Bring Your Boomers: How BC Candidates Fare on Climate Change

Enbridge pipelineAlthough the writ for the upcoming BC election won’t be dropped for another two weeks (yes, this campaign has been going on forever), I had the pleasure yesterday of attending an all-candidates meeting on climate change organized by Gen Why Media.

The forum seemed geared primarily towards the young ’uns, despite being billed by organizers as part of their ongoing “Bring Your Boomers” intergenerational dialogue series. A few older voices in the audience could be heard complaining about the darkness of the venue and the frenetic Twittercentrism of the onstage decorations. And though I am ostensibly still part of the youth demographic (I think) for whose benefit all this was being done, even I felt that the ambient electro-rock band Au4 which opened and closed the evening, while very talented and entertaining, was a bit loud for a political event.

Window dressing aside, however, it was a lot of fun. Five candidates running in the upcoming election from across the province shared the stage with three young people (Sam Harrison, Caleb Behn, and Andrea Curtis) who drilled them on their environmental commitments. Former Quebec City Bureau Chief for CTV Kai Nagata served as moderator.

The consummate star of the evening was independent MLA and former New Democrat Bob Simpson from Cariboo North. He drew by far the most applause by coming out strongly against both the Enbridge and the Kinder Morgan pipelines, and declaring the phrase “green LNG” (liquefied natural gas) to be “nonsensical.”

Green Party leader Jane Sterk seemed like somewhat of a kindred spirit, and it is no wonder she is not running a candidate against Simpson in his riding. She unsurprisingly took the strongest environmental stances of the four party representatives onstage, echoing Simpson on pipelines and natural gas, and adding that a Green Party government would raise BC’s carbon tax from thirty to fifty dollars per tonne.

NDP environment critic Rob Fleming got his fair share of love from the audience too, but he had to put up with some minor heckling whenever the room noticed him waffle on an issue. While the Enbridge pipeline got a firm “no,” Kinder Morgan was a “maybe,” pending a new review process. He spoke favourably of liquefying natural gas for export using renewable energy, so as to avoid the in-province emissions that would result from the current government plan, and stressed the potential role of BC gas in weaning China off of coal, a common claim by both major parties which critics find questionable.

More than a few eyebrows were raised by punk rocker and Conservative candidate Duane Nickull. Running against the Premier in her riding, he touted the importance of geothermal energy and repeatedly emphasized that the BC Conservatives are not the Harper Conservatives.

Finally, drawing a large majority of the evening’s heckles was youthful first-time provincial candidate Gabby Kalaw of the governing Liberals. He definitely came across as the phoniest of the bunch, the way he earnestly greeted everybody onstage by name and kept transparently trying to “relate” to people. He also had the toughest job of anyone at the forum, considering the palpable hostility that virtually the entire audience felt towards his party. But I was unable to shed a tear for him once he started spouting nonsense about using a “Prosperity Fund” of natural gas revenue to help us finance the fight against climate change in some unspecified way.

The high point of the evening came at the very end. Since the main event ran long, there was not as much time for questions from the audience as expected. So when Kai Nagata began wrapping up, a revolt almost broke out. One sweet little old lady in the back had her hand up for a very long time, and members of the audience began insisting that she be given the chance to speak. Nagata apologized, informing us that there just wasn’t time, and the audience’s displeasure grew more and more feverish. Finally, Nagata gave in and allowed the sweet little old lady in the back to have the last word, whereupon she stood up and, in her sweet-little-old-lady voice, launched into a rambling, incoherent proclamation about chemtrails.

Best. Ending. Ever.


Of Petrostates and Patriotism

Alison RedfordIf Alison Redford gets to define Canadian patriotism, then I don’t want to be patriotic.

The Alberta premier yesterday accused federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair of “a fundamental betrayal of Canada’s long-term economic interests” after the latter took a trip to DC in what is being widely interpreted as an effort to convince the Americans not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta.

Other Conservatives at the federal level have adopted the same rhetoric. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — of “foreign-funded radicals” fame — implied that the Opposition leader was unfit to govern, stating, “Governing means standing up for Canada’s interests and Canada’s jobs.” Heritage Minister James Moore taunted, “It’d be nice for once if the NDP leader could put the country ahead of his own ambition.” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, meanwhile, went for the trifecta, accusing Mulcair of “bad mouthing Canada,” “trash talking Canada,” and “running down Canada.”

The message is clear: because he is not quite as keen on expanding the tar sands and exporting bitumen as the red-and-white Tories of Edmonton and Ottawa, Thomas Mulcair is nothing but a Canada-hating socialist antichrist.

Patriotism is usually defined as love of country, but fossil fuel enthusiasts prefer to conflate the notion with love of whatever the government happens to be doing on the international stage. This redefinition, historically, is a common one, eagerly leapt upon by all who agree with the government line and seek an easy way to demonize their opponents.

Others take a different approach, conceiving patriotism as something more akin to identification rather than unquestioning acceptance. A true patriot, in other words, identifies with her country to such a degree that she feels proud of its accomplishments and, equally, remorseful for its wrongdoings. A patriot believes he shares responsibility for all that his country does in his name. A patriot refuses to stay quiet when her government puts climate stability and the well-being of future generations at risk. By this definition, protest is patriotic. Critical thinking is patriotic. Dissent is patriotic. Under some circumstances, even civil disobedience is patriotic.

In the words of Ralph Nader, “A patriotism manipulated by the government asks only for a servile nod from its subjects. A new patriotism requires a thinking assent from its citizens.”

It is clear which kind of patriotism Alison Redford et al. stand for. How about you?

An Open Letter to Barack Obama and John Kerry

Dear President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry:

As a concerned Canadian, I am writing to urge you to reject TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline for purposes of transporting dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the United States.

I assure you that not all Canadians are quite as eager to export climate-busting bitumen as our federal government seems to be. Many of us recognize that the high energy demands required to exploit this unconventional resource give it a dangerously large carbon footprint. For this reason, we consistently oppose similar projects, such as proposed pipelines to the Canadian West Coast by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan.

According to estimates of greenhouse gas trajectories needed to avert runaway climate change, global emissions need to be peaking right about now (if not earlier). That means that we as a planet need to start drastically decreasing our use of coal, oil, and natural gas. At a bare minimum, we must not engage in further expansion of existing fossil fuel infrastructure — especially when it involves something so exceptionally dirty as tar sands bitumen.

Many Americans seem to recognize this too. Barely a week ago, tens of thousands gathered in Washington for the country’s largest ever climate rally. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club agreed for the first time in its 120-year history to adopt the use of civil disobedience. Any jobs that may or may not temporarily be gained from the proliferation of pipelines are more than outweighed by the jeopardization of the climate system upon which agriculture, forestry, and our very ways of life depend.

So please reject TransCanada’s application once and for all. To do so would benefit both of our countries, as well as the world at large.


David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterPlease see today’s Vancouver Sun — or click here — for my latest letter to the editor. This one is about BC Premier Christy Clark’s efforts to raise government revenue via liquefied natural gas production. As regular readers might expect, I am not exactly on board.

Carrots and Sticks: How to Fund Public Transit

TransitIf we as a planet are going to avoid passing over the two-degree threshold to runaway climate change, we are going to have to start rationing greenhouse gas emissions. Efficiency gains in transportation will inevitably need to be part of that project. Put another way, emissions per person per kilometre will have to go down, which means a dramatic expansion in public transit infrastructure.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the unchanging climate of public sector cost-cutting, the chief obstacle is the issue of funding. But noble attempts to solve this quandary abound. Here in the Metro Vancouver region, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, one of the governing bodies of TransLink, has written BC Transportation Minister Mary Polak with a series of proposals.

Of the five options put forward, the one generating the most news coverage is the suggestion of a 0.5 percent regional sales tax. I do not usually like sales taxes, as they are notoriously regressive, but considering the relatively small size of the tax, the estimated yield of $250 million per year, and the undeniable progressiveness of what it would go to fund, I have to admit the idea is tempting.

Its major problem, or at least limitation, is the fact that due to the urgency of the fight against climate change, the best policies are those which provide not just carrots, but also sticks. We cannot afford simply to make public transit (not to mention cycling and walking) easier and then idly contemplate our achievements. Driving must be made more costly as well.

A regional sales tax fails to consider this angle, as does one of the other five mayors’ proposals, leveraging land value along transit corridors, netting $30 million annually. The other three suggestions, however, may be onto something.

These include a vehicle registration fee worth $50 million per year and some kind of long-term road pricing scheme of undetermined (but potentially high) value. In principle, these are much better ideas, for the carrot-and-stick reasons outlined above, but they are still not perfect. While they would impose costs on drivers, these costs would not vary by fuel efficiency or distance, or if they did, would do so rather imprecisely.

No, the best of the five proposals put forward by the Mayors’ Council is a regional $5-per-tonne carbon tax, expected to generate an annual $90 million in revenue. Such a tax would provide funding for public transit while at the same time (in concert with our provincial carbon tax) discouraging greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, even this idea comes with some downsides. Carbon taxes on their own, like sales taxes, are regressive, which is why, as I have written before, all the best carbon tax proposals offer to return a significant portion of the revenue generated to low- and middle-income households. The mayors’ letter makes no mention of such a corrective mechanism, perhaps because it would diminish the amount of revenue available for transit.

But while I would prefer a carbon tax that is as progressively designed as possible, part of me is willing to look past the mayors’ apparent oversight. After all, public transit — the project which the carbon tax is meant to fund — tends to benefit those with low incomes. I do not mean to claim that all transit users are poor or that all car owners are rich; the real world is never so simple. But one of the impacts of a carbon tax of the kind suggested by the Mayors’ Council would be a shift in wealth, on average, from the slightly-more-well-off to the slightly-less-well-off.

In other words, what we have here — or at least can have — is something that is both good for the poor and good for the environment. In my own peculiar little red-green world, this is known as “two birds with one stone.”

So I hope that Mary Polak will respond to the mayors’ letter with an open mind (or more realistically, that her successor will do so after the May election). And I hope that TransLink and the various municipal governments of Metro Vancouver take a close look at the idea of a regional carbon tax. Perhaps it can be used in combination with some of the other options put forward. Perhaps decision makers will agree to raise the tax beyond $5 per tonne or include some kind of additional compensation for people with low incomes.

In any case, increased funding to public transit is urgently important — and so is a reduction in fares.

Three New Year’s Resolutions for Canada

New Year'sI have never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. The practice always struck me as little more than an excuse to put off self-improvement until next year. But now, with year’s end upon us, and solutions nowhere in sight for the host of problems that we face as a country and as a world, the moment may finally have arrived to exploit this silly annual tradition and appropriate its language for purposes of cynically presenting a false common cause with any blog readers who happen to be into that sort of thing.

With such ingeniously devious trickery in mind, I present to you, O blogosphere, three New Year’s resolutions for the great nation of Canada:

1. Fight Climate Change

The year 2012 marks the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. It also marks Canada’s official withdrawal from the treaty so as to avoid embarrassment for failing to live up to our legally binding emissions targets.

Perhaps not all the blame can be placed at the feet of the Conservative government that has ruled our country since 2006, as the Liberal government that preceded it was infamous for its inaction on the climate file. But current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his slavish allegiance to Big Tar and the climate distorting effects thereof, has proven himself to be just about the most environmentally unenlightened leader one could ask for short of an all-out climate change denier.

Here’s hoping that in 2013, we start holding our representatives to higher standards.

2. Tackle Poverty

I realize that worldwide anti-austerity protests and the birth of the Occupy movement all took place in 2011, the year when equality finally made its long overdue comeback in the North American public’s consciousness. But good ideas do not come with expiry dates.

It is unforgivable, in an industrialized country, in an era of almost unprecedented material wealth, for 150,000 to 300,000 Canadians to be homeless, or for one in seven Canadian children to live in poverty. And horrendous though these injustices are, they are dwarfed by the heartbreaking extremes of destitution that exist in the developing world, symptoms of unconscionable global inequality.

In 1969, former Prime Minister Lester Pearson famously recommended that industrialized countries devote a minimum of 0.7 percent of their national incomes to foreign aid, a Canadian idea that has become a widely embraced international standard. Four decades later, Canada’s foreign aid level is at 0.3 percent.

This is not acceptable. In 2013, Canada needs to improve its performance on poverty both at home and abroad. And we have to be able to afford it. An adult conversation on taxes is urgently needed.

3. Respect First Nations

Most Canadians benefit from the historic legacy of colonialism. This does not mean that we consciously choose this legacy for ourselves, nor does it mean that Canadians today are all bad people, but this legacy is a fact that deserves to be acknowledged. The country was founded upon the massacre, assimilation, and cultural genocide of the people who first lived here, and to this day their descendents suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, incarceration, addiction, health problems, and suicide.

In the context of this crisis, Prime Minister Harper is making it clear that he cannot be bothered to meet face-to-face with Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, as her hunger strike is set to enter its fourth week. Her courageous actions, meanwhile, have inspired Idle No More, a First Nations-led cross-country protest movement against the government’s recent omnibus legislation, which activists claim dismantles many long-established measures to protect the natural world, thereby violating the treaty rights of the people who depend upon it.

Indigenous communities are always on the front line of fights against environmental destruction, and all Canadians owe them unlimited gratitude for the sacrifices they make on our behalf. If our government will not respect the First Peoples of this country, then at the very least, regular Canadians of all backgrounds need to stand together with them in the Idle No More movement.

In 2013, we need to actively demonstrate our support for their cause. We need to accept it as our own cause too.

False Flags and Vapour Trails: Reflections on Conspiracy Theory

Vapour trailsYesterday, I attended a talk here in Vancouver by author and activist Yves Engler, promoting his latest book The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy. While the talk was very informative, most of the entertainment came during the question-and-answer session towards the end, during which a pair of audience members raised the topics of false flag operations and chemtrails.

Not being fully caught up on all forms of supervillainy commonly attributed to the US government, I had to look that last one up. Chemtrails refer to chemical agents placed in the vapour trails of airplanes for purposes of spreading illness, changing the weather, or controlling the population. Engler for the most part refrained from responding to that one. However, on the subject of false flag operations (military attacks made to appear as though they were executed by one’s opponents), Engler gave an utterly reasonable, if brief, reply along the lines that such operations have undoubtedly occurred historically, but that this did not mean they were everywhere. Sometimes, things actually are the way they seem.

I always feel relieved when radical thinkers resist the temptation to fall into the conspiracy theory trap, something exceedingly easy for anti-establishment types to do. Is this fair, this dismissive attitude? Is it really so simple? (See here for an interesting read on how not-so-simple it is, a read that significantly influenced my thoughts on the matter.)

If I may extend Engler’s comment on false flag operations, conspiracies in general sometimes do take place and will probably continue to do so into the future. This is uncontroversial. Well-known examples include Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. And if we include not only conspiracies of action but also conspiracies of motivation (for example, governments lying about their reasons for passing a law or pursuing a goal or invading Iraq), then there is nothing particularly uncommon about conspiracy theorizing.

Yet I feel reluctant to place myself anywhere on a spectrum that includes truthers, birthers, climate change skeptics, and Holocaust deniers. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad?

If one assumes (as I do) that the vast majority of conspiracy theories — though not quite all — are false, then it is reasonable to greet every new one not with outright rejection, nor with perfect neutrality, but with an attitude of healthy suspicion. That is an appropriate starting point, and one should adjust one’s position in one direction or the other as evidence presents itself.

Some, however, will object to the first premise above. Who says conspiracy theories are usually wrong? Maybe they have simply not been found out. Where is the evidence that proves them false, and to the extent that such evidence exists, is it reliable or is it itself part of the conspiracy?

That last question is what makes conspiracy theories, in their most extreme form, so frustrating to me. They are unfalsifiable. Any expert opinion that appears to support an opposing worldview is treated not as evidence against the conspiracy, but as evidence of how deep this thing really goes. President Obama’s birth certificate is dismissed for being short-form rather than long-form, or, if the long-form certificate is released, for allegedly being photoshopped. Scientific testimony that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel use is dismissed as having been paid for by deep-pocketed environmentalists or some kind of global communist New World Order.

It is virtually impossible to disprove these allegations. Whatever retort one offers, the “true believers” will have an answer that weaves the retort seamlessly into the very fabric of the conspiracy. Therefore, my policy of healthy suspicion must ultimately rest on pragmatic grounds.

If we were to require the same stringently high standards of proof that conspiracy theorists demand of establishment narratives, and moreover if we were to apply these standards consistently, then it would be virtually impossible to truly know anything. We would be plunged into a world of darkness and uncertainty. No election result or ingredients list or auditor’s report would ever be trustworthy. For that matter, neither would any conspiracy theory.

In other words, in order to believe in anything — “official story” or otherwise — we must agree on a few basic things that, at least most of the time, deserve our trust. For starters, I recommend science, as well as other forms of scholarship. I would also add those facets of government that are sufficiently constrained by legal checks and transparency requirements as to be reliable. Obviously not every politician or office or agency would make that cut.

At the same time, while my policy of healthy suspicion of conspiracy theory is certainly not compatible with dogmatic mistrust of the establishment, one should not go too far in the other direction either. An open mind and a willingness to question authority are necessary so that we are not caught by surprise on those occasions when real conspiracies do occur. At the very least, mainstream voices need to stop treating the term “conspiracy theorist” as an insult.

Still, don’t expect me to run for cover the next time I see a vapour trail.