Foresight puts Ireland ahead of the curve

(July 28, 2018)

You may have missed the significance of recent headlines from Ireland. The Irish saved civilization once before, and they are trying to do it again.

The lower house in the Irish Parliament voted to remove all of its national fund investments (over $13 billion worth) from the fossil-fuel industry — coal, oil, gas and even that most Irish of fuels, peat — as soon as practicable, likely within five years. (The upper house can delay the passage of the bill, but not block it.)

Ireland becomes the first country to do this, following on the trillions of dollars divested from the fossil fuel industry by universities, cities, pension funds and religious organizations.

To put it one way, the leprechauns have decided that the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow is not disguised as a barrel of oil.

Put another, the descendants of the Irish people who sent missionaries to establish monastic communities all across Europe, as far away as Italy, and kept the lights of learning, scholarship and culture alive during the Dark Ages 1,600 years ago, are doing it again.

In Thomas Cahill’s engaging 1995 book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he claimed that much of our heritage of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature would have been lost without the Irish scribes, who copied and preserved the manuscripts in which these books were written for 300 years.

After the Viking invasions started and effectively trashed the Irish homeland, the lights they carried elsewhere continued to burn in the midst of the Dark Ages.

Medieval culture and society would not have been possible, nor would our modern world have been born out of the Renaissance, had it not been for the Irish monks who made such scholarship their life’s work.

These individuals had their own brand of Celtic Christianity and a worldview that had never been crushed by the boots of the Roman legionnaires, a world view that integrated spiritual and physical worlds, weaving everything together like the distinct patterns in their art.

The Roman Empire fell because of spiritual rot at its core, along with shallow and incompetent leaders, who focused on maintaining their own privileges and who believed their own press. The end was only hastened by the hordes of barbarians from Europe pounding on the gates.

Those barbarians rejected the lofty philosophy at the core of Roman laws and government. Instead, they wanted plunder — silver, gold and anything not nailed down that they could sell.

In our day, it is the fossil-fuel empire and the economies dependent upon it whose days are numbered, which lasted 100 years before the cracks started to show — nowhere close to the 1,200 years of Rome.

The irony is everywhere because this empire is run by the descendants of those barbarians who kicked in the gates of Rome. They are still focused on silver and gold and anything they can sell.

Spiritual rot is a reason for its failure, too, while the current imperial leaders are replicas of the last of the Romans. This time, the barbarians at the gate are the 99 per cent who don’t have silver and gold, whose future is at risk in a climate-changing world, and who believe that when a system can’t be fixed, it needs to be overthrown.

The problem with revolution is that once it starts, no one can predict what will happen next. It is always easier to throw out a rotten system than it is to replace it with a new and better one.

This is why, of course, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE led to chaos for hundreds of years before the culture of the High Middle Ages — led by those who were educated in the monastic schools — civilized the barbarians.

So, where the Canadian government buys a pipeline to nowhere for billions of dollars that we don’t have, and threatens to hurt people who oppose it, the Irish government takes a long look at itself, at the situation, and at the people massing outside the gates, and instead chooses to divest from fossil fuels.

Call it wisdom, if you like, but the Celts never needed to be told that all things weave together and that there is spirit in the land and its creatures, as well as in its people.

They knew it, they lived it and they chose to act. We are all the better for it.

Their descendants have embraced their identity and done the same, in our generation.

Someone has to lead and do the right thing, whether anyone else follows or not. As our prime minister’s own youth council has reminded him, it certainly isn’t Canada.

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Climate is changing quickly, and it’s up to us to act

(June 22, 2018)

In the same week that Doug Ford won the provincial election in Ontario, scientists announced that the Antarctic ice shelf is melting three times faster than they thought.

While it is true that Ford’s election victory has generated more heat than light, it is his opposition to Ontario’s carbon tax that will speed up such melting in the future. Yet a year ago, neither event would have been predicted by the experts.

In other words, whether we like it or not, things change.

On top of the recent heat wave in the Arctic (during which Churchill hit 30 C) — and record temperatures across Canada for this time of year — the news from Antarctica is particularly disturbing.

Global warming, leading to extreme weather around the planet, is disrupting predictions as well as the lives of millions of people. In situations where political rhetoric (instead of science) drives decision making about the environment, however, facts don’t seem to matter.

So we spend billions more than it is worth to buy an old, leaky pipeline, and billions more to build the Pipeline to Nowhere to ship bitumen that should be left safely in the Alberta oilsands. We sign agreements with Argentina to “study” whether fossil fuel subsidies are a good idea, when smart money has already divested and reinvested in alternatives.

If our scientific predictions are not keeping up with the accelerating effects of global warming, our political performances are 50 years behind reality — and slipping further.

We need to see these decisions for what they are: cynical investments in business as usual, betting against a sustainable future for everyone in order to make money for a few people today. You can make a lot of money predicting the decline of stocks; in fact, you could probably calculate it is easier (and faster) to make a pile on the stock market by shorting stocks rather than by waiting for them to gain in value.

In a volatile world market, in which a presidential tweet can send stocks crashing in an hour, there is money to be made in disaster.

In comparison, however, Mother Nature can change market trends just as quickly — and in a time of global warming, those changes could be catastrophic and irreversible.

Predictions about what happens when the Antarctic ice sheet breaks away or melts vary wildly. Some of the worst forecast a rise in sea level (with continued high greenhouse gas emissions) of up to 2.4 metres by 2100.

Think about it: 2.4 metres. For the metrically challenged, that is more than 71/2 feet.

If the models are not keeping up with the data, and if we continue to build and use pipelines, that end date will be a lot sooner than 2100.

Most people, especially younger ones, are not sure what they will be doing in 2050. At the rate things are going, billions of people around the world could be swimming by then.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of a small group of people that is providing a technical review of the global version of GEO 6, the latest Global Environmental Outlook prepared by the United Nations Environment Program, which is due to be released in March.

Watching colleagues around the world wrestling with the data — finding it, interpreting it, putting the pieces together — reminds me how difficult it is to know exactly where we are or where we will be even in 10 years.

But trends are clear. It is also clear that we do not have to do anything to ensure a high-carbon future, one where the dangerous effects of global warming change the conditions of life for many people on the planet.

Some will be floating; others will suffer from extreme heat (of more than 50 C) in which nothing can grow or live.

The politicians in office now, including the Doug Fords, are the ones who have the power to make decisions on our behalf to change that grimly inevitable future. Mother Nature does not attend campaign rallies, nor does she have a Twitter account.

What we say doesn’t matter; if we don’t change how we live together, the planet will simply do it for us — more rapidly, it seems, than even the scientists think.

Yet our political systems, even in a democracy, are failing us faster than the Antarctic ice is melting. Far more people in Ontario stayed in bed on election day than those who gave Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives their majority government.

Refusing to vote because you don’t like the choices is not a morally superior position. At such a critical point in the history of our civilization, it could be disastrous.

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4.5 billion reasons not to vote Liberal

(June 6, 2018)

Despite their perpetual bleating that “there is no more money,” governments always seem to find the money they need to buy whatever they want.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered spectacular evidence of this, finding $4.5 billion in his sock drawer to purchase the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, present and future.

Jim Carr is now not just Minister of Pipelines, but owner, operator and CEO, as well.

The addiction continues. Canada will not only deserve Fossil of the Year awards at future climate conferences, but risk being kicked off the guest list entirely for its national hypocrisy.

So much for “sunny ways,” optimism and visionary environmental leadership. Trudeau has just provided 4.5 billion reasons for you not to vote Liberal in the next federal election, if you have any thought for your children and grandchildren’s future.

To be clear, the Conservatives are no better. While Andrew Scheer is laughing all the way to the pollster’s office today, the Kinder Morgan scene was set by the Harper government, which repeatedly made the worst environmental management decisions in Canadian history, across all sectors. Scheer’s leadership offers a smiley version of the same serial disasters.

As for the New Democratic Party, they are still straddling the picket fence — a painful position, with British Columbia Premier John Horgan on the one side and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the other. National NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been conspicuously absent all along, making it hard to evaluate his leadership when none has been apparent.

Only the Green party’s Elizabeth May has demonstrated concern for something beyond the needs of the fossil-fuel industry. After receiving a hefty fine for her public support of the protest, she spoke to following higher moral principles than those expressed in the law — an unusual position for a politician to take.

So, that $4.5 billion — plus another $7 billion for construction, it seems — will be another bad investment in a future no thinking person wants to happen. There will be jobs, but the main employment opportunities will be cleaning up the inevitable spills. Given the fact those spills will happen in B.C., there won’t be many extra jobs for Albertans, despite Notley’s flailing efforts to engineer her re-election with a variety of pipe dreams.

Her threats against B.C. are as desperate and absurd as they sound, moreover. Land-locked provinces should not threaten trade wars against the provinces with ports, rail lines and highways — and Horgan has shown restraint by not escalating the situation, despite holding the stronger hand.

Given their apparent desperation, since re-election trumps common sense among Alberta’s NDP (or concern for the planet’s future), they might take a lesson from other developing economies in the global South equally dependent upon natural resources.

Some countries are paid not to cut down their rainforests, paid to preserve wetlands, paid to preserve habitat, wildlife and so on.

Perhaps Alberta should ask the rest of the world for money not to dig up the tar sands, which alone are big enough to push the planet over any survivable carbon limit if the rest are developed.

I remember in the 1970s when prairie farmers in Saskatchewan were paid not to grow wheat. Perhaps it is time to pay Albertans not to produce bitumen.

Still, I wish I had the prime minister’s sock drawer. Perhaps there might be more money in it for the host of infrastructure, health care, education and development needs that have been sidelined until now.

But I expect the drawer is empty again, just like the promises that were made about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and whatever else sounded good during election season.

This decision satisfies no one except Kinder Morgan shareholders.

The protests and blockades will continue, as will the legal challenges. The economics of this pipeline will never make sense — and the environmental devastation of its construction and use will be forever.

The Trudeau government, however, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for the same price it would otherwise have had to pay Kinder Morgan for damages had the project been cancelled (under the same NAFTA rules that just awarded Bilcon millions of dollars in damages for having its Digby Neck quarry in Nova Scotia denied as an ecological menace).

Perhaps it now can snatch disaster from the jaws of catastrophe and just shut the whole thing down — and put the other $7 billion needed for constructing the Pipeline-to-Nowhere back into Trudeau’s sock drawer for something else.

On top of the wish lists that other people have made for the federal government, that same money could subsidize a carbon-free future for future generations of Canada, instead of buying more obsolete technologies of mass destruction.

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