31 October 2013

TSN dumps FRIENDS' ad

The FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, staunch defenders of the CBC, have been running a campaign against the federal government's Bill C-60. The Bill gives the government control over the wages and working conditions of all CBC employees, including those who produce news and current affairs programs.

The campaign included FRIEND'S' quite funny and timely Man Behind the Desk video ads. TSN, Canada's leading English language sports TV channel, has however turned out to be a party pooper. It ran the ads for two days, then pulled the plug. The ad did not run as scheduled on either the Leafs/Flames or the Canucks /Red Wings games Wednesday night.

FRIENDS has not been made aware of the reason but is speculating that either Bell, TSN's parent, decided not to curry disfavour with the Prime Minister or was pressured by the Prime Minister's Office.

If you would like to check out the offending ad for yourself, you can do so here. And if you would like to sample more of the ads and join the FRIENDS' campaign by signing their petition, you can do so here.

The West Coast steps up on global warming

Earlier this week, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington and B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced their Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, "committing their governments, and a region that represents the world’s fifth largest economy, to a comprehensive and far-reaching strategic alignment to combat climate change and promote clean energy."

The plan makes significant commitments on carbon pricing, low-carbon transportation, research on ocean acidification, energy efficient buildings, and other issues. Of particular importance is that in addition to agreeing to fight global warming, the four leaders emphasized the economic opportunities associated with a transition to clean energy. "Oregon supports the Action Plan," said Governor Kitzhaber, "because we are already seeing how our commitment to clean energy is changing the face and fortune of our state, accounting for $5-billion in economic activity and 58,000 jobs."
Under the plan, California and British Columbia will maintain their existing carbon pricing programs along with their clean fuel standards with Oregon and Washington committed to adopting similar policies. Furthermore, the leaders pledged to co-operate with governments around the world to press for a global agreement on climate change in 2015.

It was encouraging indeed to see the leaders "affirm the scientific consensus on the human causes of climate change and its very real impacts," and to refer specifically to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

So, despite rumours to the contrary, there are voices of reason on climate change among political leaders. Few, unfortunately, are to be found in Ottawa.

30 October 2013

A politician of rare humility and wisdom

Uruguay is not a very important country in the grand scheme of international affairs, so we don't hear much about it. Nor about its president, José Mujica. We should hear more. President Mujica is a politician who serves as a model for others of his profession.

To begin with, he rejects the trappings of power. Upon election, he refused to move into the luxurious house provided for presidents, choosing instead to live on a small farm owned by his senator wife. He drives an old Volkswagen Beetle. Furthermore, he donates 90 percent of his salary to charity, a practice that has earned him the title "the world's poorest president."  Poor by some standards, perhaps, but not by his. "My definition of poor are those who need too much," he says, "Because those who need too much are never satisfied."

"The thing is," he explains, "I have a way of life that I don't change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it's not enough for others."

Preaching simplicity and living it, he sets an example of the kind of lifestyle that could lead humanity to a sustainable economy.

28 October 2013

Calgary—sprawl or planning?

During the recent Calgary election campaign, two visions of the city's future development vied for attention. One, presented by Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, was about planning growth to ensure a sustainable city. The other, presented by a group of home builders and their hired gun, Preston Manning of the Manning Institute, was about leaving growth to the dictates of the market.

The latter was justified by choice. We all support choice, so this is a tempting approach (although, as the mayor pointed out, the choice isn't entirely a fair one as developers are not paying the full costs of new suburbs leading to a "sprawl subsidy"). But there is a big problem with relying on the market—it lies. If doesn't tell us the full cost of choices and therefore can lead to bad decisions.

Consider, for example, the cost of driving a car. The market tells us this includes depreciation, insurance, maintenance and gas. But, in fact, the real cost is much higher. It includes what economists call "externalities"—the cost of building and maintaining roads, the cost of policing those roads, the cost to Medicare of accidents, the many costs of pollution, etc. These are not abstractions, they are real costs, but the market ignores them. We will pay them, of course, but not in direct relation to driving a car. As a result we make bad decisions not only about transportation but about how we build our cities.

Similarly, when you buy a house in the deepest suburbs, the market doesn't include the costs of sprawl—more roads to be built and maintained, more snow removal, more sewer and water lines, more pollution, etc., all of which would be reduced if we built a more compact city. We might recognize this, realizing we will have to pay these additional costs in the long run; nonetheless, we can do little about them acting on our own.

And this illustrates a second big problem with the market. It isolates us. Acting alone we can do little about the big picture so we are coerced into making our decisions based only on our own narrow interests.

How do we overcome this isolation? We, all 1.1 million Calgarians, cannot sit down around a big table and discuss it. We can, however, elect representatives to do exactly that. It's called democracy. Elected representatives—city councillors—can hear all the views about how best to develop the city, including the views of experts—urban planners—people whose profession is studying the growth of cities. Combining the views of citizens and experts, city councils can develop a plan which best assures a financially and environmentally efficient city.

This is exactly what the City of Calgary did with Plan It Calgary. Engaging thousands of Calgarians and city planners and commissioning extensive research, the City developed a vision for a long-term pattern of development grounded in the values of SMART growth and sustainability principles for land use and mobility.

Home builders didn't much like it and unfortunately the City modified it to meet many of their concerns. Such is the power of the development industry in municipal politics. Nonetheless, much of the plan survives. Some good sense at least will be brought to the future of our city.

Citizens combining their thoughts and aspirations, and soliciting the advice of experts, is after all just good sense. Leaving the future of the city to the randomness of the market is a recipe for bad decisions and sprawl, the enemy of a vital and efficient city.

27 October 2013

Forget the polar bears, what about the moose?

As the Earth inexorably warms up due to human folly, one species after another pays the price. The most iconic example is of course the polar bear. And why not—what is cuter and cuddlier than the bear with the thick white coat and the black nose?

But less cuddly creatures are also suffering. For example, the ungainly moose, one of nature's least handsome, but no less precious, beasts.

According to New Scientist, moose are experiencing a die-off across the southern edge of their global range, in what might indicate the start of a huge climate shock to the world's boreal forests. The direct causes vary, from liver flukes in Minnesota, to a worm that blocks the moose's carotid arteries in Wyoming, to massive tick infections in New Hampshire. Dennis Murray, a population ecologist at Trent University, claims, "The fact that you've got different proximate causes killing off the moose suggests there's an underlying ultimate cause," and he suspects that ultimate cause is climate change.

Moose, a cold climate animal, can become heat-stressed when the weather gets too warm, preventing them from building reserves of body fat to help them survive the winter and weakening their immune systems such that they are more susceptible to parasites.

So as we lament the suffering of our own species as we increasingly foul our planet, let us spare a scrap of empathy for the moose as well. And of course I was just kidding about the polar bears—we mustn't forget about them either.

26 October 2013

The military-industrial complex comes to Canada

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Over half a century has passed since U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned his fellow Americans against the threat posed by the "meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense." They failed, unfortunately, to heed his warning. Today, the arms industry is entrenched so widely and deeply in the United States that hardly a Congressman exists who can demand a decrease in the military budget without risking jobs in his constituency. Furthermore, the U.S. is by far the world's biggest dealer in the armaments trade, with Russia a poor second.

But not satisfied with its giant share of the market, the U.S., in yet another disappointing move by President Obama, this month made the nation's largest deregulation in its history of arms exports, a move that led Amnesty International to comment, "We’re seriously concerned that the reforms will open a floodgate of weapons technology and equipment to governments that have bad human rights records. This could further facilitate the commission of human rights abuses around the world."

The Americans claim they sell only to responsible nations (a claim not to be taken too seriously—Saudi Arabia is a top customer) but other countries, Russia for instance, will only be too happy to take the hint and decontrol their sales. And who will Russia sell to? Syria, perhaps?

One country that has been quick to follow suit is our own. According to the Vancouver Sun, "The federal Conservative government has been quietly working to remove restrictions on the transfer of hundreds of Canadian-made, military-related goods as part of a plan to make Canada a global arms exporter." According to Public Works Minister Dianne Finley, "The amendments will also ensure that the list is always aligned with the U.S."

We, too, claim to be responsible in our sales, yet Canadian-made armoured vehicles sold to Saudi Arabia were used to suppress legitimate dissent in Bahrain. Similar vehicles have also been sold to Colombia, hardly a country known for respecting human rights.

The government's efforts are part of a policy to turn Canada into a major producer and exporter of arms. It has ordered the National Research Council to focus on the sector, established multimillion-dollar funds to support business-driven research and development, and turned the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation, into an arms salesman.

Nations are hypocrites in the realm of armaments. They talk peace while enthusiastically selling the instruments of war. I am saddened to see my country shamelessly participate in this hypocrisy. Yet another in an increasing number of black marks against our international reputation.

24 October 2013

The Saudi tail and the American dog

That Israel is the tail that wags the dog of American Middle Eastern policy is a given. Often, however, we overlook the fact this particular dog has two tails. The other is Saudi Arabia.

A complexity of factors explains the close ties between the U.S. and Israel: the sharing of democratic and human rights values; the emotional resonance of the Holocaust; the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, possibly the most powerful lobby in Washington; etc. The factors responsible for American deference to the dictatorial Saudi regime are simpler—oil and guns.

Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and is the Americans' second largest supplier, and, on the other side of the ledger, it is the major purchaser of U.S. weapons.

Not surprising then that the Americans pay close attention when the Saudis are unhappy with their foreign policy, and they are very unhappy at the moment. They are unhappy that the Americans have not attacked Syria and indeed are not doing more to help the rebels, they are unhappy with the improving U.S. relationship with Iran, they are unhappy with American ambivalence on the Israel-Palestine issue, they are unhappy the Americans didn't support their repression of dissent in Bahrain, and they are unhappy the U.S. has severed military ties to Egypt's new dictators.

Indeed, they are so unhappy the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has publicly stated the kingdom will make a "major shift" in relations with the United States, a shift that would have wide-ranging consequences, including on oil sales and arms purchases. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is urgently meeting with his Saudi counterpart and attempting to play down any divisions.

So, will the Americans stand their ground? Will they call the Saudi bluff and, if necessary, distance themselves from this disreputable ally? Or will oil and guns win out? And that, I expect, is a silly question.

23 October 2013

B.C. 's "textbook example" of good climate policy

High praise indeed from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In a recent speech, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría praised B.C.’s carbon tax as being “as close to a textbook example as we have."

The praise is well deserved. A paper published in the journal Canadian Public Policy by two members of the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law indicated that four years after the tax was introduced in 2008, British Columbia’s per capita consumption of fuels subject to the tax declined by 19 per cent compared to the rest of Canada while at the same time B.C.'s economy kept pace with the rest of the country. Furthermore, the paper reported, "Due to the tax shift, British Columbia households and businesses now pay the lowest income taxes in Canada and use the least amount of fuel per capita of any Canadian province."

Covering roughly three-quarters of B.C.’s carbon emissions, the tax is a key component of the province's climate policy. Whatever sins the province has on the environmental front, and it has a few, it deserves full credit for its carbon tax.

Meanwhile, despite its success in B.C., the federal government continues to attack carbon taxes with, as a Pembina Institute article put it, rhetoric "that has become completely unhinged from reality."

Somehow we have to get past our unhinged government and put a national carbon tax back on the table. As Secretary-General Gurria has said, "Without placing a clear and explicit price on emissions we are, as they say, just ‘pushing at a piece of string’ when it comes to changing consumer, producer and investor behaviour.”

22 October 2013

Progressive Alberta

Seemingly in defiance of Alberta's reputation as a very conservative province, voters in Calgary and Edmonton both elected young, progressive mayors yesterday.

Calgary elected the 41-year old Naheed Nenshi for a second term and Edmonton chose the 34-year old former city councillor Don Iveson. Nenshi supports a more compact city with increased density in the inner city and levies on suburban development that reflect the true cost of building suburbs. Iveson appears to be of a similar urban philosophy.

Nenshi easily overcame vigorous opposition from home builders who disapprove of his references to the "sprawl subsidy," the difference between the cost of infrastructure in new suburbs and developers' contribution to it. They
were joined in their opposition by Preston Manning whose Manning Institute recently received over a million dollars from home builders to train developer-friendly candidates.

Other progressives also did well in Calgary with Druh Farrell, Gian-Carlo Carra and Brian Pincott holding their wards and Evan Woolly joining the group. Council still leans conservative, if not pro-developer, but at least there is a strong contingent of progressives pushing for a financially and environmentally sustainable city.

19 October 2013

Lynching Obama

Allow me to offer a theory about the recent bizarre behaviour of the Republican Party in the U.S. Congress.

All countries have a substantial ultraconservative component of their political spectrum. But not often in a democracy does that component take over the agenda of a major political party and threaten to bring the government down if it doesn't get what it wants, rather like a gang of two-year-olds collectively holding their breath and kicking their heels. Why this happened in a nation long considered a responsible democracy is a result perhaps of political passion aggravated by that country's nemesis—racism.

At the end of the Second World War, straight white American males ruled the nation. They were "the Man." They owned pretty well everything and dominated pretty well everything. They sat at the head of the table and, damn, they owned the table. Everyone else knew their place and it was second place, or third.

And then things began to come apart. Women demanded an equal place at the table. As did blacks who were insisting that phrase in the Declaration of Independence about all men being equal should be taken seriously. Homosexuals no longer found the closet agreeable and emerged, flaunting their pride in the streets with, dare I say it, gay abandon. And if all this impertinence wasn't bad enough, whites were shrinking toward minority status as Hispanics expanded their numbers. Most straight white males accepted the changes with grace but others didn't, wouldn't, just couldn't, and they retreated into a smoldering anger. Their country, it seemed, was being stolen from them bit by bit.

And then came the ultimate insult. The rubbing it in. The salt in all these many wounds. The American people voted in a black president. Not all the American people did, but clearly a disproportionate number of the usurpers—blacks, women and Hispanics. To say nothing of those perennial mischief-makers, the younger generation. And not just any black man but a black man with—horrors!—a white mother.

At one time, red-blooded American males knew how to deal with uppity blacks—they lynched them. Unfortunately, that is simply no longer on. But if those red-blooded Congressmen can no longer bring out the bedsheets and the lynch rope, they can still focus remarkable energy and passion on destroying the uppity black president politically.

They will not, I think, succeed. Even their Republican colleagues are tiring of their juvenile shenanigans. As are the American people at large.

But deny them not their last hurrah. They are losing their country. Women increasingly seek positions of power, blacks aren't returning to the back of the bus, gays are getting married, and Hispanics are now the nation’s largest minority group and among its fastest growing populations. White numbers are shrinking, predicted to be a minority by mid-century. A new America is emerging, and the Man is having a tantrum.

Anyway, that's my theory. Not particularly original and perhaps a bit over the top, but not as over the top as the antics in the U.S. Congress over the past few weeks.

15 October 2013

Where will all the scientists go?

In a new book about the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, The Oil Man and the Sea, author Arno Kopecky relates his attempt to  interview Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist Kenneth Lee. Dr. Lee was the executive director of the DFO-sponsored Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, and possibly the country's top expert on how bitumen behaves in salt water.

Kopecky soon ran into the federal government's now infamous muzzle policy. An email to Lee earned him a reply informing him he would be contacted by a communications person, and he never heard from Kenneth Lee, or any other government scientist, again. Instead of answers to the questions he submitted, the communications department supplied him with a series of "bureaucratic talking points."

As for the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, it has now been down-sized due to the budget cuts to the DFO in omnibus Bill C-38. Kenneth Lee resigned and moved to Australia.

The irony here is that the federal government claims it will ensure safe transportation of bitumen offshore from the Gateway pipeline's proposed terminal in Kitimat. But how are we to believe that when it cuts the budget of the very government agency responsible for the science designed to ensure that safety? And how well is the science to be done if the country's top experts are driven abroad? This government's disrespect for science is now undermining not only its credibility but its ability to manage its own pet program.

14 October 2013

What would Lesus do?

Sorry folks, I couldn't resist it. A set of gold, silver and bronze medals commemorating the first year of the pontificate of Pope Francis, produced by the Italian State Mint, went on sale in Vatican stores last week. But not for long. They were quickly withdrawn when a slight flaw was noticed. Jesus was misspelled Lesus.

What's next—Lod? The Virgin Lary? The Italian Mint would be well advised to hire a proofreader if they are going to do any more work for the Vatican. Or before they start producing bumper stickers.

Four lucky people did very well out of the Mint's lapse, however. They managed to purchase medals before they were withdrawn from the stores. Those medals will be worth—if you'll pardon the pun—a mint some day.

05 October 2013

Save the songbirds—curb your cats

I have always been a dog man myself. Cats ... well, they can be cute and cuddly, but whereas dogs seem to belong with us, I have always found cats to be alien if not a little unnerving. Those cold, deadpan eyes seem to send the message that if I was small enough, I would be their prey.

Dogs are very much like us. Descended from wolves, they are social creatures, basking in the companionship of their fellows. Cats are loners, rejecting the company of even their own species. However, it is not their antisocial nature that concerns me today, but rather their relentless urge to kill, an urge that in a human would be considered psychopathic. Cats simply cannot stop killing, even when they aren't hungry.

This capacity for slaughter is inflicting a holocaust upon our songbirds. A recent study by Environment Canada reported that out of the more than 270 million wild birds killed every year in Canada from human-related activity, 75 per cent were killed by cats. Less than 20 per cent were killed by collisions with power lines and buildings. Hunting accounted for only about two per cent. According to Richard Elliot, director of wildlife research for Environment Canada, "A cat you think is just out wandering around the premises would be killing 10 or 12 birds a night."

One might expect that people who love cats would love animals generally, including birds, the most delightful of our fellow species. But it appears that all too many do not. If they did, they would keep these stealthy little serial killers in the house and not unleash them on our feathered friends.

04 October 2013

Judge likens Alberta government to Duplessis regime

The tar sands gang does more than muzzle scientists. It also muzzles environmentalists. This came out loud and clear in a recent case before Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench.

Last year, the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC), a group consisting of the Pembina Institute, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, filed a Statement of Concern with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to gain standing at the regulatory review of the second phase of Southern Pacific Resource’s proposed in situ tar sands project. OSEC was concerned about the project's use of up to 1.7 million litres of fresh groundwater every day, declining regional air quality, and the habitat of a threatened caribou herd. Their application was rejected.

They appealed to the courts and earlier this week the Court of Queen’s Bench revoked the government's decision. Justice Richard Marceau called the government’s actions “tainted" and concluded, “It is difficult to envision a more direct apprehension of bias.... [It] breaches all four principles of natural justice and must be quashed." In a particularly unkind cut, the judge compared the government's behaviour to that of the authoritarian regime of Maurice Duplessis in 1950's Quebec.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests had suggested OSEC was denied its application in part at least because of “recent oilsands publications” and the government’s perception that it was “less inclined to work cooperatively.”

Speaking for the Pembina Institute, Policy Director Simon Dyer commented, “It’s deeply troubling that the Government of Alberta would attempt to block participation in the regulatory process on grounds that Pembina has raised concerns of its oilsands management policies.” Deeply troubling indeed, surprising not at all.