I’ve just returned from two weeks of vacation during which I purposely isolated myself from the web. I visited poor countries struggling to manage their environments sustainably, learned sufficient about banana cultivation that we have now switched to buying only organic bananas, reveled for an hour or two in the diversity of a rainforest, and came home convinced that it is possible for westerners to live closer to nature than we do. It’s probably also necessary, if we are ever to take real steps to counter climate change and the other aspects of the environmental crisis. And then I found my way back to the web, and to Canada’s deteriorating environmental performance.
I’ll begin far from Canada, with the Guardian’s editorial for March 31st (Easter Sunday for Christians). The author drew together oft repeated comments on the environmental crisis by the UK government’s Chief Scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, and a new display at the British Museum concerning the demise of Pompeii in AD 79, to make a comment on our own times and our need to deal with the environmental crisis raging around us – in short, an editorial to make you think. Beddington, who has had a distinguished academic career and was knighted for his contributions to fisheries science and management, has talked frequently (most recently in late March) about a perfect storm of growing global need for food, water, and energy. In a speech to the UK Sustainable Development conference in
Former UK Chief Scientist, John Beddington Photo © BBC News
2009, he focused on 2030, and our growing need for food, water and energy to support a larger (8 billion), somewhat more affluent, and much more urban world population at that time. He pointed to our diminishing food reserves (currently 38 or so day’s worth, the lowest ever recorded), our growing costs for food, our falling stocks of water (current per capita availability about 25% of that in 1960 and falling), and the ways in which climate change is exacerbating each of these problems. The text of this speech (unfortunately, I could not find the presentation on line so the slides are missing) is filled with juicy bits such as a quote from Stephen Chu on water shortages, “California will not be able to produce agricultural products within 25 years.” Beddington’s bottom line is that we will need about 50% more food, 30% more water, and 50% more energy by 2030, all while climate change and other pressures of our growing population make getting these increases very difficult or impossible.
The British Museum’s new exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum reveals the civilized, if sometimes baudy, lives of citizens the morning before they were killed by the eruption of Vesuvius. “What is less appreciated, and perhaps more frightening, than the way that people died in the shadow of Vesuvius, is the marvellous way they were living before that day came in AD79, when splendid architecture, intricate frescoes and undoubted scholarship suddenly counted for nothing.”
A new exhibit at the British Museum
The editorial notes that “in discussing a city where the graffiti routinely quotes Virgil, and where the paintings nod at Plato, it seems arrogant to dismiss a civilization less learned than our own.” Nevertheless, in science at least we have progressed since AD 79, and would be far more able than they were to appreciate the dangers of a heating up Vesuvius towering above us. The Pompeiians were unfortunate, rather than irresponsible, but the same cannot be said about us if we fail to prevent Beddington’s perfect storm of problems sweeping over us without trying our damnedest to prevent it. As the editorial concludes, “Should we fail to do so, a history that discovers books on climate change among our own rubble may be less forgiving about us. All the more so because the environmental ruin that we are unleashing could preclude any rebirth of prosperity for a very long time.”
And now to Canada, because our Harper government continues its efforts not simply to ignore evidence of pending environmental problems, but actively to reduce our capacity to measure or understand them, never mind our ability to work to mitigate them. I’m reminded of the recent images on the media of the North Koreans as they manufacture an imagined state of war with South Korea and the USA. Canadians, and other westerners, laugh at the outlandish efforts by the North Korean government to manipulate the truth and cloud the judgement of its people. All young Kim Jong Un needs to complete
Kim Jong Un and generals – just add a cigar. Photo © Korea Central News Agency
his imitation of Churchill during England’s Finest Hour, is a big, honking cigar, and one or two age lines in his face. But is not the Harper government doing all it can to mislead Canadians on environmental issues?
March 31st marked the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area, an irreplaceable living laboratory for studying the science of freshwater ecosystems that has had a highly productive 40 years of life. Why is it being shut down? The Harper government announced it intended to cease funding the ELA last May as a cost saving measure (the budget is under $2 million per year), burying this news within the antidemocratic omnibus budget Bill C-38. While claiming to be interested in having other parties take over operation of the facility, the government seems to have gone out of its way to frustrate any such efforts, including commencing demolition of some buildings well before the close-down date. Given the government’s current push for development (= mining) in northwestern Ontario, I wonder if getting rid of ELA was simply a prudent step by a government interested in easing environmental controls on industry? No. Couldn’t be. Could it? In any event, we now lose an internationally unrivaled capacity to understand the role of water in our ecosystems at a time when climate change is expected to be stressing aquatic systems severely. Water. In lakes. On the landscape, where it nurtures living things. Things that provide our food. No. Irrelevant. Close it down. DigitalJournal has a commentary on the close-down, together with two video clips – one a description of what the ELA does for us, and the other a Rick Mercer rant. When Rick rants about fresh water science, you know the government is trying to keep us in the dark about something.
About a week earlier, the Harper government was caught trying to secede quietly from the UN Convention on Desertification without telling anyone. The claimed reason: to save the $350,000 annual cost which in Mr. Harper’s view, was being wasted by the United Nations. Fortunately Canadian Press ferreted out the news so we at least know what has happened. Canada is no longer a member of the convention, joining ZERO other countries worldwide who do not support this initiative – talk about being out on a limb. I am not going to defend the United Nations’ capacity to manage funds effectively, but has the Harper government never wasted $350,000 itself – google G20 and gazebo and artificial lake to find out – and is picking up your toys (dollars) and leaving the sandbox (international arena) in a huff the best way to work to improve the only international ‘government’ we have on this planet? I think not.
Meanwhile across arid regions of the world lives become harsher, and Mr. Harper’s past promises are shown to be hollow. Speaking after promising $20 million of aid in Dakar, Senegal just five months ago, Mr. Harper said, “Across the Sahel region of Africa, there are many problems, including millions of men, women and children who are suffering because they do not have enough to eat. I know I speak for all Canadians when I tell you we will not abandon you. The challenges we’re talking about today go well beyond the food shortage, but obviously for many people this is the most critical challenge.” About as hollow as his promises to bring openness and democracy to Canadian government some years ago.
A wide swath of east Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and southern Somalia suffered serious famine during the 2011 drought. (Photo © Reuters/Jakob Dall/Danish Red Cross/Handout)
Incidentally, the severe drought in East Africa which killed 50,000 people in 2011 has now been attributed at least partially to climate change. In March, Fraser Lott and colleagues at the Met Office Hadley Centre, UK, reported in Geophysical Research Letters that by using climate simulations they could show that the failure of the 2011 “long rains” could only be accounted if they included anthropological climate forcings. This is the first time that a climate change signal strong enough to be detected statistically has been found in a drought event – our effects on climate are now so pronounced that they can be seen in discrete weather events.
In mid-March, we learned that the government’s cuts at Environment Canada have seriously impaired the capacity of that department to monitor pollution. There was no government announcement concerning this, but there were internal e-mails, and Post Media News managed to gain access. (I wonder when the Harper government will begin censoring our news media; it seems like a logical next step since the media do not seem interested in following the party line.) The severe cuts to Environment Canada introduced in last year’s budget have eliminated the positions of a team of seven scientists whose responsibilities included the monitoring of air pollution from industrial sources such as chimney stacks. At the time the cuts were announced, Environment Minister Peter Kent estimated the government would save about $600,000 per year by eliminating the seven-member team and turning to other sources for support such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As if the EPA does not have enough to do on its own side of the border! Now, do we need to continue to monitor air pollution in Canada? Even the Harper government claims to be about to introduce new regulations governing pollution by the oil and gas industry – we all wait with bated breath – and if and when these regulations are introduced will there not be even more need for monitoring by Environment Canada? Or do we expect the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to police themselves?
The cover of CAPP’s ‘Responsible Canadian Energy’ report.
I think that Environment Minister Peter Kent deserves an Oscar for his frequent performances defending the Harper government’s environmental record. In all the photos I can find of him on the web, he never seems to be dissembling, hiding the truth, or trying to sell me a used car. His boss, Mr. Harper, not so much. In photo after photo he looks like he is hiding the truth. I wonder if there is time in his schedule for some acting lessons – given by Mr. Kent?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper (photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press) and Environment Minister Peter Kent (photo © Chris Wattie/Reuters) practicing their “it’s only a small lie” gesture.
Which brings me to the National Roundtable on the Economy and Environment, disbanded by the Harper government after one too many learned reports pointing to the economic and other costs to Canada if we continue to ignore climate change. It seems the desire to eliminate this particular thorn knows no bounds. Last week, the Globe and Mail reported on an 11th hour directive from Minister Kent insisting that the library of past research data and reports be transferred to Environment Canada rather than to an independent think-tank, Sustainable Prosperity, based at the University of Ottawa as had been planned some months ago with the full knowledge of Environment Canada. Bob Slater, Acting Chair of the Roundtable, said Minister Kent committed to making the research available “in accordance with government of Canada information management and publications policies.” We all know how easy it is to obtain information from Environment Canada these days. Am I just being overly suspicious when I fear that Mr. Kent’s action was taken to get this material hidden away as quickly as possible?
And finally, I turn to Haida Gwai, and Mr. Russ George’s so far successful scam of the members of the village of Old Massett who were convinced to borrow and invest $2.5 million in a scheme that dumped 100 tonnes of iron-rich dust off the coast last July. Prior to the dumping, Environment Canada did know about possible plans, had not sanctioned them, but had not done anything much to prevent them being carried out. Environment Canada reports it has been investigating ever since, and warrants were apparently issued in Vancouver last week. This weekend, CBC Television’s The Fifth Estate presented an hour-long documentary on this flagrant abuse of environmental regulations, complete with a lengthy interview with the unfortunate village chief, Ken Rea, who is still hoping that Mr. George and the money will be coming back next year. But, true to form, Environment Canada declined the opportunity of an interview. So, we continue to wait. Why did Canada not prevent the dumping in the first place? Is Canada going to prosecute? Does the Harper government have any concern whatever for managing our environment sustainably? Maybe our government will tell us all some day. Maybe not.
And finally, finally, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Environment Minister Peter Kent and Environment Canada spokespersons continue the pale fiction that “Canada is halfway to achieving its 2020 commitment on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” Oliver repeated this claim most recently in his March 5th speech in Chicago. Yes, and I have a pen full of piglets with tiny wings budding as I write.