31 October 2009

Will Canadians take up the challenge of global warming?

The response from our federal government to the Pembina Institute/Suzuki Foundation study "Climate Leadership, Economic Prosperity," is predictable. Outrage. "The conclusions it draws are irresponsible," says Environment Minister Jim Prentice, "The kind of economic consequences you see in this report are not necessary if this is done in an orderly way." Unfortunately, what that orderly way is our government has not yet revealed.

Once again one must wonder if we, humanity that is, Canadians specifically, are up to dealing with global warming. Seventy years ago our leaders called us to the challenge of dealing with Nazism and we responded. We were prepared to do whatever was necessary. This time the threat is vastly greater. The Nazis threatened Western civilization; global warming threatens all civilization and more.

Yet what is demanded of us is so much less. Then we were asked to make great economic sacrifice and even to give up our lives if necessary. The Pembina/Suzuki report only asks us to knock a few points of our GDP. Even with the sacrifice, we will still be richer in ten years than we are today, and Alberta, which is asked to make the biggest sacrifice, will still be much richer than the rest of Canada.

Nonetheless, our leaders may not ask it of us because they believe it will be too much. The last politician to ask, Stephane Dion, was not only rejected by the Canadian people, he was humiliated.

Nonetheless, I think we are as good now as we ever were. Dion simply wasn't the guy. If the right political leader stands up and challenges us to do the right thing, to make the effort necessary to realize the recommendations of the Pembina/Suzuki report, I think we would accept the challenge and elect that leader. Then again, maybe I'm playing Pollyanna.

30 October 2009

Fox News and journalists lack of pride in their profession

U.S. President Obama's "war" with Fox News is a hot topic in American media circles these days. That there would be tension between a president and a news network that is out to destroy his administration isn't surprising. What is surprising is the lack of concern among American journalists about the way Fox demeans their profession.

I referred to Fox as a news agency out of generosity. It is in fact a propaganda agency in both news and opinion. Its news is biased and highly selective; if necessary it creates its own news for the purpose of Obama-bashing; and its pundits, "barking mad gasbags" according to John Doyle in the The Globe and Mail, routinely resort to bullying, distortion and outright lying. The network has brought journalism down not just into the gutter but into the sewer.

Yet few journalists in the U.S. seem concerned, although some, such as Jacob Weisberg in Newsweek, have spoken out. If a doctor behaved with the same irresponsibility toward his profession that Fox journalists do toward theirs, he would be struck off the register. A lawyer would be disbarred. Doctors and lawyers take pride in their profession. They set high standards and if any of their fellow practitioners can't meet those standards, they don't want them around.

I understand that journalists can't strike their malpracticing fellows off the register or disbar them, but they can defend high standards and excoriate those who fall to the level of Fox. Most, it seems can't be bothered. I'm not suggesting they don't strive for a high standard in their own work, but rather that, unlike doctors and lawyers, they seem to have no concern about the reputation of their profession as a whole.

It shouldn't be up to the president to do their job for them, but apparently it is. Even in response to Obama's lead, they seem more interested in circling the journalistic wagons than accepting journalistic responsibility.

Canada drifts, Harper struts

Our federal government seems to be marking time. It seems to have only a vague idea what our future should be. Other than putting lots more people in jail, of course. Checking the Conservative Party website, all I see under Plan is a discussion of their current economic action. Not a word on anything else. I'm not looking for anything as grand as a vision, but some sensible plans for key areas would be a good idea.

As far as the biggest challenge facing us is concerned -- global warming -- our government does little, content to see what the Americans are going to do. When the U.S. firms up plan, we might get around to doing something. In foreign policy generally, we seem to rely on our southern neighbours. Our biggest domestic challenge -- bringing the native people's living standards up to the level of the rest of us -- doesn't seem to stir the Conservatives either. As for an election, even though the polls are favourable, they seem to have lost interest.

This lackadaisical approach puts me in mind of the last of the Klein years here in Alberta. Klein had no idea where he wanted the province to go and admitted as much. In fact, according to former Tory aide-turned-journalist Rich Vivone in his new book Ralph Could Have Been a Super Star, the only reason he hung around as long as he did was because his wife didn't want him to quit.

I hardly believe that's the case with Stephen Harper. My guess is he doesn't want to jeopardize his various opportunities to strut on the world stage. First, of course, is the Olympics, two weeks of world leaders traipsing through Canada. Then there's his hosting of the G8 and G20 meetings in June. Later this year there are visits to China and the Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. There will of course be nothing but embarrassment in Copenhagen in December but then you can't win them all and global warming bores Mr. Harper anyway.

This is our prime minister's moment to bask in the international sun, leaving the cosmopolitan Iggy in the shade, and I don't think he intends to miss it.

21 October 2009

A match made in heaven

It seems disaffected Anglicans have found a home. Those members of the faith uncomfortable with the ordination of women and gays are to find solace in the welcoming arms of the Catholic church. Pope Benedict XVI has by decree created a new structure that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic church while maintaining their own liturgy.

How perfectly fitting. Anglicans unaccepting of the equality of women and gays will now find fellowship. Home at last.

The Canadian government's soft spot for dirty oil

Our governments' love affair with the production of dirty oil is well known. Both the Alberta and the federal governments dote on the tar sands, infamous as the world's dirtiest oil. Not as well known is our federal government's support for burning dirty fuel.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to ban Great Lakes' freighters from using bunker fuel. The agency claims the fuel's exhaust is likely a human carcinogen, and contributes to heart and lung disease, particularly in children and the old. Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, calls bunker fuel the "nastiest fuel known to man."

Our government is co-operating with the EPA's proposals for ocean-going ships but not for Great Lakes shipping. However, because freighters on the lakes cross back and forth between the U.S. and Canadian side, Canadian ships will have to comply with American regulations. Our government has, therefore, asked the Americans to weaken the new rules until ships can install smoke-stack scrubbers to deal with emissions. The problem is that the scrubber technology doesn't yet exist.

This is a familiar story. The Alberta and federal governments' answer to oil sands emissions is carbon capture and storage, another largely unproven technology.

From production to consumption, our benighted leaders are a pushover for dirty oil. No wonder dozens of countries walked out on Canada's address during the environmental conference in Thailand earlier this year. Our reputation as a weak sister on climate change is growing.

Conservatives and the politics of division

In 1987, Preston Manning created the conservative Reform Party despite the fact a conservative party, one quite friendly to Manning's home province of Alberta, was riding high at the time. Manning, it seemed, rather than join that party and apply his energies to nudging it in the direction he thought it should go, opted for a party of his very own. As a result, he divided the conservative movement and consigned it to a decade in the political wilderness.

Now another group of Alberta conservatives, the Wildrose Alliance, is setting out to break up the Conservative Party of Alberta, one of the most successful political parties in the history of the country. This makes even less sense than Manning's shenanigans since the leader of the Alliance, Danielle Smith, claims she wants to create a "big tent" party, which is just what the Alberta Conservatives claim to be and given their success, obviously are. One wonders how she is going to create this "big tent" in the future if the Alliance can't sit down with its Conservative brothers and sisters now. No matter, Smith, like Manning before her, must have a party of her own.

The irony of Manning's political adventure, of course, was that his new party eventually made up with the old Conservatives anyway. His entire effort was ultimately pointless. The current pursuit of ideological purity, or whatever it is, by the true believers of the Wildrose Alliance will probably follow the same path. They will not so much create a big tent as wander back into the one that's already there.

17 October 2009

Unlocking the emissions impasse

Here's a good idea. Writing in the Guardian, Prasad Kasibhatla and Bill Chameides suggest a solution to the conflict between the developed and the developing nations over greenhouse gas emissions.

The developing nations argue, quite reasonably, that developed nations contributed most to the problem of global warming, and have enjoyed most of the benefits, so they should accept most of the responsibility for reducing the offending emissions. The developed nations claim this would subject them to politically and economically unacceptable restrictions and they demand binding targets from the developing nations. The result is an impasse.

Kasibhatla and Bill Chameides suggest an eminently reasonable compromise they call "progressive convergence." Developed countries would agree to make an early start on reductions, and developing countries would agree to never exceed the average per capita emissions of developed countries. Developing nations would be allowed to increase their per capita emissions until they equalled those of the developed nations; thereafter they would be required to match the declining per capita emissions of the developed nations. The result would be nations in sum converging to a declining per capita emission rate. India has already indicated it would be willing to commit to such a scheme.

This approach would still lay a heavy responsibility on the developed nations which some, Canada among them, have indicated little enthusiasm for. However, it is eminently fair and may, therefore, pique the consciences of the malingerers sufficiently to convince them to accept their responsibilities. Well ... we can always dream.

16 October 2009

Crime and punishment, with emphasis on the punishment

How stupid, depressing and regressive. That was my reaction to the headline in today's Globe and Mail that read, "Ottawa will expand prisons to suit tough crime laws." The Federal government has doubled its budget for building facilities to incarcerate all those people who will be caught up in its new tough-on-crime approach. A very expensive way to keep Canadians safe.

And not effective. Criminologists seem to agree that longer sentences do little if anything to reduce crime. The real tragedy is that this money could be used effectively if it were applied to compassionate crime-fighting rather than retributive crime-fighting. Apparently about half the offenders in youth detention facilities suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, and probably a similar number in adult facilities. If this money were used to ensure that all the pregnancies in this country were alcohol-free, crime could be reduced dramatically. Furthermore, considering that most criminals come from dysfunctional homes, if we invested in reducing dysfunctional family life another great slice could be taken out of crime.

If the Conservative government will not be swayed by compassionate arguments, they should at least be amenable to economic ones. Programs that help ensure healthy family life, that help create nourishing environments for infants and young children, have been shown to pay off many times over through reduced expenditures on crime and from the beneficiaries growing up to be working, tax-paying citizens rather than criminals. It costs over $90,000 a year to incarcerate a criminal in Canada. That would go a long way to fund approaches that ensure kids won't become criminals in the first place.

How I would love to see a headline in the morning paper along the lines of "Ottawa will expand programs to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome and family dysfunction." I suspect I will have to wait until Mr. Harper and his vengeful crew are long gone.

15 October 2009

Collateral damage ... where does it end?

Doctors in Iraq have recorded a sharp rise in the number of cancer victims south of Baghdad. In the province of Babil, about 500 cases were diagnosed in 2004. Two years later, the figure was almost 1,000. By 2008, it was 7,000 and this year there have been 9,000 cases to date.

Iraqi researchers believe the cancers are caused by radiation. The source of the radiation is a substance first used on the battlefield in the first Gulf war - depleted uranium (DU). The Iraqi people, and American and other military personnel, have been the guinea pigs in an experiment with what was largely an unknown material.

DU is a byproduct of the manufacture of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The heaviest metal in the world, bullets tipped with it are so tough they can easily slice through tank armour. Unfortunately, when they hit a target, they explode, sending millions of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. These particles can be inhaled, pollute water tables and enter the food chain. Exposure can cause genetic damage even unto the next generation because they easily cross the placenta to the fetus. The U.S. Department of Defense admits that at least 40 tons of DU were left on the battlefields of southern Iraq.

According to nuclear physicist Marion Fulk, because uranium has a natural attraction to phosphorus, it is drawn to the phosphate in the DNA. As it decays, it releases alpha and beta particles with millions of electron volts. When a particle makes this transformation in the human body it releases "huge amounts of energy in the same location doing lots of damage very quickly." The body's master code is altered.

We tend to think of wars ending with negotiations or surrenders. And maybe they do, but the death and suffering can go on for generations.

14 October 2009

The Nobel president and Israel's "secret" nukes

U.S. President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples." One certainly cannot dispute that Obama has strengthened international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples relative to his predecessor. But some things he has not changed from the previous administration. He still vigorously wages war in central Asia, for example. And he has agreed, like his predecessors going back to Richard Nixon, to collaborate in suppressing the fact Israel has nuclear weapons. Everyone knows they do, of course, the trick is to act as if they don't.

Obama has done much toward nuclear disarmament. In particular, he has established a new dialogue with Russia toward serious reductions in their arsenals. He and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have pledged to deliver a major new strategic arms reduction treaty by the end of the year. And of course he has agreed to shelve the plan to station antimissile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. This is significant in itself and sends a strong signal to other nuclear powers.

So one can appreciate the Nobel Committee's decision. Yet there is the unfortunate fact of his agreement earlier this year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not pressure Israel to disclose its nuclear weapons or to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The understanding was once described by former U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger in a memo that read, "While we might ideally like to halt actual Israeli possession, what we really want at a minimum may be just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact." The appropriate expression I believe is, "Don't ask, don't tell."

Palestine remains the most dangerous problem in international relations. The United States opposes Iran's nuclear research on the grounds it is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon and that will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But Israel has already precipitated a nuclear arms race in the region and that race is likely to continue as long as Israel maintains its arsenal. Yet the United States has promised to not even talk about it. This, unfortunately, is in keeping with the Americans' servile compliance with Israel's perceived interests.

Peace will not come to the Middle East until the U.S. muscles Israel into seriously committing to a fair settlement for the Palestinians. If Obama ever does that, no one will doubt he deserves a Nobel.

08 October 2009

Italy opts for the rule of law

The rule of law simply means the law applies to everyone equally. It includes both governor and governed, but in its application it is most important when applied to the governors, to the people at the top. We at the bottom can be assured the law will be applied to us. We lack the power to avoid it. It is only when it is equally applied to the influential and the powerful that it has real meaning. The very intention of the rule of law is to safeguard against arbitrary governance.

We have seen a number of examples recently where attempts have been made to justify exceptions to the rule. Some conservatives have suggested the Bush Administration should be exempted as it was leading the country through perilous times. Some artists and politicians have suggested Roman Polanski should be exempted apparently because of his artistic stature. And then there was the legislation passed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government last year that gave him immunity from prosecution for as long as he remained prime minister.

The latter attempt to negate the rule of law has been struck down by Italy's constitutional court. Berlusconi may now have to face the music on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and bribery. We shall wait with interest the fates of the Bush administration and Polanski.

07 October 2009

Schadenfreude and the Aspers

The word is schadenfreude, and yes I'm guilty of it today. A German word, it means pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. The others in this case are the Aspers, the owners of the CanWest media empire. I doubt I'm alone in enjoying the dismantling of this debt-riddled monster.

Is part of my glee due to the right-wing bent of CanWest? Of course. But it's also due to the failure of its organs, the National Post first among them, to present a balanced view of the political world. With so few mass media owners in the country, they have a responsibility to report news objectively and offer a thorough range of opinion. Unfortunately, with the exception of the CBC, the only independent and only democratic mass medium we have, all the mass media belong to the corporate sector and therefore promote a corporate agenda. Nonetheless, some make a far better effort at balance than the National Post.

Of course, the empire could be sold off to another narrow-minded, right-wing outfit. Certainly nobody on the left can afford to buy a media giant. As the famous American journalist A.J. Liebling once said, "Freedom of the press belongs to those rich enough to own one." But at least a chance now exists for a more moderate, responsible ownership.

As for my schadenfreude, it may be petty and sinful, but sometimes it's just plain irresistible.

Chemically changing the species: Making violent girls with BPA

According to Health Canada, manufacturers and importers apply to introduce approximately 1,000 new chemicals and polymers into the marketplace every year. We live in a sea of man-made chemicals. What, many of us sensibly wonder, are they doing to us. Are they changing us in harmful or dangerous ways we are not aware of? Are they changing us into something we don't want to become?

That question was answered recently while answering yet another question about modern society, and the answer was yes. Many commentators have remarked on the apparent increase in violent behaviour among girls. Are the females among us becoming as inclined to violence as the males? And if so, why? Apparently part of the answer at least is bisphenol A (BPA).

A recent study measured BPA levels in the urine of 249 pregnant women at 16 and 26 weeks into pregnancy and at birth. Two years later, investigators assessed the children's behaviour and found an association between the degree of exposure and aggressive and acting out-type behaviour in the daughters. Boys did not appear to be affected.

BPA is commonly used in the manufacture of such products as plastic bottles, canned food linings, water supply pipes and medical tubing. Over 90 per cent of Americans have detectible levels of BPA in their urine. In Canada, BPA is banned from products that infants are exposed to but that, it appears, may not be nearly good enough.

More work will be necessary to firmly establish cause and effect, but the indications are frightening. And insidious. The harm occurs not in the people who ingested the chemical but in their children. And of course we must wonder what else the substance is doing to girls' nervous systems.

The importance of the question "What are chemicals doing to us?" is ratcheted up another notch.

06 October 2009

Blackburn's revenge

Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-American biochemist at the University of California in San Francisco, was once fired by George W. Bush. A member of his council on bioethics, she was axed for criticizing his opposition to embryonic stem cell research. She later observed that his administration seemed to have the "strange impression that science was the enemy of morality."

Blackburn, who is included on Time Magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people, was informed early Monday morning that she had won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for her contribution to the discovery of a biological gatekeeper that prevents genetic code from fraying with age. She shared the award with two geneticists: Carol Greider, of Johns Hopkins University, and Jack Szostak, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

One wonders which is the biggest honour, winning a Nobel or being fired by George W. Bush.

03 October 2009

Marijuana, football and brain damage

Young people are frequently warned to avoid marijuana because of the damage it may do to their brains. Whether or not these warnings are justified, I'll leave to another day. My question at the moment is, what if something highly recommended to young people was found to cause brain damage? Say, for example, sports. Or more specifically, a particularly popular sport such as football.

As it turns out, it does. A study of retired National Football League players reports they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or related diseases vastly more often than the national average for men. For middle-aged men (30 through 49) the rate is 19 times normal. The study is consistent with papers published by the University of North Carolina that found a correlation between N.F.L. football and depression, dementia and other cognitive impairment. That getting hit in the head a lot might scramble your brain is hardly a surprise.

Although these studies cover professional players, we might expect damage is occurring among high school and college players as well. The Brain Injury Association of Arizona estimates there are about 41,000 concussions suffered every year among high school players alone, many undiagnosed and untreated.

So, one is inclined to ask, does this mean the American government will now campaign against young people getting involved with football in the same way it warns against involvement with drugs? Will we see ads of former football players staring vacantly into space and mumbling incoherently while a voice-over ominously intones "he thought quarterbacking in high school was just harmless fun"?

Not bloody likely. Football is the United States' national sport, akin to religion in some parts of the country. The brain-rattling will go on, perhaps with better helmets and more attention to treatment, but it will undoubtedly go on, brain damage be damned.

And the war against marijuana will also go on, no matter how slim the evidence against it. Football is big in American culture and marijuana is bad, at least as far as the reigning powers are concerned, and American culture, like everyone else's, has little regard for consistency.