And the countdown begins

It comes as no surprise, which is why I will be brief, but today it is worth mentioning that the deadline has officially been set for the conclusion of the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel. By December, 2013, the federal government will have an official recommendation. At which point they will be free to rubber-stamp the whole thing, as per the changes the government has made over the past few months.

For anyone who is new to the subject, or who wants to bask in the glow of redundancy of the government’s measures to leave nothing to chance regarding Northern Gateway’s approval, a review of these measures can be found here. Most egregious among them, of course, is the fact that Cabinet has given itself the power to approve Northern Gateway regardless of the findings of the already highly compromised review panel. Nothing much has changed in terms of the review process since that post, except this latest deadline, so it might make a good refresher.

Harper is getting anxious to flex his muscles – and as the Globe noted, it will be just in time to show his friends in Calgary, before the next election, that they have a friend in the Executive. In case they didn’t already know that.

That awkward moment when Putin takes cues from Harper

What does it tell us when Vladmir Putin, leader of what is likely the most oppressive “Western” nation on the planet, speaks in the same political terms as our own prime minister? Normally, we might say that this is a step in the right direction for Russia; in this case, we would be wrong. Putin’s latest move is not an example of a developing economy approaching a higher standard. Rather, it is our country moving downhill, slipping closer to a petrostate whose oil wealth affords those in power a stronger hold, while forcing an escalation of repression to maintain that power.

petrostate (ˈpɛtrəˌsteɪt)
derogatory a small oil-rich country in which institutions are weak and wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few

The move I am referring to is eerily similar to a discussion that has dominated Canadian politics since January. A new Russian law states that NGOs must declare any funding they receive from abroad, and label themselves “foreign agents”. Sound familiar? If you are a Canadian, and watch the news, this will sound uncannily like our Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, declaring this January that the Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline project hearings are being hijacked by “foreign-funded radicals”. This sentiment was soon echoed by pro-pipeline groups like Ethical Oil, and thereafter by a special Senate enquiry into the funding of environmental groups. Environmental groups have been on the defensive ever since. Meanwhile, the rights to ever-larger swaths of Northern Alberta have been sold off to Chinese, American, Norwegian, French, and British oil companies, while our federal government fights tooth and nail for China’s right to get bitumen, and BC premier Christy Clark calculates how much the health of the west coast is worth.

The tactic of distracting national attention towards the shoestring budgets of a few green groups has been recognized since the beginning as a transparent political attack against the opposition to the pipeline. What’s interesting is the emerging parallel between our government and that of one of the world’s best-known petrostates, Russia. For the first time, Mr. Harper is ahead of Mr. Putin in cracking down on those in the way of his plans. It seems that great minds (or is it big heads?) think alike.

See: http://www.economist.com/node/21559342

No, Mr. Baird, it shouldn’t agree with you

“It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government. No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families.”

-John Baird, MP

When Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, a career politician and Harper’s favourite lapdog, admitted that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was being shut down for disagreeing with the political leanings of the current government, he pulled the curtain back for a rare honest glimpse into the Conservatives’ opinion on science. That is, he showed us that if it can’t be controlled, if there is a chance that an organization will produce reports, evidence, or PR that is contrary to the messaging coming from Ottawa, it will not be long for this world.

As a long-time politician, someone who entered politics straight out of university and can always be counted on to leap to the defence of the latest Harper move, John Baird is exactly the type of cabinet minister you would expect such a quote from. He is also the exact type of cabinet minister we need to get rid of in some sort of Old Testament purge; a flood might be the poetic way to do it, but any old plague will do. He is totally unqualified to talk about anything but politics, which is why he’s the perfect example of a Canadian cabinet minister: he knows when to nod, and when to shake with apparent rage at whatever he’s being told to shake with rage at.

The NRTEE is not the only, or even the latest, example of a scientific institution being punished for its inconvenient truths. The world famous Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario has long published studies on freshwater pollution effects; some recent studies have found evidence that mercury poisoning in lakes can be reversed, contradicting the oil industry’s claim that the lake is beyond help. The University of Alberta’s Dr. David Schindler, an eminent freshwater research scientist who is always good for a statement on these issues, was quoted in the Globe and Mail: “My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of [research] because the oil sands have an exponentially increasing output of mercury. I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in this country who don’t even know what science is.”

Mr. Baird’s assertion that a scientific institution should “agree with Canadians” is perverse. Science should not be asked to agree with anyone. That’s not the purpose of science. Agreeing unconditionally with the ideology of the PM is the purpose of parasitical sycophants like John Baird. A government that does not respect the fundamental need for science organizations – even government-funded ones – to maintain an arm’s length from politics is in a very dangerous position.

The consequences of such an attitude have been seen before, and they aren’t pretty. Try Mao’s Four Pests Campaign to see how well a country fares when it ignores the pleas of scientists, in favour of fantasy. We run the risk of becoming a nation deliberately burying our heads in the sand: dismantling environmental reviews, eliminating the long-form census, or cutting the contaminant science program at Environment Canada do not make the problems go away. They just make it harder to find out about them. Are we going to go the route of North Carolina next, and make sea level rise illegal? Seems a bit crazy, but just like them, we have already started to punish scientists who do the wrong research.

With even the oil elite in Calgary insisting that they want a carbon tax, who the hell is John Baird to dance on the grave of an organization that has been calling for one for years? A carbon tax, by putting a price on carbon, would increase competition within and between industries to reduce emissions, inspiring innovation in a way that blanket regulations and minimum targets cannot.

Now that the feds have admitted that this was a political decision, and not about saving money, we can say for certain that the $2-million annually that the ELA cost likely suffered from the same careful pruning of scientific capabilities; you might say the same for PEARL, Bamfield, the oil spill response centres on the West Coast and others – especially given that the National Round Table cost more than each of those.

When you add up their costs, in fact, it is comparable to the $8-million earmarked for the taxman to investigate the funding of environmental groups. It might be simplistic, but it’s painfully ironic to see money being diverted from essential scientific facilities for blatantly political reasons, only to be used to attack environmental groups for the same reason. It’s a two-pronged approach: bleed inconvenient science while starving inconvenient opposition.

What we don’t know, and what it will do to us

Saving money is a noble goal. It’s something all Western governments have been neglecting for decades as we built up huge rolling budget deficits, passing the buck (or lack thereof) onto, well, us. Preventing money from flowing out of government coffers is half of the answer to our financial woes, alongside increasing government revenues. Cutting spending is a logical move towards balancing our books, and doing that unfortunately requires sacrificing jobs, projects, and even entire programs.

But.

Why is science bearing the brunt of these cuts? Is science really the most inefficient, wasteful area in which money is spent? How about the military? For instance, $10-billion in ‘overlooked’ F-35 costs. Or base budgets that need to be used up annually, leading to a massive spending binge every April, burning money just to ensure there’s money available to burn next year. Why, in particular, are the cuts concentrated in areas that are inconvenient to an “emerging energy superpower”? Why is a $79.3-million program like contaminant science being cut and replaced with a fund worth a lousy million and a half dollars? 

Contaminant science is an absolutely indispensable area of environmental science, becoming ever more relevant as our country commits to a future as hewers of wood and drawers of water – or, I should say, diggers of tar sand and diggers of tar sand. Contaminant science is what is going to give us the tools and knowledge to protect what is truly our most valuable resource – clean water, in oceans, rivers, lakes, and wetlands – over the next fifty years.

$80-million dollars is a laughably small price to pay if it means we get to know what is going into our water, and by extension, into us. But maybe that’s the point. 

Too much science? Is that even possible?

I may have been wrong. When I wrote about Harper and Co. slashing at funding for programs like the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment, attacking green groups, giving Cabinet power to approve infrastructure projects, and changing the rules for energy projects, I thought this was all about the pipelines. I thought it was a matter of clearing a path for the likes of Northern Gateway in order to encourage the development of the oil sands; a goal not all Canadians (myself included) are on board with, but one that he has at least made quite clear.

Maybe that was correct back then. But it’s gone much further than that, and the hits (still) keep coming. At least three major research stations have been severely impacted over the last two months, two over just the past couple of weeks: first we saw the closure of the PEARL arctic research station; next, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, an invaluable resource for Canadian marine research, had its budget cut by a third; finally, today it was announced that the Environmental Lakes Area, a system of test lakes in Ontario for aquatic research, would no longer be accepting new projects, and that all of its staff would be seeing a 100% reduction in pay.

These three make up some of the bastions of Canadian science.

While our government is focused on the development of the Arctic for its hydrocarbon, precious metal, and fisheries resources, as well as its strategic and shipping value, it would stand to reason that a proportionate amount of care go into understanding it. That’s what PEARL was for. Researchers there undertook valuable atmospheric research to monitor the arctic, a climate zone that will have increasing effects on the rest of the planet as it rapidly changes; already we’re seeing a destabilization of the arctic vortex, an atmospheric system that has huge impacts on weather patterns further south. But, it was deemed too expensive to operate. And at about the cost of the upgrade to the communication system of a single F-35 stealth fighter jet, it’s easy to see why we can’t afford to study the area the jets are being purchased to defend.

I have a particular affection for Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. It’s where I participated in a couple of nudibranch neuroanatomy (sea slug brain) research projects during my undergrad – an experience that cemented my love of the ocean, my respect for evolution and nature, and my acknowledgement that I would make a lousy career scientist. Set on the gorgeous remote west coast of Vancouver Island, deep in the rainforest, Bamfield hosts many dozens of scientists every year from all over the world, who come together in an open environment in state of the art laboratories. It’s the kind of place that reaffirms why scientists do what they do, and allows big-picture thinking while exploring the depths of marine biology problems. Naturally, I suppose, it’s the kind of place the Conservatives loathe.

The Environmental Lakes Area is the site of groundbreaking research into both acid rain and eutrophication by phosphorus, both major discoveries that have shaped industrial policy for decades, and without which we would have gone on doing huge environmental damage without knowing why. It’s perhaps for that very reason that Harper has elected to eliminate this particular piece of the environmental science puzzle: too much science, it turns out, may be possible.

Although these most recent attacks against environmental science (plus the elimination of DFO’s Contaminant Science program) can be linked to the tar sands push, due to their potential to silence future research that would condemn the ‘sands and related industries like pipelines and tankers, it’s looking now like the Conservatives are on a more general anti-environment push. What will come next remains to be seen, but it’s clear that whomever takes over in three years is going to be left with a badly damaged research (and physical) environment – and in the meantime, a whole generation of young environmental scientists are losing out on the opportunity to employ their skills and energy in a productive manner.

Payoffs are coming, be patient

Last month, Margaret Wente, the Globe & Mail’s provocative right-leaning columnist, wrote a column entitled “Ontario’s green dream was just a fantasy.” In her article, Wente claimed that Ontario, in investing billions of dollars in green energy infrastructure, had wasted public funds and that this was now coming to a head. True enough, Ontario has not had a lot of success bringing power bills down by adding renewables to the grid. However, this is not the point of early investment in renewable energy: as we are starting to see, investment in renewables is about creating a climate for improvement of these technologies so that they can truly become a reliable part of our energy portfolio.

Before I get into it, let me first dispel my greatest pet peeve about wind power: Wente asserted that wind energy is “chewing up birds.” The estimated annual number of birds killed by turbines: about 440,000 in the US. However, in one study, predation was found to be responsible for 79% of deaths among birds, with 47% of those deaths due to cats. If turbines are kept out of migratory paths, the number of bird deaths can be reduced further.

OK, back on topic. The point of bringing up Wente’s article is that it demonstrates the common conservative perception of public investiture in alternative energy: it doesn’t make money, therefore it is a waste of time. The recent breakthrough in solar technology due to US government grants – using specific salts to allow solar energy generation even after the sun goes down – is a perfect example of just one of the ways in which this is a shortsighted, cheap way of thinking. Without significant government spending to encourage this (at first) money-losing venture, the idea would never have gotten off the ground.

Concentrated solar power is one example of alternatives that are just starting to break out. Floating and flying wind turbines are another exciting tool to add to our portfolio, as are in-stream tidal plants (one alternatives field in which Canada can actually be a world leader), wave power plants, and especially geothermal plants, both for residential heating and industrial electricity generation.

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The reason we have public funds to devote to research is that it frees up scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to dream just a little bit more than they would be able to under pressure from investors. Some technologies can take years, but if they show promise, why shouldn’t we be investing in them?

Wente’s claim that we should just relax, because fracking will provide us with all the energy we need for the next 100 years is possibly false, and definitely irresponsible. First, the side effects on the environment, (interestingly enough, it’s even been proven by the USGS to cause earthquakes), have yet to be measured in a meaningful way. Maybe fracking doesn’t leave you with tapwater that can be lit on fire, or maybe it does – but a large study has yet to be done on the potential for groundwater contamination due to fracking. Furthermore, methane (natural gas, what the frackers are after) is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and there is evidence that it escapes during extraction and transport of the gas, meaning that although CO2 emissions are much lower for natural gas than for coal, it’s possible that the methane actually makes up the difference.

Finally, 100 years, what Wente estimates to be the amount of gas being made available to us, is not indefinite. 100 years is 100 years. It’s two human generations. So if we want our great-grandkids to praise our foresight, counting on 100 more years in which we can consume the fossil fuels that remain to us and warm the planet beyond repair might not be the best use of our money, and the research and development of alternatives, even temporarily expensive ones, starts to seem a bit more economical.

With Forbes on board, it’s only a matter of time… right?

Forbes Magazine published an article this morning entitled “Let’s be Blunt: It’s Time to End the Drug War.” This article made it to the “front page of the Internet” as the highest-ranked story on Reddit. It’s not the first; it seems like a monthly occurrence that a respected, even conservative, institution comes out in support of the legalization of marijuana. Coalitions of doctors, crown prosecutors, mayors, law enforcement personnel, and, of course, citizens have come out against the war on drugs. Editorials on the utter failure of drug prohibition are published so frequently that their arguments are well-ingrained in every Canadian’s consciousness.

Everyone, it seems, except for the government. But even Stephen Harper himself this week admitted the failure of the war on drugs. That’s a big step for the leader of a government that prides itself on its “tough on crime” policy, a government that this year passed legislation introducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes despite warnings from even the most conservative of U.S. officials. When Texas conservatives are saying “woah there, hombre, chill out,” you know you’ve gone a little overboard.

What those Texans were getting at is that they have tried this experiment before, and failed. Where “tough on crime” meets drugs, all you get is more people in jail; you might cause temporary breaks in the supply chain, but the resulting higher prices will only benefit the remaining dealers more and draw others into a more lucrative racket.

Regarding the moral and practical/economic arguments against the war on drugs, they are so commonly understood by most Canadians that they are not worth wasting your time with (but there are numerous resources, some of which I have linked to, that are worth looking at for those who are interested).

The purpose of this post is not to convince you that the United States’ war on drugs, in which Canada has taken part, has failed. You, like most Canadians, already know that. The purpose is just to collectively gape in amazement that our government, which has admitted to this failure, and is aware of Canadians’ wishes, continues to fight a losing battle at great expense in law enforcement, lost potential taxes, and most importantly, lost human potential. And rather than re-evaluate our country’s position on drugs, the government has instead fought back against the facts, fighting harm reduction clinics proven to be effective, and writing mandatory minimum sentences into Canadian drug law. Even Harper’s admission that the drug war has failed came with a caveat that there is no alternative being considered.

Go out and celebrate 4/20 today, even if you don’t smoke marijuana. Hug a stoner; they often carry treats, and enjoy hugs. Show Stephen Harper that you haven’t bought into his fear campaign.

Note: an excellent documentary on this subject, based in B.C., is available for free here. It’s called The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. Warning: it will make you angry, and you will probably own at least one article of clothing made of hemp within a week of watching it.

Lofty ideas might crash and burn

Don’t expect Stephen Harper to go to his knees and beg forgiveness for the F-35 scandal; he has no knees. However, this might work out for us anyway.

Let’s take a moment to imagine the day that Stephen Harper admits defeat on the F-35 jets. He cancels the order, fires Peter MacKay, and calls an election, saying, “I’m sorry we lied. We purposely misled Canadians on the cost of these jets, knowingly omitting ten billion dollars in operational costs to make this huge expenditure more palatable to a country experiencing massive cuts to every public department. We screwed up, and we want to give you another shot to pick the right party for the job.”

Wouldn’t that be a great day? Sure, if it were even a little bit possible.

First of all, the Harper government will never admit wrongdoing; that would be political suicide. Second, even if by some miracle they did admit having fudged the numbers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Paul Martin’s Liberals were brought down by a vote of no confidence in 2006 on a similar (well, not similar – it was only $100m; but that aside, somewhat similar) scandal. But the only way to bring down a government on a vote of no confidence is to have at least as many opposition MPs as there are government MPs. And that is not the case: the Conservatives have a majority. There will be no vote.

The most we can expect in terms of “making it right” is a few rolling, likely innocent, bureaucrat heads. We won’t see Peter MacKay sent out to pasture, nor will we see a solemn apology from the prime minister.

The lies and cost overruns notwithstanding, there is one other thing we can hope for from the government: we can hope that they take this scandal as an opportunity to re-evaluate the F-35 purchase. Once they have a scapegoat on whom to lay all the blame for the clumsy way in which this has been handled, the government will be free to take a second look at the jets and say, publicly, that they might not be our best choice.

Time to pull the 'chute on the F-35s?

Of course we need planes. We have an air force in order to defend our sovereignty, to participate in peacekeeping missions, and to support NATO missions overseas. Are single-engine stealth fighter-bombers the best choice for that? Absolutely not. They are awesome in a little-boy ‘pew pew pew’ sense, but in a boring, cost-benefit ratio sort of way, they are a massive waste of money. One suggestion that has been made is the upgraded model of what we already have, the dual-engine F-18 fighters. They have more range (to better patrol the arctic) and our pilots, mechanics, and other support staff are already trained on them. We already know how to get parts for them, and our equipment is designed around them.

The F-35 scandal will not bring down the government. Just like the Afghan detainees scandal, the robocalls scandal, or the general contempt of parliament, this issue will not cripple the government. They are un-crippleable. However, it might give them, and by extension us, another shot at making a good decision on how to defend our airspace.

Was that really necessary?

The hits just keep coming. Let’s do a quick summary:

-First, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, vocally supported by Stephen Harper, vilifies environmental groups of all stripes by labelling them anti-Canadian “radicals” and terrorists

-Next, the government guts the Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act to smooth the way for future projects, as well as capping the length of assessments at 2 years.

-With the legal environmental protections dismantled, the Conservatives turned once again to the political opposition, dismantling the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment, which routinely produced reports that disagreed with the government’s pro-oil leanings, setting aside $3-million to audit green groups, and crippling those groups’ ability to encourage participation in the review process.

Now, the government has gone one step further: in a move that seems totally unnecessary at this point, having crushed the ability of Canadians to resist projects they disagree with, the Conservatives went ahead  this week and gave themselves the power to approve pipelines, regardless of the National Energy Board decision.

So, in summary: in the last three weeks, the Conservatives have consolidated their power to push through any project they wish, while flattening the opposition. Three weeks ago, we lived in a democracy.

The Alternative Vote Explained

With recent talk of strategic voting in Alberta to defeat the impending, inevitable win by one of the province’s far-right parties, and Jean Chretien’s suggestion on a federal level that the NDP and Liberals merge, it seems apt to bring up the alternative vote.
The first-past-the-post system inevitably leads, in the long run, to a two-party system. The alternative vote could help encourage smaller parties, and allow a broader spectrum of opinion in the political scene.