28 April 2008

Tar sands: the "baby seal" issue of the 21st century?

An iconic environmental issue of the 20th century for Canada was baby seals. Environmental activists gained international attention and created international revulsion about the clubbing of big-eyed seal pups. That effort continues, but another issue is now creeping into the international consciousness that could darken Canada's reputation even more than seal slaughter. That of course is the Alberta tar sands.

It's a dirty business. Producing a tar sands barrel of oil results in at least three times more greenhouse gases than producing a conventional barrel. Production requires huge volumes of water and results in veritable lakes of contaminated fluids. It also devours large quantities of natural gas, the cleanest hydrocarbon fuel -- some wit once likened it to transmuting gold into lead.

The international opposition to tar sands development is growing. Alberta deputy premier Ron Stevens, on a five-day mission to Washington to peddle the oil sands brand, is being met by protesters and a full-page ad in the congressional newspaper claiming oil sands production is a major contributor to global warming.

With $100-billion of projects in the pipeline so to speak, the Alberta government is desperate to convince Americans, the people who buy the stuff, that the province is committed to "environmentally sustainable development of the oil sands." It plans to spend 25 million taxpayer dollars on the effort. Even that may not be enough to give this dirty business a clean face.

From killing baby seals in the East to producing the world's dirtiest oil in the West, it seems that environmentally we are not winning hearts and minds.

24 April 2008

Hillary goes nuclear

Not being an American I will be spared the responsibility of voting for the next president of the United States; however, if I was I would have been delighted earlier in the game to vote for Hillary Clinton. Not any more. Her pandering has become almost embarrassing. As John Doyle of the Globe observed, in the recent Pennsylvania primary he half expected her to be wearing a pinafore and going around saying "aw, shucks." All politicians pander of course. One of the rules of public speaking is to tailor your speech to your audience, and politicians excel at it. Clinton just seems to consistently overdo it.

Asked what she would do if the Iranians attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, she replied she would "obliterate them." For a politician who flaunts her experience, this is the reply of an amateur. An experienced politician would know the mature answer is that in the first place, Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons, and in the second place the best American intelligence says they aren't acquiring them, so the question is no more than hypothetical mischief.

Her Strangelovian response may be recognition of the need to pander to the powerful Israel lobby, but that doesn't justify proposing Armageddon.

Maybe she feels that as a woman she has to strut her credentials as a tough guy. Show she's got the cojones, so to speak. After all, she supported both the war in Iraq and George Bush's misinformed belligerence toward Iran. She has also advertised herself as "the only candidate who isn't just talking about cracking down on China ... I have a specific plan ...." One hopes she's only referring to trade; nonetheless, her swagger caused China expert Richard Baum, her adviser on east Asia, to resign over the "grossly misguided accusations."

All this may be election hype which she would quickly bury if she became president, yet one has to wonder. If she feels she has to prove how tough she is to the electorate, will she not feel the same need when she's dealing with foreign powers, to say nothing of her own military? Let's hope that after the November election the world doesn't end up with George W. Bush lite.

22 April 2008

The real price of gas

Oil prices surge again -- a barrel fetching close to $120 this morning. Gas prices are following suit. A national survey last week found the average price for regular was $1.19 a litre, the second highest on record. Public concern rises with the price. A Gandalf Group survey showed that Canadians believe the price of gasoline is the country's greatest challenge second only to the state of the healthcare system.

Yet gas remains a great bargain at the pump. The pump price is the market price, and markets lie through their teeth. You may pay $1.19 a litre, but you are only paying a fraction of the real cost.

To begin with, the pump price excludes the costs of the pollution that burning gasoline creates, including its contribution to global warming. There's the cost of policing roads and health costs incurred from road accidents. There's the tax subsidies to the oil industry through items such as the depletion allowance. All these are magnified by urban sprawl -- an urban design imposed by cheap gas. The International Center for Technology Assessment calculates that when all costs are included, the real price of a litre of gas is five to 15 times the pump price.

Economists call these excluded items negative externalities. External they may be, but they are real costs that have to be paid by all of us, whether we drive a little, a lot, or not at all. If drivers had to pay the full cost of a litre of gas, the world would change. Cities would be designed much more efficiently, and the environment would be a great deal cleaner and less at risk. We might keep all this in mind when we complain about the price at the pump. It may seem high, but it is in fact a remarkable, if highly deceptive, bargain.

21 April 2008

Jose Zapatero, Prime Minister and feminist

Kudos for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero. Following his success over his conservative opponents in the recent election, he has appointed a new cabinet and, for the first time in Spanish history, it has a majority of women. Zapataro's cabinet is consistent with his promise to make women's issues his priority in this term. The new spirit was illustrated in mass media around the world with a photograph of a magnificently pregnant Defence Minister Carme Chacon inspecting her troops.

Prime Minister Zapatero, who proudly refers to himself as a feminist, is following the precedent of gender reforms set in his first term when his government legalized same-sex marriage, brought in fast-track divorces and passed laws to tackle domestic violence and promote gender equality, including a bill that required some companies to employ 40 per cent women in top positions.

Who would have thought a very macho Mediterranean country would become a leader in bringing equality to women. With the Canadian federal cabinet including a measly 22 per cent women, Spain clearly has something to teach us.

18 April 2008

U.S. Supreme Court opts for cruel and unusual punishment

About the only thing crueler than killing someone is torturing them when you do it. Despite the Eighth Amendment to the American Constitution which expressly forbids "cruel and unusual punishment," the United States Supreme Court has approved execution by lethal injection which may inflict exactly that.

Lethal injection typically involves three drugs: first sodium thiopental (an anesthetic), then pancuronium bromide (causes muscle paralysis) and finally potassium chloride (stops the heart). The dose of each drug is supposedly sufficient to cause death.

The pancuronium bromide is not administered to make death easier for the prisoner, but to make it easier for the spectators. When the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride hits, it tends to cause spasms which detract from the image of a painless death. Pancuronium bromide, by relaxing the muscles, precludes the spasms thus offering a calmer spectacle. It is entirely unnecessary for the killing.

Unfortunately, the regimen doesn't always go according to plan. Doctors and nurses are forbidden by their organizations from participating in executions, so they are often carried out by incompetent personnel. Dr. Mark Heath, a professor of clinical anesthesia at Columbia University, observes, "There are significant risks that the inmate in Texas' lethal injection procedure will not be rendered unconscious by the sodium thiopental and will therefore experience the psychologically horrific effects of pancuronium bromide." The drug has been condemned by the American Veterinary Medical Association for use in euthanizing animals.

Potassium chloride is reputed to cause excruciating pain. If the prisoner receives insufficient doses of the drugs, when the potassium chloride hits he may be in agony but unable to cry out because his muscles are paralyzed by the pancuronium bromide. He dies an exquisitely painful death.

This appears to be what happened in Florida in 2006 to convicted murderer Angel Diaz. He took over half an hour to die and only then after a second series of injections. After the first series, witnesses reported he seemed to squint and grimace, and attempted to mouth words. Remaining conscious, he would have felt he was being smothered as the pancuronium bromide collapsed his diaphragm and lungs, and then he would have felt the potassium chloride like fire in his veins.

All hope is not lost, however, with the Supreme Court decision. Justice John Paul Stevens, although agreeing that the evidence presented in this case failed to show unconstitutionality, he admitted that for the first time he believes the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional. So the United States may yet depart the company of countries such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia and join the civilized world in its views on capital punishment.

16 April 2008

Are we playing fair with China?

China-bashing is all the rage these days and, make no mistake about it, considering their behaviour in Tibet and Sudan, the Chinese deserve it. Nonetheless, I have this uneasy feeling the self-righteousness that accompanies the criticism is somehow excessive.

China is saturating Tibet with Han Chinese in order to inextricably link the two culturally and ethnically. They will brook no resistance from the Tibetans. This strategy is not unfamiliar to us. It is, after all, exactly what we did. We saturated North America with immigrants, overwhelming the native peoples as we stole their land. At least the Chinese have not, to my knowledge, bundled the Tibetans off to reserves or kidnapped their children for indoctrination. Of course we do better now, we respect the civil rights of the Natives, but this is from the vantage point of having secured our country. Once the Chinese have secured Tibet, they too may improve their behaviour.

As for China's cozy relationship with Sudan, despite the Darfur situation, our criticism is pure hypocrisy. Sudan has oil and oil absolves all sins. The United States and Great Britain are tight with Saudi Arabia, a notoriously repressive and misogynistic dictatorship, to an extent that makes a mockery of their claims to be champions of democracy and human rights, all because of the magic substance, oil. Only weeks ago, President George Bush was shamelessly peddling hi-tech weaponry to the Saudis, and one of Tony Blair's last acts as PM was to quash an investigation into bribery between British arms dealers and Saudi officials. Criticism of the Chinese for consorting with brutal dictators while we do it ourselves is cringe-inducing.

So should we lay off the Chinese? Of course not. China's repressive practices go well beyond Tibet and Sudan, and we are morally obliged to respond to violations of people's human rights anywhere. The world has become a small place. And we are after all a signatory of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am simply suggesting that when we criticize we do so with a little humility, keeping in mind our own behaviour both past and present.

14 April 2008

Will the rule of law triumph in the UK?

Last year, before Tony Blair stepped down as British PM, one of his last acts was to terminate an investigation into allegations of corruption between BAE Systems, a British arms manufacturer, and the Saudi Arabian government. BAE was alleged to have had a huge slush fund for buying the support of Saudi officials. Blair insisted that allowing Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to pursue an investigation would threaten -- what else? -- national security.

Two private organizations, the Corner House Research Group and the Campaign Against Arms Trade, challenged the decision, claiming serious bribery of senior Saudi officials had occurred. British judges have now ruled in favour of the challenge, stating they were not convinced the SFO had done its utmost to uphold the rule of law and had, therefore, acted illegally in ending the investigation. Lord Justice Moses declared,"No one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice."

Sadly, Gordon Brown is proving no better than his predecessor. Only weeks before the judges handed down their decision, his government introduced draft legislation that would allow the attorney general to halt prosecutions on the basis of national security. Such decisions would be strictly in the hands of cabinet with judicial reviews virtually impossible. The attorney general would not be obligated to provide information to parliament that affects national security or international relations. George W. Bush must be proud of his British colleague.

Nonetheless, the investigation into the grubby BAE/Saudi affair may have to be reopened. The rule of law in the UK may yet triumph over Tony Blair, commercial interests and Britain's collaboration with one of the world's more sordid dictatorships.

11 April 2008

Carter to chat with Hamas

Jimmy Carter, once again manifesting a refreshing, if rather un-American, approach to Palestine, will meet with Hamas chief Khaled Meshal in Damascus next week. His government disapproves of the company he is keeping as it conflicts with their attempt to put Hamas beyond the pale. Carter's visit is, however, consistent with the views expressed in his book "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid."

He is not entirely alone among his countrymen in recognizing the common sense of at least talking to a major force in the region, particularly one that just happened to win the last Palestinian election. Increasingly, other Americans are beginning to see the wisdom in a dialogue with Hamas. Eminent persons such as former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have stated the obvious, that it's better to talk to them than isolate them. And even the Bush Administration may not be quite as opposed as it seems. Apparently Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in private discussions with Arab diplomats about the possibility of Egypt acting as an intermediary with Hamas.

Peace in Palestine depends heavily on Israel's protector, the United States, listening to all sides, not just Israel and tame Palestinians. And, given that Hamas is the elected representative of the Palestinian people, talking to them may even suggest the Americans take democracy seriously, not selectively.

09 April 2008

Homeland Security uber alles

As if Michael Chertoff, the U.S. Homeland Security czar, didn't have enough power, Congress granted him even more. In 2005, they gave him the right to void any federal law that might interfere with construction of a fence his department is building between the United States and Mexico. Any law at all. And if that wasn't enough, they also forbade the courts from interfering. Mr. Chertoff's word is final. Long live the czar.

Mr. Chertoff hasn't been reluctant to exercise his powers. He has issued waivers suspending dozens of laws, including laws that protect the environment, endangered species, farmland, Native burial sites and religious freedom. He is doing all this in the name of -- what else? -- national security, but one wonders what the fence has to do with security. In truth, it's really about keeping Mexicans out of the country, and they aren't crossing the border to explode bombs; they're looking for work, for heaven's sake. This is an immigration matter, not a security matter.

It is more than a little sad to see Congress voluntarily giving up its powers to the Administration, particularly an administration that abuses such powers as eagerly as it seeks them, but unfortunately that is the United States today. Not all Americans are mutely accepting this state of affairs, however. Two environmental groups have launched a constitutional challenge of one of Mr. Chertoff's waivers before the Supreme Court, their last resort. A number of Democratic congressmen support the suit and have called on the Court to overturn the 2005 law. Good luck to them. Placing unelected civil servants above the law is a practice any democracy can well do without. Paranoia is not an excuse.

04 April 2008

Bashing Beijing (and Olympic glory)

As the Olympics approach, and the torch relay wends its weary way toward Beijing for the Games opening August 8th, we will continue to hear about human rights protests over China's treatment of Tibet. For an institution that is supposed to bring the world together, the Olympics seems to serve as a lightning rod for division.

The Games put host countries front and centre on the world stage, and that of course is why they want them, for the prestige, to show their credentials as nations to be taken seriously. Olympic spokespeople insist it's all about sports, but of course it isn't. The athletes are merely the instruments. Host cities don't expound on the joys of fencing and shot-putting, they talk about putting themselves on the map. And surely no one believes the Chinese politburo is spending those billions of yuan because they are in love with sport. Dictatorships from Nazi Germany to Communist China have taken full advantage of Olympic glory to establish the legitimacy of their regimes.

So what are human rights advocates to do when an influential international organization assists a brutal tyranny in promoting itself? Sit idly by? Quite naturally, and quite rightly, they are going to take advantage of centre stage themselves. They will do what they can to shame the tyrant into behaving as a responsible member of the human community. Trouble-makers they may be, but the Olympics and their despotic friends richly deserve them.

Nonetheless, The athletes have been promised their day in the sun. The Games must go on. And so must the protests.

03 April 2008

Our troops in Afghanistan: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

In view of Prime Minister Harper's statement to NATO re the Afghanistan mission that, "We all underestimated the task and we've been compensating ever since," one is inclined to ask why. Why the underestimation? One rather obvious answer is that Afghan resistance has been reinvigorated by the presence of foreign soldiers in the country. Our troops, in other words, may be the fuel that is feeding the insurgency.

The back of the Taliban was broken by the invasion following 9/11. Perhaps if the foreigners had packed their bags then, it would have remained broken, but there is nothing like a foreign occupation to kindle the passions of patriots. This is particularly true when the locals see the foreigners not only as alien but also as a threat to the One True Faith (to say nothing of a lucrative drug business). Now we may be trapped in a classic vicious circle. The occupation provokes resistance, more troops are required to fight the resistance, more locals are killed, the resistance intensifies, more troops are required, and so on, and on. Shades of Vietnam.

Harper shows a streak of realism at least by admitting NATO cannot hope to increase troop levels to the point where it can "snuff out the resistance." He insists Canada's goal is simply to train Afghanistan's army to the point where it can take over the job. If that means NATO then leaves, the departure of foreigners may do even more to deplete the resistance than training the Afghan army.

02 April 2008

McCain's mad pastor

With all the noise the media has made about Barack Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright and his anti-American sermons, they seem to have overlooked ranting Rod Parsley, bosom buddy of John McCain. Parsley is senior pastor of World Harvest Church, a not inconsiderable outfit that includes 12,000 members, 400 staff, a bible college and a television studio. He has recently endorsed John McCain for president, to which McCain gratefully responded by referring to Parsley as "one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide."

One of the hobbyhorses of this moral compass and spiritual guide is a war against Islam. In one of his books he declares, "
I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. ... The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed." He claims that Islam is an "anti-Christ religion," predicated on "deception," and the Prophet Muhammad "received revelations from demons and not from the true God."

Whereas Obama took pains to publicly distance himself from Wright's radical comments, McCain makes no such effort in dealing with Parsley. Although McCain is only addressing extreme Islam, he nonetheless seems to take off on Parsley's militant musings when he claims, "
We face the transcendent challenge of the 21st century. That is the threat of radical Islamic extremism. My friends, I know you know that this is an evil of transcendent and unbelievable magnitude. You can see other times when our nation and our way of life was threatened, but this ranks among the greatest."

Demagogues need, above all, an enemy. It seems that Islam is serving the purpose for both Parsley and McCain. Parsley we can pass off as just another flaky preacher, albeit an influential one, but McCain may become president of the United States. His war-mongering cannot so easily be dismissed.

When Pastor Wright raved against the United States, he was expressing black rage, an understandable emotion considering the centuries of persecution his people have suffered in their native land. And, in any case, all that is strictly an American issue. Parsley's cry for war against Islam, on the other hand, is not only religious hate-mongering but it has international implications.
Why, therefore, is the American mass media not making an even bigger issue out of McCain and Parsley's friendship than they did out of Obama and Wright's? Have they become too inured to war? Or is Muslim-baiting not that big an issue?