Keep it in the ground

(October 12, 2017)

The sudden announcement by TransCanada Pipelines to scuttle its Energy East project landed with a clang amid the environmental activist community.

Good news, to be sure, but after a year of struggles, temporary victories and then imperious Trump-issued executive orders that paved the way for completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was unexpected.

It’s like pushing hard to keep the door from opening, only to have it slam shut when the person on the other side gives up and lets go.

It would be nice to think that the cancellation was a sign of corporate social responsibility, that TransCanada realized the harms (real and anticipated) of the Energy East pipeline were not worth the risk to future generations. One can always hope for such enlightenment, but no doubt this played a minor role compared to the fact that someone, finally, did the math.

Investing in pipelines these days is like investing in new whaling vessels in the late 19th century. People did not stop using whale oil lamps because we ran out of sperm whales, but because there was a smarter (and eventually cheaper) alternative.

In the same way, I recall Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s famous 1973 line about how the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. The age of oil will not end when people run out of oil, but when people realize there are smarter, eventually cheaper, and more ecologically sustainable alternatives.

Pipelines need both a source of oil and customers to buy the finished product. One without the other is pointless. The current systems (leaks and all) are managing current levels of supply and demand. New pipelines are a huge investment in a future in which oil prices will be high enough to justify collecting and refining the tar sands crude — something that implies an increasing demand.

Apart from inconvenient truths — such as that there is enough carbon buried in the tar sands to guarantee extinction by global warming of much of the life on Earth, including our own — the idea of an oil-needy future is seriously delusionary.

Simply put, it is bad business. I would love some forensic accounting of who is invested in these operations right now, because I suspect the money of those in charge of the fossil-fuel industry is invested elsewhere. Mutual funds, pension plans and other things that are supposed to guarantee our personal economic future, are likely the shills still paying for obsolete fossil-fuel technological infrastructure.

Pull the direct and indirect government subsidies out of the fossil fuel industry and that investment becomes even more dubious. In a warming world in which increasing greenhouse gas emissions are the harbinger of disasters, from droughts to forest fires and to hurricanes, even General Motors is making a major shift to electric vehicles. Proposing expanded investment in the fossil-fuel industry would be as popular with shareholders these days as trying to corner the market on whale oil.

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Politics more absurd every day

(October 5, 2017)

Political discourse has become more like theatre of the absurd. Every day, inane behaviour and baffling comments from politicians crowd out more important issues in the news.

To even call it discourse is a stretch, because discourse requires rationality and respect that is usually absent from the chaos that politics at all levels seems to reflect.

Political analysis has become the job of late-night comedians, because no one else has the skill set to handle its absurdities.

Those absurdities also disguise what else is going on, as the attention of viewers (and voters) is focused on the daily spectacle, where charge and counter-charge have to be more and more outlandish to attract a crowd.

Combine this general distraction with a major drop in news reporting and politicians rarely face the kind of media scrum or the tough questions that used to be a significant feature of the political landscape. There are not enough reporters, enough news programs or enough newspapers, to offer the challenges to power that the Fourth Estate has traditionally provided for nearly 200 years.

In other words, politicians are close to operating with impunity, able to brush off television questions with a 10-second soundbite that says less than a tweet and rarely pushed to explain themselves in any depth.

Canadian politicians are luckiest of all because even at their most reckless, neither the vitriol nor the inanity of their comments come anywhere close to what Americans seem to expect. They may look good by comparison, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean much.

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Tradition can guide climate strategy

(September 8, 2017)

Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston and other parts of Texas is the North American version of similar devastation elsewhere in the world. Extreme weather disasters are set to become as commonplace as traffic accidents, unexpected for those involved but, unfortunately, both frequent and inevitable.

It’s not just bad luck. It is the consequence of living on a warming planet. Every place will have its own local variation of what that means.

For some places, the temperature will get so hot that no plants or people will be able to live outside. Others will see droughts, or repeated flooding, or tornadoes and an overall disruption of rainfall and temperature patterns that have been more or less consistent for thousands of years.

Imagine what the United States would look like if there were several hurricanes a season — such as Harvey, followed closely by Irma, Jose and Katia — making landfall somewhere along the coast, accompanied by rising tides, especially when even now so much of the Eastern seaboard is at (or below) sea level.

Officials at the National Weather Service made a striking admission as the hurricane continued, saying they could no longer predict what was going to happen. Harvey was so far outside the parameters of their historical data and weather models that it had become a unique event.

Our data will be of little value, rendering our climate prediction models increasingly unreliable, because we continue to treat ecological systems as though they are linear and mechanical. Most days right now in Manitoba, we can’t even manage to predict Winnipeg’s weather 12 hours ahead of time, because there are too many variables.

In a climate-changing world, those difficulties are multiplied exponentially. Environmental risk analysis using current climate models effectively means getting lucky with a crystal ball.

We need to find other ways of approaching the problem — other tools, other methods, other perspectives — if we want to do more than just sit on the front porch and watch the horizon.

When it comes to human behaviour, we use dynamic systems to predict what is likely to happen and why. We can’t be sure where or when the violence will break out, but when racist rhetoric is combined with poverty, bad government and poor community leadership, a fight becomes inevitable. Lack of respect breeds more lack of respect, making the presenting issue only the trigger for the violence that will certainly happen. People eventually demand to be respected; how they choose to communicate that, and whether they are heard, will shape the future stability of any society, including our own.

When it comes to the Earth, it is much the same thing. How we live reflects a lack of respect for ecological systems, as we tear up the landscape, contaminate the water and pollute the air. Because we are woven into all those ecological systems right to the core of our physical being, disrespecting the Earth means disrespecting ourselves.

We are part of the Earth. Its air blows into our lungs; its water runs through our veins; its soil provides food to sustain us.

Our understanding of the Earth needs to be based on respect and on relationship if we want to live well with the planet that is our home. The irony, of course, is that this is what traditional societies have learned the hard way over thousands of years. They have learned that survival depends on respecting the Earth and honouring all our relations with which we share it.

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