Monday, January 29, 2007

A sea change in opinion

It's interesting to see the way the Canadian press and politicians have swung in recent weeks on the whole global warming issue.
The general drift of press coverage has turned from sceptical in the extreme just short months ago, to an implicit or explicit assumption that here is a potentially major problem that needs to be addressed.
Hell, even Margaret Wente has mellowed, although I'm sure she would never admit it. Her article in this weekend's Globe and Mail, while still at first glance sceptical in the extreme and while still presenting sweeping and unsubstantiated statements as facts, admits to many more doubts and uses much more subdued rhetoric than ever before.
Then, almost the next day, she brings out a second column suggesting that we should hike up the price of gas and oil to unprecendented heights in order to reduce our consumption to much lower European levels. I think she may have been intending to be facetious, but I couldn't agree more with her (I never thought I would say that) and, from the letters the next day, neither could many others.
Then, when leaked highlights from the upcoming IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the UN body charged with getting to the bottom of the mysteries of global warming) review appeared in the press, with its damning statistics and predictions, the media attention started to appear almost rabid.
In political circles (even outside the Green Party and the NDP who have always been more on the ball), it is finally an issue, rather than a non-issue to be swept under the carpet. I don't so much mean Our Glorious Leader, Stephen Harper, who will bend whichever way the political wind blows him and his advisors, and knows and cares very little on the matter.
But I feel like I am no longer in a tiny minority out on the fringes, baying at the moon. Indeed, the Globe's multi-page coverage this weekend indicates a huge acceptance of the reality by the general public, even if their understanding of the issues is often hazy, and, just as importantly, an increasing willingness to suffer some hardships in order to tackle the problem. And, finally, the politicians and the spin doctors are taking notice.
Frankly, I don't think there is any realization yet of just how great those hardships will need to be, nor that we are just seeing the proverbial tip of the iceberg as regards the true effects of what we have done to date. But this still represents a sea change in popular opinion, and has restored to some extent my faith in human (and Canadian) nature.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An evening out with global warming sceptics

I went for a few beers the other night with some buddies - we meet up regularly every month or two - and was quite taken aback (to put it mildly), when the topic of global warming and climate change came up, to realize that three out of the five of us were either in complete denial or at least strongly sceptical of global warming.
These are bright, well-educated, well-read people, and quite senior in their respective occupations - a film producer, an Internet marketer, a Canada Post manager and an electricity generation manager. We don't always agree on everything, of course, especially where politics is involved, although in general they are all thoughtful and concerned individuals.
For the record, the film producer and myself were the ones who were convinced that climate change was a major problem. I know there are grey areas, even areas where the statistics and the logic don't quite add up, but the balance of evidence seesm pretty clear to me.
The sceptic (although confusingly "sceptic" is now coming to mean denier...) was the Canada Post man, despite his generally left-of-centre, environmentally responsible views, and I normally have a lot of respect for his considered perspective. I may be doing him a disservice here, but his scepticism seems to be rooted almost exclusively in his reading of Michael Crichton's "State of Fear" which, however convincing and well-researched, is after all a fictional novel by a bright but non-specialized layman (and most certainly not a climatologist).
The two deniers were the computer man, (who remains very American in his outlook, despite living in Canada for so many years) and, interestingly, the guy who works for the Ontario electricity generation operator, who has obviously done a lot of work on the subject. Although his politics are usually well to the right of mine on most issues, this is not a party political issue. This is about facts and figures and their interpretation. And it is about ethics and doing the right thing. His interpretation is clearly different from mine (see a later blog for some of our detailed correspondence on the subject).
Not being climatologists (or even statisticians) ourselves, it seems to me that we have to put our faith in the scientists to a large extent. There will always be dissenting voices in the scientific community on almost any topic (hell, there are scientists out there who have managed to convince themselves that smoking is not bad for you), and that is as it should be. Scientific opinion, unlike mathematics, is based on peer reviews and consensus (Michael Crichton apparently argues that global warming theories have not been subjected to sufficient objective peer reviews - in fact, they have probably been peer reviewed to within an inch of their lives, possibly more so than any other current issue).
I for one am satisfied that the vast majority of scientific opinion is firmly in the camp that anthropogenic global warming (man-made climate changes) is real and increasing and that we are just arguing about the extent, and that, whatever that extent may be, we have to start doing something serious about it, and soon (like, yesterday). In my books, not to do so is immoral, and the time is long past for calling for more studies and more prevarication.
It was a good evening out, and we covered an awful lot more than global warming in our discussions, but I did fire off a few emails the next day, with links to the excellent "How to Talk to a Global Warming Sceptic", another layman's blog, but incredibly well-researched and with full links to source documentation.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Whither oil sands?

Despite my aversion to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom I would not trust as far as I could throw him (which is not far, I can assure you), I have always applauded the Californian stance on the environment. They are almost always ahead of the game, and their policies are usually more environmentally stringent than anywhere else in North America, more on a par with Northern Europe than with the rest of the States or Canada.
So it was with great interest that I noted that their new auto fuel policy looks at gases discharged during the full life cycle of the petroleum, and not just at tailpipe emissions. This has important implications for Canada, as a huge exporter of gas to the US, particularly as regards gasoline extracted from Alberta's oil sands, which are a very high-emission source of energy.
I have always felt the oil sands project to be a huge mistake on environmental grounds. The whole concept of using large volumes of increasingly expensive natural gas in the extraction of oil just seems bizarre to me. By some estimates, tar sands oil produces two to three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, and is a major contributor to Canada's horrible (and worsening) GHG emissions record. While, those estimates are probably exaggerated, it still has to be a major step in the wrong direction.
If the amount of money that has been pumped into the oil tar sands of Alberta had been invested in energy efficiency measures and alternative energy solutions, we would probably not even need them (as well as being a world leader in clean energy, with all the potential economic benefits that would bring).
The same of course could be said of the Ontario government's infatuation with nuclear power, but that is a whole other issue. Or is it?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

North America vs Europe

There was an interesting report today from the Detroit Motor Show, as Chrysler's chief economist, Van Jolissaint, spouted off about how ridiculous were European views on global warming, which he characterised as a far-off risk whose magnitude was uncertain, requiring only limited policy changes like maybe a slight increase in gasoline prices or carbon taxes.
Where has this guy been? Well, the answer appears to be (no big surprise here) the USA, only recently having spent more time in Europe due to Daimler-Chrysler's German connection.
He provided us with some wonderful quotes which demonstrate the environmental stance of big business and, in particular, North American big business, including the "quasi-hysterical" environmental policies of Europe, reminiscent of "Chicken Little". Ironically, "the sky is falling" is actually a pretty apt description of what is happening, whether Mr. Jolissaint (I hesitate to call him "Van") likes it or not.
Coincidentally, this comes on the same day as the EU calls for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions of 20% by 2020 (30% for developed countries) as a responsible measure to address climate change and secure energy supplies.
What a yawning gap there is between the European and North American visions of this issue. It pains me to have to lump Canada into the North American camp on this but, embarrassingly, we appear to be much closer to the US philosophy, and certainly closer to their energy usage and carbon emissions profile.
Essentially, we are much closer to the ostrich with its head in the sand than we are to Chicken Little.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Still no sign of winter

We are well into the New Year, and there is still no sign of winter here in Ontario.
We, and most of eastern North America, have seen unprecendented January temperatures and one of the warmest Decembers in memory. People are walking around in T-shirts, muttering trite comments like ("Well, if this is global warming, I'm all for it" - ho, ho, ho).
Well, it seems that global warming (and yes, it is a proven fact, don't get me started) is only partially to blame, and the majority of the effect is from the more short-term, cyclical El Niño phenomenon of ocean temperature shifts. It seems unclear whether the El Niño effects are becoming worse or more common due to global warming, but that would certainly not surprise me.
So, instead of a winter wonderland of snow and crystal-clear, icy days with blue skies and sun, what do we get? Dreary, grey days of drizzle - exactly the sort of depressing English weather we came to Canada to avoid. There may be plenty of snow out west, but I don't see any likelihood of us getting much skiing locally this year.

How does a Liberal become a Conservative overnight?

Ex-Liberal MP Wajid Khan recently defected to the Conservatives, presumably the political equivalent of a rat jumping onto a sinking ship.
But whatever his motives (he claims that "the Liberal Party has moved away from people like me" which is probably something of an understatement), I have to conclude that this kind of floor crossing is unequivocably wrong.
He won his Mississauga-Streetsville riding comfortably, but the constituents voted for a Liberal, not for an individual, and certainly not for a Conservative. If he believes that the riding would have voted for him as a Conservative, then he should do the right thing and resign and seek re-election in a by-election.
When David Emerson did exactly the same thing a year ago, there was much more of a hue and cry, which shows just how jaded the Canadian electorate has become. And who knows what machinations go on in the background of these events. It would not surprise me in the least if there were financial dealings involved.
The NDP have sensibly been calling for some time for a law against such floor crossing, and I for one would support that wholeheartedly.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A blast of cold, fresh literary air

I am particularly enjoying one of my Christmas presents at the moment - "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski (first published back in 2000).
After ploughing manfully through Michael Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don" (worthy and estimable, no doubt, but a bit turgid to say the least), it's refreshing to be able to tackle something challenging but fresh, experimental and thought-provoking (not to mention bizarre).
At its simplest, the novel is about an ordinary house in Virginia which develops a tendency to mutate internally, so that everyday closets are transfigured into long dark corridors, which in turn stretch and generate ever-changing rooms and stairways, and harbour an unseen but palpable evil presence, and where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Harry Potter material thus far.
But the fascination of the book lies in its method of exposition.
Firstly, the novel (like the house) is on many overlapping levels. Again at its simplest, it follows the collation and compilation by a bookish but messed-up Californian junkie of a blind old man's detailed literary criticism of a cult film (a grainy, Blair Witch sort of an affair) made by the owners and explorers of said house. There are citations, sources, marginalia and reference notes (many of them spurious, although convincing) at the various levels, and references to the references in different typefaces (and, in some cases, references to the references to the references by some undisclosed "editor").
There are extended and often erudite diversions in some of the notes (all duly "accredited") into a bewildering variety of topics including photojournalism, labyrinths, the physics of sound, etymology, architecture, metaphysics, kinky sex, clinical psychology, biblical metaphors, drugs, and many many more, interspersed with the personal ramblings by the contributors. Some of the notes are struck through, some deliberately excised, some parts missing completely, like a convincing reconstruction of an interrupted research.
Possibly the most experimental aspect of the novel is the unconventional use of page and type layout. As the behavious of the house becomes ever more fantastic and unpredictable and the characters descend into madness, the text might appear vertically, or backwards, or back to front, or in small boxes, or at crazy angles, or in any combination of the above. There are sections in Braile; there is text running in a circle; there may be just one or two words on a page; punctuation may be strange or non-existent; a line of text appears at the top, or the bottom, of a page, or split on either side, or mis-centred.
All this might sound like an annoying gimmick, but it is not over-done, and it usually has some significance or symbolism. In fact, I was surprised that I hardly ever found it ill-considered or gratuitous.
All of this together in one 700-page book (complete with appendices, indices, poems, letters, sketches and photos, you name it) makes for a demanding but ultimately rewarding read. There was much that I just didn't understand (among other things, impenetrable quotes from Jacques Derrida, and the fact that every instance of the word "house" is typed in blue - duh?). A lot of the time you are left (deliberately) wondering whether a source quotation is real or not. And it is definitely not suitable for your Aunt Marge or little Celia, as it lurches from the profound to the scatological to the disturbing and back again.
But what a blast of cold, fresh literary air! Only Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce come close in either ambition or exigence. I already have Danielwski's follow-up "Only Revolution" on my birthday list.