The Red Green Show

Stephane Dion’s surprising smackdown of the Liberal backroom boys was not just highly amusing, it may also signal a much-needed infusion of new blood into Canada's "natural governing party".

More importantly however, it showed that the old Liberal powerbrokers had grossly miscalculated the growing importance of the environment to Canadians as the defining issue of coming century.

As a longtime environmentalist, I can attest that the political machinery of all leading parties have never really treated this issue as anything more than a baby kissing photo op. Seeing Chrétien at the podium last weekend thundering about how he had championed Kyoto, while his government presided over a 25% increase in carbon emissions was a stomach-churning case in point.

However, the days when such empty rhetoric would pass public muster appear to have thankfully come to an end. An Environics poll this month showed that the environment is now second only to health care as the leading issue for Canadians. This rapid climb from public opinion obscurity has been astonishing.

In the 1990’s the environment as the leading issue to Canadians hovered around 5%. Even in the last election, only 4% of Canadians felt it was the most important issue. Five months ago, it had risen to 10%. Last month’s poll showed the environment was the leading issue for 13% of Canadians – ahead of the economy, the mission in Afghanistan or crime.

On climate change specifically, the numbers are even more compelling. In 1999, only 2% of Canadians polled thought global warming was the leading environmental problem facing the country. By 2004 that figure had risen to 4%. Last year it was 7%. By this year it had rocketed up to 20%.

This surge of support for a clean and healthy environment shows no signs of slowing and Mr.Dion shrewdly surfed this wave to victory past his party’s establishment, and the anointed frontrunners. His 53-page energy and climate platform clearly distinguished him from other candidates in the running, and struck a chord with younger delegates whose future hangs in the balance.

The sea change of public opinion is being driven by a realization by average Canadians of the enormous implications of global warming. This is a culmination of ever more stark scientific findings on what a climate altered Canada would mean for our children, as well as what Canadians are seeing already with their own eyes.

Vancouver just ended the largest boil water advisory in Canadian history as a result of record-breaking storms battering the BC coast. Recent research from the University of Washington shows that this type of “extreme” weather on Canada’s west coast will likely become the norm as a warmer North Pacific Ocean churns out more powerful and wetter winter storms.

Warming winters in BC have allowed an explosion in the mountain pine beetle population, which now affects an area of forest three times the size of Vancouver Island and is growing by 40% every year. By the time this epidemic has run it’s course it will have impacted 25,000 forest dependant families in 80 BC communities and obliterated $20 billion dollars in commercial timber.

Canadians are waking up to such challenges and are looking for leaders with vision and commitment that will lead our country into the new century. Mr. Dion appears to be such a man and his victory will provide Canadians a very clear choice in the next election.

For his part, Stephen Harper’s credibility on the climate file is only slightly more balmy than absolute zero. His much-hyped Clean Air Act was widely ridiculed as an empty ruse that would do nothing to cap carbon emissions until at least 2020.

Last April, Harper signaled his disdain for fighting global warming by abruptly canceling fifteen federal programs meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last month he axed a further five related programs at Agriculture Canada, bizarrely asking the soon-to-be-redundant public servants to help with media spin control.

While Harper is no eco-hero, he is also a shrewd and capable politician. Can Dion beat him at the polls? Given that Dion has just vanquished the most seasoned political veterans in his own party, so far I am impressed.

If he does become Prime Minister it remains to be seen whether the Liberal party, which in the past has failed miserably to reduce carbon emissions, can be trusted to deliver on this critical issue.

However, Mr. Dion’s victory over not only his rivals but the party establishment means two things: Not only does he now hold the reins of power to begin to effect such changes, he will also face much less internal opposition from the hoary pragmatists in his party that have blocked such progress in the past.

Godspeed Mr. Dion. I might just vote for you.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Waterworld in Lotusland

Feeling wet? Get used to it.

The storms battering the B.C. coast this fall are a small taste of what our climate-altered future has in store for us. And although scientists have been steadily churning out increasingly troubling predictions about our changing climate, it seems that our development-minded politicians have had little time to read them.

This is leaving parts of the Lower Mainland woefully unprepared for the one-two punch of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels.

A case in point: the city of Richmond and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu both have an average elevation of only one perilous metre above sea level. Scientists are predicting eventual worldwide sea-level increases of more than seven metres. The government of Tuvalu is so alarmed by this that they have negotiated an arrangement with New Zealand to evacuate their entire population as their country disappears under the waves.

You certainly don’t hear about any plans to evacuate Richmond. In fact, nowhere in Richmond’s official community plan does the phrase "sea level" make an appearance.

The only reference to climate change is a commitment to “continue to monitor environmental trends and adjust city policies and programs as required”. This document was last amended in 1999.

However, there are signs that this elephant in the room is attracting some notice. A recent city-staff report to Richmond city council cited the need to amend Richmond’s flood-protection management strategy, which dates back to 1989.

The report appears to be the first effort to include climate change in city planning and assumes that sea levels will rise 35 centimetres by the next century. However, the authors also note that Canadian government researchers estimate that there is now a “high confidence” that the world’s oceans will rise by almost double that amount by 2100.

The challenge facing low-lying municipalities such as Richmond illustrates the implications of our changing climate and how many impacts will be felt very close to home.

In the past few years, climate scientists have drastically increased the predicted sea-level rises caused by climate change. Rising waters are due to both the thermal expansion of the world’s oceans as they warm and the release of massive amounts of water from melting ice sheets.

A recent NASA analysis of data from its GRACE satellite shows that Greenland’s ancient and massive frozen storehouse of water is pouring into the ocean faster than anyone anticipated, leading to predictions of an eventual long-term sea-level rise of almost seven metres from melting Greenland ice alone. Although it is highly unlikely that sea levels would rise that much in the near future, the long-term trend is very bad news for low-lying areas throughout the world, including Richmond.

So why haven’t these startling findings found their way into Richmond’s urban planning? One possible explanation is the blistering pace of growth in the city. Housing starts in the city increased by a record 40 percent between 2004 and 2005. The total value of building construction for permits issued in 2005 hit an unprecedented $499 million.

Richmond now has a population of more than 180,000, with a growth rate of four percent over the past two years. With that kind of increase, who wants to hear about a coming deluge?

If anyone is wondering, climate experts are clear on the local implications of rising sea levels. In a phone interview from Ottawa, James Bruce, a former Environment Canada scientist and expert on climate change, described Richmond as “a disaster waiting to happen…within 50 years, [rising sea levels in Richmond are] going to be a very significant problem.

“Our best estimates are that sea levels have been rising by about three centimetres in the last decade, and it seems to have accelerated in the last decade. That suggests that sea level might go up by somewhere between 20 and 40 centimetres by 2050.”

According to Bruce, even that projection may be overly optimistic. “Some people think that is a very conservative estimate and that the recent evidence of more rapid melting of the ice in Greenland, for example, suggests that we might well exceed those figures…”

It is important to remember that Richmond is not in the open ocean like Tuvalu and is not currently threatened by tropical cyclones. Low-lying areas such as Richmond are not one day simply under water due to rising oceans—the initial threat comes first from storm surges like the one that overtopped levees in New Orleans with tragic results. That makes increased storm activity and rising sea levels a deadly pairing, and something we should be keenly aware of here in B.C.

Last fall, about 200 waterfront homes in South Delta were damaged when a vicious storm breached the berm in front of the structures, causing more than $2 million in damage. The recent storms drenching the coast and flooding the Fraser Valley are a further sign of things to come.

A recent study out of the University of Washington shows that winter storms in the Pacific Northwest are predicted to dump 15 percent more precipitation on the B.C. coast by the end of the century.

“The atmosphere becomes more energetic because of climate change. It’s not just the temperature increase, but the increased temperature drives a more vigorous circulation,” Eric Salathé, a scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Oceans (which published the study last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters), stated in a release.

That is bad news for B.C., Salathé noted ominously: “Alaska will really get it—Alaska and the British Columbia coast.”

Bruce agreed. “Winter storm activity has been increasing in the northern hemisphere for the last 30 to 40 years. That means that you could get quite significant storm surges on top of that rising sea. The evidence is very strong that wave heights have risen significantly in the Pacific and the Atlantic as the climate was warmed in the last 40 years.”

Given all that, Bruce feels, “You have a scenario that could easily give you problems in Richmond fairly frequently by 2050.”

Is there anything from an engineering point of view that will solve this problem in the long term? “No,” said Hadi Dowlatabadi, a Vancouver-based Canada Research Chair in global change at UBC and an expert on the impacts of climate change. “Not really. Not forever—unless we stop climate change in its tracks.” He believes that in the long term, overreliance on engineering solutions such as sea walls can make the daunting situation like the one facing Richmond even worse.

“The problem is that the more we rely on sea walls, the more we will be under the illusion that we are safe. The safer we feel, the more we will invest in capital behind a wall that eventually will collapse just like in New Orleans…The [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers, by building the levees, set New Orleans up for exactly the disaster that happened. It’s sad, but it’s predictable.”

Dowlatabadi said that the most effective strategy in the short term is to ensure protection from big storms, something that is already partly there in the form of Vancouver Island. “I can imagine highly valued areas and highly influential property owners requesting construction of ever more prominent sea walls…But these will get overwhelmed by sea-level rise and storms eventually.”

The Dutch are world experts at reclaiming land from the sea by building dikes and then farming below sea level. But in recent years, they are rethinking this expensive practice. “The Netherlands is actually allowing many of their sea walls to collapse because they are finding their continued maintenance costing too much compared to the income these generate,” Dowlatabadi said. “Even though Amsterdam [Schiphol] Airport is six metres below sea level, the Dutch are careful not to develop towns in areas of high risk.”

He also pointed out that we currently lack insurance mechanisms that reflect the true costs of increasing flood and storm damage due to climate change. Earlier this year, this led a number of insurance companies in the U.S. to cease offering insurance in areas that are prone to such risks because of large storms and hurricanes, from the Florida Keys to New York state’s Long Island.

“Our research shows that development strategy on the coast has a huge effect on the eventual cost of sea-level rise to the community. If you have a community that allows repeated repair of shoreline properties after each damaging event, the total repairs will grow to be much larger in value than the cost of abandoning the land earlier on,” Dowlatabadi said. “It is like having a clunker that you keep repairing instead of buying a newer, more reliable car.”

He noted that rising sea levels also raise an important issue related to social justice. “The poor are in the same pool of risk as the rich who are living on the waterfront, and the premiums the poorer households pay reflect repairs to the damages of the rich…It’s ridiculous. We need bands of insurance risk that are much more specific than the [projected] 50-year and 100-year floodplains. In Florida, super-expensive shorefront homes are no longer included in the insurance pool underwritten by private companies. We need to signal the magnitude of risk to residents of each area through higher insurance premiums and perhaps higher taxes where the city has undertaken risk-reduction measures such as sea walls. However, this is where reliance on simple market forces may not be enough, and urban planners should step in—and with growth plans that reflect long-term risks of earthquakes and floods.”

This point is particularly poignant in Richmond, where homeowners are not even able to buy flood insurance. The recent report to Richmond city council calls for flood covenants and indemnity clauses for all discretionary development. This indicates that although development is not yet being discouraged, the city—like insurance companies—does not want to be held responsible if things get wet.

According to the staff report, Richmond currently has a perimeter dike system “designed to withstand a 1-in-200-year flood event [that] has been constructed around Lulu Island, protecting most of Richmond from all but extraordinary flooding”. This dike system is designed to be two feet higher than the highest water level ever recorded—in 1894.

The problem is that sea levels have already risen by 20 centimetres since then. Making matters worse, the entire Fraser River delta is sinking at a rate of one millimetre per year due to the accumulated weight of fresh sediments being dropped by the river. Given the situation facing areas such as Richmond, one would think it would be wise to direct population growth to areas less at risk from rising oceans. Is this happening?

“No, the opposite is happening,” said Tom Lancaster, Vancouver manager of advisory services for Smart Growth B.C. “We are seeing Richmond emerge as one of the new regional growth centres, which it wasn’t designated as in the [GVRD’s] Livable Region Strategic Plan [LRSP].”

The LRSP is supposed to direct where population growth takes place in the Lower Mainland, but proposed revisions have proven so contentious it hasn’t been updated since being written in 1996. One of the things the plan has not done is stop the expansion of Richmond as a growth centre.

According to Lancaster, “From the regional-planning perspective, the tail seems to be wagging the dog. The growth taking place in Richmond will probably force the GVRD to write Richmond into the next iteration of the LRSP as a regional growth centre.”

Richmond was never supposed to be a growth centre because of the enormous risk posed by areas with soils that will liquefy in the inevitable event of a large earthquake. Rising sea levels are just the latest reason to avoid densification there.

Lancaster also added that the $2-billion Canada line will not help. “A lot of that growth is being facilitated by the emergence of a new rapid-transit line connecting Vancouver with Richmond. In the context of risk-mitigation from rising sea levels, it’s one of the silliest things we could do.”

Why is regional planning not taking into account such an important issue? Lancaster offered these thoughts: “Planning in B.C. is limited by politics. Politicians don’t tend to want to work together for long-term goals. If they can be seen to be bringing in money to their municipality by doing development in places where development hasn’t happened before, they are dumping money into the coffers of their municipalities. Property developers don’t tend to look at long-term risks because once you develop a property and sell it, typically you walk away…From the paradigm of the development industry, there’s absolutely no point in looking at rising sea levels and the effect on properties that are being developed right now.”

Politicians have so far had the luxury of treating the enormous implications of climate change as mere hypotheticals that some future government would have to deal with. Much precious time has been wasted. Our changing climate is coming home to roost—whether we are ready or not. This will require fundamental changes in how we live and how we plan communities, not just in places like Tuvalu and Bangladesh but here in B.C.

The sooner we get on with that important work, the better.

Because it is going to get wet.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This was published in the Georgia Straight on November 23, 2006.


Bad Climate Theatre

Is it just me or are international climate conferences looking more and more like lousy theatre? Predictable plots, rigid scripting, boring outcomes - its all there. The latest outing in Nairobi was no exception - here's my review of this stinker:

The award for worst acting in a minor role must surely go to Canada's own Rona Ambrose. With so many political posers from around the world, the competition for this ignoble honour was certainly stiff. However, the pained attempts to deliver her lines with sincerity were excruciating for everyone, especially the audience. How about this for awful dialogue: “We are on track to meet all of our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, but not the targets.”

Good absurdist comedy - or surrealism perhaps - but clearly not what the crowd was looking for. “What kind of misleading nonsense is this?" howled Steven Guilbeault, the climate critic from Greenpeace. "Completely idiotic” panned Liberal MP John Godfrey.

Admittedly, it was the rigid and wooden direction by Stephen Harper that was the real showstopper. Without any flexibility for improvisation, both the audience and the players may as well have gone home early.

Secretary General Kofi Annan who opened the event was the latest in a Greek chorus of world leaders to name climate change a leading threat to the future of humanity. This made the milquetoast commitment as the curtain came down - largely to hold more meetings - even more disappointing.

Then there was the backdrop that made this predictable set piece such an exploration in rich irony. The unfolding tragedy of global warming is very real and the victims with the best seats in the house will be impoverished Africans.

However, the world’s wealthy nations seemed to do little more than fill the luxury hotels of Nairobi for two weeks accomplishing almost nothing on a global emergency created largely by the western lifestyle that will disproportionately devastate the world’s poorest continent.

Fourteen countries in Africa already endure devastating water shortages. This number is expected to increase to twenty-five by 2030. Recent research shows that global warming will reduce overall rainfall in southern Africa 10% by 2050.

Small-scale farming produces most of the food in Africa. It also provides employment for 70% of the working people. Global climate change will dangerously undermine the ability of Africans to feed and support themselves by making these droughts far more likely. The last major drought in southern Africa in 2002 left over 14 million people in need of direct food aid.

It is also no small irony that human induced climate change is as much of an imposition on the developing world as the economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

The average American produces sixty five times as much carbon dioxide per capita as someone who lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 1980 and 2001, Africa was one of very few areas of the world to experience a decline in per capita carbon dioxide emissions – not because of conservation efforts but due to increasing poverty.

The world’s climate scientists are telling us that our choices in the next five years will determine nothing less than the fate of the planet – melodramatic I know, but the truth nonetheless. The script for a climate-altered Africa reads as a far greater tragedy than the present.

One would think that with that much at stake we would be treated to little more drama when the world’s leaders gather to supposedly hammer out a solution. The problem is that all the meetings to date have seemed hollow rehearsals for the day when we actually chose to take this issue seriously rather than just go through the motions. If the actors don’t care then why should the audience?

I don’t have high hopes that when the curtain rises on the next climate conference in 2008 the show will be any more compelling. There is no doubt however that these wooden productions will one day be replaced with genuine desire for action - forced on us through the imperatives of an increasingly violent and unpredictable climate. The question is: how much precious time will be wasted in the interim?

I dearly wish international climate conferences were just lousy theatre - then we would only be out of pocket about two hours and $20. As it is, the real cost of such failed and boring productions is quite a bit more.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Our Fishless Future

Tuna, Salmon, Cod. Imagine trying to explain to your grandchildren what they tasted like. This grim scenario was laid out last week in a groundbreaking study published in the world’s most prestigious research journal, Science.

Dr. Boris Worm from Dalhousie University led the investigation, which predicts a near complete collapse of ocean ecosystems by 2048. While the scale of this catastrophe seems right out of science fiction, the implications are very real.

Scientists looked at records around the world and throughout history to get a picture of where the world’s fish stocks have been and where they are going. The projected line of steady decline hits bottom at 2048, the year Dr. Worm predicts the world’s oceans will largely be populated only by toxic algae.

This apocalyptic future is the twin prodigy of ever more efficient fishing technology, coupled with incompetent and shortsighted government policy. Far from leading the world in solving this problem, Canada is one of the worst offenders and our story is a telling study on how the world ended up in this mess.

For years, Ottawa has consistently opposed restrictions on the use of dragger technology, a widely used fishing method that is so wasteful and destructive that our fishless descendants may well marvel at our collective stupidity.

Dragger boats do exactly that, dragging a net weighing several thousand pounds across the ocean floor, with predictable and devastating impacts on sensitive bottom habitat. The net can be large enough to swallow a 747, and anything swept up by this maw is long dead by the time it is hauled up on deck.

“By-catch” is the quaint euphemism used by both industry and government to describe the enormous volumes of unwanted marine life dumped overboard, which can make up over 90% of the catch. It is akin to picking apples by first cutting down the tree.

Ottawa recently joined our traditional fishing foes, Spain and Iceland, to block a proposed international moratorium on draggers on the high seas. Canadian fishermen do almost no dragging in international waters, so why would our government collude with countries we have in the past called “fish pirates” in blocking the protection of international fish stocks? Even George Bush supports this UN sponsored effort.

Documents obtained through access to information reveal that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is apparently worried that such a prohibition might undermine their ability to allow the continued scouring of the ocean floor within Canadian waters.

This latest incident illustrates a culture of incompetence within DFO that almost defies comprehension. Having presided over the obliteration of our once-legendary cod stocks, this moribund department then allowed west coast salmon stocks to be fished close to extinction.

The response to this self-created problem was to create yet another, when it became department policy to aggressively promote net-pen aquaculture, now implicated in the massive infection of wild fish with parasites from these so-called “salmon farms”.

The case study of a wealthy, developed country such as Canada destroying our own fisheries resources through shortsighted motives and sheer stupidity has been repeated around the world. Fishing in international waters, where virtually no laws apply or are enforced, poses an even more daunting challenge.

The challenge now facing the world is essentially one of morality. This is the first time in history that we have the ability to catch virtually every fish in the ocean. Because we can, does that mean we will? It seems that morality has become essential not only for our own survival, but for the survival of most other life now sharing the planet with its new childish gods.

While time is short to save the world’s oceans, there is much we can do - if that is our choice.

Marine protected areas that are off-limits to commercial fishing have been shown to be highly effective at restoring ecosystems and repopulating adjacent areas.

Selective commercial fishing methods that do not destroy bottom habitat are not only less wasteful, but produce higher quality fish and provide more employment than dragger boats.

Certain forms of aquaculture such as catfish, trout and shellfish are not dependent on fishmeal as food, and can buy us some time to restore global ocean ecosystems.

Lastly, we need bold and principled leadership, starting at home. Incredibly, some of the same DFO bureaucrats that presided over the collapse of the cod are not only still in positions of power, they have since been promoted. This department is long overdue for a complete overhaul and many of these individuals should quite simply be fired – if not frogmarched to the curb. There is no time to waste being polite.

The scientists at Dalhousie deserve our gratitude for so clearly and convincingly showing where past and present practices are leading us. Let us hope we have the courage to change that path before it is too late.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Made in Canada Sellout

Ever wonder why the Canadian government keeps saying it's impossible to meet our international commitments to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto accord?

The truth is Canada’s ability to comply with Kyoto was quietly killed on December 18, 2002 - just one day after our ratification papers for the global climate treaty were proudly presented to the United Nations.

This shocking betrayal came in the form of a personal letter from then Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It guaranteed such sweeping concessions to the oil and gas sector that complying with Kyoto was virtually impossible without shutting down large sectors of the rest of the economy.

Among other things, Ottawa committed to the fossil fuel sector that they would “set emission intensity targets for the oil and gas sector at no more than 15% below the projected business-as-usual levels for 2010.”

Industrial emitters like the oil sector account for over 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. This quiet corporate give-away meant that the rest of the Canadian economy, namely you and me, would have to cut our emissions by more 40% - assuming we want to comply with international law.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has cheerfully increased their emissions by 47% since 1990, and they are set to double again in the next decade.

But wait, there's more. This letter also committed that the oil industry would pay no more than $15/tonne for greenhouse gas offsets until 2012. What a bargain! A study conducted for the National Climate Change Process estimated the true costs of such offsets are more like $250/tonne.

Given these sweeping concessions to the fossil fuel lobby, complying with Kyoto is now virtually impossible. For instance, we could shut down the entire transportation sector in Canada (a mere 25% of all emissions) and still not meet our Kyoto commitments.

This also creates the convenient situation where those pundits who appose any meaningful movement on climate policy can crow that Kyoto is not doable and never was.

Realistically, the likelihood of Stephen Harper, an Alberta Tory, reneging on this remarkable sellout to the oil industry is vanishingly small. The reason this deal was was so crucial to the oil sector is because the Alberta oil sands development produces such astronomical carbon emissions.

So energy intensive is this bitumen boondoggle, it takes up to 1,500 cubic feet of clean natural gas to produce one barrel of dirty crude. The oil sands now consume 600 million cubic feet of natural gas per day – enough to heat 3.2 million Canadian homes.

The gluttonous appetite of the tar sands for dwindling natural gas supplies is expected to more than triple by 2012. Hence the need for the proposed 1,200 km Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline from the Artic Ocean to Fort McMurray, at a cost of $7.5 billion.

Besides the fact that this outrageously inefficient project creates three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil development, why would it even make economic sense to convert our finite deposits of natural gas into oil? From an energy efficiency point of view, we are turning caviar into Kraft dinner.

The simple answer is that China needs oil to fuel their ballooning love affair with the automobile. There is only so much oil in the world and politicians are falling all over themselves to sell it, even as they publicly spout platitudes about climate change.

``So when Harper rolls out his “Made in Canada” strategy, don’t expect much. We will likely see the usual tough talk minus any deadlines. More cynically, the government spin-doctors will also attempt to deflect attention away from inaction on climate change by talking instead about smog.

This hoary tactic of attempting to confuse the public by talking about smog and greenhouse gases interchangeably is typically reserved for only the most desperate PR situations. That time is now.

If there is a bright side, it’s that this is what early childhood educators would call “a learning moment”. The planet’s life support systems do not fail all at once, or even gradually over time. Our environment is degraded incrementally – bad decision by bad decision. It is important to take note of such milestones. This one happens to be a doosey.

In their pedantic and qualified way, the world’s leading scientists are telling us that climate change is the nothing short of a hair-on-fire planetary emergency. The most recent study was presented last week by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, showing the Earth has not been this warm in the last 12,000 years.

"If further global warming reaches 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know. The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about 3 million years ago, when sea level was estimated to have been about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today," Hansen said.

Assuming we want to avoid that outcome, there are some practical options. While the Canadian oil and gas lobby has been spectacularly successful at bullying our government, their counterparts elsewhere in the world have taken a very different tack.

For instance, British Petroleum in the UK committed in 1998 to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2010 – a target they reached in 2003, seven years ahead of schedule. Thirteen major UK companies including PB and Shell also penned an open letter to Tony Blair urging clear and strong regulation of greenhouse gases, and a long term plan that would further reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Another case in point is California, with a population similar to Canada. Many of us cringed when the “Terminator” became Governor, but Schwarzenegger last month signed a landmark deal that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020, making California the first US state to legislate a cap on emissions.

Regulation of greenhouse gases will come sooner or later, whether industry likes it or not. Business leaders in other countries have taken the long view that it is better to volunteer than be drafted. Governments elsewhere have provided clear goalposts to those industries and got on with the business of governing.

Ottawa can step back from our emerging image as a global climate pariah, and take a leadership role on creating a sustainable future. However, the first step must be to tear up the sweetheart deal with the oil industry.

Mitchell Anderosn is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. A related piece ran on the Tyee on October 4, 2006


The Satellite that Could Save the World

At a time when the Earth’s climate is at the top of practically every nation’s agenda, it might seem perplexing that there’s a $100-million, fully-completed climate-sensing spacecraft languishing in a warehouse in Maryland.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was supposed to be delivered five years ago to the L1 Lagrangian point—a gravity-neutral parking spot between the Earth and the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away that affords a continuous, sunlit view of the planet.

From that lofty vantage, DSCOVR would beam back our first-ever measurements of the entire planet’s energy balance and reflectivity, known as albedo. This is critical data for calibrating climate change models and monitoring the progress of global warming. Yet the mission was quietly killed this year, so the satellite remains sitting in a box at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Could the decision to kill DSCOVR have anything to do with the politics of climate science? For years, Republicans have claimed the need for more data before acting to curb global warming. A letter President Bush wrote to four Republican senators in March 2001 (after DSCOVR’s endorsement by a National Academy of Sciences review panel) referred to “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.”

More recently, in a 2005 briefing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan asserted that “there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the science of climate change.” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Head of the Climate Analysis Section at National Center for Atmospheric Research, said, “It is as if the administration prefers to continue to hide behind lack of definitive data as an
excuse for lack of action and leadership.”

According to Dr. Jonah Colman, who does climate modeling at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “the availability of DSCOVR for inter-comparison between other measurements” would reconcile discrepancies in data from low-earth orbit satellites. “Albedo is incredibly important,” he added. “It can change quickly, and we currently do not have a direct method for measuring it. DSCOVR would have given us that.”

Project leader Dr. Francisco P. J. Valero, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, describes the mission as “an urgent necessity.” Dr. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, is even more blunt about the importance of DSCOVR’s data: “Not knowing may kill us.”

If we’re interested in understanding how climate changes and how to predict what’s going to happen next, DSCOVR would appear to be a crucial undertaking. So what happened? The loss of the Columbia shuttle certainly didn’t help, but the real killer of this project seems to have been partisan politics.

Back in 1998, Al Gore championed a probe that would broadcast real-time images of Earth to the Internet at the relatively cheap cost of $20 million. Named Triana (after the sailor on Columbus’ voyage who first spotted the New World), Gore hoped the probe would foster greater awareness of the fragility of the planet. The idea had come to him in a dream.

After peer review, the mission was upgraded to allow the spacecraft to continuously monitor the energy budget of the entire planet—the first one ever with this capability—making it a much more credible mission The name was later changed from Triana to DSCOVR—likely in the hope of jettisoning the Gore-dream political baggage.

Republicans didn’t buy it. In 1999, GOP Congressmen put the project on ice, dubbing it the “Goresat,” a “multimillion-dollar screen saver.” Dick Armey, then House Majority Leader quipped, “This idea supposedly came from a dream. Well, I once dreamed I caught a 10-foot bass. But I didn’t call up the Fish and Wildlife service and ask them to spend $30 million to make sure it happened.”

Lost in the partisan grandstanding was the critically important science behind DSCOVR. In January 2006, NASA quietly canceled DSCOVR altogether, citing “competing priorities.”

Many in the scientific community are incredulous that such an important mission might be lost to rank partisanship. “Gore favored it,” says Dr. Park. “This administration is determined that a Gore experiment is not going to happen. It’s inconceivable to me.” The director of public information for the American Physical Society, Dr. Park says, “I probably talk to more physicists than anyone else in the country. They all think this is tragic.” Climate analyst Trenbeth said, “It makes no sense to me at all either from an economic or a scientific viewpoint. That leaves politics.”

The Ukrainian government offered to launch DSCOVR free of charge aboard a Tsyklon II rocket, the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. France made a similar offer using one of its rockets. But NASA’s response so far has been “no thanks.” Not helping matters, Congress recently raided the NASA budget to the tune of $568.5 million for 198 non-peer reviewed “Congressional interest items”—otherwise known as pure political pork.

DSCOVR is not entirely dead yet. The NOAA is considering bankrolling the launch because DSCOVR could better warn of solar storms, protecting expensive communications satellites. Until then, assuming it’s not stripped for parts, DSCOVR will remain in a box at Goddard until a change in the political winds sends it to its rightful place at L1.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran in the August/September issue of SEED Magazine.


Harper's Big Lie

What a difference an election makes. Just five short months ago Stephen Harper was on the campaign trail, apparently sincerely indignant about entrenched Ottawa secrecy. Now as Prime Minister, he has executed an accountability flip-flop that would give an Olympic gymnast whiplash.

The “Federal Accountability Act”, the cornerstone of Harper’s successful election campaign, was revealed last month as a not only a sham, but a dangerous step backwards for government transparency.

This scathing critique came from none other than the federal Information Commissioner John Reid, the man who holds the duty of reporting to parliament on the issue.

In a town known for it’s bureaucratic doublespeak, Reid was refreshing frank: "No previous government has put forward a more retrograde and dangerous set of proposals to change the Access to Information Act.”

Instead of increasing government accountability and transparency, Commissioner Reid said this highly hyped bill will instead "reduce the amount of information available to the public, weaken the role of the information commissioner and increase the government's ability to cover up wrongdoing, shield itself from embarrassment and control the flow of information to Canadians."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the official government overseer on transparency issues. Why is Reid so outraged?

The new act adds fully ten new exemptions for the government to refuse public access to documents – eight of which would allow bureaucrats to withhold documents without providing any reason, or without any provision for a public interest over-ride. Bureaucrats are also not obligated to create records that could later be requested by the public. Draft audits will not be released for 15 years. Documents relating to investigations of government wrongdoing would be sealed forever.

Harper is also seeking to exclude documents from the PMO or minister offices from the pesky information requests altogether. According to Reid, “it is clear that the government is seeking to find a way to appear to give a right of access to records held in the PMO and ministers’ offices, without actually doing so.”

Lets try and peel back the onion-layers of irony in all this. Harper shrewdly campaigned and won on an agenda of cleaning up Ottawa corruption. He pledged to the Canadian electorate that the passage of a meaningful accountability act was his number-one priority. Many Canadians, myself included, strongly supported rooting out Ottawa rot and implementing sweeping changes to increase government transparency and public access to information.

This makes the recent revelations not merely disappointing, but alarming. In the words of Commissioner Reid, “the new government has done exactly the things for which its predecessor had been ridiculed…All of the positions the government now takes in the discussion paper are contrary to the positions the Conservative Party took, and its leader espoused, during the election campaign.”

It seems that federal conservatives were subscribing to the “Big Lie” school of public discourse in the last election. Rather than creating a new covenant of openness, the bill appears instead to be a Trojan horse to significantly increase the potential for governments to indulge in secrecy and arrogance.

What has been lost in this deception is the opportunity to finally entrench a culture of honesty and transparency in Ottawa. As became abundantly clear under the Liberals, all governments have a finite shelf life before unseemly ethical rot sets in. Meaningful safeguards of public access to information are critical to avoid the need for tawdry spectacles like the Gomery Inquiry.

In contrast, Harper has revealed an almost paranoid fixation on concealing information from the public in general, and from the media in particular. More troubling still is the resemblance of what is happening here to the wholesale erosion of information rights south of the border. This does not bode well for avoiding future scandals, or for protecting the underpinnings of our free and open society. In the words of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Protecting information rights is like doing the dishes – its a chore that never ends, but you don’t want to stop doing it either. Commissioner Reid deserves our thanks and gratitude for his courageous frankness. Now it falls on the Canadian public to ensure that we do not meekly allow the government to take away our information rights, while deceiving us in the process.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


The Joy of Not Knowing

I love science, but it has a lot to answer for. Like a heckler at a magic show, rational western thought has rudely unmasked many of the mysteries of the universe that were the basis of our collective wonder for millennia. Many of us were given the grim impression that everything had been figured out, even if the answers were incredibly boring.

This has taken a heavy spiritual toll. Many people, myself included, have drooped under the burden of living in a world where everything seems to be known, where all mysteries have been answered. The basis of spiritual belief is wonder. How can we live in a world without it?

Yet something remarkable is happening in laboratories around the world. Wonder is making a comeback. The evolving world of quantum physics is making us question the very nature of reality, the universe and ourselves.

Quantum physics is the study of the very small and the very fast. When we look at things on that scale the world is a very different place than the one familiar to us.

Try to imagine that tiny particles of matter don’t actually exist in any one place - that they instead exist only in an ethereal cloud of “probabilities”- a kind of quantum limbo.

While these probabilities give a good idea of where to look for a given speck of matter, these tiny bits of the universe don’t snap into existence until we look at them.

It gets weirder.

Particles can become “entangled”– even if they are on opposite sides of the universe. If you change one by observing it, the other instantaneously changes to have the exactly same properties – ignoring the speed of light.

All this was too much even for Einstein – a man who believed “imagination is more important than knowledge”. He called such entanglements “spooky” and spent much of his latter life trying in vain to disprove quantum theory. Yet it is now described as “the most precisely tested and most successful theory in the history of science”. And the more we look, the weirder it gets.

A recent poll showed most physicists believe many parallel universes exist, that they are superimposed on each other and interact in some way.

Or how about “wormholes”? These are imagined cosmic shortcuts through space and time, or perhaps between different universes. Again they are widely considered possible, if not likely, by mainstream scientists.

While Quantum theory does a superb job of predicting what will happen at a very small scale, the why’s and how’s of this weird world remain completely unknown.

It seems that science is not just exploring the outer limits of human knowledge, but human imagination as well. " As the famous physicist Neils Bohr said, “Anyone who is not shocked by the quantum theory has not understood it."

So what does this have to do with spirituality? Many people are drawing spiritual inspiration from the possibilities posed by quantum physics. For instance, the film “What the Bleep Do We Know” made a big splash – grossing over $12 million.

The film makes the case that because quantum physics indicates an infinite number of possible realities exist, and we need only choose a positive one rather than be pulled along by a destructive one.

I don’t think anyone would dispute the power of positive thought. The world is certainly a very different place depending on your attitude. But what does that have to do with quantum physics? And what does quantum physics have to do with our day-to-day lives?

Not much, according to Dr. David Albert, a professor of physics and philosophy at Columbia University in New York. Dr. Albert appeared both the original “What the Bleep” film and the recently released director’s cut.

According to Albert, the film is “swarming with scientific inaccuracies, and its overall thesis is in my opinion wildly and irresponsibly wrong.” Not a great review, especially from one of the featured scientists in film. He also maintains that most scientists would find the conclusions of the film “preposterous”.

While Albert specializes in philosophical problems of quantum mechanics, he remains very skeptical of any leap from quantum physics to New Age spirituality. He feels that main flaw with the film and many New Age beliefs is that they do not “resist the temptation to see us in the see ourselves in the centre of everything”, something he equates it to the struggle between Galileo and the Vatican.

Albert feels the only truly respectful way to regard the universe is to exercise detachment - to see it for what it is, rather than part of our pre-existing beliefs. “There is immense wonder there, but you are not going to see it if you insist on being vague and hand wavy and touchy feely about it.”

We should remember however that science can be very stiff at dealing with issues that it doesn’t yet understand. For instance, most physicists subscribe to the “shut up and calculate” school of thought, which maintains that trying to interpret the weirdness of quantum physics is not just pointless, it should be avoided.

To get another perspective, I contacted Dr. Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut and the 6th person to walk on the moon. He is also the founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, which seeks to understand the nature of consciousness through science. Many of the experts featured in “What the Bleep” are associated with the institute.

Like many people who traveled in space, Mitchell had a powerful epiphany looking down on our beautiful planet from the vantage of 300,000 km – what he calls the “ultimate mountain-top experience”.

“When I got back this experience was so powerful I couldn’t ignore it. So I established the institute to do research into the area of consciousness, which had been a no-no subject in science up until that time. It is an effort to bring science and spirituality into a common understanding.”

He is currently focusing on what he calls the quantum hologram – a kind of experiential hard drive in the sky he believes allows people to access the experiences of other conscious beings. He believes that what we experience as consciousness is an artifact of the complexity of our brains and quantum physics. According to Mitchell our understanding of the universe has a long way to go. “We are only really scratching the surface, we are just barely out of the trees for heavens sake.”

Is he correct? One thing is certain, no physicist would claim that we really yet understand what is going on. My reluctant skepticism will not allow me to embrace many of his beliefs, such as energy healing at a distance. The $200 entrance fee for these workshops sets off some obvious alarm bells. Yet I find myself questioning many of my own beliefs and what we experience as reality.

I have no doubt that many of the people reading this will be lucky enough to be around when some truly astounding truths about our universe are revealed. It seems that science is returning the scene of the crime and restoring some of the wonder of the world that was so coldly demystified.

As one who has drooped in the absence of wonder, I am comforted to learn how little we understand about the universe, even if those mysteries seem to have little to do with us. At least not yet.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver. This piece was published in Shared Vision in April 2005.


Mohammed and the Media

They are hardly high art. Nor do they purport to reveal some profound truth.

The now-famously controversial cartoons of Mohammed are simply crudely drawn caricatures, some apparently designed to offend – which they obviously do superbly.

To their credit, no major Canadian paper has so-far chosen to jump on the gratuitous bandwagon of cultural insensitivity and reprint the drawings.

However, some media outlets worldwide seem not so principled. One reporter in the UK had this blunt assessment of how his paper determined what the public should see: "The ideal Daily Mail story leaves the reader hating someone or something".

By that cynical yardstick, the cartoons, and the violent reaction to them, make this story a winner. No matter where you side in this highly volatile debate, this story is bound to make you angry.

Which brings us to the highly questionable role of the media in this escalating crisis. Where is the actual “news” here? Is it news that Muslims find depiction of their Prophet highly offensive? That story is a bit stale, given that such portrayals have been verboten in Islam since the Koran was written about 1,400 years ago.

In the chorus of finger jabbing and indignation around the world, few seem to be aiming their vitriol in the appropriate direction. It was a small number of media outlets that started this “crisis” by publishing these inflammatory cartoons in the first place. Certain media in both the Western and Islamic world continue to stoke the flames by endlessly reprinting the cartoons, or reporting on the violent reaction to them.

It is analogous to locking two family members in a room and only allowing them to talk about what they hate about each other. It might make for great reality TV, but would hardly be responsible journalism.

Listening to the indignant rationales given by the publisher of the Calgary-based Western Standard, who this week chose to reprint the cartoons, only reinforced my strongly held belief that this non-debate is in many cases merely an opportunity for egotistical imbeciles to bump up the circulation on their very marginal publications.

The histrionics about free speech in this case are particularly grating given the additional danger it may put on Canadian troops, on an already dangerous mission in Afghanistan. To read an excellent post on this, please go to: http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_storring/20060214.html

It is also significant that the Danish newspaper that originally published the cartoons was apparently uninterested in dialogue, which might have helped to avoid this mess. After the offending cartoons were published, local Muslims in Copenhagen requested a meeting with editors of the offending Danish paper to express their concerns in person. They were ignored.

To make matter worse, papers throughout Europe also felt the need to grab a hockey stick and begin whacking the hornets’ nest, then expressed righteous indignation when the highly predicable came to pass.

The most frequent defence of this debacle is “freedom of the press”. Very few are seriously suggesting that the press should not have the freedom to print almost anything they want.

That said, it is ridiculous to suggest that the media does not make editorial choices based on good taste and respect every day.

Does the media broadcast video of Western hostages being decapitated? Why have we not seen footage of 9-11 victims falling from the doomed towers? The obvious difference in this case is that is another culture being offended, not our own.

It has also been suggested that this controversy is an important chance for dialogue. No doubt there is a need for greater understanding and respect between the diverse cultures of the world.

There is also no doubt that highly offensive cartoons about Christians and Jews appear regularly in the Middle East media. But this is not a credible rationale for publishing equally offensive material to Muslims.

You do not start a constructive discussion with a slap in the face. Not surprisingly, what we now have instead is a barroom brawl.

With no sense of irony, some are portraying these cartoons as a principled fight against intolerance, rather than a cause for it. If that is in fact the motive, we have chosen a poor route towards mutual understanding.

Those radical leaders in the Islamic world who subsist on intolerance are no doubt delighted that they have been given such a pregnant opportunity to show that Western countries are hostile and ignorant of their religion, and apparently wish to remain so.

From the comfortable vantage point of Canada, it is also easy to forget that many people live in societies where street protest and violence is one of few options available for expressing anger.

The path to tolerance is both slow and faint. The cultures of the world move toward mutual respect against our ancient instincts of tribalism and fear. We in Canada seem to have made better progress on this tenuous journey that any other country in the world.

If this mess illustrates anything, it shows how easy it is to lose our way.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Oil and Addiction

Surrounded by billowing smoke and flaming timbers, George Bush has finally admitted the house is on fire.

“America is addicted to oil”, Bush told the world in his State of the Union address this week. While this might seem a bold statement coming from the most fossil-fuel-friendly president in history, it is hardy news to the rest of us.

The US uses one quarter of the world’s oil – an incredible 20 million barrels a day, or enough to fill the Toronto Skydome twice.

And like any addiction, that insatiable oil habit has some nasty consequences.

Last week, an international study revealed that pollution from burning fossil fuels is contributing to ballooning childhood asthma rates throughout North America. One in five Canadian boys between the ages of 8 and 11 are afflicted with this terrible condition. Worldwide asthma rates are now climbing by 50% each decade.

Bush also raised the thorny issue of America’s dependence on oil from politically "unstable" countries in the Middle East. Perhaps he is alluding to the over 2,200 American soldiers that have been so far died in Iraq, not to mention about 30,000 Iraqi civilians – the US government is not keeping count. The monetary cost of this oil-driven military adventure is $237 billion and counting.

Here at home many of civil liberties are being sacrificed on the altar of the so-called “war on terror”. This nebulous conflict has sprouted directly from dependence on foreign oil and is eroding many of the constitutional protections that define free and open societies. A recent case in point was the recent domestic spying scandal in the US that even many Republican senators are calling illegal.

And then there is the small matter of the fate of the planet. Aside from a well-known cabal of pseudo-scientists shilling on behalf of Big Oil, virtually the entire scientific community is united in the knowledge that climate change is real, is happening now and is very dangerous.

Almost every week comes another disturbing study showing that our oil addiction is putting the life support systems of our planet at risk. This week’s installment came from British government researchers who found that the Greenland ice sheet is very likely going to entirely melt, raising global sea levels by seven metres – enough to obliterate such well-known landmarks as Florida and Bangladesh.

While this massive melt may take up to 1,000 years, scientists made it clear that the time to act is now. The authors warned a delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even in the next five years "could be significant".

Also released this week was a chilling sequel by scientific icon Dr. James Lovelock, of Gaia hypothesis fame, called “The Revenge of Gaia”. His disturbing message: global climate change is already too far-gone, and civilization is very likely doomed by the end of this century.

He believes that the US, China and India will not curb their oil addiction soon enough to avoid the Earth’s climate reaching an irreversible tipping point in the next few years..

Dr. Lovelock believes that runaway climate change will leave the living organism of our planet with a “morbid fever” that may last as long as 100,000 years, and leave humans dying by the “billions” by the end of this century.

Dr, Lovelock ‘s logic is both horrifying and compelling. I must say it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario where we collectively choose to leave remaining oil in the ground. Given our past and present behavior, we seem to know already how much oil we will burn, and when we will burn it: all of it, and as fast as possible.

That said, humans are curious creatures. Long before civilization, our ancestors dispersed from the tropics and thrived in every ecosystem on the planet. We may be the most adaptable species that has ever evolved. That remarkable adaptability is something we urgently need to beat our oil addiction -not just for our own survival, but for every species on the planet as well.

Moving quickly to an oil free world will take courage, vision and leadership. George Bush’s record thus far on dealing with climate change is nothing short of disgraceful. It is noteworthy that he did not mention climate change once in his State of the Union address.

That said, the first step in dealing with an addiction is admitting you have a problem. His admission this week regarding our oil addiction was small progress, but progress nonetheless.

Now that we know the house is on fire, perhaps we should focus on putting it out...

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Clearing the Air

Smog sucks.

I am paraphrasing, of course, but that is the gist of an exhaustive report released last week by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) on the effects of pollution on our children’s health.

Children’s Health and the Environment in North America” found that air pollution such as ground-level ozone, particulates and pesticides are leading to ballooning rates of childhood asthma throughout North America.

In some parts of the US, the incidence of childhood asthma had increased four fold in last 20 years. Here in Canada, one in five boys between the ages of 8 and 11 now suffers from asthma.

Our children are more at risk because they spend more time outdoors, are more active, and proportionately burn through far more air than adults. Their developing lungs and immune systems also put them at additional risk. Worldwide asthma rates are now climbing by an incredible 50% each decade –linked to declining air quality.

This is not just a human tragedy, it is an enormous economic burden as well.

Asthma costs the Canadian taxpayer a whopping $600 million each year in direct medical expenses. It is the leading cause of emergency room visits to our beleaguered health care system – an incredible 146,000 each year. Asthma is also the leading cause of absenteeism at school, and the third leading cause at work.

The asthma epidemic is not the only problem with our skanky air.

According to the CEC report, there is emerging evidence that poor air quality is also linked to host of other health issues, including miscarriages, premature births, low birth weights, and impaired lung development later in life.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) estimates that provincial air pollution causes 60,000 emergency room visits, 16,000 hospital admissions, and 5,800 premature deaths each year. Smog is estimated to cost the provincial economy a staggering $7.8 billion each year and rising.

What can we do? Plenty.

Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the country. Yet recommended efficiency standards for cars in Canada have not been changed for the last twenty years.

In a triumph of corporate lobbying, the largest SUV’s remain exempt from efficiency standards altogether even though these automotive monstrosities spew out 47% more pollution than cars.

Car ownership in Canada is also going in the wrong direction. The number of vehicles in Canada has more than doubled since 1970 - many of these additional vehicles being gas-guzzling SUVs.

As far as the major components of asthma-causing smog, Canada has a particularly dismal in limiting the chemicals that are poisoning our children.

Out of the 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada ranks third last for limiting emissions of nitrogen oxides, second last for sulfur dioxide emissions, and second last again for volatile organic compounds – a major contributor to ground-level ozone. Our sulfur dioxide emissions are more than double that OECD average per capita.

Energy generation is another problem. Last year the Ontario government announced that it was delaying the closure of the massive Nanticoke coal-fire generating plant on Lake Erie until at least 2009. This bitumen-burning behemoth spews out fully 14% of the airborne particulates in the entire province -a leading cause of asthma.

Canada also ranks towards the basement in terms of the efficient use of pesticide. Of the 28 countries in the OECD, only five use more pesticide per capita than Canada. Accurate Canadian trends are difficult to track we are one of the few countries in the OECD that does not track pesticide sales.

Stephen Harper, a self-described life-long sufferer of asthma, can appreciate the importance of moving quickly on improving Canadian air quality.

Perhaps the first order of business is to improve air quality monitoring. The CEC was unable to compare information on local air quality with relevant population data because we simply don’t keep such records.

We need mandatory emission standards on Canadian vehicles – something this country should have enacted years ago rather than continuing to coddle the auto industry with utterly ineffectual voluntary targets.

Government s need to invest in transport options other than continuing to pour tax dollars into infrastructure for the almighty auto. And of course, individuals really need to lay off the commuting alone in their cars every day.

We need to improve emissions from industrial polluters rather than continuing to tolerate having one of worst records for toxic emissions in the developed world.

Lastly, we need to focus on green energy and conservation so we can finally shut down the coal-fired dinosaurs that are turning our air blue.

Smog sucks. We can do something about it. Let’s get on with it.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Ditching First Past the Post

Like passing a gallstone, the end of 12 years of Liberal rule had to happen sooner or later.

While this was a painful outcome for some, there is an undeniable elegance to our election results. In their wisdom, the people of Canada collectively decided for the second election in a row to send a minority government to Ottawa.

To those who equate electoral success with unfettered power, this might seem a disappointing outcome. Yet there is an underlying intelligence to what is happening in Canada.

Even more than the last parliament, the political survival of Stephen Harper’s minority government will depend on being flexible, accountable and willing to engage in good faith dialogue and compromise.

This is no accident. I believe it is clear evidence of an important evolution of our democracy – a process being led not by politicians but by the Canadian public.

The Canadians have grown weary of the excesses of absolute power and the childish squabbling of partisan politics. More and more, we expect our politicians to actually listen to each other and cooperate like adults.

The commitment by all leaders on election night to try and make this fractured parliament work was not just a nicety; it was an acknowledgement of a growing political imperative.

For the time being, the Canadian electorate managed again to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear. However, our antiqued and unfair “first past the post” voting system also produced the usual litany of democratic causalities.

According to Fair Vote Canada, the big losers in this week’s vote included:

- 500,000 voters in Alberta who did not vote conservative, yet elected no one.

- 400,000 urban Conservative voters who did not elect a single representative in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

- The more than 650,000 Green party voters who should have elected 12 MPs, and ended up wasting their votes yet again.

- NDP voters, who outnumbered Bloc supporters by one million, yet elected 22 fewer MPs.

- Women, whose representation dropped to less than 20% in our new parliament, with only 62 MPs .

Structural changes to our voting system are both needed and long overdue. Our “first past the post” system was long-in-the-tooth when we inherited it from the British 139 years ago. Canada remains one of three developed western nations still saddled with this electoral museum piece.

Strangely, some Canadians (and of course all politicians) still yearn for majority governments. To those puzzling souls, I can only suggest casting your mind back to the dark days of trough wallowing under the Mulroney Conservatives. Let’s also not forget the Versailles-like arrogance of the Chretien government and the abundant political rot that inevitably followed.

“Majority” governments are in fact a misnomer. Since 1921, Canada has had 15 “majority” governments of which only 4 garnered more than 50% of the popular vote. In all other cases over 50% of Canadians who bothered to vote, voted against whatever government enjoyed virtual dictatorial powers during their “majority” rule.

In contrast, virtually every government in Europe now uses some form of proportional representation, which typically results in representative, accountable and stable coalition governments as a matter of course.

These coalitions are not accidental shotgun weddings like the wary alliance between the Liberals and NDP in the last parliament, but are true coalition governments typically with a shared cabinet and caucus meetings.

Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles for which Ottawa has become infamous. Coalitions also mean that governments are more accountable to the people between elections – not just on voting day.

Countries that use proportional representation also have far better representation from women – up to 42% in Sweden. This system has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation – over 80% in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium.

In contrast, the turnout in this week’s election was a mere 65%. This is admittedly up from the dismal figure of 61% in the 2004 vote, the worst showing since 1898. But by global standards, our voter participation remains frankly, pathetic.

An electoral system such as “mixed member proportional” representation (MMP) would be a good fit for Canada because it provides for local representation while also ensuring that elected seats accurately reflect the popular vote.

Stephen Harper says he is serious about changing how things are done in Ottawa. Many Canadians want to believe him. Bringing in MMP would be a fitting and elegant legacy of this diverse parliament, and our evolving democracy.

Or perhaps he is just another politician...

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece was published in the Ottawa Citizen on Jan. 26.


Harper and the Environment: Be Afraid.

With the prospect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper looming large – perhaps with a Conservative majority– Canadians should be asking themselves what this would mean for our environment.

Lord knows there were many failings of the Liberal regime on environmental issues. However, a close look at the Conservative platform relating to the environment is truly alarming.

Enshrining property rights in the constitution.

This might sound fairly innocuous, but this one act would have enormous implications for the effective enforcement of environmental regulations throughout the country.

First of all, the constitution is the “prime directive” of government. It overrides all other federal, provincial, and municipal laws, and is not something to be tinkered with lightly.

The Conservative plan would put property rights on the same legal footing as human rights. The result could be demands for compensation whenever an environmental law prohibits a property owner from doing something (like putting toxic site in the middle of a community), or requires them to do something extra (like building subdivisions to a higher density to prevent urban sprawl).

This has already come to pass in the State of Oregon, where “Measure 37” voted property rights into the State constitution in 2004.

The Washington Post commented, “the property-rights law …is on the brink of wrecking Oregon's best-in-the-nation record of reining in sprawl, according to state officials and national planning experts." Put more bluntly, “Measure 37 blew up our land-use system," said Democrat Senator Charlie Ringo, from suburban Portland.

In Canada, such a measure would undermine the ability of all levels of government to encourage smart growth of sustainable cities – a major challenge of the 21st century. Since property rights would be in the constitution and protection of the environment is not, it could also effectively trump any environmental law in the country.

Nor is this intervention even needed. Our common law system of justice was primarily designed to protect private property, and it does a superb job of doing just that. What Canada needs instead is a constitutional guarantee of a clean environment.

Climate change
Harper has said that he will “address the issue [of climate change]…with a made-in-Canada plan, emphasizing new technologies, developed in concert with the provinces and in coordination with other major industrial countries.” He also told Radio Canada this month that the Kyoto protocol is “not the right approach” to combat climate change.

This coded message is music to the ears of oil executives everywhere, and is clearly the type of shameful retreat from mandatory emissions targets that has taken root south of the border.

The science behind climate change is clear and becoming more worrisome almost every day. Every additional delay will make future solutions more difficult.

Fiscal conservatives like Stephen Harper should understand the simple principle of living within our means. His apparent retreat on mandatory emission reductions would damn future generations of Canadians to deal with the environmental deficits we are recklessly racking up today, while wasting time looking for technological fixes to our oil addiction.

The management of resources.
The Conservative platform states that they will allow stronger involvement of the provinces in the management of natural resources. This is also not necessarily great news given the shoddy environmental records of many provincial governments.

Consider the plight of the critically endangered spotted owl in BC. There are only 23 of these birds left in the country – all in the province of British Columbia. The destruction of remaining old growth forests through industrial logging is the overwhelming reason for their decline.

The leading logger of remaining spotted owl habitat in BC? The British Columbia government, through their BC Timber Sales Program. Even companies such as International Forest Products have stopped logging owl habitat and therefore have a better record at protecting this imperiled species.

Enforcement and staffing

Lastly, consider the infamous environmental record of record of the Mike Harris government in Ontario. Canadians might well expect the type of widespread gutting of environmental staff and enforcement that Ontario became famous for in the 1990’s should the Conservatives be given free rein. Laws to protect the environment mean nothing unless there is the political will, backed up by the necessary resources, to enforce them.

Disasters such as Walkerton happened not so much because environmental laws were changed, but because enforcement staff were cut, and responsibility for environmental quality was devolved away from central governments without the required increase in local resources.

The environment may well become the defining issue of the 21st century. We need a bold and progressive vision to build a future Canada that will be able to meet these national and global challenges.

When you cast your vote on January 23, ask yourself: is a conservative majority government is really up to this important task?

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece was published on The Tyee on Jan. 20, 2006


Fishing Down the Food Web

The utter failure of Canadian fishing policy was laid bare last week by the plight of a very homely fish.

The onion-eye grenadier looks like it swam out of a Dr. Seuss book, lives at deeps up to 3,000 ft, and is about as far from desirable seafood as you can get. Its scales are so tough it can only be economically processed for its liver.

Yet researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland recently reported in the prestigious journal Nature that populations of this obscure fish had declined in Canadian waters by an incredible 93.3% over the last 26 years.

Why would such an unpalatable fish living up to a kilometre underwater be so threatened?

Because we are fishing for it.

Demonstrating that it has learned exactly nothing from the infamous collapse of the cod stocks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) continues to allow an unregulated fishery for onion-eyed grenadiers for the simple reason that in many areas there is virtually nothing left to fish for.

DFO is best known to many as the department that killed the cod, and it seems they will not allow dragger boats to sit idle until the ocean is truly empty.

“Draggers” are so named because they do exactly that, drag a weighted net across the bottom of the ocean and pull up dead whatever happens to end up inside.

Huge amounts of so-called “by-catch” fish and other marine life are hauled up in dragger nets and typically pitched over the side because they are caught accidentally or are simply inedible.

The onion-eye grenadier is primarily caught and kept as by-catch, but that in itself is indicative of a larger problem.

For instance, there is a “moratorium” on fishing for a related and critically endangered species of grenadier, however these fish continue to be hauled up dead in dragger nets. It is now estimated that both these grenadier species will disappear from Canadian waters in as little as 20 years.

The scientists at Memorial further lamented that the plundering of deep-sea ecosystems by dragger boats could lead to many other species being lost before they can even be identified.

Given the on-going pillage of the deep ocean, perhaps scientists should focus future research efforts on the freezer section of their local supermarket.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

A researcher at Dalhousie University was alarmed several years ago to find a species of deep-sea octopus unknown to science in the seafood section of his local Safeway.

Dragging a net that weighs several thousand kilograms across the ocean floor also has predictable effects on areas with sensitive bottom habitat. Unlike other more progressive jurisdictions such as Norway, the Canadian government continues to indiscriminately permit the use of dragger gear regardless of the ocean floor habitat.

In fact it was revealed in December 2005 that Canada worked behind the scenes to scuttle a UN ban on dragging on the high seas. This is in spite of a poll released this week by conservation groups showing that 78% of Canadians would support such a ban.

DFO is apparently worried that such a prohibition might undermine their ability to allow the continued scouring of the ocean floor within Canadian waters.

Canadians should not simply accept this on-going culture of incompetence within DFO. It is the important responsibility of the federal government to set and enforce clear conservation goals so that sustainable commercial fishing does not instead become fish mining.

While the collapse of the cod is the most notorious blunder of DFO, we should also not forget the decimation of the west coast wild salmon stocks, and the massive outbreaks of sea lice from net pen aquaculture.

The impressive list of Canadian fisheries disasters is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Fisheries ministers come and go but the upper bureaucracy of DFO - in some cases the same individuals that presided over the collapse of the cod fourteen years ago - remain stubbornly in place.

A thorough housecleaning of senior DFO bureaucracy is long overdue. Yet the response from our campaigning politicians is sadly lacking. Both the Liberals and Conservatives seem content to blame the state of offshore fish stocks on foreign interlopers – a favourite political straw man to distract attention away from ineptitude exhibited by both parties when they were in power.

Instead what the researchers at Memorial University are calling for is perhaps the only hope for the delicate deep-sea ecosystems: marine protected areas that would prohibit the relentless scouring of the ocean floor by dragger nets, while there still fish stocks left to save.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran in the National Post on January 19, 2006