It’s the Climate, Stupid!

Portland protestNot two weeks since the federal government’s long-anticipated approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the project are becoming clearer by the day.

There is widespread public hostility — both in Kitimat, envisioned as the pipeline’s end location, as well as across British Columbia more generally. First Nations and environmental groups have launched several court challenges, with more expected to come. Massive protests and civil disobedience are inevitable. Efforts will soon be underway to initiate a province-wide referendum. The government of BC, which must provide about 60 permits, is ambivalent about the pipeline at best, while federal opposition parties are promising to reverse the project’s approval if they win next year’s election.

All this in addition to the much-ballyhooed 209 conditions.

Nevertheless, as rosy as matters may look from certain angles, victory is far from assured. The entrenched power of Enbridge and its political backers in Ottawa and Edmonton is nothing to scoff at, and pipeline opponents would do well to take a step back and consider why exactly they are opposed.

I say this because in the coming months, British Columbia will be bombarded by relentless propaganda (as though we haven’t had enough already) claiming that Enbridge has heard our cries of protest and will commit to building the greenest, most environmentally responsible pipeline it can build. The threat of bitumen spills on land and at sea will be neutralized. The company will meet and exceed provincial demands for “world-leading” response, prevention, and recovery systems.

Never mind for a moment the disingenuousness of such attempts to deflect and to co-opt. Never mind Enbridge’s less-than-exemplary record on oil spills. Such promises, even if true, are irrelevant because they fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room, climate change. The fight against pipelines is not just about our wilderness, our rivers, our coastlines — vital though these are. It is about the planet-wide impact of dangerously accelerating tar sands expansion, a process that Northern Gateway is meant to facilitate.

According to current projections, if warming is to be kept within the two-degree limit pledged by world leaders at Copenhagen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak some time before 2020. Such a scenario is not consistent with the continued building of large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure with decades-long lifespans (at least not here in the developed world). Virtually every new pipeline, oil refinery, LNG facility, or coal-fired power plant is another nail in the coffin of climate stability.

It is possible to disagree reasonably about how rapidly to phase out existing infrastructure, how aggressively to tackle the transition to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewables. But at the very least, at this stage in our history, to continue full speed in the opposite direction without a care for the consequences should be unthinkable.

That — in addition to the risk of spills — is what’s wrong with Northern Gateway. That is why we can’t let them win.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorIf anyone would like my two cents on the controversy surrounding Trinity Western University, its proposed law school, and its homophobic “Community Covenant,” please see the letters section of today’s Vancouver Sun. My letter appears at the very bottom, under the heading “Trinity’s gay policy anti-Christian.” (Be sure to press “next” or “view as one page” if checking it out online.)

Bigotry Against the Rich: Is That a Thing?

ScroogeSo apparently the rich are an oppressed minority now.

Last month, in what is thought to have become the most widely read letter to the editor ever published by The Wall Street Journal, venture capitalist and former News Corp board member Tom Perkins writes, “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’” He concludes, “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”

In other words, mild resentment of the rich = the Holocaust.

What evidence does the eccentric Bay Area billionaire (or multimillionaire — there’s some disagreement, but let’s not quibble) cite for this astounding equation? The smoking guns seem to be Occupy Wall Street, protests against Google’s commuter buses in San Francisco, outrage over high real estate costs, and media attacks on novelist Danielle Steel (Perkins’ ex-wife).

Okay, I’m sold.

I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we 99 percenters see the error of our ways. Perhaps we could start building museums and monuments to commemorate the systemic obstacles faced by the wealthy. The UN could establish some manner of international day of memorial to mark the injustice of anti-rich oppression. School districts around the world could develop lesson plans to teach children about the hurt feelings and bruised egos suffered by Perkins and his fellow job creators throughout history. Never forget.

Of course, Perkins has been dealt his fair share of condemnation over the letter. Some have accused him of paranoia and megalomania, of trying to use money to insulate himself from reality. Others might be inclined to state the obvious: that if the rich were truly persecuted, they wouldn’t be rich anymore. Even Perkins himself now says he regrets the Kristallnacht comparison, though not his letter’s message. (I thought the Kristallnacht comparison was the message, but never mind.)

All these critiques miss the point. What we must understand, apparently, is that the wealthy, simply by virtue of being wealthy, benefit everyone. Listen to deranged Canadian multimillionaire Kevin O’Leary, for example. “It’s fantastic,” he says regarding an Oxfam report that the world’s richest 85 individuals have wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.5 billion, “and this is a great thing because it inspires everybody, gets them motivation to look up to the one per cent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people, I’m going to fight hard to get up to the top.’ This is fantastic news, and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this? Yes, really. I celebrate capitalism.”

Exactly. When those on the bottom gaze up to those at the top, they know it is time to start climbing. Only I’m not talking about wealth. I’m talking about the ability to engage in … let’s call it … artful hyperbole. That’s what I truly admire about economic übermenschen such as Perkins and O’Leary. For me, a political blogger, the scent of heaping shovelfuls of rhetorical manure is like perfume, and never in my life have I felt so envious and, at the same time, so inspired.

Just imagine what I could accomplish if I were to take the lessons of these two masters to heart. Imagine the powers of persuasion I too might possess if I would just buckle down, work hard, and — somewhere down the line — learn how to synthesize such potent strains of bullshit all on my own.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

National Post Letter

letter to the editorShould any readers take a look inside today’s National Post, they might find a letter of mine defending Canada’s United Church and its boycott of goods from Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Click here to read my letter and scroll down to the heading “… or is it just?”

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA few days ago, former BC NDP premier Dan Miller had an op-ed in The Vancouver Sun in which he criticized his party’s insufficient enthusiasm on resource development. As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I take a slightly different point of view. Please see here for my response letter in today’s Sun, in which I briefly discuss the environment and the economy.

Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

A Q&A on Syria and the “Responsibility to Protect”

SyriaWhat is “Responsibility to Protect”?

“Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is a doctrine that grew out of a 2001 report by the Canadian-established International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Unanimously endorsed as a general principle by the UN General Assembly four years later, R2P carries a hefty moral (though not legal) weight. The doctrine holds that it is the responsibility of nation states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and that if they prove unwilling or unable to do so, responsibility falls on the international community. As a last resort, this responsibility may take the form of military intervention.

What’s the difference between that and humanitarian intervention?

The concept of humanitarian intervention is older and less well-defined. While some R2P advocates prefer not to use the language of humanitarian intervention, we may think of R2P as the latest attempt to spell out and operationalize this older concept, specifically by switching the focus from the rights of self-appointed “global policemen” to the responsibilities of the international community as a whole.

Is R2P simply a dressed-up form of imperialism?

There are many hawks and warmongers around the world who seek to apply the doctrine in this way. But if they did not have R2P, surely that wouldn’t stop them from finding some other pretext for endless war. I am inclined to think of the motives behind R2P as being mostly noble, at least in the abstract. After all, it is hard to imagine that there is simply no such thing as a crime so heinous as to justify military intervention. Truly just wars may be the exception rather than the rule, but a stance of total pacifism is a bit absolutist for my taste.

So then R2P is a good thing?

Again, not quite. While considerably more fleshed out than past notions of humanitarian intervention, R2P still contains far too many abstractions and ambiguities to prevent abuse by militarists with ulterior motives.

Where does Syria fit in all this?

With a civil war raging that is estimated already to have killed 100,000 and displaced millions, and with allegations that large amounts of chemical weapons were used in an assault outside of Damascus last month, many Western politicians and journalists have advocated an attack on Syria on R2P grounds. As former Canadian Justice minister Irwin Cotler put it, “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.”

Well, is he right? Is the world required by R2P to intervene militarily in Syria?

No. For all its flaws, the R2P doctrine embraces the norm of non-intervention as a starting point and places the burden of proof on those who seek to break it. The following six criteria (borrowed from traditional Just War theory) must be met to allow military action: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.

Surely putting a halt to the unspeakable violence destroying the people of Syria must be a just cause, right?

Perhaps so. But what of the other criteria? While it is not always obvious how to interpret R2P’s vague language; and while R2P’s standards for permitting intervention are, if anything, not stringent enough; it would be a stretch to believe that the case for war with Syria clears all six of the above thresholds.

Take “reasonable prospects.” This criterion requires a military action to have a good chance of bringing about a desirable outcome. With the notoriously unsavoury elements who make up large parts of the divided Syrian rebel forces, this may not be a realistic goal. What if the rebels continue, or even intensify, sectarian violence once they form government? What if, as some accounts allege, rebel factions were actually the ones responsible for last month’s suspected chemical attack, instead of the regime? What if the expected American bombardment of Syria drags other countries of the region into the war as well?

Then there is “right authority.” The original ICISS report on R2P requires any military intervention to be carried out under the auspices of the UN Security Council or, failing that, the UN General Assembly or, failing that, a regional organization (such as the Arab League) “acting within its defined boundaries.” The subsequent General Assembly endorsement of the principle restricted authorizing capability to just the Security Council, in line with established international law. In the atmosphere of pre-war sabre-rattling presently underway, the United States has not indicated that it will seek permission to attack Syria from any international body.

Okay, so no war. What should we do about Syria, then?

There are no easy answers to this question. A best-case scenario would be that the current threat of military intervention, unjustified though it is, might prompt a greater openness to diplomacy and compromise on the part of the Syrian regime. Far more likely, however, is that the civil war will just drag on. It brings no pleasure to admit this, but readily available solutions to the crisis in Syria do not present themselves through either intervention or non-intervention. In scenarios like this, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm,” cited with approval in the original R2P report, must guide the actions of the international community. Right now, we need to focus our efforts on diplomacy and humanitarian aid instead of war, and hope for a breakthrough.

This post appears on rabble.ca.