25 November 2014

Pipelines in every direction

Our new premier, Jim Prentice, claims he is committed to making Alberta an environmental leader. That's on Sundays, just after church. The rest of the week his commitments lie elsewhere. He made that plain in a speech to the Economic Club last week when he declared his goal is to see pipelines built in every possible direction. The Northern Gateway gushing oil west, Keystone gushing oil south and Energy East gushing oil to the Maritimes apparently isn't enough. "One of the alternatives that has been discussed and is said to be technically feasible," said Mr. Prentice, "is exporting Alberta's crude via existing port facilities in Alaska."

Squaring environmental leadership with tar sands oil spewing out of the province north, south, east and west is an exercise in intellectual gymnastics that only a conservative would attempt. But environmental leadership is tough for politicos. It means taking on the fossil fuel industries, among the most powerful forces in our society. And when oil, including the dreadful tar sands, is a major creator of profits, taxes and jobs, it is so much easier to just go with the crude.

Going green can also be a major creator of profits, taxes and jobs, but that bird is still in the bush in this country, so politicians opt for the bird in the hand. It will mean global temperatures advancing ever upwards and that will mean a brutal cost for society, including the economy, to be paid by our children and grandchildren.

But our children and grandchildren won't be voting in the next election, so for Mr. Prentice and his federal colleagues it's full speed ahead with pipelines in every direction. And for the environment? Theoretical leadership.

24 November 2014

The Conservatives sabotage NAFTA

The road to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began under a Conservative government and has been championed by Conservatives ever since. Surprising then that they should treat it with such contempt.

Not all of it, of course, definitely not the part that benefits the corporate sector, just the environmental part. Side agreements were attached to NAFTA to protect workers and the environment, something of an afterthought as a gesture to those who thought trade agreements should serve more than just business interests. The environmental agreement never had much in the way of muscle. It established the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a trinational monitoring body designed to ensure that international trade wouldn't undermine enforcement of environmental protection. It has a meager budget and limited power to make recommendations which, in any case, aren't binding.

Even this isn't weak enough for our federal government. Mexico has 38 members on its advisory committee to the CEC and the U.S. 12. Our government no longer even bothers to appoint members to a committee.

Earlier this year, the CEC secretariat recommended a factual record on Canada's lack of enforcement of the Fisheries Act be prepared. This was in response to a petition by several groups who claimed the government was violating Section 36 of the Act, which reads "no person shall deposit or permit the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish," by permitting over 100 industrial salmon feedlots on the B.C. coast. The government has stated it will simply ignore the decision of the CEC. Furthermore, it intends to remove Section 36 from the Act.

In 2010, environmentalists petitioned the CEC regarding tar sands tailing ponds, claiming the ponds are leaking billions of gallons of toxic waste water and the federal government is failing to enforce its own laws and regulations. The CEC agreed there was sufficient evidence to justify an investigation. The CEC Council, make up of the environmental ministers of the three countries, must now decide whether or not to proceed. Our government is not only refusing to co-operate, it is fighting to prevent the investigation from happening.

The government's recalcitrance is curious considering that it claims tar sands tailings are being responsibly handled. And even more curious when you consider that any recommendations the CEC might make following an investigation are unenforceable anyway. When it comes to defending corporate interests, most particularly tar sands interests, it seems that in the eyes of the government even NAFTA can be violated.

19 November 2014

The legitimate anger of the jihadis

As the season of wallowing in warrior worship wanes, we might think upon those warriors we love to hate—the young Muslim men from around the globe migrating (or trying to migrate) to the Middle East to fight for ISIS.

Their motivation is much discussed. Some, alienated from their society, seem driven by nothing more than a desperate search for meaning in their lives. The mentally-unbalanced, drug-addicted, homeless Michael Zehaf-Bibeau serves as an example. Others seem to simply want to participate in society, any society, in a meaningful way. Such is likely the case for youth in the Middle East and elsewhere where unemployment is rampant and the prospect of doing anything constructive for themselves or others is bleak.

And then there is another quite reasonable motivation not driven by desperation. It is dead easy to understand why any young Muslim who is aware of the treatment of his co-coreligionists in the Middle East over the past century would be deeply angry. I can get angry about it myself and I'm an atheist. Consider the invasion of Iraq: tens of thousands of innocents dead, millions of refugees driven from their homes and entire cites reduced to rubble. All this as a result of a Western aggression based on lies. And then there is the endless oppression of the Palestinians about whom the West often seems largely indifferent.

Hamilton lawyer Hussein Hamdan, an active member of the city’s Muslim community, has had considerable success in dissuading young men from joining groups like ISIS. He begins his counseling by recognizing their anger. "What we need to do is show them that whatever grievances they feel are legitimate," he said, "But if you really want to make a difference … you have to do something that pleases your creator."

Not all young Muslims will accept Mr. Hamdan's advice to reject violent jihad, even violence as thoroughly evil as ISIS, but in this country there are many alternatives for legitimate expression of dissent. These young men should be instructed in how to employ them and encouraged to do so. The West has committed many sins against the Middle East over the past century and honestly recognizing the grievances that result should be part of our policy toward that benighted region.

18 November 2014

Energy East—another reason why we need Quebec

Among the arguments that might be made to keep Quebec in Canada is simply that it's our most progressive province. One can cite ample of evidence for this: it showed the strongest support for the Kyoto Accord and gay marriage, it has the most advanced child care program, it is probably the major reason we said no to the Iraq war ... the list goes on.

Earlier this month, the province demonstrated its progressive credentials once again. Quebec's National Assembly called on the provincial government to exercise its environmental jurisdiction over TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline. The resolution, which passed unanimously, is effectively a vote of non-confidence in the National Energy Board's review process for the pipeline.

It stated two specific concerns: first, the NEB doesn't consider the environmental impact of producing the crude that will flow through the pipeline; and second, the federal government still hasn't adopted carbon emission regulations for the oil and gas sector.

What the NEB is in effect ignoring is the 650,000 or more barrels per day of production from the tar sands that the pipeline will carry and the attendant generation of an additional 30 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year (the equivalent of adding more than seven million cars to Canada’s roads). A review that ignores the emissions the project will facilitate would seem to be not much of a review at all.

While the federal government has lost interest in regulating emissions from the oil and gas sector, Quebec it seems has not. Nor is it willing to overlook the upstream emissions resulting from pipelines. A sensible position that other provinces should emulate, regardless of the merit of Energy East.

17 November 2014

The G-20's failure on growth

There are, in my humble opinion, two overwhelming threats to humanity, either one of which will undermine global civilization if not dealt with adequately and quickly. The recent G-20 conference dealt with one—climate change—but not only ignored the other, it pushed us further down that path to Armageddon.

Article 19 of the Leaders’ Communiqué from the conference read:
We support strong and effective action to address climate change. Consistent with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its agreed outcomes, our actions will support sustainable development, economic growth, and certainty for business and investment. We will work together to adopt successfully a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the UNFCCC that is applicable to all parties at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015. We encourage parties that are ready to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions well in advance of COP21 (by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties ready to do so). We reaffirm our support for mobilising finance for adaptation and mitigation, such as the Green Climate Fund.
Very good stuff indeed—if, of course, it translates into action. But notice in the second sentence "our actions will support ... economic growth." This deals with the second great threat: resource depletion. We cannot have the "sustainable development" the communiqué promises if we continue to exhaust the planet's resources faster than it can replenish them, and that unfortunately is exactly what we are doing. We are now well beyond the Earth's ability to satisfy our demands upon it.

Growth, in the sense the G-20 uses it, i.e. GDP growth, must stop or we will suck our planet dry. Yet, what is the conversation about growth among the world's leaders? More of it. While they have at least recognized the threat of climate change, even if they aren't doing nearly enough about it, they seem to be completely oblivious to the threat of resource depletion. Tragically, our leaders do not seem ready yet to fully accept the inevitable consequences of our profligate ways.

11 November 2014


05 November 2014

Oh my God! The Japanese make better whisky than the Scots!

A year of firsts for whiskey. For instance, it's the first time in the 12-year history of the World Whisky Bible's rankings that a Scottish malt has failed to make the top five. Depressing news for the Scots. And it gets worse. Much, much worse—it is also the first time the top whisky was distilled in Japan.

The grand accolade was taken by Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from the Suntory company's Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto. The next three spots were taken by American bourbons. And then, to add insult to injury, the prize for best European whisky went to Chapter 14 Not Peated from the English Whisky Company (take that you Scottish separatists).

The Whisky Bible is produced by Jim Murray, arguably the world's foremost expert on whisky. According to Murray (yes, he's English), the winning dram possesses "a nose of exquisite boldness” and is as “thick, dry, [and] as rounded as a snooker ball," whatever the hell all that means.

I'm not a whisky drinker myself, but I wouldn't mind trying a sip of that Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013. And a sip is about all I could afford. It's priced at $180 a bottle, a tad out of my price range, and in any case only 18,000 bottles have been made so not much chance of one coming my way. I will have to resort to my own favourite brew, Big Rock Brewery's Traditional Ale, to help me commiserate with the Scots.

04 November 2014

Naheed Nenshi—world's best mayor?

Recently, Canada suffered through the pain and embarrassment of having the world's worst mayor. Is it possible we can now rise above the humiliation with the world's best mayor?

Calgary's mayor Naheed Nenshi has made the short list for the 2014 World Mayor Prize, awarded every two years to a mayor "who has made outstanding contributions to his and her community and has developed a vision for urban living and working that is relevant to towns and cities across the world."

The prize is awarded every two years by the City Mayors Foundation, a non-profit international think tank that "encourages city leaders from across the world to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to long-standing urban challenges such as governance, society, housing, transport, education and employment." Anyone can vote for a mayor as long as he or she includes "a thoughtful supporting statement."

A first round of voting has shortlisted 26 candidates including Mayor Nenshi. The Foundation's board of fellows will now choose the winner based on the number of votes and "the strength and passion of supporting testimonials.”

The Mayor is a worthy candidate. He has both an academic and pragmatic grasp of what makes modern cities work along with the common touch—a gracious man who understands the ordinary person. If he wins, and I'm betting on him, he will be the first Canadian to be so honoured.