Andrew Weaver on the Tar Sands

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Last week, world-renowned University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, lead author of several IPCC reports, shocked friends and enemies alike by publishing an article in Nature Climate Change in which he makes an unexpected claim. He and co-author Neil Swart (a UVIC PhD student) find that Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands have a surprisingly small impact on the Earth’s climate.

According to the numbers they provide, burning all the oil from the tar sands (or “oil sands” to be polite) would increase global temperatures by 0.36 degrees Celsius — hardly an insignificant amount. However, the more pertinent measurement is of economically viable tar sands oil, which would raise temperatures by only 0.03 degrees Celsius. By contrast, burning all the world’s coal would warm the planet by 14.8 degrees Celsius.

We have seen the true face of environmental villainy, crows Canada’s right-wing media echo chamber, and unconventional Albertan oil it ain’t!

Two points:

First, as Weaver says up front, these numbers take into consideration only the warming caused by burning tar sands oil, not that caused by the energy consumption needed to extract, transport, and refine it. This apparent oversight is actually a procedural necessity meant to avoid double-counting emissions, and is therefore fully defensible as a feature of the study.  However, the energy intensity of tar sands production is a large part of why the resource is considered “dirty.” If such considerations are included, says Weaver, the global warming effect of tar sands oil increases by 20 percent.

Second, why are we so surprised that the negative impact of one fossil fuel project in one province should pale in comparison to that of all the coal reserves in the world? The more appropriate comparison would be between the tar sands and another project of similar size.

To his great credit, Weaver has been hard at work trying to put his results in context. He emphasizes that the tar sands are Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions growth, that they are a symptom of a much larger problem, and that it is urgently important for us to wean ourselves off of all fossil fuels. He also acknowledges the profound ecological damage, measured by more than just climate impact, that is caused by tar sands exploitation.

In the end, Weaver’s research represents all that is best in science — the unbiased pursuit of knowledge for its own sake regardless of what is uncovered. We should embrace his findings for what they are, and fight the attempts by fossil fuel apologists to twist them into something they’re not. If only polluters were to demonstrate so unshakable an allegiance to the truth as this, we would probably not find ourselves perched so close to the edge of ecological catastrophe in the first place.


Pushing the Envelope on Palestinian Sovereignty

Map showing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in re...

There has not been much movement of late on the Israeli-Palestinian front. This may  partly be explained by the relative lack of violent activity by Palestinian groups. The conflict has dropped off the radar for most of the Israeli public, and the only constituency the government needs to worry about is that of the far-right pro-settler parties which hold the balance of power and effectively wield a veto over any potential moves towards territorial concessions. In other words, the political calculus of the Israeli government currently favours doing nothing on Palestine.

By contrast, if Palestinians were to reintroduce violent tactics in a major way, the conflict would certainly return to the forefront of Israelis’ minds. However, the political mood would not be one of peaceful accommodation, but one of revenge and bloodlust — especially if militants were to target civilians as they have in the past. And that doesn’t even touch on the obvious moral considerations.

So how do Palestinians move forward with their legitimate aim of self-determination given the apparent damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t circumstances in which they find themselves? I have a humble suggestion. In addition to diverse methods of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience (which some research shows to be more effective than violence), I would like to see them employ a strategy of asserting their sovereignty not just in the UN, but in Palestine itself.

They could establish a security force that is unified, disciplined, and democratically accountable — one that is operated and supported by the long sought-after Fatah-Hamas unity government. Ideally on the heels of an official UN recognition of the state of Palestine (but not necessarily, in case this bid fails), the security force could announce its sovereign authority over all the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem — including all Jewish settlements, Israeli military installations, and coastal waters off of Gaza. And once they are prepared to escalate from talk to action, carefully choosing the appropriate target at the appropriate time so as to minimize the chance of bloodshed, the security force could move in and attempt to arrest any soldiers or settlers who are found to violate laws passed by legitimate Palestinian institutions.

They would almost certainly fail in carrying out these arrests given the obvious imbalance of power. But just the attempt, in all its rich symbolism, and the professionalism with which it is undertaken, could generate publicity and awareness, demonstrate how serious Palestinians are about their lengthy quest for self-rule, and win over converts to the cause in Israel and around the world. If it is intelligently executed, their negotiating position in peace talks could strengthen dramatically.

I am not aware of the Palestinians ever having used a tactic like this before (if any readers have information to the contrary, please do let me know). It does not automatically solve every problem, nor does it even begin to tackle the crucially important refugee issue. But Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories have been seeking freedom for decades, with remarkably little to show for their struggle. Their political and humanitarian plight is in desperate need of attention. The tactic I recommend is at least worth a try.

An Open Letter to Kevin Falcon

Dinner with Kevin Falcon

Kevin Falcon

Minister of Finance

Government of British Columbia

Dear Mr. Falcon,

During your budget speech yesterday, you announced that BC’s carbon tax will be frozen, and its place in our economy reexamined, after its final scheduled increase later this year. Forgive me if I am being presumptuous, but given the tepid support for environmental measures sometimes demonstrated by segments of your government, I fear that the future of the carbon tax may be in jeopardy.

May I suggest instead that you use the opportunity to make it better? This goal, should you choose to pursue it, can be measured by two vital criteria: effectiveness and fairness.

In order to be effective, a carbon tax, rather than being eliminated or frozen at $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, must be increased. Quite drastically in fact. Having hardly made a dent in BC’s emissions at present levels, the tax should probably rise to somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100 to $200 per tonne at the very least. Moreover, it should be expanded to cover the roughly 25 percent of emissions (such as natural gas flaring) not currently included.

As for fairness, this can be achieved by compensating — overcompensating even — for any negative impact on those with low incomes. All else being equal, consumption taxes tend to be regressive — that is, they tend to cost the poor a higher portion of their incomes than the rich. According to research done by Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC’s carbon tax does not adequately address this concern. He suggests that fully one-half of carbon tax revenue be channelled into a tax credit for low- and middle-income households (with the remainder going to fund public transit and other environmentally friendly investments).

Another approach is the “fee and dividend” system advocated by climate scientist James Hansen among others, according to which all revenue would be returned to the population on an equal per capita basis. The benefit of this kind of carbon tax is that while the poor would individually pay the least in “fees” (in absolute terms, not as a portion of their incomes) because they emit the least carbon, they would get back just as much as the rich in “dividends.” In other words, this system has a built-in mechanism to make sure that most of those with low incomes come out ahead.

So please consider preserving and strengthening BC’s carbon tax. If you are concerned about its apparent revenue negativity in these tough fiscal times (another drawback pointed out by Marc Lee), a few tweaks could easily turn it into a money maker. What is a tax, after all, if not something that raises revenue? I personally would not miss the cuts to corporate and upper-bracket income taxes that were designed to offset costs to taxpayers, and neither would the majority of British Columbians who do not benefit from them.

The problem of climate change is one whose urgency is growing by the year. Now is not the time to get caught up in some fabricated tax revolt. Now is the time to get serious.


David Taub Bancroft

My NDP Picks

Nathan CullenWith the March 24 leadership convention for Canada’s New Democratic Party fast approaching, I am now finalizing my endorsements. (Sorry to keep you waiting, New Democrats, I know you’re on the edge of your seats for a Green’s friendly suggestions.) What follows are my (tentative) choices, from first to last, in accordance with the preferential vote that the NDP will be holding:

1. Nathan Cullen

Three things about Cullen. First, he is the easiest to get excited about. He has this strange tendency to speak like a real person rather than a politician, and is more comfortable cracking jokes during debates than any other leadership contender. Don’t underestimate a sense of humour in politics.

Second, in a field of candidates with admittedly impressive environmental proposals, Cullen appears to be prioritizing the planet like no other. In his words (as reported in Now Magazine): “To me, when my team forms up, I say the Green lens comes in front of every policy and you drive it through that lens. We’ll release environmental planks but every plank should be environmental. I think the Prime Minister should be the environment minister.”

And third is the centrepiece of his campaign: his proposal that NDP riding associations be given the choice of cooperating with the Liberal and Green Parties by holding joint nominations in Conservative-held constituencies. Every other candidate in the race is opposed to this strategy, but as I made clear in my last post, I think it’s the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. Plus, it would be nice to see a little cooperation and consensus in our otherwise combative political system.

(On the downside, Cullen has a history of opposing Canada’s long-gun registry. Nobody’s perfect.)

2. Peggy Nash

Nash is a New Democrat’s New Democrat. Unassailably progressive, this former trade unionist has a strong activist background both locally and globally. Under her leadership, the NDP is unlikely to drift to the centre as part of the regrettable pattern set by so many other social democratic parties around the world. Nevertheless, her past experience demonstrates a willingness to negotiate and work constructively with others. What’s more, her environmental credentials are significant enough to have earned her two Sierra Club of Canada awards. Also, it’s 2012. Shouldn’t we have more women in politics by now?

3. Brian Topp

Topp is no Jack Layton. The reputed frontrunner suffers from something of a charisma deficit. But he knows his stuff policy- and strategy-wise. Furthermore, to his great credit, his strongly progressive fiscal proposals show that he is not afraid of raising taxes — especially on those who can most afford to pay.

4. Thomas Mulcair

I am somewhat uneasy about Mulcair’s centrism. The presumed second-placer supports free trade, is weak on Palestinian rights, and has attacked Topp’s tax policies. Also, given that his temper is the stuff of legend, his ability to serve as a consensus builder is questionable. That being said, he is probably the party’s best hope of consolidating its electoral gains in Quebec. For that reason alone, I hope whoever wins decides to keep him on as deputy leader. Furthermore, he shares some of Cullen’s plain-talking charm, and is fairly strong on the environment. With the emphasis he places on carbon pricing, I would not be surprised to see him some day pull a Stephane Dion and embrace carbon taxation. At the moment, however, he, like the other candidates, prefers cap-and-trade, which seems to be good enough for climate scientist Andrew Weaver, who has endorsed him.

5. Niki Ashton

To some, Ashton comes across as confident. To me, she is robotic — exactly the opposite of a Cullen or a Mulcair. She’s probably smart, and she tries to focus on the future and to speak on behalf of the younger generation. I suppose the party could do worse.

6. Martin Singh

Singh’s French is passable, but not great. In the debates, he can be forceful at times. He is a pharmacist and speaks more than the others do about a national pharmacare plan.

7. Paul Dewar

Dewar’s French is worst of all. Aside from that, he does not make an impression.

How to Win

This is a seating plan of the Canadian House o...

Amidst the cacophony of Harper government threats — seemingly a new one each week — to dismantle what remains of Canada’s proudest progressive achievements, there can be heard a faint buzz of debate in centre-left circles on what to do about it. Some of these voices even dare to suggest that perennial political non-starter — cross-party cooperation. (Don’t they know this is Canada? Leave coalitions to those unholy socialists in Europe!)

The latest timid foray into this territory comes courtesy of youth-flavoured democracy group It has begun polling its members on whether or not it should call on New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens to work together in the next election to defeat select Conservative incumbents and, assuming they succeed, reform the country’s electoral system. This idea of an ad hoc pre-election alliance is far more attractive than the common proposal for a merger of the parties. The NDP, Liberal Party, and Green Party, despite their occasional common ground (and commoner enemy), each have distinguished histories and represent different ideologies and concerns. To permanently paper over these distinctions and create an American-style two-party system would diminish the political choice and diversity on offer to Canadian voters.

But wouldn’t a limited electoral alliance do the same thing — albeit on a smaller scale? Wouldn’t there be some ridings in which voters are denied the full range of progressive options? The short answer is yes, but only as a temporary measure. If the three parties manage to form a coalition government and put in place a new electoral system that eliminates vote-splitting, then they can go back to fully competing against each other in all subsequent elections without handing victory after victory to a Conservative Party voted against by a consistent 60 to 70 percent of Canadians. And let us not underestimate the lack of voter choice represented by our first-past-the-post electoral system and the incentives it provides to “strategically” ignore parties we may agree with the most in deference to those we hate the least.

The major hurdle on the way to cooperation will be convincing those involved. The Greens will probably be the easiest, considering Elizabeth May’s history of openness to such ideas, as in her 2007 non-competition agreement with then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion. In the current NDP leadership race, however, only second-tier candidate Nathan Cullen supports joint nominations with the Liberals and Greens in some ridings, a crime for which his fellow contenders, normally loathe to criticize each other publicly, have attacked him (although not too harshly — they are still brothers and sisters after all).

I can understand NDP hesitancy towards any rapprochement with the Liberals. As is often noted, the latter have a long history of campaigning like New Democrats and governing like Conservatives. But just as commonly observed is the uncharacteristic good behaviour of Liberal governments held to account by constructive partnerships with the NDP. Canada’s health care and pension systems are testaments to the positive influence that progressive parties can have on the Liberals, just as the Harper government’s current moves to turn the clock back on these very accomplishments are testaments to the effects of division in the centre-left ranks.

The Liberals will likely be hardest of all to sway. To convince the people only recently considered Canada’s “natural governing party” to cooperate with those most responsible for their downfall is like asking Americans not to resent the growing economic might of soon-to-be-superpower China.

Moreover, at their recent convention, Liberals endorsed the alternative vote electoral system, whereas Greens and New Democrats have a long-established preference for proportional representation. How do they find common ground on this front? Ideally, in the event that they form government, the three parties could hold a national referendum asking voters to make the choice between electoral systems for them. And even if the Liberals succeed in convincing Canadians to choose the far inferior reform of the alternative vote, it would at least be just as effective as proportional representation at eliminating vote splitting, and would thus vindicate the NDP-Liberal-Green alliance.

So what are we waiting for, progressives? Why are we so afraid of cooperation? Just one pre-election deal to work together, form a coalition government, and ditch first-past-the-post; and Harper’s Conservatives are history. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

(New Democrats, please explain that line to the Liberals.)

Update 09/02/2012: has now moved beyond internal polling, and has set up an online petition open to the public. Please sign it!