17 July 2015

Are we reaching a critical mass on climate change?

Convincing people that anthropogenic climate change is real is a tough slog. Quite aside from the difficulty of selling inconvenient truths, powerful interests have been arrayed against the science. Nonetheless, people around the world are coming to recognize the reality.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that publics in 19 of 40 nations cited climate change as their biggest worry, the most widespread concern of the issues included in the survey. Most of these nations were in Africa and Latin America although they did include India, the world's second most populous nation. Most of the people in these countries declared they were very concerned.

In Western countries where you might expect the well-informed populations to be very concerned, the main worry is in fact ISIS. This is not only unfortunate, as these tend to be the most economically influential nations, but their worry about ISIS is irrational. Understandably Middle Eastern nations are concerned about the fanatical group, but it is hardly a significant threat to the West. It is, after all, under assault from more enemies than you can count on both hands—Syria, the United States and various allies, Iraq, Iran, Iraq's Shia militias, the Kurds, etc. That Western nations are so frightened of this bogeyman that they rank it more serious than global warming is a tribute to a rabid press and hysterical politicians.

But I digress. With many publics now expressing great concern about the climate change threat, a critical mass that the governments of the world cannot ignore may be developing. This bodes well for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.

Health Canada—another Conservative mouthpiece?

The Conservatives have started early on their advertising campaign for the upcoming election. We are, for example, being told ad nauseam that Justin Trudeau isn't ready. With their large war chest, the Conservatives can afford to lay it on thick. But they're not only relying on their own funds, they are also relying on ours. Health Minister Rona Ambrose has announced a rerun of the anti-marijuana ad first seen last year, a recycling that will cost taxpayers $1.5-million.

At the time the marijuana ad was first broadcast, claims such as pot-smoking seriously affecting teenagers' IQs, were hotly disputed. For example, research by University College London challenges the IQ claim, stating there is no connection.

Two questions arise. Why is Health Canada focusing on marijuana when other recreational drugs are more harmful? (Alcohol, for instance, is far more widely used by teenagers and far riskier.) And secondly, why is it presenting a highly biased view? The ad is not based on the best research but rather on what got the strongest response from focus groups.

The answer to both questions is that the campaign is based on politics, not science—a standard approach of the Harper government. When the ad was first introduced, the Canadian Medical Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada all refused to endorse it for precisely that reason.

Health Canada's responsibility is to provide us with the most scientifically sound views on health issues. In the case of marijuana use, it should at the very least inform Canadians that there is a body of research countering the claims made in its ad. It should tell the whole story. That it chooses instead to present a view that defers to Conservative policy tells us the campaign isn't designed to protect Canadian teenagers against the evil weed but rather to beat Justin Trudeau over the head with his promise to legalize and regulate it. By allowing itself to be used as a shill, Health Canada is seriously compromising its credibility—if we can't believe them on this issue, when can we believe them?

Revenue Canada and the RCMP have both been used as political instruments by the Conservatives. Health Canada must now be added to this sorry list.

14 July 2015

Going to jail for words

One morning in early June, Aaron Driver was walking to his bus stop in Winnipeg's Charleswood neighbourhood when a white, unmarked van pulled up, armed men got out, forced him into the van and drove away. This is Canada, so of course the men were police officers and they were taking Mr. Driver, or Harun Abdurahman as he calls himself on twitter, to jail where he spent the next eight days.

He has since been released subject to 25 conditions, including wearing an electronic monitoring device, taking part in religious counseling, obeying a 9 pm to 6 am curfew, not possessing any desktop, laptop or tablet computer, having his cellphone approved and monitored by the RCMP, and avoiding social media websites. The police confiscated his computer, phone, flash drives and Koran.

Driver had not committed a robbery, assault, rape or murder. In fact, he hadn't committed any crime. He had simply said some ugly things. Driver is a Muslim who supports the Islamic State. I hasten to add he supports it in words only. Words, however, that are not pleasant to hear. He has, for example, said the victims of the Islamic State deserve what they get. He has said that the killing of two Canadian soldiers late last year was justified. To quote the man himself: "I think if a country goes to war with another country, or another people or another community, they have to be prepared for things like that to happen. And when it does happen, they shouldn't act surprised. They had it coming to them. They deserved it."

Not a comment most Canadians want to hear, even though it has a certain logic to it. And even though it is not that far off our prime minister's comment that the slaughter of Palestinians, including over 300 children, by Israel during Operation Cast Lead was "appropriate." In any case they are only words and we have, in this country, the right to use words freely. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms tells us we enjoy "freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression ...." Furthermore, Canada is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads in Article 19, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

It's hard to see how the police and courts are not interfering with Driver's freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression by jailing him and subjecting him to the conditions listed above. The harassment has also cost him his job. His tormentors almost seem to be pushing him into violence.

And he is not alone. Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, claims that reaction to Muslim students expressing their opinions has ranged from a failure to pass classes to public ridicule. She said young Muslims have told her, "We keep our heads down and we pass the course." This chill on speaking freely is not only tragic for these young people but for society—there is a powerful need in the West to understand the abuse Middle Eastern populations have suffered at Western hands. This quite aside from the erosion of a basic human right.

Defending freedom of speech when nice people say nice things is easy. The challenge comes when unsavoury people say ugly things. In persecuting Mr. Driver, our justice system has failed the test. Keeping an eye on him may be justified—harassing him is not.

13 July 2015

I know you have to say that stuff, Rachel, but still ....

At a recent speech to international investors in Calgary, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley described the tar sands as "a tremendous asset" and an "international showpiece." Hearing my premier and the leader of my party describe the tar sands as a tremendous asset makes me cringe. They are indeed an international showpiece, but not the kind we should be bragging about.

Ms. Notley is a very bright woman and knows perfectly well we have to phase out fossil fuels and that commonsensically we should phase out the dirty ones first. Nonetheless, I understand why she has to say this stuff. Producing the tar sands creates a lot of wages, profits and taxes, and stating the truth would doom a political party in Alberta. The NDP wants to win a second term and badmouthing the tar sands would terminate that ambition. If they want to improve our environmental performance they have to make nice on oil and gas while doing what is politically possible.

And they are making moves in the right direction. For example, Ms. Notley has stated they will not support the Northern Gateway pipeline and will leave the decision on the Keystone pipeline to the Americans. This in itself is a big improvement over the previous government's support for any pipeline in any direction carrying anything. The NDP has also increased the emissions charge on large industrial polluters. Furthermore, some oil company CEOs, including the head of Suncor, Canada's biggest producer and a major tar sands operator, have called for a carbon tax. If the corporations back it, that makes it eminently doable and the government should do it.

But more, much more, needs to be done. Alberta has only 11 per cent of the country's people but produces more than a third of the greenhouse gas emissions, 50 per cent more than Ontario, and the tar sands are the fastest growing source of emissions in the country.

Unfortunately, what needs to be done is nowhere near politically feasible yet. The government will have to continue to kiss up to oil investors and wait for reality to settle in to the hearts and minds of Albertans.

12 July 2015

Calgary's CTrain—embracing green

Fortunately, while our federal government remains a persistent laggard on global warming, the provinces and cities are stepping up. Calgary is no exception. In 2012, the city committed to meeting all its electrical needs from renewable sources. One result was the construction of two wind farms totaling 144 megawatts.

The city relies on a variety of sources—wind, hydro, biomass and solar—but its rapid transit system, the CTrain, is powered 100 per cent by wind. The electrons do not of course run directly from a wind farm to the train, but the power from 12 turbines is committed to the system. Calgary was the first city in the world to have its rapid transit system powered entirely by renewables.

And the system is a great success. It boasts a ridership of 325,000 trips per day. According to Mayor Nenshi, "About 50 per cent of the people who travel downtown every day come downtown by public transit, and the majority of those use the CTrain system.” Toronto still has the highest ridership per capita, but Calgary now leads the country in rapid transit lines per capita.

Furthermore, the train has contributed to denser development around its stations, leading to an environmentally smarter, more compact city. With more people living close to stations, less is spent on transportation, and there is less pollution and road congestion.

According to environmental journalists David Dodge and Duncan Kinney, Calgary's CTrain "is one of the greatest examples of electrified transport in Canada." And, if I may add a personal note, it's fun to ride.

04 July 2015

Why Britain is culpable for the slaughter of its citizens

British Prime Minister David Cameron is enraged at the massacre on a beach at the Sousse resort in Tunisia last week. And well he should be: thirty of his countrymen and women were slaughtered. He has pledged a “full spectrum” response, whatever that means. But while Mr. Cameron is engaging in his full spectrum response, he should take time to look in the mirror. Britain itself must take a full share of blame for the atrocity. The blood of its citizens is, at least in part, on its hands.

The suggestion that Islamist attacks against the West are a result of the West's interference and aggression in the Middle East is often dismissed as lacking evidence of a direct connection. In this case, the connection is clear.

The perpetrator is reported as having trained in an Islamic State training camp in Libya. The Islamic State, the mother of all unintended consequences, was a direct product of the American-led coalition's invasion of Iraq. And Libya has become an arsenal and sanctuary for terrorists because it's a failed state, a condition contributed to by NATO. Britain was a willing participant in both the invasion of Iraq and NATO actions in Libya. It must therefore stand accountable, along with its allies, for the results of both and therefore for creating the opportunity for young zealots such as Seifiddine Rezgui, the terrorist who committed the Sousse massacre, to pursue their deadly jihad.

Western leaders rage against acts of terrorism, yet seem incapable of understanding that the offences they commit against others also engender rage. They reserve for themselves the right to anger and the use of violence in response to attacks, forbidding their victims the same rights."They hate us for our values," is the explanation. Well, of course Islamist fundamentalists hate our values, so for that matter do Christian fundamentalists (gay marriage, anyone?), but if we stopped tormenting their people, I doubt they would have the slightest interest in attacking us for our values or anything else. Indeed they would lack both cause and appeal.

Cameron rants against the "radicalization" of young Muslims. But radicalization isn't necessary to explain the blowback. A century of Western bullying of Middle Eastern peoples is quite sufficient. We should not be shocked when terrorist attacks occur but rather surprised there are not more. Cameron et al. might reflect on their own religion, specifically Hosea 8.7, the Old Testament: "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." Britain has helped sow the wind and, tragically, last week 30 innocent British civilians reaped the whirlwind.

02 July 2015

"Canada has an American president ..."

For the occasion of Canada Day, CBC News, aided by the International Council for Canadian Studies, surveyed 7,000 or so academics outside Canada who teach courses about our country. They printed the responses of 15 of them in the recent online article "How Canada is perceived around the world."

The comments were generally flattering although the flattery often focused more on the past than the present. For example, Irene Salverda, president of the Association for Canada Studies in the Netherlands, observed, "Nowadays, my friends remark, with surprise, 'Canada has an American president, only interested in the economy and ignorant of anything else, and America has a Canadian president.'"

A number of scholars regretted Canada's decline on the world stage. According to Wolfgang Kloob, Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Trier University, "Canada has also been considered an international actor, which, however, under the current government seems to have shifted its foreign policy to national rather than international concerns." Susan Hodgett, President of the International Council for Canadian Studies and professor at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, stated "Canada has traditionally shared its benefits well, but today your profile overseas is waning badly."

Danny Ben-Natan, president of the Israel Association for Canadian Studies, lamented the Harper government's cancellation of the hugely successful Understanding Canada program that funded Canadian studies programs abroad. For a very modest investment, the program boosted Canada’s profile and greatly enriched Canadian universities and scientific establishments through cross-fertilization. Ben-Natan declared, "Three years ago, the Canadian Government abolished Understanding Canada and since then Canada is in clear regression in the academic world."

But abandoning the program may not be all bad. According to Lucia Otrisalova who teaches Canadian studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, "The country's positive image, built and promoted by its previous political leadership, still persists in this part of Europe." Better, perhaps, they are not brought up to date.

Even our southern neighbour now sees Canada in a different light. Earl Fry, Endowed Professor of Canadian Studies at Brigham Young University, tells us, "Canada has also become an afterthought in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. The days of a 'special relationship' are long gone."

Sobering stuff. Celebrating Canada Day is becoming an exercise in nostalgia.

01 July 2015

The Pope, the Prime Minister and Naomi Klein

Pope Francis has made it very clear that he is profoundly concerned about what we are doing to life on our planet. He has particularly made it clear to Canadians. Earlier this month he gave an audience to our prime minister. It lasted all of 10 minutes and ended with an awkward photo op. The brevity of the meeting and the sour look on the pope's face were, I suggest, directly related to Stephen Harper's reactionary attitude toward global warming.

Another Canadian's views on the environment are, however, much more amenable to the Pope. Naomi Klein, prominent author, filmmaker, environmentalist and anti-capitalist, has been invited by the Vatican to co-chair, alongside Cardinal Peter Turkson, a high-level conference on the environment. The conference, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a group of Catholic charitable agencies, will bring together churchmen, scientists and activists to discuss climate change action.

Cardinal Turkson is a senior aide to the Pope, a professor of climate change economics and, of no small importance, he is from the Third World. He is an obvious choice to co-chair the conference, Naomi Klein not so much. Nonetheless, her beliefs that radical change is necessary to deal with the environmental and economic crises square with the Pope's.

Conservatives have criticized Francis for his strong views and actions on the environment and the economy, suggesting he should leave such issues to the politicians. And it is unfortunate that he has to take up the mantle of responsibility in these areas, but when we are desperate for leadership, when our politicians, in thrall to corporate interests, fail to act, a leader from outside the political sphere is most welcome. The Pope's rejection of Harper and embracing of Klein simply reflect his recognition of where the answers lie.