Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part IV: The Climate Change Conversation We're Not Having

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part IV: Climate Change Conversation We're Not Having

350. I saw that number a lot last week. You may have too. I don’t know that this number registered in the mainstream media to any degree, and I have no doubt that the Average Canadian remains largely in the dark about the significance of this number.

While attending a viewing of the movie “The Age of Stupid” at Laurentian University last Friday night, during the “Not Stupid” Awards portion of the evening (where the University’s environmental club recognized the efforts of local Sudburians to effect positive change within their community and around the globe), it was revealed to me that we’re actually at about 390 right now (October 2009).

Back in March, when I was handing out plain white buttons with “350" printed in bold black letters, when asked by passers-by what 350 was all about, I was able to inform them that we were at about 387. On Friday, it blew me away to hear that we may be at 390 only 7 months later. Wow. We’re really headed in the wrong direction. Fast.

If you’re not familiar with 350, the number refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and it represents a reasonable target that we, as a global society, should be shooting for if we are going to avoid raising global temperatures. When we started this whole industrial revolution thing, there was only about 275 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. With industrialization, we’ve risen now to 390. That might not seem like much of an increase. But where does this trend take us?

Well, the European Union, which is unquestionably ahead of its North American counterparts in taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is shooting for a target of 450 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere as the do-not-pass-GO do-not-collect-$200 absolute high-end emission limit. With 450 ppm in the atmosphere, we can expect a global rise in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius. If we go beyond 450 ppm, and experience further warming, we risk ending up in the uncharted territory of feedback loops which lead to runaway climate change.
A feedback loop doesn’t sound all that scary. But it is easier to refer to a feedback loop than to: extreme glacial melting, flooding, rivers drying up, irrigation system failure, crop failure, famine, desertification, drought, ice-sheets breaking away from continental shelves, rising sea levels, desalination of the oceans, stalling of the Gulf Stream current, freezing conditions in Europe, heatwaves in America, environmental refugees everywhere, overwhelmed governments, riots in the streets, failed states, armed conflict, taxes not being collected, and a general breakdown of society as we know it. That’s the kind of feedback loop we would find ourselves in if we go above 2 degrees of warming.

I’ve been seeing more and more references to the 2 degree limit in the mainstream media lately, although largely they have not been accompanied by any significant degree of analysis. Usually the media simply reports that “many environmentalists believe that 2 degrees is an appropriate target to shoot for”. But that’s about it for analysis. There’s certainly no discussion about the “feedback loop” and what that might mean for the Average Canadian and the rest of the world.

In the past year, there have been an increasing number or reports which have come out which suggest that global warming is occurring at faster rates than described in the IPCC’s Nobel Prize winning report. More recent data appears to be supportive of these conclusions. Phrases such as “between 3.5 and 7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100" are starting to become the new normal in discussions about climate change. Forget about 2 degrees. The world is warming up a lot faster than previously thought. What you learned from “An Inconvenient Truth” is now out of date. Yes, it will take another couple of years before these new numbers become completely accepted, and may require an updated report by the IPCC to do so, but it seems inevitable that things are moving more quickly than previously thought.

Yet largely the mainstream media has been silent about this new science (although you see a few articles every now and then about melting ice sheets in the Canadian arctic). Certainly in terms of public policy discussions, much of the mainstream media remains focussed on whether or not human-made global warming is actually taking place. Or at best the media might discuss the costs of taking action to address climate change as being too high in terms of jobs and income loss.

As an aside, this really galls me. While the mainstream media isn’t at all reluctant to express their thoughts about the damage to our economy that emission reductions will have, they are silent on the damage which will occur to our economy if we refuse to act. Those events in the feedback loop I described earlier are not just a figment of my imagination. They will occur if we warm the Earth and blow through the 450 ppm roadblock. Yet the mainstream media says nothing about how lousy a global catastrophe might be for Canada’s GDP.

Your government isn't talking about this either. Not to you, or in the House of Commons. When your government chooses to speak to you about climate change at all, it’s to tell you that they’re doing something about it (such as pouring billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage research and development, which would have limited effect on reducing carbon emissions but will certainly provide corporate welfare to the tar sands industrial giants to produce more oil), or that we need to wait to see what the Americans are going to do about it. When targets are discussed, they are woefully inadequate targets to prevent runaway climate change. And there is only silence with regard to how we’re going to achieve those woeful targets anyway.

The Opposition parties aren't talking about the situation we'll find ourselves in if we don't act either. Why would they? Would the Average Canadian voter want to cast a ballot for a party which is full of doom and gloom? Well, maybe if they had a plan to address the doom and gloom, they might. But those parties currently occupying the opposition benches in the House clearly don't have such a plan, nor are they thinking about one.

In absence of any real plan, a North American cap and trade carbon market seems to be the life preserver our government wants us to grasp ahold of. But with the woeful targets being discussed right now in the United States (17% reduction in emissions below 2006 baseline, and possibly with exemptions to the biggest emitters, such as coal producers), there will be no way we’ll prevent blowing through the 450 ppm roadblock.

The mainstream media tells us, though, that Canada can’t go it alone here. We can’t be leaders on this issue. If we aim too high, our economy will be compromised, and jobs will be lost to American and international competition. Taxing carbon will impose a massive burden on exports, and unless everyone is doing it, we’ll just be shooting ourselves in the foot. And doing so during a period of moribund economic recovery no less. How foolish to think that this is the right time to be heeding those lefty environmentalists who want to reduce emissions!

Again: where is the discussion regarding what will happen if we implement Option A: Do Nothing. The mainstream media, through omission, wants you to believe that things will largely remain business as usual in 10 and 20; maybe you'll need to boost the AC a little in the summer time, but largely, business as usual. There is no discussion at all about how inaction will really impact us.

And when someone dares speak about the looming crises, politicians, political pundits and media tend to play whack-a-mole, ridiculing the doomsday message as being far-fetched. Or worse: proclaiming the message to be one the public really doesn't want to hear about because it's so depressing. Better just to ignore it altogether. Those lefty environmentalists are just so damn sad and angry all the time, they should really keep popping the Prozac and get with the program.
To sum up: Our failure today to begin addressing climate change will lead to massive changes to our society, most of which appear to be pretty negative. There will be social upheaval. The end result will be that what we presume to be a “normal” way of life will all but disappear for the vast majority of us, and that we will be forced to deal with a collapsing economy and a collapsing polity due to the climate crisis.

With governments bending under the weight of multiple crises, where will this leave our Canadian democracy? Are we equipped to deal with the (to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler) “clusterfuck” of looming and current crises? Given that we don’t seem to even want to acknowledge that they will occur suggests to me that the answer is “No, we won’t be equipped. How foolish of you to ask”. How will our government be forced to deal with food shortages, economic melt-down, and environmental catastrophes?

And I’ve not even touched on Peak Oil. If you think that the effects of climate change are going to be bad for Canada and western democracy, well, (to paraphrase BTO) "you ain’t seen nothing yet!"

(Continued in Part 5...)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part III: Democracy in Crisis

The Future of Canadian Democracy: A Personal Journey.
Part III: Democracy in Crisis

As I indicated in my previous post, there has been a lot more discussion in the mainstream media about climate change lately. My last blog focussed on one way in which the media is failing Canadians, and in fact all citizens of western democracies. In this blog, I’d like to focus on how the media has become the mouthpiece of government and why this is a problem for democracy.

Remember China. Recall that earlier I indicated that one of the signs of a truly democratic society used to be how free their media was to report on the truth? The more under the thumb of government censors, the less free that society. Well, that’s the old paradigm, although it still applies in parts of the world like China. We know that China’s media organizations are heavily censored, and we know that China is far from a free society.

Again, though, I don’t want you to think that I’m picking on China, because these posts really have more to do with Canada and “western democracies” than they do with China. China is a stand-in that I’m using as a real-world example of a totalitarian regime which is not free or democratic, and therefore is something to stand in opposition to the Canada in which many Canadians think that they inhabit.

But the paradigm about a free media being representative of a healthy democracy is an old paradigm, isn’t it? You, who are sympathetic to Green politics and who may even belong to the Green Party, are here because you believe that our government needs to reset its priorities. They’re not doing enough to address the issues which are important to you, your children, and our society. By way of an example, our government continues to ignore the fact that we are now in the midst of an environmental crisis brought on as a result of human-made climate change.

You probably agree that our democracy is not as healthy as it could be. You look at the wasted votes cast in the last federal election (almost two thirds wasted, cast for non-Conservative Party candidates). Maybe you look at the ever-increasing percentage of eligible voters who refuse to cast ballots, largely because they are disengaged from the political process. Our democracy is not healthy. Sure, we’re not as sick as the Soviet Union was, but we’ve got some problems.

I have come at this argument from the opposite perspective, to illustrate my point. I believe that our media is no longer truly free, as a result of corporate consolidation. I have provided examples in support of my thesis that the media can not be trusted to report the truth. I have asked that you look for other examples and come to your own conclusions about this.

Yet clearly our media is free of government interference, unlike the situation in China where government censors review the news before it is disseminated, or the situation in the former Soviet Union where the newsmedia was a department of the government. If you want examples of un-free media, surely those are better choices, no?

No. They are also excellent choices. But when the news media turns a blind eye to the truth, or distorts it for whatever reason, perhaps by denigrating the messenger of an unpopular but factually correct message (have you heard much praise for Al Gore lately?), then there’s a problem. Why isn’t our media freely reporting the news any longer?

I postulate that this is because our news media has increasingly come under control of major corporations which, octopus-like, have their tentacles in so many interests that it would be foolish of us to expect unbiased reporting which might present the corporate elite in a less-than positive light. Or worse: negatively impact their bottom line.

What am I getting at here? Well, if the hallmark of a healthy democracy is a healthy and free media, and our democracy is showing signs of not being healthy and so is our news media...where does that leave us?

What we value in our democracy is slowly being eroded, and it is happening in tandem with what we have come to value as media oversight. It is doubtful that our democratic institutions could have ended up where they are today if the media had been more vigilant in drawing attention to what has been happening. In part, though, this has happened because we ourselves have had false expectations of the media. We really thought that they would be there for us to help us understand issues, to educate us and assist us in making up our own minds.

But that’s not the media’s role. The media is there to make money for its corporate owners. And as a result of this media mandate, the truth can be and has been a casualty. And it will continue to be a casualty.

What’s a Canadian to do?

Well, so far the media and government alike have been pretty good at ignoring certain truths, or spinning those truths in such a way that they can gain, or by denigrating the truth should it have to come to that. The climate change crisis provides an excellent example. Scientists say: “We are in a crisis brought on by climate change”. Government and media says “The world doesn’t feel any warmer. Not all of the facts have been evaluated. It will cost too much to do anything about it anyway. Boy, look at those lefties flap their jaws about this, how I wish they would get a clue, stupid lefties.”

So far, though, and I can’t substantiate this, but so far, it seems to me that our government and media have not been repressing the truth about many things, just ignoring it. The truth has a habit of breaking free anyway, although it may take time. I’m sure it doesn’t always, though, and many historical truths have no doubt been lost to the mists of time. But when it comes to climate change, the truth is out there. Canadians just have to do a little more work to find it.

But many Canadians may not realize that our government and media might be holding something back in the truth-telling department. Many still labour under the impression that the media is there to hold our government accountable, and not simply to be its mouthpiece. Our media is free, after all, is it not? And a free media is a sign of a healthy democracy, so it’s not a problem.

It’s too bad that our media is not free from interference, controlled by an increasingly powerful corporate elite. But does that alone explain why our government seems to get off easy when it comes to some of the more difficult issues? Well, keep in mind the power structure of our government. It could be said that the interests of our government happily coincide with the interests of the media-controlling corporate elite. Happily, alas, for government and the corporations, but not for you and I, the Average Canadian.

Think I’m wrong about that? Well, look no further back than to the so-called “Coalition Crisis”, and recall that the media largely parroted the Conservative Party line about the Liberals making a grab for power. Maybe the media wasn’t serious about this being a “coup” in the same way that some Conservative MP’s were, but out the window pretty quickly went any discussion about the legitimacy of the opposition party’s bid to seize the reins of government through a process which has been part of our governmental institutions for a very long time.

And when Parliament was prorogued after sitting only for a few days, did the media raise a stink and report that never in the history of a Westminister-style democracy had a parliamentary leader obtained a time-out from the head of government simply because he was facing a non-confidence vote? Nope. Instead, the media breathed a collective sigh of relief that the crisis was over, for now. Although you and I may have been wondering just what the hell went on behind closed doors last December to convince our Governor-General that prorogation was the right thing to do. We might have been dismayed that the parties whom had received the majority of votes in the 2008 election were denied an opportunity to form a more representative government. But the media didn’t report on those stories.

The truth was clearly a casualty in the Coalition Crisis of 2008.

What does this say about the state of our Democracy?

I think it says that we’re in trouble, especially when you extrapolate existing conditions into the future based on current trends. As governments continue to become more secretive and put power in the hands of Caesar, er, their Leaders, and as the media continues to move from reporting the news to providing infotainment, where will we be in 10 years time? And do you think that we’ll have started to address those very real and important issues which we need to start getting serious about right now?

I, for one, just don’t see it happening. Instead, based on current trends, I believe that the Average Canadian is going to become even less engaged in political decision-making, and that governments will continue to spin reality in self-serving ways, aided and abetted by a media which will end up looking a lot more like Entertainment Tonight than CBC’s the National (well, the National which was on CBC last week anyway).

And those issues that are important? Like climate change? Will we still be debating whether climate change actually exists 10 years from now? I think we might, but rather I think the media and government will have finally admitted that climate change is real. 10 years from now I think that we will be debating just what we can do about climate change in order to avert the predicted catastrophes. We’ll have moved away from the Option A “Do Nothing” approach that I wrote about in the first part of my blog on this topic and will instead then be focussing on Option B, the “need for societal transformation” choice on how to deal with climate change.

Unfortunately, that’s the debate that we should be having right now. Or what would have been better for us all, 20 years ago. In 10 years, our tools for implementing Option B are going to be much more limited than they are today. And, perhaps, irrelevant, as we may have already crossed the tipping point.

But either way, I believe that we will be talking about transforming our society. Well, maybe not talking about it as in “how are we going to transform our society in a healthy way to address climate change?” Instead, I suspect that the conversation is going to be much more one-sided...And the Average Canadian might not be given all of the information about how important decisions are going to be implemented.

Remember China?

(Continued in Part 4...)

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part II: Media in Crisis

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey.
Part II: Media in Crisis

This past weekend the world hosted an International Day of Climate Action. You might not have known it, though, if you get your news strictly from the mainstream media where the biggest story about climate change in the past week was whether Jack Layton facilitated the protest in the House on Monday in which some security officers were injured. What were they protesting again? Something to do with climate change, apparently. Those radicals! How dare they disrupt the very honourable institution of Parliament with yelling and screaming and injuring.

While there has been a lot more coverage related to climate change in the mainstream media in the lead-up to Copenhagen, a lot of the coverage has actually resulted in turning back the clock, which is very troublesome. Commentators such as Lorrie Goldstein and Rex Murphy have shifted the conversation backwards by asking readers to question whether human-made climate change is really occurring, concluding that it remains up for debate. Media has been reporting that, based on new science, it is unclear that the effects of industrial pollution are actually having any measurable impact on warming the planet.

And while you, dear reader, and I might have thought we’d covered this ground, what with Al Gore, the IPCC and the Nobel Prize and all, clearly in the minds of many Canadians, the starting point of the conversation about climate change remains: “Well, before we act, where’s the proof?”

And this frustrates me.

Media. Don’t they have a responsibility to report the facts?

Well...yes and no. Yes in that media does have an obligation to report the facts correctly. But what is fact and what is conjecture? If the headline is, “Toronto Maple Leafs lose by a score of 5 to 1", clearly the score is a fact. If they interview a Leaf player and he says, “Well, we gave it our best effort, and we put a lot of shots on goal, and we’ll do better next time out”, clearly we’re in the realm of conjecture now, and the media can take from that what they will. Sometimes the story the media will take away is “Leafs know they can do better”. Sometimes it will be “Leafs suffer from delusions”. It just depends on which way they want to spin a story. And they will always spin a story in such a way as to make it more compelling. In this scenario, clearly a reader’s interest will be more piqued by thinking that the Toronto Maple Leafs are inhabiting a strange reality of their own making, rather than the “we can do better” story-line, which frankly isn't compelling to anyone. Is Michael Ignatieff reading this blog?

The media often tries to balance difficult issues by offering two sides to a story. That’s why there will often be comments from opposition politicians (critics) in stories about the most recent government initiative. This kind of balance when brought to a story makes the story much more well-rounded, and leaves the impression that the media is acting in the interests of the public, rather than simply being a mouthpiece for government propaganda. Clearly, this is a good thing.

There are a couple of traps here, though. First, there are often more than two sides to any story. It’s easy to report where direct opposition occurs, but what about where there is overlapping agreement on components of the story, but disagreement on some of the specifics? And what about situations where the underlying facts leading to the story in the first place are in dispute?
And then there’s my favourite trap: what about stories where there may appear to be a dispute about the “facts”, but really there isn’t, but for the sake of achieving “balance”, the media goes out of its way to present the other side of a story, even though it is not well researched and just plain wonky.

Sort of like what the media has been doing lately with “scientists” who have published work which disputes the “human-made theory of global warming” or about “wind turbine syndrome”.
It’s true, not anyone can publish a book. But one does not become an expert on a topic simply because you’ve published. The peer review process found in scientific journals is likely a much better place to debate science. But for the media, it’s much more interesting to refer to facts taken from a coffee-table book than it is to reference an article in a science journal. It’s more interesting because the coffee table book is more accessible, maybe even a best-seller! And because a coffee-table author is likely to be much more controversial! And controversy breeds interest, and that means you sell more papers or more advertising space.

Let’s not mince any bones about this: our media “institutions” (and I use this term loosely, because I’m not sure that I’d ever define the media as an “institution” in the same way that I would a government, for example, but there is some overlap given that both try to address the public interest) are failing democracy.

I’ll say it again so that it’s not broken up by the brackets: Our media institutions are failing democracy.

Remember what I wrote earlier about media looking at both sides of a story so as to achieve balance, and to shake off any criticism that they have become a mouthpiece of government? You might have been thinking about a news organization such as Pravda, for example (if you’re of a certain age), whose goal was primarily to educate the citizens of the Soviet Union about governmental decrees. Whatever the Soviet government said, Pravda would report it. No balance. Just repetition, but repetition reaching a much larger audience who were watching TV. And reaching that audience in such a way that the audience may think that the “news” is being reported by an independent news organization which looks out for their best interests. Those journalists working for Pravda must be reporting on the truth, nyet?

OK, maybe no one living in the Soviet Union actually thought that. Regardless, though, the news organization was the propaganda arm of government.

Today, we don’t fret too much about our news organizations morphing into Pravda. But can we continue to trust their journalistic integrity when increasing market-share and advertising revenues are the primary goal of news organizations?

Our once-trusted mainstream media is in the process of changing from providing you with information to providing you with infotainment. The News is now Entertainment. They know that you’re watching not to learn and be educated and make your own mind up about things, balancing the two sides of every story. To hell with that, you’re tuning in because you want to sit back and see what terrible things are happening to others elsewhere, or what’s the latest gossip on your favourite movie star.

Surely not me, Steve, I can hear you say. I trust the news to provide me with information so that I can come to my own conclusions.

Well, maybe you do. You’re taking the time to read this blog. I’ll bet that you also would consider your primary source of news to be a newspaper, whether presented online or in the old-fashioned way, printed on paper. That’s probably the primary way you consume your media.
But it’s not the way in which most people access the media. Most are accessing it through visual formats, be it on television or on the internet. The written word format lends itself to being more comprehensive than a visual format, which tends to rely on images, the more sensational the better, to tell the story, with perhaps some commentary about what it is that you’re supposed to be looking at. It’s a very powerful medium, for sure. But is it the best medium for individual citizens to inform themselves on the issues?

Increasingly media outlets are moving away from “fact-based reporting” to providing infotainment. What are we losing?

Well, for one thing, we’re losing smaller media outlets which can’t compete with the big boys, whether it’s because of format (local newspapers no longer being published because no one is reading them) or consolidation (local tv and radio stations closing down their shops because it’s too costly to produce local content; so if you live in Sudbury like I do, you can find out as much as you want about what’s going on in Toronto but you won’t find out what’s happening in Sudbury).
For another thing, we’re losing the oversight which media used to provide us with to keep our institutions in check. Now, some might take exception to this point of view, and that’s your right, I suppose. But I’d ask that maybe you conduct a bit of a critical analysis here.

First, one of the roles in which we have come to expect from media is to report the facts, expose the cover-ups, and keep us all honest, whether it’s our government or the business community, or just individuals who may have done bad things. What used to distinguish truly democratic countries from authoritarian regimes was the extent of freedom those nations allowed their media to operate within.

I say that those days are long gone. Media has evolved, because media now has a different master. As a result, they are playing a different role. Media no longer answers to you, the media consumer, by providing you with facts and information. Media now answers to their shareholders, to the corporate giants which have acquired media outlets, from newspapers to radio stations to tv stations.

And those corporate masters of media are the masters of many domains. Can we really expect the media, answerable to their corporate masters, to expose any shenanigans that their corporate masters may be engaged in? Or, would it be within the realm of possibility that, if there are to be stories about corporate masters, those stories will largely present the masters in a positive light? Or where there is scent of a scandal involving their master, might they denigrate their master's detractors?

Where does this all go? Well, I believe the following: the media can not be trusted to report the truth. This does not mean that the media will never report the truth. It means that it won’t pursue certain stories, or report certain facts, which might be in contradiction to their own interests. And it means that where media does report on the “truth” it will always do so in a self-serving way.

Believing as I do that the media can not be trusted to tell the truth, what type of oversight are they providing to the citizens of our nation? Now, I realize that you may not go so far as to agree with me that the media can not be trusted to tell the truth, and I’ll respect that. But surely you must agree that the mainstream media is evolving to deliver to us an increasing amount of entertainment with our news, and has done a pretty poor job of presenting the “facts” around a number of stories.

Such as the “facts” around whether the “theory of human-made climate change” remains disputed in the eyes of science. That’s just one. There are many others. One more example: where is the media in the discussion about the emergency facing our planet as a result of inaction on addressing climate change? Oh, I guess the jury is still out on that one, right? Right?

You. You are here right now reading this blog. You know full well that if we don’t do something to globally address our carbon dioxide emissions that our society will suffer a significant tragedy, perhaps even a catastrophe. You know this. Why isn’t the media reporting this story? Particularly when it’s so damn sensational.

Of course, if they reported that story, their advertisers might not be too happy, because in many cases, it’s the advertisers parent corporate organizations that are the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. And the government wouldn’t be happy, because they would have to admit that they don’t have a plan and are content to just let climate change happen. And the corporate media masters wouldn’t be happy for the same reason as the advertisers. Maybe they’re just all in bed together anyway.

And maybe that’s why the real climate change story remains untold in the mainstream media.

If you’re frustrated, think of how frustrated you would be if you were a scientist working for the IPCC. You very well know what conclusions to make based on the data. You know the severity of the situation, and what actions need to be undertaken right bloody now to head this off at the pass. And you turn on the TV or you read the Globe & Mail and see that Rex Murphy has pronounced the Hockey Stick graph to be a myth. You must want to pull your hair out.
Since I can’t afford to lose any more hair, I’ll have to vent my feelings here on this blog. I guess in part that’s what I’m doing today. It’s been a very sad realization that the media of my parent’s generation can no longer be trusted to tell you and me the truth about really important things. It’s been very lousy to come to the conclusion that if the Watergate scandal were to happen today that Woodward and Bernstein likely would never be published anywhere except on their little internet blog, which the mainstream media would either ignore, or pick up and ridicule.

You think that’s over the top? What about the story of how climate change threatens our society? Where is it? No, you won’t see it. Instead, you’ll see the media re-hash the science of climate change, and provide a platform to various climate change deniers who have their own corporate agendas or who are acting purely for themselves. They don’t speak for science, and as a result, the media is providing you and me with a disservice by falsely presenting these cranks’ platform as “balanced reporting” at best, and as “gospel truth” at worse.

Remember China.

(Continued in Part 3...)

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part I: Green Choices

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey.
Part I: Green Choices

In the very little spare time that I seem to have lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the long-term impacts of the crisis in climate which we now find ourselves in the midst of. By the way I phrase my thoughts here, I hope to express to you my own personal bias, which I want to be upfront about.

I joined the Green Party only in 2007, after reading about the Green Party in mainstream media editorials which couldn’t quite agree on whether the Greens were a bunch of loony leftists or neo-con fiscal conservatives slash environmental fascists. I figured with a public personality disorder of this magnitude, I really should check things out for myself, so I downloaded “Vision Green” from the website, and the rest is history.

I self-identify as a capital “G” Green today, and feel very comfortable at home in this Party, even for all of its apparent (and not-so apparent) shortcomings. I believe in the Party and am excited about working with the Party in the future to build upon past successes, with the goal of creating a better Canada for my family and the generations of Canadians not yet born.

Seriously. That’s truly my motivation for being here. I believe that the government of a nation has an incredibly strong influence on the shape and direction of a nation’s future. And I don’t believe that “politics as usual” as practised by the “mainstream” parties is going to achieve the outcomes that I believe are necessary for this country. The Greens, though, have always been out in front of the issues which I care dearly about, and we offer the best array of solutions to achieve the outcomes which I continue to believe are necessary.

By way of an example, the Green Party of Canada has been a leader...on the cutting edge...out in front of public opinion on climate change, and way, way, way out in front of the other political parties with policy recommendations to actually start doing something about it. We continue to lead.

Those of you who read my blog every now and then are probably aware that I am extremely concerned about the impacts which climate change will have on our lifestyles and communities. I continue to believe that urgent action to address the climate change crisis is necessary, or else we will find ourselves at risk of dealing with the consequences of inaction. Green politics, in my opinion, present the most credible choices for Canadians to start doing something about the climate change crisis.

Yet, Canadians continue to reject Green politics. And “business as usual” continues to prevail in our governmental institutions, and within the majority of the business community. Canadians, by and large, continue to express a desire towards “inaction” when it comes to climate change; or at best a desire to look to others to lead, and perhaps to follow with incremental steps.

Hasn’t it been the Canadian way, after all, to debate the issues and attempt to reach a compromise, and then to gently implement change through incremental approaches, eventually arriving at an outcome somewhat in keeping with the public’s perception of where we need to be? Largely, that’s been the way we implement public policy in Canada. One can look at the changes made, over time, to social issues such as smoking, drinking and driving, women in the workforce, etc. Laws evolve and public perceptions change. Sometimes it takes decades, and even today, with regards to those above examples, our perceptions, laws and public policy continue to evolve.

Our democracy is not like living in China, where a central government rules by fiat, issuing decrees which must be followed by its citizens, such as “You shall only have one child” or “You may not access certain internet sites”. Of course, I understand that for those living in China, their experiences might not be the same as what our perceptions are about those living in China, as rule by fiat just begs for citizens to look for ways around the fiat when there is opposition to a decree. I mean, what other choice would you have but to defy the government (and break the law) if you found yourself in opposition to a governmental decree? Just ask a practicing Christian living in China what their experience has been like.

But by and large, the government of China is not bound to use the same incremental approaches for change favoured by those with, shall we say with all due respect to the People’s Republic, a bit more of a “democratic tradition”.

Now, I feel the need to provide some further self-clarification here, lest those reading begin to wonder whether I am advocating Government Rule by Fiat in the name of addressing the climate change crisis. While my blog could head in that direction, it won’t. Through and through, I am a democrat. I believe in democracy, and I cringe when I see the erosion of public power at the hands of whatever elite wishes to wash away the will of the people. The struggle for democracy has been, and continues to be, the noblest pursuit of humanity. In my perhaps not-so humble opinion.

Democracies have faced incredible crises in the past. Not wanting to over-use the example of World War II, but hey, look at what we as a democracy accomplished during World War II. Canada whole-heartedly committed its resources to the successful completion of the war. In that circumstance, the threat was imminent and generally well-understood by a majority of Canadians. Success could be measured in black and white outcomes. And Canadians rallied around the goal of Victory.

And this happened in other democracies as well, for the same reasons. So clearly, democracies are able to get their acts together and address very real threats to their well-being. We can do it. We’ve done it in the past.

Now, some will argue that the World War II analogy is not the best when it comes to discussing an appropriate democratic response to the climate change crisis. I’m one of them. I feel that the circumstances of World War II are far too divorced from the reality on the ground throughout the world today, even though there are parallels, such as facing an imminent threat.

But the outcomes aren’t black and white. How will “Victory” be measured? In the war, the German Army marching down the Champs Elysee was easily viewed as a negative outcome; in our climate crisis, rising carbon emissions from tar sands industries just doesn’t pack the same level of outrage with most Canadians. While both the German occupation of France and tar sands industrial pollution are impediments to “Victory” (the desired outcome), they’re not even close to being on the same level in the minds of the public. And they really shouldn’t be.

In World War II, the “enemy” was also fairly clearly defined. In the climate change crisis, the enemy is by and large Us. And it’s a “qualified” us, because it may be “us” as in 0all of human-kind, given that we all contribute to global warming; or maybe it’s just the “us” that contributes the most, or has benefited the most from the burning of ancient carbon to fuel our economies and provide us with a quality of life unparalleled in the history of humanity.

We all know that we can do better, and I think that the majority of “us” are trying to do better, albeit incrementally. But every little bit helps, right? It sure does. I’d even go so far as to suggest that I believe Stephen Harper wants us to do better when it comes to conserving energy, and hence reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I sincerely believe that, because clearly conserving resources and using them efficiently and wisely is one of the clear fundamental principles of conservative ideology. And it just makes sense.

One can say that we’ve largely been using our resources wisely already. Look at all of the benefits which resource use has given our society. We have far more freedom to decide our own futures for ourselves than our ancestral feudal society did, as those feudal folk were bound to use resources generated in their here and now. The burning of coal and oil and fissuring of uranium has brought us a level of freedom that we, as members of society, will not give up.

We Greens know, though, that we’ve been living on borrowed time for much too long now. The deficit we’ve created has been a generational deficit. The resources which we’ve used up to create this society of ours which we hold so dearly have not been renewed. Coal, oil, uranium once transformed to energy disappears and is not replaced. One-time use only. And we’re running out.

As we Greens know, the trick is to now transform our society into one which is no longer beholden to the single-use non-renewable resources we need to maintain and improve the society we have created and will not surrender. And we need to do so within a particular time-frame, and without destabilizing our society into something unrecognizable in the process. Global warming is potentially that destabilizing presence.

And so is the kind of governmental rule by fiat which runs counter to our democratic principles. We can not transform our society into China (which I’ll use as a stand-in here as an opposition to the concept of “western” democracy) and expect to emerge on the other side with our freedoms and liberties intact. By way of another analogy, Rome crowned Caesar as Emperor and ceased to be a Republic, killing the dreams of its democrats. Sure, Caesar was a popular guy, and maybe he even had the right policies. But when little you and little me hand our power over to the State, even for the noblest of intentions, little you and little me and our little children will always lose, because the State will act according to its own interests, and they don’t always coincide with yours and mine, and very rarely at all with those of the unborn generations who had no say in the decision to abandon democracy. What hubris on the part of the Roman Senate to give away such power, and what hubris exhibited by the good people of Rome to demand that they do it in the first place.

It’s the same with the climate crisis. The way that I see it, we’ve got some choices to make as a society.

A) We dither and do nothing (or so very little that it amounts to the same thing) and suffer the consequences of breaching that tipping point beyond the 2 degrees celsius threshold we hear the scientists talk about as the absolute limit for warming. Likely the “consequences” are going to suck big-time for the majority of the Earth’s population; and it won’t be a one-time thing, either. It will be an on-going tragedy for the vast majority of “us”.

B) We get our act together and wean ourselves off of non-renewable energy to fuel our society, and suffer the consequences which are always brought about by transformative change. Here, consequences are less understood. Could be some good. Could be some bad. Jobs might be gained, but many jobs will be lost. Business as usual is out the door, though, that’s for sure.

That’s it. A or B. Those are the choices.

I think that since you’re reading this blog and maybe are a member of the Green Party, you’ve probably already made this choice for yourself, and you desire that your government also make the same choice you have made. You support B, and likely want to believe that a vast majority of Canadians also support B.

Yet our government does not support B, largely because of those “consequences”. No elected official, though, is going to suggest that they support A either, although by not supporting B, you must be supportive of A. It’s a black and white situation. There is no middle ground. Either we act seriously (B) or act half-heartedly (A).

There are dangers in both A and B. We Greens tend to focus on the dangers inherent in choosing A: the do-nothing option. And that’s because those dangers are well understood. We can relate to climate refugees, islands in the ocean immersed beneath rising tides, the innundation of cities, drought, disease, stalled cars on the highways, violence, death and destruction, war. We’ve seen those things before and are able to extrapolate what the future might be like if we take them all and and contemplate their interactions on a massive, global scale. It’s going to suck really badly.

But the dangers inherent in B are less well understood, and indeed are understated by greens. We talk about Green Jobs, and living within our ecological footprint and feeling good about ourselves, preserving our world for our children. In this scenario, we provide social justice, education, and personal fulfilment. Future generations will live in a society where they are fully engaged in the decision making process, and no longer have to worry about their careless actions negatively impacting climate on a global scale.

That’s where Green politics will lead us, right? Certainly, that’s the future Canada that I read about in Vision Green, and that’s where the Global Green Charter takes us all.

That’s where I certainly hope we end up.

But it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll end up there at all if we choose B.

Remember China.

(Continued in Part 2...)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Conservative Carbon Capture: Good Value for Money?

(originally posted at

We will not – and let me be clear about this – aggravate an already weakening economy in the name of environmental progress." - Jim Prentice, Federal Minister of Environment.

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives believe that the environment must always take a back-seat to the economy. In their reality, the "economy" and the "environment" are separate files, each to be managed as best as possible, but clearly distinct from another. And as distinct files, there must be priorities. And the environment isn’t it.

Outside of the spin-inhabited world of the Cons exists the real world. In the real world, the economy and the environment have always been linked to one another, and will continue to be; to say that they are flip sides of the same coin does not really do justice to the reality. The interconnections are so entwined that they are manifest within each other; the environment IS the economy, and the economy IS the environment.

A lack of understanding of this reality by Conservatives and Liberals has led to the situation where many of our elected officials are reluctant to act on the climate crisis which is engulfing the planet. Where there is the perception that jobs might be at stake, actions to curb the degradation of our natural environment must perforce be put on hold.

Often, the argument to do so is about jobs, and money. "It will cost too much money to do anything about the environment, and we’ll lose jobs in the process. This will have a negative impact on our sputtering economy."

And as such, nothing gets down. Oh sure, some things might be seen to get done. And maybe a lot of money is being spent to create the illusion of action, so that when the time comes, the Conservatives can go to the voters and toot their own horn, saying, "Look at us. Even in these difficult economic times, we’re doing our part to address climate change. We’ve invested X number of millions of dollars..."

Sure, it’s greenwashing, but it will be compelling.

Especially when the fill in the "X".

The "X" is likely to be in the billions of dollars. We’ve seen some signs of this already in the January budget, when about $700 million federal dollars were allocated for "environmental" initiatives. Add in provincial contributions, and you’re likely to see an "X" of about $1.5 billion. Maybe it’s more. Jeffrey Simpson, in an article in today’s Globe and Mail (which prompted me to write this blog), uses a figure of $2 billion, which also includes provincial funding.

And Conservative funding slash campaign announcements will not be hesitant to include the provincial funding in their press releases. Always announce the highest number when it comes to funding announcements, even if it’s overly-manipulated or not-quite true. It’s the one which will stick in people’s minds.

So, what will Canada get for its $1.5 billion investment in "environmental" initiatives? Ideally, we should be getting quite a lot for this sort of investment.

Unfortunately, the lion’s share of this "investment" is going to the Alberta Tar Sands industry, to facilitate the development of carbon capture and storage technology. As much as $1.2 billion or more (more if you use Simpson’s numbers).

And what will be achieved? According to Simpson, who uses the government’s own "best case scenario", an overall reduction of 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which otherwise would have been emitted. Of course, since this will likely fall within the "intensity-based targets" being designed for tar sands emissions, we’ll still see an overall increase of carbon dioxide being emitted from the tar sands...just not as much as we would see without these projects.
Well, that must be good value for our money, no? I mean, if the Conservatives are willing to invest $1.2 billion in the Tar Sands, and if it prevents the emission of 2.1 million tonnes of CO2, that must be a good investment, no? First, it’s a preventative measure, which is necessary, but remember that we’ll still see an overall rise in emissions occur here.

Second, the scenario is "best case". Carbon capture and storage technology is still pie-in-the-sky. It’s untested, and it’s quite unclear what the end results in emissions reductions will be. Could be more, sure...but it could be a lot less. Remember: announce the highest numbers, because they are the ones which stick in people’s minds. No one really knows what the end result in emissions prevention will be.

Third, is $1.2 billion really a lot of money (or $2 billion, if you use Simpson’s numbers?). Well, sure, it’s nothing to scoff at. But how much money did our governments recently chip in to bail out the auto industry? I seem to think that maybe it was as much as $6 billion. And how much is allocated to our armed forces in a given year? Something like $10 billion. And what is the budget deficit which our government is going to have to seek to do something about in 2011, through funding cuts and asset sales? Something like $60 billion annually for 2009-10, so about $120 billion.

So maybe $1.2 billion (or even $2 billion) isn’t all that much after all.

And finally...(and this is the one which I was not aware of, so thanks go to Mr. Simpson for pointing this out...and I’ll use Simpson’s numbers from here on in, because he, a nationally-published journalist, likely considered this to a far greater extent than I, an off-the-cuff complainer, have)...and finally, what about value for money?

Well, Simpson estimates that for every tonne of carbon dioxide which will be prevented from being permitted, it will cost $761 dollars. How does this measure up to the costs of other ways of preventing CO2 emissions?

It’s not even on the same planet, that’s how. To illustrate, based on research which took me less than 60-seconds to acquire, I just visited Wikipedia’s Carbon Off-Set article, and discovered that in 2006, about $5.5 billion in carbon offsets were purchased, representing 1.6 billion tons in CO2 reductions. Convert that to metric, and it works out to about 1.45 tonnes (if my online converter is to be trusted). Divide the cost of $5.5 billion by the 1.45 tonne reduction, and you end up with a price of about $3.79 per tonne.

Three dollars and seventy-nine cents per tonne of C02 reductions, versus the Conservative’s "investment" in reducing CO2 at the cost of $761 dollars per tonne. In a best-case scenario.
Admittedly, my comparison here is flawed. What do you want for a 6-second investment of time? But keep in mind that I have decided to walk or bike to work each day, or take transit in lousy weather, instead of driving the car. The cost to me has actually been less than zero...I’m making money by not driving the car AND reducing my CO2 emissions to the tune of about one and a half tonnes a year. So whether my math is bang-on or not, or whether you believe in off-sets, the point I’m making is that it’s freaking absurd to think that there’s good value for the money in paying $761 per tonne for CO2 reductions.

Is it any wonder that the Conservatives believe that trying to fix the environment will cost too much money and be detrimental to our economy? Maybe, when it comes to a "fix", they’re just barking up the wrong tree.

Using public funds to invest in carbon capture and storage technology is clearly the "wrong tree". Maybe they could save a few bucks and reduce CO2 in our atmosphere by simply planting a few trees.

And this from the Party which continues to poll the highest as the "best financial managers" of any Canadian political party.

Frankly, this whole situation is absurd.

Read Jeffrey Simpson’s article again. It was an eye-opener, for sure. I liked it so much, I’ll link it here again for you.


Updated (October 22, 2009):

It was brought to my attention that the Globe & Mail, on Thursday October 22, 2009, provided a Correction Notice to the Jeffrey Simpson article, from which this post referenced considerably. The Globe & Mail’s correction provides a significantly reduced estimate for the cost per tonne of CO2 reductions through the to-be-funded carbon capture and storage projects. Today, the G&M estimates the cost to be around $30 per tonne, and not the $761 originally estimated by Simpson in his article, and which I have used as a benchmark in my blogpost.

This significantly reduced cost estimate appears to alter some of the opinion I have formed with regards to carbon capture and storage: I am least, in a very small way, somewhat mollified that the $2.1 billion "investment" in this untried technology may not be the absolute complete and utter waste of resources which I believed to be the case the other day.

What has not changed, however, is my opinion that the pursuit of carbon capture and storage technology as a sensible way of reducing greenhouse gases in an effort to avert the oncoming climate crisis which we find ourselves in, is, to be blunt, wrongheaded, mis-guided, and utterly at odds with the responsible management of our tax dollars. This scheme is being perpetuated on the Canadian people because there may be some benefit in using stored carbon to extract oil from the tar sands, and because there will be a benefit for the Conservatives at the polls come election time when they will use the $2.1 billion environmental "investment" in this technology in an attempt to deceive the Canadian public that they are actually committed to taking action to avert climate change.

So, no, it may not be the "complete and utter waste" I believed it to be earlier. I’ll downgrade it to being one of those "marginal at-best" contributions to fighting global warming, but one which certainly costs us all way too much and which diverts resources away from programs and initiatives which might actually do some good for the natural environment.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Elizabeth May: "Sad Little Sprout"? I think not...

(originally published at ; slight modifications from the original, with reference to context appear at the end of this post)

I just finished reading GPC Federal Councillor Camille Labchuk's excellent blogpost regarding a news release from Renee Hetherington, the recently nominated Liberal Candidate for Saanich-Gulf Islands. Apparently, this is Hetherington's first official news release since becoming the nominated candidate, and in it she was quick to take aim not at her own accomplishments, but instead at the apparent defects of Elizabeth May. Specifically, Hetherington's people (there is no quote from Hetherington herself) take exception to May's comments pertaining to the"overwhelming" support that she's received in SGI, and point to the lack of votes cast at the Green Party's nomination meeting as evidence that May's assertions are unfounded.

Asking whether Elizabeth May should be considered a "Jolly Green Giant, or a Sad Little Sprout" as a result of low voter turn-out at the September 19/09 SGI EDA candidate nomination meeting, the press release goes on to suggest that May doesn't stand a chance of appealing to small-c conservative voters in the SGI riding.

Camille Labchuk's blogpost is bang on: The Liberals have come out swinging from the gutters already with this whacky news release. For Hetherington and her people to suggest that Elizabeth May (whose environmental credentials are too numerous for me to list here, lest I wear my fingers out from typing) is anything but a true giant is just nuts. The suggestion that voter turn out at the nomination meeting (described as having "56 votes cast") is somehow a reflection on her stature is crazy, used for the purpose obfuscation, and part of the political gaming that we've come to expect from the Liberal Party.

Rather than taking the opportunity to introduce voters to Ms. Hetherington, the Liberal Team in place there decided to strike out against it's biggest adversary, Elizabeth May. I also find it highly ironic that former Liberal candidate Briony Penn would suggest that May and the Greens don't have a hope in SGI because there are too many small "c" conservatives, who would find the Liberals more appealing. I'm not sure on what Ms. Penn is basing this assertion, given that the Liberals have consistently failed to articulate much in the way of any vision at all which would be appealing to voters across the country, while Greens have had a strong set of policies in place now for years which continue to appeal to conservative voters.

I hope that voters across our nation begin to realize that they are being treated with great disrespect by the old-line parties, who don't want to discuss the incredibly important issues which are facing Canadians today, and substitute important dialogue with political rhetoric, spin, and game-playing. In the next election, the voters in SGI will be at the forefront of being able to embrace a different kind of political paradigm, choosing this new way of looking at politics over the old, ineffective and insulting mannerisms of the old-line parties.

In the meantime, I guess we'll just have to continue to put up with this sort of nonsense from those parties. I just don't fathom how anyone can believe that name-calling and trying to belittle one's opponent is at all a substitute for well-considered policies and rational debate.

One last item: If the report of 56 votes having been cast is correct (and I've no reason to believe that it isn't), I'd have to say JOB WELL DONE to Green Party Members and to the EDA Executive in SGI. Remember that this nomination contest was held with little opportunity for notice, in anticipation of a fall election happening. During the nomination contest period, remember that Elizabeth May would NOT have had the opportunity to sign up new members who could cast a ballot for her, given the Green Party's constitutional requirement that you must be a member of the Party for 30 days to cast a ballot. Since the contest itself was less than 30 days in length, only existing members of the SGI EDA would have been eligible to vote.

Now, I realize that this is a nuance which will always be lost on the Liberals, but the fact is that, without the ability to sell nominations, for the EDA to get 56 people out on a weekend to vote in a contest which really was all but a foregone conclusion is a pretty good accomplishment. The Liberal contest was a much closer affair, I'm sure, and likely both of its contestants were afforded the opportunity to sell new memberships prior to the contest being held. The two contests couldn't have been more different, and the lack of eligible voters in one is not at all suggestive that the other was somehow superior or more demonstrative of the dedication and committment of Party members.

But Liberal Party spin sounds much better than reality to Liberal supporters.

Thanks again to Camille Labchuk for bringing this issue to the blogosphere's attention. If you don't already follow Camille's blog (and those of other Greens), perhaps it's time that you did so. A great site for the latest in the Green blogosphere not appearing on this site is located at Check it out. There's more going on in the Green blogosphere than just what appears on the GPC site!