30 September 2014

Greyer is greener

As I slip slowly into my dotage I have at least one consolation—I'm less of a burden on the planet. A study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany found that per-capita carbon dioxide emissions in Western countries rise steadily as children become adults and as adults become more affluent, but after the age of 60 emissions decline by roughly 20 per cent.

The German study indicates that since 1950, aging has caused a 30 per cent increase in German emissions, as the baby boomers grew into middle age. But after 2020, "as the proportion of people older than 80 continues to increase and the population size shrinks, emissions will decrease and reach pre-1950 levels by 2100."

Health costs will rise, but even that will be less of a problem than often thought. Studies show that most of the bills for looking after old people occur in the last two years of life, regardless of their age, and healthy life expectancy is rising as fast as total life expectancy.

So you may become a little more demanding of society as old age creeps up on you, but more importantly you are less demanding of mother Earth.

National Post climate change deniers "paranoid"—so says their own editor

The prattling of climate change sceptics/deniers in the National Post has been ridiculed by one of its own editors. In recent comments on the CBC's The National, Jonathan Kay repeated observations he made in a column some years ago in which he accused deniers of being "a liability to the Conservative cause." In his article he observed, "In the case of global warming, this [cognitive] dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism—and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned—is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally."

Referring to the blather of such journalists as Terence Corcoran and Rex Murphy, he declared that it was "Fine-sounding rhetoric—but all of it nonsense." One wonders why the National Post persists in publishing what one of its own editors thinks is nonsense.

Particularly when he believes "the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper ... Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined—and discredited—by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists." What with Stephen Harper's enemies' list and Joe Oliver's ranting about environmentalists hijacking our regulatory system with the help of foreign interests, one wonders if that isn't already the case.

29 September 2014

Will capitalists save us from global warming?

In her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein argues that if we are to defeat climate change we must defeat capitalism. At this week’s UN climate summit in New York, a number of corporate leaders seemed determined to prove her wrong.

For example, a group of investment institutions that included pension funds and corporate asset managers promised to "decarbonize" their investment portfolios by $100-billion by 2016. This would mean divesting from investments in fossil fuels and palm oil plantations. Their motivation wasn't so much altruistic as pragmatic. According to Mats Andersson, CEO of AP4, a Swedish pension fund, "Climate change is more and more recognized as a financial risk." His conclusion echoes the report Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy issued by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate which came out just before the summit and claims that a low-carbon economy offers faster economic growth.

Another group of investment companies that manage $24-trillion in assets called for a global system of carbon pricing to reflect the environmental cost of emissions. Such a system, they claimed, would force them out of fossil fuels and into low-carbon energy.

And not only bankers were committing to a new world order. A number of companies that trade in agricultural commodities—including Unilever, the world's largest supplier of supermarket products, and palm oil suppliers Wilmar and Cargill—have recently committed to avoid crops grown on newly deforested land. At the New York summit, these companies joined governments in signing the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to halve forest loss by 2020 and reach "zero net deforestation" by 2030. This is no small deal. Nigel Sizer, forest director at the World Resources Institute, said the declaration, "could result in more emissions reductions than removing every car, bus and plane from the U.S., China and India combined."

So let's not write off capitalism as a climate villain yet. When profits are at stake, and with climate change they are, capitalists will act in their own best interests. And as we all know, nothing speaks louder in the halls of government than big money. The corporate sector will almost certainly wield a bigger environmental stick with politicians than the 300,000 marchers in the streets of New York.

25 September 2014

Homeowners opt out of sprawl

Homeowners, it seems, at least in the Greater Toronto Area, are opting out of sprawl, or they would like to. So says the Royal Bank of Canada, the country's largest residential mortgage lender, and the Pembina Institute, an environmental NGO, in a new report on the preferences of GTA homeowners. The conclusions were drawn from a survey conducted by Environics Research Group in May.

According to the report, “When housing costs are not a factor, 81per cent of respondents would choose to live in an urban or suburban neighbourhood where they can walk to stores, restaurants and other amenities, and where they can access frequent rapid transit. They would choose these neighbourhoods even if it meant trading a large house and yard for a modest house, townhouse or condo.”

Unfortunately, price is a factor, a major one—over 80 per cent of respondents choose a neighbourhood because of affordability. In other words, they opt for price over preference. Interestingly, however, the young buyers (18-34) and the older buyers (over 60), the two groups most interested in location-efficient living, would pay more for a smaller home in a neighbourhood that was walkable and transit-accessible than a larger home with a yard in a neighbourhood that was car-dependent.

The challenge here is obvious—build more location-efficient communities. A more compact, efficient city is not just the dream of city planners, it is the preference of most homeowners. Build it and they will come.

Congratulations, Edward, well-deserved

If I had heroes, Edward Snowden would be among them. Sacrificing his career, accepting exile from his homeland, and risking long years in prison, Snowden revealed to the world the lies behind our intelligence agencies’ claims they did not spy on us, that they did not engage in egregious invasions of our privacy. This act of great courage and great importance has earned him the 2014 Right Livelihood honorary award from the Swedish charity the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. The foundation recognized Snowden for his “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.”

He shared the award with Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, who was recognized for his role in “building a global media organization dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.” The Guardian published a series of articles based on documents leaked by Snowden.

The Right Livelihood Award, often referred as the “Alternative Nobel,” is awarded to “honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” Established in 1980 by philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull, it is presented annually in a ceremony at the Swedish parliament.

Snowden and Rusbridger are deserving winners. They delivered a blow against big brother at a most appropriate moment.

24 September 2014

Instruct your MP to support Bill C-621

When it comes to taxes, corporations can be shifty. For example, some shift profits by setting up a storefront office in an offshore tax haven and then sending large invoices back to the Canadian head office charging “management” or “licensing fees.” Another gimmick is for a company to sell a patent to an offshore subsidiary and then charge itself licensing fees for use of the patent. Profit shifting has been made famous by corporations such as Apple, Google and Starbucks, but Canadian companies such as Cameco and Gildan are also playing the game.

This week, NDP National Revenue Critic Murray Rankin proposed legislation (Bill C-621) that would make it easier for government and the courts to bring such tax avoiders to heel. His bill focuses on proving “economic substance,” i.e. corporations must be able to prove that a transaction has an economic purpose other than reduction of tax liability in order to be considered valid for tax purposes.

Taxes the corporations are unfairly avoiding have to made up by the rest of us. In order to help ensure they pay their fair share and lighten our load a little, send a message to your MP here. And you can read the bill here (it's very short).

ISIS—a force for peace?

A juxtaposition of two articles in the Guardian this week suggested a very odd development indeed in the Middle East—the barbaric hordes of ISIS currently marauding through Syria and northern Iraq may actually be, in the longer term, a force for peace.

The first article referred to a meeting in New York between British PM David Cameron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The meeting, to discuss the support Iranians can offer in the fight against ISIS, is the first between British and Iranian heads of state since the 1979 revolution. It represents a significant thaw of the relations between the two countries. Cameron, while remaining critical of Iran's nuclear program and its support for Syia's President al-Assad, stated, "If Iran is willing to join the international community to defeat ISIS then we will work with them on that."

The other article concerned a foreign minister-level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia, indicating another possible thaw in some deeply frigid relations. Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni Sauds have been bitter rivals for influence in the region. After the meeting, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying, "Both my Saudi counterpart and I believe that this meeting will be the first page of a new chapter in our two countries’ relations. We hope that this new chapter will be effective in establishing regional and global peace and security and will safeguard the interests of Muslim nations across the world." Prince Saud, for his part, referring to the advancing ISIS, added, “We are aware of the importance and sensitivity of this crisis and the opportunity we have ahead of us. ... These two countries are influential in the region and cooperation between them will have clear effects on the establishment of regional and global security." Amen to both of you.

A common enemy often unites the strangest of bedfellows. The trick is to remain united after the crisis passes. If these bedfellows can achieve that, or at least be less divided, this would be an ironic but most welcome outcome—the emergence of a silver lining from a very dark cloud indeed.

20 September 2014

Good use of the American military

As a frequent critic of how the United States uses its military in the world, I was delighted to hear that President Obama has made a major commitment to use the U.S. Army against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Many nations are responding to the crisis—Cuba is sending 165 health workers, China will send 59, the U.K. is building a 62-bed hospital, etc.—but all these are dwarfed by the American military response. Up to 3,000 army personnel will provide logistics, supplies, engineering and transport of supplies and personnel to the epidemic, and construct at least 17 new hospitals. They will also build a training facility to instruct up to 500 local and foreign health workers a week in infection control and self-protection.

With the epidemic now out of control in three countries, the assistance is badly needed. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, science writer Laurie Garrett reports, "Nothing short of heroic, record-breaking mobilization is necessary at this late stage in the epidemic. Without it, I am prepared to predict that by Christmas, there could be up to 250,000 people cumulatively infected in West Africa." The disease has a fatality rate of over 50 per cent.

Full credit goes to President Obama for recognizing the severity of the threat and taking strong action. By using his military for constructive purposes—a very welcome change—he shows the U.S. at its best. Our current government has been quick to support American initiatives, so might we assume it will direct our military to follow the U.S. Army into battle against ebola? We are waiting, Mr. Harper.

18 September 2014

Why are Americans so frightened?

ISIS has thrown the fear of God into Americans. According to a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Centre, ninety per cent of Americans believe the group is a direct threat to the U.S. with over seventy per cent believing it already has cells inside the country.

All of this might make sense—ISIS is a really scary outfit—if it were true. But it isn't. At least not according to the man who is paid to know about these things. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, stated categorically, “At present, we have no credible information that ISIS is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.”

So why the rampant fear? Partly, perhaps, because of the gruesome videos showing the decapitation of two American reporters. Or perhaps just the general brutality ISIS displays. And then there is the hysterical cries for revenge from various media and political quarters. But none of this justifies fear of a threat that according to the country's best-informed official doesn't exist. The bogeyman is real but he isn't under Americans' beds.

The Iraq war was justified in part to end a terrorist threat to the U.S. and as it turned out, that threat didn't exist either. The invasion, however, contributed to the emergence of ISIS, the biggest, baddest bunch of terrorists yet seen. This time, the Americans would be well advised to proceed with great caution lest their irrational fears lead them once again to create a dragon even more fearsome than the one they hope to slay.

11 September 2014

The Islamic State—should we be helping to clean up the Americans' mess?

In early 2003, there were no Islamic extremists in Iraq, or at least none that dared raise their heads above ground. Then the Americans and their "coalition of the willing" invaded.

Today, Islamic extremists so vile even al-Qaeda disowns them have taken control of a huge swath of the country including major cities and now threaten Baghdad. And, in a particularly unpleasant development, young men from the West, including Canada, are joining their ranks. The U.S. and its allies created chaos in Iraq and from the chaos has arisen a bogeyman even nastier than Saddam Hussein. So, right on cue, the Americans are creating a new coalition, this time a "core coalition" to confront the Islamic State, as the insurgents refer to themselves and their "caliphate."

Unlike the last time, Canada has opted to be part of this new crusade. Why, one must ask, has our government volunteered to participate in a war that does not threaten us. We ask because, firstly, this is largely a made-in-the-USA mess and therefore the Americans should be largely responsible for cleaning it up. And, secondly, we ask because the countries who should be most concerned with the threat, i.e. Middle Eastern nations, should be the members of the coalition. In fact, the only non-Western member is Turkey.

The United States has for a long time been generous to the Egyptian military, supplying it with more military equipment than any other country outside of Israel. Both the U.S. and Great Britain have made massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Americans recently completed the greatest arms deal in their history with the Sauds. So what was all this largesse for, if not to deal with threats to their countries and to their region? If anyone is obligated to act against the Islamic State and follow the U.S. into war it is these guys. They have the money and they have the weapons, and it is their turf, not ours.

If Canada can help victims of the Islamic State, we should of course be generous. That's where our money and expertise should go. But we should be very wary indeed of getting involved in a now-extended American imperial adventure, keeping in mind that it began with an illegal invasion in the first place, an invasion neither sanctioned by the UN Security Council nor in accordance with the UN's founding charter. Only if any action taken is on firm legal ground should we even consider participating.

03 September 2014

Hamas popularity surges

Whatever damage Israel did to Hamas during the recent war, it didn't harm the group's standing among the Palestinian people. Quite the contrary. According to a survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, the popularity of Hamas has surged in both Gaza and the West Bank to the point that if elections were held today it would win, as it did in the last Palestinian election in 2006. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya would defeat Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas two to one in a presidential election.

Furthermore, over half of the survey's respondents said armed resistance would help gain a Palestinian state while only 20 percent supported non-violent means. An overwhelming majority of West Bankers want to transfer “Hamas’s way” to the West Bank. For the first time ever, Hamas’s official TV station is the most popular in both Gaza and the West Bank (followed by al Jazeera).

As time passes, the support for Hamas will fade, but in the meantime it has been given a significant boost. It seems that Israel's attempts to destroy Hamas only rejuvenate it. This is not surprising. Nothing rallies the people around their government more effectively than dealing with an external threat, a threat to the tribe.

Nor is it surprising that the Palestinians believe violence may be the only way to win their own state. Fighting Israel causes them great suffering but endless talks with their overwhelming enemy, against whom they have absolutely no leverage in negotiations, have gained them exactly nothing. Or less than nothing—they remain under Israel's boot and more of their land is stolen every day. Putting up a fight, no matter how futile, at least allows them to feel like more than victims.