The Livable Region
December 14, 2006

Australia Burning

The worst drought in Australia’s recorded history continues  – as does the annual mayhem of bushfire season.  So regular an occurrence is this that Aussie newspapers host a kind of contest, as readers send in their best photographs, such as these from Melbourne’s The Age:

Some of the most surreal scenes show no sign of the fires themselves, just the sense of a smothered world transformed.

On the other side of the planet, from today’s Guardian:

Britain is on course for the warmest year since records began, according to figures from the Met Office and the University of East Anglia yesterday …
The record year has astounded scientists. “What’s phenomenal about this year is that some of these months have broken records by incredible amounts. This year it was 0.8C warmer in autumn and 0.5C warmer between April and October than the previous warmest years. Normally these records are broken by around one tenth of a degree or so,” said Prof Jones. 

Meanwhile, back home: business as usual.  Don Cayo in today’s Sun reports on the ‘New West’ conference at which Gordon Campbell was at “his business-boosting best,” pushing the Gateway Project and apparently leaving the issues of smarter, cleaner technologies for energy use to others. 
I’ve been asking others why, in the face of dramatic and accumulating evidence with respect to climate change, Gordon Campbell has nothing to say.  It confounds others too, who assume that there is no support in a cabinet moving to the right, with an agenda of job creation and revenue enhancement from fossil fuels, to address this inconvenient truth.
But then, beetle-damaged pine forests don’t make for good photo opportunities.
UPDATE, Dec 17, 2007: In addition to reporting on bushfires, Aussie newspapers also have to cover storms – “the biggest we’ve ever seen on the Sunshine Coast in years.”

The Sunshine Coast resort of Noosa is expected to run out of water by the end of today if power is not restored to the area’s only water treatment plant.
Power failed after a series of devastating storms in the state yesterday.
Heavy rain and wind gusts up to 120km/h brought down trees and power lines, damaged buildings and ripped roofs from homes on the Sunshine Coast, at Toogoolawah and Esk, west of Brisbane and at Tiaro, north of Brisbane, late yesterday afternoon.

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What are we supposed to make of this:

This story came and went in the Sun three weeks ago, and no one seemed to think it unusual.

Nearly three-quarters of british Columbians believe life as we know it will end in another two or three generations unless drastic and immediate action is taken to curb global warming …

The headline is clearly overwrought. But the story is significant: people really think climate change is a big deal.
There are two kinds of leadership these days. Bush, Harper and Howard represent the school that hopes, by ignoring the underlying anxiety, action can be deferred. Unfortunately, Nature is not cooperating.
Blair, Gore and Dion represent the school that believes it’s time to get serious. But they haven’t put forth proposals or plans equal to the threat.
The danger is that this vacuum will be filled by apocolyptic charlatans, those for whom the end of the world offers a wonderful opportunity for power.
Or am I missing something?
Update: According to Gristmill: A 72% of majority of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa say they consider global warming to be extremely (32%) or very (39%) serious — while another 15% say it is fairly serious. Only 11% dismiss it as just somewhat (9%) or not at all serious (2%).
What is it about 72 percent?

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What’s wrong with this picture:

Calgary has been recognized as a green machine after receiving a World Leadership Award yesterday for its sustainable development policies. Calgary Mayor David Bronconnier and the city were nominated for the award in the environmental category f0r the city’s cutting edge green policies promoting public transportation and environmental design.

That’s Calgary, folks, the Houston of Canada. Politicians in places you’d least expect – Chicago immediately comes to mind – are finding rewards in branding themselves as leaders in sustainability. Vancouver – literally green – lags behind.
Provincially, few expect Alberta to sincerely embrace sustainability. But in B.C., our Premier doesn’t even seem inclined to try. How can coal-fired power plants be planned without taking carbon emissions into account, how can offshore oil-and-gas be promoted, the Gateway highway expansions be pushed through without climate change even being acknowledged?
Rumour has it that we may get a change in rhetoric with the announcement of a new energy policy early in January. Perhaps even appropriate policies. We’ll see. In the meantime, we should at least try to catch up to…. (this is so hard to say) … Calgary.

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Ah, the three-storey walk-up …

The nadir of architectural design in the 20th century, built by the hundreds (if not thousands) in Vancouver from about 1945 to 1955. 

According to the Goodman Report, the newsletter of the dominant realtor for these buildings in the region, the typical 15-to-20 suite apartment currently sells for between $100,000 to $190,000 per unit, depending on location – or appoximately $2 million. 

For the last three decades, these buildings have been a reserve of lower-middle-income affordable rental housing.  And since they were built as rental units, they can’t be converted easily to condominium – and indeed, can’t compete with the newer housing stock that provides built-in laundry, parking for every unit, lots of electrical outlets, decent plumbing, etc.   This combination had kept a ceiling on the rents achievable by landlords, who, so long as they get a reasonable cash flow, have had no incentive to sell since they would then incur a capital gain.

When the real-estate market was hot in the late 1980s, these buildings were being targeted for demolition and replacement by luxury condos.  In Kerrisdale, the eviction of long-term elderly tenants created a political nightmare for the NPA under Mayor Gordon Campbell.   Low-rise apartments were being replaced by highrise condos with less units.  Result: population density reduced, housing affordability lost, views compromised, tenants distressed, neighbours angry, politicians unhappy.  Pretty much a lose-lose all the way around. 

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October 30, 2006

That big ‘whoompf’ you heard this morning was the arrival of the 700-page report on climate change authored by former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern for British Chancellor Gordon Brown.  Titled “The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” it will unavoidably be known as the Stern Admonition.
There’s already an additonal entry under Stern’s bio in Wikipedia, not to mention numerous headlines, most prominently in the Globe and Mail: $7-trillion warning on global warming. For more on Stern and the politics of climate change in Britain, check the Guardian: Stern by name, stern by nature.
In my experience, you’ll know the issue is being taken seriously when budget lines and tax policy change. Best line: “In the unusually memorable words of former Tory chancellor Lord Howe the aim now is tax as you burn, rather than tax as you earn.”

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October 24, 2006

Now Seattle, like Portland, is wondering whether it’s possible to raise children downtown.  The Post-Intelligencer explored the issue in this article: “Parents want more family-friendly downtown living.”

The 2000 Census found that just 4 percent of households in Seattle’s urban core, which includes downtown and South Lake Union, included a child, compared with 20 percent in the city as a whole and 37 percent for King County, outside of Seattle.
State statistics show that Seattle’s urban core has grown much faster than the rest of the city and county since 2000, thanks to a boom in apartment and condo construction. But, while newer numbers for families with children are not available yet, those selling downtown condos say their customers tend to be young professionals and empty nesters, rather than families with kids.

And some comments from me in an accompanying article: “Downtown living works in Vancouver, B.C. — but will it translate?”

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October 22, 2006

The gap between leaders in Europe and North America on the issue of climate change is staggering.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Friday that the world will reach “catastrophic tipping points” on climate change within 15 years, unless serious action is taken to tackle global warming. In his strongest warning yet on the environment, the prime minister told fellow European Union leaders that the world faces ‘conflict and insecurity’ unless it acts now. ‘We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points,’ Blair said, in a joint letter with his Dutch counterpart, Jan Peter Balkenende.

In the U.S., the environment isn’t even on the list of significant issues to be discussed during the current mid-term campaigns.  In Canada, at least, the Conservatives were roundly thumped in most of the media for the inadquacy, if not hypocrisy, of their Clean Air Act.   Either North American leaders don’t get the urgency of the issue, or don’t care.  I’m not sure which is worse.

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From today’s Sun:

Another 7,000 kilometres of coastline in the Atlantic provinces, British Columbia and western Arctic are said to be “highly sensitive” to sea levels that scientists predict will rise between 35 centimetres and one metre by 2100.

The City of Richmond, on delta lands south of Vancouver, surrounded by dykes, is planning on a sea level rise of only 0.4 metres.  Earlier this year, a surge breached the dykes of Delta, built for a 200-year flood.  The cost of raising dykes to handle something like a metre rise could run into the hundreds of millions.  What choice do they have?
And at what point will leadership become liable for negligence when, reasonably knowing that the consequences of climate change were inevitable, they chose to do deny the science, ignore the warnings, and to do nothing?

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September 21, 2006

Back in 1989, in my second term on City Council, I vividly remember the week when James Hansen spoke before the U.S. Senate on climate change. Hansen, now Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, could speak with authority, and he did: global warming was real, it was happening, and for the sake of the planet and civilization, it was time to respond. Here was Science speaking to Power.

Even as a novice politician, I realized that regardless of the urgency, change would come slowly: our economy was based on fossil fuels, and we measured our prosperity by increasing the rate of consumption. But given, as the saying goes, that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, the public would accept the need for change if properly prepared.

City Council accepted my argument that we as a municipality should start that preparation, and established what became known as the Clouds of Change Task Force. I expected that within a decade, real change in attitude and behaviour would be evident.

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California has done it again.

The Governor and Legislature, though from opposing political parties, have agreed to a plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Not quite Kyoto, but nonetheless precedent-setting for the largest emitter in the U.S. and the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Even business leaders agree that the plan may actually aid the California economy. Venture-capitalist John Doerr on National Public Radio: “Entrepreneurs see significant opportunities to both do good and do well by innovating, by competing for new green technologies. All they want is for someone to set the rules, and they’ll go out and compete like crazy.”

The state will set up a cap-and-trade system. Companies that reduce emissions faster can sell their rights to others. And the caps will get tighter over time.

So once again, California leads the way – as it did when it first tackled air pollution back in 1947. (You can find that history here on the Cailfornia Air Resources Board website, along with a video that shows how bad the smog was in the ‘gas attack’ of 1943.)

In an article in the current Atlantic magazine, “Some Convenient Truths,” Gregg Easterbrook makes a critical point: “Action to prevent runaway global warming may prove cheap, practical, effective, and totally consistent with economic growth.” In fact, there’s hardly been an air-quality problem – smog, acid rain, ozone depletion – that hasn’t been solved faster and cheaper than anyone expected … once we decided to tackle it. The problem with climate change is, we haven’t decided to seriously deal with it.

Premier Campbell has as one of his Five Great Goals a commitment to “Lead the world in sustainable environmental management, with the best air and water quality, and the best fisheries management, bar none.”

But where’s the commitment to deal with greenhouse gases? The evidence accumulates that climate change will dramatically affect the province (arguably it already has, as manifested by the outbreak of mountain pine beetle). Yet the province commits itself to capital projects that will only take us in the opposite direction, whether through coal gasification or the Gateway Project. The latter, in particular, assumes our transportation system in the eastern part of the region will be wholy dominated by cars and trucks, and the land use will reflect that dependence. It is, as BEST’s Richard Campbell observed, “yesterday’s solutions at tomorrow’s prices.”

While California acts, we as a province and nation delay. The failure to set realistic goals to reduce greenhouse gases, to establish the rules, to set up the trading mechanisms, means we will be less competitive and more vulnerable.

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