Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Road to 350: part 1

So post-Copennhagen, it is clear that our national governments are going to be little if no help in getting us back under 350 ppm of CO². At least, not now and not for a while. Unless you live in Germany, which has taken its environmental responsibilities quite a bit more seriously since Kyoto than our Canadian national government ever did. Between '97 and '07, Germany reduced its emissions by about 6%. Canada's have risen by a similar amount. But Under the Harper Conservatives, we've also become an international pariah nation; the Commonwealth is moving to kick Canada out because of our obstructionist tactics viz. global warming at the last couple of meetings for example.
 And our behaviour at Copenhagen was pathetic at best (I hope the Honourable Jim Prentice was suitably embarrassed at giving Harper's speech for him, that he refuses such an assignment again. If our PM really had the strength of his own convictions, he'd have given the speech himself).
But what is made clear from Copenhagen is the strength and impact of our provincial and municipal governments in addressing climate change. We need the federal government to step up, but until they do, there is a lot that can be accomplished at the municipal and provincial level. Say what you will about Gordon Campbell (and he likely deserves it), at least he appears to have heard about global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions. And he has, however poorly executed or followed up on, instituted a carbon tax in BC.
So getting to 350 (or less, as several undeveloped nations suggested at Copenhagen), is going to be tricky. No one wants to go first, extractive businesses don't want to go at all, and most of us have no idea how to move forward. So where do we start?
On a personal level, the most effect you can have is not, funnily enough, to stop driving. Yes, that's a good idea. And we need more people on transit to make it carbon-effective (a replacement I humbly offer up for "cost-effective"). But the number one action we can take is to significantly reduce our intake of animal protein. If we each restricted our diet tomorrow to three servings of animal protein a week, we could change to world. Well, as long as we didn't allow the surplus to be exported.
The energy input costs for animal protein are in excess of 30-1. Thirty calories in for every calorie out. That's a recipe for disaster in any system. And I can't think of any "green meat" (with the possible exception of a couple of backyard chickens), Dr. Seuss notwithstanding.

Weapon of Global destruction.

I'm as guilty as anyone; I purchase cruelty-free pork from my local grocer (who gets only two hogs/week to sell; so small producer and local), but that doesn't really change the carbon footprint of the meat that much. And its not transportation that's the culprit. It's the raising of the animal that causes the most problems.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (in 2006):
When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.
And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain

Worldwide, about 13.5% of GHGs are produced by transportation in various forms. Livestock, worldwide, contribute about 18% of the world's GHGs (at least in 2006).
In Canada, 55% of nitrogen fertilizer is used to produce feed and pasture forage, also according to the FAO. In Germany, that number is 62%, and in the UK, 70%. The raising of calories to feed livestock is a massive energy sink.
Worldwide, since the signing of the Kyoto protocol, meat consumption has gone from 214,940,709 metric tonnes in 1997, to 246,771,601 tonnes in 2002 (the last year for which records are available), a net increase of 31,830,892 tonnes in five years. (In Canada it was 2,906,689 tonnes to 3,380,823 tonnes in the same period--a period during which our corruption index (Bribe Payer's Index (Transparency International) Units: index units: 10=bribes never occur; 1=bribes often occur) went from 8.1 in 1999 to 7.5 in 2006. Though this may have a lot more to do with our descent into petro-state status (see Andrew Nikiforuk).

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Running, Not Walking

Visualize the planet as a globe. Now put a belt around it. Put another belt above and below that one. These are climatic zones; and they are expanding. The belt around the middle is widening, and the one above and the one below are slipping up towards the poles as the middle one gets bigger. How fast is this happening? About 0.42 kilometres (0.26 miles) per year. But that speed is not constant. To quote from the Carnegie Institute for Science release:
The researchers found that as a global average, the expected temperature velocity for the 21st century is 0.42 kilometers (0.26 miles) per year. But this figure varies widely according to topography and habitat. In areas of high topographic relief, where species can find cooler temperatures by climbing a nearby mountain, velocities are relatively low. In flatter regions, such as deserts, grasslands, and coastal areas, species will have to travel farther to stay in their comfort zone and velocities may exceed a kilometer per year.
That's fast. Forests may have moved that fast after the last ice age, but they didn't then face the fragmented landscape they now face. Agricultural land, cities, etc. mean that a lot of species--not just plants and trees, but vertebrates and invertebrates--may have simply nowhere to go. The question is not whether they can adapt to shifting climate zones, but whether they can move with the zone they currently live in.  Below is an interview with Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and a co-author of the study on the speed of climate movement.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What They Won't Tell You

It won't matter. Nothing I say will make the slightest bit of difference--but, hell, that's never stopped me before. Avatar is not a good movie. It's a crap re-make of a second-rate Dances With Wolves. It didn't matter that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was a bloated, incoherent, ego-driven piece-of-crap film, and it won't matter with Avatar either. Millions of us will still spend our money on it. Hell, it might even make a buck or two, even with its absurd price tag (something around a quarter billion dollars!). A lot will be written about how good a movie it is, about how it "invents a new kind of film-making," but it will all be crap. Contrary to the hype, Cameron is not an innovative film-maker. He is a film-maker with a real talent for action sequences, and we'd all probably be better off if Hollywood took on the Hong Kong idea of letting one director make the film, with a second director given the action sequences. That way Cameron could play to his strengths, and the rest of us could watch decent films with wow passages. But instead we are suffering under the auteur theory of film-making, and we are often the poorer for it.
Cameron has a talent (or maybe only a knack) for taking existing film-making techniques and pushing it to its limit, while marrying it to a decent story with some kick-ass action sequences. Take a look at his (actually small and limited) canon of film. Terminator, where he takes blue-screen and stop motion and pushes it, smartly using the stop motion to animate a robot, so that any flaws in the technique will be hidden in the character. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he takes a new piece of software and uses it as a visual metaphor for the mutability of evil (as opposed to the mechanical implacability nature of it in the first film). But in all his earlier work (Titanic excepted), he is kept in check by producers, money, and limitations of the medium.
Almost none of this applies to Avatar. This is Cameron's return to feature films after the blockbuster success (even in the world of event films) of Titanic. But unlike Titanic, ninety minutes into Avatar, I was offering to leave. Don't get me wrong, the action sequences left me twitching like a brook trout on a fly, and that's what the action sequences were supposed to do. But in terms of story and character, I was bored. Seriously bored. And an hour later I was praying for a planet-killing strike from space that would take out both sides of this over-wrought and pointless tale. "Kill them all and release me from this hell," I whispered, but it was not to be.
3-D has been around since forever, and like having seen Ray Harryhausen's work before seeing Terminator, I've seen a fair bit of it. Up, last summer, was a lovely little film. And the classic Creature From the Black Lagoon is still, I think, a superlative film.

The Creature--still rockin' the house since 1954

Cameron, as is usual, ramps it up, pushing the new 3-D as far as its been pushed in modern film. But that doesn't, in and of itself, make the film any better. In fact, I found that the 3-D actually interfered with my ability to watch the film some of the time, getting in the way of what story there was. The CGI? Well, its the logical next step, the next phase as long as you have the $$$$$$$ to do it. Impressive, but doesn't replace the need for characterization. Or story. Or coherence or complexity. And while the luminous nature of the world on Pandora (the planet Avatar takes place upon) is interesting, it too becomes a distraction. And yes, I got the double meaning of Avatar; both the representation of a person in a virtual world and the embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life. Or even the incarnation of a deity (after all, the central character was blessed by the tree/deity of the Pandorans not once, but a couple of times). Doesn't make the film the least bit better, though.
So go--you know you're going to--and spend your money and you can even talk about how good it was afterwards (but really, isn't it more like The Dark Crystal? High concept, beautifully realized world, but the script really sucked?). But seriously, you'd be better off with the old cellophane and cardboard glasses and a copy of Creature. 'Cause there's a lot more going on there than in Avatar.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Comedy God

Jon Stewart take apart Glenn Beck, mocking with perfect mimicry. I cannot say enough about this performance--it is simply perfect.

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So what did Canada get from our little trip to Copenhagen? Well, our PM made it clear that when it comes to photo opportunities, he's your guy--witness all the shots with various heads of state on his carbon-intensive journey pre-Copenhagen. But when it comes to facing up to the results of his beliefs and actions, he's really not so ready to get in front of a camera (well, to be fair, with the exception of his trip to China where only the sight of him crawling would really satisfy the Chinese leadership. But I think back to a year ago when Harper wouldn't face parliament after a major miscalculation either. Not really good at owning up to mistakes, our PM.). So poor old Jim Prentiss was trotted out to deliver 9 paragraphs of irrelevancy.
But Canada did get what our government wanted; nothing really changed. A vague commitment to reduce our emissions by 20% from 2006 levels (non-binding and unenforceable) and a promise to contribute to an international fund (dollars that are likely to come out of our current Foreign Affairs budget anyway).
But in terms of real change? Well, all we're going to get is more of the same. Enbridge is trying to build a pipeline across northern BC to haul bitumen (our vaunted "heavy oil") from Fort MacMurray to a tanker terminal at Prince Rupert. The Dogwood Initiative is working hard to keep that from happening, and is experiencing some success. But the extraction at the oil sands is still set to expand without any controls or limitations.
Which is one of the reasons Harper was willing to eat shit in China; China doesn't care what people do in their own country, as long as they fulfil their contractual obligations. So war criminal, genocidal lunatic, or environmental criminal, none of it matters as long as the resources keep flowing. And the US has pointed out that it does have some reservations about Alberta's bitumen extraction process. Several states are now refusing to accept oil from the tar sands, and President Obama announced on his arrival in Copenhagen that the EPA was going to be able to regulate CO² emissions. So Canada is facing growing restrictions on its ability to export dirty oil to the US.
As an aside, the move to declare CO² a pollutant and regulate it through the EPA is an important step for the US. Recent studies have indicated that the introduction of pollution controls in the US in the 1970s was important to the US remaining an economic powerhouse through the rest of the century. By forcing industries to clean up their act, the US government forced production efficiencies on those industries, making them much more competitive. This despite the extra imposed costs. It seems obvious that the same reasoning and results would apply to restrictions on CO².
So our PM, having no intention of imposing restrictions of any type on Alberta's bitumen production (he is, after all, the son of an oil executive, and beholding to oil companies), has realized that its necessary to find new markets that will not put restrictions on methods of production. Enter China.
China indicated at Copenhagen that while they are willing to agree to CO² reductions, they really have no interest in international verification procedures. Regretfully, NASA failed the launch of a satellite capable of doing that monitoring; currently the satellite rests on the bottom of the ocean near the Antarctic ice shelf. So until the US comes up with another 230 million dollars, international monitoring of CO² emissions is nothing but a dream.
But despite their dislike of international monitoring, China bids fair to become the renewable/green energy powerhouse of the 21st century. With the ability to totally ignore local opposition, China has begun building large wind and solar installations to supplement their coal and oil power producing infrastructure. In Canada, we've lost that opportunity with the Harper government's decision to spend infrastructure funds on partisan projects. Instead of taking the opportunity to help Canada into the 21st century, Harper decided instead to continue to believe that its the 1950s, and spend on old school projects. And unless there's someone presenting an oversized Conservative-logo'd novelty cheque, good luck on finding out where our billions of dollars are being spent. The Bush regime perfected the art of spending the country into impotence as a technique of hobbling future governments. Harper does it by cutting taxes (yes, we've gone from an inherited 13 billion surplus back to deficit spending--mostly down to Harper's cutting of the GST and other taxes)(as an aside, I'm actually in favour of taxes like the GST/HST; being strictly consumption-based and applying across the board, they tend to act to discourage spending and encourage saving).
So post-Copenhagen, we're really no further along to where we need to be. No international binding agreement on CO² reduction. The sea levels continue to rise, the poles continue to melt, the death of billions over the next 50-100 years still looms, and future of human life on Earth still hangs in the balance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


So the Copenhagen talks on climate change are under-way. They come on the heels of hacked emails out of East Anglia, the announcement that Barack Obama will attend after all, and Stephen Harper being compelled to attend (in all fairness to Harper, there is no upside for him; as a climate-change denier, he views the whole thing as a waste of his time. As the Prime Minister of a petro-state that is an international pariah all he can hope for is abuse internationally, and no help to his reputation at home. He's much more comfortable in Korea, talking neo-con bullshit economics to a country that knows better than most how full of crap he is). SO what happens? Someone freaks out and leaks the "Danish Text," not a Rosetta Stone, but an agreement between the US, UK, and Denmark (and clearly some others, still unidentified)to apply the global system of Third World exploitation to the climate change crisis.
Briefly put, the Danish Test suggests that the developing world be restricted to emissions of 1.44 tonnes per person, while the First World be restricted to 2.67 tonnes per person. In exchange, the World Bank will pay out funds for climate change adjustments (from purchasing ameliorating technologies to paying the boat fares to allow your citizens to flee while their county and homes disappear under the waves of an advancing ocean) as long as the countries affected follow rules set down by the World Bank and the First World governments footing the bill.

"A confidential analysis of the text by developing countries [...] seen by the Guardian shows deep unease over details of the text. In particular, it is understood to:

• Force developing countries to agree to specific emission cuts and measures that were not part of the original UN agreement;

• Divide poor countries further by creating a new category of developing countries called "the most vulnerable";

• Weaken the UN's role in handling climate finance" (The Guardian)

As usual, the First World is finding democracy--even the sad and crippled version typified by the U.N.--to be an impediment to their own desires. So, as usual, the goal is to take any constraints on the developed nations off the table, and to screw those who are trying to have better lives--not lives as good as the developed world, just lives that are better than the hell they currently live in.

James Hansen, "[t]he scientist who convinced the world to take notice of the looming danger of global warming says it would be better for the planet and for future generations if next week's Copenhagen climate change summit ended in collapse." He figures the direction of the developed world at Copenhagen is so wrong that it would set us on the wrong path for decades, condemning us all to the hell of +6°C warming.

The Deniers are so clearly on the wrong side that they've been reduced into hacking email accounts and mis-representing the results, and, here in Canada, breaking into the office of a UVic climate scientist. Is it any wonder that I think we're alll doomed?

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Meanwhile, Here At Home

From The Guardian:

Attempts have been made to break into the offices of one of Canada's leading climate scientists, it was revealed yesterday. The victim was Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and a key contributor to the work of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In one incident, an old computer was stolen and papers were disturbed.
In addition, individuals have attempted to impersonate technicians in a bid to access data from his office, said Weaver. The attempted breaches, on top of the hacking of files from British climate researcher Phil Jones, have heightened fears that climate-change deniers are mounting a campaign to discredit the work of leading meteorologists before the start of the Copenhagen climate summit tomorrow.
"The key thing is to try to find anybody who's involved in any aspect of the IPCC and find something that you can … take out of context," said Weaver. The prospect of more break-ins and hacking has forced researchers to step up computer security.

The International Editorial

Copenhagen climate change conference: 'Fourteen days to seal history's judgment on this generation'

This editorial calling for action from world leaders on climate change is published today by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages
Copenhagen climate change summit - opening day liveblog

Editorial logo

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

• How the Copenhagen global leader came about
• Write your own editorial
• Bryony Worthington: How to make an impact
In pictures: How newspapers around the world ran the editorial

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay."

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

This editorial will be published tomorrow by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages including Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The text was drafted by a Guardian team during more than a month of consultations with editors from more than 20 of the papers involved. Like the Guardian most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page.

This editorial is free to reproduce under Creative Commons

Creative Commons License
'Fourteen days to seal history's judgment on this generation' by The Guardian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at guardian.co.uk.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/02/guardian-environment-team
(please note this Creative Commons license is valid until 18 December 2009)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bubbleicious Boogeymen!

Apparently, these giant jellyfish are invading Japanese waters. The Guardian has some great video--I love the moment when the diver hugs one. The Guardian doesn't allow embedding, so you have to view it here.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Monbiot Comes To Canada

From The Guardian:
When you think of Canada, which qualities come to mind? The world's peacekeeper, the friendly nation, a liberal counterweight to the harsher pieties of its southern neighbour, decent, civilised, fair, well-governed? Think again. This country's government is now behaving with all the sophistication of a chimpanzee's tea party. So amazingly destructive has Canada become, and so insistent have my Canadian friends been that I weigh into this fight, that I've broken my self-imposed ban on flying and come to Toronto.

So here I am, watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. Canada is slipping down the development ladder, retreating from a complex, diverse economy towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man. The price of this transition is the brutalisation of the country, and a government campaign against multilateralism as savage as any waged by George Bush.

So writes George Monbiot in The Guardian today. I think my favourite line is "[Canada] is now to climate what Japan is to whaling." Although he gets one thing wrong; when he says that Canada is "turning itself into a corrupt petro-state," I'd have to point out that Alberta's been one for forty or fifty years, and the Canadian government has been following suit since Mulroney at least.
Heard Andrew Nikiforuk talk this past week. He too calls Canada a corrupt petro-state. In his recent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, he carefully explains the defining characteristics of a petro-state and how Alberta and Canada fit that definition. He then sums it up with what should be a rallying cry (but will never be so): There is no representation without taxation. In his article Declaration of a Political Emergency (pdf) he continues; "Oil hinders democracy and corrupts the political process through the absence of transparent reporting and clear fiscal accounting. Alberta, a classic petrostate, has one of the least accountable governments in Canada as well as the lowest voter turnout."