Food, Not Bombs

What does a $150,000 artillery shell have to with Canada’s aid efforts in Afghanistan? Not much, but it is an excellent example of everything wrong-headed about our mission there.

Canadian Forces were recently given the go-ahead to begin using GPS-guided shells that are so expensive, each one is like firing a brand new Ferrari out of a cannon.

It is ironic that the same day, a report was released showing that almost all Western governments, including Canada, have not lived up to their aid commitments to that war-torn country.

Ninety four international aid agencies under the banner of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, reported this week that western governments had shortchanged impoverished Afghanistan by a staggering $15 billion in pledged aid since 2001.

Canada committed $779 million in aid but came up almost $50 million short. It seems when given the choice of investing in artillery shells or schools, Ottawa has made their decision.

Other countries are even more stingy. The US welched on $5.5 billion in pledged aid. The World Bank jammed out on $800 million. Germany didn’t pony up $400 million, and the UK came up $200 million short.

The outrage of the richest countries on Earth shortchanging one the world’s poorest should not ignored. It is equally important to remember that this lack of focus on aid and development has seriously undermined the country’s already shaky stability. .

The authour of the report, Matt Waldman, Afghanistan policy adviser at Oxfam states it plainly: “The combined effect of having this shortfall in aid is that no doubt insecurity has spread. We have to acknowledge that there are links between security and development, and if we reduce poverty …we will be paving the way towards stability and peace.”

Afghanistan remains one of the most grindingly impoverished places on the planet. Failing to deliver on identified aid requirements to such a desperately poor and unstable country is not only immoral, it is imprudent.

While this hardscrabble nation is not rich in natural resources, it is awash in small arms and munitions after decades of war. The cost of a used AK-47 in Afghanistan is about $10. Bullets are 30 cents each. Scores of land mines and anti-tank mines are strewn throughout the country, providing the raw materials for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Should people wish to commit acts of violence on each other, or mount an insurgency against perceived foreign occupiers, they have plenty to work with.

The emergence of the IED as brutally effective weapon is a good example of the shifting ground around armed conflict. For millennia it has been possible (and often profitable) for a superior military force to conquer another nation and subdue their people. For perhaps the first time in human history, that is no longer so simple.

A roadside bomb can be built for less than $50, but can destroy a tank worth several million. The US military has so far spent $6 billion trying to counter the growing threat of IEDs to no avail. These simple and deadly devices are making occupying a hostile country prohibitively expensive. The economics of war have suddenly become very bad.

Whether the military wants to admit it or not, investing in peace is becoming much more cost effective than conventional, and increasingly counter-productive, military solutions.

Yet the obvious connection between grinding poverty and violence remains lost on most western governments, including our own. The stubborn belief that it is possible (or desirable) to win over a people by trying to kill all those that oppose you may take a long time to leave us. The US continues to spend over fourteen times as much on military actions than on aid in Afghanistan, a country already ground to dust by decades of war.

While some may argue that soldiers have also been delivering medical and other aid, groups like Oxfam are clear that it should be instead civilian and NGO sectors doing such work. “The aid agencies that are behind this report believe that aid is best delivered through civilian agencies and not by the military”, said Waldman.

It is particularly maddening that our leaders in Ottawa have put our Afghan mission in lockstep with US tactics when the world is increasingly questioning America’s moral leadership. While our soldiers are bravely and effectively carrying out that mission, such tactics are not our country’s strong suit.

As a people we are much better at offering help than kicking in doors. We should build on the strength, not squander our hard won international reputation by adopting a failed strategy of aggressive counterinsurgency at the very time in history when these methods are least effective.

Canada is a uniquely tolerant and diverse country that has much to inspire the rest of the world. There is no doubt that we should be in Afghanistan - the question is how. Paying our bills in strategically targeted aid would be a good place to start.

A thorough housecleaning of notoriously bloated government aid agencies would be another step in the right direction. This should be accompanied by developing meaningful and long-overdue accountability benchmarks for aid delivery. OXFAM estimates that 40% of delivered Afghan aid has been squandered by bureaucratic inefficiencies, or cynically tying aid dollars to our own domestic industries.

Lastly, taking a hard look at whether our military intervention in Afghanistan is making things better or worse is unavoidable. High tech artillery shells are unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Our soldiers, as always, will carry out the orders given to them by our elected government - often at the price of their lives. It is the duty of all Canadians to ensure that those orders are continually held up to public scrutiny and debate.


Revealed - Bush Killed DSCOVR Mission

Fresh documents accessed from the US government show the George Bush had a direct hand in killing the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

In one of three badly redacted letters - released after a delay more than three times longer than the legal limit - NASA's Associate Administrator for Earth Science, Ghassem Asrar, says: "Due to Space Shuttle manifesting constraints recently directed by the President, the DSCOVR mission is currently without a launch opportunity” (my emphasis).

This critical spacecraft was designed to monitor the energy budget of the planet from the unique vantage of 1 million miles away. NASA strangely canceled the project after spending over $100 million building it. Prominent members of the scientific community were outraged at the decision. You can view their laundry list of letters here.

Another US government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), requested that NASA transfer the mission to them. Not only did NASA not provide to spacecraft, they did not even respond to the request.

Last fall, I filed a freedom of information request to NOAA to shed some light on this mystery. As usual, the documents were several months overdue and heavily censored. However, what was released reveals how George Bush’s Whitehouse is interfering in NASA’s science program, and suppressing climate science.

In a letter dated August 31, 2004, Dr. Robert Charlson expresses his frustration to a colleague at the University of New Hampshire:
“I have exchanged several letters with NASA Headquarters about DSCOVR, and am concerned that I can’t get a straight answer from them…We have spent a lot of money and personal effort to establish EOS [NASA’s Earth Observing System] and it’s associated programs and it would be tragic to cut them off before they can bear fruit. To further constrain our research field would indicate that NASA headquarters may be deliberately trying to de-emphasize climate science.”

Dr. Charlson makes the scientific importance of DSCOVR plain in another letter addressed to NASA headquarters:

“Again, I urge you to press the case for launching and operating DSCOVR so that we in the scientific community can make real progress towards understanding climate and the impacts human activity on it. Without it, will continue to be stuck with excessive uncertainties and dependence upon assumptions instead of data.”

In response to Dr. Charlson’s plea for action, Associate Administrator for Earth Science Ghassem Asrar reveals that DSCOVR was nixed by NASA due to directions from the Whitehouse:

“It is widely recognized that the science offered by DSCOVR would help make possible an integrated self-consistent global database for studying the extent of regional and global climate change. Due to Space Shuttle manifesting constraints recently directed by the President, the DSCOVR mission is currently without a launch opportunity.”

By 2005, NASA was through pretending this mission would ever fly under their watch. Associate Administrator Dr. Mary Cleave stated plainly in a letter dated December 2005:

“Restrictions for the remaining Space Shuttle missions continue to preclude remainfesting DSCOVR for launch, a situation that is not expected to change…Unfortunately, the significant funding required to ready and launch DSCOVR within the context of competing priorities and the state of the budget for the foreseeable future precludes continuation of the project.”

These letters provide clear evidence that at the very least, George Bush’s Mars mission boondoggle helped killed DSCOVR. However, there is much that remains a mystery.

If the decision to kill DSCOVR is simply about money, why won’t NASA allow another US government agency launch it? Why are NASA, NOAA and the Whitehouse so secretive about releasing the documents relating to DSCOVR? If NASA is serious about climate research, why would they mothball a project so important to the scientific community, citing “competing priorities”? Is this another example of NASA trying to silence climate science?

Next posting: How NASA lied about this mission to the media.


Tar Sands Setback

The bitumen boondoogle that is the Alberta tar sands took another hit last week. A small group of environmental groups won an important victory in court, overturning an environmental assessment allowing further tar sand expansion and forcing the government to consider the massive greenhouse gas emissions from future developments.

The fight started when the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB) determined that the proposed $8 billion expansion by Imperial Oil would not likely to “result in significant adverse environmental effects”. Strange… How can you extract and burn over 4.6 billion barrels of oil from this tarry mess without “significant adverse environmental effects”?

The four environmental groups, represented in court by EcoJustice Canada took the government to court and argued the obvious - that that if this project was approved it would result in massive releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, something ignored in all previous such environmental assessments. How massive? This extraction of oil alone would produce as much carbon as putting an additional 800,000 vehicles on the road for the next 50 years.

Both Imperial Oil and the Canadian government argued (with a straight face) that these additional emissions don’t really matter because industry is becoming more efficient at extracting oil from tar. This doublespeak around “intensity targets” didn’t cut any ice with the judge. Madame Justice Daniele Tremblay-Lamer said:

“The absolute amount of greenhouse gas pollution from oil sands development will continue to rise under intensity-based targets because of the planned increase in total production of bitumen. The Panel dismissed as insignificant the greenhouse gas emissions without any rationale as to why the intensity-based mitigation would be effective to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 800,000 passenger vehicles, to a level of insignificance”

You can bet the Big Oil didn’t expect to lose this one. They have long enjoyed using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon. They also threw their best and most expensive lawyers at this ballsy challenge to that entitlement, yet were clobbered by a bright young attorney who is so underpaid, he used to be my roommate.

The implications from this decision may be dire for the oil industry. The rubber stamp approvals of tar sands expansion have relied on the legal fiction that governments could simply ignore the implications of spewing carbon into the atmosphere that hasn’t seen the light of day in 160 million years. Carbon emissions and oil sands development are inseparable, and we are talking about a lot of both.

The tar sands are fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada. So energy intensive are these low-grade deposits that 700 million cubic of relatively clean natural gas are burnt each day just to extract tar from rock. This is enough to heat more than 3.7 million Canadian homes.

There is also the simple fact that the only reason that you extract oil in the first place is to burn it.

The math that flows from this is alarming. Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude add up to about 640 kg carbon dioxide per barrel. The expansion of the tar sands proposed by Imperial Oil would eventually dump almost three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ignoring carbon emissions in environmental assessments has been a lazy convenience enjoyed by Canada’s regulators for far too long. The important legal victory last week is a big step in the right direction.

This piece ran nowhere.


Suing Big Oil for Climate Change

You can sue someone for damaging your car, your house or your health.

Why not your climate?

That’s the weighty question being asked by a small community in Alaska in a court case filed today in San Francisco against a raft of major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil.

The Village of Kivalina, and the local Inuit band, filed their claim on the basis that Exxonmobil, eight other oil companies, fourteen power companies and one coal company have all contributed to radical and expensive changes to the local climate caused by global warming.

Kivalina is a native community of less than 400 people on an island in the Bearing Sea that depends on salmon fishing and hunting. The settlement has been protected for generations by sea ice that shields the area from powerful winter storms. Less ice due to a rapidly changing climate has greatly increased the rate of erosion and storm damage, forcing the community to consider relocating at a cost of more than $400 million.

"We are seeing accelerated erosion because of the loss of sea ice," City Administrator Janet Mitchell said in a statement. "We normally have ice starting in October, but now we have open water even into December so our island is not protected from the storms."

If this novel lawsuit proves successful it could spell big trouble for the fossil fuel industry. For decades, Big Oil has been using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon dioxide. But as they say, there’s no free lunch.

Tort lawyers are a uniquely vicious species, especially against industries with deep pockets that are selling dangerous products, and lying about it.

For instance, the tobacco industry deceived the public, government and media for decades about the dangerous side effects of using their product. Sound familiar? A series of public and private lawsuits against Big Tobacco have so far extracted about $10 billion annually in the US alone in settlements to pay for burdens of smoking on the health care system.

The difference is that Big Oil makes Big Tobacco look like a corner store. The fossil fuel industry worldwide is worth about $8 trillion annually. That is five to six times the size of the next biggest industrial sector – cars. Corporate pockets don’t get any deeper than that.

Potential legal settlements in future climate change lawsuits might be astronomically larger than comparatively puny tobacco settlements. The former chief economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern estimates that unabated climate change could shrink the global economy by up 20%. That works out to about $12 trillion each year. Those are the kind of numbers that make any tort lawyer lick their chops.

Keep an eye on this small but important lawsuit hailing from a tiny village in Alaska. Things could get interesting.

This piece was published on DeSmog Blog on Feb. 28, 2008