Sunday, 13 October 2019

Perfidious America

Early in 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, a deal largely negotiated by and signed off on by his own country. Iran had been keeping its side of the bargain and the other five partners were happy with the results. Nonetheless, Trump walked, leaving the impression that a deal with the United States is only good until the next presidential election.

Now the president has betrayed his country's Kurdish allies in Syria. This week he pulled American troops out of northern Syria leaving the Kurds to the mercy of Turkey.

The Kurds are largely responsible for defeating ISIS in Syria, suffering major casualties in the bargain. But it is the Americans who bear the responsibility for unleashing ISIS in the first place. It was little more than a fanatical gleam in the eye of Islamic extremist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until the Americans invaded Iraq and disbanded the Iraqi army, inadvertently providing an officer corp for Baghdadi's fighters—ISIS. The extremist army then went on to occupy large parts of Iraq and Syria. In Syria they encountered the Kurds who, in defeating them, did the Americans' dirty work for them. Now Trump has pulled out American backup, in effect delivering the Kurds up to their enemy Turkey, and running the chance of unleashing ISIS again in the bargain. Friend or foe, no matter, Trump's America will betray you.

The French long referred to England as "perfidious Albion" perceiving England as a nation whose word couldn't be trusted. Now that the U.S. has assumed leadership of the Anglo empire, its current president seems determined to take on the mantle of perfidy.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Scapegoating the oil industry

I always admired that great philosopher Pogo. I still remember the picture of he and a friend looking out over their polluted swamp as he uttered those immortal words, "We have met the enemy and he is us." No scapegoating. It was their swamp and they had messed it up. Just as we have done with our planet, including global warming.

There are those, however, that would suggest global warming isn't really our fault. It's those danged oil companies. A recent report by the Climate Accountability Institute has been seized upon to do precisely that. The report points out that the products of the top 20 fossil fuel companies resulted in 35 per cent of the carbon dioxide and methane released by human activities since 1965. Another stat has attracted rather less attention but tells the important story, specifically that 90 per cent of those emissions were from the use of their products. That means us.

Do the oil companies have a responsibility? Of course they do. They produce the product that ultimately causes global warming. Have they vigorously promoted their industry? Of course they have. Doesn't everybody promote their livelihood? And have they behaved badly? Oh yes, at times very badly. But we are the ones who burn the damn stuff. We send the CO2 skyward.

And it isn't as if the relationship between burning fossil fuels and global warming has been a big secret. The theory has been known since early in the 19th century. Edward Teller, he of the hydrogen bomb, was speaking out about the dangers in the 1950s. In 1965, the U.S. government issued a report outlining the climate effects of burning fossil fuels. Furthermore, the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. oil industry's largest trade association, concurred with the report and warned about "marked changes in climate." So both government and industry have discussed the relationship publicly for over 50 years.

And the public's response? Just keep on filling the tank. A decade after Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the Americans elected Donald Trump, a buffoon who once said global warming was a "Chinese hoax." In Brazil, South America's largest country, its benighted citizens elected a party of deniers whose foreign minister claimed global warming is a "Marxist conspiracy." But no need to go abroad. Here in Alberta we threw out a government that wasn't doing as much as it should but at least recognized the problem and replaced it with a government that is doubling down on fossil fuels and threatening people who criticize its policies. And federally, we are in the midst of an election where a party of near-deniers may form the next government.

This post is not a defense of the oil industry. I have no interest in that and, in any case, it doesn't need my help. This is about scapegoating. Scapegoating is powerful and tempting to demagogues and ordinary people alike; it's comforting to hear that someone else is responsible for your problems, not you. But whether it's Hitler scapegoating Jews, Trump scapegoating immigrants, or Kenney scapegoating Trudeau, it's wrong. It's dishonest and dangerous.

We have all enjoyed the golden age of cheap energy that the lifeblood of modern industry brought us. Now the bills are coming due and they are much higher than we realized. Too many people don't want to pay them. Or get off the high. Election after election and survey after survey show that while most people now recognize the threat is serious they are reluctant to pay the price of dealing with it. Blaming the oil companies is a cop-out. It's our swamp, our mess. The enemy is us.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Will automation steal all our jobs?

Yet another report predicts we are all going to be replaced by machines. Well, maybe not us, but our jobs at least. The report, issued for Wells Fargo clients, predicts that over the next ten years technology will replace ten per cent of banking jobs. The report's author, banking analyst Mike May, claims the job cuts will be the "greatest transfer from labour to capital" of all time.

Mr. May's report notwithstanding, the replacement of human workers by machines seems to be very slow in happening. The unemployment rate in Canada (and in the U.S.) is the lowest in 50 years. It seems humans are still very much in demand.

Part of the reason may be many peoples' preference for human interaction. From my own observations, people aren't exactly flocking to the machines. Apropos of Mr. May's report on banking, for example, when I visit my credit union I find most customers prefer living, breathing tellers to the ATMs. Similarly, at my local supermarket the cashiers do much more business that the automated checkouts. My local library has had an automated checkout for years, but almost everyone disdains it for a real librarian. And why would you not? Librarians are among the most pleasant and helpful people on the planet. No point in saying good morning to a machine.

Furthermore, machines don't always replace as many workers as they are intended to, as my library automatic checkout illustrates. The replacement predictions are often made by IT people, i.e. engineers, and engineers tend to be more comfortable with things than human beings. To an engineer, any sensible person would choose a fast, efficient machine over a slow, mistake-ridden human being. But most of us aren't engineers and, like the members of any social species, prefer the company of our own kind. So, at least if we are given a choice,  we are often inclined to contrarily choose the person over the machine. At least if we are given a choice; unfortunately often we are not.

And then there's the problem people often have managing the machines. At my supermarket, for example, each machine needs a human being looking over its shoulder.
Customers frequently have trouble using the things and require the assistance of a staff member, so each machine has its accompanying human assistant.

Nonetheless, many jobs are being lost to automation. This has been the case since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed it's been responsible for the increasing efficiency of production and the resulting increase in living standards for everyone. It is happening faster today but, as in the past, new jobs appear to replace those that disappear.

And here is where the real problem arises—the kind of jobs that replace those lost. The political disaster of Donald Trump's election in the U.S., as well as Brexit and other assorted disasters, is in large part due to manufacturing jobs being lost to automation and replaced by service sector jobs, i.e. middle class jobs replaced by precariat jobs and all the accompanying angst.

I suggest we should be less concerned about job losses, the inevitable result of advancing technology, and focus our attention on ensuring that when people lose a good job we can quickly transition them into another good job. That means at least three things: excellent opportunities for education and training, ease of forming unions, and legislation to protect the precariat. When it comes to the jobs issue, politicians should be judged by what they can offer on those three fronts.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Scheer would make us even worse cheapskates on foreign aid

When Andrew Scheer released his party's foreign policy earlier this year it turned out to be in large part a copy of Donald Trump's. Pandering to the Israelis, hypocritical approach to Iran, etc. Now it appears he is also following the Donald' s lead on foreign aid.

Earlier this year, Trump had proposed slashing $4.3 billion in foreign aid already approved by Congress; Scheer has proposed reducing ours by a quarter. Trump had to back off on his cuts after fierce resistance from Congress. Hopefully Scheer won't get to implement his either.

Our foreign aid is already niggardly for a country as rich as Canada. In 1970, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which committed each economically advanced country to "exert its best efforts" to devote 0.70 per cent of its GDP to foreign aid. We aren't making much of an effort at all—our aid budget is currently 0.28 per cent of our GDP. Scheer would reduce it to 0.21.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden is by far the leader at 1.40 per cent. The United Kingdom makes the grade with 0.71. The U.S. only manages 0.17 per cent which even makes us look good.

Canada has never reached the 0.70 goal, coming closest in the 1970s at around 0.50 and mostly declining since. Recently we have slipped below the average of donor countries. Despite being "back," we persist in being a laggard.

The UN resolution establishing the 0.70 per cent resulted from the work of the Commission on International Development, commonly referred to as the Pearson Commission after its head, our very own former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lester Pearson. One wonders what he would think of his successors.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

"We need a carbon tax"—oil company CEO

MEG Energy Corp. is a Canadian oil company focused on in situ tar sands production. Its CEO, Derek Evans, claims the company intends to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The plan is to capture emissions from the production process and inject them into an underground reservoir, i.e. carbon capture and storage.

Evans believes that a higher carbon price would not only encourage more companies to fund such projects, but it would also create more awareness about the emissions problem. To that end, he said, "We need a carbon tax. It would be nice if we weren't sitting around arguing about it, but it seems to be a political football today." He isn't alone in his view. Shell Canada has said that future growth in carbon capture would require carbon taxes rising to about $100 a tonne.

These views aren't entirely altruistic. MEG is seeking Government support for its project. Shell's carbon capture Quest project (sold to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. in 2017), which cost about $1.35 billion, received $745 million from the Alberta government and $120 million from Ottawa.

Of course, reducing the emissions from production is a minor part of the problem. Only about seven per cent of the emissions from a barrel of oil come from the production end, so that's the maximum reduction even if producers could reduce their emissions to zero. The overarching problem is the 80 per cent of the emissions that are produced when the barrel is burned. But, hey, every little bit helps.

The irony of oil execs promoting a carbon tax is not only that it contradicts Conservatives' opposition, but the execs are suggesting that it's necessary for carbon capture and storage, one of the conservatives' big hopes for dealing with global warming. "Technology not taxes" as Andrew Scheer puts it. The execs are insisting it's both technology and taxes ... and big government handouts to boot.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Trust in science falls—due to global warming?

Greta Thunberg made a statement to the U.S. Congress the other day that, like most of what she says, was simple, profound and obvious at the same time. Simple (only four words), profound (it holds the key to dealing with humanity's greatest challenge) and obvious (ask advice from those who have the answers).

After charming Congress with a speech, she was asked by one member what advice she had for them. She replied, "I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists."

Unfortunately, many of our leaders are not listening. Nor are a great many of us. We are not taking Greta's obvious advice; we are not listening to the scientists. Indeed, a recent survey indicates that Canadians' trust in science is falling. The survey, conducted by Ipsos Group S.A., found that 32 per cent of respondents were skeptical about science, up from 25 per cent the year before, a huge increase.

A lack of trust in science is a strange thing. The only way we can know the truth is through science, i.e. through "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe." Everything else is conjecture. Why would anyone not want to know the truth?

Scientists make mistakes of course. And we can never know the absolute truth, but science gets us closest to it. Unfortunately, often people don't want to get too close. The truth can be, as Al Gore put it, inconvenient. Or worse. It can shatter your worldview. Such was the case when Copernicus suggested that we weren't the centre of the universe after all, or when Darwin pointed out that we are not all that different from other animals, just one species in a long evolutionary line from pond scum to apes. Those discoveries shook up people's sense of where they stood in the world.

Climate change is one of those big ideas. And if that's not enough to absorb, there is species extinction and the exhaustion of the Earth's resources. We are not just mucking up our civilization, we are mucking up life on this planet. For many perhaps it's just too much, too much guilt, too much sacrifice required to deal with it, so they reject it and retreat to a prettier picture.

The timing is particularly unfortunate. Never before in all our history has it been as important to deal with reality, to follow Greta's advice. Never before has rejecting the truth threatened such tragic consequences, for us and for our fellow species.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Media waking up on climate crisis

I have long been puzzled why the growing climate crisis has not been better covered in the media. For the greatest threat facing humanity it seemed to get few column inches in the press or minutes on the telly. The only newspaper that has consistently provided front page news on the crisis is the Guardian. The Guardian is also the only medium that has adopted appropriate terminology (such as "climate crisis" rather than "climate change") and even included carbon dioxide levels in its daily weather forecast.

But the media are now waking up. In a major new initiative founded earlier this year by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Nation newspaper, termed Covering Climate Now, more than 300 news outlets from around the world are addressing the urgent need for stronger climate coverage. The media include print and digital, TV and radio, with a combined audience of well over one billion people. The lead partner is, who else, the Guardian. I noticed The Toronto Star in the list of partners but not, disappointingly, the CBC.

Covering Climate Now has geared up for the UN Climate Action Summit now underway (September 21-23) in New York, pledging to increase the volume and visibility of their climate coverage. This will be the partners' first large-scale collaboration. The Guardian will make some of its climate coverage available free to partners to help smaller publications serve their audiences.

At the launch of the partnership in May, co-founders Mark Hertsgaard of the Nation and Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review, called for change in how the media covers the climate crisis. In an op-ed in the Review, they observed, "Spun by the fossil-fuel industry and vexed by their own business problems, media outlets often leaned on a false balance between the views of genuine scientists and those of paid corporate mouthpieces. The media’s minimization of the looming disaster is one of our great journalistic failures." It is indeed, and we have seen much of the false balance they refer to in the Canadian media.

The climate crisis is, as the Columbia Journalism Review has written, the defining story of our time. Perhaps the world's media is finally recognizing that fact.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

It will be lonely when the birds are gone

I live deep in the city yet I enjoy visits from a number of our feathered friends. In the winter I am occasionally honoured by the visit of a wee chickadee. A bashful fellow, he flits half-hidden among the branches of a tall spruce that towers over my apartment.

Frequently a magpie visits me on my balcony. He throws dirt out of my flower posts, scolds me fiercely to let me know who's boss, and then goes on his way. He’s a nuisance but I love the little rascal. I’d miss his visits if he were not there. And the way things are going, one day he, and all his kind, may not be.

According to a new study, "Decline of the North American avifauna," published in the journal Science, there are almost three billion fewer birds in Canada and the United States than there were 50 years ago, a decline of 29 per cent. Birds that migrate long distances have been particularly hard hit, but even species that do well in cities are disappearing. They face a variety of threats: increased pesticide use, domestic cats, collisions with windows, fragmentation of forests, and habitat degradation by intensifying agriculture, urban sprawl, and fragmentation of forests. In other words, it's all our doing.

Sometimes I think we are like a fungus upon the Earth, spreading across and devouring, and often ruining even for our own species, more and more space. When we exterminate large numbers of our own species, which we do regularly, we call it a holocaust. Should we not then call it a holocaust when we exterminate all of another species? If so, then we are committing holocaust after holocaust after holocaust—thousands of holocausts. According to a comprehensive UN report on biodiversity, one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, half of them due to "insufficient habitat for long-term survival."

There are things each of us can do to save the birds, including keeping kitty indoors (after habitat loss, cats are the biggest reason for the decline), replacing grass with native plants (native plants can provide shelter, nesting areas and food for birds—grass doesn't), avoiding pesticides, and watching birds and helping track them (there's even an app—eBird).

Perhaps we can still halt the decline, but being the rapacious species we are the odds are not good. Birds are our most delightful neighbours. How like us to repay them for the delight they provide by systematically driving them into extinction.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

"For 'tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard"

Accusing Justin Trudeau of being racist is ridiculous. This is a prime minister who formed the most ethnically diverse cabinet in history, welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees, condemned a proposed niqab ban, supported a parliamentary study of Islamophobia, launched a federal anti-racism strategy, funded a new "Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics," and who has apologized for every historical slight against an ethnic group he can dredge up. The man doesn't have a racist bone in his body.

So what about the face painting? Well, he has a bit of his old man in him, the flamboyance. He's the life of the party, the guy who would go all out for an Arabian Nights theme—the costume, the makeup, the works. We saw this side of him during his infamous visit to India.

Nonetheless, this will go hard on Trudeau because he is so damn self-righteous. He tolerates no such faux pas from his MPs. His demotion of my MP, Kent Hehr, comes to mind. When he gets on the subject of human rights he turns pedantic; he lectures; the school teacher emerges. Remember him instructing the woman at one of his town hall meetings that she should say "personkind," not "mankind." If you are going to be self-righteous you had best be righteous. But if you get caught out, you must suffer the accusations of hypocrisy, and Trudeau's opponents will make sure he suffers.

Mind you, watching Andrew Scheer accuse Trudeau of racism is a bit much given the neanderthals he has lurking in his party. Yet Trudeau deserves it. The Liberals kicked off their campaign by denouncing Scheer for remarks he made about gay marriage years ago, so now Andrew gets his turn. Tit for tat. Sauce for the goose and all that.

Perhaps the former school teacher will take this as a teachable moment. He may learn a little humility. And he may learn to be a little less self-righteous with his candidates and MPs who sin along these lines. Now that his misdeeds have been exposed, perhaps he can be a little more forgiving of theirs.

And, oh, one more thing. A personal message, Justin. You have apologized profusely and sincerely for your antics. Good for you. Now when am I getting my apology for your betrayal on voting reform?

Friday, 13 September 2019

The ghost of Bible Bill Haunts us still

In the late '30s and early '40s Alberta's premier was the colourful William Aberhart, known as "Bible Bill" for his bible studies classes and radio sermons. Founder of the Social Credit Party, Bible Bill introduced a variety of legislation during his term, some good, some not so much. An example of the latter was his Accurate News and Information Act which would have forced newspapers to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet deemed inaccurate. Needless to say, the Supreme Court deemed the Act unconstitutional.

I thought of Bible Bill when reading about Jason Kenney's Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns. Premier Kenney and his colleagues are mighty angry about Canadian environmental groups receiving donations from Americans. The inquiry has come as a surprise to many. In a democracy one does not expect the government to use the powers of the state to harass those citizens who challenge its policies. But this is Alberta, Bible Bill country even today.

Many may also wonder just what the issue is. So some Americans are donating to some Canadian charities. So? The donations are legal and quite appropriate—after all, greenhouse gasses produced from Alberta fossil fuels don't stay in Alberta. They affect the lives of Americans and everyone else, so all have a right to be involved.

Both donors and charities are environmentalists so naturally they support dramatically reducing the burning of fossil fuels, as do all people with good sense in the face of global warming. And, needless to say, the country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, the tar sands, catches their particular attention, as it should.

It's not as if the anti-fossil fuel groups are alone in enjoying American largesse. Pro-fossil fuel organizations such as the Fraser Institute are heavily funded by American companies, including oil interests. Not that I'm creating an equivalence. The Tides Foundation's  donations to the Pembina Institute promote its interest in a cleaner, greener world. Koch Industries' donations to the Fraser Institute promote its interest in an industry that's fouling the planet but which makes Koch large sums of money.

And then there's the oil industry itself. In an act of monumental hypocrisy, Premier Kenney attacks environmentalists for accepting foreign money while actively encouraging foreign investment in the industry.

The commissioner of the inquiry, Steve Allen, is a man of substantial achievement and integrity. Why he has chosen to chair this folly is a puzzle. Perhaps he simply believes in public service and when the premier calls it his duty to serve. I only hope his reputation survives the witch hunt.