Harper's Climate Performance

Stephen Harper seemed positively grumpy last week as he described the implications of his government actually doing something about global warming.

In a year-end interview with CBC, Harper said "As soon as you're dedicated to actually reducing emissions, that imposes costs on the economy...Once we start [and] these things start biting, the criticism we're going to be getting is that we're doing too much."

Harper seems like a man bragging to his neglected wife that if he ever made love to her, she might die from exhaustion.

In fact, the Harper Conservatives have done so little on climate change that the short-term economic implications are the least of our worries.

Under his watch, Canada is the only signatory to Kyoto that openly abandoned commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The same week he was elected, he committed to the US a five-fold increase in production at the Alberta tar sands.

Not surprisingly, Canada’s carbon emissions have skyrocketed under the Harper regime - even more so than under his liberal predecessors. He also worked hard behind the scenes at the Commonwealth conference in Nairobi and the UN climate conference in Bali to ensure the final agreements had no binding emissions targets.

Rather than bemoaning the economic downsides of reducing carbon emissions, Harper should be embracing the opportunities they create. A recent study from the University of California at Berkley projected that Schwarzenegger’s efforts to wean California off fossil fuels would create 17,000 jobs and add $60 billion to the state gross domestic product by 2020.

Of the course the other side of the debate ignored by Harper is the enormous cost to the economy of doing nothing about global warming. The findings of such studies range from gruesome to apocalyptic.

Last year, former chief economist of the World Bank Sir Nicholas Stern released his seminal study on the economic implications of climate change. He found that ignoring climate change could shirk the world economy by 20%. By instead choosing to act now, we could avert this calamity for a cost of only 1% of world GDP. I’m no economist but that that seems like a bargain to me.

More recently, Harvard University economics professor Martin Weitzman developed an economic theory to calculate the cost to the economy of far greater (but plausible) temperature increases than those considered by Stern.

The paper is not yet published by the scuttlebutt is that the news is not good. According the New Scientist Magazine, "When you take into account extreme temperature rises... [Weitzman] says, they dominate all other options and effectively demand that investment aimed at stopping them be made now".

I realize that Mr. Harper is not a big reader but I am sure those studies are available should he choose to peruse them. As an economist himself, he might find them enlightening.

So before Stephen Harper starts bragging about his eventual performance around climate change, he should take some advice from Elvis Presley: a little less conversation, a little more action...

This ran on DeSmog Blog on December 22, 2007.


Bad News for Big Coal

The dirtiest of fuels is taking a beating this week. Yet another proposed coal plant in the US was canceled due to concerns about carbon dioxide emissions.

In October, the Kansas Department of Health rejected a coal generating plant due to concerns about climate change. Then another coal plant proposal was nixed in Washington State based on worries about the carbon impacts to the atmosphere.

It seems this regulatory shift around carbon emissions has not been lost on the coal mongers of the world.

The cancellation this week happened in Wyoming - the number one producer of coal in the US with proven reserves of 62 billion tonnes. Rocky Mountain Power decided to pull the plug on their two proposed new generating plants due to uncertainties about future regulation about carbon emissions.

Dave Eskelsen, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, told the Casper Star Tribune:
“The situation the company finds itself in now is a significant amount of uncertainty about what climate change regulation might do to the cost of coal plants. Coal projects are no longer viable.”

Mr. Eskelsen may not like it, but he is right. This latest string of coal plant rejections is rooted in a significant decision from the Supreme Court this spring that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. After years of using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for CO2, coal plants must finally account for this long-externalized cost.

State governments and power producers know that cleaning up coal would be almost impossible and very expensive. Coal releases more carbon than any other fuel and is responsible for about 40% of the six billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in the US each year.

There is loose talk about carbon sequestration at generation plants but existing technology is unproven and would cut deep into the bottom line that is driving coal’s expansion in the US market. The shift from regulators to consider emissions and climate change could be the beginning of the end for Big Coal in the US.

While the decision to cancel the latest coal plants in Wyoming is good news, there is still a long way to go. Wyoming currently cranks out more carbon dioxide in eight hours from coal generation that the entire state of Vermont in a year.

But as they say, the longest journey begins with a single step. The decisions in Kansas, Washington and now Wyoming are definitely a step in the right direction. For state governments and generating companies to be taking a hard look at carbon emissions from coal plants is bad news for the dirtiest of fuels.

This was published on DeSmog Blog on December 19, 2007


Bisphenol A and MEC

Toques off to Mountain Equipment Co-op for choosing to ditch toxic plastic bottles.

Its not every day that a major retailer voluntarily looses a profitable product line to protect their customers. MEC did just that by announcing last week that they have pulled from their shelves all polycarbonate plastics suspected of leaching dangerous levels of bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is a hormone mimicking compound or “endocrine disruptor”. The human body mistakes BPA for estrogen, meaning that it can have serious human health implications even in miniscule concentrations.

Emerging research has linked BPA with breast and prostate cancer and a range of other human health impacts including reduced levels of testosterone in men to early onset puberty in girls.

Bisphenol A is also one of the most highly produced chemicals in the world – over five million pounds a year. It is used in everything from cans to plumbing and is now very difficult to avoid.

While the scientific community is becoming increasingly forceful in their statements about the dangers of this ubiquitous chemical, regulators as usual are bringing up the rear. Health Canada is still studying the issue and is scheduled to make a determination on BPA in the spring of 2008.

The other important piece of this story is why MEC was even able to make this decision. Most large publicly traded companies are hobbled by the imperatives of the profit motive and often become answerable only to their investors. Dropping a profitable product line like BPA bottles without being forced to do so by regulators would be a unthinkable for most other retailers.

In contrast MEC is a co-op. This means that that they are answerable to their membership – all 2.6 million of them. Many of these members were becoming increasingly vocal about why their co-op was exposing the membership to suspected carcinogens when safe alternatives are available. If the directors and upper management had not made this decision, the membership might have made it for them.

Because of this fundamental difference in their corporate DNA, co-operatives such as MEC and VanCity Credit Union are much more able to make principled decisions than companies competing in the same sector. The difference shows.

MEC sells over $220 million on merchandise a year and is one of the largest sports retailers in Canada. They also give 1% of their sales to wilderness conservation efforts – over $2 million in 2007. VanCity has over $12 billion in assets and gives 30% of their profits back to the community in various granting programs.

These are not irrational acts. Holding egalitarian values builds loyalty with both customers and employees. VanCity was recently voted the best employer in Canada by Macleans Magazine. Retaining skilled workers in a tight labour market is simply good business.

So to it seems is happiness. Feeling good about the place you shop or work is not generally included in most economic bean-counting. However, one job-place study found that almost 20% of employees had quit a previous job due to stress.

Being a co-op gives these businesses competitive advantages as well. While MEC is highly successful business, their membership decided that they should also be a non-profit. That means that any surpluses must either be reinvested in company or returned to the membership through dividends. When was the last time you got mailed a cheque from any other place you shop?

MEC can also charge lower prices than their competition because they do not have to siphon off 10-15% of their profits for their investors.

Likewise, VanCity is not captive to the rapacious greed typical of many publicly traded financial institutions. This means they can provide better service, and refrain from nickel and diming their customers with the laundry list of audaciously creative service charges designed to enrich their investors. This year the Royal Bank reported a record-busting profit of over $5.5 billion. Where did all that money come from? Have a look at you bank statement.

Cooperative business models like MEC and VanCity are becoming increasingly important for achieving positive change in society. Non-profit advocacy will always be needed but transforming our economy into something that resembling democracy is arguably even more pressing. Lord knows the economy is not going to go away. We need to change how it operates.

A company like MEC ditching dangerous products like BPA plastics is an example of that change. In making this decision, they will force other retailers to take a hard look at carrying polycarbonate products.

So toques off to MEC. It makes me feel better about all the dough I spend on gear there.

This piece ran nowhere.


Stroumboulopoulos and Bjorn Lomborg

The street cred of resident CBC hipster George Stroumboulopoulos took a big hit this week.

The Former VJ and current host of CBC’s The Hour invited well-known climate change apologist Bjorn Lomborg onto his show for a friendly chat and a chance to plug his latest book “Cool It” – a polemic about how there are far bigger fish to fry than tackling global warming.

Lomborg has long been the darling of the anti-kyoto crowd, being better looking and hipper than the likes of F. Fred Singer or Patrick Michaels. The difference however is that at least those two "climate skeptics" have scientific training. Lomborg’s academic background? Political science.

His first book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” was so offensive to the scientific community that Scientific American published a ten-page evisceration authoured by four actual researchers.

Lomborg tried to refute this critique on his website but apparently knew so little about science that he sent a blanket email to his supporters pleading for help. It read:

“Naturally, I plan to write a rebuttal to be put on my web-site. However, I would also love your input to the issues -- maybe you can contest some of the arguments in the Scientific American, alone or together with other academics. Perhaps you have good ideas to counter a specific argument. Perhaps you know of someone else that might be ideal to talk to or get to write a counter-piece."

John P. Holdren, one of the Scientific American authors noted “It is instructive that [Lomborg] apparently did not feel he could manage an adequate response by himself. (In this, at least, he was correct. But he could not manage it with help, either.)”

The Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty also received a whack of complaints about Lomborg's book. After investigating, they concluded:

"the publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice…there has been such perversion of the scientific message in the form of systematically biased representation that the objective criteria for upholding scientific dishonesty ... have been met".

As always it is instructive to follow the money. Lomborg’s current book tour is being sponsored by the Fraser Institute – which has itself been funded by Exxon Mobil. In 2003-04, Exxon shelled out $120,000 to the Fraser Institute - in part to pay for their anti Kyoto work.

None of this seems to stop the media from continuing to provide Lomborg a soapbox. The decision by Stroumboulopoulos to invite Lomberg on the show to plug his book is particularly gross given that yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of the Kyoto Accord. The UN climate negotiations in Bali hang in the balance as we speak.

It’s bad enough that to this day the CBC does not yet have a dedicated show on the environment on either TV or radio. It sucks worse that our national broadcaster is providing friendly airtime to the likes of Lomborg.

Your cred’s in the crapper over this one George.

This piece ran nowhere.


Oil Sands and Carbon Caps

If you owned a distillery, you would probably not favour prohibition. So it is little wonder why Prime Minister Stephen Harper is opposing binding emission targets at the UN climate negotiations in Bali.

Harper’s adopted province of Alberta is home to the second largest oil reserves in the world, and the good times are just starting to roll.

For decades, the tar sands have been far too expensive and energy intensive to turn a profit. But with crude oil prices pushing $100 a barrel, the oil patch boys are looking at some serious returns on their investment.

The tar sands have about 175 billion barrels of extractable reserves based on oil prices from 2005 – already long out of date. With break-even costs around $28 a barrel, oil companies may rake in over $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the tar sands.

This of course makes the unlikely assumption that world oil prices will remain below $100 a barrel decades into the future. With peak oil upon us, eventual profits may be much higher.

So too might the extractable reserves. 175 billion barrels represents only 11% of the known 1.6 trillion barrels of tarry oil that underlie more than 12% of the Alberta landmass.

Beyond mere money looms the energy imperatives of Canada’s thirsty neighbor to the south. With the US embroiled in a costly and unpopular war in Iraq, George Bush committed in his state of the union address in 2006 to end his country’s addiction to Mideast oil.

What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the slack was to be made up not from conservation but from the Alberta tar sands –now deemed to a national security objective of the US government.

The same week that Harper took office in 2006, Canadian officials helpfully committed to a five-fold increase in tar sands production during secret meetings with their US counterparts in Huston Texas - one week prior to Bush’s address to the nation.

Which brings us to carbon caps. Plan A for Harper, Bush and oil companies is for tar sands development to continue at full tilt boggie until all the oil is gone. The only thing that might conceivably prevent that from happening is binding international emissions targets.

The conflict between carbon caps and the tar sands is simple. Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude are around 638 kg carbon dioxide per barrel - considerably higher than conventional oil.

Based on extractable reserves of 175 billion barrels, the tar sands will eventually contribute an incredible 112 billion tonnes of CO2 to the planet’s atmosphere.

Released all at once, they would single handedly bump atmospheric CO2 concentrations close to 400 ppm. It’s hard to imagine meaningful global emissions targets that would not limit the development of the oil sands.

Keep all that in mind as Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on.

One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper’s position as “a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens”.

This is not a surprise. Simply put, Harper, Bush and their oil industry supporters have far too much to lose if the Bali negotiations succeed.

This was published on Desmog Blog on December 7, 2007.

Was DSCOVR Killed By Office Politics?

NASA’s resistance to launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is certainly puzzling. They spent $100 million on the spacecraft. It’s finished. Two other countries and another US government agency have offered to launch it at no cost to NASA. Yet it still remains in a box.

Maybe NASA is simply cash-strapped because they have been forced to spend billions on pet political projects like the International Space Station or Bush’s manned mission to Mars.

Or maybe the Whitehouse and their oil industry backers didn’t want the climate “debate” resolved just yet.

But perhaps the real reason that DSCOVR remains Earth-bound is something much more mundane than that: office politics.

NASA, like any large institution, has some serious inertia around changing the way things are done. The important challenge of calculating the energy budget of the planet is a good example.

After spending literally billions of dollars on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, NASA scientists still cannot resolve a significant discrepancy in the “reflected flux” of our planet.

Simply put, the amount of energy retained by Earth is the amount of energy received from the Sun, minus the amount radiated back into space in the infrared spectrum.

The first factor – the amount received from Sun - is the total energy hitting the Earth minus the amount reflected back by clouds, ice and other shiny surfaces. This measurement of “shininess” is called albedo.

Without knowing the ever-changing albedo, it is impossible to have a precise idea of how much the planet is warming up, or what is causing it. It is like trying to figure out how many people have come into a nightclub with out counting them at the door.

Therein lies the internal embarrassment for NASA. Scientists are supposed to have the answers – especially around hot button issues like climate change. Yet a paper published last year in the prestigious journal Nature demonstrated that NASA still had a glaring discrepancy in the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric CO2.

The Low Earth Orbit researchers have had a pretty good kick at the can but they still can’t make the numbers add up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Such “weird” phenomena are often the very things that precede scientific breakthroughs.

That’s why DSCOVR is so important. It would be observing our planet at the same time as existing LEO satellites – but from a distance of 1.5 million kilomteres away. This new perspective might help resolve this interesting problem.

DSCOVR would also compliment and help calibrate existing satellite measurements. Many of these LEO satellites cost billions and have a limited lifespan. Some of satellites in A-Train array may be lost by 2009 – adding to the urgency of getting DSCOVR launched so it can do coincident measurements of the Earth before these expensive satellites fall from the sky.

More than that, DSCOVR would be able to simultaneously monitor the energy output of the Sun while measuring temperature changes on Earth. This would almost immediately lay to rest the argument often trotted out by climate change deniers that any warming of the planet is due to fluctuations in the Sun.

Here’s the rub: if DSCOVR ever made it to L1 and did a better job at measuring the temperature of our planet, it might threaten the funding or reputations of well-established scientists that have hitched their academic wagon to low Earth orbit observations.

Could it be that the satellite that could save the world remains Earth-bound due to nothing more than academic jealously?

As they say, “never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.”

This piece was published on Desmog Blog


The Tar Sands and Climate Change

You can’t practice abstinence while running a brothel. Yet politicians of almost all stripes talk simultaneously about developing the Alberta oil sands while getting serous about reducing carbon emissions. Sound like a crock? It is.

Beyond arcane terms like “emissions trading” and “carbon credits”, climate change is actually very simple: Every time we extract ancient carbon out of the ground and burn it we are making climate change worse. The more you burn, the worse it gets.

Bearing in mind that simple truth, how much extractable oil is in the Alberta oil sands? That is one area where industry and environmentalists agree. It’s a lot – about 175 billion barrels. That is second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Beyond this massive storehouse of ancient carbon, the additional problem with the oil sands is that is takes a colossal amount of energy to extract and refine the extremely low-grade tar deposits that cover more than 20% of the Alberta landmass.

The oil sands are mostly rock and sand – only 12% is bitumen. This tar must then be upgraded at enormous energy cost to synthetic crude.

That process consumes about 700 million cubic feet of natural gas each day – enough to heat over 3.7 million Canadian homes. That massive waste of finite and comparatively clean natural gas is expected to triple in the next eight years.

Of course there is no point in creating synthetic crude oil unless you are eventually going to burn it – that is what the oil business is all about. These “downstream” emissions are four times as great as the carbon released during oil sands production.

Doing the math a rather stark picture emerges. The average production and downstream emissions of Alberta synthetic crude add up to around 638 kg of carbon per barrel. Multiply that by the total extractable oil reserves and you get a rather large number.

When all the Alberta oil sands have been extracted, upgraded and burned, they will result in the release into the Earth’s atmosphere of around 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

The planet’s atmosphere is a finite system. It currently contains about 3000 billion tonnes of CO2 – about 35% above pre-industrial levels.

If all the carbon from the development of the oil sands were released at once it would single handedly increase atmospheric CO2 concentration from the current level of 384 ppm to 400 ppm.

Some scientists believe that there is a one in five chance that a carbon level of 400 ppm this century would lead to catastrophic changes. In fact we are on track to reach that milestone by 2015. The oil sands alone would put us beyond that potential tipping point.

Of course, none of this cuts much ice with either politicians or the public. There is an oil boom going on in Alberta – end of story. Even here in Canada, there seems to be almost no discussion about the eventual need to leave this dangerous substance in the ground.

Consider this thought experiment: imagine the political likelihood of any government in Ottawa attempting to shut down of the oil sands. Recall what happened when Trudeau brought in the comparatively mild National Energy Program in the 1980. Thirty-seven years later, Albertans have neither forgotten nor forgiven that perceived transgression into their sacrosanct industry.

Nor would the US be indifferent if Canada presumed to leave our own oil reserves in the ground. In fact, George Bush committed in his 2006 state of the union address to end his country’s addiction to mid-east oil. What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the shortfall was to be made up by Canadian oil from the oil sands – now deemed to a national security objective of the US government.

That same week in January 2006, Stephen Harper helpfully committed Canada to a five-fold increase in oil sands production during secret meetings held in Huston Texas between US, Canadian and industry representatives immediately after he took office.

Then there is a small matter of money. While oil companies love to whine about their onerous taxes, the fact is that they are now making astronomical profits. The break-even production costs of the oil sands are about $28 a barrel. World oil prices are now close to $100 a barrel. Royalties to the government are as low as 1% and a new regime will not come in until 2009. Not a bad gig.

Assuming the oil remains at only $100 a barrel for the next few decades (highly unlikely), oil companies can expect to reap more than $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the oil sands. The oil industry is already the largest industrial sector the world has ever seen - worth more than $8 trillion in sales annually. That is almost five times larger than the next biggest industry: cars.

Keep all that in mind when Stephen Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on. One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper’s position as “a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens”.

All this is a good example of how far political and public discourse has to go to deal meaningfully with this planetary emergency. Try to imagine some future reality where we collectively commit standing armies to known oil reserves – not to facilitate their extraction - but to ensure that it never is. That is what it might eventually take to prevent global catastrophe.

Given the pell mell development of the Alberta oil sands, we instead have a very good idea of how much and how fast the world’s fossil fuel deposits will be extracted and burned - all of it, and as fast as possible.

The chemistry of the atmosphere doesn’t care what disingenuous political posturing happens this week in Bali. Climate change is very simple. The more you burn, the worse it gets. We ignore that simple truth at our peril.

This piece ran on The Tyee on December 4, 2007.


Harper and Climate Change - Our National Disgrace

Stephen Harper seemed smug last weekend with his contribution at the Commonwealth conference in Uganda around the critical issue of climate change.

“For the first time in a very long time Canada's voice is being heard. And the consequence of our voice being heard is we're getting the changes we want to see," he said.

What he wanted, and what he got, was that the conference dissolved without a resolution that even mentioned binding carbon emissions targets.

According to the Canadian Press at the Kampala conference, “some foreign diplomats were so disgusted that they sought out Canadian journalists to tell them what their country was doing behind closed doors."

One un-named foreign official called the Harper approach "a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens.”

The rest of the world must be puzzled by Canada’s complete abdication of leadership around climate change.

After all, Canada led the world in the development of peacekeeping. We spearheaded an international treaty restricting the use of land mines. We hosted the historic conference in Montreal banning CFC’s that threaten the Earth’s ozone layer. Even under Brian Mulroney, Canada led the way opposing apartheid in South Africa.

Yet the erosion of our international reputation due to Harper’s intransigence around climate change is well underway.

Last weekend in Kampala, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signaled his disgust with Harper by quoting former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in his closing remarks.

Last summer at the G8 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in refreshingly frank Teutonic fashion that, “Of course we are not happy at this point that Canada has abandoned Kyoto's goals.”

With the resounding defeat of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Harper (and Canada) are even more isolated in opposing Kyoto. In fact, Howard’s replacement, Kevin Rudd stated that he will make it his first act of office to sign his nation onto the climate accord.

That leaves Canada alone only with the Bush administration amongst developed nations in opposing the binding emissions targets laid out in the treaty.

Harper is in fact unabashedly proud of his efforts to destroy Kyoto.

In a fundraising letter to party faithful in 2002, Harper described the global climate protocol as a “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

While in opposition, he routinely questioned the robust scientific consensus around climate change. (His academic training is in economics.)

In his closing remarks in Kampala last week, Harper called Kyoto a “mistake” that the world must never repeat.

His handiwork blocking a strong statement from the Commonwealth will gravely undermine efforts to achieve consensus at the upcoming UN climate talks next month in Bali - setting the stage for further national embarrassment.

The December gathering of 190 nations under the UN banner in Indonesia will negotiate what will replace Kyoto when the protocol expires in 2012. Harper seems to be working hard to ensure that business as usual will prevail.

The long legacy of ineffectual international response to this looming climate crisis seems destined to continue – due largely to the efforts of Canada’s 22nd prime minister. While this might play well with the oil lobby in Alberta, the price is our national stature on the world stage.

Compare the bland obfuscation from Harper to what is being said by California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - a man managing an economy larger than our own who has a proven track record on reducing emissions:

“The consequences of global climate change are so pressing that it doesn’t matter who was responsible for the past; what matters is who is responsible for the future – and that means all of us. The rich nations and the poor nations have different responsibilities. But one responsibility we all have, and that is action…action, action, action!”

Action will eventually be taken on climate change. Other nations will lead if Canada does not. In the greatest threat ever facing humanity and the planet, Canada is at grave risk of being found squarely on the wrong side of history.

This piece was published on Nov. 27th, 2007 on DeSmog Blog


NASA Stonewalls US Agency that Wants to Launch DSCOVR

It has now been several months since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) formally requested that NASA transfer to them all DSVOVR assets - including of course the spacecraft itself.

The response from NASA? Nothing. Nada. Zippo.

Incredibly, NASA has so far completely ignored colleagues from another US government agency that want to make use of a $100 million spacecraft that NASA themselves stated last year they have no intention of launching.

For those new to this investigative series, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is a fully completed spacecraft, that if launched, would almost immediately lay to rest any remaining legitimate debate regarding the origins of global climate change.

Strangely, this critical piece of climate science hardware has instead been sitting in a box at the Goddard Space Center for the last seven years. Last year, NASA canceled the mission altogether, citing “competing priorities”.

It seems that NOAA is so frustrated with the lack of will on the part of NASA to launch DSCOVR that they have sourced private funding to launch and operate DSCOVR themselves.

Besides ending any remaining honest debate about the most bitterly opposed scientific theory since evolution, DSCOVR would also help predict solar storms, protecting satellites worth billions of dollars from solar flares.

The US Senate Committee on Appropriations should be asking the NASA brass some hard questions about why they have chosen to ignore a formal request from another government agency.

Perhaps it might also be a reasonable that, since NASA was given $100 million in taxpayers dollars for something they did not do, and now will not let others do, they should take a $100 million haircut in their next budget request.

Next week: the real reason DSCOVR is being held prisoner.


Canadian Trains Suck Ass

Most Canadians know that it will be a long time before the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. We have accepted waiting up to three months for a passport. But unreliable and expensive passenger rail service? That is one area of national mediocrity we can no longer afford.

In the race to reduce carbon emissions there’s not much low hanging fruit. Trains are a notable exception. The average car trip belches out 15 kg of carbon per 100 km. Flying is even worse at 49 kg. In contrast, train travel produces a paltry 4 kg of carbon per 100 per km and becomes even more efficient the more people that use it.

Besides the fate of the planet, trains just make sense. High speed rail lines - of which Canada has none - move three times as many people per unit land area as a hypothetically ideal highway not jammed with gridlock. Trains in Europe are either on-schedule or arrive early 92% of the time.

North American rail service is something else altogether.

A recent report shows that Via Rail is so chronically unreliable that trains between Toronto and Vancouver are on average 2 hours and forty-two minutes late. Between Montreal and Halifax, trains were late more than 60% of the time, mostly due to “major locomotive failure”.

Canadians don’t care if our passenger rail service is terrible (which it is) they can take their car or fly for about the same money, or less.

I recently took the train from Toronto to Ottawa. I could have flown for $20 more and saved myself four hours. I could have driven in less time and saved myself $80. Neither are particularly strong reasons to make an environmental choice.

My train was delayed no less than five times and at one point started moving backwards. We arrived in Ottawa over an hour behind schedule. The food was both lousy and expensive. The promised wireless internet access cost $10 fee and didn’t work. Worse than all that was neither the staff or the passengers seemed to care - apparently just another trip on our national rail carrier.

While there might have been a time when such incompetence was acceptable, that time has past. I am a fairly environmentally conscious person and I would certainly think twice about again choosing one the slowest, most expensive and unreliable ways to get from A to B. Imagine what a diehard car driver would think.

In contrast, I had the pleasure of spending a month in northern Italy last summer. Italian culture is not generally known for its compulsive efficiency but I cannot remember a single time when a train was late. The fares were ridiculously cheap. Connections were always made with ease. Given all that, there was virtually no other sensible choice for intercity travel.

So why do trains work so well in Europe and are such a miserable failure in Canada? Upper management is one reason. Via Rail has long been seen by federal politicians as a dumping ground for loyal political hacks. In 2004, both the President and Chairman of Via Rail lost their jobs over the sponsorship scandal. Both were appointed by the PMO in spite of the fact that neither had any experience running a railroad.

However, the main reason is money. Europeans have realized that trains are not a burden, but an opportunity. People have to get around somehow and instead of pouring public money into increasingly obsolete infrastructure for cars, they fund their rail service.

On that front, we have a long way to go. Public spending for roads in Canada is 47 times as much as for rail. In Europe, that imbalance is less than half.

The Sea to Sky Highway is a fine local example. The taxpayer is now shelling out over $600 million for a road upgrade to a ski resort - not exactly critical infrastructure.

Worse still, there is already a perfectly good rail bed from Vancouver to Whistler that could have been upgraded at a fraction of the cost. Premier Campbell’s green conversion would have a lot more credibility if he stopped shoveling public money at car-based mega projects.

Our rail service has also been a favorite place for governments to slash spending. Via had its budget cut in 1981, 1989, 1994 and 2003, and has been limping along since the days of Pierre Trudeau. Last year they had an operating deficit of $178 million.

This has a predictable effect on ticket prices. My Via Rail ticket from Toronto to Ottawa cost $120 - one way. A similar distance in Europe costs the equivalent of $30.

The recent infusion of cash into Via from the federal government is welcome news but it will do little more than keep their geriatric F-40 locomotives in service for a few more years.

Transforming our rail service instead requires a complete re-think of where our public transportation dollars go. This must include a commitment to high-speed dedicated passenger lines – something that should have happened a long time ago.

Climate change demands that we re-create Via Rail into a service that is efficient, cheap, reliable and fast. Unimaginable? Perhaps. But I also believe that the Leafs will one day again win the Stanley Cup.

This piece ran nowhere.


Did Bush’s Mars Plan Scuttle DSCOVR?

When the now-Nobel Laureate Al Gore proposed the DSCOVR mission way back in 1998, he was widely jeered by Republicans for interfering in the scientific business of NASA. “Gore-sat”, “Gore-cam”, and “the multi-million dollar screen saver” were all quips trotted out on the floor of the Senate and Congress in opposition to the mission.

DSCOVR was a victim of such partisan politics. Even though it is fully completed at a cost of $100 million, this unique spacecraft remains in a storage box in Maryland, rather than providing critical data on the progress of climate change.

NASA quietly cancelled DSCOVR last year, citing “competing priorities”. Perhaps the biggest was George Bush’s edict NASA in January 2004 to put a human on the surface of Mars.

Bush made the high-profile pronouncement at NASA headquarters as their entire staff watched by video. In an apparent effort to emulate JFK, he intoned that “human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves.”

Besides the fact that it is difficult to “touch” a Martian rock when you are wearing a space suit, there are two obvious questions: Where will the money come from to bankroll this massive intervention in NASA’s science program? And, is this really a worthwhile use of scarce NASA resources?

Alarmingly, the short-term money is coming directly at the expense of existing programs like the DSCOVR mission. Bush instructed NASA to pull $11 billion from their budget over five years to pay for his Mars brainstorm – almost 13% of their funding. The only additional money he promised was $1 billion over five years - everything else is the proverbial pound of flesh.

That is just for starters. The White House did not put an actual dollar value on how much this boondoggle would eventually cost – always a bad sign. What we do know is that the task of transporting humans 12,000 times as far as the Moon, though the searing radiation of empty space, and bringing them back alive is going to be pricey.

Some have estimated that Bush’s Mars announcement may cost over $1 trillion, making it the most expensive speech in history. For those of us unaccustomed to such astronomical sums of taxpayer largess, that is one thousand-billion dollars. In hundred dollar bills, it would weigh eleven thousand tons.

Supporters of the mission have derided these figures; instead saying this effort would cost a mere $229 billion. For the record, that would still pay for what the US government is spending annually on climate change research for the next 127 years.

Bear in mind that this radical surgery on NASA’s direction was apparently completed without any scientific peer review whatsoever. It instead came directly from the brain of the perhaps the most unpopular president in US history – and a man who has repeatedly scorned the scientific consensus around climate change.

As for the scientific merit of putting a human on Mars, the scientific community is less than enthused. The American Physical Society stated plainly in 2004 "shifting NASA priorities toward risky, expensive missions to the moon and Mars will mean neglecting the most promising space science efforts."

Many scientists instead feel that robotic probes are doing a good job of exploring Mars at a fraction of the cost, and are only going to get better with advancing technology. Besides the fact that they do not need food, water, air or sleep, robots also do not need to be brought 300 million miles back to Earth.

Lastly robots pose a much smaller risk of contaminating Mars with Earth-based life than astronauts. Because Mars may harbor indigenous life forms, all the probes sent to the Martian surface have to be carefully sterilized.

Humans on the other hand are repositories of billions of microorganisms in our digestive tract. If there was ever space suit failure on Mars, not only would the astronaut quickly perish, but the Red Planet would also be hopelessly contaminated with tenacious life from our world. In this way, sending humans to Mars may irrevocably damage our scientific understanding of the very place we are trying to explore.

The scientific community is very clear about the most urgent priority now facing the planet: climate change. Yet by diverting billions away from existing climate programs like DSCOVR, George Bush essentially decided that sending humans to Mars for an interplanetary photo-op is more important than tackling global warming.

How much more important? Assuming that it would cost only $229 billion to put a boot print on Mars, that is still over eleven million times as much money as it would cost to launch and operate DSCOVR – a mission described by Dr. Robert Park of the University of Maryland as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.

There is little doubt at this point that George Bush is a fool. History will only elaborate on that conclusion. Yet beyond Iraq, the ballooning national debt and the loss of American soft power, perhaps his most shameful legacy will be his intransigent opposition to climate science.

As for Gore, there is a certain sweet vindication of being on the right side of history. Now all we have to do is spring his spacecraft from jail.

This was posted on Desmog Blog on October 22, 2007.


Whitehouse Stonewalls DSCOVR Information Request

Digging up information on the cancellation of the DSCOVR mission has been like pulling teeth. The dental work continued this week, this time with the Whitehouse.

Last month, I filed a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to the Office of Administration in Washington DC, asking for copies of any records "relating to the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission, formerly known as Triana, from the period January 1, 2000 to the present."

I then received this strange response from Whitehouse Deputy General Counsel F. Andrew Turley, stating:

"Please be advised that the Office of the Administration, Executive Office of the President is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Your letter therefore is returned without further action."

Strange. I sent my letter to the Freedom of Information Act Officer for the Office of the Administration. Why would they have one if they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

Also, have a look at this Whitehouse website:

It clearly states:

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) entities subject to the FOIA are:
Council on Environmental Quality
Office of Administration
Office of Management and Budget
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Office of Science and Technology Policy
United States Trade Representative

Then I received a call back from the Deputy General Counsel, saying that while this is confusing, the Office of the Administration is no longer subject to FOIA due to a "recent legal determination." I'm sure Dick Cheney is very happy about that. They still have a FOIA officer on staff, doing God knows what.

As more teeth come out, I will let you know.

This was posted on Desmog blog on October 18, 2007


DSCOVR Debacle Part 5 - How Much Is Monitoring Climate Change Worth?

Like any government body, NASA has to decide where is best to spend it’s finite resources. These decisions aren’t easy but they are essential to ensure that the funds entrusted by the taxpayer are allocated in a coherent and thoughtful way.

Looking through that lens, it is hard to imagine how NASA saw fit to cancel DSCOVR after it was built – ostensibly due to lack of resources – when they continue to shovel literally billions of dollars at two mega projects that arguably have no scientific merit whatsoever. I speak of the International Space Station (ISS) and the proposed manned mission to Mars.

Lets start with the ISS. Conceived as a joint effort by many countries to have permanent presence in space, it has become a boondoggle that is quite literally out of this world. By 2010, the ISS will have eaten up over $130 billion dollars. That cost itself is remarkable, but more remarkable still that the ISS has lost large parts of it planned science program.

Two major initiatives, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the Centrifugal Accommodations Module were both cancelled due to funding cuts. Instead, The ISS has focused on more mundane topics such as space-induced kidney stones and the effect of cosmic rays on the human body.

A perennial justification of orbiting astronaut housing such as the ISS is that they can be used as laboratories for the growing of novel crystals and proteins in microgravity. Yet in 2000, the National Academies of Sciences reported that, "the enormous investment in protein crystal growth on the Shuttle and Mir has not led to a single unique scientific result."

The American Physical Society also recently reaffirmed its statement originally made in 1991 that “Scientific justification is lacking for a permanently manned space station in Earth orbit."

Undeterred, this month NASA will deliver a new module to the ISS - at a cost of $2 billion - making it as big as a five-bedroom house. Dr. Robert Park, a physicist from the University of Maryland and long time critic of the scientific utility of the ISS, commented wryly, “astronauts can now do nothing in twice as much space.”

Meanwhile, as climate change proceeds apace, DSCOVR continues to explore the inside of its storage box in Maryland.

According to NASA brass, the decision to cancel DSCOVR last year was due to “competing priorities”. Lets do the math.

To put the cost of one of the those competing priorities in perspective, the ISS at $130 billion is roughly 1,300 times what it cost to build DSCOVR, and 13,000 times larger than what it would cost to launch and operate the now-completed DSCOVR themselves – something that Dr. Park has stated is “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”

In actuality, the cost to NASA of launching DSCOVR now is approaching zero since it appears that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has found outside funding to take over the mission. Strangely, NASA as yet seems to feel that it is more cost effective not to hand DSCOVR over to another US government agency and instead keep it in storage at roughly $1 million per year.

Next posting: DSCOVR vs. putting a human on Mars.

This was published on Desmogblog.com on October 11, 2007.


Women and the Vote

“I think [women] should be armed but should not vote...women have no capacity to understand how money is earned. They have a lot of ideas on how to spend it...it's always more money on education, more money on child care, more money on day care.” - Ann Coulter, February 26, 2001

US-based political commentator Ann Coulter is a nutbar. She would also be fond of our current electoral system.

Canada is one of only three developed democracies in the world that is still saddled with the antiquated “first past the post” system, which does such a poor job electing women that people like Ann Coulter might find it a good compromise to not having women vote at all.

In our last federal election, representation of women dropped below 20%, with only 62 MP’s. In Ontario, only 25 per cent of MPPs are currently women, which is slightly higher than the parliament of Iraq and slightly lower than that of Afghanistan.

My mother, Doris Anderson, was a distinguished feminist and fought tirelessly to improve the representation of women in government, business and society. She knew that changing the electoral system was crucial to increasing the number of women elected, and devoted much of her energy to that cause until the end of her remarkable life this spring.

in the 1990’s, she travelled throughout Europe interviewing colleagues while researching a book on the history of the women's’ movement. To her surprise, it was much more difficult to find women in Sweden in the women’s movement because there was far less need for one.

With over 40% elected women, Sweden had already achieved many of things that that their North American counter parts were still fighting for such a universal child care and pay equity.

Not surprisingly, Sweden also has a form of Mixed Member Proportional representation similar to what is proposed by Ontario’s Citizen’s Assembly. More women elected quite naturally results in the kind of society so loathed by the likes of Ann Coulter.

Ontario now has a historic decision to make. The Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended a system of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation that would much more fairly represent the views of voters, and the diversity of our province - including electing more women. That choice will be put to voters as a referendum question on the October 10th election ballot.

Electoral reform may seem like a dull topic to some but it is nothing less than redefining the calculation of political power. It has the ability to transform a society, as seen in Sweden where a higher proportion of women elected has resulted in laws and policies that have largely negated the need for outside lobbying by groups traditionally seen as “special interests” under our first past the post model.

Less acrimony and more accommodation in our political system are things that most Canadians would support. The childish displays often seen from our elected officials would become less frequent when political parties know they must form workable coalitions with each other.

The dearth of traditional majority governments in Canada of late also reflects a growing movement of voters away from a winner-take-all view of politics. People want our governments to work for society, not for political parties. The system recommended by the Citizens Assembly would lay a solid foundation for that transformation.

It is not only women who are poorly represented by First Past the Post. In 2004, only 7% of MP’s were visible minorities, while they represent 15% of our population.

Canada is a world leader in embracing diversity - something that Canadians are justifiably proud of. Our current electoral system is perhaps the greatest barrier to having that diversity reflected in our elected officials.

Imagine how much better our already remarkably fortunate country would be if our elected representatives were a fair and accurate representation of our population?

There are those that will counsel caution. that will say we should think about electoral reform for another ten years before we rush into anything rash. There may also be those that prefer the fundamental inequities of our electoral system just the way they are. Personally, I do not think that is a very Canadian attitude.

On October 10th, we have a very important decision to make. I know which way would Ann Coulter would vote. How will you?

This piece ran nowhere. The referendum failed to pass.


DSCOVR Debacle Part 4 - why won't NASA give it to NOAA?

Here is the latest bizarre twist in the saga of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). To recap, NASA was given over $100 million in taxpayers money to build a spacecraft that would look at the energy budget of our planet from a unique perspective. Even though it is fully completed over five years ago, it is still sitting in a box at the Goddard Space Centre.

According to leading scientists in a recent paper in the esteemed journal Science, this spacecraft would dispel much existing uncertainty about the pace of climate change. Specifically, after spending literally billions of dollars in low-Earth orbit studies, there is a still a glaring discrepancy in our understanding of the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric C02.

DSCOVR would help resolve that problem because it would not be observing our planet from low Earth orbit.- its instruments would gaze back at Earth from 1.5 million kilomteres away at a gravitational parking spot between the Earth and Sun, far beyond the orbit of the Moon. The data provided by DSCOVR would compliment measurements from conventional climate satellites and give us a much clearer idea of our changing climate.

The reasons why NASA decided to quietly cancel the mission early last year remain a mystery. So are the reasons why NASA refuses to disclose any internal documents relating to this decision, even under the Freedom of Information Act.

What we do know is that another government agency is interested in securing DSCOVR for the better prediction of space weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) apparently wants DSCOVR at L1 so it can provide better information of solar flares that are approaching Earth.

Literally billions of dollars of satellite hardware are at risk from high-energy solar flares that can destroy sensitive orbiting instruments. Besides providing critical climate data, DSCOVR would replace aging sun monitoring spacecraft already at L1. This would provide engineers about an hour of advance warning of approaching solar storms so that expensive satellites can be shut down before nasty space weather hits.

Here’s the rub. Even though NOAA has apparently secured alternate funding to bankroll the launch and maintenance of DSCOVR, NASA so far has not yet provided the spacecraft.

One might understand why NASA would be reluctant to give American space hardware to the Ukrainians or the French, both of which offered to launch DSCOVR themselves. But another federal US agency?

To recap: NASA built it. Stored it. Cancelled it, Refused to allow offer countries to launch it. Refused to release any information on why it was cancelled, and now they won’t let another US government agency have it either.

The story gets stranger by the week. Next week: Following the money.

This was published on DeSmog Blog on Sept 28th, 2007


DSCOVR Debacle Part 3

My entry into the DSCOVR mission intrigue happened last year when I pitched the idea to SEED magazine for a feature article on the project.

DSCOVR was quietly killed by NASA in January 2006 and it seemed awfully strange to me that a fully completed climate satellite costing $100 million would be mothballed after it had been built.

Stranger still was that virtually every scientist I interviewed as I researched this piece expressed something between guarded disappointment to full-blown outrage that what they considered crucial mission had been cancelled.

Project leader Dr. Francisco P. J. Valero, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described the mission as “an urgent necessity”.

Dr. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, was more blunt about the importance of DSCOVR’s data: “Not knowing may kill us.” He is on record as stating that sending DSCOVR to L1 is "the most important thing we could be doing in space right now."

Other scientists were so nervous about talking about the cancellation, the agreed to only speak off the record. One was even worried that the National Security Agency was recording our conversation.

That seemed a bit weird.

So in May 2006, after I had filed my piece with SEED, I sent in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NASA for any documents “in the possession of NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Dr. Mary L. Cleave touching on or relating to the decision to cancel the mission.”

Good thing I didn’t hold my breath, I would have died of asphyxiation sometime last year. I twice narrowed the scope of the request for NASA’s benefit. I was somewhat encouraged to receive a letter of acknowledgement on May 18 telling me that my request was being processed.

Then nothing. By August I started bugging NASA by email to see what was happening. I left several voice mail messages and unanswered emails and finally got this email in late October stating:

“Dear Mr. Anderson, I want to apologize for the length of time that it has taken to respond to your request. I appreciate your modified request and your patience. I am working on your request and should have a package mailed out to you this week. I have reviewed the documents submitted to our office responsive to your request. At this time, I am asking for a quick review of the documents by our Office of the General Counsel.”

It’s important to note that federal agencies have a legal obligation to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days. I was now up to 120 working days and getting pretty fed up, especially since the documents were apparently already collected and now held up by NASA lawyers. Then there is the small matter of the fate of the planet, but I digress…

The email assured me that the documents were going to be mailed “next week” and I was anxious to see what would be finally released. Little did I know that I facing another seven months of stonewalling.

In fact, NASA didn’t release any documents until April of 2007 – almost a year after filed my request. By then I was emailing them almost every day. And guess what? After keeping me waiting for over 250 days past their legal timeline, NASA withheld all internal documents relating to the decision to cancel DSCOVR.

What I got was 80 pages of mostly press clippings and letters from concerned scientists about the decision to cancel, all of which are available here.

After beating my head against a wall for almost a year, I still felt compelled to keep digging on this strange story. So I filed an appeal to NASA seeking release of the withheld documents. It wasn’t until July of this year that I got my answer. Again, goose eggs.

NASA’s legal department determined that among other things, it was necessary to withhold all internal documents relating to the decision to kill DSCOVR “to protect against public confusion that might result from disclosure of reasons and rationales that were not ultimately the grounds for the Agency’s actions.”

NASA also relied on a legal privilege to protect “open frank discussions on matters of policy between supervisors and superiors …”.

That seems a bit thin. The climate models the DSCOVR would help calibrate are now driving some of the most sweeping public policy decisions in the world.

After spending billions of dollars on low-Earth orbit observations, current climate models still have an energy imbalance of 4-6 watts per square meter, which is two to three times larger than the effect of atmospheric CO2. The unique data DSCOVR would beam back from 1.5 million kilometers away would help resolve those uncertainties and provide the world a much clearer view of how bad climate change really is.

Yet NASA is not only refusing to launch DSCOVR after taking over $100 million in taxpayers money for the project, they are also refusing to release any documents about the reasons for canceling the mission.

So what is NASA hiding? Are they simply embarrassed by this fiasco? Is there some incriminating email from the White House telling NASA to kill the project? What else is going on here? We are contemplating a legal challenge to pry open this cone of silence.

Next posting: The latest twist in this bizarre story.


The DSCOVR Debacle (Part 2)

Back in 1998, before he wasn’t elected president, and long before he hit the Hollywood “A List” with An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore had an interesting idea.

It was a dream actually.

Gore woke one morning remembering how powerfully he was affected by the iconic “blue marble” photo taken on December 7, 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the moon.

In fact, we were all affected by it. Officially known as AS17-148-22727, the quintessential photo of the Earth became the most widely distributed image in human history. Far more than a pretty picture, this beautiful shot of our fragile planet became a catalyst for both the peace and environmental movements, and a testament to the political power of an iconic image.

The problem is that humans haven’t seen that view of our planet since before the age of disco. Apollo 17 was the last mission that went to the moon and in order to see the whole planet as they did, you have to go far beyond the Earth’s orbit.

Gore’s dream was to encourage NASA to put a permanent spacecraft far beyond the moon, continuously beaming back images of our planet to help foster environmental awareness and monitor our climate. He reasoned that such a spacecraft would provide a “clearer view of our own world” and be of “tremendous science value”.

After some consideration and peer review, the scientific community agreed —but for different reasons. Even in the 1990’s the scientific community was becoming increasingly alarmed about our changing climate due to burning fossil fuels. By putting a spacecraft equipped with a radiometer at the gravitational parking spot between the Earth and the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away, scientists would for the first time be able to constantly measure the energy budget of the entire planet.

NASA thought the mission might cost around $75 million — peanuts by space standards — and started working on it for launch around 2000. Gore wanted to call it “Triana”, after the navigator on Columbus’ boat who first saw the New World. It was later renamed DSCOVR to try and jettison some of the political baggage during the reign of the Republicans.

No such luck.

In the run-up to the 2000 election, the Republican-controlled congress had a field day, calling it “Goresat” and a “multi-million dollar screen saver”. House Majority Leader Dick Armey 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.”

Because Republicans controlled NASA’s budget, they could do a lot more than grandstand about the mission. In 1999, the congressional science committee sent a $41.2 billion NASA budget to congress specifically prohibiting that any of it be used for work on DSCOVR. This bill included an amendment from Republican Dave Weldon (Florida) shifting money away from DSCOVR to other projects – apparently in retaliation for job cuts at Kennedy Space Center in his congressional district.

Stopping just short of a book burning, the Republicans passed another bill later that year ordering NASA to suspend all development work on DSCOVR until the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific merits of the mission, and forbidding it from being launched until after the 2000 presidential election.

In March 2000, the National Academy of Sciences proved the naysayers wrong, giving the mission a glowing review both for scientific merit and cost effectiveness. However, an entire year had been wasted responding to political theatre from Republican congressmen.

Yet fate and politics again conspired against DSCOVR. Al Gore did not become president in 2001. Dick Cheney was now arguably the most powerful man in the world. The Columbia Space Shuttle was tragically lost in 2003. DSCOVR was going to be stuck on Earth a while longer.

The indignities were not over yet. In 2006, the year that NASA quietly killed the mission altogether, the Republican-controlled congress raided NASA’s budget for $568.5 million in earmarks for 198 non-peer reviewed “congressional interest items” – otherwise known as pure political pork.

Considering that over 90% of the expenses have been incurred, and several governments have offered to launch DSCOVR themselves, what possible reason could NASA have for canceling the mission?

Back in 1998 when Al Gore had his dream, it was mainly climate scientists worried about global warming. Now it is widely recognized as a full-blown global emergency. Is NASA on crack, or is something else going on here?

Next Posting: the search for answers from NASA.


The DSCOVR Debacle (Part One)

Somewhere in Maryland is metal box containing a fully completed climate spacecraft that could save the world. NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) cost over $100 million and was designed to measure the energy budget of our warming planet. Yet the spacecraft has remained in its box for the last five years and it looks like it is not going anywhere anytime soon. NASA quietly cancelled the project altogether in January 2006 citing “competing priorities”.

What happened? How could the US government possibly justify killing DSCOVR given the importance of climate change and after over 90% of the project expenses had already been incurred? What role did petty partisan politics play in this? Did the oil lobby have any influence on this decision? Over the next few months I am going to be digging into the history of DSCOVR, the reasons why it was cancelled, and why NASA refuses to release any internal documents on the decision to kill the mission.

But first, some background on why DSCOVR is so important and why it is not your average climate satellite.

In fact, DSCOVR is not a satellite at all. It was designed to be sent far beyond the orbit of Earth to a unique parking spot in space, four times as far away as the moon. This “L1 Lagrangian point” was to be DSCOVR’s home, a gravity-neutral point between our planet and the Sun. If a spacecraft is put there, it stays put, 1.5 million kilometers away tracking the exact orbit of our planet around the Sun.

From this unique vantage, the scientific instruments on DSCOVR would gaze back towards Earth, allowing us for the first time ever to measure the energy budget of the entire plant. This critical data would help calibrate climate models as well as measurements from other climate spacecraft that have collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Earth’s temperature is a delicate balance between the amount of energy retained by the atmosphere and the amount being reflected back into space. This second number is called “albedo” and it is vitally important to scientists trying to develop reliable computer models on our changing climate. DSCOVR would provide vastly improved measurements of the Earth’s albedo because from L1, it would be able to continuously observe the entire sunlit disc of our planet.

Interestingly, a common complaint of climate change deniers has been that the satellite data used to develop climate models is unreliable. DSCOVR would go a long way to settling whatever honest debate remained about the reliability of those models.

Considering that these climate models are now driving enormous public policy decisions, one would think that DSCOVR would be a top priority. It certainly has been a priority of other governments. The French were so alarmed by the foot dragging by NASA they offered to send DSCOVR into space themselves at a greatly reduced cost. The Ukranian government even offered to launch DSCOVR for free aboard a Tsyklon IV rocket – the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. The response from NASA? No thanks.

Something seems rotten in the state of Maryland.

Next posting: how this mission, originally inspired by Al Gore, may have become fatally mired in beltway politics.

This was published on Desmog Blog on August 29, 2007


The End of War

War doesn’t work anymore. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the Palestinian conflict, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the oldest method in human history for resolving disputes has become obsolete.

It’s not that war is wrong (it usually is). It’s not that war is ghastly (it always is). The simple fact is that war as a strategy to achieve a desired outcome no longer functions.

Look no further than the ongoing debacle in Iraq. The US, with a large well-trained and equipped professional military is mired in a loosing struggle with determined insurgency equipped mainly with small arms and improvised roadside bombs.

After spending more than $450 billion and counting, perhaps the most effective fighting force in history still cannot pacify a country with no organized military opposition, even when the prize is the second biggest oil reserves in the world.

The grizzly human toll mounts even as prospect of a military victory fades daily. Coalition forces have so far lost over 3,500 soldiers. Over 26,000 have been wounded. Last year the Lancet estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had lost their lives to violence since the invasion in 2003.

Even while saddled with arguably the most docile and jingoistic media in the developed world, the American public is demanding an end to this fiasco. Two thirds of the US public currently opposes the war. Over half believe that it is creating more terrorists than reducing the threat from terrorism.

This last point is key. The strategy of trying to pacify a population by killing those that don’t agree with you may have worked for millennia but has now become plainly counterproductive. It is like trying to fight a fire with kerosene.

With every door kicked in, every person humiliated, every loved one killed, there are more bereaved and enraged people willing to join an insurgency. This ad-hoc volunteer force of combatants is becoming an unbeatable foe for the world’s leading military powers.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a poignant example of this emerging reality. Pound for pound, Israel has one of the most effective militaries in the world. They also have employed a grimly well-honed policy of disproportionate retribution.

There is no doubt that the various groups apposed to Israel know very well that the Jewish state can and will exact a very high cost for every action against them. This strategy, with its gruesome human toll on both sides, has been going on for generations, yet has utterly failed to end the conflict, or to protect Israeli citizens.

So what has changed? Why has is it become so much easier to mount a crippling insurgency? One factor is the global profusion of small arms. There are now about 600 million in circulation in the world, which cause some 500,000 deaths each year.

The cost of a new AK-47 in Iraq is about $200. In Afghanistan, a used one is a bargain at about $10. Bullets are 30 cents each. A rocket launcher in Baghdad can be had for about $100.

According to author Stephen Flynn, “weapons like the AK-47 are so plentiful that they can be had for the price of a chicken in Uganda, the price of a goat in Kenya, and the price of a bag of maize in Mozambique or Angola.”

With so many weapons in circulation, the historic advantage of a well-armed military over an unarmed occupied civilian population is becoming lost.

The other new factor is the deadly and recent phenomenon of suicide bombing. Developed as a tactic in the Lebanese civil war only in the 1980’s, it has become a frighteningly effective tool that military powers are virtually powerless to prevent.

Between 1980 and 2003, suicide attacks accounted for only 3% of terrorist attacks worldwide but 48% of deaths due to terrorism. A conventional army trained to fight other soldiers is of little practical use against such extreme tactics.

Contrary to popular opinion, most suicide bombers are not motivated by religious fanaticism. According to Robert Pape’s seminal book on the subject “Dying to Win”, 95% of suicide attacks have had one strategic goal: to remove an occupier.

Not surprisingly, places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, where suicide tactics are commonplace, are also examples where it has become virtually impossible to win a military solution.

It spite of the waning utility of war, like many sunset industries, it will be subsidized long after it makes sense to do so. Military spending around the world has increased 34% since 1996 and currently eats up $1.2 trillion each year – 46% of which is accounted for by the US alone.

Instead of throwing good money after bad, we should admit that most military interventions are no longer effective and reallocate those resources towards preventing conditions that lead to conflict. Rather than lamenting the end of war, we should embrace the possibilities it creates.

The US government spends 32 times more on the military than foreign aid. Globally, aid is less than 7% of military spending. Based on those numbers, the potential to make the world a more civil, just and peaceful place is enormous.

The so-called “war on terror” will not be won on a battlefield; it will be resolved through economic development, fair trade practices, strategic assistance and respectful negotiation.

Like slavery, subjugation of women and eugenics, the age of war has come and gone. It will not be missed.

This piece was published in the Tyee and the Ottawa Citizen.


Healthy Living

Imagine if it were possible to prevent vast amounts of human suffering in B.C. while saving the provincial treasury hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The possibility exists, but it requires rethinking what we mean by "health care". It means shifting our efforts toward disease prevention rather than focusing on crisis management. On that front, we have a long way to go.

Consider this: in spite of a mountain of evidence for the personal dangers and public costs of smoking, doctors in British Columbia are not allowed to bill the provincial health-care system for helping patients kick their addiction to tobacco. That remarkable policy illustrates just how little emphasis we have put on preventing, rather than curing, disease in B.C.

In fact, doctors are not typically allowed to bill the Medical Services Plan for helping their patients deal with poor diet, lack of exercise, or excessive drinking—all of which result in very expensive burdens on the health-care system. Fully 25 percent of all direct medical costs in Canada—$9.7 billion—results from a very short list of risk factors such as smoking, obesity, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise.

A major part of good health care should be offering proven, cost-effective means of reducing these risks to people who come to see health professionals.

Yet according to a 2005 B.C. Health Ministry report, preventable conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and lung cancer cost the province a whopping $1.28 billion annually, clogging our hospitals and emergency rooms with droves of people who need not be there. The World Health Organization estimates that 90 percent of Type 2 diabetes and 80 percent of coronary heart disease could be avoided or delayed with regular physical activity, quitting smoking, and reducing stress.

All of this drives Vancouver doctor and former city councillor Fred Bass crazy. He cofounded the nonprofit Society for Clinical Preventive Health Care (SCPHC) 10 years ago to try to move standard medical practices in B.C. toward what science tells us is actually effective clinical prevention.

"We got started way back in 1990 in the B.C. Stop Smoking program," Bass says. "We had very good evidence even then that…we could double or triple the rate at which people stop smoking."

He believes this is a good example of how a small investment in prevention can reap big rewards for the health-care system. "If patients going for elective surgery have stopped smoking, they cut down their use of intensive care…their length of stay…their likelihood of complications of surgical wounds, and their cardiovascular complications."

Although many British Columbians have kicked the habit, smoking still costs the province $525 million in direct medical costs and another $904 million in lost productivity, a 2004 Health Canada report noted. If only 10 percent of smokers quit, it would save the province more than $2.9 billion over their lifetimes.

Yet unlike other provinces, such as Quebec and Ontario, B.C. does not cover the costs of stop-smoking medications for people who want to quit—one of the most cost-effective interventions in all of medicine.

According to Bass, tobacco use is an example of people being stigmatized rather than helped. "There is a lot of prejudice and a lot of lack of understanding around smoking: ‘It’s a dumb choice; people deserve what they get.’ They don’t understand, in fact, that a lot of smoking is explained by the genetics of smokers. The two major predictors of smoking are years of education and smoking behaviour of the biological parents."

Many doctors now feel that tobacco is so addictive that smoking should be considered a disease rather than merely a bad lifestyle choice.

You don’t have to tell Roger Perron that. The antismoking activist lost both his legs to tobacco. He was so addicted to smoking that he would rather smoke than eat. "When I was hitchhiking, I could go three days without food as long as I had cigarettes."

Perron believes he is living proof that growing up in a smoking household is a major risk factor. His entire family smoked. "Very few people come from a smoking family and can walk away from it.…I was born addicted. No doubt in my mind. I had my first smoke when I was 11 and never stopped."

He only gave up cigarettes after he had lost both his legs to Buerger’s disease—a gruesome inflammation and clotting of the circulatory system in hands and feet caused by tobacco; the condition can lead to ulcerations and gangrene.

"I took my work boot off one day and two of my toes just split open. You could see the bone. You could see the meat.…I went to the doctors and they zipped them off. The second foot was the same thing—just like a sausage, it was so full of gangrene." He was only able to quit cigarettes when the condition was threatening to take his arms as well.

Incredibly, his tobacco-related tragedies were far from over. His 17-year-old son died when the cigarette he was smoking caused an epileptic seizure and he fell into a lake and drowned. "He quit for about six months. That morning, for whatever reason, he went over the lake, decided to light up, had a seizure, fell in the lake, and drowned.

"It’s the worst nightmare in your life. I knew a couple of people that had lost their child, and I would say, ‘I would kill myself.’ I remember, I used to say that…" Recalling it now, he asks, "Why am I still here? Maybe I’ve got something to say, and I’m saying it now."

In spite of his tragedies, Perron is far from a bitter man. He volunteers in his community and at sporting events. He did all the renos in his well-kept condo. But his primary mission in life now is to tell his story and warn others—especially children—of the dangers of smoking.

His book, My Addiction to Smoking (Trafford Publishing), tells his unvarnished story. "I’ve had people read the book right there in front of me, and they had tears in their eyes, and they ask me, ‘When is the good stuff going to happen?’ and I say, ‘Right now, I’m laughing.’"

Perron stresses that he does not feel sorry for himself or want others to feel that way. "I’m not mad. I’m not angry. What I am is I’m pissed off at those [government and media] who can do something with the smoking issue…and they won’t do anything about it."

Sitting in his wheelchair with no legs, Perron makes a powerful point. Why won’t the B.C government offer more help for doctors to help their patients stay healthy? Bass offers these thoughts: "This province has a long history of not doing preventive measures, of using the health-care system for only diseases and injuries, and this is part of that tradition."

Smoking is just one example of how skewed our health-care system is toward "acute care": namely, dealing with health problems after they develop into a serious medical issue rather than supplying the more preventive "primary care" that could be provided by many family physicians.

Look no further than the health-care budget to see where our priorities lie. Health care is the biggest thing that government does. It consumes almost 40 percent of the provincial budget—more than $13 billion for the current fiscal year. Given that kind of money, one would hope that we are not making major mistakes in how it is spent.

Yet primary care garners a mere seven percent of provincial health-care resources. Proven clinical prevention, of the type that Bass and the SCPHC have been trying to promote, has even less support: less than 0.5 percent of the health-care budget.

Theresa Negreiff, executive director of the SCPHC, is particularly frustrated by how effective delivery of preventive heath care appears to have been hijacked by the government’s need to blow its own horn. "I think that part of the resistance from government is the fact that they need to be very public in what they are delivering. It [doctor-delivered prevention] is very effective but it is very low-key…there’s not going to be billboards about it; there’s not going to be television advertising about it."

Numerous studies have shown that the best place to reach people to help them adopt healthy behaviours is in their doctors’ offices. However, Victoria has chosen to cut funding for groups like the SCPHC, despite the B.C. Liberals’ recent announcement of a $4.1 billion surplus for the 2006 fiscal year.

Now the B.C. government’s main response to promoting health is the advertising-based Act Now campaign—something that does not impress those on the frontlines of health promotion.

"The irony is that the premier’s office came out with the Act Now program, citing these lofty goals of reducing tobacco usage and increasing physical activity and eating fruits and vegetables, but how is this going to happen?" Negreiff asks. "I don’t see a lot about how this is going to happen besides sending out nice advertising and telling people to do it. Eighty percent of the population goes to see their doctors every year.…It is one of the best places to do it [prevention]."

Besides politics, another obstacle to improving preventive health care in B.C. appears to be the payment scheme for doctors. British Columbia uses a "fee for service" funding model for about 80 percent of the province’s physicians. Simply put, this means that most doctors are paid for units of health care provided: the number of patient visits, prescriptions written, referrals made, et cetera. Ever wonder why when you go into a walk-in clinic your actual time with the doctor is about five minutes or less? Our fee-for-service model is largely to blame.

According to Dr. Jim Thorsteinson, executive director of the BC College of Family Physicians, this pay structure can be equally frustrating for doctors. "It’s not uncommon for a patient to come in with six health problems, but we’ve got one fee, whether it’s one minor problem or six major problems, so the fee structure is not well set up to help physicians spend the time they need to focus on their patients."

Basically, if a doctor does want to do more preventive health care, she is likely forced by our billing system to do so out of the goodness of her heart—and pocketbook.

"I’ve often said that to take time out of your practice to plan proactively for care was simply a donation," Thorsteinson says. "You weren’t seeing patients, then you weren’t being reimbursed. Frankly, nobody valued that time. Your patients might appreciate it, but it was not going to pay the bills.…It truly has not been valued by our health-care system."

Other jurisdictions have invested in a more population-based billing model that pays doctors per patient, not ailment, and with impressive results.

When English doctors got paid to prevent disease rather than just treat it, practices changed fast. According to Thorsteinson, "the result was that very, very quickly, practices reorganized, they hired additional staff, identified the subpopulations within the practices and called them in for appropriate follow-ups, both for various disease conditions and risk conditions.

"Practices that are allowed to operate on a population-based funding model can do a lot more care over the phone. They can delegate more care to nursing staff and others and focus more on managing their overall population, and identify people that have fallen off and focus on getting them back into the practice and getting them assessed. It opens up a range of possibilities which the fee-for-service system doesn’t, where the doctor has to see the patient eyeball to eyeball before they can be paid."

Paying doctors to keep their patients healthy rather than only when they get sick seems like a no-brainer, but we have a long way to go. In a recent international survey, only 13 percent of Canadian doctors reported any financial incentives for enhanced prevention of disease. In the United Kingdom, that figure was 72 percent. Not surprisingly, in the U.K. 97 percent of patients regularly receive reminders of preventive and follow-up care, versus only 28 percent in Canada.

Thorsteinson concedes that some changes are happening in B.C., but he is not yet convinced they will make a major difference. "There is a new and complex fee system that does provide for payment for some planning care that has just come into place in B.C., and we will have to see how that works."

He would prefer to see more fundamental changes in our billing system. "A population-based funding model that still allows for some fee for service…is probably the way to go," Thorsteinson says.

Other issues in our health-care system as basic as record-keeping remain primitive. Incredibly, most medical records in B.C. are not electronic. This means that if you come into a hospital unconscious and have a serious drug allergy, your life could be at risk because doctors have no ready access to your medical history. Only 23 percent of primary-care doctors in Canada are using electronic medical records.

Besides being dangerous, our outdated medical-record system also costs a lot of money. A 2002 report for the Canadian Medical Association showed that electronic medical records in Canada could save more than $1.3 billion annually in duplicate testing, administration costs, and adverse drug reactions.

There is also mounting evidence that a team-based prevention model involving other health-care providers saves money, provides better care, and is far more efficient.

A 2005 report from the BC Medical Association—which negotiates the fee-for-service rates on behalf of the province’s specialists and general practitioners, as well as doctors’ fees in private labs—found that such multidisciplinary care provided better treatment and reduced hospital admissions for a variety of ailments, including asthma, mental disorders, diabetes, and chronic congestive heart failure.

Multidisciplinary teams are becoming more popular in Ontario and Alberta, largely due to differing funding models available to their doctors and dedicated provincial funding. Ontario now has 54 such team-based health centres, with funding to open 22 more by 2008.

In contrast, B.C. has fewer than 10—only two of which are well-established multidisciplinary clinics. One of them is the Mid-Main Community Health Centre, a nonprofit association in Mount Pleasant that has been operating since 1986. Patients there have access to doctors as well as dental services, counselling, a pharmacist, a podiatrist, and chronic-disease management. It also offers group counselling on diabetes, quitting smoking, women’s health, heart disease, and stress management. The idea is to provide as many different kinds of health care under one roof as possible so patients can get the help they need without making multiple appointments in different locations with different doctors.

According to Mid-Main’s executive director, Dr. Irene Clarence, paying doctors to do the right thing is critical. "The fee for service does not work [for complex patients]. Basically, the doctor is rewarded for doing the wrong thing." She puts it more bluntly: "If the doctor does a good job, they go broke." Instead, all Mid-Main’s staff are on salary.

Clarence says that the public is being misled by the mainstream media on health-care issues.

"There has been a real push in the media to say…we can’t afford good health care so we have to settle for bad health care. Somehow that message just keeps being put out there, and people are starting to believe that, but it’s not true. We need to make sure that the public doesn’t buy that. Good health care can be afforded, but there has to be the will to make that happen."

Not only is the multidisciplinary model more efficient, it also makes for happier doctors. A survey in the 2005 BCMA report found that 96 percent of B.C. physicians working in a team said that they planned to stick with multidisciplinary practice for the next five years. This was in spite of the fact that they were likely making less than their fee-for-service colleagues.

So if this is the way to go, why isn’t it happening?

"What’s lacking is structured fund ing and incentives," Thorsteinson says. "There’s interest by family doctors, there’s generations of literature dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, and, most recently, the [2002 Roy] Romanow report [on the future of Canadian health care] stating that this is the way to go. Our governments just haven’t been able to get away from acute care to commit to this area. I guess this is just not as sexy and it just doesn’t get the headlines. Preventing diseases five or 10 years from now just doesn’t have the same impact in the headlines as someone who can’t get in the operating room yesterday."

Contacted by the Straight, B.C. health minister George Abbott voiced his support for preventive health care and multidisciplinary teams but conceded that we have a way to go. "I think we have tended to emphasize the acute-care side of the ledger previously in B.C.…I think we are behind some jurisdictions, particularly Alberta and Ontario, but we are working hard to catch up. I think we need to go there, and we need to go there as quickly and effectively as we can."

Abbott agrees that keeping people out of our hospitals is going to be more important than ever. "I have religion on primary health care and prevention. I think those are the two lights at the ends of the tunnel that are not onrushing freight trains."

Colleen Fuller, a health- and drug-policy research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is not convinced. She points out that many preventive services that used to be covered by the public health-care system—such as physiotherapy, podiatry, massage therapy, and annual eye exams—have been delisted by the B.C. Liberals.

"If you have diabetes, one of the best ways to prevent blindness is to have an annual checkup with an ophthalmologist. This is the single most effective intervention that you can offer people with diabetes so they don’t go blind."

Yet according to Fuller, the provincial government is "decreasing access to a lot of services that are properly defined as preventive health care, so it is absolutely impossible to believe George Abbott when he says that this government in Victoria is supporting preventive health care. They’re not."

That stated B.C. Liberal commitment to preventive health care does not seem to be trickling down to innovative models like Mid-Main.

In spite of international recognition for its work, Mid-Main was forced to lay off staff this year due to lack of matching funding from the provincial government. Ottawa infused start-up money between 2003 and 2006 in preventive health care, but there were never any matching or follow-up funds from Victoria.

"It’s so sad. On one hand, we were taking around dignitaries from Sweden and Norway and they were saying ‘Great work,’" Clarence says. "On the other, the money is slowly fading away to do this great work."

The fate of the Society for Clinical Preventive Health Care is even more shocking. In a sad testament to B.C.’s lack of commitment to prevention, it was forced to close its office this month due to lack of provincial funding.

With an annual budget of slightly more than $200,000, the SCPHC developed preventive-health-care programs that could save the provincial treasury tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. After three cuts to its budget in two years, there was no choice but to lay off staff and permanently shut the doors.

"It’s insane-making," Bass says.

The bright side, if there is one, is the enormous potential for improving health care in B.C. However, it will require rethinking what we mean by health care and wellness. From eliminating carcinogens in the environment to reducing homelessness, from improving diet and exercise to reducing well-known risk factors such as smoking, we have a tremendous opportunity to make B.C. a healthier and happier place.

This piece was published in the Georgia Straight on July 19th, 2007