I’ve been distracted the past couple of weeks, but even distracted it is hard to miss the major news events as they unfold. I find some interesting links among four media frenzies that at first sight may seem quite unrelated. Let me see if I can convince you they are related, and that their relationships bode well for the planet – we the people are starting to stir.
First we have a public interest story, public disgust really. The dentist shoots the lion. Next we have President Obama’s announcement on Monday, August 3rd, of his Clean Power Plan to reduce power plant emissions across the USA by 32% by 2030. Providing a background of some breathtaking images to these and other stories has been the long string of stories of the plague of wildfire that is wreaking havoc down the west coast (and sometimes far inland) of North America from Alaska, through British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and on to Washington, Oregon and California. This one ties in, in one peculiar sense, to the slowly developing scientific understanding of what the hell the current el Niño is doing. And finally, we have Stephen Harper, Right Honorable Prime Minister of Canada, taking time on a Sunday morning in the middle of a national long-weekend in mid-summer, to do the necessary rituals to shut down Parliament and commence the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history. Yes, I really see some linkages here.
The Mediaeval Chase
Many great people have hunted big game. US President Theodore Roosevelt was famously a big game hunter, and nobody thought the worse of him. I am not a hunter, but I have always held in high regard those other Canadians (and other nationalities) who have the skill to enter the bush, track down and cleanly kill (with gun or bow) a deer or some other animal, dress it appropriately, butcher it skillfully (or get it to someone who knows how to do this), and put it in the freezer to feed themselves and share with friends. I have little time for those who hunt as a way of asserting their manliness, don’t care if they wound, and leave the meat, or most of it, on the forest floor.
Teddy Roosevelt, with a recently ‘acquired’ rhino in 1909. Photo © Edward Van Altena/Corbis
Still, times are changing, and have been for some time, as larger and larger proportions of westerners grow up in cities, believing meat comes from the supermarket. Hunting is increasingly an atavistic recreation rather than a noble pastime, and lots of people have little interest in preserving quaint customs.
In 1974 when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the USA EPA was placing three Australian kangaroos on the endangered species list, it led to a sense of bafflement and outrage in Australia. The three species – the Red, the Eastern Gray, and the Western Gray Kangaroos – were enormously abundant, and there was an active management program in place that culled 1-3 million per year for their hides and meat. Professional hunters were employed. These kangaroos were well-managed wildlife.
I remember my own outrage at the USA having the hubristic gall to announce it would manage Australia’s wildlife. Despite the facts, these three animals were “protected” by the USA until 1995, when they were quietly delisted and recorded as having recovered. It was apparent in 1974 that the EPA was responding to “animal-rights” pressures, and subsequently it became apparent also that it was politically easier for EPA to list three kangaroos and a number of other foreign species than to upset the lives of Americans still getting used to the Endangered Species Act by listing a creature on their own land. The irony, of course, was that there were a number of other ‘kangaroos’ – various wallabies and tree-kangaroos – that were at risk of extinction, yet were not included in the 1974 list.
Also in the early 1970s, international protests over the Canadian seal hunt were heating up, reaching the first of many peaks in 1977, when Brigitte Bardot was photographed with a baby seal. For 4000 years, people have harvested Harp Seals for their furs on the ice floes off Canada’s eastern shore. Along with the cod fishery, the annual seal hunt was a foundation of the Newfoundland economy. But the seals were hunted with guns and clubs, when they were defenseless on the ice, and the main targets were young, newly-born cubs. Pure white, with big brown eyes in their round faces. Clubbed to death.
As an ecologist, I knew the hunt was reasonably well-managed, and that if the Harp Seal population was not managed, the cod fishery would likely decline. In the 1970s and 1980s, I believed firmly that the protestors were wrong, and that their motivations were driven by those big brown eyes in white round faces no matter what they said about conservation.
And so we come to Cecil, a lion unfortunate to become world-famous and get his 15 minutes of fame only by being lured out of a reserve, shot by bow, tracked for 40 hours before being properly dispatched by gunfire, then beheaded, skinned and left for the vultures and hyenas. It all happened early in July. Cecil lived at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, and was not only a favorite attraction with the tourists, but was collared and being tracked as part of a wildlife study out of Oxford University. Indeed, it was the cessation of pings from his collar that alerted people to the possibility he was dead.
This nose-in-the-air aristocrat appears to be Cecil, before he was ‘harvested’
Big game is an important resource for a number of African countries, and both photographic and hunting safaris are legal. The funds generated by permits to hunt, or simply to visit the various parks are an important part of the budget for managing and conserving these species. It takes big bucks, relatively speaking, to go big game hunting (as it always has), but there are numerous hunters sufficiently well-heeled to be able to engage in and support this aspect of the African economy. But something different happened this time.
That Cecil was lured out of the park, and then shot can partly account for the outrage. That the crossbow shot was not lethal and it took 40 hours to find and dispatch him may have added to it. But the outrage on social media was spectacularly huge. So much so that now there are reports in the media of Zimbabweans lamenting the fact that the world doesn’t seem to notice when people in that country are living in abject poverty, or dying from starvation or simple-to-cure diseases, but the world certainly notices when a photogenic lion gets killed.
McDonald Lewanika, Director of Crisis Zimbabwe Coalition, told CNN that while it was heartening to see the international concern over Cecil, it was “disquieting” that people seemed to care more about a lion than other “pressing issues including a failing economy, a repressive regime that has been abducting its opponents, stifling the press and arresting activists.” Indeed, as of 2012, 72.3% of Zimbabweans lived under the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. As of 2014, GDP per capita was $2,000 — 25 times less than the $50,000 dentist Walter Palmer paid for his permit to kill Cecil the lion. Hyperinflation and alleged human rights violations by President Robert Mugabe’s government have plagued the country for years. So why the outrage over a lion? A lion that was not particularly known to Zimbabweans before his death.
The outrage is not limited to a twitter burst, or a bunch of media stories. Dentist Palmer is in hiding somewhere in his home state of Minnesota. His practice is shuttered while a memorial shrine of stuffed animals grows in front of the door. His Florida vacation home has been vandalized. Airlines are announcing they will no longer carry big game trophies home with passengers. Zimbabwe is seeking his extradition. That photos have leaked onto the web showing Mr. Palmer with other ‘kills’, including other lions, and that his few comments suggest little concern for how his guides went about procuring this latest ‘kill’, contribute to a view of Mr. Palmer as a member of the ‘one percent’ used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it, regardless the cost to others. And we all know what modern dentistry costs. Dentist Palmer’s privileged life-style is being questioned, something that did not used to happen in America, home of freedom and capitalism.
Walter Palmer is the big strong dentist on the left. The dead lion is an earlier kill. I guess he was after a matching pair. As someone on Twitter said, “Sorry about your penis.”
Beyond the rejection of Palmer’s chosen avocation, I think what we are seeing here is the gradual evolution of human attitudes towards wildlife. It’s ameliorated no doubt (there are psychological studies confirming this) by the fact that some wild animals have big brown eyes on roundish faces – known triggers of human parental responses. And it’s ameliorated by our growing separation from nature, and our consequent lack of awareness of our need to kill animals for animal food or other products. This is not logic. It’s emotion, pure and simple. But it leads somewhere potentially good – the beginnings of a new respect for non-human life.
Coal is a Fading Fuel
President Obama chose Monday 3rd August to announce the new regulations (now in final form) from EPA on power plant emissions. The core message is that by 2030 each state must lower CO2 emissions from power generation in currently operating plants by 32% from 2005 levels. In addition, they must increase their use of renewable sources. Importantly, each state has freedom to decide how best to meet these targets. An initial plan must be presented by 2016, with the final versions due in 2018. While a report in the New York Times suggested this action was all about Obama’s legacy, and devoted about half its space to recounting the plans in many states to immediately mount legal challenges, Associated Press was more balanced, recognizing that this is an historic attempt to effect real change despite an intransigent Congress. Not mentioned in all the talk about a 32% cut in emissions was the fact that emissions have already fallen about 15% from 2005 levels due to increased energy efficiency, and the slow but on-going phase-out of coal in favor of natural gas. Although Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is already campaigning loudly in opposition to the plan, his own state’s Energy and Environment Secretary has already stated “We can meet it”, given that already planned phase-out of five aging coal-fired plants in that coal-producing state is going to reduce emissions by 16% next year.
President Obama announcing the new EPA regulations governing power plants, and Senator McConnell, Leader of the Senate, urging all states to mount legal challenges to this attack on coal. Photos © Jim Watson/AFP, and Carlos Barria/Reuters, respectively.
The new regulations do not permit states to use efficiency gains directly to count towards emissions reductions, but by increasing efficiency, they will be able to contain or reduce demand, giving them increased flexibility in how they juggle among energy sources. The plan definitely does not solve the problem of climate change, but by setting realistic targets for reductions in this sector, the USA is demonstrating it intends to be part of the process.
Obama’s announcement has been met by considerable support from a wide range of sources, with much credit given for its flexible, state-driven approach. The negative responses have been very loud, quite political, and using some arguments that sound, to my ears, very much past their prime. Stating, as Mitch McConnell does, that these regulations will kill jobs, kill the coal industry and hurt the economy, seems rather old-fashioned – a clear sign that the speaker cannot see the wider economy, or recognize that world-wide the coal industry has been dying for years. (Incidentally, the flexibility in the regulations ensures that if a state wants to continue using coal, and sets out to develop effective gasification, or carbon-capture technologies so that coal energy could be used without releasing CO2, it is free to do so). Step out of the political circus and the general public is increasingly aware, even in the USA, that a) the world is going to try very hard to reduce emissions because we cannot afford the consequences if we do not, b) climate change is not an anti-capitalist plot by leftist politicians to ruin the economy, and c) yes, we are probably going to have to get used to paying more for energy – something a bit closer to its real cost. The people are starting to say, let’s suck it up and get moving. A newly released Pew Research Center poll from November 2014 reveals that the majority of every racial, age, or political subdivision (except for those identifying as tea party Republicans, or as politically conservative) among US adults favors stricter limits on power plants in order to combat climate change. There is a tide moving, and some of the politicians, like Mitch McConnell, do not yet see they need to cast off and go with the flow.
The Great Burning
The North American west is on fire this year. By mid-July, a total of 5.5 million acres (2.2 million hectares), an area equal in size to New Jersey, had already burned in the US, nearly 5 million acres in Alaska alone. In Canada, 2.9 million hectares had been lost by then (7.2 million acres), and in both countries the burning continues. Saskatchewan’s fires are expected to not be finally out until the first snows this Fall. Records for area burned are being set right, left and center.
Fire burning outside La Ronge, northern Saskatchewan. Photo © Reuters/ Saskatchewan Govt
While the numbers are impressive, I think that the image of the Paradise fire best sums up the exceptionalism of 2015. By mid-July, the (relatively small) Paradise fire had burned nearly 1,600 acres (647 hectares) since lightning started it sometime in mid-May; it is expected to burn until late September. What makes this fire surprising is its location – smack in the middle of Olympic National Park, the wettest place in the continental US, regularly receiving 150 inches of rain per year. It’s a Sitka spruce forest of giant trees, festooned with moss and lichens, and dripping, dripping, dripping with water. Except that now the trees are smoldering slowly, and the lichens dry up, burst into flame, and flutter down to start new patches of fire on the forest floor. Paradise is the largest fire to occur since the park was established in 1938. Somehow, even smoldering slowly, forest fire seems inappropriate in this misty, miasmic, and strangely antediluvian forest; the kind of place where everything rusts if it does not rot first.
The Paradise Fire, burning deep within Olympic National Park, a place that simply should not burn. Photo from TheDailyWorld.com
It’s hard to be surprised that these fires are occurring (well, Paradise surprises). Month after month over the past year if not longer, the NOAA climate maps have shown western North America much warmer than usual. Alaska has already seen close to 2oC of warming, and California’s prolonged drought has raised vegetable prices across North America, and led to mandatory water rationing in that State. What’s interesting is that the numerous media accounts of the fires make the link to climate change casually, and with no evident doubt. While this is hardly surprising from the website, ClimateProgress, which includes in its coverage the risk that the Alaskan fires will thaw permafrost, liberating methane and further exacerbating climate, the link was mentioned in most other stories I looked at. The CBC, discussing Saskatchewan, was referencing el Niño as well as climate change. Several Washington Post stories referenced climate change. The New York Times almost managed to avoid the topic, but the words ‘climate change’ crept in close to the end of an evocative photo essay about the California fires. I finally found Fox News, sticking to the facts, and never mentioning climate at all. My world has not changed totally!
El Niño to the Rescue
Meanwhile, far away in NOAA-land, scientists monitoring the developing el Niño are reporting that the pattern seen at the end of July bears many resemblances to the pattern during the ramp-up of the immense 1997-98 el Niño. From the start, the current el Niño has been a sluggish, slow-to-grow baby. I know I, along with others, began ‘anticipating’ its arrival in comments on this blog in April 2014. As time has gone on I began to wonder if it would ever arrive. But, according to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist, Bill Patzert, “We have not seen a signal like this in the tropical Pacific since 1997. It’s no sure bet that we will have a strong El Niño, but the signal is getting stronger. What happens in August through October should make or break this event.” To back Bill up, the NASA Earth Observatory devoted its ‘image of the day’ for August 5th to el Niño, and NOAA produced a pretty comparison of sea surface temperatures in 1997 and 2015 which several media outlets prettied up with more intense colors and a temperature scale in Fahrenheit degrees (for their US readers, still measuring things using dimensions of royal personages’ parts (like feet)). I could not find the original, but found the doctored one here.
El Niño tends to bring rain and storms to California, and California is desperate for rain – both for water and fire-suppression. The media are now discussing the possibility of a strong el Niño as perhaps a good thing for parched, burning California. People like Bill Patzert get interviewed and try to say things like, ‘it might not turn out to be that big’, or ‘remember the floods, the houses sliding down canyon walls’ or even, ‘you don’t end a multi-year drought with a couple of wet months’. From my perspective, the people, and the media are clearly beginning to accept that they are experiencing long-term alterations to their weather patterns. While they are still hoping that el Niño can come riding in from the Pacific, like some knight in shining armor, bringing a return to the easy life of old, they at least recognize that the present dry, hot situation is creating intolerable conditions if it persists. Mother Jones has a good discussion of the California situation, along with its usual, always leftist, sometimes witty asides.
Privilege, Arrogance, and Too Clever by Far
And so we come to Stephen Harper. He is an accomplished political tactician, perhaps too accomplished for his own good. Canada has inherited the Westminster style of government. Among our peculiar mechanisms and procedures, we have inherited the fact that the winner of an election (the leader of the party winning the most seats) usually gets the chance to form a government (with him/herself as Prime Minister) that will run for a maximum of five years from the date of the election, and that he/she also has the right to ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call an election at any time. (Another peculiarity is the Governor-General him/herself, who represents the Queen, and has the power to ‘invite’ a particular elected representative to form a government, to dissolve the Parliament, or to issue the call for an election. Of course, this ‘power’ is traditionally only exercised at the ‘request’ of the Prime Minister.) The quaint pirouette around the issue of the power of the Crown in our constitutional monarchy usually works remarkably well!
Stephen Harper announcing he has ‘asked’ the Governor-General to call an election for October, in order to ensure that parties rather than the taxpayers pay for their campaigning! Body language suggests he doesn’t believe it either. Photo Justin Tang/CP
I explain all this quaint Westminster inheritance for the benefit of those readers who do not know these details, because Stephen Harper has seen fit to add in some interesting complexity. For reasons that almost certainly had to do with perceived advantage for his own political party, but were disguised at the time with eloquent bafflegab, Prime Minister Harper saw fit in 2006 to pass Bill C-16 to amend the Canada Elections Act to require that each general election will take place on the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the previous general election, unless it is called sooner. This little change did two things. It reduced the maximum five year term to effectively four years, and it introduced what should be the bane of existence of our American cousins, a preordained, fixed date for the next election. Dumb. Dumber than dumb. Why did Harper do this?
Harper said at the time, “Fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage. They level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody.”
That sounds plausible, except that he called a snap election in 2008, just 2 years and 9 months into his term. He gained a more robust minority, but was forced to yet another election on a confidence vote in Spring 2011. However, on the 2nd August 2015, Prime Minister Harper did the pirouette with the Governor-General, and we are now in the campaign for our first election called on the specified third Monday in October.
In announcing the election 11 weeks before the date, Stephen Harper has created the longest campaign in recent Canadian history. In defending this action, he said, “If we’re going to begin our campaigns and run our campaigns, then those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law, that the money come from the parties themselves, not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources.”
The facts, of course, as they usually are with Stephen Harper, are not quite what they seem. Just as the amendments to the elections act in 2006 did not “prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage”, his very early announcement of this election does not ensure that campaign costs will be paid by “money come from the parties themselves.” Mr. Harper knows very well that half the money spent by a campaign is reimbursed to the Party from government funds. He also knows, because he snuck the changes in when he pushed through the so-called Fair Elections Act, that the total amount that a Party can spend in a campaign is no longer fixed at $25 million, but grows for every day the campaign extends beyond the 37-day minimum. (This also probably explains why he visited the Governor-General on a Sunday morning in the middle of a long weekend, instead of waiting two extra days until Tuesday.) The campaigns this time around will be able to spend up to $54 million each, 50% of it reimbursed by taxpayers. In addition, there is allowed spending specific to each riding; this adds another $74 million per party to the total in this long campaign. CBC’s The National presented an animation detailing these calculations, and included the additional taxpayer-provided benefits to those who donate to political parties in the first place. The costs for Elections Canada, which now has to sign up staff for 80 days instead of 40, will also go up substantially, if not by 100% for the longer campaign. In other words, surprise, surprise, Stephen Harper was NOT speaking exactly truthfully when he claimed that by calling the election so early he was making sure the taxpayers would not have to pay for all the campaigning that was obviously going on already. That his Party happens to have money on hand almost equal to the totals of all the other parties explains what is really going on. He has masterfully gamed the system – one designed to limit spending in elections – to greatly expand the expense (to taxpayers) of elections while easing limits that would have meant his flush party coffers might not get fully exhausted. (Maybe there is room to repair some of these changes to election law when we elect somebody new?)
Yes, Stephen Harper is an accomplished political tactician. Too accomplished, by far. His zealous manipulations to capture every possible political advantage are becoming ever more transparent. I think a sizeable proportion of voters now see through his statements, and know that they must always be cautious before taking him at his word. Not having the trust of the electorate, is a risky position for a political leader up for re-election. Let’s see how things turn out as this long campaign lumbers forward.
Signs of a Gathering Tide in our Belief Systems
I said at the beginning that I saw links between these four stories, links that made me optimistic. Where are those links? The outrage over Cecil the lion is a sign of two things, a growing intolerance of the idea that the wealthy can have anything they want, and a growing recognition that rights, even if they are not yet encoded in law, actually extend beyond the human race to other species and to Nature. These two trends fit together in acknowledging that there are communal rights (that can extend beyond the human community members) that trump any rights that wealthy individuals might claim for themselves. Mr. Palmer has a new trophy (unless it really was confiscated as evidence), but he has lost his livelihood and his freedom – I feel a little sorry for him, but somebody had to be first. Mr. Harper’s sheer cleverness over several years in making fine adjustments to Canada’s laws has made it possible for him to maximize his benefit as the leader of the richest Party in what will be a closely fought election, while also greatly increasing the cost, and the power of money, in Canadian elections. But the cards up the sleeves are showing, and large numbers of voters have seen though the white lies in his pronouncements about saving taxpayers money. It’s a matter of fairness and playing by the rules, and he clearly does not measure up. He is not the first politician to seek to use every possible advantage, but that excuse is a bit like Mr. Palmer’s assumption that he had the right to kill the lion because he was who he was. If it had a collar on it – not his problem.
The long burning summer in the North American west is bringing home to people, as happened previously in Australia, that we are experiencing a changing climate. The link to climate change and greenhouse gases has been made, and most people see the link is real and alarming. We do not like what is happening to our environment. We want climate change to stop, and we are starting to believe that we have an obligation to try to stop it. President Obama’s latest foray into achieving real change in US emissions of greenhouse gases, is being vigorously fought, but the majority of the people know he is right to try and act, and they also know that those opposing him are doing so for reasons that should be questioned. At the same time that right-of-center politicians help set up law suits to try to stop his actions, sizeable minorities of right-leaning voters know that Obama is doing the right thing. By contrast, a large majority of Canadians knows that Harper’s abject lack of policy on climate and environment has been self-serving, selfish, and wrong.