Pipelines bad business, plain and simple

(February 24, 2020)

There is no doubt building a pipeline in Canada is a “wicked problem.” A “wicked problem” is one that is difficult or impossible to solve, because of its interwoven social, cultural, economic and political factors.

I have opposed the construction of pipelines in these pages before (cue the chorus of internet trolls), so it will be no surprise to hear that I think the federal and British Columbia governments are making a hash of things once again. Deployment of the RCMP tactical squads certainly did not help. If someone aims a weapon at me, my first thought is not that they’re just looking at me through the rifle scope because it is such a hassle to get their binoculars out instead.

That there have been no casualties — yet — is a tribute both to the protesters and to the self-control of the police officers on site, despite the increasing stress on both sides. For the federal government to claim it has no influence on the situation is disingenuous, but the bugle charge that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tried to sound last week is downright dangerous and irresponsible.

Politicians playing their games makes wicked problems even worse. Using the “We’re tough on these bad guys” attitude to shill for money for Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Party, while the embers at the blockade west of Headingley were still warm, was both seedy and disrespectful. If further actions don’t end so quickly or peacefully in our province, Premier Brian Pallister can take some of the responsibility for such an escalation.

Once again, I oppose what is being done, but for reasons other than you might at first expect. Yes, we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground, because if we don’t, the planet will warm to a point that life will be difficult — or impossible — for billions of people, including our children and grandchildren. Yes, reconciliation means taking a path other than the destructive, colonial exercise of power that has in the past been used against First Nations and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Yet both these serious and vitally important concerns are being swamped by economic arguments about jobs and the national interest. New pipelines, however, especially the ones causing trouble today, are actually bad business for almost everyone concerned.

I usually get trolled with sneers like: “You use oil, don’t you? Drive a car? Heat your house?” — as though environmentalists can only be credible if they are running around naked in the bush, eating berries.

It is an ignorant (though expected) ad hominem attack — attack the person, not the argument.

Of course, I live in a fossil-fuel culture — I’m as much a part of it as you are. But that culture, unchecked, will take my children and grandchildren — all the children of Earth — off an ecological cliff. For climate catastrophe to happen, we just have to keep doing little or nothing different than right now. The systems are in place, and accelerating, to turn hell on Earth into a daily reality — and easily within my lifetime.

I was pleased, therefore, to see Tom Rand’s recent book, The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis. We need to find some middle course between the fingers-in-the-ears, heads-in-the-sand, business-as-usual attitude that guarantees catastrophe, and its opposite, the overturn-the-world-economic-order logic that he associates with the radical left.

Rand makes some excellent points about the need for pragmatism in business and politics. Ideology, left or right, will mean the end of everything we value about our global civilization. While we clearly can’t continue as to do business as before, we still need to do business, or the remedy could be as catastrophic as the disease.

So, why are pipelines bad business?

First, none of these pipelines reduces Eastern Canada’s dependency on oil and gas from elsewhere. Most of what the pipelines would carry will never be used by Canadians. They also don’t reduce the current rail traffic through our cities or across the country.

Second, expecting an increased global market “somewhere” is delusional. The growth in renewables, and the increasing antipathy to fossil fuels, brand fossil fuels as yesterday’s (bad) answer. Oilsands products are also dirtier and lower-quality, and therefore always a last option for offshore purchase.

Third, these pipelines have already been a colossal waste of money. Canada will never recoup its investment in the Trans-Mountain pipeline, paying too much for it and then being on the hook for billions of dollars of inevitable delays. Money spent on pipelines is unavailable for the alternative energy development we really need.

Finally, a project in the national interest must mean for all Canadians, present and future, not just a few. These pipelines — all of them — aren’t.

Someone certainly benefits in the short term, however.

I wonder who?

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Looking ahead with 2020 vision

(January 3, 2020)

THIS year, 2020, will start with a series of “dad” jokes about vision, about how well we can see what lies ahead.

As Manitoba marks its 150th year, it is worth remembering that the only 20/20 vision is hindsight. After all, our province’s founding father, Louis Riel, was hanged for high treason by the Canadian government — a mistake that took generations to be admitted, even though it was obvious at the time.

To reduce the number of mistakes governments (like individuals) inevitably make, we need foresight, today more than ever before. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence of foresight in the choices and priorities of our governments over the past several years, and we are all, literally, much poorer for that.

We need to look ahead, to see what is coming at us down the road and prepare. The sluggish investment market in Manitoba, the muddling economic growth that seems the best we can manage, combined with random cuts to government services and provincial debt, are some of the reasons why Manitoba has much less to celebrate this year than it should.

The question, of course, is whether the politicians — from Premier Brian Pallister down — have the humility and wisdom to realize, with hindsight, they have made mistakes and then try to correct them. Recent experience suggests this is probably a vain hope — witness U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to rewrite history itself rather than admit any mistake whatsoever — but I still want to believe it’s possible for politicians here in Manitoba.

We should be planning to create a bright green future for all Manitobans, but to an outside observer, we are instead making choices that, at best, undermine it. Even small things can say more than we realize to someone who wonders about Manitoba as a place to visit, to invest or to live.

For example, before visitors even collect their luggage, they encounter the new airport terminal with washrooms that have replaced high-capacity paper towel dispensers with a couple of blow dryers — slow, noisy, and entirely unsanitary. No paper in sight for any other purpose, either, apart from toilet paper. Most people either don’t wash their hands or wipe them on their pants as they leave.

To a visitor, it suggests Manitobans don’t understand public health, are unaware of the practicalities of arriving passengers and human nature, and have pessimistically designed their systems only to handle low traffic volumes. Venturing into the city, they will find shopping malls and restaurants understand these things — just not the airport authority. Hmm.

Exploring further, what about the most recent economic development plan for Winnipeg and surrounding regions? Oops. Nothing much of substance there. Provincial? Ditto. Cooperation between different levels of government? (Cue stories about the Battle of the Brians, and duking it out with the feds on a dozen files). Hmm again.

Moving to environmental issues, what pragmatic steps have been taken to adapt to changing conditions, taking advantage of changes like warmer weather, and countering the negative ones in terms of infrastructure and resource management? Are environmental and sustainability initiatives a priority for government, in partnership with local stakeholders? Oops again.

Looking at downtown, there is (finally!) evidence of some serious redevelopment for the 21st century. But it is all about recycling money already here, not attracting outside investment. We have the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a destination attraction, but talk about converting the land around it to a water park or luxury condos, so we don’t really understand why.

Take in a ball game, and listen to the railcars full of oil and gas lurch across one narrow bridge in the heart of the downtown — and wonder why, on a flat prairie, they don’t go around, instead. The politicians may crow about the two underpasses built on time and under budget, but an outsider would wonder why they had been built at all.

Want to attract new business? Consider where their employees would live: no one with a sensible urban plan these days is doing new greenfield development, placing homes miles away from work spaces, and then connecting them only with traffic jams because there is no commuting alternative, like real rapid transit (a light rail system on that flat prairie).

High urban density, fast, comfortable public transit — add reliable power (finally, one checkmark, thanks to Manitoba Hydro!) and a public perception of personal safety (oops, again), and companies might look to invest in Winnipeg as a 21st century city.

We drive to where our eyes are focused on the road ahead. Until we decide ourselves where we are going, no one else is going to help us get there.

Fix your mistakes. Combine common sense with foresight. Replace bickering with co-operation.

Make 2020 into the year Manitoba looked forward, instead of back.

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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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