that it isn't able to absorb water any more, and that young trees may not make it to spring.'"

Source: Gandhi, U. (Sept 26, 2007). Weather continues to set records. Globe & Mail, p. A15, via Gale Group or Globe & Mail (subscription/payment required for either one - public library may provide free access to Gale).
The global headlines are grim:
"OSLO, Sept 28 (Reuters) - A record melt of Arctic summer sea ice this month may be a sign that global warming is reaching a critical trigger point that could accelerate the northern thaw, some scientists say.

"'The reason so much (of the Arctic ice) went suddenly is that it is hitting a tipping point that we have been warning about for the past few years,' James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Reuters.

The Arctic summer sea ice shrank by more than 20 percent below the previous 2005 record low in mid-September to 4.13 million sq km (1.6 million sq miles), according to a 30-year satellite record. It has now frozen out to 4.2 million sq km."
'"...the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that can potentially cause dangerous climate change,' Flannery told the broadcaster yesterday. 'We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change, that's what these figures say. It's not next year or next decade, it's now.'

"Flannery, whose recent book The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth made best-seller lists, said the data showed the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had reached about 455 parts per million by mid-2005, well ahead of scientists' previous calculations.

"'We thought we'd be at that threshold within about a decade, that we had that much time,' Flannery said. 'I mean, that's beyond the limits of projection, beyond the worst-case scenario as we thought of it in 2001,' when the last major IPCC report was issued."

"Global warming will slow briefly in the next year or two, but then charge ahead, making at least half of the years after 2009 warmer than at any other time in recorded history, British scientists claim [...] [in a study published] in Science, a major journal scientists rely on to judge and announce top discoveries."
Apparently, it's the heat -- and the humidity!

"The European Union and many developing nations such as China and India want industrial states to use the stringent 25-40 percent range to guide future talks to force a shift away from fossil fuels, blamed by U.N. reports for stoking global warming.

"But Russia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland objected to setting the stringent range in negotiations about extending the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, the main plan for fighting global warming that runs to 2012, delegates said.

"'The lower the stabilization level (of greenhouse gases) achieved, the lower the consequent damages,' the draft said. It mentions the option of 25-40 percent cuts but drops a previous reference to them as an indicative guide for future work.

"'This is voting for the apocalypse,' said Stephanie Tunmore of environmental group Greenpeace. 'The 25-40 percent range is needed to help avert dangerous climate change' such as more powerful storms, rising seas and melting glaciers, she said.

"'Japan is willing to let the typhoons roll in and the water flow onto its coastal land. Switzerland is committed to melt all its remaining glaciers,' environmentalists said in a newsletter" [bolding added].
Apparently, "Canada's New Government" is willing to let much of the Maritime Provinces be washed away, Arctic ice to melt even faster, and the rest of us to suffer from drought!

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Congratulations, Al Gore & IPCC...

... for winning the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize,
"for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
Now, if people would only listen to them!

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ontario: MMP R.I.P., Climate Change Ignored During Election

As you probably know by now, the Mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral reform proposal has been soundly defeated in Ontario. At the time of this writing, the interim referendum results stand at First-past-the-post (the current electoral system) 63.3%, MMP 36.7%. Prof. Dennis Pilon, an MMP supporter, told the Globe & Mail that Elections Ontario's pre-referendum education campaign had been "an unmitigated disaster". The sad part is that election results like the ones below will continue to happen. And not coincidentally, issues like climate change will continue to be ignored.

As of this writing, the 2007 Ontario Election results look like this:

Liberals: 42% of votes = 70 seats

P.C.: 31% of votes = 26 seats

N.D.P.: 17% of votes = 11 seats

Green: 8% of votes = 0 seats

Others: 1% of votes = 0 seats

I want all those hours in Math class back: my teachers were obviously wrong about how numbers work!

Anyway, now we get to watch the usual charade: the Liberals will form a so-called "strong majority government" -- despite having a minority of the votes. The P.C. and N.D.P. will be weak opposition parties despite having more votes between them than the Liberals.

I know, there would have been no chance of a coalition between the N.D.P. and P.C. -- but what if the positions of the P.C. and Liberals had been reversed? A Liberal-N.D.P. coalition could have happened under MMP. Under the current system, though, the P.C. would have formed a "strong majority government" and shut them out. Yes, with only 42% of the vote vs. a combined 48% for the other parties. Oh, wait, this sort of thing has already happened! In 1995, we got the notorious anti-environment Harris P.C. government -- despite the Liberals and N.D.P. getting many more combined popular votes than the P.C. (Citizen's Assembly chart).

The Greens' 8% vote in 2007 gave them the same number of seats as the Others got with only 1% -- a big, fat zero! Despite the Greens' recent momentum, pundits like Prof. Nelson Wiseman are already predicting that with the MMP's defeat, the Greens would sink back to being a marginal party.

In other news, the Toronto Star's Tyler Hamilton notes that "Climate [change] went AWOL during this election". Despite the fact that many voters were interested, the major parties decided to skirt the issue. The Greens were the only ones who raised it consistently.

While I still disagree with the Greens on one plank of their climate change platform (carbon taxes), I agree with most of their other policies on climate change and other issues. Unfortunately, even if the Greens get some people elected under the current system, they would have no more influence than today's N.D.P. So long as the larger parties get fake "majorities" most of the time, smaller parties are shut out of policy-making even if they make it to the Legislature.

Alas for real democracy. And alas for issues like climate change.

[Important Notice]

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ontario Green Party Still Best for Environment Overall?

In my last blog post, I said that I supported many parts of the Green Party of Ontario platform, but I was critical of one of their central themes, shifting taxes from income to carbon. Today, a coalition of major environmental groups has, in effect, given the Green Party the highest overall score on a large number of environmental issues. The NDP were very close behind, though. And the Liberals were a close third -- but the Tories (er, Progressive, ahem, Conservatives) were so far behind that they barely even registered (Toronto Star story -- original coalition report).

The coalition unfortunately did not seem to ask about many economic policies that relate to environmental issues. What about pollution taxes, cap-and-trade, road subsidies and support for car-makers? Among other things, the report did nothing to reduce my unease with the Green Party's carbon tax plan.

Still, it's great to see that three out of the four parties are moving so close to the green side of many issues. The Green Party can probably take credit for keeping the topic on the agenda and goading other parties along. But this means that Ontario voters who care about the environment can now put more weight on other factors. I would still suggest looking at the parties' general social and economic policies.

[UPDATE September 28, 2007: speaking of social policies, I agree with Michelle Mann's view that on the issue of school funding,
"...the only party that has it right is the Greens, whose leader, Frank de Jong, supports moving to one publicly-funded school system."
Mann says that this would be constitutional, as proven by Manitoba, Newfoundland and Quebec. (See the above link for the legal mechanism.)

Sure fixing the general school funding formula is important, as the NDP's Howard Hampton keeps saying, but why waste any of of the added funds on duplication of services? Mann suggests that removing the duplication would save a lot of money that
"...could be directed to funding for autistic students, accessible post-secondary education and revitalizing a flailing public education system."
I would add that there could also be more funds for environmental education and energy-efficiency school retrofits.

Deciding which party to support is not easy, given the sheer number of issues and policy options on offer. That's another reason why I would love to have MMP. With two votes, one for local/party candidate, and one for party list, I could express my wishes views more accurately. I could in effect support two parties if both of them have good ideas.]

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

First, they tax your carbon, and then they tax your shirt? -- The Trouble with the Green Party of Ontario's "Tax Shifting" Proposal

I've blogged (here and here) that the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) should be in the Legislature, to help keep Climate Change on the agenda. I agree with many points in their 2007 Platform, and I still think that they should have a voice in the Legislature (and I still support MMP). Having said this, I have problems with the GPO's proposal to shift revenues from the income tax to a carbon tax ("pay for what you burn, not for what you earn"). Better alternatives exist, including direct regulation and cap-and-trade.

The GPO wants to tax carbon and to cut carbon emissions to zero. In fact, they want a 100% renewable energy system (including a nuclear power phase-out). I support this goal, but I question the GPO's proposed way of getting there. There is a conflict of interest between relying on carbon revenues and eliminating the revenue source (remember Tobacco Taxes and Lotteries?..).

I raised this concern, among others, directly with GPO Leader Frank de Jong on a CBC radio phone-in on September 20, 2007*. Unfortunately, his answers made me even more wary. He said that once carbon is phased out, the GPO would make up the revenues by raising taxes on things like food, clothing and shelter:

“Your point about you know, let’s say if we continue to raise the tax on cigarettes, and sooner or later everyone will stop smoking, and then up -- uh, your revenue stream will dry up. But I think we will always need products, we’ll always need resources, we'll always need, you know, clothing, and food, and stuff to build houses with, so there will always be something to collect as much General Revenue as you need. And it will be a a continuous virtual spiral toward sustainability. It’s a long process but we got to get started at it” [my transcript of Frank de Jong's remarks; my bolding].
Hear for yourself: on the ODEO player below, click Play, wait for the player to buffer the whole file, and drag the slider to around 00:04:19.

powered by ODEO

The phone-in show cut me off before I could retort, to the tune of ‘First, we take Manhattan’:
First, they’ll tax your carbon, and then they’ll tax your shirt!
(With apologies to Leonard Cohen :-)

Some "spiral toward sustainability"!

Sure, taxing carbon instead of income today would mean "taxing bad instead of good". But taxing food, shelter and clothing instead of income would mean "taxing good instead of good". Worse yet, consumption taxes are notoriously more regressive than income taxes. Consumption taxes do not take into account ability to pay. The GPO leader seemed to have no problem with that. I do.


I had actually started debating carbon taxes with one of the candidates for the federal Green Party of Canada (GPC), Glenn Hubbers, Newmarket-Aurora, on his blog (here and here -- see my Comments). The GPC also supports carbon taxes, e.g. "$50/tonne".

Then the GPO announced that a carbon tax would be an even bigger part of their 2007 Platform. Frank de Jong, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario (CBC profile), was on the CBC Radio Ontario Noon Phone-In show on September 20, 2007. I managed to get through and challenge him on-air to justify his Party's carbon tax plan. In particular, I asked:

  • What is the price-elasticity of carbon emissions, i.e. how much would their tax really reduce emissions? Where is the economic modelling?
  • The GPO Platform calls for a transition to a 100% renewable energy system—what would happen to the revenue from the carbon tax then?
  • There is a conflict of interest between wanting more revenue and less carbon emissions. This would weaken incentive for Government to drive emissions to zero—think of the Tobacco Tax & Lotteries.
  • A carbon tax is regressive, like any consumption tax. Income tax relief may help some of the poor, but not all. Increased Northern/Rural subsidies may help others, but at cost of encouraging further inefficient development (e.g. the proposed Green Party subsidies to airports, even if they would be in the North?..)
  • They also want to phase out nuclear power, but they are not proposing a tax on Uranium. Apparently, nuclear power would be phased out entirely by regulation, not taxation. Why not use regulation instead of taxes for carbon as well?
  • Why not expand the carbon cap-and-trade system that GPO also proposes? (See more below.)

Unfortunately, I don't think that he answered most of my questions, though in fairness the phone-in format makes it difficult to conduct an in-depth debate. Further comments from GPO supporters (and opponents) are very welcome.

You can listen to the part of the show that contained my questions and Frank de Jong’s response using the ODEO player below, or you can download the MP3 from mediamax.com (4.3 MB).

powered by ODEO

[UPDATE, September 26, 2007: After posting this blog entry, I discovered that Marc Lee, a Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, had made many similar points about carbon taxes in the Progressive Economics Forum here and here. He also agreed somewhat reluctantly in a Comment to a post that putting carbon tax moneys into an arms-length fund might be better than putting them into General Revenue. I prefer cap-and-trade, which sounds simpler and more direct to me -- see below.]

More on cap-and-trade:

One advantage of cap-and-trade is that it does not make governments dependent on carbon revenues. The money from high emitters goes to low emitters through a private (regulated) carbon market. The incentives to reduce emissions are very clear, with no conflicts of interest. Prices on carbon-heavy products go up, but prices on carbon-light products come down, which eases the effect on consumers. Progressive income taxes and redistribution can help take care of the rest in the usual way.

* You can hear the entire September 20, 2007 phone-in on the CBC Ontario Today archive site (in Real Audio format - direct link). Unfortunately, they only keep these free links for 30 days, after which you have to pay some other company for a recording or transcript.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Eat less meat, reduce global heat" -- But Why Stop at 10% ?

Reducing meat consumption is a great way to reduce carbon emissions, according to an article in the respected scientific journal, The Lancet (CBC News Report). While the scientific article itself is not openly accessible, here's what the Summary of the article on the Lancet's web site says:
"Worldwide average meat consumption could be realistically reduced by 10% to reduce the already substantial impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions. This would also reduce health risks associated with very high consumption of red meat. The fifth paper in the series entitled "Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health." comments that the Global average meat consumption is currently 100g per person per day, with about a ten-fold variation between high-consuming and low-consuming populations. 90g per day is proposed as a working global target, shared more evenly, and with not more than 50g per day coming from red meat from ruminants (i.e., cattle, sheep, goats, and other digrastic grazers)."
But as I've said before, who needs meat anyway? Tasty vegetarian food can easily give you all the proteins you need, and could even make you healthier. Good for you, good for the planet and tastes great -- the time is now!


On CBC Radio News, a representative of the Canadian cattle industry has claimed that they could actually benefit from the Lancet report. He argued that Canadian cattle spend more of their time in open pastures than on feedlots than in other countries, and manure dropped on pastures actually returns carbon to the soil. He even predicted a rise in Canadian beef exports as other countries realize the benefits of Canada's "green" beef.

What a load of B.S., almost literally! Canadian cattle cannot possibly spend all their time outside -- at least until Global Warming wipes out the little thing that dumps snow all over the ground and makes the air too cold for cattle to be outside for months on end... What's it called? Oh, yeah, Canadian Winter! The carbon in cattle manure on the ground has to come from plants and soil in the first place -- why not leave most of it there instead of cycling it through cattle? As I've mentioned, we could feed many more people on the same amount of land (or use less land for the same population) if we didn't run the nutrients through the wasteful animal cycle, but fed the crops directly to people. Finally, the methane that cattle belch out or fart just goes into the atmosphere a little bit faster if the cows are outside.

In any event, meat exports mean refrigerated/freezer containers being shipped to other countries -- more carbon emissions from an already cruel and polluting industry.

(Hmm... why do I feel hungry for a good vegetarian meal all of a sudden?.. The black beans, spices, veggies, pressure cooker and cast-iron skillet beckon... :-)

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ontario - A Vote for MMP is a Vote Against CO2

I've argued in this blog that voting for MMP in the October 10 Referendum would be good for the environment and climate change policy. Cameron Smith obviously agrees, for reasons that are complementary to mine. He writes in the Toronto Star that
"Right now, the most important environmental issue facing Ontario is whether proportional representation will be adopted. Voters in the Oct. 10 election will make the decision.

"The current system of voting delivers unequal representation, which inevitably distorts the wishes of the public. How else to explain why the government at Queen's Park has kept a weak minister in the environment portfolio while the public has made it clear that environmental deterioration is a top-of-the-mind concern?"

He says that this happens because
"The current [Ontario electoral] system breeds instability. It's a blood sport, where opposition parties focus more on gaining power than on good government, largely because they have little hand in creating policies and have no commitment to them.

"As a result, government policies often have a short life span. In the face of global warming, short-term, ever-changing policies are a recipe for disaster."

He argues among other things that
"...proportional representation will result in more minority governments and coalitions, which means responsibility for government policies would lie with more than one party." [Bolding added throughout.]
According to Arend Lijphart
Lijphartconclusions on environmental policies? Consensus democracies have lower carbon dioxide emissions, fertilizer consumption, deforestation and higher energy efficiency" [bolding added].
I take it that "consensus democracy" means that more than one party has to agree on policy, because governments are formed by coalition. That's more frequent under forms of Proportional Representation (like MMP) than under our current "first-past-the-post" or "winner take all" system. I would have to read the book to find out more.

General theories aside, as I've argued, MMP would probably mean Green Party members in the Legislature by 2011. No MMP would likely mean this Party being shut out again. The same applies to the federal Parliament and many other provincial Legislatures. This hard reality makes it critical for the the MMP side in Ontario to win -- and for similar reforms to prevail Canada-wide in the coming years.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One Degree of Desperation (Or, What if NASA's James Hansen is Right Again?)

NASA scientist James Hansen's 1988 warnings about climate change have proved to be largely correct (realclimate.org). The IPCC has recently estimated relatively slow sea level rise this century (18–59 cm, with a midrange of 20–43 cm). But Hansen suggests in a scientific paper that 5 meters per century would be a more realistic estimate. He add in the same paper that
"The threat of a large sea level change is a principal element in our argument (Hansen et al 2006a, 2006b, 2007) that the global community must aim to keep additional global warming less than 1 °C above the 2000 temperature, and even 1 °C may be too great. In turn, this implies a CO2 limit of about 450 ppm, or less" [emphasis added]. [1]
Or else, it's "Goodbye Miami", as New Scientist says on a recent cover. Their map of Florida in 2007 and 2107 would come as a shock to the many Canadians who are familiar with South Florida's sunny shores. It gets worse: as Michael Le Page points out,
"Without mega-engineering projects to protect them, a 5-metre rise would inundate large parts of many cities - including New York, London, Sydney, Vancouver, Mumbai and Tokyo - and leave surrounding areas vulnerable to storm surges. In Florida, Louisiana, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and elsewhere, whole regions and cities may vanish. China's economic powerhouse, Shanghai, has an average elevation of just 4 metres" (New Scientist, "If sea level rises by 5 metres..." [near bottom of page; emphasis added]).
For the devastating effects on Canada's Maritime Provinces, see my previous blog post.

Hansen and his co-authors write in another recent scientific paper [2]:
"With GHGs continuing to increase, the planetary energy imbalance provides ample energy to melt ice corresponding to several metres of sea level per century


"The gravest threat we foresee starts with surface melt on West Antarctica and interaction among positive feedbacks leading to catastrophic ice loss.


Our concern that BAU [Business As Usual] GHG scenarios would cause large sea-level rise this century (Hansen 2005) differs from estimates of IPCC (2001, 2007), which foresees little or no contribution to twenty-first century sea-level rise from Greenland and Antarctica. However, the IPCC analyses and projections do not well account for the nonlinear physics of wet ice sheet disintegration, ice streams and eroding ice shelves, nor are they consistent with the palaeoclimate evidence we have presented for the absence of discernable lag between ice sheet forcing and sea-level rise.

"The best chance for averting ice sheet disintegration seems to be intense simultaneous efforts to reduce both CO2 emissions and non-CO2 climate forcings. As mentioned above, there are multiple benefits from such actions. However, even with such actions, it is probable that the dangerous level of atmospheric GHGs will be passed, at least temporarily. We have presented evidence (Hansen
et al. 2006b) that the dangerous level of CO2 can be no more than approximately 450 ppm. Our present discussion, including the conclusion that slow feedbacks (ice, vegetation and GHG) can come into play on century time-scales or sooner, makes it probable that the dangerous level is even lower.

"Present knowledge does not permit accurate specification of the dangerous level of human-made GHGs. However, it is much lower than has commonly been assumed. If we have not already passed the dangerous level, the energy infrastructure in place ensures that we will pass it within several decades" [bolding added; italics in original].
Among other things, Hansen and his co-authors have a plan to save the Earth:
"...a feasible strategy for planetary rescue almost surely requires a means of extracting GHGs from the air. Development of CO2 capture at power plants, with below-ground CO2 sequestration, may be a critical element. Injection of the CO2 well beneath the ocean floor assures its stability (House et al. 2006). If the power plant fuel is derived from biomass, such as cellulosic fibres... grown without excessive fertilization that produces N2O or other offsetting GHG emissions, it will provide continuing drawdown of atmospheric CO2" [2] [bolding added].
In other words:
  • Take more CO2 out of the air than we are putting in.
  • Use biomass fuels to remove CO2 from the air.
  • Don't let the CO2 from the biomass go back into the air, for a new crop of plants to absorb (the conventional biofuels cycle). We don't want the CO2 to be released at all, as that would provide no net reduction.
  • Instead, sequester the CO2 at source, right from the power plant.
  • Put it below the ocean floor, where it would be safe forever.
Sadly, world leaders had been giving up even on the IPCC's milder recommended target of holding the warming at 2 degrees C. How would they react to Hansen's target of 1 degree C or less? George Monbiot thinks that if people understood the implications, there would be a massive movement to demand immediate action, but he notes that most people go about their business as if there is no prominent scientist predicting a major planetary disaster.

On the other hand, some environmentalists are sceptical about CO2 sequestration and storage, and an international convention may regulate any materials stored in or under the ocean.

But what if there's even a 10% chance that Hansen is right about the potential damage if we do not follow his proposals? Multiply that 10% chance by the forecast amount of damage, and you still get an awesome risk!

Is it time for both politicians and environmentalists to start taking his latest research very seriously?


[1] James Hansen, 2007. Scientific reticence and sea level rise, Environ. Res. Lett. 2 (April-June 2007) 024002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/2/2/024002 (via newscientist.com)

[2] James Hansen et al, 2007. Climate Change and Trace Gases. Philiosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - A. Vol 365, pp 1925-1954. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2052. [PDF] screen pages 25-26 of 30 (via monbiot.com)

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Improve Democracy in Ontario -- On October 10, 2007, Support Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) Voting!

We interrupt the Climate Change posts for an important message: Ontarians have a unique opportunity to improve their democracy (and incidentally, help save the Planet, too). On Provincial Election Day, October 10, 2007, Ontarians can vote "YES" on a Referendum question to add Proportional Representation to the electoral system.

The traditional voting system (known as "first past the post") has resulted in too many minority Governments (in terms of popular support for the governing party) that call themselves "majorities" (because they end up with a majority of the seats in the Legislature). [UPDATE August 19, 2007: See charts of percent popular vote vs. percent seats in the Legislature in recent elections (citizensassembly.gov.on.ca "Resources" - links under "Electronic Press Kit" near bottom of page).] Moreover, smaller parties with a strong but spread-out support base can't get a seat in the Legislature (unless their supporters all move into one or a few ridings :-) This is deeply undemocratic, and it over-emphasizes local (even parochial) concerns over Province-wide (even Planet-wide) issues.

Speaking of Parties promoting Planet-wide issues, a recent poll has put the Green Party of Ontario at 11% support (sesresearch.com [PDF] via greenparty.on.ca). But this Party is very unlikely to get even one seat under the current system. If a recession hits and saving the planet returns to the back-burner for larger political parties (like it did in the 1990s), having the Green Party in the Legislature would help ensure that the issue does not vanish completely. For these reasons, a system that would give the Green party a voice would be a vast improvement for democracy -- and for the Planet.

A bit of background:

"After months of learning, consulting and deliberating, the province’s first Citizens’ Assembly decided to recommend a new electoral system for Ontario: Mixed Member Proportional [MMP]." (citizensassembly.gov.on.ca "How We Got Here")

"A Mixed Member Proportional system combines members elected in local districts and members elected for the whole province from party lists to serve as Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) in the legislature.This combination produces proportional election results that better reflect the wishes of voters." (citizensassembly.gov.on.ca "The Recommendation")
This is known as "one person, two votes". You would vote for a local representative, and for a Party. The two don't have to be aligned, giving you great flexibility.

As a bonus, there would be no more need for "strategic voting"! Many Ontarians have voted for one large Party to try to block another large Party, despite really wanting to vote for a third (smaller) Party. Under MMP, you could vote for a local representative from the larger Party (for example), and still vote for the smaller Party to help them get Proportional seats.

Under the proposal, the 90 traditional, locally-elected representatives would still predominate. But 39 representatives would be assigned by Party. For any Party with at least 3% of the popular vote, the formula would bring the percentage of seats in the Legislature to the percentage of the popular vote. (See citizensassembly.gov.on.ca "How the New System Works" for more details.)

Also, check out the Vote for MMP web site, which is published by "is a multi-partisan citizens’ campaign to support the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)" (voteformmp.ca "About Us").

If you have a blog, help spread the word by adding a "Vote for MMP" button from http://mmpbloggers.blogspot.com/

(We are not members or affiliates of any of the above organizations. We are expressing our support as individuals.)

Most importantly, if you are eligible to vote, make sure that you come out on October 10, 2007 and vote "YES" for MMP!

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Warm Water Algae 1, Ontario Nuclear Reactor 0 -- A Sign of Things to Come

I wrote in this blog recently about the trouble that some nuclear power stations abroad are having with staying on. Their cooling water intake is heating up as the climate changes. Well, we now have a Canadian example. A nuclear reactor in Pickering, Ontario, has had to close down recently because its cooling water intake was blocked by algae -- whose growth had been spurred by warming Lake Ontario waters (Toronto Star).

More ominously, the Star says in the same story that

"OPG [Ontario Power Generation], in the environmental assessment report it recently filed to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in relation to the possible refurbishment of Pickering B, said climate change and rising lake temperature could lead to increased algae and zebra mussel growth.

"'Temporary reactor power reductions could be required,' the company said.

"'None of the potential effects associated with climate change are expected to pose any risk to workers, members of the public or the environment.'"

Even if the last statement were true (and that's a big "if"!), wasn't nuclear power supposed to be a great energy option to help fight climate change, according to this technology's proponents?

Even building reactors on bigger, colder lakes farther north might not solve the problem. In Lake Superior,

"...the average water temperature has surged 4.5 degrees [Fahrenheit] since 1979, significantly above the 2.7-degree rise in the region's air temperature during the same period" (AP/Yahoo! News via ShortNews.com).
Once again, it's hard to avoid the question, if nuclear technology is this vulnerable to climate change, then how can we count on it?

Go Vegetarian to Help Stop Global Warming!

The meat industry generates 18% of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions -- more than the transport sector, i.e. more than cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined! (UN FAO Report, via veg.ca.) In fact, a study has shown that eating just 1 kg of beef causes as many Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions as driving a European car for 250 km, or lighting a 100-watt bulb for 20 days (New Scientist). According to another study, a single person going vegan can save as much GHG per year as a driver switching to a hybrid car (New Scientist). Many households still (thankfully) have more people than cars, so the emission savings per household going vegetarian can be even greater! Also, unlike a new car, going vegetarian can save you money right away (Vegetarian Journal). It can also help you to stay healthy -- and it's the clear moral choice.

The ethical argument is simple, and it's actually related to the health argument: most people would agree that needlessly harming other people or animals for your own pleasure is wrong. For humans, eating meat is unneccesary. Meat-eating is obviously harmful to animals, it wastes crops that could be used to feed people, and it harms the planet. Therefore, eating meat is simply wrong.

First, let's bust the biggest myth about vegetarianism, the notion that you have to eat meat or fish to stay healthy. In fact, this is not necessary:

"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases"

(American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada, "Vegetarian Diets", June 2003 [emphasis added]; consult with your physician before changing your diet -- see below).

Therefore, for most people, meat-eating a luxury, not a necessity. Some luxuries, like getting a nice massage, are virtually pollution-free, and they harm nobody. But meat-eating is a luxury that definitely harms animals and the planet. Pound-for-pound, calorie-for-calorie, and nutrient-for-nutrient, a vegetarian diet results in less waste and pollution than a meat-based one. For example:

"Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist's analysis."

(Cornell Science News, 1997, "U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists. Future water and energy shortages predicted to change face of American agriculture" [emphasis added].)

In fact, getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet is easy (see vegetarian nutrition and cooking links below).

GHG emissions from fossil fuels are just part of the harm. Meat production also wastes enormous quantities of water:

"According to the USDA, growing the crops necessary to feed farmed animals requires nearly half of the United States' water supply and 80% of its agricultural land" (Wikipedia).

Meat production endangers drinking water quality, as well. Remember the Walkerton Tragedy in Ontario, Canada? The official report said that

“The primary, if not the only, source of the [E. coli] contamination was manure that had been spread on a farm near Well 5. The owner of this farm followed proper practices and should not be faulted” (CBC).
But would the tragedy have happened without any animal farming? Meat production can even make it lethal to eat vegetables that are grown nearby (remember the California Spinach tragedy in 2006?).

A needless luxury that harms the planet, causes the death and suffering of millions of animals every year, wastes land and crops that could feed people, and may even harm your own health simply must be unethical.

If you'd been following vegetarian literature, you might be wondering why I haven't even mentioned the livestock-methane connection. Others may wonder why I've ignored the religious angle. I think that these arguments are either conditional or unnecessary. Livestock farming produces an estimated 37% of human-released methane (LEAD [PDF p. 6 of 19, printout p. 271]), a very potent greenhouse gas (Wikipedia). But changing animal feed may reduce or eliminate this effect in the future (e.g. Reuters/USA Today via Green Car Congress). This might reduce the meat industry's GHG emissions, but even completely "methane-free" meat would not change any of the other points above, which I think are sufficient on their own. Many world religions happen to preach that vegetarianism is either mandatory or desirable (Wikipedia). But even if you're a "radical atheist" like Douglas Adams (interview), I think that you would find the case for vegetarianism to be compelling on its own terms.

In case you're wondering, we became lacto-ovo vegetarians in 1989-90, and we have gradually moved to a mostly vegan diet (Wikipedia). Our health is good, and the animal-related ethical considerations are the same as ever. Our daughter is growing up healthy, strong, bright, caring -- and vegetarian. Meanwhile, the number of environmental reasons supporting our choice keeps increasing.

Here's an idea: read up on vegetarian nutrition and cooking. Consult your physician -- in fact, have a full check-up. Discuss your plans with your physician. Make sure that you're getting enough physical activity. Now, try going without meat for a day. Then try a week. Then a month. Then three months. At any time, consult your physician if you have any health concerns or questions. Have regular check-ups. Look at your bank account. Look at yourself in the mirror.

If you still decide to go back to eating meat after a year, I'd love to know why. If the objective reason is your own health, then you would have something like a "necessity defence" (Merriam Webster/FindLaw). I suspect that this would be fairly rare. Otherwise, what would be your excuse?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Modec Proposal - Electric Trucks Could Bring (Locally-Grown) Groceries To You

In many industrialized countries today, a dozen people would drive a dozen gasoline (or diesel) cars to the supermarket, where energy is wasted on everything from open-shelf fridges to bright lighting. Then, they would drive the same dozen vehicles back with the groceries. Carbon emissions all around. What if instead, these households all ordered their groceries online from an energy-efficient warehouse, and a single electric van delivered their orders on one circuit route? You've got to see this TV report: Channel 4 News.
Part of the Stern Report Monday 30th October 2006: (video : 4 mins).

The delivery part already exists in Canada: for example, Grocery Gateway does it six days a week in the Greater Toronto Area. You can even specify your delivery time down to a fairly narrow window (typically, 90 minutes). It's a great service, and we've been using it a lot lately, in an effort to reduce driving to the store.

But a Grocery Gateway driver has told me that the goods come from the shelves of Longo's Supermarkets, not from more energy-efficient warehouses. They don't always have everything in stock. And they use diesel powered delivery trucks.

In the UK, "Tesco.com, Britain’s biggest internet grocery retailer, has ordered 15 vans for their home delivery network" from Modec, a new company making all-electric delivery vehicles. (See Item 5 on Modec's FAQ, which is worth reading in its entirety.)

Right now, "Modec is governed at a maximum speed of 50mph. Although the vehicle is capable of more, it is designed for urban use so the energy saved by limiting the top speed can be used to enhance the performance and range of the vehicle." (FAQ Item 4, subheading "Speed".)

In suburbs, you would have to use both streets and highways, unless your depots or stores have very good coverage. Modec are looking into Lithium phosphate batteries instead of their current Sodium Nickel Chloride ("Zebra") packs (see FAQ Item 3, subheading "What battery packs are available?"). But highway speeds don't seem to be their priority, because electric vehicles save the most energy in urban driving.

Actually, this would be yet another argument for higher-density planning.

In related news, it's easier to find produce flown in from California than local fruits and vegetables -- even when they are in season in Ontario (as documented in an excellent story in the Toronto Star). Another story from the UK shows that large grocery chains with their "hub-and spoke" warehousing systems can make it hard for local farmers to sell to local customers.

Hmm... How about electric trucks for ecological food delivery services that support local organic produce?

Monday, June 25, 2007

"Climate change puts nuclear energy into hot water"

Those who promote nuclear energy as the answer to climate change may be ignoring
"...a less well-known side of nuclear power: It requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures.

"If temperatures soar above average this summer - let alone steadily increase in years to come, as many scientists predict - many nuclear plants could face a dilemma: Either cut output or break environmental rules, in either case hurting their reputation with customers and the public.

"Governments and the energy industry are just starting to grasp the vulnerabilities of water-hungry power plants. If the complications prove serious in countries where inland sources of water are growing scarce, where seafront nuclear stations are unwelcome or impractical and where alternative cooling technologies are too expensive, it could take the bloom off of nuclear as a source of clean energy and leave it more unclear than ever where sizable new power supplies might come from.

"'We're going to have to solve the climate-change problem if we're going to have nuclear power, not the other way around,' said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"'As the climate warms up, nuclear power plants are less able to deliver,'" he said.


"The French company operates 58 reactors - the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire.

"During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off. Électricité de France was forced to buy power from neighboring countries on the open market, where demand drove the price of a megawatt hour as high as €1,000, or $1,350. Average prices in France during summer months ordinarily are about €95 per megawatt hour.

"The heat wave cost Électricité de France an extra €300 million. The state-owned company 'swallowed it as a one-off cost of doing business in extreme circumstances,' Philippe Huet, an executive vice president at Électricité de France, said.

"The company was not allowed to pass along price surges to customers.

"Huet said the company was preparing for this summer on several fronts. The company is stocking more water in reservoirs, offering lower priced contracts to large users in exchange for the right to cut supplies and using more sophisticated forecasting tools for weather and river temperatures, he said.

"'If this year is the same as in 2003 we will handle it better,' Huet said. 'But we cannot exclude difficulties if the summer is even warmer and drier than 2003.'"

Source and more details: Climate change puts nuclear energy into hot water - International Herald Tribune
(via Green Car Congress and Treehugger ).

Even this story might be over-optimistic. It claims that if you put nuclear power stations by the sea, then you have no problem. Yet ocean temperatures are rising due to climate change, too. Granted, oceans heat up much more slowly than smaller bodies of water, so ocean temperatures may be unlikely to affect nuclear power operations in the short term. But the increase in sea levels due to melting ice, plus more frequent severe storms, could endanger any shoreline installation. What would happen if a Katrina-sized hurricane hit a nuclear power station?

Finally, we have already learned in many painful ways that the oceans, too, are finite. Increasing ocean temperatures to cool nuclear power stations might not be as benign as it may seem.