Monthly Archives: November 2007

Not the bomb

While we’re discussing parallels between the climate-change fight and the Second World War, here’s a more valid one from Andrew Sullivan:

Don’t conservatives understand that the best solution is for government to provide market incentives for new technologies, rather than trying to come up with the solution itself? Sure, some basic research support – but then leave it to the private sector to generate new ideas, and the market to see which ones will fly.

To decide which politician deserves your vote on environmental grounds…

Find out which politician is promising a Manhattan Project for some technological innovation. If you want real progress, vote for his or her opponent.

I think a comparison like that is useful for scale, but the parallel doesn’t extend beyond that. The Manhattan Project had a very specific technical end: coming up with a fissionable nuclear weapon the Allies could drop on some people. The environmental challenge is much broader, has no single obvious technical solution, and depends on a vast number of people voluntarily changing their behaviour, not meeting a specific military need. When Fermi and Oppenheimer and Feynman had a bomb finished, they knew they were done. This isn’t going to work like that.

Of course, I bet a lot of people not promising Manhattan Projects are still promising ethanol mandates and whatnot. Don’t trust them, either.

Elizabeth May goes too far

You have to read to the end before you reach today’s excursion into deep space by the leader of the Green Party of Canada, and even then I found I had to read twice before I untangled her syntax.

Nevertheless, it seems that one very reasonable reading of this passage in a piece on the outcome of the Commonwealth talks on climate change in Uganda —

For the dreadful irresponsibility of the Harper government. George Monbiot said that the triumvirate of Harper and Bush and Howard blocking action on climate represented a moral failure more culpable than that of Neville Chamberlain. I was variously skewered and attacked last spring for mentioning how Canada’s international reputation had suffered, citing George Monibiot’s statement to make the point.. (No need to revisit the various ways that quoting George Monbiot was viewed as some sort of political equivalent of a kamikaze mission.)

I repeat those words now, not because I thirst for abuse, but because in the light of day, following Canada’s actions in Uganda, they seem an understatement.

— is the new headline that news aggregator Pierre Bourque put on it:


The switch is that May has gone from pointing out Monbiot’s criticism to actively agreeing with it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that inaction on climate change will lead to deaths, both from an increased propensity toward natural disasters and from conflicts over dwindling resources — water, fertile land — in some parts of the globe. But to equate a bad policy with letting Nazi Germany rise largely unchecked in Europe in the hope that, as Churchill put it, Britain would be eaten last is … at the very least, not helpful.

Now the Tories have something they can talk about instead of trying to explain what Prime Minister Stephen Harper actually did in Uganda, which may or may not have been smart but certainly doesn’t look good on the face of it. I expect they’re quite pleased.

Update: Welcome, Bourque readers! Lest anyone think I have it in for Elizabeth May, take a look at a column I wrote on her last January, specifically admiring her skill with words and nuanced thought:

Consider the Green leader’s understanding of the assignment that sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan in the winter of 2002. It was, she said, “a mission to help [President Hamid] Karzai and the people of Afghanistan build a liveable civil society and a democracy, in the wake of many wars.”

That certainly meant shooting bad guys, May said: “The Taliban have to be removed. The Taliban insurgency, you can’t have them rebuild and regroup and constantly move back into Afghanistan, otherwise none of the efforts … are going to make much sense.”

This sounds like neither anti-Americanism nor reflexive peacenik-ery to me. It sounds like thinking that’s straight down the mainstream of Canadian opinion in 2007.

Above all, it sounds like the thinking of someone who knows that running a country is hard, a continual exercise in moral complexity and compromise, and isn’t about to pretend otherwise. It sounds like, at last, we have a party leader who’s determined to treat voters with respect.

I can’t believe the May wrote what she did yesterday without knowing exactly what she was doing.

Rewriting history

I’m not sure what to make of this story by the Canadian Press’s generally solid Alexander Panetta on goings-on at the Commonwealth summit in Uganda, so laden is it with misstatements that favour Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s post-Kyoto rhetorical position. Consider:

Harper said the key error of Kyoto was slapping binding targets on three-dozen countries but not the rest, including some of the world’s biggest polluters like the United States, China and India.


China, India, and the United States, none of whom are bound by Kyoto, account for more than half of global emissions alone.

Harper says they must all be brought on side in a global system that includes binding targets for everyone.

Um. I guess they’re all attributed to Harper in one way or another, and researching clarifications on the spot in Kampala can’t be easy.  (Speaking of which, let me be clear about my own view that Kyoto clearly didn’t work, for reasons more complex than the prime minister seems to be letting on.) But to suggest that Kyoto didn’t include binding targets for some of the world’s biggest polluters is just bull.

First of all, it did include binding targets for the U.S., but that country neglected to ratify the treaty, basically reneging on the deal it negotiated for itself. The treaty came into force regardless, when nearly all the other signatory countries ratified it, but the United States never acted accordingly. This is many things, but not an intrinsic flaw in the Kyoto treaty.

Second, while it didn’t include significant greenhouse-gas targets for China and India and other developing countries, that only became a problem because nobody foresaw just how fast their economies would industrialize and expand. Not taking into account an oracular knowledge of the future is a risk in any agreement. It did happen to be particularly important in an agreement on greenhouse gases, but if Harper is saying that any future treaty will have to predict the future perfectly or else he’s not going in on it, we’re going to be at this a very, very long time.

Kyoto proved to be an inadequate deal, but if we’re not going to repeat the mistakes, we need to be clear on what those mistakes actually were.

Not perfect, but…

Sometimes the good is the enemy of the better-than-nothing.

Latest column, on the Asia-Pacific Partnership

My latest for the Ottawa Citizen, on how we’re billing helping India dig up more coal as an environmentalist project, is here.

Does India have much coal, you ask? Its state coal-mining company reports it dug up about 360 million tonnes last year, about one-third as much as the United States.

Real, honest, true carbon offsets

Good news from the carbon-offset front: a serious attempt to set standards to distinguish real offsets from fly-by-night phoney ones is bearing fruit. The Voluntary Carbon Standard project has released its documentation (PDF) for how to prove you’ve got the real deal, based on the International Standards Organization’s nascent standard.

VCS isn’t the first to the market, but it’s aiming at a broad spectrum of potential offset-producers, including with a special category of oversight for so-called microprojects that would offset 5,000 tonnes or less of CO2 and equivalents per year. That’s a long way from giving you tradeable carbon credits for taking the bus instead of driving to work, but it’s big news if you’re anybody smaller than General Electric or Yahoo! or somebody, hoping to get into the offset business, and of course most of us are.

The main thing keeping offsets from being a legit way to make up for some of the evils we do is that they’re often unverifiable — God only knows what many self-described offset providers do with your money. Maybe nothing, or maybe they hire some shady characters overseas who’ll promise to plant trees that won’t last more than a season or two. Many are worthwhile, or at least are honest attempts to be, but that’s obviously not good enough if you’re a major corporation that wants to buy quite a lot of offsets that will stand up to serious scrutiny, or you’re an investor looking to front some money in exchange for offsets that you hope will be worth more later.

Goldman Sachs and Cantor Fitzgerald are in on this on this thing. The VCS project, like the Gold Standard, is a necessary step in making functioning markets in offsets that turn money into environmental improvements — and environmental improvements into money.

Greens pull ahead of NDP in a national poll

Apparently this is a first. It is just one poll, and I’d very much like to see a second one to indicate that it’s not just an artifact of the margin of error, but it’s still good news for the party.

Its Toronto Centre candidate (and occasional EcoLibertarian commenter) Chris Tindal has some fairly generous words for the New Democrats, and I think he’s right:

The NDP have a legitimate and important role to play in Canadian politics; I just can’t understand why they’re not playing it. If I were to offer some unsolicited advice, it would be as follows. Be true to yourselves. Stand up for traditionally “left wing,” socialist principals. Put away the focus groups and the talking points, the negative tone and the overly partisan rhetoric. Let Layton be Layton: think back to his excellent work as a city councilor in Toronto, when he was committed to getting things done instead of “getting things done,” if you get my meaning.

I don’t agree with the NDP about much, but they speak for people who mustn’t be forgotten and leader Jack Layton’s useless sanctimony obviously isn’t doing them any good.