Friday, December 18, 2015

Simple energy efficiency standards can have a huge impact on GHG emssions

Working pretty hard to secure his legacy as the climate change president, US President Obama and the US Department of Energy have just issued a hugely important energy-saving standard for the country that “will save more energy than any other standard issued by the Department to date”.
The new standard governs commercial air conditioners and furnaces, which consume massive amounts of energy across America every day. Over its lifetime, the standard is expected to translate into $167 billion in saved costs for businesses, as well as 15 quadrillion BTUs of saved energy for the country, and 885 million tons of saved carbon dioxide emissions. It was arrived at through a  “consensus process” involving industry, labour groups, and environmentalists.
By 2030, this and other previously issued revisions to energy standards (such as standards on the energy efficiency of dishwashers, refrigerators, etc) are expected to reduce net US greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 3 gigatons, of which this latest measure alone makes up almost 1 gigaton.
These simple, uncontentious, and technically feasible measures can make a big difference. We should all be doing it.

Most of what is wrong with America

I couldn't help but weigh in on the festive card that is making the rounds of the press and the interwebs. The bizarre Christmas card sent out by Nevada congresswoman Michele Fiore features a photo of Michele and her extended family - including little 5-year-old Jake - all dressed in festive red and toting various kinds of guns.
Nevada politician Michelle Fiore's Christmas card.
Michelle is the chunky blonde in the centre, looking quite comfortable with what looks like a sawn-off shotgun (see how little I know about these things), which according to the helpful key at the top is apparently a "super shorty". Yes, the guns are also introduced by name.
Ms. Fiore is what you might call outspoken about the Second Amendment rights of Americans. Among other things, she has sponsored a bill to allow concealed firearms on the campuses of colleges and grade schools and in day care facilities, and she has a bunch of over-the-top gun-related quotes to her name for those interested enough to look for them.
But doesn't this card make her at least borderline psychotic? What was she thinking? Can she not be arraigned for encouraging child soldiers or something? This exemplifies everything that is wrong (well, most of it) with the United States of America.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Samuel Beckett at his most Beckettian

I have been reading a few of Samuel Beckett's shorter stories, "Stories and Texts for Nothing", and I never cease to be impressed by the man's idiosyncratic and virtuoso command of the English language. And then I realized that the stories, like most of his later works, were originally written in French!
Beckett moved from Ireland to France in mid-career in the late 1930s, partly to escape from the prodigious shadow of fellow Irishmen James Joyce, and partly because he fell out with his mother. He played an active part in the French Resistance during the Second World War (preferring, in his words, "France at war to Ireland at peace"), and continued to live there for the rest of his life.
Beckett wrote most of his earlier works in English and then translated them into French. His later works, from about 1948 onwards and including many of his most famous pieces (like Waiting for Godot), were written in French and only then translated into English. He claimed that he wrote in French as it made it easier for him to write "without style".
The "Stories and Texts for Nothing", which date from the late 1950s but were not published in English until 1967, are written in the usual feverish and oppressive Beckettian style, full of pathos and grotesquerie. But, oh, the language!
An example of a typically consummate sentence from the first story, "The Expelled":
"This carriage [i.e. stiff, halting, accompanied by frequent falls] is due, in my opinion, in part at least, to a certain leaning from which I have never been able to free myself completely and which left its stamp, as was only to be expected, on my impressionable years, those which govern the fabrication of character, I refer to the period which extends, as far as the eye can see, from the first totterings, behind a chair, to the third form, in which I concluded my studies."
The wording, sentence structure and vocabulary in Beckett's works is frequently obscure, eccentric or elliptic, and the "Stories and Texts for Nothing" are no exception. Once again, this is not due to poor translation, but is deliberate and wilful. Another brief example from "The Expelled".
"I saw the horse as with my eyes of flesh."
Say what? But, Beckett being Beckett, of course, you know full well that is exactly what he mean to say, as he meant to say it.
The thirteen shorter "Texts for Nothing" are even more stream-of-consciousness than the three "Stories", and if anything even more perplexing, e.g.:
"How long have I been here, what a question, I've often wondered. And often I could answer, An hour, a month, a year, a century, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being, and there I never went looking for extravagant meanings, there I never much varied, only the here would sometimes seem to vary."
Maybe this is translated from the original French, but I feel it has nevertheless a certain intrinsic Irishness about it. I'm sure I can't be the only one to find myself reading the English text with an Irish brogue.
All the unmitigated and unrelenting angst and misery does get a bit wearing after a while, though, and one story starts to blur into another. As in most Beckett stories, nothing much happens in any of the "Stories and Texts for Nothing". The protagonists simply react to some limited set of circumstances, look back wistfully on (marginally) better times, and forge ahead with the depressing business of day-to-day existence. Thus, for example, after some pages of inconclusive ramblings and reminiscences, "The Expelled" concludes:
"I don't know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another."

Paris Agreement is laudable but alarming vague in its language

The so-called Paris Agreement, the enduring achievement and payback from the recent COP21 Paris climate change conference, is indeed a significant and ground-breaking document, as 195 countries make a commitment to take urgent and concrete measures to reduce carbon emissions. But, when you read some of the main summarizing points, you realize that much of it is couched in alarmingly vague and non-specific language.
On global temperature increases: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The inclusion of an aspirational target of 1.5°C global temperature increase over pre-industrial levels is to be welcomed (the difference between 2°C and 1.5°C might seem small, but its potential repercussions could be huge), and in large part a testament to the work of the Alliance of Small Island States, but it remains aspirational and non-binding. Even if the 2°C target can be said to be binding, it does not provide any hard targets for the greenhouse gas reductions needed to achieve such a feat. Couching targets in terms of long-term temperature change (which I admit is, after all, the ultimate goal) seems to me a rather nebulous and uncertain way of achieving measurable concrete change in the short term.
On the preservation of forests: “Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.”
Also a welcome addition, prioritizing reforestation and discouraging deforestation by means of financial incentives has finally been recognized as an important plank of the overall edifice of GHG reduction. I actually don't know what the "existing framework" mandates, but I sincerely hope that it is specific and prescriptive enough to be of immediate practical use.
On subsidies for developing countries: “As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.”
Again, all good and laudable, but the hard figure of $100 billion a year in contributions from developed countries to the carbon reduction efforts of developing countries was only mentioned in the preamble to the agreement, and so is not legally binding. Neither is it made clear how much each country needs to contribute in order to achieve even that aspirational target.
On transparency and trust: “In order to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation, an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is hereby established.”
This is taken to refer to the establishment of a single system of progress evaluation for all countries, large and small, an important consideration in the building of trust between so many countries with conflicting agendas and priorities. But, once again, the language seems really very vague.
On peak emissions: “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”
This seems like a classic of diplomatic cautiousness, including as it does woolly and contextualized phrases like "as soon as possible", "in accordance with best available science", "on the basis of", "in the context of", etc. What is needed is a much more specific commitment, with definitive target dates. What we are actually left with is a tacit agreement that the fossil fuel industry can continue to pump out emissions for many years to come, with little or no checks other than what individual country governments choose to impose.
On averting climate-related loss and damage: “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.”
While officially admitting for the first time that climate change will lead to financial loss and physical damage (particularly in the more vulnerable small island states), this clause only calls on the world to "recognize the importance" of such outcomes, and not to accept liability and provide recompense.
On progress reviews: “Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision 1/CP.21 and any relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement and be informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake referred to in Article 14.”
This clause calls for reporting and evaluation of progress on emissions targets every 5 years, and represents an improvement on what some countries were calling for. It could probably not practicably be improved upon.

So, on the whole, the Agreement has to be seen as a triumph in environmental and international relations terms. But it also serves to illustrate just how far we still need to go, and just how carefully such accords need to tread around national egos and sensibilities in order not to break down completely. The careful, and often lamentably imprecise, language epitomizes this need.
In the absence of legally binding commitments and punitive for transgressions, the accord essentially relies on international peer pressure and domestic public opinion. And we know from the abject failure of 1997's Kyoto Accord, when countries made bold promises and then promptly ignored them, that some countries (and some domestic publics) just don't really care about those things, Canada under the Harper government being one of the most egregious examples.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Like it or not, Trump has changed the face of American politics

Loath as I am to contribute more Internet commentary on the "Trump phenomenon", it is undeniably a major political reality with potentially worldwide consequences. However queasy we are about it, it cannot be ignored, because it is not going away any time soon.
Out of the blue, Donald Trump has just gone a step further than any of Europe's ultra-rightists (Marine le Pen, Nigel Farage, Heinz-Christian Strache, even Geert Wilders) in calling for the complete exclusion of an entire category of people from the United States based on their religious and ethnic identity. Even for the American Republican Party, this is off the charts and beyond the bounds of civilized and acceptable politics, and the GOP is justifiably concerned about what it means for the party, the country, and indeed the world.
In pursuing this course, Trump has tapped into a political underbelly most had hoped never to see again. But tapped into he has, and his most extreme statements have seen his poll lead in the Republican nomination extended, not diminished.
And the repercussions are starting to be felt. Several of the other Republican nomination candidates, while publicly expressing their indignation and revulsion at Trump's words, have already started subtly angling their campaigns along a similar (although less extreme) line. Just by putting the concept out there, Trump has, like it or not, changed the way we discuss the issue, changed whether we discuss the issue. Many European far-right parties, already growing and size and popularity, have taken heart from all this American hand-wringing.
Whether or not you believe that Trump's proposals (and their apparent popularity) are playing into the hands of Islamic jihadists like Islamic State, and whether or not you believe that Trump himself believes in what he spouts (or just sees it as a means to his own megalomaniac personal ends), it seems clear that the politics of race, ethnicity and religion has resurfaced in the Land of the Free.
It is difficult for us smug Canadians, and even most of the decent Americans I have spoken to, to understand where Trump's support is coming from. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, but it comes overwhelmingly from what some analysts are describing as "The Disaffecteds" - white, male, poorly educated voters, not necessarily from the Republican Party's traditional right-wing base, but who feel (for whatever reason) alienated from, or abandoned by, mainstream politics. It even cuts across party lines.
The conventional wisdom is that the politics of racial identity cannot hope to win the day in modern America. The last time this was overtly tried (Barry Goldwater in 1964) resulted in a decisive defeat, and today's America has both a lot more racial minority voters (particularly Latinos) and a much higher racial tolerance in general.
That said, whether Trump triumphs in the Republican nomination race, or is forced out (to stand as an independent), it is clear that he will take a lot of votes with him. Either way, the GOP - and even the USA - may never be quite the same again.

An interesting test of Europe's flirtation with ultra-rightism occurred recently with the regional elections in France.
Marine Le Pen's National Front party received its largest ever popular vote, but ultimately it failed to take any of the regions, despite have led handsomely in several regions after the first vote. The voter turnout in the second and decisive vote was much higher than in the first, suggesting that the electorate perhaps panicked somewhat at the spectre of a National Front victory. In a fascinating and extreme example of strategic voting, the Socialist candidates in two regions pulled out completely and urged their supporters to back the Conservatives in order to block the National Front.
The mainstream French parties (and probably most of the country) are clearly relieved at the outcome, but are looking on this scare as a timely warning. The ultra-right movement in France is strong and vigorous, and still out for blood.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Even a fall in CO2 emissions is not unalloyed good news

A study suggesting that total global carbon dioxide emissions may stall or even fall this year, which was published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change and was presented at the COP21 climate summit in Paris, has been garnering a lot of attention. Perhaps too much, because the story behind the headline is not as positive as the headline itself.
Much as I hate to rain on a parade, the report - which initially seems like a welcome piece of good news in an area where good news is hard to come by - is not in fact unalloyed good news. If indeed 2015's greenhouse gas emissions do show a small reduction, it is probably more to do with China's economic downturn than any positive change in policies.
Yes, there has been a benefit from the faster uptake of renewables worldwide. But the most significant effect is from the reduced use of coal in China as its economy slows down. China now contributes over a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, so its emissions have a disproportionately large effect on the global totals.
The point, then, is that any decrease is small and temporary. As the report makes clear, we are not seeing a peak in GHG emissions, just a blip in the curve. Emerging economies, including huge ones like India's, are mostly based on coal, and so the inexorable upward curve of emissions is expected to continue. Even with a strong agreement in Paris, overall emissions are likely to continue to increase for some time. So, words like "encouraging" and "a boost", which I have seen used in many news reports, are at best premature, and even potentially damaging if they have the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security.
It is also worth mentioning that the report only refers to carbon dioxide. Another article today has alerted me to an important elephant in the climate change room: methane. Methane is emitted during the production and transportation of coal, natural gas and oil, as well as due to livestock and other agricultural practices, and the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. Although relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, with about 80 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere (declining to roughly 30 times that of CO2 after about 100 years). The International Energy Agency ranks cutting oil- and gas-generated methane at the same level of effectiveness in the fight against climate change as increased investment in renewable energy.
One major source of methane emissions is leakage from natural gas power generation, which is increasingly being used to replace coal generation due to its (slightly) lower CO2 emissions. Worldwide, methane escapes from oil and gas operations have an estimated climate impact equal to about 40% of total global coal combustion, and Canada is the world’s fourth-largest methane emitter (after Russia, Uzbekistan and the United States). Alberta’s new climate strategy aims to reduce oil and gas methane emissions by 45% by 2025, a substantial improvement in green house gas emissions that can be achieved relatively cheaply. If every gas-producing country matched those targets, it is estimated to have the same 20-year effect as closing 1,000 coal-fired power plants.
Good news is always welcome. But what we need to avoid is the conclusion that recent changes have been enough, and that we can now afford to slacken off. Au contraire. The fight is just beginning.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Trudeau's household staff issue is a distraction and a diversion

I'm not one to easily excuse the abuse of power or the sins of the rich, but the storm-in-a-teacup over Justin Trudeau's household staff is already starting to feel pretty tired, just a day or two after it began. Rona Ambrose, Lisa Raitt and other Conservatives are desperately trying to make a self-serving mountain out of what hardly qualifies as a molehill.
Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, have hired two nannies to help look after their three young children, and the Tories are replete with righteous indignation that a rich man like Trudeau should be charging their costs as part of his household expenses, rather than bearing them himself.
Yawn! OK, maybe the optics are not great and the public relations could have been better handled, but compared to the Prime Minster's $325,000 salary, and the legally-mandated household budget that goes with the job (which is almost certainly also huge), this is no great shakes. The two cabinet-authorized "special assistants" will have other responsibilities around the house in addition to child-care duties, and their appointment in the ongoing household staff shuffle is not expected to increase the total number of staff from the six members traditionally employed. Unlike ex-PM Stephen Harper's, the current household happens to include small children, that's just how it is.
And, in case it has escaped the notice of his detractors, Mr. Trudeau has been a little busy during his first few weeks in power, dealing with other minor issues like climate change, a major refugee crisis, world-changing trade agreements, taxation amendments, that kind of thing.
If this is all the Conservatives can find to carp about after Trudeau's extremely demanding first few weeks as Prime Minister, filled with several top level international meetings and tough decisions both at home and abroad, then I think he might consider himself well pleased.
As for the nannies? Just get over it. They are a distraction and a diversion, and there are more important things to discuss. And don't deliberately try to hobble him as he makes a concerted effort to get the country back on its feet after so many years of neglect.

A Santa-less Santa Claus Parade

Although so many dispatches from small-town America tend to involve bewildering examples of redneck insensitivity, a report on excessive political correctness in the American Mid-West on CBC Radio 1's satirical This Is That program (whose by-line is "Canada: North America's Third Largest Country") cheered up my day no end.
It involves an interview with a councillor from Dunlop, Wisconsin ("the inclusive jewel of the Mid-West"), which has just announced that its historic Santa Claus Parade this year will exclude the politically incorrect, offensive and divisive figure of ... Santa.
As the councillor explains, with admirable seriousness: "The idea of Santa may offend some people, so we felt it best to have a Santa-less parade this year ... this is an event that ultimately should offend nobody." The traditional portrayal of Santa as an older man can be seen as both sexist and ageist ("we have received letters"), and Dunlop is looking to replace the old guy with a different character carrying less political baggage. Consideration is being given to a large, sexless, ageless snowflake, or perhaps "a large circular shape with eyes and a mouth and arms and legs".
It will, however, still be called the Santa Claus Parade ("It would be too confusing to call it something else.") The good councillor stresses at the end of the interview that, "It's still the Santa Claus Parade, with just the subtle change that the actual Santa Claus will not be in it, so please don't get confused by that."
As with some other This Is That items (like the one on the horseless RCMP Musical Ride from earlier this year, for example), it is a mite difficult to tell whether the interviewers and interviewees are being completely serious or whether their tongue is held firmly in cheek (it is in fact, completely fictional/satirical, although you'd be hard-pressed to know it). Either way, the interview is a hoot and I strongly suggest that you check out the audio online.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The world's most popular tourist destinations

A graphic in today's Globe and Mail illustrates some interesting and unexpected facts about the world's most visited destinations.
As in previous years, France was the single most popular tourist destination in 2014, followed by the USA and then Spain. Perhaps no big surprises thus far. But then comes Chile, and that was a surprise to me. As was Russia at No. 9, and Malaysia at No. 12. Saudi Arabia makes No. 16, presumably by merit of the annual haj.
Canada is currently languishing in 17th position, down from 8th place back in 2000 (although it has apparently rebounded some in 2015, thanks to the low Canadian dollar). The main reason for Canada's slide is a fall in American visitors - America remains by far the most important source of tourists to Canada, followed by Britain and then China, although China seems poised to take over second position.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all: Canada only very narrowly beats out Poland and Macau. Now, I know that Macau is a popular casino destination for the gambling-mad Chinese (as well as - fun fact - the most densely populated region in the world, and one of the richest). But Poland? Really?
Anyway, for the record, the top 20 tourist destinations are as follows:
  • France
  • USA
  • Spain
  • Chile
  • Italy
  • Turkey
  • Germany
  • Britain
  • Russia
  • Mexico
  • Hong Kong
  • Malaysia
  • Austria
  • Thailand
  • Greece
  • Saudi
  • Canada
  • Poland
  • Macau
  • Korea

Zuckerberg to give away $45 billion

Hot on the heels of the news of a Saudi prince's vow to give $32 billion to charity (see a previous post of mine), come the news that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is to give away 99% of his fortune to charity, in honour of his new daughter, Max (short for, yes, Maxima).
The donation will amount to about $45 billion, based on today's prices, and it will be channelled though the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, over the course of Zuckerberg's and his wife Priscilla Chan's lives. His immediate plan is to sell or gift no more than $1bn of Facebook stock each year for the next three years, and he has indicated that intends to retain his majority voting position in the company, at least for the foreseeable future.
The intention of this outrageously huge donation is supposedly to make the world a better place for Max to grow up in. The remit of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is described as "to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation". This encompasses the rather vague goals of personalised learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities. One major plank of it "will come from giving everyone access to the internet". Ah, right...
Critics, and there are always critics, argue that, for the sake of his karma, Zuckerberg needs to do something to atone for the damage to "human potential" and "equality" already perpetrated by his huge and pervasive Facebook organization - the gathering and selling of untold amounts of data, insufficient harassment and reporting policies that allow for online abuse, the employment of just 50 black people out of a staff of 10,000 (68% of whom are male), the gentrification of Silicon Valley which puts accommodation out of the reach of locals, etc, etc. Some say that this is just another example of the "white savior industrial complex".
Sour grapes, maybe, but an element of truth nonetheless. Although much of what Mr. Zuckerberg does is self-serving, and this latest gesture may be also to some extent, it is really difficult to carp at such magnanimity. Also, if it encourages/pressurizes other one-percenters to get in touch with their philanthropic side, then this cannot be a bad thing.
And, in case you were concerned, even giving away 99% of his holdings will still leave Zuckerberg with hundreds of millions of dollars for his day-to-day expenses.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The World in 2016

The Economist's annual look at the year ahead hit our mailbox this week. It always makes interesting reading. Here is a small selection of the issues it touches on:
  • A dramatic graph shows how, in recent years, real global GDP growth is increasingly being driven, not by developing countries as in recent years, but by the developed world. From 2010 to 2013, emerging markets, particularly the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, have generated a much larger, and increasing proportion of the world's GDP growth. Since 2014, however, the trend has dramatically reversed, largely as a result of economic problems in China, Brazil and Russia, and this looks set to continue into 2016.
  • Britain is due to hold a referendum on whether it should remain in the European Union some time before the end of 2017 and, for various reasons, this is most likely to happen sometime in 2016. David Cameron's pro-Europeans are still expected to sneak a slim win, and he has inertia on his side. But, with the British economy out-performing that of most of the rest of Europe, and concern about immigration from the Middle East at fever pitch, a Brexit result is a distinct possibility. This is regardless of the negative economic consequences that would almost certainly ensue, and the strong likelihood that Scotland would then finally secede from the Union. If Britain does exit, it will surely never be allowed to rejoin.
  • A United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy will convene in 2016, for the first time since 1998. Back in 1998, there was an almost unanimous agreement on the need for severe regulation and the complete eradication of the drug trade. In 2016, the situation is much more complex. The 1998 policies are acknowledged as a failure (cannabis and cocaine consumption are 50% up, opiate use has nearly trebled, and new synthetic drugs are everywhere), and the trend is towards legalization and decriminalization (Portugal has decriminalized all drugs; Uruguay and four American states have legalized marijuana, with more states and Canada expected to follow soon; the Netherlands continues to turn a deliberate blind eye to pretty much everything; and many other countries are looking for alternatives to prohibition).
  • 2016 is also Olympics year, with Rio de Janeiro hosting. Olympic preparations there have been plagued with problems and scandals, but the odds are that facilities will be up and running (just) in time. The predicted medal count favours the usual suspects (USA, China and Russia, in that order), but what might be more interesting is how Brazil's embattled president Dilma Rousseff emerges from the experience, whether there are major political demonstrations or riots, how Russia's recent bad-boy attitude plays out in the sporting arena, and whether the current drug and doping culture in sports rears its ugly head (an estimated one-in-seven track athletes showed results "highly suggestive of doping" during tests in August 2015). Rio may turn out to be a litmus test of the world's attitudes towards the current Olympics paradigm.
  • And, lest we forget, November 2016 will see the US election. To outsiders, it already seems to have been going on forever, as we watch, open-mouthed in disbelief and disgust, the unedifying spectacle of the Republican leadership contest. Assuming that Republicans finally come to their real-world senses, they will probably end up with an unexciting and unobjectionable candidate like Marco Rubio; barring major upsets, the Democratic candidate will almost certainly be the unloved but safe Hilary Clinton. Who actually wins the actual election will probably be more about how the American economy with world events in the meantime: if global forces derail America's economic recovery in 2016, the incumbent Democrats will probably lose; if not, they may still sneak in, despite the historical odds against a third consecutive term of power. In that case, Mrs Clinton will almost certainly be hampered by a Republican House of Representatives, and probably the Senate too.
  • One interesting graph illustrates the strong positive correlation between the income inequality of a country and its index of health and social problems. The USA is way out ahead of the pack in both these metrics, followed (perhaps unexpectedly) by Portugal and then Britain, while at the other end of the scale are equality-conscious Scandinavian countries and (unexpectedly for me) Japan, with Canada appearing in the middle of the pack. One mind-boggling statistic mentioned is that the average CEO of an American company made 42 times as much as its average employee in 1980; in 2015, that ratio was 373 to 1. In 2016, of course, it will be even worse.
  • It's always interesting to see how other parts of the world see Canada and its role in world affairs. Here on the ground, it feels like almost everything has changed since October's election ended years of Conservative retrenchment and inaction, so I was surprised to see The Economist's assessment that Canada will merely look and sound different, hiding an underlying business-as-usual reality. However, the article then goes on to list the many ways in which the country will in fact change (increased openness; investment in infrastructure, clean-tech and greenhouse gas mitigation; improved relations with the provinces; more emphasis on Canada's traditional international roles of humanitarian aid and peacekeeping; a liberalizing of abortion practices and cannabis use; etc, etc). Business as usual? Hardly.
  • 2016 seems likely to see an increase in the economic and political rivalry between the world's top two superpowers, the USA and China, particularly in and around Asia itself. Among issues that may come to a head next year are: China's creation of artificial islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea; the establishment of both Chinese and American military bases in the region; Chinese opposition to American bilateral agreements with several countries in Asia, and especially its support of Taiwan (which also sees an election early in the New Year); the potential trade effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which excludes China), and the China-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
  • Economic growth in China is expected to be "only" about 7% in 2016, down from the heady days of double-digit expansion. But what is interesting is that much of that growth will come courtesy of a bunch of second-tier cities that I, for one, have never even heard of. China's top ten emerging cities are: Guiyang, Xiangyang, Hengyang, Chongqing, Suqian, Huainan, Huaibei, Zhuzhou, Zhengzhou and Chengdu. Other unknown cities, such as Urumqi and the aptly-named Wuhu are likely to enjoy the fastest income growth and fastest growth in consumer spending.
  • One of the important developments in science and medicine which will come to the fore in 2016 is the use of organoids, simulacra of brains, livers, kidneys, intestines and many other body parts, ethically grown from stem cells of a patient, so that they have the genetic characteristics of that individual. Thus, drugs and other treatments can be tested, non-invasively, to see how the individual's actual body would react.
  • And, finally, a few milestones that will be achieved during 2016, according to extrapolations of various charts and graphs: the share of wealth of the world's richest 1% will exceed that of the remaining 99%; the amount of global crowd-funding investment will exceed that committed by investors to venture-capital funds; annual Internet traffic will enter into zettabyte territory (a trillion gigabytes), largely on the back of the demand for online video content; speaking of which, Netflix is expected to have a larger ratings audience than ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox; and over half of the children born in Britain will be born "out of wedlock" (the equivalent statistic 40 years ago was 10%).