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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Canada can kick carbon addiction

(May 25, 2018)

We need to use plain language to explain why the federal government approves, supports and (apparently) is prepared to help fund oil pipelines, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, for which they appear to have money to blow.

Intending the drug reference, we should instead say, bluntly, they are just doing more lines of pipe.

The government’s willingness to spend money on pipe instead of on clean water for First Nations communities, food and shelter for homeless people, proper supports for injured veterans and a long list of other national necessities seems like an addiction.

Add the irrational frenzy reflected in their defence of the Trans Mountain project — vilifying opponents, desperate to do whatever it takes to get their pipe (military options against protesters have still not been taken off the table) — and it’s clear they need some professional help to kick the habit.

We continue to be told, in increasingly frantic tones, that Canada must get its oil to the world markets. (This conveniently ignores last year’s pipeline frenzy around Keystone XL and the fact, at the moment, we are apparently getting oil to market in other ways.)

Forget the logic the Afromax tankers that can navigate the British Columbia waterways into the proposed pipeline terminus are one-quarter the size of the supertankers that can fill up, in much less time, in Texas. Forget the price of oil is lower now than it needs to be (by at least $30 a barrel) to make working the oil sands profitable.

Forget the global shift toward alternative energy, which means (even with real growth) there will be less global demand for oil in the future, not more. Forget the equally obvious point that oil sands product is lower quality than other supplies available, requiring extra refining (and higher costs) to make it usable and therefore less desirable to anyone who has an option. Forget that the country most likely in our sights as a future customer — China — is also becoming the global leader in producing alternative energy, such as solar.

All this is set aside because we need more pipe. Another line, as soon as possible — and there will be trouble if you try to get in the way of me doing my next line.

Granted, you could say as a country we are all addicted to oil, so the Liberal government is no worse than the rest of us. But that only means we all could use some professional help.

Bizarre as this might sound, perhaps Premier Brian Pallister can lead the way to a pipe-free, alternative energy, decarbonized future for all of Canada.

All he needs to do, the next time he visits his cottage in Costa Rica, is to check out what the locals are doing to kick the habit and bring back some of their ideas for rehab in his luggage, along with the usual packages of Costa Rican coffee.

Newly elected President Carlos Alvarado Quesada announced at his inauguration this month that Costa Rica is going to lead the world in decarbonizing its society. Last year, deriving most of its electricity from hydro power, Costa Rica went 300 consecutive days using a mix of renewable energy sources to power the country, breaking its record from a year earlier.

Of course, that leaves transportation — but the new president intends to tackle that head-on, too, campaigning on a platform to eliminate fossil-fuel transportation in the near future with electric vehicles and better public transportation (he arrived at the inauguration in a hydrogen-powered bus).

Using what are called “foresight scenarios” to plan toward a future everyone wants, not the one that just arrives uninvited, the agricultural sector in Costa Rica is working co-operatively toward decarbonizing everything from livestock to crop production, as soon as it can.

Manitoba could be a carbon-negative province. We could generate all our power from renewables, heat our homes and businesses the same way and slash emissions from agriculture and transportation by promoting the technology and infrastructure that already exist to do it. We could use foresight scenarios to make the province resilient in the face of climate change, instead of sitting, paralyzed, in the middle of the road, waiting to get run over.

As for the naysaying internet trolls and pipe-addicted politicians who will sneer at these ideas, I received an email recently from Manitoba’s airship visionary, Barry Prentice, that closed with a Chinese proverb I had forgotten:

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Next time you turn on your lights at your vacation home in Costa Rica, Premier Pallister, consider what it might mean for Manitoba if you followed that country’s lead.

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