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Monthly Archives: June 2015

Making Figures Lie

In 2013, Ryan Carlyle, with his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering wrote an opinion piece in Forbes Magazine. It was called “What Are The Top Five Facts Everyone Should Know About Oil Exploration?”

Bsically he argued the oil industry is huge, important, competitive and irreplacible. To show it was irreplacible he pointed out that “If solar power generation doubled every decade for 100 years, it would still be pretty far behind oil today.” and he concluded “Sorry guys, but regular old exponential growth isn’t even enough. To match oil, you’ll need half a century or more of clear energy superiority. “

So let’s do the math. Ryans says doubling every decade for a hundred years won’t make solar a contender. He is right. 2^10 = 1024 is a big number, but not when you start with a 0.07% of energy supply. By Ryan’s calculation solar power would provide at best 70% of the power need in 2009 by 2109.

On the other hand a 20% annual growth rate – smaller than what we are actually seeing – gives us .2^100 = 82,817,975. That is a number eighty thousand times a large as Ryan’s. At that rate solar alone supplies all the current energy needs of the world in 40 years. So does wind.

So who is doing tricks with numbers? Me, an economist and part-time Green party candidate? or Ryan – a chemical engineer who works as a “subsea hydraulics engineer” (ie. for an oil company) and publishes in a business magazine? Everything depends on who has the best estimate of the growth rate of renewable energy technologies. Or maybe it depends on what you want to believe.


Proportional Representation Will Bring Stability to Government

The debate about changing the first-past-the-post voting system is not really a debate. The Liberals have finally joined the NDP and Greens in supporting the idea. A poll conducted by Environics in 2013 showed that the majority (70 per cent) of Canadians – though cautious – also support some form of proportional representation.

The great advantage of the first-past-the-post voting system is that, as long as the party in ist2_5399010-environmental-scale-1government is reasonably centrist and respects majority opinion, it can form a strong government. The great fault is that when a party with a mission and only minority support gets a majority of seats, it can change the sytem radically.

That happened in Germany when Hitler took over: He had a mission, but in fact he did not have public permission to transform Germany into a fascist state. He used the powers of the state in new ways to control the people.

It has happened in Canada too. There is no doubt that Mr. Harper feels he has a mission ot fix what he thinks is wrong with Canada. The problem is that he does not respect the majority and he has systematically used the powers of the state to manouvre the country in the direction he wants. Most of what he does is legal under the democratic system we have, but it is not really what Canadians want.

Canadians didn’t want the $110 billion increase in the national debt that he took on. His goal was to financially cripple government and force smaller government on the country and he has done that.

Canadians didn’t want a less fair and more complex tax system. Harper has used a series of tax expenditures to buy votes so he can hold power. Canadians didn’t want to give up on Canada’s fine reputation for Peacekeeping. They didn’t want to be the bad guys in the world climate debates. We got all these and more changes that were part of Mr. Harper’s agenda.

Historically the Senate has been a mechanism to prevent radical changes. It was intended to be a conservative force – the phrase “sober second thought” can be translated “don’t let parliament do anything too dramatic too quickly.” Because the party in power appoints senators, it eventually controls Senate, and Senate no longer serves as a check on the government. This is fine if government values are somewhere close to the values of the government. And most parities in power are dragged toward what the majority wants.

The main defense of the majority has been the government’s respect for the majority and its respect for the traditions of the country. The current government lacks that respect, and it has exploited its temporary control.

This brings us back to electoral reform. Any form of proportional voting would have prevented Mr. Harper from carrying out his private mission. Proportional voting would have given the majority a veto. We would not have had to rely on the good manners and respecfullness of the party in power. We would not have been disappointed to discover we had a government with a mission but without respect for us.

Health Organizations Urged to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Today in the Guardian, a group of senior health professionals – along with other doctors, nurses and academics – are asking the Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels. Among them are the editors of the leading medical journals, the BMJ and the Lancet.

“Health organisations such as the Wellcome Trust have considerable moral and scientific authority, and a decision to divest has the potential to influence policy-makers, other investors and the public, in the UK and internationally.”

Do you belong to the health community? If so, the signatories to the letter are inviting you to join them and sign the letter too. Whether you’re a psychologist, community health worker, academic, student, retired GP, dentist or midwife, you can add your name to their letter here.


Dutch Court Rules Climate Inaction Illegal

It is Now Illegal Not to Cut CO2 Emissions!

The Dutch are known for progressive social legislation and intelligent policies. Now they have added a new twist to the climate change story: three Dutch judges have ruled that government plans to cut emissions by just 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were unlawful, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change.

A court in The Hague has ordered the Dutch government to cut national CO2 emissions by at least 25% within five years.

This was the first climate liability suit brought under human rights and tort law. Climate change committments have been made between states, where there is no real enforcement mechanism. This ruling brings civil legislation in national courts into play. It is likely there will be similar cases before the courts in several countries by the time the Paris talks roll around in October. If a similar case were brought to the court in Canada, and if the case was not thrown out immediately, it would eventually go to the Supreme Court. What an interesting battle that would be! Would our Federal Government fight it tooth and nail?

The judges’ ruling included a statement that could be addressed directly to our current Prime Minister: “The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch effort.” Just because other are not acting is not a satisfactory excuse for the Dutch (or us Canadians) to go on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.


Capitalism Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis Without Goverment Guidance

In the Globe and Mail today Konrad Yakabuski writes that Pope Francis should show a little faith in economics. Yakabuski is missing one major fact about how the world works.

Capitalism can work pretty well when capitalists know the rules that will be enforced. The problem is that we have to change the rules about burning fossil fuels. This isn’t something capitalist firms can do and it isn’t something that the Pope can do – it is the job of government, and government has been failing.

The same issue of the Globe that contains Yakabuski’s advice for the Pope has another significant report. An article in the business section says Canadian companies are beginning to realize that they can’t go on relying on the tar sands and on oil exports for growth.

They have been pretty slow to see which way the wind is blowing (largely because business has been waiting for a clear signal from government) but companies are now signalling that they know that the rules will change and they wish the Canadian government would get on with the job of moving Canada into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, in Canada we have had a government that is either seriously deluded or lying about the state of the world. The government is to blame for the fact that business doesn’t know what the rules will be. As a result, Candadian capitalism has not been seriously engaging the problem of decarbonizing the world economy.

To be fair, market forces are working to some extent and technology is developing. Solar panels are getting cheaper. And some governments have mandated fuel efficiency. Some governments have made major commitments to electic vehicles. Others have committed to wind power on a serious scale. A very few have implemented effective cabon taxes. Momentum is building.

The Pope’s big contribution is to give a signal to cowardly governments like ours. He is basically saying that one of the most conservative forces in the wolrld has made up its mind that the rules will change. It is now safe for even cowardly politicians to act.

And, Konrad, once the governments give really clear signals, markets will do a lot better than they have been doing. The world still won’t be fair, and there will still be a lot of suffering and corruption, but we won’t be hell bent for extinction.

Papal Encyclical on Climate Change Establishes a New Conventional Wisdom – Flaws and All

Since the Pope has weighed in against the climate policies of Canadian Conservatives, Liberals and NDP (do nothing, hide from the issue and support cap and trade, respectively) I have been emphasizing the positive parts of his message. The message has a few flaws, however.

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists yesterday, Lawrence M. Krauss quotes his colleague Steven Pinker:

“The pontiff continues in the millennia-long Catholic tradition of vilifying technology, commerce, and ordinary people enjoying the fruits of material progress. So he puts the blame on economics and consumerism. But the solution to climate change is not to moralize from on high and implore people—particularly the poor people whom he claims to sympathize with—to learn to be abstemious for the common good and do without central heating, electric lights, and efficient transport. Billions of people aren’t going to do that. Not even the pope—especially not the pope—is going to do that.”

Pinker went on to point out that the solutions to the challenges raised by global climate change will be primarily economic and technological, including a global carbon tax and investment in the development of new energy technologies.

It is true that the encyclical is full of moralizing. Its importance lies in the fact that it comes from a notoriously conservative source and establishes a new conventional wisdom about the science of climate change for a huge mass of humanity. The Pope calls for action. Can other Conservatives be far behind?


Throwing Our Friends Overboard?

Science Advances, an online science journal, just released a new study that shows we are squeezing other species off the earth. The piece is called “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction“.

The study takes into consideration many other factors that may be tilting the data, and still comes to the conclusion that we have triggered a large die-off.

From the paper’s abstract: “Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 114 times higher than the background rate.” For those who care, the Pope’s encyclical mentions species extinction 5 times.

These are our friends and relatives that our progress is killing off. We haven’t chosen to eliminate them – we have simply bumbled into a kind of mass murder. None of us take any joy at what is happening. As my new friend Pope Francis says, ” … we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”