Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Margaret Wente barks up the wrong tree (Part 56)

I may as well share the letter I fired off to the Globe and Mail this morning (actually printed the next day):
I can feel my blood pressure start to rise as soon as I start reading any Margaret Wente columns, especially ones on her pet peeves, renewable energy and climate change. I don’t know why I still do it; I know what she is going to say.
Today, in her column entitled “Renewables Aren’t Enough”, she asks “which way is more likely to succeed”: do what we can, as fast as we can, with currently available renewable technology, in order to give us more time to come up with a more comprehensive solution; or do absolutely nothing, and hope that some whizz-bang scientists from Google come up with a magic invention that works, that we can afford, that isn’t too late, and that doesn’t make a bunch of other things worse in the process.
Somehow, Ms. Wente endorses the latter.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

This (probably) changes everything

I'd like to share a few other random snippets from Naomi Klein's thought-provoking new book "This Changes Everything", already touched on in a previous entry.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions counting system developed in the early 1990s, in preparation for the Kyoto and other subsequent accords, specifically excludes emissions from the transportation of goods across borders, such as container ships. To put this into perspective, there has been a 400% increase in container ship traffic, one of the dirtiest and most hydrocarbon-intensive modes of transportation available, over the last 20 years, with a further doubling or even tripling expected in the next 30-35 years.
  • Although the growth in greenhouse gas emissions actually slowed from around 4.5% per year in the 1960s to around 1% per year in the 1990s, it has then increased to around 3.4% per year since 2000, with only a temporary dip during the financial crisis of 2009, followed by a rebound to a record 5.9% growth in 2010. This covers the period since the first international climate change agreements, the period during which we supposedly have actually been aware of the urgency of the issue. However, it also covers the period of the headlong escalation in the globalization of trade, and the emergence of a coal-powered China as the world major trading nation (China alone is responsible for about two-thirds of the growth in emissions).
  • After decades of privatization worldwide, in pursuit of the neoliberal agenda of free trade, small government and deregulation, a British poll in November 2013 found 68% of the general public was in favour of re-nationalizing the country's energy system (with 21% coming out against), and 66% favour re-nationalizing the railway companies (with 23% against). Even 52% of Conservative voters supported the re-nationalization of both energy and the railways. Ms. Klein makes the case that the kinds of changes needed to address global warming are not likely to happen naturally in the private sector.
  • Given the right political environment, a fossil fuel-free (and even nuclear-free) future may not be as far away as one might think. A 2012 report by the German National Centre for Aerospace, Energy and Transport Research shows how 67% of European electricity could come from renewable sources by as soon as 2030 (and 96% by 2050). A report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also in 2012, indicates that 80% of America's electricity could come from currently available renewable technologies by 2050, and a separate report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how wind and solar could provide 60% of the US's power by 2030. Meanwhile, a University of Melbourne report purports to demonstrate the practicability of a conversion to 100% renewable energy in Australia in just 10 years. The salient phrase here, though, is "given the right political environment": such drastic changes are not going to be brought about by market forces alone.
  • In 2013, in the USA alone, the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying Congress and government officials.
  • There are an estimated 2,795 gigatons of carbon tied up in the oil, gas and coal reserves currently owned by private and state-owned fuel companies. This is about five times estimates (565 gigatons) of the carbon that can be burned between now and 2050 and still leave a good chance of keeping global warming below the critical level of 2°C, the temperature increase limit established as the best target at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit.
  • Just as bitumen production from oil sands has a much higher carbon footprint than that of conventional oil, fracked natural gas is at least 30% higher in emissions than conventional gas, and the procedure leaks methane at every stage in the process (methane is an estimated 34 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide). In fact, gas from fracking, often touted as a plentiful, low-carbon alternative fuel to oil and coal and the ideal "bridging" fuel, may have just as much of a warming impact as coal over an extended life cycle. The other drawback is that cheap natural gas is just as likely to squeeze out potential renewable fuels as it is to replace dirtier fossil fuels.
  • The number of rail cars carrying oil in the USA has increased by over 4000% in just five years, from 9,500 in 2008 to about 400,000 in 2013. More oil was spilled in US rail incidents in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined. In 2012, there were more than 6,000 spills and "other mishaps" at onshore oil and gas sites in the USA.
"This Changes Everything" is thick, densely written, unabashedly partisan and radical in spirit, and, in the main, rather depressing fare, I have to say. However, it is well-written, up to date, and meticulously researched, and gives some added legitimacy to a rabble-rousing view of the climate debate.
In the end, Ms. Klein concludes that there is still time to redress the problem of climate change, through an escalation of activism and resistance and what she describes as a "Marshall Plan for the Earth". Indeed, she sees it as an opportunity and a means of rectifying many other festering wrongs and inequalities in the world. But her conclusions are almost lost and overshadowed by the sheer grimness of the analysis and the litany of grievances that precede them.
If I were to cavil, I was perhaps a little disappointed at Ms. Klein's almost complete ignoring of energy conservation as a major and necessary plank in the push for a solution to the global warming problem. But the book remains a welcome addition and an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the issue.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Distracted cinema audiences

Volkswagen recently brought out a ground-breaking new road safety advertising campaign in Hong Kong.
Cinema patrons received a "location-based text message" part-way through an otherwise innocuous car ad, and, while the cinema-goers were checking their phones (and a huge number of them did), the car on the screen crashes, giving everyone a poignant reminder of the dangers of distracted driving. The shocked and confused audience reaction was all recorded for our benefit.
The video of the ad has gone viral, but if you haven't seen it, you can catch it here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The right, the left, and global warming

While reading through Naomi Klein's new book "This Changes Everything", I came across some rather interesting statistics on the political views of climate change deniers.
Some 75% of American "Democrats and liberals" believe that climate change is real and caused by humans, compared much smaller percentage of Republicans, as little as 20% in some regions. Similarly, in Canada, 41% of Conservatives believe in anthropocentric global warming, compared to 76% of the leftist New Democrats, and 69% of the more centrist Liberals. Apparently, a similar split exists in Europe.
This is a pretty stark dichotomy, especially given that 97% of climate scientists are convinced of the science (this figure from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, not some radical and biased source). Setting aside the question of what the other 25% of Democrats and liberals can possibly be thinking, these figures suggest that belief in man-made climate change among the general public (as opposed to scientists) is very much a partisan political issue, and not a matter of objective and intellectual truth. A few openly admit this, but the vast majority don't, and indeed don't even seem to be aware of it. Which begs the question of how such a disparity arises.
Ms. Klein's theory, which seems plausible enough, is that Conservatives are not denying the science itself - although they may well claim to be doing so - but they are denying the very possibility of the massive government intervention needed to deal with it, which is so much against their base beliefs as to be almost inconceivable to them. This is almost textbook psychological denial: if such action is deemed to be necessary, then the assumptions on which the question is based must be wrong (the only other alternative being that the market-based conservative system itself is flawed, which is inconceivable).
Interestingly, one would assume that liberals and leftists are also guilt of a psychological bias, of a denial of a different kind, although it is not quite to so obvious how this manifests itself. Maybe this is because right-wingers typically tend to justify the system ("conservatism" in its purest form), while lefties are more likely to question the system, and to be more skeptical of information from corporation and governments. Or maybe it is just because left-wingers, being less likely to fit the conservative mould of wealthy white males, typically have less at stake, less to lose from abandoning, or even tweaking, the system. Who knows?
Another statistic that jumped out at me is the fact that fewer people, whether on the right or the left, are convinced of the correctness of global warming science than previously, falling from 71% in 2007 to 51% in 2009 and 44% in 2011 (these are American figures from a  Harris poll). Which, given the continued and increasingly strident warnings from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is kind of scary.
One element behind this trend is that the number of news stories on climate change has shrunk drastically (10-fold!) over the period, which you could argue may be politically motivated, or not, depending on your viewpoint. The other, and probably much more important, element is the million and millions of dollar that have been sunk into the campaign by billionaire conservatives and businessmen, the concerted crusade by the right-wing media outlets, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the effect of the hugely influential right-wing think-tanks like the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ayn Rand Institute, etc, etc. These organizations have put up a spirited, almost desperate, defence of the American right to low taxes, small government and "liberty", which is clearly threatened by climate change and its repercussions.
From these statistics, it has to be said that the right appears to be winning this particular battle in the war. Enough seeds of doubt have been sown, and enough apathy and complacency has been fostered. In the meantime, we are merrily continue on our way over the proverbial cliff.

Friday, November 14, 2014

When did processes become pross-ess-eez?

When did it become acceptable to pronounce the word processes as PROSS-ESS-EEZ? One hears it all the time nowadays, even from (in fact, especially from) the most educated speakers, especially scientists, economists, politicians, etc. These people would never say RE-CESS-EEZ, PRIN-CESS-EEZ or CON-GRESS-EEZ. HOUS-EEZ, maybe. Why then PROSS-ESS-EEZ?
It appears to be a modern example of Greco-Latinization, similar to the 17th Century penchant for classical language, when a silent “b” was added to the spelling of words like debt and doubt, supposedly out of deference to their Latin roots (debitum and dubitare respectively). In the same way, and with much the same reasoning, around this time island gained its silent “s”, scissors its “c”, anchor, school and herb their “h”, people its “o” and victuals gained both a “c” and a “u”, thus unnecessarily giving English some of its more eccentric and quirky spellings.
Although if challenged I would think that most of the offenders would claim that the -EEZ pronunciation makes the word easier to pronounce, I assume the real (or perhaps subconscious) intention is for people to sound somehow more intellectual or scientific. I find it difficult to believe that their tongues trip over words like compresses and biases.
I don't necessarily consider myself among the language purists (or, in Stephen Pinker's list of synonyms in his excellent book "The Sense of Style": "sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis and the Gotcha! Gang"). I understand that language is a fluid and protean entity, and I don't object to the introduction of new words and word usages. But I do object to changes resulting from errors and ignorance.
In the same way as words like alternate, momentarily, and several other much abused words and phrases considered in more detail elsewhere in this blog, have become "acceptable" uses in recent years, PROSS-ESS-EEZ is a practice born of error and should be stamped out.
In my humble opinion that is...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A small victory

Barack Obama, despite set-backs in the recent mid-term elections which saw the Republicans regain control of the US Senate, keeps gamely plugging away at the climate change file.
Obama is committing the USA to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28%, compared with 2005 levels, by 2025. The Republicans, of course, have vowed to reverse the decision, on the grounds that a few of their supporters may become poorer (and global warming is an urban myth anyway...)
This very specific American commitment, involving deeper cuts than heretofore considered, was given in return for a much less specific and altogether less impressive commitment by China, which pledges to ensure that their emissions peak by about 2030 (which could be interpreted as carte blanche for Chine to continue increasing its emissions for the next 15 years).
It remains, however, something of a landmark agreement, because China (now the biggest single emitter of greenhouse gases, representing nearly 30% of world emissions) is finally talking about limiting total carbon emissions and not just carbon intensity. The US and China together produce about 45% of the world's carbon dioxide (see the excellent interactive tool created by the Global Carbon Atlas project), so any pledges they are willing to make are globally significant.
It is also the first step in getting past the spurious line often used by countries like Canada and Australia that there is no point in trying to reduce emissions if other large emitters like China and India are doing nothing.
A small victory perhaps, but a victory nevertheless. And I'm not holding my breath for Stephen Harper to follow suit.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How are the mighty fallen

When popular CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was first reported as having been summarily dismissed on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment back on October 26th 2014, my own initial reaction was similar to that of many others I read: the dastardly and reactionary CBC were overreaching themselves once again; a knee-jerk reaction by a prudish and narrow-minded corporation; there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation; etc, etc.
Of course, as we now know, despite Ghomeshi's outraged response that his "adventurous" sexual practices were wholly consensual and should not be subject to the scrutiny of either his employer or the press, the CBC's reaction may not have been quite as precipitous and knee-jerk as it appeared, and that there may well be much truth in the allegations of non-consensual behaviour amounting to sexual abuse. At least nine women have now come forward with their claims, along with some details of Ghomeshi's agressive and tyrannical management style and the "culture of fear" that pervaded his studio.
While the allegations remain as yet unproven, the affable and convivial man we thought we knew so well is starting to appear in a whole new light. Ghomeshi was the nearest thing the CBC had to a superstar, and his morning program Q was a mainstay of CBC's day. I too was a big fan of his easy-going yet percipient interviewing style, and I had a great deal of respect for his hard-working attitude and for the brand he had developed for himself. Little was I expecting these sordid revelations of a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona, and the whole affair presents a sobering example of how our preconceptions can blind us, however open-minded and perceptive we might think ourselves.
Whatever happens in the CBC's own third-party investigations and the parallel Toronto Police probe into his activities, Ghomeshi's moment in the sun is clearly over, and the apex of his career can only be succeeded by a crashing fall, with scant likelihood of a dignified exit from public life.
As David exclaims in the Bible, after the death of his friend and rival (and possibly homosexual lover) Jonathan: "How are the mighty fallen".

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Kitten Clone

Douglas Coupland's latest book, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is up to his usual high standard, and replete with memorable phrases, striking imagery and interesting takes on everyday life.
It is partly an investigation of one of the most important multinational companies you've probably never heard of. Alcatel-Lucent produces and maintains most of the cables, switches, routers, etc, on which the Internet relies, and it also owns and runs the influential ideas factory Bell Laboratories. But the book is also partly a meditation on the Internet itself (and technology and communications in general), how it has led us to where we are today, and where it may be taking us in the future.
Among the many pithy observations in the book (some of which may benefit from the context of the surrounding text) are the following:
"I miss my pre-Internet brain" (a slogan now also available on t-shirts)
"I thought that the Internet was a metaphor for life; now I think life is a metaphor for the Internet"
"Invention happens where and when it happens; you can't force invention into existence"
"You can have information or you can have a life, but you can't have both"
"The zeitgeist of the twenty-first century is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist"
"Everything is now overdocumented and yet underexperienced at the same time" 
"Haven't we all wanted to take a year or two off to digest the technologies we already have"
Interspersed with Coupland's own capricious wit and distinctive way with words are typographical pranks such as: the occasional long paragraph of technical gobbledygook rendered in smaller and smaller typeface until it literally falls off the bottom of the page; the word "cloud" randomly scattered and floating cloud-like over part of a page; section breaks marked by <br> (the HTML code for a new line); etc. Olivia Arthur's equally quirky photos also effectively break up the text.
This is a book of journalism, and it is full of thought-provoking research and interesting facts. But, being Douglas Copland (who is, after all, better known as a novelist and artist than as a writer of non-fiction), it is idiosyncratic journalism, whimsical and unconventional and often oblique in its focus.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Twitter lacking in #gravitas

I'm not a big fan of Twitter. I was vaguely intrigued by the idea at first, and I am sure that there do exist a great many trenchant and pithy pronouncements, all neatly forged within the restriction of 140 characters. But it soon became clear to me that the idea had been hijacked by a bandwagon of users with very little to say, users for whom 140 characters is more than enough to express their petty and infantile views and thoughts.
I was nevertheless a little taken aback recently when Blaise Campaoré, the long-time president of Burkina Faso, chose to broadcast his resignation in a Twitter post (as reported in the Wall Street Journal and other sources).
One would have thought that such a significant statement might have merited something a little more formal than a tweet, where it must have found itself in company with such pearls of wisdom as "My #cat has been sick again" and "What was #Rihanna thinking this time?".
Call me old-fashioned, but the platform seems completely inappropriate for such a proclamation, and if nothing else shows a certain disrespect for his citizens.