Friday, 27 September 2013

Government is Not a Business

I have a "varied" mix of experience and education -- some might say "unusual", while the less kind amongst you would say "odd".  A Bachelor's degree in Music is not often combined with a Master's in Business Administration.  And the "normal" career path does not typically chart a course from high-end retail audio, to the building services and cyber-security industries with Honeywell and Siemens and TELUS, and back again.  

As a result, my innate humanist inclinations are informed by an understanding of business practice, and this makes for an interesting review of a video recently sent to me by the MinuteMBA, entitled "Why Government Shouldn't Be Run Like a Business".

The mission of the MinuteMBA is to provide a comprehensive resource to online MBA aspirants.  An important part of this mission is the group's set of videos on various topics related to the course of study students will encounter.  And this brings me back to the reason for the post -- the notion that government shouldn't be run like a business -- and why a dilettante like me is supremely comfortable passing judgement.

This short video identifies three reasons to support its proposition, based on three important adversarial relationships: 1. Profits vs People; 2. Shareholders vs Citizens; 3. Customers vs Constituents. The brightest among you (potential MBA candidates) will see the alignment of profits, shareholders and customers against people, citizens and constituents.  As the video correctly notes, the business of business (and its legal obligation) is to generate profits and maximize shareholder return, while the business of government (and what should be its legal obligation) is, perhaps naively, to serve the common good.  This view of business is generally accepted, if not heavily reinforced, through a constant drumbeat in the (corporate controlled) media.  The expectation of government as serving the common good, however, has increasingly come under attack in our increasingly de-regulated and globalized political environment.

The video hints at the notion of benefits sought by people, citizens and constituents that government is uniquely positioned to deliver. This notion is tied to the common good, or the more arcane term commonwealth.  Canada identifies itself as a member of the Commonwealth Group of Nations -- so too the US, Britain and 50 others.  The term dates from the 15th century, and its original meaning is "a political community founded for the common good".  

That meaning has been purposely and inexorably minimized by the rise of corporations and the governments they have captured, and that trend is (imho) at the heart of the MinuteMBA video.  The notion of common good, common well-being, is decidedly at odds with the unfettered pursuit of profit, and the attendant rise in the power of corporations and special interests over government.  And governments (notably the Harper government in Canada) create selective (and often, false) imperatives -- the economy and jobs, crime, the military, patriotism -- to give cover to their ideological convictions over the well-being of the people collectively. 

As governments around the world have been captured by commerce, it is particularly fitting on this day of the IPCC's 5th Report on Climate Change that I post the MinuteMBA video.  We have lost the collective sense of the importance of commonwealth -- the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is the most powerful and timely example of the struggle between profit and people, shareholders and citizens, customers and constituents.  The unregulated release of the fossil-fuel industry's primary waste bi-product is an existential threat to our species and life on Earth. 

Postscript.  I urge you, dear reader, to learn all you can about the science of climate change.  The deniers and sceptics are ill-informed (at best), or willfully ignorant (at worst), in support of the profit vs people motive.  Become aware, and challenge the deniers (especially those in government, industry and the corporate sponsored media) at every single opportunity.  Maybe, just maybe, the IPCC Report will begin to tilt public opinion against the climate change deniers in government, as well as the multitude of corporate and media shills.

And I urge you to access the MinuteMBA at your first convenience. The material presented there is valuable source of reference to everyone, not just those chasing the exalted three letters -- another interesting example of their work is this: "Why Women Make Better Business Leaders".

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Say What, from Stevie Ray Vaughn's Soul to Soul album.  One of the greatest blues guitarists EVER, and a great way to end the week.  Enjoy. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Equivalencies - Is Syria Like Global Warming?

The news reports have been positively breathless with the fevered anticipation of more aggression by the United States, and still more by President Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate.  The reports and images (real and imagined) of gas attacks against civilians have generated the requisite reaction from those of us far away (as they should when innocent lives are taken, whether by chemical or conventional weapons).  And so the Syrian issue has sucked all the air out of the news cycle, as it will continue to do for some time yet.  Though, the notion that the deaths of 1,500 Syrians from a suspected Sarin gas attack somehow requires an immediate response from the world community when 100,000 casualties in that country's ongoing civil war has merited till now no substantial interest is, I humbly submit, disingenuous and self-serving on the part of those so ardently pressing for military action. 

Before we jump into the equivalency at the heart of my post, lets recap the current situation in the Situation Room.  Over the past two weeks, President Obama has veered from unrelenting warrior to committed diplomat (for the moment, and because he doesn't have the support in Congress).  He had previously drawn a red line in the Syrian sand, and told Bashar al-Assad he not dare cross it. And when it was crossed (allegedly) by someone (we know not yet who, with any certainty), Obama's widely reported revulsion at the deaths of these innocents caused him to rev up America's war machine once more.

Britain's Prime Minister, wishing to participate in yet another grand adventure -- so as to enhance the special relationship -- becoming, in the process, an international statesman in the likeness of Tony Blair (because that's what war does), assumed his parliament would fall in line with more bloodshed in the Middle East (justified and righteous, of course).  But to David Cameron's great surprise (and to the UK's supposed humiliation) democracy actually worked, and the members of parliament correctly divined the wariness of their constituents who, sensibly, did not want to sanction another fiasco even remotely similar to Iraq.  And thus Britain has been forced to watch from the sidelines, and Cameron suffered his isolation in St Petersburg.

Meanwhile, President Obama, finding himself alone and exposed in the international community (and not wanting to wait for clarification from the UN inspectors), even as he reached his own judgment, was forced to seek ratification from Congress.  The world watched that process unfold on its well-worn and familiar track of manufacturing consent.  Surprisingly, for the moment at least, American public opinion may have snatched from this President his "responsibility to protect".  Obama and his surrogates had begun a full court press on the Hill and in the media, even as he sought some personal cover by saying, "I didn't set a red line. The world did."  Except, he did set the red line and, thankfully, has been called out for his hypocrisy and duplicity (see here, here, here, here, here and here, among the many examples).

It had already become clear that his path to war was in jeopardy when, as the G20 meeting concluded, reports emerged that Obama could not build a new coalition of the willing to take immediate military action.  The New York Times notes,
"President Obama ran into an impasse on Friday in his bid to rally international backing for a military strike on Syria as world leaders wrapped up a summit meeting...Mr. Obama emerged with a few supporters but no consensus, as other leaders urged him not to attack without United Nations permission...The failure to forge a stronger coalition here in the face of opposition from the Russian host, President Putin, raised the risks even further for Mr. Obama as he headed home to lobby Congress to give him the backing his international peers would not.  It also left Mr. Obama in the awkward position of defending his right to take action largely alone if necessary after campaigning against what he portrayed as the unilateralist foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush."
I'm struck by the phrase "defending his right to take action".  American presidents have repeatedly defended their right to take action (in the name of freedom, democracy and humanitarianism) for the past 100 years -- a catalogue of war and invasion that has killed millions of innocents around the world (and I'm reminded of the 40 year anniversary of the coup in Chile, and of America's participation in that dreadful event).  I've yet to note any revulsion or outrage from President Obama over the deaths of innocents from the US drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and meanwhile, civilian death tolls continue to mount in Afghanistan and Iraq.    

President Obama's point man on the Syrian issue is none other than Secretary of State John Kerry, a man who proved his own enthusiasm for the killing of innocents in Vietnam.  Kerry has elevated the discourse in the usual way, by claiming that Syria's Assad is the reincarnation of Sadam Husein and Adolf Hitler (it is always useful to draw upon the spectre of Nazism, just as George Bush did when he likened Sadam to Hitler in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, before ultimately executing him).  Now Secretary Kerry warns us,
"This is no time to be silent spectators to slaughter...this is not the time to allow a dictator unfettered use of some of the most heinous weapons on earth."
This is, of course, a tactic applied by every US administration since 1940  -- direct a righteous indignation and horror at the acts of others, acts that pale in comparison to those routinely perpetrated by America or its surrogates (see John Pilger's excellent summary of some of the worst American atrocities committed in the last century, and see also this excellent commentary on America's utter hypocrisy regarding the use of chemical weapons).  And it's always important to justify any action as being vital to American security, just as its useful to minimize any foreseeable difficulties (reminiscent of the "cakewalk" that was supposed to be Iraq).  This is, in fact, exactly the messaging from Secretary Kerry, as reported recently by The Guardian,
Kerry insisted that intervention in Syria was vital to American security.  He sought to assuage concerns that it could lead to a lengthy and difficult campaign by saying that any military action would be "targeted and limited but clear and effective" and would not involve "boots on the ground."  He said: "We are not talking about going to war, this is not Iraq and it's not Afghanistan.  It's not even Libya or Kosovo."
You've got to admire the man's deadpan chutzpah: "It's not even Libya or Kosovo."  We can only hope so, since the number of dead in Libya has been variously estimated in the tens of thousands, as The Guardian noted at the time,
What is now that while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000 - 2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure.  Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months -- as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations -- range from 10,000 up to 50,000.  The National Transition Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded... Of those, uncounted thousands will be civilians, including those killed by Nato bombing and Nato-backed forces on the ground.  The figures dwarf the death tolls in this year's most bloody Arab uprisings, in Syria and Yemen.  Nato has not protected civilians in Libya -- it has multiplied the number of deaths, while losing not a single soldier of its own.
The results of Western humanitarian (read: military) intervention in Kosovo likewise fails to inspire confidence as we await the first of the "targeted" American strikes in Syria.  Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that the Yugoslav government claimed that NATO was responsible for at least 1,200 and as many as 5,000 civilian deaths. HRW also noted that, 
"Once it made the decision to attack Yugoslavia, NATO should have done more to protect civilians.  All too often, NATO targeting subjected the civilian population to unacceptable risks."
The salient point that emerges from any review of past American humanitarian (read: military) interventions is this -- the very civilians (supposedly) desperate for aid and longing for freedom were generally among the first to die from its application, and in disproportionate numbers.  And when the bombing begins, the humanitarian (read: military) forces typically refuse to acknowledge the resulting civilian deaths, though, when forced to, always respond with the same vacuous phrasing -- "we deeply, deeply regret any loss of innocent life".  Appropriate, then, that the Nuremberg Tribunal declared aggressive war the ultimate war crime, since all other atrocities (chief among them, civilian casualties) flow from it.

And so the situation in Syria has morphed into one of negotiation and diplomacy.  That which was so recently so urgent has become an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath.  A summary of the latest reports (here, here, here and here provide a representative sampling) variously suggest that President Obama lost his nerve and credibility, while Russian President Putin scored a major victory for his client state.  Lost in the scoring is the Syrian civilian population, who might yet be spared the West's unique brand of freedom and democracy, as it has been historically and consistently applied to Arab peoples.  

The chemical attack was an urgent matter -- right up to the moment it wasn't.  It was a problem that demanded action, and since a military response is a kind of action, Obama chose to solve the problem with a military response -- simple (and consistently American).   After all, when you've only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And now that the US is forced to ponder next steps, we too might take a moment to consider the question posed at the top of this post: "Is Syria Like Global Warming?"  

Such an equivalency might at first seem frivolous but, given the preceding discussion, I might just as easily have asked: "Is President Obama like Martin Luther King or more like President George W. Bush?"; or perhaps, "Is unprovoked aggression of the kind outlined by the Nuremberg Tribunal like humanitarian intervention or more like a war crime?"  But back to my primary question.

Like the situation in Syria, the global warming "debate" has its own red lines.  So too are governments creating narratives that utilize facts selectively, ignoring root causes and placing their own actions and motivations in the best possible light -- often in direct opposition to the truth.  And of course, like Syria, the global warming issue is shrouded in a labyrinth of special interests and the dominant power relationships of the status quo.

But if you agree that 400ppm merits at least the same level of international urgency as a chemical weapons attack, then Syria is not the same as global warming -- the very governments so keen to bomb the crap out of a country in order to punish a reviled dictator have also chosen to ignore the perils of man-made climate change that will affect us all, and for all time.

On both files, the human race is captive to leaders that demonstrate neither leadership nor vision.  

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Ludwig van Beethoven.  Originally conceived as a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte and the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven became enraged when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, and tore the title page in a fit of rage.  Enjoy.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Prosperity Drives Global Climate Change

A slide from a Robert Graves Presentation on alternative energy sources.

The basic scientific concepts of climate change have been well-known for many decades.  And at its core, the science contends that human activity has released to the atmosphere ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas that science has directly linked to fluctuations in global temperatures throughout Earth's history.  The most recent numbers and computer models on the subject have served to clarify and confirm what has for so long been suspected.  In fact, the highly anticipated report from the United Nation's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change is expected to confirm - with a confidence of 95% - that climate change is due in part (in large part) to human activity.  A contributor to an earlier IPCC's climate report noted,
"The [most recent] report is simply an exclamation mark on what we already knew: Climate change is real and it continues unabated, the primary cause is fossil fuel burning, and if we don't do something to reduce carbon emissions we can expect far more dangerous and potentially irreversible impacts on us and our environment in the decades to come."
Over the past 50 years in the life of the recognized environmental movement, little of real significance has happened to change the trajectory - what was foreseen then is confirmed now.  Indeed, with all we know and all we have known for many years, we seem to be approaching calamity at an accelerating rate.  Which naturally raises the question of why.  Why has so much evidence had such little impact in slowing our headlong rush to global climate change?

In my last two posts I noted that the estimated value of the known global fossil-fuel reserves is $27 trillion.  This is an incredible sum, a sum that certainly drives the efforts (some might say, machinations) of Koch Industries, Exxon, Shell, BP and the many thousands of resource extractors world-wide, large and small.

But that enormous sum of money tells just part of the story, since it refers only to the anticipated revenues of the fossil-fuel companies themselves.  It does not speak to the economic value that accrues to the industries and individual companies that provide the technical, operational and service support to the extraction firms.  And it does not speak to the earnings of the millions of workers all these firms directly employ, nor the many millions more who benefit indirectly. I am referring, of course, to the broader economy, an economy that is firmly rooted in the supply of fossil-fuels.

Our economic well-being is predicated on ready access to the energy locked in the world's vast - but finite - supply of fossil fuel.  Our individual and collective prosperity, then, is a primary driver of global climate change.  This idea is captured by the graph at the top of this post, made popular by Robert Hargraves in his presentations of Aim High (see the pdf here), his proposal for an alternate fuel technology.  And our economic well-being is at the heart of the question of why so much evidence regarding climate change has elicited such a shockingly limited response to the impending calamity.

Let us explore some interesting aspects of this dilemma. 

As individuals, we are captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, and this dependancy certainly limits the prospect of affecting any meaningful change.  And, sure, we can do our part and recycle and buy fuel efficient cars and generally be aware of our individual carbon footprint, but we are, each of us, locked into a reality that offers little scope for change.  Here in Canada, we live in a (so-called) representative democracy, and it is (supposedly) in the power of the individual en mass that we can really affect necessary change.  If that were true, though, why are we still asking why?  Why has the volume of evidence related to climate change not generated a ground-swell for change?   

Our own inertia and complacency has played a role in our limited response to the danger, but it is an inertia and complacency actively cultivated by our federal government.  Economic performance is a key measurement against which politicians rate themselves and their rivals, and politicians are quick to extoll the virtues of job creation that perpetuates our carbon economy.  The Government of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, is a leading proponent of this status quo.

To make the point, a commentary by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail from last year notes that Canada "leads the world in presenting plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Canada leads the world in the size of the gap between plans and deeds."  As he says, every government since 1990 has presented stirring visions for the environment that were doomed to failure before they were announced.  The Harper government is no different, though perhaps more calculating, than those that preceded it.  As Simpson says,
"The Harper government offers a target for reducing emissions that contribute to climate change by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.  Over and over, ministers repeat this target, even though every environmentalist, oil company expert, academic, diplomat and bureaucrat who has studied the government's plan agrees that the target cannot be me, at least not the way the government is going about it."
This is a consistently cynical approach by the Harper government,
"It is typical of the Harper government to keep repeating statements that are implausible in the extreme or simply false, as in this case.  The theory, presumably, is that the truth arrives too late to catch up to the implausible assertion, that the media has given up tracking the gap between statement and reality, and that the people don't fundamentally care, so disillusioned are they with Ottawa and its ubiquitous spinning and information control."
In his commentary, Simpson makes reference to the (then) recent report released by the government's own Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughn, who provides his judgement on the Harper plan.  Scott notes that the government's plan to reduce emissions will not drop by the forecast rate of 17%; rather, he suggests that the Harper plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 7.5% against the 2005 baseline, an increase of 178 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Simpson suggests that one reason why the target won't be reached is the Harper government's methods - relying on a level of excessive regulations of the type the government regularly denounces.  As Simpson writes,
"Each industry - trucking, aviation, shipping, rail, oil and gas, electricity generation, chemicals, fertilizer, iron and steel - is to be regulated to the pips.  Rather than use economic tools such as carbon-trading markets or a carbon tax, the government is going to use the least economically efficient tool, the very one it continually decries - regulations."
Simpson continues his commentary on the Harper government's gamesmanship on the environment when he notes that the ineffectual regulations are accompanied by backroom lobbying by industry.  This, he says, "means there are still no regulations for coal-fired power plants and not even preliminary ones yet made public for the oil and gas industry."

Simpson concludes his commentary by saying,
"Canada has been embarrassed in the world's eyes so many times on the climate-change file that another embarrassment matters little.  The Harper government has many climate-change deniers and skeptics in its ranks - in caucus and the country.  Doing nothing, or as little as possible as slowly as possible, suits them just fine."
So government often plays a central role in the status quo, and the economy (our prosperity) is a key element in the purposely designed inertia.  To drive that point forcefully home, we can return to the aforementioned Scott Vaughn, who recently left his post as environmental commissioner to take a position with a public policy institute.  In his final report to the Harper government, Vaughn stated that the environment and the economy have never been so thoroughly intertwined in this country.  As reported in the Toronto Star in relation to Vaughn's last report, "about 30 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product is fuelled by exports, and natural resources account for half those exports.  More than 750,000 Canadians were working in the resource sector in 2010 and that number is growing.  Ottawa estimates more than 600 major resource projects, representing $650 billion in new investments , are under way or planned across the country for the next decade."

Despite Prime Minister Harper's calm assertion that his government will continue to provide "responsible resource development", Mr. Vaughn is less sure, as he says,
"There are serious questions about the federal capacity to safeguard Canada's environment."
Our headlong rush to global climate change is driven by the prosperity of individuals, corporations and governments - aided and abetted (in pursuit of their own prosperity) by the media, think-tanks and special interest groups.  Each plays the assigned role in a system seemingly unalterable.  And it will continue to be unalterable while our "leaders" remain blindly aligned to a model of prosperity based on the carbon economy.  Their lack of vision and leadership has been enabled and sanctified by an adherence to a range of tired ideologies - in politics, in business, in religion (more on this topic in future posts).    

I submit, dear reader, that we are in desperate need of new thinking.  And as part of that new thinking, we need to consider a new kind of prosperity - a prosperity that is sustainable.  And, by happy coincidence, there is just such a site that you can turn to in pursuit of new knowledge and thinking -- it is called Sustainable Prosperity, a national research and policy network at the University of Ottawa.  While it is not the only such site and source for information on alternative policies and strategies that can move us to a low carbon economy, it is certainly a site worth your time and support.

And while I'm on the subject of new thinking, and the move away from our carbon-based economy, why not check out the Pembina Institute, a group that is "leading Canada's transition to a clean energy future".

Or perhaps you'll want to learn about the Environmental Law Centre, or West Coast Environmental Law.  These organizations, and many more, provide alternative viewpoints and advocacy that balance the dominant policies and outdated ideologies espoused by our corporate and political masters.  And, no matter where you are, similar organizations are working in most every country around the world (such as the UK's Responding to Climate Change).

If enough people, individuals like you and I, captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, can educate ourselves to the impending calamity inherent in our carbon-based economy, a critical mass will become aware of and advocate for the alternatives available to us.  And then we will project the power of individuals en masse to affect meaningful change.

And we'll stop asking why, and start asking how and when.

Postcript.  A brief article published on the RTCC website piqued my interest, and I think it a fitting coda to my post.  Rajendra Pachauri leads the UN's IPCC, and it is his group that will soon release the 5th assessment of global warming and its impacts.  Pachauri made this comment,
"We may utilise the gifts of nature just as we choose, but in our books the debits are always equal to the credits. May I submit that humanity has completely ignored, disregarded and been totally indifferent to the debits? Today we have the knowledge to be able to map out the debits and to understand what we have done to the condition of this planet.  We cannot isolate ourselves from anything that happens in any part of this planet.  It will affect all of us in some way or the other."
The article includes a video interview Pachauri gave at the COP18 climate change conference in Doha.  When asked about the role of "political will" in the context of political action in responding more effectively to the climate change problem, he said this,
"I think what's going to be crucially important is the awareness of the public, particularly in democracies, because that's the only way you create political will.  I mean, its the public that's going to demand actions.  And I suppose that raises the importance of creating awareness among the public, and you know the media has an extremely important part to play in this.  Once you have political will in terms of action at the national and sub-national level then I've no doubt that it will percolate into the discussions taking place in the COPs. And hopefully it will lead to an agreement."
And so dear reader, as noted in my post, the resolution to the problems of our carbon economy and global climate change will get a critical boost through the power of individuals en masse, and such newfound political will cannot happen soon enough.        

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day, "Madness" from the album The 2nd Law by Muse.  Enjoy.

Monday, 19 August 2013

More Evidence of Global Climate Change

My first post on climate change, The Corporate Rush to Global Climate Change, was inspired in part by the exceptional work of James Balog.  If you are a first time visitor to this blog, I urge you to invest the time to read that post and, more importantly, watch the Balog film Chasing Ice.

Today's post is also inspired by a filmmaker.  The New York Times' Sunday Review highlights still photography, video clips and commentary by Michael Benson, in a piece entitled Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity.  The caption for the piece is,
"Man-made perils to the universe's garden of life are evident from space."  
Benson notes that in the early days of space travel there was little evidence of the man-made damage future flights would reveal.  As he says, 
"Sure, Los Angeles was visibly smoggy. And irrigated cropland could sometimes be discerned...But these were exceptions.  Under a startlingly thin layer of atmosphere, vast expanses of desert ceded to forests that gave way to the oceans that make up 70 percent of the Earth's surface.  The planet seemed largely untouched." 
Back then, the world's population was half of today's growing total. The current picture is "deeply unsettling",
"While our world remains ravishingly beautiful, it increasingly shows symptoms of distress.  Many of these indicators are the direct result of human activity.  Others are the indirect consequence of using our atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases."
In his commentary Benson repeats a theme you will recall from my previous two posts; namely, that we are approaching atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide not seen since the mid-Pliocene, some three million years ago.  And again, to state the obvious, we have no place else to go when temperatures rise past the 2 degree maximum that was established in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate conference.

Benson also refers (a little naively, imho) to a recent speech by President Obama that promised action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  He goes on to suggest that,
"President Obama should invite world leaders to an emergency conclave in Washington as early as possible and challenge China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other major greenhouse-gas emitters to equal or exceed the percentage reductions he seeks for the United States.  He should also try to rally the nation and globe in support of an international Manhattan Project, in which the best scientific minds would devise carbon-sequestration technologies that could clean the air of the heating elements we've put there - rather than simply seeking to limit the damage."
I have read the transcript of Obama's speech, and long before this I was seriously ambivalent (at best) to the solemn pronouncements of Mr. Hope & Change.  While it is important and valuable that he raises this critical issue, his comments come off as too little too late, and more than just a little self-serving for a president looking to substantiate his legacy.  And his comments stand in stark contrast to the failure of Copenhagen - a failure in which his administration was highly complicit - and his complete absence from the recent Rio+ conference.  So, too, his failure to support the modest but ground-breaking Yasuni-ITT initiative, on which I last posted.

The reality of American politics - a world of lobbyists and corporate personhood and Citizens United - makes Obama's newfound passion for our future world just a little disingenuous.  And if he were to make global climate change the signature issue of his presidency, there are enormous obstacles to overcome - not just the general level of misinformation amongst the great unwashed, but the blindly willful ignorance so proudly displayed by many members of the US Congress.  It is truly sobering to read the comments of the many climate deniers who populate the US House and Senate. 

While I think that Mr. Benson is rather too hopeful in what Obama can, should and will do, here's where I do concur with him - Benson is absolutely correct when he says that,
"A sense of emergency is what is urgently needed."
But that sense of urgency needs to come from the masses. Politicians are not the answer.  This is a world increasingly run by and for the elite, a world in which politicians are fully complicit, a world of economic neo-liberalism, corporate control and an ever-widening gulf between those who matter and those who don't.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Tom Saywer, by Rush. "No his mind is not for rent, by any god or government."  Enjoy.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Ecuador Latest Victim of Gobal Climate Change

Ecuador has fallen to the forces driving global climate change.  

In the news today we learn that President Rafael Correa has announced he will dissolve Ecuador's highly imaginative Yasuni-ITT trust fund.  His action opens up this most sensitive biological area to the ravages of oil drilling.  A Reuters report notes,
"...a single hectare (2.47 acres) of the Yasuni national park contains more tree species than in all of North America."
And a report from Earth First News makes the point for biological diversity even more forcefully,
"...eastern Ecuador (the location of Yasuni) and northeastern Peru have the highest number of species in the hemisphere based on data on birds, mammals, amphibians and plants...this estimate, if proven true, is the highest per unit area in the world for any taxa, plant or animal."
The announcement by Correa is a devastating blow to those of us concerned for the environment, as you will readily understand from a quick google search on the subject.  For example, a blog posted on the National Geographic site on December of last year, is a must read.  The commentary by the author, Kelly Swing, sadly anticipates today's announcement by Correa,
"Historical fact #1: If there's oil around, someone, sooner or later, will come for it.  Historical fact #2: No matter where in the world, places that underwent oil extraction before widespread environmental awareness and the implementation of modern technologies have suffered indelible consequences."
Swing contrasts the existing, pristine conditions in Yasuni with an area just to the north which has been ravaged by fossil-fuel extractors;
"An area once equally diverse...has been converted horizon-to-horizon into a cut-over land of oil wells, dusty gravel roads, scattered bamboo huts, open pastures full of introduced elephant grass and practically devoid of its original copious dose of biota."
Before we delve any deeper into the environmental riches of Yasuni (you really must read about this incredible area), and the impending devastation that will surely be visited upon it by the fossil-fuel industry, lets return to Correa and the cancellation of the trust fund that, until now, protected it.

The Yasuni-ITT trust fund was launched in 2007 by the Correa administration, and was administered by the United Nations Development Programme.  In creating the fund, the government of Ecuador voluntarily chose to forego the extraction of 846 million barrels of oil, equating to more than US$ 7.2 billion in income; this action also eliminated the release of 407 million metric tons of CO2 to the environment and a further 800 million tons of CO2 that would otherwise have occurred due to deforestation.   

As the UN website notes, the fund was established
"...for the receipt of contributions from Ecuador's historical decision to permanently forego the extraction of the Yasuni ITT oil fields.  The contributions will finance renewable energy and sustainable development initiatives such as the avoidance of deforestation and conservation of ecosystems.  Through this unique initiative, Ecuador is addressing the challenges of climate change and sustainable development and gradually change its energy matrix from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources."  
And so with Yasuni-ITT, dear reader, you see concrete action taken in response to the desperate need to keep the carbon in the ground as a critical step in combatting the worst outcomes of global climate change (as I noted in my last post).  You will recall from that post that the window to the consensus maximum of a 2 degree rise in global temperature is fast closing, and that we recently reached a milestone of 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, a level not seen in nearly 3 million years.  

The government of Ecuador made the historic commitment to keep the carbon in the ground - an unprecedented step by one of the smallest and poorest oil producers in the world.  But the Correa government has now backed away from this bold and visionary initiative because - wait for it - the world community has failed to support it.

In creating the fund, Correa sought $3.6 billion in funding - half the value of the Yasuni reserves - in exchange for permanently foregoing all extraction in the area.  As he said in his announcement,
"The world has failed us.  It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change."    
To date, the plan is said to have raised only $13 million in actual donations and another $116 million in pledges, mainly from European institutions and private donors. 

Let's put the Yasuni funding into context - that is, the $3.6 billion Correa's government was seeking to keep the carbon in the ground (remember, this is 50% of the actual value of the resources).   The United States provides roughly that very amount to the state of Israel each and every year, and it donates a further $1.5 billion to Egypt each year and every year to ensure it plays nice with Israel; and also, as is well known, the US distributes each year economic and military aid around the world that totals approximately $50 billion.  And to put the modest Yasuni funding more fully into context, the cost of the US actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has recently been estimated at $4 trillion (!), not including future interest on the cost of borrowing.  

This is certainly not to suggest that America should be on the hook for the Ecuadoran initiative, but the point to be made is that there are available funds to be found in most every country you might wish to consider - Canada, too, has a role to play, although Mr. Harper has frozen our foreign aid budget at roughly $5 billion, with further reductions pending.

The Ecuadoran initiative was bold, imaginative and visionary. President Correa showed himself to be a world leader on the issue of climate change.  The collapse of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund is a low point in a struggle that is itself already dangerously close to collapse.

In the grand scheme of things, the failure of Yasuni-ITT is immaterial, really.  The Ecuadoran fields represent a very small percentage of the total known reserves upon which the $27 trillion valuation for fossil-fuels is based (see my previous post).  And it represents an equally small fraction of the 2,795 gigatons of CO2 that the fossil-fuel industry will release into our atmosphere with such profound affect.

The real importance of Yasuni-ITT is that even such a grand and noble gesture can be thwarted by the unrelenting machinations of industry, and by the crippling indifference of elected government.  

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: La cathedrale engloutie, Claude Debussey.  Enjoy and reflect.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Corporate Rush to Global Climate Change

From James Balog's Documentary "Chasing Ice"

We live on a lovely little rock, one that circles a rather ordinary star, located in a remote corner of a rather typical galaxy. Not a startling revelation, I know, since such turns of phrase have been employed many times before.  Still, when you think about it, our existence on this lovely little rock is nothing short of miraculous.

Even on a planet so perfectly oriented to its star as is ours, it is our incredible good fortune that life could endure, could indeed flourish, through so many fantastic iterations since its first stirrings some 3.5 billion years ago. Fast forward, and here we stand today, you and I, heir to the many thousands upon thousands of life altering and life sustaining events that have propelled we humans to this pinnacle of evolutionary development.

And yet, we seem hell-bent as a species to cast this miracle aside. Despite the well-established and growing mountain of evidence related to climate change, we stand transfixed and immobilized in the face of calamity.  We know the Earth's climate is changing, just as we know that our actions are the cause.  And increasingly, we have come to suspect (and increasingly, know) that the implications will be catastrophic.  The human brain - that most magnificent miracle of evolution - is at once both capable of knowing the truth and of then ignoring it utterly.

There are voices of reason and sanity, however, and they are begging us to pay attention.  Hundreds of books, articles, scientific studies and film documentaries point to the severity of our predicament. And if, dear reader, you were inclined to consider only two of these, you must acquaint yourself with Bill McKibben's recent article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" and with James Balog's exceptional documentary "Chasing Ice".

Exhibit 1.  McKibben's piece presents some startling facts.  Begin with these: this last May was the warmest month on record for the Northern Hemisphere; it was the 327th consecutive month in which the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average; and the month of June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the US. The likelihood of these events cannot be attributed to simple chance since, as McKibben notes,
"...the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."
While the historical trends he identifies are certainly cause for alarm, what McKibben has to say about the future is truly frightening.  It is unfathomable to me that a thinking person would remain unmoved by the danger revealed in his "three simple numbers".

The First Number: 2 Degrees Celsius.  While the Coppenhagen climate conference of 2009 is universally derided as a spectacular failure of public policy and political will, its non-binding communique did identify one important number (though it failed to specify any means of achieving the goal).  The accord formally recognized
"...the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius."
According to scientific consensus, we have already raised the average global temperature by 0.8 degrees, so we are well on the way.  And even as we approach the halfway point to the consensus maximum, the damage already perpetrated is substantial,
"A third of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking 5 percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods." 
Given the damage we're seeing at 0.8, the effects of a 2 degree rise in global temperature will be catastrophic.  And still, politics trumps science.  At Copenhagen, neither the US or China were prepared to offer any meaningful concessions on carbon emissions, even though they together account for 40 percent of the world's total.  Few of the signatories to Copenhagen acquitted themselves admirably, and that certainly includes the Canadian delegation, led by our own steward of the environment, Prime Minister Steven Harper.  Most recently, the Rio+20 Earth Summit continued our global leaders' miserable record of failure.  

And the news continues to worsen, just as the worst trends continue to manifest.  Another long-awaited climate milestone was reported in May - the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now been recorded at 400 parts per million, a level not likely seen in 3 million years.  As noted in a recent National Geographic report,
"Many scientists argue that the CO2 concentration must be stabilized at 450 ppm to avoid the worst impacts of climate change...And even if we could stop that rise tomorrow, the planet's temperature would still climb for centuries."     
The trend to 400 ppm and beyond will seemingly continue unabated. In fact, the average annual rate of increase, decade over decade, is accelerating. A rise in global temperature greater than 2 degrees celsius is now a virtual certainty.  And McKibben's other "simple numbers" demonstrate just how certain it is that we'll exceed the scientific consensus.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons.  Scientists estimate that our atmosphere can "tolerate" the release of an additional 565 gigatons of CO2 through to the middle of this century (though there seems to be little discussion of anything past that date), while still supporting the reasonable expectation that temperatures will remain below the 2 degree consensus.  You will recall, however, that we've already reached 0.8 degrees of the that acceptable increase, and that global temperatures are expected to rise a further 0.8 degrees in response to the recently added volumes of CO2.  You might be thinking that the margin for error in this reasonable estimate grows increasingly thin, and you'd be correct.

Pause for a moment to consider the enormity of this unit of measure. A gigaton is a billion metric tons - repeat, one billion metric tons. A metric ton (2,200 lbs.) is the weight of a cubic meter of water, and so one billion metric tons is the weight of one cubic kilometer (one billion cubic meters).  And scientists estimate it is reasonably safe to release another 565 gigatons (!) of CO2 into the atmosphere.  

As a theoretical exercise, the scientific community may certainly be correct.  (Disclosure, I am not a scientist.)  But here's the problem, dear reader - policy makers and the corporate interests that control them (read: oil companies, among others) will take a mile if you give 'em an inch.  Oil companies will treat the 2 degree temperature maximum and the 565 gigaton limit for CO2 as mere estimates, that they and their policy puppets will then relentlessly expand at their will, even as they question the basic science upon which the estimates are based.

And, of course, this is precisely what is happening.  The McKibben article notes that last year there was a 31.6 gigaton increase in CO2 released to the atmosphere over the previous year's total.  As the International Energy Agency reports, this is a 3.2 percent increase. The IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, states
"The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close.  When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees."    
We cannot fully comprehend a world six degrees warmer.  And, how could we, since we've yet to even acknowledge 2 degrees?  At the projected 3 percent annual rate of increase in CO2 emissions we will blow through the 565 gigaton threshold by 2016.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons.  McKibben says that this is the scariest number of all (though you should be plenty scared by now). Through the efforts of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, we know the proven reserves of the fossil-fuel companies equates to something like 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide - that number, the amount of CO2 that the world economy is planning to release, is five times (!) higher than the amount scientists have estimated as safe (and we've already determined that 565 will almost certainly lead to calamity). But, McKibben says, the fossil-fuel companies remain undeterred;
"Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil.  But it's already economically aboveground - it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony.  It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide - those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value."  
The economic value of 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions has been estimated at $27 trillion.  Little surprise, then, that our dominant economic and political institutions will continue to value the health of our planet and the viability of life on Earth as secondary issues when measured against the enormity of this revenue stream.  No surprise, too, that policy makers have upheld industry's vehement opposition to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions - governments have every incentive to protect the cash cow that is fossil fuels.  And as McKibben says,
"Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets this break...But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous.  But now that we understand that carbon is heating up the planet and acidifying the oceans, its price becomes the central issue."
So it is clear that the pricing model for fossil-fuels must be radically altered if the reserves are to remain in the ground.  The price must reflect their true costs.  To prevent the release of 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as a minimum first step, some form of carbon tax is now mandatory.  Achieving even this modest outcome will require tremendous struggle, since it means overcoming the the entrenched interests of the world's dominant economic and political hierarchy.

Environmental groups have failed to achieve substantive progress regarding the regulation and taxation of CO2, and green initiatives have become little more than vehicles for corporate marketing campaigns, all because there's so much damn money to be made in hydrocarbons.  By the very nature of the artificial construct we call "the corporation" [more on this in future posts], it is clear that we are all captive in this headlong corporate rush to climate change.

The duality of government and the fossil-fuel industry only reinforces this headlong rush.  McKibben sites two recent examples.
"In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. 'Many of the predictions about global warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data' she said, describing the sight as 'sobering'.  But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that's more than the 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessable as the Arctic ice melts."  
"Almost every government with deposits of hydrocarbons straddles the same divide.  Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy [not really, any more] renowned for its internationalism - no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty, promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012.  But the rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta attractive - and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada's commitment to Kyoto was nonsense.  In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments."
The stakes are enormous.  Climate change will alter our planet in ways we cannot possibly comprehend.  And still we stand, transfixed and immobilized in the face of impending calamity.  Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the systems of human organization - political, economic and social - can alter our current trajectory.  Such dramatic and unprecedented change in human society can only be driven from within; it will require a grassroots mobilization in opposition to the status quo - improbable, I'll grant you, but some tentative step to action is needed now, because time is fast slipping away.

McKibben notes correctly that the enormous power of the fossil-fuel industry has successfully thwarted every attempt at the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.  The challenges to creating and sustaining a movement that can successfully confront the fossil-fuel industry (and the governments it controls) seem insurmountable. However daunting the task, failure to take action is not an option.  Given the clearly established effects of climate change we have already seen, it is madness to contemplate the release of another 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 
Exhibit 2.  As a companion piece to the McKibben article, James Balog's extraordinary documentary Chasing Ice is perhaps more accessible and, perhaps then, more immediately understood.  While the math and verbiage of the McKibben piece can overwhelm, the immediacy of the images in Balog's film provide compelling visual proof of the substantial toll already exacted upon our world by climate change.

The stunning visuals in Balag's film are your reward for working through the numbers and statistics of the McKibben article.  Balog himself was trained as an earth scientist but wasn't interested in being a scientist; as he says, "statistics and computer modeling just wasn't me".  Rather, he thought that the most powerful issue of our time was the interaction of humans and nature, and set out to record this through his camera.

In the early stage of his career as a nature photographer he was not focussed on climate change.  As he says himself,
"About 20 years ago I was a sceptic about climate change.  I thought it was based on computer models, I thought maybe there was a lot hyperbole that was turning this thing into an activist cause.  But most importantly, I didn't think that humans were capable of changing the physics and chemistry of this entire huge planet.  It didn't seem probable.  It didn't seem possible."
Balog did come to change his views.  His photo essay for National Geographic, The Big Thaw, in 2007 set him on a course of discovery. In providing the pictures for this highly successful article, he came to realize that there was a bigger story, and so he created the Extreme Ice Survey.  EIS set out to capture the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the northern hemisphere by taking time lapse pictures of the ice sheets in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska.  He realized that ice was the key,
"Glaciers are the canary in the global coal mine."
He learned about the history of our ancient climate as preserved in the ice cores of the Greenland ice sheet.  The data from these ice cores show that CO2 and temperature vary together over time; over the last 800,000 years carbon dioxide has never been higher than 280 parts per million.  The man-made rate of change in CO2 levels in the last centuries is hundreds of times greater than was found to be naturally occurring.  And as we now know, we are at 400 ppm and climbing rapidly.

The decline in glacial area and mass that Balog captured over the three year EIS project is nothing short of astonishing.  I'll not even attempt to describe the magnificent imagery in this wonderful film - you must watch it for yourself to gain a true appreciation of his work. But I will highlight some of the key commentary in the film.  As Balog says,
"We are living through one of those moments of epochal geologic change, and we humans are causing it."
In a perfectly ludicrous counterpoint to his commentary, it is stunning to hear the foolish drivel of empty-headed opinion leaders who know nothing of the science of climate change;
"The so-called climate scientists are hoodwinking the entire world community." - Sean Hannity, Fox TV windbag and conservative talking head.
"There is no consensus.  This (climate change) is a myth." - Brian Sussman, conservative talk radio host and serial denier of climate change.
"The notion that man-made gasses...CO2 cause global warming is probably the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people." - US Senator James Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax, and a politician burrowed deep into the pockets of Koch Industries, Murray Energy, Devon Energy and OGE Energy, among many others.
To be kind, we have, as Balog says, a perception problem,
"We have a problem of perception, because not enough people really get it yet.  We are nearly on the edge of a crisis.  But we still have an opportunity to face the greatest challenge of our generation - in fact, of our century."
In the film, the video of a particular calving event at the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland provides an astonishing exclamation point on the subject of climate change, and on all the science described in both the film and the McKibben article.  The calving face of Ilulissat, equal in size to the area of lower Manhattan, dramatically sheared off into the sea over a period of 75 minutes; it was the largest such event ever witnessed, and it captures perfectly the core issues of climate change.
Postscript.  As I said at the beginning of this piece, we live on a lovely little rock, and it is nothing short of miraculous.  But you will now hopefully understand that our Earth is in real peril, as are we. So its worthwhile to remind you what's at stake - reflect for just a moment on the wonder that is our beautiful "Blue Marble".

Climate change is the existential threat of our time, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  Climate change is a crime against humanity, against nature, against the Earth. It is a crime that is knowingly perpetrated, and with seeming indifference, by the policy makers we elect and the multi-national corporations to which we grant charter.

We are way past the trivial concerns of investors for share price and dividends and quarterly statements, and we've got no time for the petty partisan politics that effectively masks the real issues facing humanity.  So consider this dear reader: corporations and governments are simply creations of the human mind - since we created them, we can certainly recreate them, and in a way that better serves the common good. 

The science is beyond any question, the visual proof beyond dispute.  Only those who are blithely ignorant or blatantly corrupt will choose to ignore the existential crisis we now face.

Into which category do you fall?

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  The Galaxy Song, from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.  Enjoy, and pay attention to the lyrics!

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hello Boys! I'm Back!

In the iconic words of Randy Quaid's Russell Casse in Independence Day, I have returned. Its nice to be with you once again.

And no, I was not abducted by aliens, and I wasn't locked away in prison - thankfully, too, since both are so often associated with anal probing.  Anyway, I'm glad to be back, and I've much to say.

And there is so much to say because so much has (sadly) remained the same, and so much has worsened. My last post of over a year ago was about the Mittster, Mitt Romney. Barack won that little tussle, of course, but we aren't so much the better for it, are we?  But before we get on to the current sad state of affairs, let us close out the commentary on Mitt.

One of my favorite commentators is Rolling Stone Magazine's Matt Taibbi, who has written much on the banksters and felons of Wall Street - thus making Mitt Romney a central character in his ongoing narrative.  Of the many excellent such pieces, one of my favorites is "Greed and Debt" in which Taibbi describes the strategies that made Mitt rich, while simultaneously impoverishing millions of workers and ultimately killing scores of companies.
"Everyone knows that he is fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a "turnaround specialist", a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm.  But what most voters don't know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune; by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back.  This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America's top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Ronmey is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time.  In the past few decades, in fact, Mitt Romney has piles more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth."
Read more on this story here. And read some of the many companion pieces in Rolling Stone here, and here, and here, and here.

For my return to the blog, I'm hammering away on Mitt Romney as a unrepentant representative of the monied class and a "make nothing, take everything, screw everyone ethos", as Taibbi so aptly phrased it.

And so upon my return, I'm repeating the central theme of Corporate Complaint Constraint - that Corporations (of the type embodied by Romney and Wall Street) have become the most dominant economic and political force the world has known; their actions bring ever greater threat to our survival. That such a man as Mitt Romney could run for president - twice! - and escape any significant public scrutiny for his actions demonstrates just how completely the main stream press has been co-opted.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: 6 String Theory, Lee Ritenour, on the Concord Music Group label. Enjoy!