Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Argue With Climate Change Deniers?

Recently on Twitter I engaged first the execrable Ezra Levant who had retweeted some obvious climate change denialist trolling to #cdnpoli (apparently the fact that it is cold at the coldest place on Earth in March is somehow proof that climate change is a lie) and later another persistent climate denier going off their current favourite talking point about how climate change has supposedly stopped for X years (X can be various things, but typically 14 or 15 years).  Two different climate realists asked why I even bother replying to these people, as it is clear that I'm not going to persuade hardened climate change denier ideologues just by posting the real science that they're so busy trying to confuse people about.

And they're not wrong: In the first case the person who had originally provided the oh-so-useful information about Antarctica being cold took quite ill to my calling it out as denialism (he has since deleted his sputtering rage-tweets), and proceeded to block me (Ezra Levant of course didn't reply).  The second played a frequent denialist tactic of changing the subject and refusing to ever get pinned down on their now revealed erroneous claims.  Classic textbook sophistry for anyone trying to muddle a debate.

So why even debate these people?  Is it just "someone-wrong-on-the-internet" egoism?

No, it has to do with my theory of change about Global Warming and understanding that the debate isn't about the direct participants, but about the passive audience.

Climate Beliefs Are Not Binary

The most important thing to realize is that a person's beliefs about climate change are not black or white.  You are not forced to choose between Al Gore and Christopher Monckton "extremes."  I had long understood there were a range of beliefs and recently came across (via Bill Moyers) some good empirical work by a Yale professor named Antohny Leiserowitz who leads a project on communicating climate science devised a taxonomy of six groups based on opinion research of Americans.  Here's what they found with the percentages as of fall 2012 (my chart using their categories):

The hardened human induced climate change denying activists I'm debating are of course in the 8% segment at the top.  It is of course very doubtful anything is going to move them from "dismissive" to "alarmed."  But what about the other 92% of the people?  Where are they?  They can easily move between "doubtful" and "disengaged" or from "concerned" to "cautious" depending on the news and information they receive.  Which category they're in has important public policy impacts on our ability to get government to act decisively on addressing the climate crisis.  For example here's a few of their findings on the beliefs of these subgroups:
  • In five of the six segments, larger proportions prefer to reduce, rather than increase fossil fuel use; only the Dismissive prefer to increase the nation’s use of fossil fuels.
  • In every segment except the Dismissive, half or more favor the elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and oppose the elimination of subsidies to renewable energy companies.
  • Majorities of the Alarmed, Concerned and Cautious – comprising 70 percent of the U.S. population – say the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other nations do.
There are many other interesting break-downs like this where particular ameliorative policies that would at least slow the harm of our current climate trajectory become tolerated or even supported at supermajority levels within the United States, probably the nation subject to the worst climate denial propaganda and the least amount of accurate climate science interpretation.  We don't have to get to 100% in the alarmed group to get things done here, moving a few percentage of people from disengaged to cautious can make a difference in how they react to say, a carbon pricing policy proposal or the building of a giant new pipeline to more efficiently burn the world's second dirtiest oil (US DOE).  

Moderates Are Usually The Least Informed

All of this is concurrent with other political science research which shows that "moderates" on issues tend to be the least informed and engaged, so as a heuristic in the absence of well thought out opinions on the subject they opt for some kind of "middle of the road" approach.  These people, particularly in the middle two categories are persuadable.  If all they see when they're browsing twitter or other media is climate denier propaganda, they are more apt to gravitate up the scale above.  If they see climate denialism being aggressively and persuasively rebutted, they will at least go no higher and may drop down a category or two. 

Now there are still other problems to solve in acting on climate change, particularly in the US where hardened minority opinion groups have a death grip ability to veto policy they don't like via the preposterous US Senate, but we certainly aren't going to get action without more people in the alarmed and concerned categories where people are most apt to actually ask their government to take action.  The cautious and disengaged will generally go along with whatever, so moving the doubtful into those categories also serves to weaken the opposition to action.   In Canada, I am fairly convinced that during the 2008 Federal Election, the Conservative ad smear blitz against Stephane Dion's carbon tax proposal was quite effective in mobilizing the disengaged and doubtful into joining with the dismissive in heartily opposing any possible action on the climate that could have any cost for themselves.  You can probably get most people in the "disengaged" category to tell pollsters they think the world is warming and humans are the cause, but that's not enough to let them tolerate risk to their pocketbooks in the societal response.  

This is why we in the alarmed group must keep up the fight.  Who else will?  Even moving the concerned into alarmed is of value because it increases the critical mass of people demanding change.  You don't have to persuade the unpersuadable and irrational, but recognize that leaving them to shout unanswered will lead some to think they must be right since we're all so quiet about their egregious nonsense.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Market Totalitarianism

In a recent post I referred to conservatives who would prefer to return to the failed strategy of every person for themselves when it comes to retirement security as "free market totalitarian ideologues."

The term actually occurred to me (and I expect I am not the originator or first user) when wondering how we let conservatives and libertarians get away with referring to surrendering popular sovereignty to the cold, imperious and unfeeling hand of so-called "market" mechanisms to decide nearly all of society's big questions and solve (or not solve) its problems.  How is that "freedom"?

My liberalism embraces the idea that the decisions that affect my life are not all made by people who merely see me as a revenue source to be maximized or a cost to be minimized for their personal benefit.  That thinking, feeling human beings would retain the capacity to direct society's direction and outcomes.  This is the heart of democracy.  I can accept market mechanisms solving certain issues where they are known to work well enough but in no way is it the default choice, and the loss of democratic control over the result has to be understood as a drawback, one which the upsides in the arrangement have to be worth it.

Let's look at drug research.  One big problem with market driven drug research is that the big pharma companies are mostly interested in generating patentable slight variations of their existing patented drugs in order to keep a steady stream of economic rent flowing.  But that problem aside, they are overwhelmingly interested in first world medical problems, hence the obvious bias toward things like heart disease, sleep disorder and erectile dysfunction drugs.  But are these really the socially optimal places for drug research resources and talent to be deployed?  What about curing malaria or polio?

In the society that market totalitarians want to build, the democratic impulse to have government ensure research into non-profitable but lifesaving treatments takes place would be curtailed and left to the market to decide.  Naturally they're rarely this specific as to propose, say a constitutional amendment banning government funding of such research, but the more general constraints they favour (such as requiring legislative supermajorities to raise taxes along with strict balanced budget laws) would make such things practical impossibilities.

Further constraints take myriad form in the intricate network of treaties and trade rules that comprise what we call "globalization" - if government X funds cancer research, government Y (at the behest of corporations) will cry "subsidization!  Unfair trade practices!" and sanctions could result.

If there aren't specific rules to prevent government acting, globalization sets up such a race to the bottom as to make many other democratically favoured policies economically challenging or outright unfeasible.  Minimum wage laws (and increasing them) are nearly universally popular yet the incessant refrain from the right is that any polity raising its minimum wage will see itself losing jobs to neighbouring ones that now have lower prevailing wages (or labour regulations or unionization rates or anything else ordinary people like to have that makes their lives better but is bad for big business and now fast becoming economic suicide).

This is the world of market totalitarianism, one in which democracy no longer means anything, because no polity exists that is capable of restraining a globalized business elite.

It's also no coincidence that the right so hates the United Nations (which is a terrible insult to national sovereignty) but loves giant multilateral corporate approved (if not corporate written) trade treaties which go much further than anything the UN ever proposes in terms of stomping on national sovereignty, with measures allowing corporations to sue national governments in special corporate friendly venues and be compensated for "losses" due to actions of that government.  Whereas the UN operates mostly openly and its treaties are negotiated in giant open conferences with plenty of real debate and published drafts, these trade treaties are negotiated in secret and presented to national legislatures as faits accompli, where each legislature faces an awful choice of accepting some awful deal "as-is" or being the lone hold out and losing out on whatever pitiful benefits the agreement brings.

From a class and power relations standpoint it is obvious enough that conservative elites think this way because they are, or represent the people who most benefit from this arrangement, global business elites.  The "free market" is a useful abstraction in some circumstances, but in reality it is mostly about this tiny billionaire class who make the majority of the decisions we call the "market."  Whether a given country has a currency crisis is really not very much about whether masses of people around the world decide to sell of that currency, or the government bonds they own from that country, but what a few billionaire level people or corporations decide to do.  They may not really coordinate in any direct sense, but it remains that yours or my opinion about whether say, Greece's latest austerity measures are acceptable is not going to determine whether or not there is a run on Greek debt and a big spike in interest rates for Greek bond issues.

But the rest of us should not let them get away with calling these arrangements of society "freedom" - where democratic governments are helpless to respond to the demands of their citizens for fear of punishment by imperious market forces that are immune to popular will.  This is market totalitarianism and inch by inch it continues to quite literally take over the world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mayor Ford Was Asked to Leave the Ball

Ford Nation thinks this letter from 6 of the 13 members of the Military Ball organizing committee makes liars of the Toronto Star for reporting Ford was asked to leave the function for being intoxicated:
“As a civilian member of the volunteer organizing committee of the 2013 Toronto Garrison Ball, I can confirm that I did not ask Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, to leave the event on February 23 for any reason,” the letter states. “To my knowledge, no member of the event’s organizing committee, including Councillor Paul Ainslie, directed the Mayor to leave the event that night.” (emphasis added)
So these six people are stating they individually did not "ask" Ford to leave, and are not aware of any other member of the committee "directing" Ford to leave.  Why did the word change?  This is clearly some legalistic sophistry, Ainslie (a member of the committee) has stood by his original statement and says:

Speaking with CP24 Tuesday night, Ainslie stood behind his earlier comments. 
“Some people came up to me and they had some concerns about the mayor, so I went up and chit-chatted with him for a few minutes and then I told his chief of staff it would be better for everyone involved if the mayor left,” he said.
So maybe the idea is that Ainslie didn't directly ask/tell Ford to leave by talking to his Chief of Staff or maybe the idea is that Ford was "asked" to leave but that's supposed to be different from being "directed" to leave.  Either way, the 6 member statement clears nothing up and makes one ask why the other 7 members of the committee didn't sign it.  Ainslie did not sign it.

Ford left that party at the behest of someone other than himself.  Ford apologists better start dealing with that.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Liberals Should Beware Emulating US Primaries

During the Liberal leadership debate over the weekend, several candidates, including Justin Trudeau and Joyce Murray came out in favour of what they're calling "open nominations."  The idea being that the Liberal candidate in each riding will be picked by the members of that riding association, and the national leader will not intervene.

This is an appealing idea for some obvious reasons and clearly popular among rank and file Liberal party members as a means to weaken the tight grip of the national leadership on the party.  I fear this takes the Liberal party toward US style party-primary elections.  I have two major problems with this, based on what I've seen watching US politics:

  • Small, local elections are the easiest ones to buy or rig.  They get almost zero media coverage, and in that environment, sheer name recognition will usually carry the day.  Rather than being meaningful representations of true voter desires, the person whose name they recognize from ads or direct mail will usually win.  
  • The people who win can be widely divergent from the National party's positions, and in particular the Leader's positions.  This sounds much better than it works in practice.  The US Parties, and the Democratic Party in particular are often incoherent and poorly coordinated affairs.  Voters frequently are confused over what the parties stand for, and the reason is at least partly because the Democratic party has elected officials who call themselves "conservative" and others "moderate" and a few that admit to being "liberal."  Some are pro-gun control, others against.  Some pro-choice, others pro-life. At some point a Big Tent becomes so big as to be just a circus, with the leader reduced to ringleader.
The fallout of this is that it has the perverse effect of decreasing democratic accountability by leaving voters without clear choices in government.  Right now the parties are fairly easy to distinguish, and to understand what they stand for.  The road the Liberals are going down leads to a leader unable to respond to members who openly flout the leader, and the loss of party discipline.  After, all if the leader can't deny a member the party's nomination in the next election, the biggest means of enforcing party discipline is lost.

I am all for giving ordinary members stronger input into the party's positions and ideology.  Having a set of Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson style gadflies who delight in spiting the leadership to side with other parties as splashy shows of independence is not an effective way to do that.  Parties need coherence in order to remain meaningful organizations that actually stand for something.  Reducing the Liberal Party to a 338 member confederacy may leave it an incoherent mess, and easy prey for the other parties that do not follow suit in immunizing their riding nominees from national control.

Conservative Pension Behavioural Utopianism

Conservatives like to portray themselves as hard-bitten "realists" who look objectively at the world as it really is and shake their heads at silly liberals with our rose coloured glasses.  Yet I often find conservatives pushing policy ideas that are based on Utopian standards of human behaviour.  This is where they make policies that will work only for people who act and behave in certain ideal or near-ideal ways, and fail miserably for people who don't do X, Y or Z where most people realistically will not do X, Y, and Z for whatever reasons.

The prime example would be retirement savings. We have something like a century of real-world experience here in the rich world which shows that when the government does not guarantee a minimum retirement income via some kind of social insurance program like CPP or Social Security, the result is that the majority of the elderly live (or die) in real poverty.

Conservatives frequently argue that without the nanny state looking after them, people will "take responsibility" and make better choices by saving more for their retirement. This is false, we have already tried this "system" of leaving people to freeze in the gutter if they didn't manage to save enough to pay their own freight once too old to work. Here's what one source found to be the case in Canada in 1961 (p154):
Incidence of Low-Income - 1961
All Families: 25.3%
Families with Head 65 or over: 43.9%
Individuals 60-64: 50.7%
Individuals 65-69: 64.1%
Individuals 70+: 72.5%
The steady and alarming progression of poverty as one ages is very clear.  And "individuals" should be understood to mostly mean "widows" since men tend to die first and particularly at that time, women would be very unlikely to have any form of job-related pension of their own.  As the article notes on p152:
At the time, of course, Canada lagged well behind the United States in social policy. In 1947 in Canada a means-tested old age pension was available for the destitute at $30 per month (equivalent to about $289 per month at 2001 prices), but that was all. Not until 1952 was it replaced by Old Age Security (OAS). OAS was a universal payment of $40 per month, worth about $274 per month at today’s prices. With income support at this level, the result was widespread and acute poverty among Canadians over 65. Canada had to wait until 1967 for the introduction of the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Canada Pension Plan.
So this isn't even the pre-1927 days when there was no federal pension program of any sort, but even with the government kicking in $40/month to everyone, the majority of people over 60 were below the "low income" cutoff (what Stats Canada uses instead of "poverty") and for those over 70 it was over 70% of them.

These people had no reason to expect the government would save them if they were destitute in poverty since there were no such government programs in existence, or only very minimal ones that no one would expect to be enough to live comfortably on.  Yet they did not save enough. These were people who had lived through the Great Depression and World War Two, and had seen much greater depths of deprivation than most Canadians today, if despite all that most of them did not save enough, it clearly is not a matter of incentives or desire. Whatever the causes of their lack of thrift, the reality is that governments of that day realized they had a problem to solve and so they solved it by creating the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to bolster OAS.

The result today is that old age poverty in Canada is under 7%.  In fact, seniors in Canada are less likely to be in poverty than children and (remarkably) working age people (who generally have less poverty because they can more often work). This drop from a majority in poverty in 1961 to single digit poverty is quite simply because the government's programs successfully ensure most seniors do not end up in poverty.  We don't have to speculate about technological change or other temporal factors because we have a great test comparison with Australia, a very similar rich-world nation with a very similar economy, population and even history as a former British colony.  Here's what the Conference board of Canada reports:
Australia has the highest rate [nb: of the nations in their survey] of elderly poverty—nearly 40 per cent of Australian seniors live in relative poverty. An OECD report notes that the high risk of elderly poverty in Australia is mainly due to the relatively low level of the age pension—which is an income-support payment program. The lead author of the report, Edward Whitehouse, commented: “Australia has a very high rate of old-age poverty and the fiscal room for manoeuvre to address the problem. Public pension spending is only 3.5 per cent of national income in Australia, compared with an average of over 7 per cent of GDP in OECD countries.”
Australia has a less generous old-age pension system and thus has much higher old-age poverty. Australians are not lazier, more irresponsible or worse investors than Canadians.  Their government doesn't ensure (and insure) their retirement security so many fewer of them have it.

Conservatives who insist on a system that relies on individuals taking steps to ensure they have ample retirement savings are in fact quite simply re-creating the 19th and early 20th century baseline where most older people were in poverty.  That would be the real world outcome of such policies.  RRSPs, TFSAs and other individually-driven retirement savings vehicles are a general failure and waiting for working people of today to behave differently than working people did 50 or 100 years ago with respect to retirement saving is simply utopian idealist nonsense.

In fact, as private pensions for the last generation have largely moved away from defined benefit payments to defined contribution systems, these problems will be worse for most current workers since very few of them will have access to guaranteed sufficient income via a defined benefit pension.

There's an old joke that said of communism "nice idea, wrong species."  This criticism easily applies to conservatives for the same reason.  Maybe somewhere there's a planet with intelligent life where in the absence of a government program to guarantee minimum retirement income, most or nearly all people save enough money and invest wisely to ensure they have a comfortable income after their working years are done, but that species is not homo sapiens and the planet is not Earth.

We need policies that work for Earth, for the real people we have, not some fantasy version of humans that are better than we really are.

None of this is to ignore the very real likelihood that many conservatives who make arguments like this simply do not care if most seniors shiver in the dark eating catfood because they are too poor for light, heat or adequate nutrition.  It does allow us to call them out as callous and immoral and prevent hiding behind unsupportably optimistic rationalizations.  Humans with normal functioning empathetic capacities simply cannot tolerate the majority of their elders suffering before going to early graves and will react to solve such problems through the vehicle of government, and those policies will inevitably look a lot like CPP, OAS and GIS.  These are the realistic "hard-bitten" policy results of real-world hard-taught experience, rather than the fever dreams of free market totalitarian ideologues.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Joyce Murray for Liberal Leader

While I see some positives in Justin Trudeau, I will be voting for Joyce Murray.  Trudeau has taken the "safe" route for frontrunners in avoiding releasing very much policy and some of what he has said seems to put him on track to be something other than what Canada needs.  Murray believes in a vision of a sustainable society, including real action on Climate change, the overriding and growing crisis of our era.

Further she has taken a bold and courageous stand in supporting cooperation with the Greens and NDP rather than continuing to play the zero-sum game which allows the Conservatives to win elections despite strong opposition of a majority of Canadians.

I'm aware that Trudeau is overwhelmingly favoured to win and if he does, well I can hope that a strong show of support for Murray influences the direction he takes.  Politicians usually go where they think votes and donations are, and I have donated to Murray and will vote for her.

Removing Harper's lot from the levers of power will be the overriding priority in 2015, but who replaces them will matter a great deal.  I know my own vote for the Liberals in 2015 is not a done deal, and will depend a great deal on where the new leader takes the party for that race.  A cowardly Conservative-lite campaign is not what Canada needs.

Christopher Monckton Knows Nothing About Economics Too

Christopher Monkcton has taken time out of his busy schedule of being completely wrong about climate change to be completely wrong about economics too, in the pages of the Obama-birther and general conspiracist World News Daily:

Exclusive: Lord Monckton has action plan to protect your wealth from Cypriots' fate
Action plan!  Ok, we'll get to that.  Why is Cyprus in trouble first:
And why did Cyprus go bust? I spent eight years there. The central bank was one of the most sensibly administered in Europe. The Cyprus Pound was one of the world’s strongest currencies. Thousands of international companies (including mine) were headquartered there. Tourism boomed.
Then the people of Cyprus made a colossal mistake. They voted to abandon the democracy they had had for less than half a century. They joined the dismal, failing European Union.
So Monckton had his business at one of Europe's most notorious havens for the wealthy to dodge taxes, the place now widely reported to be full of illicit Russian mafia money.  "Birds of a feather" comes to mind here.  Ok, let's skip to his thesis about the European Union:
Cyprus joined the EU. At once, nearly every offshore company – including mine – fled. The unelected EU bureaucrats marched in and began ordering Cyprus about. The euro collapsed as predicted. Cyprus – once one of the most secure and prosperous nations in the Middle East – went bankrupt.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004.  Monckton makes it sound like this was all nearly instantaneous but in fact joining the EU was initially a boon and boom to Cyprus.  It is likely membership in the EU has contributed to its current problems but not why Monckton thinks, because a bunch of Eurocrats screwed up the tax haven party he was enjoying.

Oh and the Euro has not "collapsed" in any sense whatsoever.  It's still a currency, not one nation has left it, and its value against the US dollar is about the same as it was in 2004, and was worth more over most of the years between now and then.  Still, this comment about the Euro is as close as Monckton gets to why Cyprus is in trouble:  It doesn't control its own currency and thus has to beg other EU member states for bailout money to keep its ailing banks afloat.  The Cypriot government would not be in trouble except for its desire to not let the banks themselves go bankrupt.  If Cyprus had its own currency, it could bail out its banks without difficulty.  Monckton cannot mention any of this because it would completely spoil his attempt to equate Cyprus' troubles with some kind of looming US fiscal disaster.

Why does all this matter for America? Well, your nation, like mine and many others in the West, is as bankrupt as Cyprus. And your people, like the Cypriot people, actually voted for bankruptcy. The Cypriots voted for the EU. You voted for bankruptcy, too. You voted for Obama. Twice. 
Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

The US is not "bankrupt."  This is just flat nonsense.  Owing a lot of money does not make one bankrupt.  The US has been far deeper in debt in the past, particularly during and immediately after World War 2.  It was not "bankrupt" then.  Further, the US controls its own currency.  It literally cannot suffer a shortfall of cash with which to pay its debts, as those debts are denoted in US dollars and the US can produce as many dollars as it ever wanted to, if it found raising the money through taxation difficult (a problem Greece suffers).

The latter comment is some hilarious unintentional irony, except that the gods haven't evidently destroyed Monckton which sadly disproves the premise.

Why does Monckton think the US isn't suffering a similar crisis?
The sole reason why the United States is not in the same dire straits as Cyprus is that the markets cannot quite believe just how quickly what was once the world’s most prosperous nation has been brought down.
Note "sole reason."  Absolutely no evidence for this bold claim is supplied but it's laughably nonsensical.  Those wily, highly educated and hard nosed financiers and traders who comprise the bulk of what people mean when they say "the markets" have spent the last several years being stunned, so much so that not only do they not sell sell sell their US government treasuries, and say, buy gold, but instead they have such demand for US treasuries that they are actually paying the US government to hold their money when you account for inflation.

Now for the "horrendous advice" section of the article. First: Buy gold. Second: Buy Iraqi and Vietnamese currency.  The first one is bog-standard goldbugism.  Well, if you bought gold a year ago you lost money.  If you bought 6 months ago, you lost even more money. As gold is near multi-decade highs still, it's easy to imagine it is more likely to go down than up.  The second one is bizarre.  Basically Monckton's great advice just amounts to some highly speculative gambles on things that may or may not go up if other events happen.

There's a third piece of "advice" though:
Thirdly, get your congressman and your senators to write to the U.S. Treasury demanding to know on what conditions each tranche of U.S. sovereign debt to countries such as China has been borrowed. Your representatives will be astonished when they learn how much of the assets and undertaking of America has been given away by stealth.
How is this advice to protect your family's wealth from a Cyprus type collapse?  What does this even mean? What is supposedly going to astonish your representative?  What will they do?  Monckton never tells us.

This is the person climate deniers would rather trust than actual, qualified scientists who study climate change professionally and publish in peer-reviewed journals.  Well deniers, you'd better buy gold, dinars and dong.  You do trust Monckton right?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mulcair Displays Actual Courage

Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has frankly demonstrated astonishing political courage in being willing to speak up on behalf of Gary Freeman, a black American who had lived in Canada under an assumed name for decades while hiding from US authorities on an aggravated assault charge involving a Police officer in 1969 and is now struggling to return to his life and family in Canada after having served his sentence in the US.

This wasn't a gaffe by some political rookie, or someone caught off guard by a media question, Mulcair has gone out of his way to stand up for someone who has no political constituency in Canada, a foreigner, a felon and a racial minority.  It's difficult to see any cynical upside for Mulcair in doing this.  This isn't the stuff that consultant and focus group driven politics tells you to do.  It only comes from one possible place:  A functioning conscience and actual principles.

You can see this in the way this is so easy to demagogue, not just by the usual suspects like Glenn Beck impersonator, Ezra Levant, but also even CTV gets into the act with this atrocious headline: Mulcair Pledges Support for Convicted 'Cop Shooter' Gary Freeman.  Oh, that "liberal" media.

People always say they want politicians who act from the heart, who tell you what they really think and believe.  Here, Canada is a golden chance to reward one for doing so.  If your instinct is to pile on Mulcair because you don't like his politics or you substantively disagree that a guy who committed a crime more than 40 years ago should be reunited with his family, fine, but don't ever catch yourself complaining about "politicians" being insincere or cowards blowing with the winds of public opinion.  Because you and people like you are why politics sucks and politicians behave that way.  Mulcair has taken a stand for one of the most powerless and easy to condemn or abandon people imaginable for no obvious gain other than the satisfaction of doing the right thing as you see it.

Whatever one thinks of whether a violent act in 1969 should be cause for permanent denial of entry to Canada for this man, Mulcair's act here mostly makes me think of Pacino's speech at the end of Scent of a Woman.  Whatever else Mulcair is, a coward he is not.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Progressive Bloggers and Meta

I'm pleased to announce my little site was accepted by the good people at Progressive Bloggers as an "affiliate."  This means my posts will show up in their feed and I'm on their blogroll.  Aside from possibly driving more eyeballs to my work (which has become increasingly Canadian focused as I'm increasingly worried about the direction of our country in the face of the Harper majority and some worrisome long term trends in a way that I wasn't as worried about back in the Open Left period) my rationale is also to help in my small way increase the Canadian progressive blogger community.  We don't seem to have a Daily Kos or a Talking Points Memo or even an Atrios or Digby.  Partly that's economy of scale, but then when Canada is increasingly self-describing itself as small "l" liberal in polling (and over 50%, we really are the majority!) it seems like liberal Canadians need places to go to participate in the political process and make our voices heard.

I also know that most of the traffic I get is people searching for interesting keywords on search engines relating to news of the day.  My post of firing Kevin O'Leary for being an unctuous jerk toward a guest is still very popular.  People are sick of hearing from awful people like him and the plethora of slick right wing think tank wingnut welfare recipients.  They hear them say stupid things on TV and they go searching for answers. I hope I can provide a few with better information to rebut their angry right wing uncle or just to know that Kevin O'Leary is full of it and is either lying or ignorant when he spouts off much of the time.

I know I don't post enough, personal life lately makes that difficult but this place is still live and I do twitter probably more often than I post here.  Thanks to those who read, your feedback in comments is always welcome and this site will be around for awhile yet, as best as I can manage.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Manhattan Project For the Climate

We need a Manhattan Project for the climate.  That is a large, government led, well funded research and development effort to build technologies, techniques and policies that get global emissions at or below sustainable levels within 20 years.

Large government led programs have long proven to be an effective way for humanity to solve major problems and achieve otherwise unreachable goals.  We were worried the Nazis were going to build atomic weapons, and if they had got there first World War 2 would have ended very differently with far more loss of life, so we dedicated the resources, scientists and effort needed to get it done.  The US and USSR decided each separately that conquering space travel first was an important societal goal and both dedicated the resources needed to "win" - the USSR first put a man in orbit, the USA caught up to be the first to the moon.  Given what we know about the horrendous inefficiency and corruption of the Soviet system, their achievements are even more remarkable.  The Soyuz rocket remains the world's only means to get humans above low orbit.

Even now we can look at absurdly impoverished kleptocratic North Korea, not able to adequately feed its population and yet able to sustain nuclear and missile programs that have made the country an intercontinental nuclear power within 20 years, despite major sanctions and dedicated efforts of major world powers to stop them.  Their leaders decided these things were important and were able to have them done despite huge obstacles that wouldn't exist in a climate project.

In fact many of the most lasting or amazing achievements of human history have been government led projects:

  • Panama Canal
  • Suez Canal
  • Pyramids (both Egypt and central Americas)
  • The Great Wall of China
  • The Roman Coliseum
  • Eradication of Smallpox
  • Humans in space
  • Humans on the moon
  • International Space Station
  • Exploration of the Solar System
  • Global positioning system
  • The Internet
  • The Parthenon
  • Cross continental rail roads
  • The Large Hadron Collider

This doesn't mean everything government does is great (The Great Wall didn't really work very well from what I understand of the history but it is still a remarkable feat of engineering) but it does show that when vital societal interests are recognized, a government led mega project is very likely to succeed at achieving its objectives.  Whether those objectives are sensible is a different question, but solving the climate crisis is clearly a worthwhile goal.

It is time we recognize solving climate change as a vital interest to humanity and act through our most effective collective means, government, to address it at the level of urgency and focus it requires.  It doesn't mean everyone working on the problem needs to be a government employee, but that government is prepared to identify the problems needing solutions and fund major research that has promise of solving those problems.  We need energy systems that don't add greenhouse gases and massive increases in energy efficiency.  We need means to deploy these things widely and see them adopted worldwide.  We probably need means to speed up the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere, and prepare for the possibility that the Siberian permafrost will all melt.  Most of these things are not inherently profitable and no private actors will make significant attempts to address them. They represent a colossal tragedy of the commons, which can only be addressed collectively.

In the neoliberal era we are tempted to scoff at this, and insist that private research and efforts will be sufficient, or maybe government can help with tax credits or other nonsense.  We don't have time for that.  Those policies only nudge.  We need a push.  Whatever it costs, for however long it takes.  That was the mentality that allowed the Allies to win World War 2.  That's what is required today.

Why China Should Not Go First on Climate Change

It may actually be the climate denialists' favourite refrain (particularly in Canada), that since China is now the world leader on carbon emissions, it has the moral obligation to lead on emissions reduction and countries like Canada can sit back until China or India have taken action.

It is true that at 9.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted (2011), China is the current world leader, but China's "leadership" in this area only began in 2006.  Anthropogenic Global Warming is not just about this year's emissions or last year's, but the cumulative amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  China was a very poor country for most of the 20th Century, it's just absurd and specious to try and blame them for this problem that took most of a century to create.  From Time For Change, (using data from the World Resources Institute) we have the cumulative emissions for the largest emission countries from 1900 to 2002.  I have totaled their figures (in red) and added percentages of that total (in black) to get a sense of who is really responsible for the existing pool of carbon in the atmosphere:

Some points that jump out at me:

  • Canada is the 10th highest emitter.  If your list of countries that need to act on climate change doesn't cover the top 10, what kind of methodology could you use to arrive at that?  Maybe Iceland or New Zealand could claim their emissions are too small in the grand scheme to matter, but 2.5% of all historical emissions makes us a heavy hitter.  
  • The disparity between Canada's 0.5% of global population and our 2.5% of cumulative emissions is even starker than our disparity between population and yearly emissions.  We're five times more to blame for this problem than the average human anywhere else on the world.
  • 2.5% of anything is substantial. No one scoffing at 2.5% would happily give up 2.5% of their income, or be displeased with a 2.5% raise.  
  • Italy, a far larger economy and population is far below Canadian emissions.  Italy is a developed "rich" world country, whose citizens like driving cars, eating meat and flying to exotic vacation spots.  Clearly, Canada can do a lot better, even with our long cold winters.
  • Japan has remarkably low historical emissions given that it was the #2 economy in the world for several decades before China took that spot.
  • The US is clearly the biggest culprit here, and though this chart only goes to 2002, the US remained the biggest polluter for 4 more years after this, and the 6 years since 2006 will not have closed the gap for China by very much.  Maybe China is now responsible for 15% of cumulative global emissions but that would still make the US more than two times the amount of emissions.
  • Australia, a country with a similar resource dependent economy, similar population and wealth has yet only caused half the total emissions of Canada.  That has not stopped them from implementing a carbon tax.  
  • 15 of the top 20 countries are in Europe or the OECD (the usual list of "rich" or "developed" countries).  8 of the top 10 emitters are developed countries.
This position that others should do the work, go first and no action is possible until China or India jump on board is clearly morally and pragmatically ludicrous.  We caused most of this mess, obviously others were going to want to get in on the party while the going was good.  We have the obligation to end this thing for ourselves, and then we will have credibility to demand action from the developing world (and far improved ability to help them, since we'll already have developed the technology and policies to do it).  

Finally every country or jurisdiction that takes action on reducing GHG emissions is making it easier for everyone else to act, by learning lessons, working out policy kinks and proving critical mass to alternative energy or efficiency technologies.