Friday, September 25, 2020

NDP Lead in BC. Will It Hold?

Premier John Horgan is the hands-down favourite party leader in British Columbia with a 17-point lead over Liberal leader, Andrew Wilkinson. On a party basis the lead narrows to 44 per cent NDP and the Liberals at 37 per cent.

Housing, poverty and homelessness are the top concern for the 18-34 year age group. The economy and jobs dominates the 35 to 54 group and health care is the main priority of the 55 and overs. No surprises there.

It sounds as though Horgan made a shrewd bet in calling a snap election. 

Krugman Looks at Trump, Sees the Ghost of Joseph Stalin

In his latest column, Paul Krugman sees troubling hints of a terrible dictator in president Donald Trump.

Like Stalin, he sees vast, implausible conspiracies everywhere — anarchists somehow in control of major cities, radical leftists somehow controlling Joe Biden, secret anti-Trump cabals throughout the federal government. It’s also notable that those who work for Trump, like Stalinist officials, consistently end up being cast out and vilified — although not sent to gulags, at least not yet.

And Trumpism, like Stalinism, seems to inspire special disdain for expertise and a fondness for quacks.

 On Wednesday Trump said two things that both, if you ask me, deserved banner headlines. Most alarmingly, he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.

But he also indicated that he might reject new guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration for approving a coronavirus vaccine, saying that the announcement of these guidelines “sounds like a political move.” What?

OK, we all understand what’s going on here. Many observers worry that the Trump team, in an effort to influence the election, will announce that we have a safe, effective vaccine against the coronavirus ready to go, even if we don’t (and we almost certainly won’t have one that soon). So the Food and Drug Administration was trying to reassure the public about the integrity of its approval process.

And we really need that reassurance, because the Trump administration has given us every reason to distrust statements coming from public health agencies.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to the effect that people exposed to the coronavirus but not having Covid-19 symptoms didn’t need to get tested — contrary to the recommendations of just about every independent epidemiologist. Subsequent reporting revealed that the new guidance was prepared by political appointees and skipped the scientific review process.

More recently, the C.D.C. warned about airborne transmission of the coronavirus — this time matching what experts are saying — only to suddenly pull the guidance from its website a few days later. We don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s hard not to notice that the retracted guidance would have made it clear that recent Trump rallies, which involve large indoor crowds with few people wearing masks, create major public health risks.

So the F.D.A. was trying to assure us that it won’t be corrupted by politics the way the C.D.C. apparently has been. And Trump basically cut the agency off at the knees; his assertion that the new guidelines sound political actually meant that they weren’t political enough, that he wants to keep open the possibility of announcing a vaccine as a way to help retain power.

But if political hacks are calling the shots at the C.D.C., and the F.D.A. is being told to shut up and follow the party line, who’s advising Trump on pandemic policy? Send in the quacks.

Trump’s disastrous push, back in April, for early reopening was reportedly influenced by the writings of Richard Epstein, a law professor who somehow decided that he was an expert in epidemiology and that Covid-19 would kill no more than 500 people, a number he eventually increased to 5,000 — roughly the death toll we’re currently experiencing every week.

But the quack of the moment is Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no expertise in infectious diseases who nonetheless impressed Trump with his appearances on Fox News. Atlas’s opposition to mask requirements and advocacy of just letting the coronavirus spread until we’ve reached “herd immunity” are very much at odds with what actual epidemiologists are saying, but they’re what Trump wants to hear, and Atlas has apparently become a key adviser on pandemic policy.

That’s what had me thinking about Trofim Lysenko. Like Stalin, Trump denigrates and bullies experts and takes advice on what should be scientific issues from people who don’t know what they’re talking about but tell him what he wants to hear.

And you know what happens when a national leader does that? People die.

Meanwhile, the New York Daily News has taken off the gloves, with a piece entitled, "Say it plainly: Trump is a psychopath."  I know, that conjures up a 'tell us something we don't know' reaction but it is a venerable New York paper (101 years) with a solidly centrist reputation.


That's No Answer. We Can't Choose Between Climate and Covid.


In some ways the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic seems more urgent than the breakdown of our planet's climate. Perhaps that's because we're doing way more about the virus than we are to tackle the larger, truly existential threat. Climate breakdown doesn't have us wearing masks, social distancing, washing our hands several times daily, sorting out how to educate our kids and all the pandemic incidentals.

We don't perceive climate breakdown as an immediate threat. In part that's because those of us latitudinally buffered are not yet experiencing its devastation as are those in more tropical regions. The closer you are to the equator, the stronger the reality of climate calamity.

There were many who hoped that the fight against climate change might take top priority in the government's latest throne speech. Instead the more visible issue, Covid-19, was our government's focus. There were a few wobbly promises - we'll do this by then or maybe somebody will sort of stuff. We've heard that before all the way back to Jean Chretien's governments. Targets that are aspirational fluff, never met. Nothing that binds this government and its successors to mandatory benchmarks. 

Some were hoping that Mr. Trudeau would take a bold step such as ending Canada's multi-billion dollar subsidies to fossil energy producers, a great many of them foreign corporations. That's where 'the rubber meets the road.' No, no sign of that.

Instead, we got this:

“Canada cannot reach net zero without the know-how of the energy sector, and the innovative ideas of all Canadians, including people in places like British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Oh those fossil fuelers, we'd be nothing without them and their "know-how." Maybe they can focus that genius on cleaning up the lethal mess they're leaving behind, those orphan wells and Tar Sands tailing ponds. What, that could cost $230 billion? They would leave first? 

Covid is important, I get it. It is the most immediate threat to the Canadian economy. Climate breakdown isn't as immediate unless you're a young person and then it's a threat to your very survival. And climate breakdown is more immediate than any government is willing to acknowledge. We're charting the future for those kids today. Today. The detonator may be delayed-action but the trigger is today, now.

On the climate crisis, a succession of Canadian governments - Liberal, Conservative and Liberal again - have given us no reason to trust them and ample reason why we shouldn't.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Climate Scientists' Worst Nightmare - Four More Years of Trump

The idea of Donald Trump winning a second term terrifies a lot of people, especially climate scientists. Climate change is only part of their worries. From the MIT Technology Review:

Daniel Schrag has spent most of his life working on climate change. He studied the planet’s ancient warming periods early in his career, served as a climate advisor to President Barack Obama, and is now director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. 

But when he imagines the possibilities if President Donald Trump is reelected, climate change isn’t the issue he’s most concerned about. 

“I immediately worry about democratic institutions,” he says. “I worry about profound and deep corruption at all levels, including the Justice Department.”

“The good news is that four years later, or whenever this ends, there are still a lot of things you can do for climate,” says Schrag. “But that’s not true if we have decimated the basic institutions of democracy.

I heard similar responses again and again as I polled climate scientists and policy experts on what a Trump reelection would mean. After years of watching the administration unravel climate policies, subvert the rule of law, stack courts, politicize a pandemic, undermine the election process, and hint about third and fourth terms, the people I asked are terrified of what the president may do if he remains in office for another four years or more.


Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, said: “Well, first of all, there’s the question of ‘Will the US become a dictatorial, totalitarian regime?’”


Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford’s law school, replied: “There’s no climate policy angle to that story. The United States is then a failed state.”

Are We Collectively "Holding Our Breath"?


The American elections are barely five weeks off and the tension is palpable. People are on edge, worried about what lies in store for the United States and the rest of the world after the ballots are counted.

There's even a name for it, "election stress disorder" and several web sites have posted articles on how to cope.

Here are a few: Psychology Today, Healthline, Discovery Mood, SCLHealth (Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth), EverydayHealth, and many others.

Lots of tips such as avoiding social media, only getting campaign news from credible media, maintain friendships that cross party lines, getting lots of exercise, eating well, lots of orange juice, laugh with friends, turn off your damned phone, more orange juice, ice packs (with or without orange juice), meditation, yoga and, if you can squeeze it in, a lovely glass of orange juice.  Not recommended: flooding Government of Canada web sites to see when you can punch out.

HealthJournal even suggests how to cope with PESD, Post Election Stress Disorder, the electoral form of PTSD. Apparently PESD became a thing after Trump took the presidency in 2016.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Obama's National Security Advisor Warns Social Division America's Greatest National Security Threat

Former US National Security Advisor, Susan B. Rice, writes in The New York Times that America today finds itself facing many threats but, in her view, the worst of all is social division, the breakdown of social cohesion, which magnifies the others.

According to the recently released, highly respected Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, most Americans embrace this expanded conception of national security. Americans rank the top seven critical threats to U.S. vital interests as: 1) the Covid-19 pandemic; 2) domestic violent extremism; 3) China; 4) global economic downturn; 5) political polarization; 6) international terrorism; 7) foreign interference in U.S. elections. Each is properly conceived as a national security threat, and at this extraordinary time, we are contending with almost all of them simultaneously.

I have long viewed domestic division as our greatest national security vulnerability. Political polarization is a “force multiplier” that worsens other threats and cripples our ability to combat them. Stoked by leaders who profit from divisive politics, our polarization prevents us from effectively confronting vital challenges, from the pandemic and its economic consequences to climate change; from the rise of white supremacist groups, which account for the bulk of domestic terrorism, to reforming our immigration system.

Our own fissures also create easy openings for Russia to inflame Americans’ fears of one another and to erode our faith in democracy by using social media to spread disinformation and sow distrust. Further, Russian electoral interference flourishes when the American president and members of his party invite foreign assistance for their political advantage, while thwarting intelligence community efforts to illuminate and deter external involvement.

Finally, our divisions provide kindling for conflict in an election year when President Trump daily tosses gasoline and matches on the bone-dry tinder of American politics.

Whether reprising discredited eugenics theories of white racial superiority, stoking fears of “low income” people invading white suburbs, demanding “patriotic education” in public schools that whitewashes slavery and institutionalized racism, falsely declaring mail-in voting corrupt or expressing contempt for “blue state” America, Mr. Trump seeks to perpetuate himself in power at great cost to our national cohesion. No wonder Russian state media and politicians are gleefully predicting an imminent civil war in the United States.

For Rice, the last straw is the GOP Senate vowing to confirm Trump's nominee to the US Supreme Court even before she has been announced.

Mr. Trump and his party are happy to ignite the ire of many Americans, a majority of whom oppose this brazenly hypocritical and illegitimate move. Thereafter, Democrats, should they be victorious at the polls, would find it exceedingly difficult not to jettison the filibuster and change the Supreme Court’s composition. 


The only way now to salvage what remains of the Senate’s integrity and the sanctity of the Supreme Court is for at least four Republican senators to insist that the legitimate winner of the presidential election nominate the new justice and that the next Senate decide on her — a vanishing possibility.


That leaves the rest of us to protect our democracy, preserve our national unity and defend our national security by voting overwhelmingly to banish all those who seek to deceive and divide us in their ruthless, reckless bids for power.

Susan Rice is one of those astonishingly accomplished individuals we so rarely see drawn to public service these days. Trump is one of those people who seeks to promote and thereby exploit social division among the American people which worsens the many threats, domestic and foreign, that weaken the American state.


I Don't See the Border Opening Anytime Soon

Donald Trump is shameless when it comes to praising his response to the Covid-19 epidemic. On the campaign trail he depicts his personal failures as an amazing success story, the envy of the rest of the world. He's banging the American exceptionalism drum for all it's worth.

That's not to say America isn't exceptional when it comes to the pandemic. It stands alone in the number of dead. The U.S. tally has now passed 200,000. No other country is even close. And the party may just be getting started.

With autumn on the horizon, when colder weather is likely to drive millions back indoors where the virus can spread more easily and with returning colleges acting as giant disease incubators, the US is poised for another rude awakening. There is simply no chance of containing the contagion when new cases are still running at about 35,000 a day.

In March, the early days, the Guardian spoke with Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development who summed up Trump's pandemic performance as, “one of the greatest failures of basic governance in modern times”.

We went back to Konyndyk to ask how he sees it now as the country passes the devastating 200,000 deaths mark. “I think my analysis has borne out extremely well,” he said. “We’re on track to have a quarter-million dead Americans by the end of the year with absolutely no reason it had to happen. It was all preventable. So yes, this is a leadership failure of astounding proportions.” 

We were warned, early on, that these pandemics usually arrive in waves. The second wave tends to be the deadliest. It's still unclear if we're in that second wave but a lot of the medical types suggest that's what we're seeing with these renewed surges in Europe, Canada and, especially, the United States.

The Brits are now nearing 4,000 new cases a day. The UK's two top pandemic experts, chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, say the infection doubling rate is a mere seven days. They estimate the infection rate could reach 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October. They add that, while the second wave began with mainly young people being infected, the group with the lowest mortality rate, it has now, as predicted, spread to the more vulnerable older groups.

Trump, meanwhile, is struggling to cling to power. This is a guy who'll say anything about anything as long as it flatters him. That's how 200,000 dead are recast as an amazing success story. That's why he promises an effective vaccine is just around the corner, ready to roll out to the masses. It's nonsense of course but that doesn't matter. All that counts now is about six weeks away, November 3.

Trump tells the Gullibillies that Canadians are clamouring for the border to re-open. I haven't met that person yet, have you? 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

"Twice as Bad" - What Does That Even Mean?

The New York Times has published a 'state of the climate' piece based on interviews with interviews with two dozen leading American climate scientists.

The consensus is that the changes that we're experiencing - the wildfires, severe storm events, devastating droughts and floods - they're here to stay. There's no going back.

 “It’s as if we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for decades” and the world is now feeling the effects, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. But, she said, “we’re not dead yet.” 

Their most sobering message was that the world still hasn’t seen the worst of it. Gone is the climate of yesteryear, and there’s no going back.

The effects of climate change evident today are the results of choices that countries made decades ago to keep pumping heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at ever-increasing rates despite warnings from scientists about the price to be paid. 

That price — more vicious heat waves, longer wildfire seasons, rising sea levels — is now irretrievably baked in. Nations, including the United States, have dithered so long in cutting emissions that progressively more global warming is assured for decades to come, even if efforts to shift away from fossil fuels were accelerated tomorrow.

“What we’re seeing today, this year, is just a small harbinger of what we are likely to get,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. Things are on track to get “twice as bad” as they are now, he said, “if not worse.” 

"Twice as bad." What does that even mean?

Usually, each passing year’s records are framed by the past — the hottest temperatures ever observed, the biggest wildfires in decades. However, as Cristian Proistosescu, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, noted on Twitter, it may be time to flip that chronological framing, and consider today the new starting point.

“Don’t think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century,” he wrote. “Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century.”

This echoes the theory of "climate departure" developed by Camilo Mora's research team at the University of Hawaii. 

A way forward:

Climate change is more a slope than a cliff, experts agreed. We’re still far from any sort of “game over” moment where it’s too late to act. There remains much that can be done to limit the damage to come, to brace against the coming megafires and superstorms and save lives and hold onto a thriving civilization.

Managing climate change, experts said, will require rethinking virtually every aspect of daily life: how and where homes are built, how power grids are designed, how people plan for the future with the collective good in mind. It will require an epochal shift in politics in a country that has, on the whole, ignored climate change.

This also means biting the bullet, ending fossil fuels rapidly, on a genuinely emergency basis.

First, experts broadly agreed, if we want to stop the planet from relentlessly heating up forever, humanity will quickly need to eliminate its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. That means cleaning up every coal plant in China, every steel mill in Europe, every car and truck in the United States.

It’s a staggering task. It means reorienting a global economy that depends on fossil fuels. So far, the world has made only halting progress. 

It's not going to be cheap. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be painless. There's no quick and dirty solution. There will be no instant gratification.

Even if we start radically slashing emissions today, it could be decades before those changes start to appreciably slow the rate at which Earth is warming. In the meantime, we’ll have to deal with effects that continue to worsen.

“In terms of being reversible, I can only think of things in sci-fi films — Superman trying to spin the earth in the other direction so Lois Lane doesn’t die,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, a social scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Seriously, it is not reversible.

Again and again, climate scientists have shown that our choices now range from merely awful to incomprehensibly horrible.

If we cut emissions rapidly, about one-seventh of the world’s population will suffer severe heat waves every few years. Failure to do so doubles or triples that number. If we act now, sea levels could rise another 1 to 2 feet this century. If we don’t, Antarctica’s ice sheets could destabilize irreversibly and ocean levels could keep rising at an inexorable pace for centuries, making coastal civilization all but unmanageable.

The best hope is to slow the pace of warming enough to maintain some control for humanity.

“In our research, we’ve found that most systems can cope with a 1.5-degree or 2-degree world, although it will be very costly and extremely difficult to adapt,” said Dr. Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. “But in a 4-degree world, in many cases, the system just doesn’t work anymore.”

So, even as nations cut emissions, they will need to accelerate efforts to adapt to the climate change they can no longer avoid. “We need to figure out how to put ourselves less in harm’s way,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University.

We have to open our eyes, accept what is and what will be, and recognize that a crash landing is still better than a nose dive. That is still worth fighting for. It is absolutely worth the cost and sacrifice for it is life itself.

We can begin by learning to live with wildfires.

Going forward, experts said, the country will have to shift its mentality and learn to live with fire. States and communities will need to impose tougher regulations on homes built in fire-prone areas. Federal agencies will have to focus on managing forests better, selectively thinning some areas and even preventively setting controlled fires in others to burn off excess vegetation that can fuel runaway blazes.

“There’s a lot we can do,” said Jennifer Balch, a wildfire expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We’ve just been stuck in an emergency response rather than thinking and looking ahead.”

Whether Americans can adopt that mentality remains an open question.

“We’ve often heard the argument that it will be too expensive to cut emissions and it will just be easier to adapt,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. But we’ve now had decades of warnings, he said, “and we’re not even adapted to the present climate.” 

There's a new group emerging, young people called the "doomers." There's an article in today's Guardian about them and it's disturbing.  

Generation Z – the cohort born after 1996 – has the most at stake in the effort to save the environment. They’re often championed as Earth’s great hope, the young people whose optimism and activism will help reverse catastrophic climate change. But while teens and young adults protest in droves, some of their peers fear the cards are already stacked against them.

Sometimes called “doomers”, these deflated young people often insist that radical, systemic change is the only chance for salvation – but find it difficult to believe that the world will actually rise to the occasion.

“You’re not seeing people who are planning for the future, because the future seems so precarious and so unpredictable,” says Max Bouratoglou, a 19-year-old student in California, where 25 major wildfires are currently burning.

He believes “enormous devastation” is coming and that the world has accelerated toward “a climate singularity”.

Fortunately there's a large group of Gen Z that is pushing back.

“These young people are right that what is missing is political will, but that is something that we collectively have to create,” says Juanita Constible of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund.

“Just throwing in the towel on that is consigning our current peers and future generations to a much more terrible future than is necessary.”

Plenty of Gen Zers are still optimistic about the climate crisis and recognize an inherent fallacy within doomism. “If it is a point of no return, we’re going down. But if we’re saying this, even though it might not be, it’s worth, like, putting in some effort to try and preserve our planet,” says Valentina Doukeris, an 18-year-old international student at a Chicago-based school.

Tim Joung, a 20-year-old student in New York, agrees with almost everything that so-called doomers believe: individual action makes little difference, and unscrupulous corporations are at fault for climate change. But he also thinks that society can push for stricter regulations on big polluters.

“If we do nothing, the worst is gonna happen,” he says. “If we at least do something, there might be a chance – maybe not now, but later down the line – for us to save as many people as we can.”

My suspicion is that the doomers are responding not so much to the looming climate threats as they are to the indifference they see in older generations, those who hold the levers of power. It's hard to imagine anything more dispiriting for an American 20-something than to have to watch their president dismantle their nation's environmental protection apparatus, give fossil fuel production every leg up, and then say he doesn't believe scientists. How would you feel if you were 20 and knew your life, your future was in this man's clutches?

We are in a world where "merely awful" is a win when measured against the alternative, "incomprehensively horrible." 

Whether it's climate breakdown or over-population or excess consumption and waste, the solution comes down to the same imperative - humanity must retreat. We must live in harmony with nature. We've tried to harness nature to our will. Look where that has brought us.

Try to look at yourself as a doomer would see you.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mueller Bunted. He Was Never Swinging For the Stands.

You probably already suspected that the Mueller report fell far short of what had been expected. 

Among Mueller's team of lawyers there was one who terrified Trump's legal team - Andrew Weissmann.  His book, "Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation" is scheduled for release next Tuesday.

Weissmann says Mueller's team held back out of fear that Trump might shut them down. There's a word for that - intimidation.

The team led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, failed to do everything it could to determine what happened in the 2016 election, shying away from steps like subpoenaing President Trump and scrutinizing his finances out of fear that he would fire them, one of Mr. Mueller’s top lieutenants argued in a new book that serves as the first insider account of the inquiry.

“Had we used all available tools to uncover the truth, undeterred by the onslaught of the president’s unique powers to undermine our efforts?” wrote the former prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, adding, “I know the hard answer to that simple question: We could have done more.”

Mr. Weissmann sharply criticized the president as “lawless” but also accused Mr. Mueller’s deputy, Aaron M. Zebley, of being overly cautious, according to an account in The Atlantic of the book, “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.”

While the president and his allies have portrayed Mr. Mueller’s failure to indict any Trump campaign figure for collusion-related crimes as vindication, Mr. Weissmann pointed with frustration to the significant impediments that prevented the special counsel’s office from learning all there was to know about interactions such as those between Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik.

...The constant threat that the president might fire them — as he tried to do several times, only to be thwarted by subordinates who refused to carry out his wishes — caused the special counsel team to be timid rather than aggressive in seeking information.

“The specter of our being shut down exerted a kind of destabilizing pull on our decision-making process,” Mr. Weissmann wrote.

He was scathing about Mr. Trump and his allies, calling the president “lawless” and “like an animal, clawing at the world with no concept of right and wrong.” He accused Attorney General William P. Barr, Mr. Mueller’s old friend, of having “betrayed both friend and country.” Mr. Barr used his early access to the special counsel report to warp public perception of it, including declaring Mr. Trump exonerated of obstruction of justice when the report recounted numerous episodes in which the president had tried to impede the inquiry.

...While Mr. Weissmann wrote with affection about Mr. Mueller, he also portrayed his boss as being excessively diffident. Even when the investigation was wrapping up, reducing the risk that they would be prematurely fired, Mr. Mueller held back by not clearly stating in the report that Mr. Trump had obstructed justice — which later gave Mr. Barr his opening to put a more positive spin on the team’s findings than the Mueller report showed.

Mr. Mueller’s thinking was that because Justice Department policy forbade indicting Mr. Trump while he was in office, it would not be fair to accuse him of a crime when he could not have a speedy trial to defend himself. But Mr. Weissmann noted that under the special counsel regulations they were writing only a confidential report to the attorney general, and that it was not their decision whether to later make it public.

The reasoning for their forbearance was incoherent, Mr. Weissmann complained to a colleague whom Mr. Mueller assigned to draft a passage of the report explaining that they were not rendering a prosecutorial judgment about whether Mr. Trump had obstructed justice.

“It seems like a transparent shell game,” Mr. Weissmann wrote that he told the colleague. “When there is insufficient proof of a crime, in Volume 1, we say it. But when there is sufficient proof, with obstruction, we don’t say it. Who is going to be fooled by that? It’s so obvious.”

Eat the Rich - Episode 3

As if the rich need to give us another reason to despise them.

This just in. The richest one per cent are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions double that of the bottom 50 per cent.

The report, compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, warned that rampant overconsumption and the rich world’s addiction to high-carbon transport are exhausting the world’s “carbon budget”.

Such a concentration of carbon emissions in the hands of the rich means that despite taking the world to the brink of climate catastrophe, through burning fossil fuels, we have still failed to improve the lives of billions, said Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam International.

“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity,” he told the Guardian. “A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”

The "global carbon budget" describes the amount of greenhouse gas we can continue to emit without triggering catastrophic, runaway global heating.  Science has pretty accurate estimates of how much man-made greenhouse gases are already in the atmosphere. Science has an accurate estimate of how much more atmospheric loading will cause us to break through the "do not exceed" point.

For years rich and poor nations have debated how this remaining capacity should be allocated. Poor countries contend that their people, who have contributed so little to the emissions problem, should have a preferential claim. They would even settle for per capita equality. 

Rich countries don't agree. We're the industrial nations whose people expect to live the good life. We've got to keep this party going. Besides, there are so many poor people that if we divvied up the budget on a per capita basis the developed countries would have to decarbonize their economies and societies almost overnight. We need the lion's share of that carbon budget. Ask our prime minister if you don't believe it. Ask your premier.

This is why we're not going to come up with answers to the climate breakdown. We don't want to. We're not having it. It's inconvenient.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Playing Dominoes With the Earth

"Everyone who studies tipping point cascades agrees on two key points. The first is that it is crucial not to become disheartened by the magnitude of the risks; it is still possible to avoid knocking over the dominoes. Second, we should not wait for precise knowledge of exactly where the tipping points lie – which has proved difficult to determine, and might not come until it’s too late."

Talk is turning to "cascades."  It can have a number of meanings depending on context. For example, we're now facing a cascade of destabilizing events including the pandemic, the much broader spread of disease and pests, biodiversity loss, species exhaustion and extinction, wildfires, the onset of severe storm events of increasing frequency, intensity and duration, droughts and flooding, the disruption of global neoliberalism, the rise of authoritarianism and commensurate decline of liberal democracy, the risk of nuclear war and more. There are effective measures we could invoke but governments are not constituted to implement them.

Then there is the cascade of climate "tipping points." To grasp the nature of tipping points you have probably been in or watched a canoe lean over to the point that water rushes in over the gunwales. At that point somebody is going for a swim. There's nothing else for it.

In the context of the climate emergency, the cascade occurs when one tipping point triggers others to occur. These are also called "knock on effects."  In the Arctic the atmosphere warms, the snowcover retreats exposing the tundra (peat) beneath. The tundra, warmed by the sun, thaws and dries out. Being a natural fuel the tundra catches fire, adding the gases and black soot of combustion to the atmosphere. Meanwhile the permafrost beneath, where massive volumes of ancient methane and CO2 have been safely sequestered for millions of years, thaws releasing those plumes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Like dominoes, one falls, causing the next in line to fall, until they're all down.

These tipping points are not uniform. Some are second-order events, others are third-order. There are others that are primary events such as the collapse of ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic. Those ice sheets are in retreat and they have the potential to reconfigure oceanic circulation patterns that regulate the climate over most of the Earth's land masses. There's an excellent article in The Guardian exploring these first-order tipping points and how one might trigger the others to cascade.

These primary-order events are critical because they could wipe out humanity or most of it. Yet, as I regularly moan, they're not even on our governments' radar. They're quite content to wait "until it's too late." That's a blatant dereliction of duty.

There are some who cling to fantasies, who think that adding 30 cents a litre to the price of gasoline is going to achieve something. It's not. There are some who imagine that we can arrest the loss of the great polar ice sheets. We cannot. Even if we arrested global heating today, those ice sheets are on their way out. It'll take centuries before they're entirely gone but the damage will be severe long before that happens.

Since before humans existed, Earth has had an “icehouse” climate, meaning there is permanent ice at both poles. But millions of years ago, the climate was in a “hothouse” state: there was no permanent polar ice, and the planet was many degrees warmer.

Intellectually we know how to deal with these looming threats. We have even enshrined that wisdom in our laws. It's called the "precautionary principle" and yet our governments routinely act as though they had never heard of it.

In 2013, the European Environment Agency issued a scathing report in which it laid the blame for the loss of tens of thousands of lives on the failure of political leadership to embrace the precautionary principle.

Europe has failed to learn the lessons from many environmental and health disasters like Chernobyl, leaded petrol and DDT insecticides, and is now ignoring warnings about bee deaths, GM  food and nanotechnology, according to an 800-page report by the European Environment Agency.  

Thousands of lives could have been saved and extensive damage to ecosystems avoided if the "precautionary principle" had been applied on the basis of early warnings, say the authors of the 2013 Late Lessons from Early warnings report published on Wednesday.

They accuse industry of working to corrupt or undermine regulation by spinning and manipulating research and applying pressure on governments for financial benefit. "[It has] deliberately recruited reputable scientists, media experts and politicians to call on if their products were linked to possible hazards. Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over-regulation appear to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups and think tanks to undermine precautionary decision-making."

Those smug Europeans. Only our politicians are no better in heeding the precautionary principle.

"The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is [not] harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. ...The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result."

In 2015, the Federal Court of Canada upheld the precautionary principle as part of the substantive law of our country. The Supreme Court of Canada has also applied the precautionary principle.

The three climate scientists interviewed for The Guardian tipping points article, Timothy Lenton (Exeter), Ricarda Winkleton (Potsdam Institute), and Katherine Suding (Colorado), agree that governments need a tide change in their attitude to the threats of this climate breakdown.

“I think a precautionary principle probably is the best step forward for us, especially when we’re dealing with a system that we know has a lot of feedbacks and interconnections,” agrees Suding.

“These are huge risks we’re playing with, in their potential impacts,” says Lenton. “This is yet another compulsion to get ourselves weaned off fossil fuels as fast as possible and on to clean energy, and sort out some other sources of greenhouse gases like diets and land use,” says Lenton. He emphasises that the tipping points for the two great ice sheets may well lie between 1C and 2C of warming.

“We actually do need the Paris climate accord,” says Winkelmann. The 2016 agreement committed most countries to limit warming to 1.5 to 2C, although the US president, Donald Trump, has since chosen to pull the US out of it. Winkelmann argues that 1.5C is the right target, because it takes into account the existence of the tipping points and gives the best chance of avoiding them. “For some of these tipping elements,” she says, “we’re already in that danger zone.”

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is not a surprising or original solution. But it is our best chance to stop the warning signs flashing red.


How Dangerous Have Our Governments Become?

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease." If there was ever an area where that adage is unhelpful it is probably climate change.  Yet it remains our governments' standard operating procedure and we may pay dearly for that.

Climate change scares the hell out of most of us but that is only those aspects of climate change we comprehend. As Homer Thomas-Dixon in his book "Commanding Hope" observes, humanity has an imperfect grasp of the climate emergency. What we see may scare us (and 'denial' is usually rooted in  fear) but what we see is akin to the tip of an iceberg. It's the smallest part. We don't see what's underwater but that doesn't make what we can't see any less real, any less dangerous.

So imperfect is our ability to see what lurks just beneath the surface that we routinely support industries and developments harmful to the public good.

"Because the prices of fossil fuels ...don't currently reflect the harm those fuels inflict on the climate and the well-being of current and future generations, they're still relatively cheap compared to less dangerous alternatives such as electricity from the sun or wind.  ...Likewise, because the prices of robots used in manufacturing don't reflect the broader social costs of the job losses the devices cause, manufacturers have less cause to invest in other ways of boosting their output that would use more labour.

"It's a grim reality today that many of humanity's emerging global problems - like climate change and biodiversity loss - produce the conditions for market failure in stunning abundance. These problems spill across geographic and political boundaries, so they don't fall within any country's markets or regulations.   And they tend to affect public goods or complex resources like Earth's atmosphere for which it's extraordinarily hard (perhaps happily) to establish property rights - something that would push profit-driven corporations to take an interest. So good solutions to such problems are woefully undersupplied."

THD concludes that, when government fails to protect the public interest, the culprit is usually "the blocking power of vested interests that want to maintain the status quo." It has become fashionable during the neoliberal era to imbue vested interests that steer governments to act against the public interest as elevated, special. It's an undeserved legitimacy. We call them "stakeholders." They are often a party at the policy-making table where the public interest is not seated. Another harbinger of the decline of viable liberal democracy.

"...the actions of vested interests create a broad bias in societies toward stasis, tending to strengthen already entrenched structures of social power and reinforce already dominant sets of worldviews, institutions and technologies (WITs). These groups generally use every tool available - legal and, sometimes, illegal - to defend the benefits they derive from the existing ways of doing things. They exploit people's fears and ...torque governments into maintaining streams of subsidies and regulatory advantages.  Too often, when it benefits them, they promote lies.."

"The actions of vested interests degrade the quality of governments' solutions to problems and make anything but incremental change almost impossible." 

Like the way we perceive the iceberg, we only see the tip of government, not the hazardous aspects that lie just beneath the surface.  When government says "we can't" it often means "we won't." Our partners, these 'stakeholders', might object.  Little steps, little steps, be patient.

This was the thrust of Churchill's admonition that "Sometimes it is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required." Doing what is required does not come naturally to our governments - Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat. Their basic instinct is to drag their heels until we're dead. It beats doing "what is required." 

The squeaky wheel gets the grease and in the context of the future of our country and our governments' abject failure to intercede on behalf of future generations, the squeaky wheel is the vested interest they go to such lengths to accommodate.  

Dangers loom and most of our best options slipped through our fingers years ago. We can no longer afford these vested interest "cut outs" between the public and their elected representatives. We're already paying a price for that and it's becoming unbearable.