Monday, February 28, 2011

Partnerships for Action on Climate Change: Moving Forward, Together

I had the pleasure of attending last week’s “Moving Forward Together Conference on Climate Change and Social Justice”, hosted by the Nickel District Conservation Authority and the Greater Sudbury Social Planning Council, in partnership with the City of Greater Sudbury and the Greater Sudbury Climate Change Consortium. The Conference took a hard look at the anticipated impacts of climate change on residents in our City, and not surprisingly, determined that impacts would not affect everyone equally.

I found the Conference’s lens through which climate change issues were examined locally took me out of my comfort zone, and challenged me to think about how social justice issues will be impacted by a warming world. I’ve attended many conferences on climate change in the past, most of which have an environmental or socio-economic perspective. The idea that a changing climate will impact equitable access to community services and emergency responses was something which had been at the back of my mind, but which I now I have a much better understanding of.

As someone who has, in the past, hung out on the “environmental” side of things (although I’ve never identified myself as an “environmentalist”, given that I’ve always approached environmental issues from an economic viewpoint), I was also blown away by the level of organization and engagement our emerging partners in the social justice field can bring to the table. And that’s something for everyone who is concerned about the impacts of climate change to keep in mind.

Warmer and Dryer

The conference kicked off on Thursday evening with a public session held in Council Chambers at Tom Davies Square. Dr. Liette Vasseur of Brock University gave a presentation on which focussed on the past 5 or 6 years which have led up to the creation of the Greater Sudbury Climate Change Consortium, along with the scientific assessment of climate change which Sudburians can expect to be impacted by over the next 90 years in low- medium- and high-emissions scenarios (as an aside, Dr. Vasseur indicated that we are currently on track to having emissions exceed the high-emissions scenario, which is troubling to say the least).

Greater Sudbury can expect to experience some fairly significant physical impacts, which can be summarized as “hotter and dryer”. Although precipitation levels may increase in certain seasons, with the additional rise in temperature, there’ll be greater levels of evaporation, leading to lower lake levels, and less water for agricultural purposes (so although the growing season might increase by as much as 3 weeks over the next 90 years, crop yields may actually decline due to a lack of water).

Currently, the City of Greater Sudbury experiences 5.5 heatwaves a year. We can expect a four-fold increase in heatwave days by 2070 (22.6 days), and by 2100, 36 heatwave days a year will be the new norm. Heatwaves, of course, significantly impact the young, the elderly and those with respiratory problems, along with those living in poverty who can’t afford air conditioning.

Organizer and conference facilitator Mike Balkwill then delivered an excellent presentation about how change occurs very slowly…until it happens very quickly. While I understand well the concept of “critical mass” (or the “100th Monkey”), it was interesting to hear Balkwill talk about his own experiences juxtaposed against those leading environmentalists. His critique about environmental organizations often lacking the ability to plan to achieve a critical mass hit home, and while I’ve intuitively known that this has been the missing link of the environmental movement, Balkwill spoke with considered eloquence and challenged the audience to start thinking about where we have to go from here.

Balkwill’s starting point was to acknowledge that all of the individual efforts which we can undertake to reduce our own emissions, while important, unfortunately will not save us from entering the dark territory of tipping points which will trigger runaway climate change. The need for action at the national and international level must accompany individual and community efforts, or else those efforts will be doomed to being overwhelmed and fail.

Councillor Jocelyne Landry-Altman wrapped up Thursday’s session with some very poignant words about climate change, and how it is already affecting people living in Sudbury, often those living on fixed incomes and without the benefit of home or apartment insurance. Landry-Altman’s words were an appreciated and pointed wake-up call to those in our community and nation who seek to adopt a “wait and see” attitude towards climate change. Waiting for someone else to lead in our community, and on a national level, simply isn’t going to cut it any longer, as we are already feeling the adverse impacts of a changing climate.

“The Buffer Between the Middle Class and Survival is a Lot Thinner Than We Think”

Over the next two days, participants identified that the most vulnerable in our society will experience the adverse impacts from a changing climate to a significantly greater degree than those with higher incomes. We often tend to think of climate change impacts only in terms of physical events (such as severe weather events like rainstorms or ice storms), or perhaps as systemic physical changes (such as hotter and drier summers, or an increase in catastrophic hurricanes over the years). What the public often forgets are the expected social and economic impacts which global climate change will have on people, governmental institutions, and the business community.

Climate models show that the areas of the Earth to be most significantly impacted will be the polar areas and the tropics. We here in Greater Sudbury, from a purely physical perspective, will likely experience far less in terms of physical impacts. When it comes to social and economic impacts arising from a changing climate, however, no where on the planet will be immune, due to our globalized economy. As recent events in the Middle East continue to show us (as if we needed more lessons!), what happens in one very far-away part of the world impacts us here in Greater Sudbury.

Conference participants started using the term “global disruption” to describe the anticipated impacts that a changing climate will have on people, governments and businesses, because of the physical-impact-oriented nature of the term “climate change”. I think it’s an apt description for the kind of change that we’re likely going to experience in the coming decades. We can still affect how this kind of change plays out locally and globally, however we must begin taking action if we are to do so. In our changing world, reactionary decisions aren’t going to get us to where we need to be. It’s time to plan for the future.

One of my biggest concerns with the global disruption we are already experiencing has to do with the rising cost of food brought on by shortages as a result of climate change-related crop failures, mainly in Australia, China, Russia and Pakistan. We are already seeing food protests occur in some parts of the world (Bolivia and Central America; as well, the protests in Cairo, Egypt, started in part as a result of the Mubarak regime cutting the bread allowance of ordinary citizens who rely on government-subsidized bread for the majority of their daily calories).

Rising food prices might appear to be an inconvenience to most North Americans. Only those living on fixed incomes are likely to experience first-hand the consequences of more expensive foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats, will likely see the most significant rise in price, which means that those living in poverty will likely be forced to make choices for less nutritious food.

Yet, we are all relatively well-insulated here in North American and Europe from the worst that rising food prices will bring. China, which faces national shortages of food, has already told its citizens that there is no need to panic, as it can afford to buy food on the international market. This will drive up prices even further, and will impact the poorest nations in the world more severely. While richer nations like China might be able to weather the food shortage storm this time at the expense of poor nations, there’s no guarantee that global food prices will ever recover, as the overall trend for food prices, like CO2 emissions, is onward and upward.

What kinds of impacts might a starving world have on Canada’s economy? If our trading partners begin to go hungry, will they still want to purchase Canada’s raw materials and manufactured goods? We here in Greater Sudbury are very dependent on a global economy which needs our mineral resources for economic growth. What sort of situation might those working in extractive industries find themselves in should the global economy start to shrink as a result of higher food and energy prices?

And that’s why we here in Greater Sudbury are not so very well-insulated from the adverse effects of climate driven global disruption. We in the middle class might soon discover just how close we are to finding ourselves in similar situations to those who are currently living in poverty.

Real Leadership

Greater Sudbury’s massive ecological successes are no secret to those living within our community. Over the years, and through perseverance and partnerships, our community has brought itself back from the brink of severe environmental degradation. But we’re pretty modest here in Greater Sudbury, I think. We don’t toot our own horn enough, and we’re certainly not ones to brag about the hard work and success that our regreening effort brought to our community.

Yet, our story has started to creep out, and it’s not unusual today for those in other places, whether they are elsewhere in Canada, or throughout the world, to point to Sudbury as an environmental leader. Certainly, the resources which exist here in terms of human capital have positioned us to play a leadership role. With increasing national and international expectations that we do so, there is no way that we can shirk off our community’s role to be a leader in showing others the way forward.

This past weekend’s conference is, in my opinion, another notch in Greater Sudbury’s leadership belt. Thank yous go to all of those involved, particularly the Conference organizers and leading agencies, including the Social Planning Council, the City, and the Nickel District Conservation Authority. Although he’ll never admit it, Myles Carter at the Conservation Authority deserves special recognition for overseeing how all of the necessary pieces of the Conference were brought together. Carter has done our community proud!

There remains much work to do, locally, nationally and internationally. I know that I’ve already taken away from this Conference the means to think just a little differently about the things which are important to me and a majority of Canadians. I believe that Greater Sudbury can and will continue to be a leader for other communities throughout the world, who are only now starting to think about their own strategies to address their unique local circumstances. We must continue to share our stories, and build upon the incredible work and on our growing list of accomplishments. Leaders continue to emerge on Council, in our academic institutions, within our business and industrial sector, and within NGO’s and community groups, and within governmental institutions.

Our economic and social health depend on taking action to address the impacts of climate change. We here in Greater Sudbury are positioned to lead, and lead we must and lead we shall. Although the future often seeks dark, it is what we will make of it. That’s why I’m so very optimistic that the future will be so much brighter than we imagine it. We truly can move forward together.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Climate Change: Partisan Political Issue?

I’ve always been one to insist that climate change isn’t a partisan issue. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that finding solutions to address the impacts of climate change are not within the purview of any one political party, environmental organization, or economic think-tank. Solutions to address climate change, however, are clearly within the realm of politics and partisanship, and deserve considered debate and discussion prior to implementation. Often, people are confused by the non-partisan nature of climate change itself and the political solutions put forward by all who have an interest in addressing the problem.

At least that’s the way that I’ve always thought about the subject of climate change. Lately, though, I’m less certain. But let me come back to that, and first try to explain the distinction between the non-partisan issue of a changing climate, and the political solutions needed to address it.

Moving Forward Together

This discussion, I believe, is timely, particularly here in Sudbury, as this week the Nickel District Conservation Authority and the Social Planning Council, along with the City, will be co-hosting the “Moving Forward Together” conference on Climate Change Solutions. This will be a decidedly non-partisan event addressing the non-partisan issues facing Greater Sudbury regarding climate change. The starting point of this conference will be discussions regarding how climate change will affect people, organizations and businesses within our community. I note that there will not be any discussion regarding whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, as those participating in the conference see no need at all to answer that question, as climate science developed over decades has clearly answered it for us already. That answer being, of course, “Yes, it’s happening, and our industrial processes are the cause.”

I’ll come back to this starting point later. For now, though, suffice it to say that the starting point of the conference is to focus on solutions and strategies which can be implemented at a local level to mitigate against, and adapt to, a changing climate.

The topic of climate change, therefore, is likely to be “top of mind” in Greater Sudbury throughout the week, with a public evening session of the Moving Forward Together conference kicking things off at Tom Davies Square in Council Chambers. Two more days of the conference follow, open to registered participants (with the price of registration being a mere $25 for students and seniors, and just $35 for everyone else, which is incredibly reasonable for this two days worth of conference activity).

With the focus on finding solutions to climate change at the local level, and in the specific context of the City of Greater Sudbury, there would be, at first glance, a marked decrease in opportunities for partisan politics to intervene. After all, in Ontario at least, there are no political parties at the municipal level of government, which anyway would only be one partner in implementing any solutions to be discussed. Other partners will include public organizations, such as the Conservation Authority, Health Units, School Boards, etc., along with our very vibrant business community and industrial sector.

Here in Greater Sudbury, the mining sector plays a very important role in the business community. This is one sector which understands that business impacts of a changing climate, and which has a vested interest in decisions made at all levels of government in how best to deal with climate change. There is a belief out there that mining sector is somehow in denial about anthropogenic climate change, and aspire to see the status quo maintained. That’s not my own observation, and indeed the more that I hear about the mining sector’s desire to find appropriate solutions to address climate change, the more optimistic I become that eventually we here in Canada, and indeed throughout the world, are going to start to take meaningful action to address climate change.

That the mining industry is not in denial about climate change is important, particularly given that this sector of industry is a significant net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and throughout the world. The mining industry’s issues, however, are illustrative of the notion that any proposed solution to climate change must perforce be political in nature. And that must include solutions at the local level.

Political Will and Partisan Politics

Finding the will to act on climate change will be an exercise in the use of political will. Individual actions can only go so far to mitigate against and adapt to climate change. For significant and meaningful action, we must look to decision makers in each and every capacity to lead, plan, and implement actions. Exercising political will, however, requires debate and discussion. It will be interesting to see what local solutions are proposed at the Moving Forward Together conference, and whether participants understand that all solutions will be political in nature, even though climate change itself is not a partisan issue (or so I have always thought).

Does the exercise of political will require partisanship? Clearly, the answer is “no”. Non-partisan, political decisions are made all of the time, especially at local levels. For example, the allocation of municipal resources for traffic calming on one street in preference to another is a political decision, but with non-partisan overtones. However, despite the absence of party affiliation at the municipal level of government in Ontario, sometimes municipal decisions can be truly identified as “partisan”. One needs to look no further than to discussions taking place in the City of Toronto regarding subways versus light surface rail to see partisan politics affecting decisions to be made at the municipal level.

For decisions makers at all levels of government, sometimes decisions are made simply because it’s the right thing to do, and not for political gain. Stephen Harper’s 2006 apology to First Nations attendees of residential schools comes to mind. Or perhaps the declaration of War against the Empire of Japan made by the U.S. Congress, endorsed by both parties after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. While I suppose it could be argued that even these decisions were made for partisan reasons, given their lack of opposition, at least within the decision-making bodies of Parliament and Congress, respectively, I believe that a strong case can be made that these were not partisan decisions.

The mistreatment of aboriginals through the residential schools is a fact of history, just as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour can not be disputed, along with the fact that our climate is changing as a result of human industrial activity. These facts are not in dispute (despite Canada’s choice to long ignore the very real problems and issues with residential schools; and despite suggestions that the U.S. might have had advanced warning of Pearl Harbour; and despite the amount of time it has taken for science to definitively conclude that human industrial processes are leading to climate change). And since we expect our decision makers to make decisions based on facts, and not fallacies or fantasies, clearly the starting point of the discussions needed to make those decisions can not be treated as political in nature, or partisan. The starting points are factual, and are not in dispute.

Or are they?

Sowing the Seeds of Confusion

With regards to anthropogenic climate change, clearly there are individuals and organizations which do not accept human activity is leading to a changing climate, despite the overwhelming science. Often, these individuals and organizations have a vested interest in manipulating discussions regarding solutions to climate change, although in some cases it’s clear that wilful ignorance is at work. Why dispute the indisputable facts of climate change, though, if really the matters for debate should be occurring at the “So what are we going to do about it?” stage?

That’s easy: to accept anthropogenic climate change as a fact requires that we also accept that we probably should, as a society, address the impacts of climate change. And right now, many of those discussions, which have been going on for decades, are leading to the overwhelming conclusion that we can no longer continue to treat our atmosphere as an open sewer, and that the time is coming that we need to put a price on carbon emissions in order to reduce those emissions. There are businesses and organizations throughout the world who perceive this solution as a threat to their economic vitality. Therefore, rather than engage in discussions on how best to price carbon, there’s more of a pay-off for these businesses to confuse regular citizens and decision makers about the facts.

Sowing confusion about scientific conclusions is really pretty easy when you get down to it. Scientific arguments are based on data, and usually postulated by specialists who seem to be speaking a different language from you or me most of the time (and most of the time they are using a different language – the language of math and statistics – to prove their hypotheses). The very nature of scientific investigation itself leaves significant room for non-fact-based critiques. Unlike with Pearl Harbour, which everyone knows happened because we could see it with our own eyes on the film footage which was shot during and after the raid, understanding the facts of science requires a considerably higher level of engagement. And when it comes to the science of climate change, to suggest that “it’s complicated” is a significant understatement.

However, so it understanding nuclear fission, however we derive the benefits and experience the harmful side effects from that scientific “fact” every day. Science also postulates a “Theory of Gravity”, which is something that we rely on when doing everything from flying in aircraft to, well, just walking to work. Yet some would suggest that since gravity is just a theory, we should not rely on it as an explanation for how the world works.

Just because you or I might not understand how or why something complicated works doesn’t mean that it should be disregarded. The science behind climate change is no different. Yet, there are too many who have bought into the unsubstantiated and non-fact-based notion that somehow the science behind climate change can not be trusted.

Many of the high-priced climate change deniers are the same bunch of people who for years tried to sow confusion regarding whether smoking actually caused cancer. They experienced a certain degree of success with this campaign, at least up until a strong majority of decision-makers decided that they could no longer overlook the proven scientific link between tobacco and cancer. The campaign of confusion worked well right up until it didn’t.

Climate Change as a Partisan Issue

In Canada, and especially in the United States, this debate regarding the factual starting point of the discussion has become a partisan issue. This is clearly manifest in the U.S., where one political party (the Republican Party) has questioned the science of climate change, and many of its elected members in Congress have outright claimed that they do not believe human industrial processes are changing our climate, despite all of the scientific evidence to the contrary.

I, like many Canadians (and I’m sure a significant number of Americans), have trouble relating to this point of view. For me, it’s like saying that the attack on Pearl Harbour didn’t happen. For us, this sort of nonsense belongs in the realm of fantasy, along with a belief in elves and gnomes, or that the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Burbank, California. Yet elected Republican decision makers hold these views. What about here in Canada?

As far as I understand it, our government has time and again acknowledged that climate change is happening, and that we are the cause of it. That includes Stephen Harper, who said as much in Berlin back in 2007, when he referred to climate change as a “growing menace” and “the most important public policy challenge of our time”. In 2002, Harper referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a “money-sucking socialist scheme”. Note that Harper accepts the notion that climate change is happening (fact) but does not agree with one of the solutions on how best to address it (partisan).

There are others elected decision-makers in Canada, however, who would suggest that climate change is, in fact, a partisan issue. Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith has come out of the closet on climate change, and declared that she believes that the jury is still out on the science of climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Smith and her Wildrose Alliance are currently positioning themselves to lead the Province of Alberta, in which is located the single dirtiest industrial project in the history of Canada, that being the Alberta Tar Sands. Certainly this is cause for concern.

Although I continue to believe that climate change is not a partisan issue, clearly it is to some. As with smoking, however, there will come a time when the denial campaign will peter out, and a broad consensus that there is a problem will be reached. Canadians thought that we had achieved that consensus back in 2006, when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the 2006 4th Assessment Report, for which they shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, however, money has poured into the denial industry, and politicians have been purchased through astroturf movements like the Tea Party.

Moving Inevitably Towards Action

As with the pro-tobacco lobby, however, the climate change denial efforts are doomed to fail. Unfortunately, it may take an increasing loss of life and damage to property from severe weather events before climate change truly becomes a non-partisan issue. But that day is coming.

The majority of Canadians have already moved on, and have entered the debate about how best to address climate change. Those Sudburians participating in the Moving Forward Together conference later this week have made up their minds about where to begin the discussion, and are eager to find solutions which are locally implementable. As with putting a price on carbon, even local solutions may require political decisions. Those decisions will require leadership and vision, as well as local buy-in (but not unanimous support).

Those decisions, which will be made in the near future, will be the points of reference for future generations to measure whether our response to the crisis was successful or not. History will condemn us for our inaction up to this point. It is my hope, however, that history will ultimately come to praise the bold and brave political decisions yet to be made to address the climate crisis.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Industry Minister Clement to Review CRTC Decision Regarding Unlimited Internet Downloads

Federal Minister of Industry, Tony Clement, today announced that his office will review the recent decision of the CRTC to effectively remove the ability of small internet service providers to offer unlimited downloading options to their customers. This intervention by the government of Canada into the simmering dispute regarding the internet is welcome by all who are concerned with keeping the internet as accessible as possible.

Canadians already pay higher rates on average to access the internet. There used to be a time when smaller internet service providers (ISP’s) proliferated, but as new, expensive and expansive fibre optic infrastructure was laid out, and the bigger telecoms entered the scene in a serious way, competition has dwindled and prices have risen. With the telecoms now commanding the lion’s share of network clientele, they’ve targeted the few remaining crumbs by attacking their ability to provide the services that their customers want.

It’s true that internet users continue to take up more and more bandwidth as an increasing number of videos are viewed and downloaded. And it is also true that the larger telecoms were the ones who stepped forward into the (admittedly favourable) gap to provide the infrastructure which makes this possible. The telecoms, however, have also financially benefited to a significant degree through their investments, as have all Canadians. It’s been a win-win situation for those who now enjoy high speed internet.

But let’s be clear: not everyone in Canada yet enjoys high speed. The telecoms stopped short of extending expensive networks into sparsely populated regions of the country, because they were concerned about a return on investment. That’s worth remarking on: they were able to realize profits by building the networks in areas where it made financial sense; where a financial case couldn’t be made, investment didn’t occur.

So, the telecoms have built the infrastructure and continue to profit from it. What’s the problem here? Well, like many massive businesses, they’ve decided that they’re not making enough profit. To further increase their bottom lines, they have hit upon a strategy which will drive their smaller competitors out of business and provide fewer, more expensive options, to consumers.

Clearly, Canadian consumers have an interest in internet accessibility, and the prevention of innovation-killing oligopolies which act as de facto monopolies. Without proper regulation and government intervention, the so-called “free market” can quickly become anything but free to small businesses which try to offer superior service to their customers.

Today, both the Liberals and NDP are saying that they would unilaterally reverse the ruling of the CRTC as it relates to metered internet usage and the imposition of a downloading cap. While this approach will undoubtedly score quick political points, the CRTC underwent a thorough hearing process before siding with the telecom giants. I’m not suggesting that I’m at all in agreement with the CRTC, but it seems to me that the government of Canada under Clement is taking a more pragmatic approach in this case, by committing to a review of the CRTC’s decision.

The opposition parties probably fear that the Conservatives will use a delaying tactic in order to prevent this from becoming an election issue. Let's hope Clement's "review" is scoped in terms of time. However, we also hear that none of the political parties want an election. I'm willing to take Clement at face value on this for now. One of the duties of government is to look into the concerns raised with arms-length regulators, like the CRTC. The government of Canada certainly doesn't meddle in these kinds of decisions every day. Clement here recognized the need for review, due to the importance of this issue. As far as I'm concerned right now, this is just the government doing its business.

Of course, my opinion could change depending on the review unfolds.

Calls to unilaterally undermine the CRTC in this circumstance are, in my opinion, premature, and could lead to a loss of confidence in the regulator’s ability to do its own job. The CRTC has spoken; now let the government do its job, and let’s wait and see what Clement has to say.

Let’s hope that the Minister Clement and the Conservative government recognize the need to keep the net accessible. The decision by the CRTC will undeniably hurt small businesses in local communities, and ultimately will prove to be bad for consumers. As we get deeper into the 21st century, we Canadians have an increasing interest in keeping prices down, and promoting local businesses. An economic model which promotes the needs of international conglomerates in preference to local consumers needs to be fixed. Clement’s review won’t accomplish that outcome, but it may end up saving the internet’s accessibility here in Canada.