Sunday, December 31, 2023

Russia has some gall calling out Ukrainian attack

Russia has incredible chutzpah for calling an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council after Ukraine had the audacity to actually strike back at Russia after many months of illegal Russian attacks.

Ukrainian airstrikes on the Russian city of Belgorad, just over the border, resulted in the deaths of 20 people and injuries to more than 100. Russia is claiming that Ukraine carried out a "deliberate indiscriminate attack against a civilian target" and a "terrorist attack", although Ukrainian spokespeople insist that only military infrastructure was targeted, Belgorod being a major supply centre for the Russian army. 

Ukraine does have to be careful not to fall into the mold of Russia and Israel by indiscriminately bombing Russian towns (or even deliberately targeting civilians) - they need to maintain the moral high ground if they are to keep the support of the West. But how Russia can complain about Ukraine's illegal actions, when they have spent most of the last two years doing just that, I just don't know. I mean, who started this totally illegal war, anyway? An extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black.

As the UN discussion pointed out, if Russia has not invaded Ukraine in the first place, there would be no reason for Ukraine to attack Russian targets. The Ukraine action followed Russia's worst aerial bombardment since the start of the war in February 2022. Russia then went on to use the Ukrainian attack as their excuse for a subsequent attack on Kharkiv, which is just unbelievable. They have not seen the need to explain any of their other attacks, which have rained down on Ukraine daily over the last 22 months, most of them targeting (or at least hitting) civilian targets. The UN estimates there have been at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths since the war started.

To reduce stress levels, read a book

There was an interesting snippet in today's Mental Floss bathroom calendar, suggesting that reading is one of the most stress-busting activities you can do.

According to a University of Sussex study, reading a book reduces stress levels by a whopping 68% on average. The only other thing that comes close is listening to music (61%), followed by drinking a cup of tea or coffee (54%). Going for a walk, surprisingly, only reduces stress by 42%.

According to Garmin watch, my stress levels are always very low. Now I know why.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Should we worry about the new COVID variant?

I seem to have asked this same question many times over the last few years. But yes, yet another COVID variant is starting to take centre stage.

It is technically known as JN.1 or BA.2.86 - the WHO appears to have run out of Greek letters - but it has also been given the nickname "Pirola" by some scientists groups (actually named after an asteroid, but with the unfortunate parallel connotation of "dick" or "cock" in some languages). The new "variant of concern" is an offshoot of the Omicron variant and the various variants that it yielded, like BA.4, BA.5, XBB.1.5, etc. However, it is as different from the first Omicron variants as Omicron was from the original virus, boasting over 30 additional mutations. COVID has come a long way.

As has been the trend over the last few years, this variant is probably even more contagious than previous ones, and we can expect some pressure on hospitals as a result. (Arguably, this has already begun, particularly given the crossover with the flu and RSV season.) Although it is getting hard to distinguish them, this is probably the 9th major wave of COVID.

However, all reports suggest that this new variant is probably not going to be that nasty, certainly not compared to the early days of the initial virus, the Delta variant, etc. So, we might not get that hospital pressure after all - experts are not clear on that.

Symptom-wise, JN.1 is not that different to other recent variants: runny nose (31%), cough (23%), weakness and fatigue (20%), muscle ache (16%), sore throat (13%). There are a couple of new ones, though: trouble sleeping (11%) and anxiety (10%). The loss of sense of smell and/or taste, common in early variants, is no longer an issue, it seems.

Recent vaccines, particularly the most recent one targeting BA.4/BA.5, should work reasonably well against JN.1, certainly in terms of reducing the severity of symptoms, although the old rapid tests we have been using for some years now will probably be even less reliable with this variant. But the sheer numbers of people who are getting infected will make it really hard to avoid this winter, vaccine or no vaccine. 

The usual advice applies: avoid crowds, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces where you can't avoid them, wash your hands regularly, and hope. Remember, although the symptoms are not dissimilar to those of the common cold, and who wants a cold? And, unlike the common cold, there is also a small but not negligible chance that you may end up with long COVID, which will make your life miserable for months, even years, so you really don't want to go there.

All that being said, there are many scientists who believe that JN.1 may be something of a game-changer, and that it should be given a new Greek letter in order to broadcast more clearly to the people and governments of the world that this is new, and that it is potentially quite dangerous. It certainly marks a major step in the evolution of the virus.

UPDATE

More recent data - remember, this is still a new variant - suggests that BA.2.86/JN.1 might actually infect certain lung epithelial cells more than any variant since the Delta variant (remember THAT!)

So, more contagious and potentially more severe as well? Crap.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Why is Canada paying compensation to the Two Michaels

Canada is in the very strange situation of planning to pay the "Two Michaels" a substantial sum of money - several million dollars, by all accounts - as compensation for the almost three years they spent languishing in a Chinese prison.

You will remember that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig spent over 1,000 days in jail in China in a tit-for-tat retaliatory response to Canada's arrest of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition warrant. They were arrested on what are widely considered to be trumped up charges of spying, and were only released when Ms. Wangzhou was released. They were held in poor conditions, some of it in solitary confinement, and denied outside communications for months at a time. They were both subjected to lengthy interrogation sessions.

No-one is suggesting that they had a pleasant time of it, but the idea that Canada (and not China, for example) should pay them damages for their experience is a rather strange and problematic one. It's not at all clear to me how the Canadian government - and Canadian taxpayers - are on the hook for the actions of another country. 

Unless, that is, there is more to all this than we know, or is publicly admitted. Is this a tacit admission of the espionage allegations, despite all the outraged denials the government kept up for the three years of their detention? (That's certainly how China is now portraying it.) Are they trying to avoid a public lawsuit by Mr. Spavor which might bring unwelcome attention to the government security reporting program? Who knows?

This also comes after recent revelations that both men WERE actually involved in some level of undercover intelligence work. It also comes after the two Canadians engaged in a rather public mutual blame game. I think that I, and probably many other people, was somewhat taken aback by this news. I'm not saying that China was necessarily justified in their imprisonment, but it does muddy the water a little.

The government has apparently offered the two men $3 million each, but Mr. Spavor at least is seeking over $10 million, alleging gross negligence on how Ottawa handled Canada's Global Security Reporting Program in China. Negotiations are ongoing.

Trump to blame for election protests across the world

It now seems to be expected all over the world that any election loss is to be contested, often by extreme and/or violent means. Whenever an election result is announced - whether it be a close-run race or a walkover, whether it be a victory for the incumbent or a surprise breakthrough for the opposition - you have to expect a protest or, more often, a full-scale riot, accompanied by strident claims of electoral irregularities, fraud and intimidation. Like Gollum and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, leaders seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to relinqish power.

The latest such example is happening right now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although, there at least, it is quite likely that there have indeed been irregularities, fraud and intimidation.

But the same thing is also happening in Serbia, the same thing happened in Paraguay and in Mozambique and in Nigeria and in Turkey and in Ecuador and in Thailand and in Guatemala earlier this year; in Brazil and in Angola in 2022, in the Philippines in 2022, in Georgia and in Russia in 2021, in Belarus in 2020, etc, etc. The list goes on. And the common denominator? Populist politicians unwilling to admit defeat.

Oh yes, and one more, a few years back now: the USA in 2020/2021. And there's the rub. No longer can we say that election protests and claims of electoral fraud, whether baseless or not, are a feature of benighted African and Asian countries, a "Third World" problem, in places where they don't know how to do democracy right. The 2020/2021 US protests by the Trump-loving hard right of American Republicans has opened the floodgates. 

If "Third World" countries see America acting badly, they feel they have carte blanche to do the same, or worse. And, while such protests have always happened to some extent, vociferous, often violent, protests  are now the norm, the default reaction, after any election anywhere. Democracy, and trust in democracy, worldwide has been weakened. (This also applies to more "First World" developed countries and I have grave concerns about what might happen here in Canada if Pierre Poilievre doesn't win.)

And that retrograde step can be laid squarely at the door of one Donald Trump. With over half of the world's population going to the polls in 2024 - India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, USA, and possibly UK and even Canada - one can't help but worry how this "high-water mark for democracy" is going to pan out.

The last few years has seen many instance of "electoral backsliding", with "electoral autocracies" and "non-liberal democracies" showing a marked increase. 2024 will probably see more of that - world democracy has never seemed more fragile.

A giant fish causes human conflict

Today, I discovered the arapaima fish.

Arapaima gigas one of the world's largest freshwater fish, normally gowing to about 2 metres (6 feet) in length, although occasionally as long as 4½ metres (15 feet), and weighing in at up to 200 kg (440 lbs). It is native to the Amazon Basin, mainly in Brazil and Peru.

It has flexible armour-plated scales to protect it from other predatory fish like piranhas, and it eats fish, birds, mammals, molluscs, fruits and seeds (basically, anything not can get its mouth around).

It has recently been moving into the Amazon Basin in Bolivia, where it is considered an invasive species by scientists, because it is very territorial and scares off (and oleats) other local fish. 

But it has been welcomed by local fishermen, because of its size and ease of capture. Because, although it spends much of its time grazing the bottom of rivers, it is an obligate air-breather, and has to surface noisily every 10-15 minutes to gulp in oxygen to supplement what it gets through its gills. This makes it an easy catch for modern commercial fishermen, and the fish is now regularly found in Bolivian markets and supermarkets. 

Known locally as paiche, it is now hunted assiduously by Bolivian fishermen, often into traditional Indigenous regions, where they are not technically allowed to follow, putting them into conflict with Indigenous communities. Today's Indigenous people, though, are not the same as the old native people; they are much more assertive, even aggressive, in pursuing their rights, and they are not willing to roll over and be taken advantage of, like in the old days.

So, a whole new source of conflict arises, as the natural world continues to change, and humans - as always - try to play catch-up.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

More medieval mob punishment in India

Another depressingly familiar report comes out of supposedly civilized India: a 42-year old woman was stripped and paraded naked through the streets of a village in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Her crime? Well, nothing, really. Her 24-year old son had eloped with his 18-year old girlfriend, and the village elders, well, didn't like that, and decided to take the law into their own hands.

So, the poor woman, who apparently knew nothing about her son's relationship or his plans, became the scapegoat for the outraged family of the girlfriend. Not content with parading her naked through the streets, she was then tied to an electricity pole and beaten mercilessly for hours. She is now suffering from severe trauma.

Eventually, more than a dozen people were arrested for the action, and a local police officer has been arrested for dereliction of duty (i.e. looking the opposite way). But this is far from an isolated incident in Hindu-fundamentalist rural India, where people think they know better than the laws of the land. Just this July, two women in Manipur state were dragged into the street and one of them was gang-raped. In August, a 20-year old pregnant woman was paraded naked by her husband and in-laws in Rajasthan after she left the husband for another man. A 23-year old woman was stripped and paraded in the streets in Gujarat when she eloped with another man. A few years earlier, five Dalit women were paraded naked and publicly caned after one of them eloped with a Dalit boy in Uttar Pradesh. A 45-year old woman was paraded naked on a donkey in Rajasthan after being accused (but not convicted) of killing her nephew. You get the idea.

This is all happening in Narendra Modi's modern India, where moon-shots and cutting-edge computer developments occur side-by-side with medieval punishments and witchcraft. You have to assume that the Hindu zealots are being encouraged by Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

29 brave Russians have filed to challenge Putin

An "election" is due to happen in Russia in Spring 2024. That guy Vladimir Putin is rumoured to be interested in standing. But, unbelievably, 29 other individuals have also filed to run for the presidency. They won't be allowed to, of course; Putin won't allow any chance that he might not be re-elected.

But who are these brave - foolhardy? - people? Well, one is former TV journalist and now independent politician Yekaterina Duntsova. She is perhaps the most high-profile candidate, and that rare thing: a publicly outspoken opponent of Russia's war in Ukraine. So, she of course has been barred from standing by a unanimous decision by the "independent" electoral commission (due to "mistakes" on her application form, apparently). Duntsova says she will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court level, but Putin controls that too.

The last time someone tried to challenge Putin and call out the "sham" election, blogger Igor Gurkin ended up in jail, and is now awaiting a trial for extremism (he will probably wait a long time). How 29 people have the guts to continue to stand up to Putin in this way, then, I have no idea. It just goes to show that we should not write off the whole of the Russian people - just those who willingly support and enable Putin's naked imperial ambitions.

Friday, December 22, 2023

More X disinformation

Oh, OK, just one more.

X, everyone's favourite misinformation machine, has recently been sharing this photo of cars stranded in a snowstorm.

Captions in various langages - this particular one is in Italian - claim that this scene is in Germany in early December 2023 and it shows all the electric cars that have shut down due to the cold and been abandoned on the autobahn. Because, everyone knows, electric cars just stop working when it's cold. Don't they? 

This, I guess, is someone's idea of peak schadenfreude. Now, even I know that there aren't THAT many electric cars in Germany, but the picture has nevertheless been shared many, many times by doomsayers opposed, for whatever reason, to the rise of electric vehicles. 

A reverse image search using TinEye, however, shows that the photo was actually taken way back in February 2011 by an Associated Press photojournalist, and it depicts the aftermath of a snowstorm in Chicago, USA, not Germany. 12 years ago, there would have been hardly any electric cars in Chicago, Germany or anywhere else. 

It turns out the picture has actually been used for misinformation purposes many times for many different purposes in the intervening years. Some claim the image was captured in Texas, some even that it occurred in Pakistan!

It just goes to show what I've always said: don't believe anything you read on the Internet. Oh, wait....

UPDATE

Here's another similar one. There are multiple examples, both on Twitter and in various tabloid newspapers claiming that the whole (or sometimes most of) Olso's electric bus fleet failed during a recent cold snap there.

In fact, about 50-100 bus journeys out of 4,000 daily departures were cancelled for two or three days, until the city bus company, Ruter, figured things out. Embarrassing perhaps, but hardly disastrous. The issues have since been fixed by adjusting shifts and making changes to the charging infrastructure, according to Ruter.

But a lot of people clearly want to see this technology fail, and are willing to lie in order to achieve that goal.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Just one example of the kind of disinformation to be found on X

Just to give a little flavour of the enormity of the lies floating around on Elon Musk's disinformation vehicle X, there is a post doing the rounds, now with tens of millions of views, claiming that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zekinskyy has bought a $20 million mansion in Florida and has applied for US citizenship for when Ukraine inevitably falls.

To most thinking people this seems, even at first glance, so highly improbable that you'd at least check it. But that's not how Twitter and Facebook users work.

Anyway, suffice to say, the claim is not true, on many different levels. The mansion shown is in a completely different part of Florida than claimed, and is happily owned by some other regular (if rich) folk, although it is now for sale if you have $11 million to spare. The citizenship application shown is actually a customizable template available on Reddit. The photo of Zelenskyy used is the official one from the Ukraine government website.

So, someone has gone to quite some trouble to concoct this fantasy, complete with documentary "evidence", in order to discredit Zelenskyy, presumably in support of Republican attempts to stop the flow of American money to Ukraine. 

It apparently originated on the DC Weekly website, a nest of iniquity and disinformation that often posts pro-Russian content. The author of the original article, one Jessica Devlin, claims to be an "acclaimed journalist" but actually has nothing else published online, and her profile picture is actually a picture of another woman entirely, a New York-based writer called Judy Batalion.

So, levels within levels of disinformation. The X post, nevertheless, has been shared millions of times, including by a prominent failed Republican Senate candidate, and has already achieved its intended goal. Why any reputable individuals still associate themselves with this platform is a mystery to me.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

COP28 - a qualified success?

For better or worse, depending on who you speak to, the COP28 climate summit has ground, belatedly, to a halt. It hasn't been the unqualified success some wanted - realistically, it was never going to be that, notwithstanding the fact that one person's success is another person's failure - but neither has it been a complete write-off. There have been some positive developments, even if the big stuff didn't really get done. So many competing interests, and we are definitely not all rowing in the same direction, or with the same enthusiasm. 

So, what went right? 

  • Over 150 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, to significantly cut methane levels by 2030.
  • A commitment was made to triple global renewable energy production, and to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements, by 2030.
  • More money has been promised for the loss and damage fund for poorer countries directly feeling the effects of climate change.

Well, OK, all well and good, although none of this is actually enforceable.

So, what went wrong, then?

  • There was no commitment to cut methane from the largest single source: agriculture, particularly cattle-raising.
  • Despite early enthusiasm for a complete "phase out" of fossil fuels (over 100 countries were willing to sign up for that), the final declaration got watered down to "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner", and "phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible". But there were still no specific timelines, benchmarks or investment goals, and the agreement is entirely non-binding, although, arguably, at least fossil fuels were mentioned this time.
  • The goal to limit warming to 1.5°C looks to be gone, and the window of opportunity almost completely closed.

Groupings like the Alliance of Small Island States are furious and most environmental groups feel like they've been sold out. But oil producing nations feel like they've given away more than enough, and they will probably see this conference as a win insofar as it is not more restrictive. 

So, should we take COP28 as a win, overall? Maybe "qualified success' is about where we are.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Conservative lies (yes, I said it) about the carbon tax

Since the Liberals had the poor judgement to give a "break" to home heating oil users in Atlantic Canada, there has been a growing backlash against their signature climate change initiative. Without this ill-considered "carve-out", it would probably not have occurred to most people that avoiding a price on carbon was even an option. It was probably the worst single decision the Liberals have made in the whole eight years of their administration.

Now, however, a recent poll shows that 42% want the carbon "tax" to be scrapped completely, and a further 17% want at least a temporary cut. Only 15% believe that the tax should continue as scheduled with further rate increases each year. (The whole point of putting a price on carbon is to make carbon-intensive activities increasingly undesirable and difficult. Because, you know, the planet is burning and all that.)

Predictably, the Conservatives have made hay from this chink of sunshine. Disingenuous populists like Pierre Poilievre and Danielle Smith have jumped on this opportunity to beat the Liberals, and "Axe the tax!" (could they not do better than that?) has become a rallying cry for the right wing once again. Because, well, taxes are bad, aren't they?

Well, no, taxes are not, in and of themselves, bad. They are a way of raising money to provide other government services for people that need them. But, more to the point the "carbon tax" is not really a tax at all. It is a revenue-neutral device, and all the money collected is refunded to taxpayers. In fact, an estimated 80% of taxpayers - including most lower- and middle-income Canadians - are better off as a result of the carbon tax, as they receive more back in the form of a Climate Action Incentive Payment than they pay out as a result of the increasing carbon tax. Only a small minority of (wealthier) Canadians are actually out of pocket, due to their particularly carbon-intensive lifestyle. Don't just take the government's word for that, though: a 2021 university study confirms it, as does a 2022 Parliamentary Budget Office report.

The Liberals, though, have done a terrible job of explaining this to the Canadian public, and nearly 40% of Canadians seem to have no idea that they have been receiving these rebates. Even since the Conservatives' iniquitous Axe the Tax campaign started, the Liberals still don't seem to have gone out their way to explain it, or to explain why the Conservatives are lying to us about it (one has to assume that Conservative politicians actually DO understand it).

But, anyway, the Conservatives say, the carbon tax is adding to our inflationary woes, isn't it? Well, kind of. Tiff Macklem, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, estimates that the effect of the carbon tax on the recent increase in inflation is about ... 0.15%. So, inflationary pressure is just another Conservative red herring. And even that small element is not inflation that leaves us worse off (in the majority of cases, at any rate), because we get it back in the form of a rebate.

I know that. Maybe you know that. But most people apparently don't. Why don't they? Because the Liberals are inept. And the Conservatives will be running a whole election campaign on the basis of that government ineptitude and willful public ignorance. And they are clearly willing to lie and mislead in the process.  

Incidentally, I have tried to find a good explanation of why Poilievre and his followers object so strenuously to the carbon tax, but I have failed to do so. (Plenty of articles about why Conservatives should be in favour of it, but nothing substantive to the contrary.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Israel has lost the world's goodwill and the moral high ground

For about a week, or maybe more, in October, Israel had the goodwill and sympathy of the world. 

Since then, as Israel doubles down on its impossible goal of eliminating every last man-jack the Hamas organization, and proceeds to obliterate legitimate Palestinian communities and indiscriminately bomb civilians, hospitals and refugee camps, people are starting to remember that, oh yes, these are those guys who have been illegally settling Palestinian lands, carrying out extra-judicial killings and imprisonments, and maintaining an almost-complete blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Most major Western governments are still carefully sticking to the agreed formula that Israel has a right to defend itself, but Israel is doing very little defending and a whole lot of brazen attacking right now. And the people those governments represent are long past sympathizing with Israel, horrified by its disproportionate response to what was admittedly an inexcusable act by Hamas. Even the supportive governments are starting to show their frustration at the way things are going.

After seven days of "humanitarian pause" and a promising swap of hostages and prisoners, Israel has ramped up its rhetoric and its attacks still further, and it is all starting to sound increasingly hollow to Western ears. The moral high ground has been well and truly lost, and global goodwill has been squandered.

No-one pretends that Israel has ever had an easy time of it, plonked down in 1947 in a place they had not lived in for almost two thousand years. But, after decades of poor decisions and wars, a bigoted and arrogant political class, and a population with a sizeable chip on its shoulder, they have done themselves no favours. 

I will probably be branded as antisemitic for such sentiments. That's the usual come-back whenever the state of Israel is criticized, because it tends to shut down the conversation instantly because no-one can conscience being labelled as antisemitic. But you might notice that at no point (until now!) have I used the word "Jew" or "Jewish". This is not about religion, it's not even about culture. It's about a particular nation-state and its political boundaries and ambitions. Semitism or antisemitism doesn't (or shouldn't) come into it.

China and India qualify as developing countries for climate change purposes, and that's just wrong

The COP28 climate summit has already announced a few promising developments, one of which is a "loss and damage" fund, whereby rich developed countries subsidize poorer developing countries for the additional costs they have incurred from disasters and damage caused by climate change.

That all sounds very sensible. But the problem arises in defining which countries should contribute to the fund and which countries should benefit from it. There is a concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in UN jargon, which basically means that all countries have a responsibility to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but their share of responsibility depends on their development needs. But the UN's definitions of "developed" and "developing" are based on its 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is now over 30 years old, and much has changed in the intervening decades.

So, technically, India and China qualify as developing nations, and therefore stand to claim from the fund, which seems kind of ridiculous. China is the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, having overtaken the USA some years ago, and India is now Number 3. China and India both argue that their high levels of emissions are a recent development, while other western countries have been polluting the world for centuries. This is, of course, mere sophistry and disingenuous in the extreme.

China is now the second richest country in the world in terms of GDP, and India  has the fifth biggest economy. Yes, they both have huge populations to support, but to subsidize their current emissions habits seems just plain wrong. Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the summit, is also technically a developing country, but it has pledged $100 million to the loss and damage fund, so a precedent has been set. 

At the very least, the outdated development grouping of countries being used by the UN is in dire need of revision.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The US doesn't want EVs (or its car dealerships don't)

There's an interesting conundrum occurring in the American electric vehicle (EV) market. I have pointed out in a previous post that the USA is reporting a glut of unsold EVs, while Canada is facing the opposite problem: not enough cars available to fill demand.

So, now we have thousands of US car dealerships banding together to protest to Joe Biden that the American public is just not ready for the EV revolution and that demand has dried up (after the initial flurry of early adopters), and there is no way that they can possibly comply with the new regulations and targets in the Inflation Reduction Act, which effectively mandates that two-thirds of all new passenger cars be electric by 2032.

Despite a wide variety of good battery EV options available on the market, the dealerships claim that "electric vehicle demand today is not keeping up with the large influx of BEVs arriving at our dealerships prompted by the current regulations. BEVs are stacking up on our lots... Consumers don't want them; they're not buying them."

As a response, the dealerships and the manufacturers want the government to roll back its progressive targets. They have little or no interest in what is the right thing to do for the country or the planet; they are solely concerned with their bottom line and their shareholders' returns.

They seem to have no interest in getting creative either. For example, when was the last time you saw a television advertisement for an electric car? If you watch a sporting event, for example, most of the adverts are macho pitches for more-or-less interchangeable trucks and SUVs, with a heavy emphasis on speed, off-roading capability and towing capacity. Is it any surprise, then, that people think they want to buy macho trucks?

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration has the courage of its own convictions, or whether it caves under pressure like the Trudeau government did over home heating oil.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Do we really need nuclear power?

So, there was John Kerry at the COP28 summit in Dubai sharing his deeply-held belief that there is no path to net-zero carbon by 2050 that does not involve nuclear power: "We know, because the science and the reality of facts and evidence tell us, that you can't get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear". 

And when he says "some nuclear", he means a lot - the US (and several other developed countries, including Japan, France, UK, South Korea, UAE) is calling for a tripling of nuclear capacity. Yes, they are also calling for a tripling of renewable energy capacity too, but clearly the once-discredited nuclear industry is having a bit of a moment, notwithstanding its record of huge cost overruns, long construction times, expensive electricity, poor planning for long-term radioactive waste storage, and the potential for catastrophic accidents.

But is Kerry's claim true. A quick Google search suggests that it absolutely is:

It's certainly the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom is not always the wisest wisdom. And, if you look carefully, sandwiched between all these paeans of praise to the nuclear industry (many of which are contributed by the nuclear industry itself, incidentally), there are some contrary voices:

These are not wild voices from the political wilderness; they are reasoned analyses by respected scientists. Yes, there are fewer of them, and they MUCH worse funded. But these voices should not be just ignored.

So, does "the science and the reality of facts and evidence tell us" that nuclear power is a sine qua non for net zero carbon by 2050? Well, some of it does, but some of it doesn't. As with most of these things, it all depends on what assumptions you make (and when predicting the future, particularly a technological future, it is impossible to avoid making some assumptions).

One article called nuclear power the "most religious form of energy", and that "those who believe in it, believe in it 100%". That's not far wrong. It's one of the most polarizing technologies we have, with strong opinions on both sides. But the fact that we're still arguing about it attests to the fact that the jury is still out. It is pretty incontrovertible that nuclear power is not a cheap option (as the same article - and many others - explains), and it does have many other drawbacks too. But can we actually do without it?

Just to add spice into the mix, it's not even totally clear that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source, let alone carbon neutral, the single most important factor in its popularity these days:

*Sigh* It seems that nothing is ever simple. And John Kerry seemed so convincing...

Friday, December 01, 2023

What can we expect from COP28 in the current climate?

I don't often admit to it, but I'm feeling particularly pessimistic as we go into yet another round of the UN Conference of the Parties. The COP28 climate summit is taking place at a time when it has never been more important to push through a strong multinational program to deal with climate change, but at a time when there seems to be push-back all over the world against those very measures.

It starts with the optics of a climate change summit hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one the world's largest producers of fossil fuels. Conflict of interest? Er, just a bit. Leaked documents suggest that the summit's hosting president, Sultan al-Jaber, who is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (which is already in the process of massively ramping up its oil production), as well as UAE's Minister for Industry and advanced Technology, has plans to use the event to hold back-room discussions to promote the country's oil and gas business, rather than to showcase its renewable energy projects. 

Canada will of course be there at the summit. But so will representatives from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and you know that they are not there to discuss wind and solar power. Alberta is currently using its controversial sovereignty law to push back at Ottawa's proposed clean electricity regulations, and summarily halted development of its booming renewable power industry. Just next door, Saskatchewan has vowed to stop collecting and remitting the federal carbon tax because it feels that other provinces are getting preferential treatment after the federal Liberals' ill-advised decision to give home heating oil users in Atlantic a carbon tax break. Now, Canada's First Nations are jumping on the bandwagon, calling for a judicial review of a carbon tax they see as discriminatory. As a result of all this, Canada's climate change policy is in complete disarray, and the country's emissions reduction plan is falling well short of its ambitious targets.

High inflation and struggling economies around the world, and the short sharp shock of the Russian war in Ukraine, have many countries rethinking their climate change commitments. The UK, which was doing better than most countries in reducing its carbon emissions, has announced a major overhaul (and watering down) of its green policies. The USA has been doing better environmentally under Joe Biden than it has for many a year, but the threat to its climate change achievements of a second Trump term in 2024 has everyone second-guessing where it might be going. (Trump would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, roll back a bunch of executive orders on the environment, and obstruct as many progressive initiatives as possible.) Germany is backtracking on its home heating rules; France has seen protests against high fuel prices; etc, etc. Hell, even Sweden has cut taxes on fossil fuels recently.

It's not all doom and gloom. China has been investing massively in solar and wind power; the US's Inflation Reduction Act has completely turned around its environmental outlook; Brazil has got rid of its rainforest-slashing populist president; Australia has a new Prime Minister who is not quite so in-the-pocket of the coal and oil industries. Nearly a quarter of emissions worldwide are now subject to some sort of carbon tax. Renewable energy is booming.

But I still can't shake that feeling of impending doom. It hurts to admit it, but a global backlash against climate policies is undeniably underway. People are feeling the pinch and perceive themselves as overstretched in their daily lives. Climate change is no longer top of mind for many. Most people are at least aware of the immensity of the problem, but are unwilling to pay for a solution. As the low-hanging fruit has all been picked and further progress involves harder decisions and uncomfortable belt-tightening, there is a perception that green policies impose unacceptable costs. Populist right-wing politicians see this and willfully exploit it and make it worse. 

Developing countries understandably, don't want their development hampered by constraints created by first-world mistakes. New green technologies often require substantial upfront investment at a time when money is short and interest rates are high. Meanwhile, the planet is on track for an estimated 2.9% warming over pre-industrial levels, a far cry from the recommended 1.5% limit enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, enough to ensure an unrelenting litany of droughts, fires, extreme heat events and general climate mayhem.

What chance, then, does COP28 stand against these forces? I am always amazed at how resilient environmentalists are, how positive they stay after setback after setback. Over 70,000 delegates are meeting in Dubai this week, most of them - notwithstanding the Albertas, Saskatchewans and UAEs of the world - intent on improving the environment and "saving the world". Who am I to doubt them?