The Livable Region
January 24, 2007

GATEWAY BLINDNESS

On Thursday, Council will be discussing this report from the Vancouver Economic Development Commission:

I did a quick search, wondering how many times these terms came up:

climate change, greenhouse gases, sea-level rise

The answer: zero.
How much discussion about the impact of freighters (the largest point source of some pollutants) on air quality.
Zero.
Or the impact on agricultural lands of expanding port facilities.
Zero.
I appreciate that there are many points of view on Gateway, the need for port expansion, and the economic opportunities for Vancouver as the Asian entrance to North America.  But how can an organization charged with strategic thinking and the health of this city and region have no viewpoint on the issues which will determine the fundamental livability, viability and even the existence of parts of this region, not to mention port operations?
In the not-too-distant future, that will seem to be not just oblivious but irresponsible.

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President George Bush in his State of the Union message tonight is expected to call for increased production of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. (We’ll see if that’s accompanied by a call for more fuel-efficient vehicles.) Massive expansion of ethanol plants is already underway. Therefore, it’s important to know if the following is accurate:

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive demand for fuel is insatiable. The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.

The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue. Soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in scores of lower-income countries that rely on grain imports, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mexico. The resulting political instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress, directly affecting all countries. It is not only food prices that are at stake, but trends in the Nikkei Index and the Dow Jones Industrials as well.

This comes from the Earth Policy Institute. I haven’t seen these figures elsewhere, so I’m cautious. But even if exaggerated, the moral issue is probably not: If filling up an SUV means people suffer elsewhere, possibly even at home because of higher prices for food … well, what would Jesus do?

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In the next few weeks, the full force of Science will redefine the climate-change debate.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will, on February 2nd, release the Fourth Assessment
Already the media are covering the leaks and leads: that human-caused climate change is more than 90 percent certain.  They’re treating climate change will a new seriousness – mainly because the climate has changed.  Of the atmosphere, likely.  Of politics, certainly.
Our Prime Minister misconstrued the public’s concern about climate change, and, to give him credit, he did a fast turnaround and is now trying to catch up, pulling out policies and programs that were, mere months ago, dismissed as expendable. 
But the problem politically is that climate change isn’t just an issue anymore.  It’s not something that can simply be assigned to a Minister, certainly not a junior one.  Climate change could potentially require a wholesale rethinking of our assumptions about economic growth and how we live – and honestly, no politician really wants to take that on.  Talk about uncertainty.
So ‘the environment’ continues to be isolated from energy and most other big-budget policy, most of which assumes we’ll continue to blow out carbon as though it had no cost.  
Examples:  Approving coal-fired electricity plants without carbon capture.  Allocating our natural gas and water to liquify the tar sands.  Turning the Fraser Delta and most of the valley over to development, mostly car and truck dependent, to serve the port and urban expansion.  And building more roads to hurry it up.  So far those policies haven’t been reconciled with climate change.
Typically, a concern would be addressed in the way politicians are doing it now: announce a targeted program or grant in front of an appropriate setting.  But this time, there are literally thousands of scientists – some outraged that government has been unresponsive to warnings and red flags – who will not likely allow the IPCC report to be ignored or dismissed. They won’t be swift-boated.  And they’ll be back, with four reports in succession throughout 2007.  The media (and the bloggers) will be relentless.
Coincidentally (I assume), B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will be speaking to his energy strategy, and has no choice but to include reference to climate change.  Will he focus on personal responsibility for change, or will he announce new standards?  Will some incentives be provided or will taxes be shifted?
Putting the obligation on individuals just won’t cut it.  Government is the primary player for two big reasons: it sets the standards, it levies the taxes.  The politicians’ job is to calculate what the public will accept.
And that may depend in next few months literally on the weather. A few more Katrina Moments, and all bets are off.  No telling how big this might become, what new leaders might emerge, how stock markets will respond. Tie climate change in with the geo-instablity of our times, and what might seem impossible today will be imperative tomorrow.

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I went looking for coverage of the storm battling Europe, but found this as the lead article in The Guardian:

Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere much faster than scientists expected, raising fears that humankind may have less time to tackle climate change than previously thought.New figures from dozens of measuring stations across the world reveal that concentrations of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, rose at record levels during 2006 – the fourth year in the last five to show a sharp increase. Experts are puzzled because the spike, which follows decades of more modest annual rises, does not appear to match the pattern of steady increases in human emissions.

The Runaway Effect, which was only mooted about – and often discounted – by credible sources a few years, now seems to be openly discussed. Read the whole article: Surge in carbon levels raises fears of runaway warming.

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I subscribe to the New York Times Select – the stuff you have to pay for to see on the web. It’s one strategy the dead-tree media are using to remain viable. In this case, it’s worth it.
Here’s a reason: the bloggers who don’t even appear in print. Lisa Margonelli writes one called “Pipeline.”
You can read the whole piece here if you subscribe, but here’s a sample:

An overwhelming number of Americans believe that our oil problems can be solved by better auto technology ….
What we would rather not do is use less gas. Over the past five years, as gas prices have doubled, fuel consumption has continued climbing upward…. We are a country with 140 million pedals to the metal. American drivers buy one of every nine barrels of crude oil pumped from the ground, so we have more power and influence over world prices than any other buyers. Our behavior exacerbates small supply shortages, sending prices even higher. The International Energy Agency now considers drivers’ “insensitivity” to price as a potential threat to the stability of the world oil market…
Why? In 1977 the average family traveled 12, 036 miles a year, but by 2001, we were driving 21,171 miles to and from work, soccer practice and the mall. People bought bigger cars to make the longer drives more bearable, and now they’re stuck with both the cars and the commutes.

[And, I’d say, with the urban environments created by the car: places in which there are no alternatives, and no alternatives wanted.]

Generations of Americans have come to expect a constant flow of cheap gasoline as a right — and they attribute high prices to oil company shenanigans. Eric Smith, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that that 85 percent of Californians believe that high gas prices are the result of oil company manipulation, not market pressures. And if there’s no shortage, why conserve?
To really address our overconsumption of oil, we need to fix the drivers along with the cars. And that will require big new approaches. For years, environmentalists have begged for higher gas taxes as a way to discourage people from wasting gas. But we have demonstrated that we can’t or won’t respond rationally to high prices, so taxes will not push conservation. We need to rethink our supply-based energy policy, and ready to start making changes both big and small in the way we consume oil.

That’s a formula for catastrophe – the mechanism a deluded population requires before accepting change. Not exactly a great political platform or policy recommendation. Perhaps it explains why most politicians are not engaging the big issues, particularly climate change, or making the connections to our way of life.

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January 10, 2007

More evidence, here in The Independent, that the passivity which characterizes our current attitude to climate change is dissipating fast

 

 

EU: Climate change will transform the face of the continent
Europe, the richest and most fertile continent and the model for the modern world, will be devastated by climate change, the European Union predicts today.
The ecosystems that have underpinned all European societies from Ancient Greece and Rome to present-day Britain and France, and which helped European civilisation gain global pre-eminence, will be disabled by remorselessly rising temperatures, EU scientists forecast in a remarkable report which is as ominous as it is detailed.
Full article here.

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This shouldn’t be necessary.  But I’m going to acknowledge that the new federal Environment minister John Baird at least made the connection between the wind storm that devastated Stanley Park and climate change.
“Weird weather … is a ‘wake-up call,’ ” Baird is reported as saying in today’s Sun.  “‘It’s another reason why we have to act on climate change.”
We’ll see if appropriate policy follows, but at least we have a responsible politician making some connections – unlike Gordon Campbell, our provincial Premier, who has managed to be almost totally oblivious on this issue. 
I pursue that theme in my column in the latest issue of Business in Vancouver.

I think we just had a Katrina Moment – a weather event so sudden, so severe, it disturbs not just the landscape but the status quo.
The December 15 windstorm, the third in a week, reinforced the usual fear about the vulnerability of our technological web and added the fear of retribution. Was nature’s wrath a consequence of the progress that has made us fat and happy? Has the climate-change issue turned personal, and moral?
At this point, it is compulsory to note that a single extraordinary event does not an argument make. Even those who believe that the science is clear on climate change will issue that standard disclaimer.
But the burden of proof has shifted. Now it’s the skeptics who are obliged to argue that an event consistent with climate-change theory that projects more extreme weather is not a cause for worry of worse to come. With every Katrina Moment, it becomes tougher to defend indifference.
Most politicians would prefer to avoid addressing global warming and are so far doing an excellent job of it. The B.C. Hansard of 2005 shows a total of two paragraphs devoted to climate change. I asked a selection of people, some of whom are Liberal supporters: “True or false – Gordon Campbell has had nothing to say about climate change.” Without exception: “True.”
It’s understandable. Why take on climate change when the danger is distant, the costs unknown and the global difference we would make almost insignificant? The 3-D strategy of doubt, deny and delay has worked pretty well so far. But the evidence keeps getting worse. With each Katrina Moment, more and more people wonder how our leaders are going to respond to our anxiety. Normally dry debate over “sustainability” is turning emotional.
Marc Jaccard, the author of Sustainable Fossil Fuels and a past chairman of the B.C. Utilities Commission, recently wrote that our provincial politicians will be asked: “What did you do for the atmosphere, Daddy?”
“My bet is,” he concluded, “that B.C.’s cabinet ministers will avoid telling their children about the difference they could have made.”
Jaccard was questioning the province’s decision to allow coal-burning power plants with no carbon capture. To do so, given available technology, is like saying, not only are we ignoring climate change, we don’t believe there will be any unexpected economic consequences over the life of the project.
That’s pretty much the position of Don Potts, the executive director of the Joint Industry Electricity Steering Committee, who represents the major industrial users of purchased electric power in B.C.
“To reject these facilities now,” he argues, “sends a costly message to those in the private sector who may want to help supply the growing need for electric power in B.C.”
That’s an astonishing position, given the likely economic retribution that will occur as other jurisdictions take action.
California is considering prohibiting the state’s investor-owned utilities from buying power from any source that emits more carbon dioxide than does a modern natural-gas power plant.
Says Jaccard: “This will force coal plant developers to move more quickly to coal plants with carbon capture and storage – which will still be cheaper than natural gas plants, nuclear and most renewables.”
In the next few weeks, a new energy strategy will be announced by the province. The premier, who has had nothing of consequence to say so far, will have his chance. A leadership vacuum, like a natural one, does not remain unfilled.
Gordon Price is the director of Simon Fraser University’s city program and a former Vancouver city councillor. His e-mail address is pricetags@shaw.ca. His column appears monthly.

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December 19, 2006

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy celebrates the season of good cheer with another dump on the City in this Globe and Mail piece.

This Christmas season thus sees a re-mounting of a pantomime Vancouver has seen many times before: an annual joint production by our political left and political right that repeats the same sad plotline year after year: “Let’s park the poorest in a drugs slum.”
Stage right, the mavens of Point Grey and South Vancouver love it, as they do not have to provide social housing sites along their leafy lanes, even for their own senior citizens. Stage left, supposedly progressive community organizations can consolidate their power and funding streams by concentrating poverty into one area.

He’s right, of course. Vancouver’s Left and Right have been playing that game of mutual advantage with the Downtown East Side for years, and the results have been speaking – yelling, actually – for themselves.
Boddy also suggests that the City be shamed into rolling out 19 identified sites for social and affordable housing. Once again, an illustration of how easier it is to attach blame to City Hall when the responsibility rests elsewhere. The City has been pushing for senior-government funding on some of these sites since the early 1990s, when the Feds abandoned the capital programs needed to get the projects built. But just the other day, the Province announced its support.
Perhaps everyone has run out of excuses.

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Don Potts has a quick reponse in the Sun today to Marc Jaccard’s column in the Saturday issue.
(Potts is executive director of the Joint Industry Electricity Steering Committee, which represents the major industrial users of purchased electric power in B.C. Marc Jaccard is an SFU professor in resources and author of “Sustainable Fossil Fuels.” I reference his criticism of the province’s approval of coal-fired power plants without carbon capture in this post below.)
Says Potts:

Others have voiced opposition to coal burning because of increased greenhouse-gas emissions. While an important issue worldwide, the issue needs to be dealt with on a comprehensive national/international basis and not unilaterally applied to a single technology after proponents have developed plans in good faith that comply with the terms of BC Hydro’s call for tender and the newly established provincial emission standards. To reject these facilities now … sends a costly message to those in the private sector who may want to help supply the growing need for electric power in B.C.

Translation: Don’t punish us because BC Hydro doesn’t give a damn about climate change. If you do, you won’t get more carbon-spewing plants in the future.
I am increasingly astonished at those who think we can make decisions today without having to bear the consequences of our actions. Or assume that there will not be economic implications in the future when we decide to ignore carbon pricing today.
So what should be doing? Not surprisingly, California is preparing itself.

California utilities would be prohibited from buying electricity from most coal-burning power plants in neighboring states under far-reaching regulations proposed by state energy regulators Wednesday.
The rules … would limit the amount of carbon dioxide new power plants in the state could emit. … Under the rules, the state’s investor-owned utilities would not be allowed to buy power from any source that spews more carbon dioxide than does a modern natural gas power plant. Specifically, the source could not emit more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt hour of electricity produced. That’s enough energy to light 750 homes for one hour. (Full story in the San Francisco Chronicle here.)

Is that what B.C. should tell investors: You can build your plants – but only if they’re less carbon-polluting than a natural-gas plant.
Says Marc Jaccard:

It makes sense. The regulations do not ban coal. They set a limit on CO2/Kwh to the level of a clean natural gas plant. This will force coal plant developers to move more quickly to coal plants with carbon capture and storage – which will still be cheaper than natural gas plants, nuclear and most renewables. California is once again setting the trend.

The Daily Score at Sightline praises the California initiative here, but cautions that it would be easy for power suppliers to, say, buy hydro power from the Northwest – and then let us buy the coal-originated power. In other words, we could launder the polluting power – unless we had the same requirements as California.
Jaccard doesn’t share that fear:

Forgot the bit about coal-power laundering. There are reporting procedures about electricity transfers that make it fairly easy to see if BC Hydro or anyone else is laundering dirty electricity to California. If there were nothing but small players, that would be one thing. But the transmission lines are controlled by big entities. Vigilence will be required, but since most jurisdictions are likely to follow California in emission regulations, it should be easy to prevent this kind of thing.

He, too, assumes British Columbia will follow California. But not presumably if Mr. Potts can rely on Premier Campbell, the provincial government and B.C. Hydro to ignore climate change.
(Yesterday I asked a selection of people I met at holiday parties, some of whom are Liberal supporters: “True or False – Gordon Campbell has had nothing to say about climate change.” Without exception: True.)

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December 16, 2006

I think we just had a Katrina Moment.
Weather so sudden, so severe, it scares you.  
The TV News called it the ‘wicked wind’ – a haunting scream at 3 am in the morning. 
The damage wasn’t just physical – though the losses will be deeply felt.  I just saw a downed catalpa, majestic and aged, ripped up by the roots in Stanley Park. 
  
Maybe the wind storm exposed more than the usual fear, that our technological web is vulnerable.  There’s also the fear of retribution, that nature’s roaring back as a consequence of our actions during the last two and a half centuries.  What’s next?  Because it sure seems likely, as we personally experience what is happening to our planet, that something else is in the works. 
More and more people wonder: How are our leaders going to respond to our anxiety.  One or two Katrina Moments and the agenda changes.  It already has, if Marc Jaccard’s op-ed in the Sun today is any indication.  The author of “Sustainable Fossil Fuels,” an SFU prof in resource management, confronts our provincial politicians: “What did you do for the Atmosphere, Daddy?”

 … my bet is that B.C.’s cabinet ministers will avoid telling their children about the difference they could have made.

That’s a pretty tough charge.  ‘You don’t care about your own kids?  About our future?’
Jaccard is looking at their decision to allow coal-burning power plants with no carbon capture.  He argues that the technologies exist, so is the Provincial Government really going to allow two coal-burning power plants without requiring carbon capture and storage?  That’s like saying, ‘I’m not taking climate change seriously, even in this new climate of anxiety.’
“Climate of anxiety” were the words used to headline Pete McMartin’s column, also in the Sun today.  He too got the spooky implications of our Katrina Moment; he even connected it to that “End of the World” headline a few weeks ago – with a McMartin twist.  Mother Nature is more a ‘vengeful bitch.’
It really isn’t surprising that politicians would prefer to avoid addressing climate change, given that they have to balance all the issues, find a way to respond credibly to the science, craft policy, approve legislation and allocate dollars for a danger that is distant.  But Katrina Moments require that our leaders respond, that they find the right words, and lead us at a time when we don’t know what the wind will bring.

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