Category Archives: ecology

My Canada Includes The Laws Of Thermodynamics

There’s an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa, who has a lot of free time due to a teachers’ strike, builds a perpetual motion machine. Homer is upset, and yells “Lisa, get in here! In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Last night I had a nice long political debate with a friend of mine. Let’s call him “Sean,” because, well, that’s his name. (I think it’s unfortunate and somewhat dangerous that talking about politics with friends and family is increasingly considered impolite. I don’t know how we expect democracy to work otherwise.) Our conversation jumped around a lot, but the argument basically came down to Sean’s belief that the status quo was more or less great and that concerns about converging environmental crises were overblown or entirely made up. I, uh, maintained a different viewpoint.

I love debate, and one of the things I enjoy doing is getting a good understanding of why people think what they do. As a result, Sean and my conversation got more and more fundamental, as I searched for things we could agree on. Eventually, I said, “ok, well I know that we can at least agree that the Earth has limits.” Sean did not agree. “Um, ok,” I continued, “well, let’s make it more specific then. We can agree that energy cannot be created….” But again, Sean did not agree.

That’s when we changed the subject. The first two laws of thermodynamics state, in essence, that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, and that you can’t get something for nothing. Somehow, there are now at least a handful of people in Canada and throughout the western world who think (actually, feel might be a better word) that that’s not true. As James Howard Kunstler points out in The Long Emergency, some of our culture’s most basic assumptions have become misaligned with the realities and limitations of the physical world. For example, energy policy is based on the assumption that energy is “generated” (created), and can continue to be created in increasing quantities in perpetuity. Similarly, much of our economic activity is based on the assumption that it’s reasonable to get something (like, money) for nothing (see

Sean’s not a dumb guy. He’s no Homer. In fact, that’s the crazy part — he’s come to his conclusions in a rational way by observing the world around him. Problem is, the world he and I have grown up in is currently in the process of throwing all the wood on the fire, so of course we’re lacking perspective. (Except, of course, that instead of wood we’re using oil, which, well, doesn’t grow on trees.)

Brownie points will go to the first MP willing to stand in Parliament and say, “Mr. Speaker, be it resolved that this House will obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Public Safety

The headline on my free Metro newspaper this morning was dramatic and to the point: “Terrorists threaten Canada.” The story stems from an internet post made by an al Qaeda group that said “cutting oil supplies to the United States, or at least curtailing it, would contribute to the ending of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” and called for attacks on Canadian petroleum facilities as one way of accomplishing that.

Of course, this isn’t really new news. Canada’s been a target of al Qaeda and similar groups since before 9/11. All the same, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day reacted by saying, “we’ve always said that Canada is not immune to threats. We take this threat seriously.” (Between the lines, it sounds like he’s almost excited to get his first real threat as Public Safety Minister, but hopefully that’s just my over-active cynicism.)

Day also added that it’s possible to protect “all of our assets, both human and structural.” (Nice to know that the protection of human life and the protection of oil drilling operations are of equal priority.)

One of the more interesting quotes, however, came from Stephen Harper, who told MPs that “the most important responsibility of government is the preservation of order and the protection of its citizens.” (And its structures. Don’t forget its structures.)

I’m not the first to point this out, but we’re currently facing an even greater threat to order and our protection. We now know that even if Harper and Bush see the light (or, say, a bunch of Green MPs get elected) and start enacting plans to actually reduce our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, the planet will continue to get hotter for centuries. It’s past time to start thinking not just about preventing further climate change, but about how we’ll manage with the changes we’ve already set in motion.

For example, where, and how, will we grow our food? Where will our water come from? How will we deal with increased pressure from the United States and China for the freshwater in our boarders? How will we prepare against new diseases? What plan do we have for replacing all of the infrastructure we’ve built on the now-melting permafrost? How might rising ocean levels affect our coastal provinces? How can we build secure, local economies as international ones become less stable and viable? How will we keep our national economy strong as more jurisdictions like California refuse to buy our tar-sands oil because it’s too dirty?

There are answers, but there’s also much work to be done. Terrorism is a real threat that needs to be guarded against, but if our government really cares about public safety, order, and the protection of its citizens, there are other threats that deserve more of their attention.

Running Out Of Time, But Not Hope

The atmosphere outside of the (Elgin and) Winter Garden Theatre last night was similar — not quite the same, but similar — to that of a rock concert. Various people stood in the cold, holding signs that said “Need One Ticket, PLEASE,” while the large crowd jostled around three or four groups handing out flyers and pimping petitions. “Mary,” yelled one woman, excitedly. “There’s a petition to ban Styrofoam!”

Inside, there was a much calmer atmosphere, inspired by a mix of anticipation and the soothing influence of the Winter Garden’s decor, which includes fake tress and a mural of mountains and the sky. (It also didn’t hurt that the new Raffi song “Cool It” was playing on a continuous loop. Nothing controls a crowd like Raffi.) It was an appropriate atmosphere to hear from two of Canada’s most respected voices on the environment and social justice. (The decoration also allowed for an amusing moment in the question and answer period, when the moderator called upon “the woman standing in the back beside the tree.”)

The guests of honour were, of course, David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis, in conversation facilitated by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel. They should need no introduction (though they were each given lengthy ones). In brief, Dr. David Suzuki is a geneticist, educator, and broadcaster, who has written approximately forty books, received nineteen honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Companion to the Order of Canada. Stephen Lewis, a former leader of the Ontario NDP, was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-1988, Deputy Director of UNICEF from 1995-1999, and the UN’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa until last December.

Together, they can leap over tall buildings, walk on water, and deactivate an explosive device using only a paper clip and their combined sense of moral outrage.

Getting To Crisis

A crisis is a problem that’s been ignored for too long. Therefore, it was particularly painful to listen to a detailed account of how long we’ve been ignoring the environmental crisis that’s now gotten so bad it may be threatening our survival. It must be even more painful for Suzuki and Lewis, who lived it.

Suzuki remembers hearing about global warming in the 80’s, but admits that at the time, they (the scientific and environmental communities) thought of it as a “slow motion catastrophe” that would have effects in 100 years, but not sooner. Instead, Suzuki focused on other issues, such as deforestation. He was never so pessimistic or alarmist to believe things would get so bad so soon. (The Globe and Mail now reports that 4 out of 5 Canadians report personally witnessing the effects of climate change.)

Lewis was even more involved with climate change in the 80’s, charing the previously mentioned 1988 Toronto Conference, which was quoted last night as concluding that, “humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequence could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

That year, says Suzuki, was the last peak of environmental awareness before our current one. It was in 1988 that George Bush Sr. campaigned on a promise to be “an environmental president.” Public demand for action led to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but by then the pressure was off, and Bush was able to “blackmail the summit into watering down the agreement.” Lewis adds that the activists who were in Rio never understood the degree to which back-room pressure by politicians and corporate (so-called) leaders co-opted the whole event.

The result of the Rio conference was Agenda 21, where the poor nations of the developing world agreed to pay more than the rich nations, only to have those rich nations (in a move that’s simultaneously tragic and offensive) turn around and say “we can’t afford to do this.”

That takes us to the 1997 negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada’s ratification in 2002, and the protocol’s coming into force as international law in 2005.

So, Here We Are Then

“Do we think of ourselves as international outlaws? Or are we proud of our role in the world?” – David Suzuki
“There was a time when we counted for something internationally. Nothing would resuscitate Canada’s relevance more quickly than decisive leadership on climate change.” – Stephen Lewis
After decades of inaction, it’s hard for Lewis to contain his concern and impatience. “What is the matter with governments,” he asks. “They go from inertia to paralysis!” Pointing to a story in the Globe And Mail last weekend that exposed a new deadly, airborne fungus that’s appeared on the west coast, Lewis emphasized how “unsettling” and “unpredictable” the future is.During the Q&A time, someone asked Suzuki why he doesn’t run for federal office. (Actually, what they said was, “why don’t you run for president?” But let’s overlook that.) He dismissed the question, saying “well, there are lots of reasons,” then became drowned out by thunderous applause and Lewis’ observation that “I think it’s a great idea!” He did, however, say what his three priorities would be if he were made prime minister through some magical act against his will:

  1. End subsidies to the auto and fossil fuel sectors. These are often called “perverse subsidies,” because they represent public money going towards public harm. Also, ExxonMobil’s recent $40 billion-with-a-B first quarter profit announcement makes the subsidies insane, and, according to Lewis, “gives new definition to obscenity,” especially when one considers the fact that ExxonMobil is still using some of that money to pay the same people who used to tell us that smoking doesn’t cause cancer to deny climate change is happening.
  2. Create a carbon tax. Speak the language business will understand by sending the right price signals to the market. Suzuki also shared that in a recent conversation with him, Preston Manning (former leader of the REFOOOOOOORRRM party) essentially endorsed a carbon tax by saying that currently externalized costs in the tar sands (water, pollution) need to be internalized.
  3. Set targets and timelines for greenhouse gas reduction. Enshrine them in legislation so that the next government is forced to meet them too.

Refuting the Opponents

Even though most of the public “gets it,” there are still a few individuals (mostly in government or business) who continue to make the same, tired arguments against action. Various devil’s advocates set these arguments up throughout the night, only to have them soundly knocked down.

The most common of these frames the environment against the economy, and comes in various forms (it costs too much, the economy will crash, the economy’s more important, etc). For this, Suzuki went to etymology, pointing out that the “eco” in both economy and ecology comes from a Greek word meaning house, or home. Ecology is the study of home, while economy is the management of home. And since you can’t manage something you don’t understand, it doesn’t make any sense to put economy before ecology, as our current minister of the environment still does. “Let’s put the eco back in economics,” proclaimed Suzuki, to more applause.

They also pointed out that the Stern Report pegged the cost of not fighting climate change at greater than both World Wars combined, and would result in the collapse of 20% of the economy.

Evoking some more war imagery, Suzuki drew another analogy. “After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, can you imagine if the US government had said, ‘oh well, it’s too expensive to go after them so I guess we’ve got to let them take Asia?'” If a foreign country were polluting our air, water, and food, killing thousands and threatening even greater destruction, would we say, “oh well, it costs too much to defend ourselves?”

In the end, the message was that all of us need to put pressure on politicians to make the change, because, according to Suzuki and Lewis, they’re not going to change on their own. Suzuki pointed out that Al Gore, despite being the politician who understands both the treat and the solutions more than any other, still campaigned for president without making environmental concerns an issue. The reason he didn’t (and the reason George Bush Sr. did) is because of the degree to which the public spoke up and said, “this matters to us.”

Lewis is very excited about the next election, because it will give us all another chance to go to all candidates meetings and use our votes to get action. Suzuki’s excited and hopeful too, because many of the solutions are already there, just waiting to be implemented.

“And what happens,” asked one audience member, “when we elect a government that says they’re going to take action but then doesn’t?”

“Just keep fighting,” replied Lewis. “The pendulum always swings, you can’t give up. Keep at it, endlessly, tenaciously, and people start to move. Hammer them into submission. There’s no time to equivocate anymore.”

This post also appears on Torontoist.

“Why would we do this?”

There’s a feature story in today’s Globe and Mail about Dr. Gordon McBean, one of Canada’s top climatologists. Dr. McBean briefed the federal Liberal cabinet on climate change in 2002. He told them then — five years ago — that the Kyoto targets were only a first step, and that much deeper reductions in carbon emissions were needed. He also explained that climate change could mean “surging sea levels, more frequent violent storms, severe heat waves and droughts,” but added that it would be decades before the effects of any action would be noticeable.

At least one Minister was appalled. “And there will be nothing for us between now and the next election?” the minister asked. “Why would we do this?”

“You do it for your grandchildren,” Dr. McBean replied. (Fortunately for the Minister, and unfortunately for us, Dr. McBean isn’t naming names.)

That story is yet another illustration of why Canadians should be very cautious when considering the born-again policy positions of political parties claiming to have seen the light. In most cases, I suspect, all they’ve really seen are polling numbers.

Also in today’s Globe, Preston Manning argues that politicians must not do to the environment what they did to health care: produce nothing but “sterile, destructive, polarized debate,” that succeeds only in convincing the public that “their No. 1 public-policy concern cannot be resolved by political processes and institutions, and that politics is part of the health-care problem, not part of the solution.” (The fact that Preston Manning is now sounding reasonable is a good demonstration of, 1) how far off-side Stephen Harper is, and 2) how much nicer, smarter, and productive politicians are once they’ve gone through parliamentary detox.)

Keeping that in mind, I suggest there are three things people should ask themselves when assessing which party has the best environmental approach:

  1. Do they have staying power? Do you believe the party is actually committed to addressing the planetary crisis, or will their resolve melt if our next winter happens to be a cold one?
  2. Do they have the best solutions? This is different than asking if they appear to care the most, or if they have the best TV commercials. The benefit of living in a country that’s fallen so far behind on environmental leadership is that there are lots of proven solutions that can be borrowed from other jurisdictions.
  3. Do they understand how different issues are interrelated? Not just the way that the environment is linked to health and economy (though that’s important), but also how climate change relates to resource depletion, toxicity, ocean health, agribusiness, peak oil, etc. Be very skeptical of any party with an environmental platform that claims to be able to solve the climate crisis without addressing these other issues.

Today is Parliament’s first day back. Here’s to hoping they achieve at least the bare minimum.