Tag Archives: climate change

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The Religion Factor in Canada’s Environmental Politics


Canadian politics has traditionally avoided the religion factor. By common agreement, belief has been deemed a private matter, a facet of a candidate’s qualifications for election that is not relevant to his or her ability to represent voters in parliament or to function as prime minister. The media has generally been respectful of this sensitivity and has averted coverage and commentary that touches on personal religious beliefs. This may be changing.

Most environmentalists and scientists, together with a growing number of Canadians and others, are often bewildered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s aversion to address or even to mention the spectre of global climate change. This profoundly important environmental issue is prominent in many political discussion in many countries of the world, an integral part of their budgets, economic plans and energy policies. All but a fringe minority now accept the essential science explaining climate change and are taking measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not so in Canada.

This lapse has focused attention on Prime Minister Harper, particularly because he is such a powerful and skillful political leader who meticulously manages, controls and directs much of Canada’s domestic and foreign policy — this nation’s governance is now the image of Stephen Harper. His response to environmental issues has been perplexing, provocative and worrisome. Green Party MP Elizabeth May outlines these concerns in her response to the government’s 2012 budget, the devious C-38 omnibus bill that devotes 170 of 425 pages to repealing, amending or otherwise weakening existing environmental regulations, while also withdrawing financial support from key scientific research that is environment related (Island Tides, May 17/12).

A mere sample is staggering: no funding for the Polar Environment Arctic Research Laboratory, the definitive and authoritative monitor of northern climate change; withdrawal of financial support for the Kluane Research Station, a 50-year project studying high-latitude ecological changes; the slashing of almost all marine pollution monitoring; and dissolution of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy, the only institution that attempts to find sustainable business options that are satisfactory to both industry and environmentalists. Despite arguing austerity, the government found an additional $8 million of scarce money for Revenue Canada to more closely monitor environmental charities to be certain excessive funds are not being used for “political” advocacy. “Nearly half of the budget implementation bill,” writes May, “is directed at re-writing Canada’s foundational environmental laws.” This includes the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Decisions once based on public processes guided by science now move to ministerial discretion.

The Prime Minister’s seemingly anti-environment and anti-science agenda has prompted Andrew Nikiforuk, a prominent Canadian journalist, to search for the root cause of this behaviour. In his quest for an explanation, Nikiforuk has broken from convention, raised the sensitive religion issue, and written an opinion piece in TheTyee.ca (Mar. 26/12) titled, “Understanding Harper’s Evangelical Mission”, subtitled, “Signs mount that Canada’s government is beholden to a religious agenda averse to science and rational debate.”

Nikiforuk had obviously pondered the Prime Minister’s political behaviour, trying to explain why the leader of a modern, progressive and technologically sophisticated country would muzzle public comment by government-funded climate scientists, make no serious effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions, block or stall international agreements on greenhouse gas reductions, provoke the ire of every environmentally conscientious country on the planet, officially withdraw Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, promote rampant fossil-fuel development, and assiduously avoid any mention or discussion of climate change anywhere in his tightly controlled government. To an inquisitive journalist, this behaviour is an anachronistic idiosyncrasy that invites exploration.

Because the Prime Minister will not publicly discuss his religious views, Nikiforuk’s conclusions are conjectural. But the Prime Minister is known to belong to an Alberta fundamentalist Protestant church that espouses “evangelical climate skepticism”. Nikiforuk contends that this church holds seven tenets which “not only explain startling developments in Canada but should raise the hair on the neck of every thinking citizen regardless of their faith: 1. Disdain for the environmental movement, 2. Distrust of mainstream science in general, 3. Distrust of the mainstream media, 4. Loyalty to the party, 5. Libertarian economics as God’s will (God is opposed to government regulation or taxation), 6. Misunderstanding of divine sovereignty (God won’t allow us to ruin creation), 7. Unreconstructed Dominion theology (God calls on humans to subdue and rule creation).”

These are the tenets, Nikiforuk suggests, that could now be directing Canadian policy through the singular authority of the Prime Minister. “Any Canadian listening to the news these days,” he writes, “might well conclude that the Republican extremists or some associated evangelical group has occupied Ottawa. And they’d be righter than Job, I believe.”

Because of the guarded privacy of the Prime Minister, Nikiforuk’s evidence is only circumstantial — without any direct links, his operative word is “believe”. But this belief is strong enough to lead him into territory traditional journalism has not explored, and to open an avenue of consideration that Canadians have been too polite, or perhaps too naive, to explore. In doing so, he has robbed our politics of an element of innocence and added a complicating new dimension to our environmental challenges.


Change Blindness: Not Seeing the Obvious


The psychology underlying people’s behaviour is as fascinating as the things they do. “Change blindness” is a case in point. Psychologists describe it as the inability of people to notice anomalies, differences and the unusual in their surroundings. The obvious, it seems, is not always obvious. Two classical examples of change blindness, both conducted as experiments at American universities, serve as illustrations.

The first is known as the “invisible gorilla”. In the middle of a basketball game, a gorilla wanders onto the court — actually, it’s a man dressed in a gorilla suit but he looks, moves and acts like a gorilla. He lumbers around the court, mixes with the players and then exits through a side door. Half the spectators, when questioned afterward, failed to notice the gorilla. They were apparently so intent on the game that they didn’t register such a strange anomaly.

In a second experiment, a stranger on a university campus stopped individual people to ask for directions. In the middle of the resulting conversation, two men carrying a large door passed between the stranger and the person offering directions. During that brief moment, the stranger was replaced by a second stranger, someone of different height, build and clothing. Half the people in the experiment failed to notice that the stranger they had been talking to had been replaced by a second stranger.

Change blindness occurs, psychologists suggest, “because it is not possible to perceive and remember all of the details” that surround us (New Scientist, Feb. 19/11). It also occurs because we stitch together events to fit the reality we expect, keeping the familiar ones that are comfortable while leaving out the others. And, additionally, we sometimes fail to even register sensory evidence that is totally foreign to our sense of reality. Change blindness smooths over events and circumstances to make them compatible with our sense of normal.

This psychological dynamic becomes relevant when applied to environmental matters. And the implications are not reassuring. For example, we seem to have an inherent inclination to overlook or rationalize as normal the weather abnormalities that arise from global warming. If this strategy doesn’t serve to diminish the significance of an extreme weather event in our minds, we excuse it by extending the range of normality — a once-in-a-century event occurring once every ten years is deemed normal. This is a psychological mechanism we use to excuse the significance of exceptional floods, rains, snowfalls, winds, droughts and hot spells. We quickly adopt new extremes into a new normal so that the exception goes unnoticed. Shifting the criteria for normal is one way of activating change blindness.

Because most people now live in the comfort of urbanization, surrounded by human creations and separated from the natural world, the unusual absence of a species of bird, animal or butterfly goes unnoticed. But even when noticed, the absence quickly becomes a new normal, whether this be silence, darkness, missing fish or old-growth forests. Accounts of old timers describing huge salmon runs become a fiction that fails to illustrate the dramatic deterioration that has taken place in a mere lifetime. An environmentally diminished present quickly becomes the new and accepted normal.

Scientific studies that underscore the significance of ecological damage are commonly discredited by change blindness. The public’s impulse is to construe disturbing scientific evidence as opinion because its threatening facts don’t fit into the established system of normalcy. In essence, we have difficulty accepting information that conflicts with our paradigm of understanding — belief takes precedence over evidence. As Marshall McLuhan noted in one of his famous adages, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it” is replaced with ”I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Which raises a more sinister issue. This is the impulse to control evidence in order to control public opinion — deliberately using change blindness for calculated purposes. Scientists in the employ of Canada’s present federal government have repeatedly and increasingly voiced concerns about being censured. Even though these scientists may profess political neutrality, the reality is that all the evidence they collect has unavoidable policy implications — no information is politically neutral. A public without evidence of unprecedented environmental shifts doesn’t register a problem.

Thus, change blindness keeps us from anticipating the future — or, more accurately, the future we anticipate is based on limited experience. Curtail experience and our ability to adapt to climate change or a melting Arctic is handicapped. If oil spills are not part of our personal history, then the real ramifications of oil tankers emptying Northern Gateway’s Alberta crude into pristine West Coast waters is unlikely to register. If wild salmon have always been a part of British Columbia’s ecology, then the actual devastation that could be caused by destructive diseases and parasites emanating from open net-pen salmon farms is unexpected.

This is why history always surprises us. Change blindness keeps us from perceiving what is happening slowly — until the unwanted consequences cannot be avoided. We won’t notice the new stranger if we haven’t registered the first one; we can’t remove gorillas from a basketball court if the action of the game absorbs all our attention.

Unfortunately, the faster we move as a civilization — the more dense, complicated and speedy the surroundings that contain us — the less likely are we to notice what our civilization is doing, where it is going and what it is forfeiting. The energy, excitement and promise of modern civilization is, ironically, an ingenious distraction from its own failings, adroitly hiding from us what it is inflicting upon us. Indeed, this spell of obliviousness functions best in the ubiquitous, intense and unrelenting character of our age. Change blindness keeps us from noticing the changes that are carrying us into an uncertain future.

The Alberta Tar Sands (National Geogrpahic photo)

Ecocide: Crimes Against Nature and Humanity


On September 30, 2011, a mock trial by judge and jury at the University of Colchester in England found two oil executives of Canada’s tar sands guilty of ecocide. The jury deliberated a mere 50 minutes before reaching its unanimous verdict. During the trial, the evidence supported the contention that development of the tar sands was the biggest crime against nature on the planet, exceeding even BP’s 2010 huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The trial, conducted with real judges, lawyers and jury, respected all judicial procedures. It proceeded “as if ecocide were an international crime against peace, alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression, and placed under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court” (Toronto Star, March 31/12). The only difference, of course, was that the corporate oil executives were fictitious.

The trial was the creative effort of an international lawyer and environmental activist, Polly Higgins, who has dedicated her life to eradicating ecocide, which is defined as, “The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished” (Ibid.).

Polly Higgins’ story is illuminating and inspiring. Until 10 years ago, the Scottish-born lawyer was representing corporations charged with pollution offences. That’s when she had an epiphany, a realization that “the executives and directors of corporations” are legally bound “to maximize profits for their shareholders”, making “it illegal for them to prioritize the environment in their business decisions” (Ibid.).

Higgins’ epiphany changed her perspective and her life. Everything corporations do, she realized, is subservient to their legal obligation to shareholders. Corporations worship at the Altar of Profit in the Temple of Mammon under a set of rules that have evolved over the course of centuries. Their security as legal entities has been entrenched and supported by law to safeguard their historic role in the fabric of an economic system. Environmental protection has never been a consideration, except when beneficial to investors. It is still incidental, a recent and intrusive inconvenience that has only occurred as we have become aware of the terrible ecological consequences of unfettered economic activity.

But a paradigm shift is underway — although some people and governments are more aware of this transition than others. To those who don’t believe the system can be changed, Higgins has two wise and ready replies. The first pertains to slavery, an entire economic system of 200 years ago that was wholly based on the brutal exploitation of others. When the British parliamentarian, Wilbur Wilberforce, spoke for the abolition of slavery, he confronted widespread opposition. The status quo insisted that slavery was “necessary”, the “public” demanded it, and eliminating it would “lead to economic collapse”, Higgins said in an interview with the Toronto Star — precisely the present arguments used against eliminating fossil fuels and giving priority to environmental health. Slavery’s end became inevitable when Charles Grant, the man who owned the British East India Company and controlled over half the world’s slave trade, publicly declared that slavery was morally wrong.

Higgins’ second argument pertains to World War II. In January, 1942, American industry was too busy tearing up railway tracks and building cars, she said, to make the 50,000 planes required for the war effort. “The government came back the next day and said it is now illegal for you to make cars; you will make planes” (Ibid.). So they did. The war was won and industry became more powerful and profitable than ever.

If we can win huge economic benefits by eliminating slavery, Higgins argues, and if we can win a world war by revolutionizing production objectives, then we can rebuild an economic system on a sustainable foundation by respecting environmental imperatives. All that’s needed is the political will.

Environmental concerns are rapidly gaining profile. Indeed, they are quickly moving from issues of interest to issues of worry, emergency and crisis. Unanimous public opinion may still be elusive but the trend is clear. Environmental considerations are gaining precedence over corporate interests. The time is fast approaching when all economic considerations will be founded upon sound ecological principles, simply because to do otherwise will be deemed foolhardy and immoral. Governments that resist this trend will be seen as irresponsible, anachronistic and dangerous. In Higgins’ words, “Now we’re starting to have a narrative emerging in big business which says we have to stop destroying the Earth. We have to put people and planet first. This is about the moral imperative trumping the economic imperative” (Ibid.).

The ground is already destabilizing beneath the old economic model, and a new one is emerging. Its form is still taking shape. Like any profound idea, it is reaching a critical mass and a momentum that will not be stopped by resistance, denial or obstruction. Indeed, efforts to thwart its arrival simply draw attention to its validity and imperative. Those who do not yield to its oncoming weight and authority will soon be judged by history for crimes against nature and humanity. Except this time, the trial of ecocide will be real.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is just one of the world's coral reef's under attack by increasing ocean acifdification (National Geographic photo)

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Disappearing Coral Reefs, Ocean Species


In one of the most beautiful essays ever written in the English language, the 17th century courtier, poet, adventurer, priest and lecturer, John Donne, reflected on the meaning of a tolling funeral bell. His Meditation 17, when rendered in a modern idiom, reads like this:

“No man is an island unto himself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. When one man dies, it diminishes me for I am a part of all mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Ernest Hemingway used a few of these words for the title of one of his famous books. But “for whom the bell tolls” has another relevance today that is more poignant, one encapsulated by a visitor to Hawaii who casually noted that the islands’ coral reefs are dying.

Indeed, they are. And they are dying elsewhere, too: throughout the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Red, the Indian — everywhere there are coral reefs. Perhaps the most spectacular casualty is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Scientists give it another 10 years before its corals will no longer be able to adapt to warming oceans. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s corals, the Great Barrier’s corals use a heat-sensitive single species of symbiotic algae for energy. And the reefs are not mobile enough to migrate poleward 15 km per year to cooler water (New Scientist, Apr. 9/11). As these reefs die, so too will the myriad species of spectacular fish that make these ecologies so rich and beautiful.

Reefs, as marine biologists attest, are the oceans’ nurseries. With about a quarter of all marine species living there, they are key to maintaining healthy fish stocks and biodiversity. If these multi-hued corals turn into bleak and grey gravestones of death, then the impacts will be dramatic and global.

Ocean acidification, an even more serious consequence of the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning fossil fuels we burn, threatens the entire marine ecosystem. The 500 billion tonnes of CO2 that has dissolved into the oceans since the Industrial Revolution is now threatening the foundation of the marine food chain with rapidly dropping pH levels. If phytoplankton, krill and the micro-crustacea are no longer able to form their carbonate shells, then the entire system collapses, from the smallest of creatures to salmon and great whales.

But the funereal bell is tolling almost everywhere these days. About one third of all mammals, plants, fish and birds are expected to be extinct within a human lifetime, victims of a fatal combination of climate change, habitat loss, exotic species, disease, pollution, commercialization, greed or any of the litany of ills sponsored by human indiscretion and ignorance. Amphibians are suffering some of the worst declines. People now travel the globe to get a rare glimpse of the few remaining tigers, white rhinos, frogs and rare birds. Over-fishing has brought most large fish to the edge of extinction.

We still live mostly in isolation from the consequences of our actions. The industrial machinery that makes our consumer products, the fossil fuels that generate our electricity, the cars that drive us to work, the airplanes that skitter us around the planet add 70 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each day. In the myopia of our daily lives, we don’t notice that about 30 percent of that CO2 is absorbed into the world’s oceans to form carbonic acid. Our oceans are now 29 percent more acidic than they were 250 years ago, and by 2050 they will be 70 percent more acidic. The consequences are already being felt. Along Washington’s coast, for example, the water is now so corrosive that oyster larvae cannot form shells — Pacific oysters there have been unable to reproduce in the wild since 2004 (Strait Talk, Spring 2012). This increasing acidity will eventually threaten squid, starfish, shrimp, sea urchins, mussels and abalone. Even fish at the larval stage may be unable to survive. Hardy jellyfish will be the last survivors in an excessively acidic ocean (Ibid).

Somehow, by a perverse and dexterous trick of self-deception, we have failed to duly personalize the wholesale environmental crisis that surrounds us. The outer limit of ourselves too often ends at our skin, as if an imaginative handicap prevents us from realizing that everything else on our planet is a part of us, too. All the things we know and experience derive from the diverse wealth of nature that contains us. It is the frame of reference for all our understanding and meaning. Time, rhythm, perspective, size, shape, colour, sound, taste, smell, distance, relationship — our very sentience — are all anchored in nature. Earth itself is only unique because of the living species that enliven it. As our treasured surroundings are threatened, degraded or lost, a justified response should be outcries of trespass, theft, anger and outrage, not indifference or vague expressions of concern. Environmental destruction is an assault against our person. At the very least, the measure of our present situation and the weighing of our future prospects should warrant silent mourning and inward weeping.

Donne’s Meditation 17 is an apt reminder that each death on our planet diminishes us because we are part of the whole. Each species that is endangered or goes extinct narrows the breadth, depth and richness of our experience as human beings. Each loss shrinks and withers the quality of our lives. How ironic and tragic that, just as we are discovering the incredible intricacy, complexity and intelligence of nature, we are destroying this astounding miracle with unprecedented efficiency, as if the same bell that is celebrating life is also tolling its death.


Climate Change: Forcing and Feedback


The chainsaws are still snarling weeks after the windstorm of March 12, 2012, busily cutting up the thousands of trees that blew down in forests, fields, roadsides and yards. Firewood seems to be the preferred fate for most of these once stately trees. Most of them will probably just decay on the ground where they have fallen, although some of the larger ones may become lumber. With this exception, they are all examples of feedback.

Two principal dynamics are at work in the global warming process that is changing the planet’s climate. The first is “forcing”. This is the term climatologists use to describe the initial heating effect of the gases we emit into the atmosphere. The best known of these is carbon dioxide — about 33.5 billion tonnes of it per year now come from our burning of fossil fuels. Methane, also a significant influence and about 20 times more potent than CO2, escapes from oil and natural gas wells, garbage dumps and untreated sewage. Other less known gases such as hydrofluorocarbons also contribute their influence. Another forcing process is deforestation, our deliberate removal of forests for fibre, lumber, agriculture, roads, urban sprawl, right-of-ways or any other purpose.

The dynamics of forcing are fairly clearly understood. And we can correct its damaging effect on climate simply by reducing or stopping the offending emissions. “Feedback”, however, is a more complicated problem. It is the consequence of forcing, a process that is potentially much more dangerous because it sets in motion conditions that are beyond our control once we have initiated the global warming.

As the temperature of the atmosphere rises from forcing, secondary event begin to accelerate the warming. Carbon dioxide, for example, dissolves in the ocean to form carbonic acid, and the increasing acidity impairs the growth of the phytoplankton that transform CO2 into oxygen. Higher levels of CO2, therefore, handicap the process that is absorbing and reducing the problem gas. A similar effect occurs with terrestrial plants. They, too, absorb CO2. But temperatures and levels of CO2 beyond a certain threshold begin to slow growth and impede carbon dioxide uptake. Feedback, therefore, accelerates the warming process.

Other worrisome feedbacks also occur. Melting ice and snow in polar regions expose water and land to the warming effect of sunlight. Without the reflective cover of white, the so-called albedo effect, more surface heating increases the melting which, in turn, melts more ice and snow, thus causing more heating. This is why polar regions are warming at two to four times the rate at lower latitudes.

More feedback trends are occurring in polar regions. As permafrost melts, huge amounts of methane are released. In classical feedback fashion, the escaped methane heats the atmosphere, causes more permafrost to melt and releases more methane to melt even more permafrost. Similarly, cold and pressure hold vast quantities of methyl hydrates in solid storage at the bottom of northern oceans. As these oceans warm, the hydrates effervesce, release methane and heat the atmosphere to add even more warmth to the ecosystems.

Lay critics of climate change theory often confuse forcing with feedback. In the complex subject of global climate change, one misunderstanding has been clarified for deniers by the astute reply of a climatologist who made the simple distinction between forcing and feedback. Cloud formation is known to cause warming because it reflects radiant heat back to earth — this is why clear nights are usually cooler than cloudy ones. Deniers argue that the warming process is simply caused by more clouds. Clouds, however, are the result of atmospheric humidity. And higher temperatures increase the activity of the hydrological cycle. As greenhouse gases force up temperatures, humidity increases, clouds become more prevalent, and they become feedback that accelerates the warming.

These are examples of “positive feedback” — results we don’t want. But “negative feedback” can also occur to slow the global warming process. Volcanos are the best natural example. When millions of tonnes of sulphates and particles explode into the atmosphere by a huge eruption, the gas and debris reflect sunlight back into space. The planet can cool for years or decades, sometimes by as much as 2°C — some eruptions may have shifted the climate balance enough to initiate ice ages.

We can cause the same cooling effect by adding specific pollutants to the atmosphere. Climatologists noted a sudden and inexplicable rise in global temperatures during the 1980s, a rise that couldn’t be explained by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The spike in temperature was caused by efforts to reduce air pollution from the world’s factories and coal-burning thermal plants. The reduction in atmospheric sulphates and soot cleaned the air and accelerated planetary heating. The same process occurred during the days immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. With all passenger planes grounded over North America, the skies cleared of contrails and particulates, causing a surge in regional temperatures.

But most feedback is positive, amplifying the effect of forcing. Windstorms topple trees. Downed trees can no longer sequester carbon from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen. Decaying wood releases carbon dioxide and methane that become net contributors to the problem of global warming. So the snarl of chainsaws is more than just the simple aftermath of a windstorm.


Budget 2012: At Least the War on the Environment is Going Well


Until this year, the purpose of the annual Canadian federal budget was to project government revenues, lay out spending priorities and forecast economic conditions for the upcoming year. Reading Budget 2012, announced last week by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, it soon becomes clear that this government has no intention of being encumbered by pedestrian fiscal objectives. The Harper government has instead opted to present what is first and foremost a policy document – one that brazenly asserts the government’s ideological agenda for the coming three years.

If the overriding economic policy goal of this government was not apparent previously, with the release of Budget 2012, there can no longer be any doubt. The Harper gang has dispensed with even the pretense of meeting its basic environmental fiduciary responsibilities in favour of the almost totally unimpeded exploitation of Canadian resources. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May told me this week, the government is effectively telling the Canadian people that they plan “to eviscerate existing laws. This isn’t really a fiscal statement. They’ve used the budget as an instrument of massive overhaul of environmental law and policy and the overriding directive is oil and gas at all costs – the environment be damned.”

Should you happen to belong to the unlucky (and clearly misguided) lot with the audacity to be concerned about the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, this is not a budget for you. In fact, perhaps the best we can say about Budget 2012 is, as Rafe Mair put it, at least “we now have it in writing what the bastards are up to!”

Just how bad is it? Well, don’t take my word for it. Last week on CBC, the respected columnist Chantale Hebert of the Toronto Star, hardly an eco-zealot, said this was the most anti-environment budget she had seen in her 20 years covering Parliament Hill. Even the very moderate, if not conservative, editorial board of the Globe and Mail singled out the environmental provisions in the Budget saying “The Conservatives are continuing their dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups, in a budget item that stands out for adding a needless new cost.”

Steven Guilbeault of the NGO Équiterre said that the budget “seems to have been written for, and even by, big oil interests…the Harper government is gutting the environmental protections that Canadians have depended on for decades to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems.” And true to form, reaction from oil and gas companies, mining and pipeline companies has been predictably jubilant.

So just what does the Harper government plan to do? First, in what appears to be a return to the glory days of McCarthyism, the Harper gang plans to launch an $8 million campaign at Revenue Canada to investigate and crack down on environmental groups that the government deems are engaged in activities that are too political, including the extent to which these groups are funded by foreign sources.

There is no new funding for climate change programs. In fact the words climate change are mentioned only twice in passing in the entire 498 page budget plan.
The Conservatives will eliminate the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which was a panel of business and environmental leaders who made policy recommendations on a variety of sustainability issues. A widely respected, non-partisan agency, the Roundtable was founded by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1988. Its reports of late, however, had annoyed the government as they were mildly critical of their plans to achieve its stated objective of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The result? The Harper government has  killed them.
Environment Canada’s budget is being cut again, this time by 6%, along with grants for scientific research in universities.The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (or CEAA) is in line for a 40 per cent cut. Touting a ‘one project, one review’ principle, CEAA will be overhauled with federal responsibilities being downloaded on provinces; newly imposed timelines, and a limiting of the scope of reviews. Joint panel environmental reviews are to be limited to 24 months, National Energy Board hearings to 18 months and standard environmental assessments to one year. All this will be imposed retroactively, thereby impacting reviews, such as Northern Gateway, that are currently underway. The changes could jeopardize the capacity of people to participate in reviews and it further undermines the ultimate goal of reviews in ensuring environmental protection is a priority in all projects.
The budget does not renew funding for the popular EcoENERGY energy efficiency program. Minimal tax support will be given to ‘clean energy’ and energy efficiency, but only to the tune of $2 million – a tiny drop in the bucket in a multi-billion dollar budget.
Finally, some changes are planned for subsidies to the oil and gas industry on Canada’s East coast but tar sands subsidies remain untouched. Currently, $1.38 billion a year is allocated to energy development through subsidies.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Budget plan, the government is also widely suspected to be planning to gut key conservation provisions of Canada’s Fisheries Act, the nation’s most significant and oldest piece of environmental legislation. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network has also learned that that the Harper Conservatives are changing Canada’s mining regulations so that prospecting companies could soon have free-reign on reserve lands.

So what to make of all this? If the stakes weren’t so high, we may otherwise see this Budget as an unfortunate aberration, a government that clearly has an axe to grind or some kind of vendetta against environmental groups. Yet it’s important to appreciate the significance of what the Harper gang is trying to accomplish: namely, to clear the way for resource development projects that will not easily be undone. The environmental legacy of this government will be felt for a long time to come if they are permitted to implement their agenda unimpeded.

A prestigious conference was held last week, at which some of the world’s leading scientists and academics called for the official designation of a new earth epoch: the Anthropocene. Addressing the ‘Planet under Pressure’ gathering in London, England, scientists said that one species has left an indelible mark through climate change, dwindling fish stocks, continued deforestation, rapid species decline, and human population growth. Anthony Giddens, the British political scientist known for his holistic view of societies, described the Anthopocene as a “runaway world” in which we have unleashed processes more powerful than our attempts to control them.

It is against this dismal backdrop that our federal politicians have unleashed the anti-environmental provisions of Budget 2012 upon the Canadian people. I’ve recently been seeing a bumper sticker that captures quite nicely the priorities of our current federal government: “At least the war on the environment is going well.”


Climate Change: The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind


“The answer,” wrote Bob Dylan in his iconic ’60s anti-war song, “is blowin’ in the wind.” So the vicious winds that ravaged coastal BC on the morning of March 12th – sustained velocities of 100 km/hr with gusts measured at 137 km/hr – provided that answer.

Outbursts of nasty winds have been harassing coastal British Columbia with increasing frequency in recent years. Ferry sailings, the litmus test of heavy weather for islanders, have been cancelled often, reminding the attentive public and anxious travellers that the winds are once again abnormally high. The March blow, therefore, seemed almost ordinary, except for its intensity. It left 135,000 people without electricity, ripped shingles, roofing and siding off houses, sent driftwood across shoreline highways and parks, closed schools and disrupted businesses. Beloved old trees, lifetime companions, were uprooted or broken by the fierce winds, their smashed and battered parts strewn as wreckage across roads, yards, powerlines and even homes. As one stoical observer cynically noted, “It’s not global warming, it’s global wind-ing.”

If that’s the answer, the problem is that no particular weather event can be definitively attributed to global warming. Climate models predict more extreme weather for a warmer world – more severe storms, more intense rainfall and more protracted droughts. This might explain why Australia’s record “big dry” ended in record floods. And it might account for the devastating monsoons that drowned much of Pakistan. Manitoba has still not recovered a year after its flooding. Sudden storms and higher winds are just part of the parcel for an atmosphere that is hotter and more energized.

Of course, the details of weather are incredibly difficult to predict at any time, even with supercomputers. But the general principle is easily understood. Increased temperatures mean more active weather – somehow, somewhere. The global temperature rise since the beginning of industrialization about 250 years ago has been 1.6°C. BC’s experience of this trend has been a measured average increase of 0.25°C per decade for the last 65 years, an accelerating rise that has exceeded the worst case scenario predicted by the United Nations’ science experts at the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” will never be definitive because variations from normal weather patterns always occur; extreme variations should be rare. But frequent and extreme variations suggest something fundamental is amiss. And the trend should be worrisome.

We live and thrive in the normal. We manage our forests, catch our fish and grow our food based on the normal. We choose sites and build our houses based on normal conditions. The trees that shade them and embellish our properties do so under the grace of normal. We survive and flourish in the harmony of normal. The abnormal is always disruptive and threatening, something we don’t want to encounter. This explains why we prefer a reassuring answer to a troubling one, and why we are so reluctant to acknowledge the abnormal. Such an admission induces insecurity, anxiety and even fear.

This is the psychology underlying our collective reluctance to admit the significance of these recent windstorms and to accept the notion of global climate change. Psychologists would identify this inner dynamic as cognitive dissonance, an irresolvable conflict between preference and evidence. Our usual inclination is to favour preference – sometimes beyond the futility of denial – until dire events eventually force a reluctant realization.

Have the recent windstorms convinced anyone that global climate change is a reality? Have the heavy rains, record snowfalls on mountains, flooding events, melting permafrost, receding glaciers and pine beetle catastrophe been confirming evidence that the weather is different enough to be ascribed to something unusual? Did the mayhem caused by the March 12th storm create a moment of epiphany for those who heard the winds roar, who felt their houses tremble, who hoped anxiously that the next flying object or falling tree would miss anything they had built or owned or cherished?

Reality sometimes collides with credibility. After the March 12th wind had subsided and the weather turned an ironical and incongruous calm, the surrounding wreckage seemed alien, a bizarre figment of illusion that somehow didn’t correlate to ordinary experience. How can one day be so different from the day before? Where is the familiar tree that once filled the sky above the back yard? What flattened the fence? Has anyone seen the lawn furniture? Why is the roof leaking? The routine drive to work somehow became an obstacle course of wrenched branches, wayward driftwood, dangling powerlines and discarded possessions, as if familiar and dignified neighbourhoods had suddenly become bereft of the propriety and decorum that once identified them as orderly and respectable.

Perhaps, for some people, March 12th was no different than any other day, just another storm that brought more than the usual inconvenience – no “answer blowin’ in the wind”. But for others, the day was an epiphany, a sorry awakening, a clear answer that brought a helpless grieving for lost innocence.


OECD Report Predicts Dramatically Decreased Standard of Living Due to Environmental Destruction


Read this story from Agence France-Presse on a new report commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicting grave socioeconomic ramifications from increasing environmental problems. (March 16, 2012)

PARIS – Pressures on Earth’s ecosystem are now so great that future generations could be doomed to falling living standards, the OECD said on Thursday in a report looking to the mid-century.

“Providing for a further two billion people by 2050 and improving the living standards for all will challenge our ability to manage and restore those natural assets on which all life depends,” it warned.

“Failure to do so will have serious consequences, especially for the poor, and ultimately undermine the growth and human development of future generations.”

The report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) builds on previous peeks-into-the-future, ending in 2030, that focused on climate change, biodiversity and the impacts on health for pollution.

“The prospects are more alarming than the situation described in the previous edition,” it said, speaking of “irreversible changes that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards.”

Read more: http://www.canada.com/business/Environmental+crunch+worse+than+thought+OECD+2050+report/6313069/story.html


Decline of Climate Change Acceptance Scares Leading Scientists


Dr. Nina Federoff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said at a recent gathering of the AAAS in Vancouver that she is “scared to death” about the public’s declining acceptance of global warming and the growing influence of well-funded skeptics who are spreading misinformation about climate change (Times-Colonist, Feb. 27/12).

“I’m very worried,” she confided to reporters, noting leaked documents from the influential Heartland Institute of Chicago that reveal it is planning a program for US public schools intended to discredit the evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is creating world-wide environmental threats.

Dr. Federoff, of course, is from America where right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism have reacted so negatively to the reason and empiricism so crucial to scientific thought. Public support for the science of climate change is waning in the US, she noted, “even as the scientific consensus has increased.”

The AAAS meeting in Vancouver also provided Canadian scientists with an opportunity to voice their concern about this country’s version of the American problem. They complain that Canada’s federal government has been “muzzling” the scientists it employs, forcing them to vet any communication with the media through a complex process of centralized control that usually ends with no interviews at all, or with versions that are sufficiently sanitized to be politically comfortable. Dr. Andrew Weaver, Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, has expressed exasperation with this constraint on the public’s access to scientific information. While his colleague in the US, Dr. James Hansen – one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change – has even resorted to the extreme of civil disobedience to highlight his concern about government inaction and obstruction.

Although complaint and exasperation are more restrained responses than civil disobedience, they are stages on the way to being “very worried” and “scared to death”. Perhaps Dr. Federoff is just being more emotionally honest than many of her colleagues, simply revealing what the habit of scientific objectivity keeps them from expressing so candidly. But is being “scared to death” a legitimate response? What does she know about climate change that would provoke such fear?

Part of her fear may stem from living in America where the debilitating effect of a strong anti-science sentiment is keeping one of the principle political and economic forces on the planet from actively joining a world-wide effort to combat global climate change. If this critically important environmental issue is to be seriously addressed, it will need America’s full support. And, if the past is prelude to the future, this is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The implications are sobering given the consensus of scientific evidence about the environmental consequences of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Unless this science is fundamentally flawed, unless a technological miracle suddenly supplies massive amounts of clean energy, or unless a revolution in public opinion radically alters the disposition of global politics, the prognosis for climate normality is sobering.

Here is our present situation, as outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA), “widely considered as one of the most conservative in outlook” (Guardian Weekly, Nov. 18/11). Global emissions already consume 80 percent of the carbon allotment calculated to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide below 450 parts per million, the concentration that scientists predict will increase global temperatures above a critical 2°C tipping point. By 2015, at least 90 percent of this allotment will be used by energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, it will be all used, according to the IEA’s estimations, and we will have surpassed the critical 2°C tipping point (Ibid.).

Now juxtapose this assessment with the results of last December’s United Nations’ climate talks in Durban, South Africa. International negotiations for emission reductions will occur until 2015 and then unspecified targets – perhaps neither binding nor enforceable – will be in place by 2020.

In response to this tardy and vague objective, Fatih Birol, chief economist for the IEA, echoed Dr. Federoff’s words. “The door is closing,” he warned. “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [level of carbon dioxide for safety]. The door will be closed forever” (Ibid.).

We the public, the people of Canada and the world, must decide if this stark assessment is real, imaginary or the fabricated concoction of some global conspiracy intent on undermining the momentum of an economic, industrial and technological system that has been materially successful beyond our imagination. And we must weigh this success against the precious little time we have to halt immeasurable environmental mayhem. Then this decision must be conveyed to our leaders, by whatever political system we have, either to effect the rapid change required to avert a crisis, or to live with the risk and continue as if the scientific assessment of our situation is faulty. It’s a sobering decision.

Perhaps, in making this decision, we might each ask ourselves why Nina Federoff is “scared to death”.


Audio: Damien Gillis Talks Tar Sands PR, Muzzling of Science on CFUV


Get MP3 (22 MB)

Listen to this interview of Damien Gillis on Victoria’s CFUV 101.9 FM by the Hidden News’ host Mehdi Najari. The pair discuss a range of topics, including the Harper Government’s taxpayer-funded Tar Sands PR campaign and the characterization of environmentalists and citizens opposed to the proposed Enbridge pipelines as radicals and threats to the national interest. What is the world’s scientific community saying about Canada’s muzzling of scientists and cutting off funding to key research projects and regulatory bodies – and how is that damaging Canada’s global reputation? (19 min – from March 7, 2012)