Monday, March 30, 2009

US officials may face charges in Spain

For facilitating torture, no less:

A Spanish court has agreed to consider opening a criminal case against six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, over allegations they gave legal cover for torture at Guantanamo Bay, a lawyer in the case said.

Human rights lawyers brought the case before leading anti-terror judge Baltasar Garzon, who agreed to send it on to prosecutors to decide whether it had merit, Gonzalo Boye, one of the lawyers who brought the charges, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

The ex-Bush officials are Gonzales; former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith; former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff David Addington; Justice Department officials John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee; and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes.

From the Independent, via Pride for Red Dolores in this babble thread.

Friday, March 27, 2009

An explanation as to why more people don't vote NDP

I often disagree with the guy on babble who calls himself Stockholm, but he does have a way with words, and in this thread he manages to frame the problem very well:
It's like if you asked 100 Canadians to name their favourite beer - 95% of them will automatically say Labatt's or Molson. Its only during an election campaign that they are forced to pay attention to Upper Canada and Sleeman's and be reminded that those brands actually taste a lot better than Labatt's or Molson.
That sounds about right to me, except for the part about noticing the good brands at election time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Not a huge surprise...

... though the party apparatchiks did their best to convince us it would be a tough battle:
The NDP has retained both of its seats up for grabs in Manitoba legislature byelections Tuesday.

Former MP Bill Blaikie emerged the victor by a comfortable margin over Progressive Conservative Adrian Schulz, Liberal Regan Wolfrom and James Beddome of the Green party in the Winnipeg riding of Elmwood.

With 98 per cent of the polls reporting, Blaikie held 2,303 votes, compared to Schulz's 909 and Wolfrom's 802. Beddome registered 210 votes.

"I'm looking forward to being on the government side," said Blaikie, noting that will be a first in his lengthy political career.

"It's one of the reasons I chose to come out of retirement. I've always wondered how government works — now maybe I'll find out."

NDP candidate Frank Whitehead, former chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, outpaced Progressive Conservative Edna Nabess and Liberal Maurice Berens in The Pas. With 75 per cent of the polls reporting, Whitehead had 2,449 votes, compared to Nabess's 680 and 219 for Berens.


Of course I'm happy with the outcome. Blaikie is one of the stalwarts of Canadian politics, while Whitehead is a promising newcomer. I could actually see us winning the next election; not only do we have a good team, but the other parties are in disarray, and Manitoba is withstanding the current crisis better than almost anywhere else.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Some of us are looking at the stars

And may it always be that way:
Quietly and with almost no flourish, the space agencies of the US and Europe last month settled upon a new joint mission to the farther reaches of the solar system. They will mount a fresh exploration of Jupiter and take a closer look at its mysterious moons, Europa and Ganymede. Adventures such as these are an act of faith: they are devised by scientists who may never live to see the outcome, and based on instruments that will be out of date before they can be used.
From the Guardian. The fascinating thing is that Europa is considered a strong candidate for being inhabited:
The fundamental requirements for life seem to be water and a source of energy. So, for more than a decade, space scientists have been tantalised by the possibility that, beyond Mars, beyond the asteroid belt, and wheeling around the second biggest object in the solar system, there could be living things, sheathed in an enormous goldfish bowl, masked by dense, self-repairing ice, the creatures of a separate genesis. They proposed an orbiter to take a closer look: President George Bush cancelled the project in 2002, because the cost would be excessive. Seven years on, and with a new presidency, the great adventure can begin again.
It's tempting to say that this money could be better spent elsewhere, but although there are an awful lot of things that need attention now, just ending some foreign military adventures (ahem) could free up enough money to fund energy conservation, alternative power sources, build up healthcare, education, and other social programs to decent levels, and continue the exploration of space. We most definitely need to look towards the near future, but we can't ignore the far future either. And the value of finding life on another world would be incalculable.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How the Patriot Act works

Atomicat has found this interview with Susan Lindauer, who went through five years of hell after being charged under the infamous Patriot Act:

Michael Collins: Not many people know that you were arrested under provisions of the Patriot Act. You were one of the fist U.S. citizens to experience the brutality of this legislation. How did it shape your case and treatment in the Courts?

Susan Lindauer: That's right. Along with Jose Padilla, I will go down in history as one of the first and only non-Arab Americans ever indicted on the Patriot Act during the Bush Administration.

I believe that my case demonstrates why the Patriot Act should be repealed immediately to safeguard our country and our freedom.

I have always opposed war and advocated diplomacy to solve conflicts. The indictment accused me of "acting as an unregistered Iraqi Agent," on the grounds that I delivered a letter forecasting the failure of the Occupation to my cousin, Andy Card, Chief of Staff to President George Bush. That's what used to be known as Freedom of Speech. The letter was not hostile or threatening. In fact, it proved tragically accurate. That did not matter to the Justice Department. Vocalizing opposition to Bush policy was treasonous. End of discussion.

Read the whole interview. It's freaking insane. And the fellow who interviewed her should watch himself too; they might accuse him of being this noted terrorist, and deem the evidence that the latter has been dead for 87 years as being "inadmissible".

Friday, March 20, 2009

George Galloway banned from Canada!

Even the Bush administration didn't do this:

Anti-war MP George Galloway has been banned from Canada, it emerged today.

A Canadian spokesman confirmed that the Respect MP had been deemed inadmissible on national security grounds and would not be allowed into the country.

Galloway today branded the ban "idiotic" and vowed to fight the ruling with "all means" at his disposal. He is due to give a speech in Toronto on 30 March.

Earlier today the Sun said border security officials had declared Galloway, 54, "inadmissible" because of his views on Afghanistan and the presence of Canadian troops there and would be turned away if he attempted to enter the country.

A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the decision had been taken by border security officials "based on a number of factors" in accordance with section 34(1) of the country's immigration act.

From the Guardian. Immigration minister Jason Kenney says that he has given "financial support" to Hamas; as far as I can tell that refers to his participation in this. What a load of crap (though I can see why the Cons would be scared of Galloway; he can't be intimidated).

Saudi oil minister: Alternative energy is too risky!

And of course this is just impartial advice, right?
Action is needed now to prevent a possible "catastrophic" energy supply crunch , Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi warned today.

"In years to come, if traditional energy supplies should prove inadequate because capital expenditure was curtailed due to unsustainable prices, unreliable indication of future demand or hopes for a substitute that oil cannot deliver, such a supply crunch would be catastrophic," Reuters quoted Naimi as saying.

"The painful result would be felt sooner rather than later. It would effectively take the wheels off an already derailed economy."

The world risked disaster by placing too much hope on untested alternative energy sources, Naimi told an Opec conference of energy leaders.

"We frankly court disaster if these supplemental resources on which such high hopes for energy security and sustainability are pinned do not fulfil their high expectations," he said.

Naimi said the world should not use low oil prices as a reason not to investment in the sources of future production, as to do so would only gaurantee further shortages and soaring prices.
From here, via Mega in this iTulip thread.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Maybe the Cons need to work on their PR...

... stuff like this isn't going to help their image with urban Canadians:
A Saskatchewan Conservative MP is coming under fire for his starring role at a gun lobby dinner in the Greater Toronto area next month where the raffle prize is a Beretta semi-automatic handgun.

Garry Breitkreuz is the guest speaker at the Canadian Shooting Sports Association's (CSSA) annual general meeting and dinner on April 18 in Mississauga, where he's to be lauded for his private member's bill to abolish Canada's controversial long-gun registry and relax rules on prohibited and restricted weapons.

The "special dinner draw" of this "very rare and valuable collector's item" is advertised on the association's website. Raffle tickets will be sold at the dinner for $20 each or three for $50.
From the Hamilton Spectator.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Minister clarifies stand on evolution

I guess he fears the artificial selection of the electorate more than he fears natural selection:
Science minister Gary Goodyear now says he believes in evolution.

“Of course I do,” he told guest host Jane Taber during an appearance on the CTV program Power Play. “But it is an irrelevant question.”

That's a different answer from the one Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor and minister of state for science and technology, gave The Globe and Mail when asked the same thing during an interview published in Tuesday's paper.

“I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” he said at the time.


There are no dinosaurs in the Conservative Party...

... they all died out in the Great Flood:

Canada's science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won't say if he believes in evolution.

“I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A funding crunch, exacerbated by cuts in the January budget, has left many senior researchers across the county scrambling to find the money to continue their experiments.

Some have expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist.

When asked about those rumours, Mr. Goodyear said such conversations are not worth having.

From the Globe and Mail. Putting someone who might be a creationist in as science minister says a lot about the Cons' attitude towards science (some would say that the fact that he's a chiropractor only adds to the concern). And if you like their attitude towards science, you'll love their attitude towards human rights:
A longtime Conservative who opposes same sex marriage has been appointed to the tribunal that decides whether gays get refugee status in Canada.

Doug Cryer , a former director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, has also publicly defended the right of churches to denounce homosexuality.

“Doug Cryer of the EFC said the church has a right to say that homosexual behaviour is sinful, just as it can say that adultery is sinful,” according to a November 2006 edition of

“It is part of God’s teaching,” Cryer told the publication.

Cryer is among a dozen people appointed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney last month to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board — an independent administrative tribunal that hears applications for refugee status in Canada.

Among the many grounds for refugee status is the fear that someone will be hurt or killed in their home country because they are homosexual.

From the Portage Daily Graphic. Just another reason why the Harper government cannot be allowed to continue.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Orlikow wins

Hey! I just got something right:

Former school trustee John Orlikow was voted in to Winnipeg city council in Tuesday's byelection in the ward of River Heights-Fort Garry.

With all 49 polls reporting Tuesday evening, an unofficial tally gave Orlikow 4,392 votes, compared with former broadcaster Geoff Currier's 3,299. The byelection was held to fill the seat left vacant by the death of deputy mayor Brenda Leipsic in December.

From the CBC.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Conservative Party strategy to take over student unions exposed

Some of you might recall how a bunch of Tiny Tories took over the University of Winnipeg Students' Association for a short time back in the mid-1990s. Well, this seems to be a common tactic for that crowd:
Audio recordings, photographs and documents that were leaked from a recent Conservative Party student workshop at the University of Waterloo expose a partisan attempt to take over student unions and undermine Ontario Public Interest Research Groups (OPIRGs) on campuses across Ontario.

At a session held in early February by the Ontario Progressive Campus Conservative Association (OPCCA) and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, campus Conservatives, party campaigners, and a Member of Parliament discussed strategies to gain funding from student unions for the Conservative Party and ways to run for—and win—positions within student unions.

The leaked materials were posted on over the weekend and add to the growing body of evidence that the Conservative Party has a strategy for interfering in campus student unions. In early 2002, the campus press first learned of a secret Millennium Leadership Fund that the party’s campus wing used to fund candidates in student union elections. Now it appears that strategy has evolved into a campaign to falsely obtain student union funding and destabilize student clubs with a social justice mandate.

Among those present at the workshop were Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo, Peter Braid and his campaign manager, Aaron Lee-Wudrick. Lee-Wudrick is heard on the recordings providing advice on how to siphon money from students’ unions through “front organizations” that would work to further the goals of the Conservative Party.

From the Ryerson Free Press.

Edited to add: Here's the original link from WikiLeaks. Don't know why the article couldn't have included a hyperlink...

Victory in El Salvador

The FMLN has taken the presidency:

El Salvador's former rebel group-turned-political party has claimed victory in the country's presidential election.

Jubilant supporters of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) poured into the streets of San Salvador in the early hours of Monday, after Mauricio Funes, the FMLN leader, declared that he had won.

"This is the happiest night of my life, and I want it to be the night of El Salvador's greatest hope," Funes said, with results showing he had 51.3 per cent of the vote, with over 90 per cent of returns counted.

Soon afterwards, Rodrigo Avila, the conservative candidate, conceded defeat, vowing to lead a formidable opposition.

"I want to make it known to Mauricio Funes from the FMLN that in this close battle the margin of difference has given him the advantage," Avila said, recognising the end of two decades of rule by his party.

From Al Jazeera. From what they were saying on the radio this morning, Obama is willing to work with Funes, unlike Bush (who reportedly said that throwing ARENA out of power would harm El Salvador's relations with the US). And Funes is willing to reciprocate, apparently. Interesting times.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Geoff Currier doesn't believe in anthropogenic climate change

So it seems, anyway; when the Winnipeg Trails Association and Bike To The Future met with him and John Orlikow to get their opinions on active transportation, Currier came out with this gem:

According to a summary distributed on Friday, Currier told representatives of both organizations, "I believe that if we were to take all the cars in North America off the road tomorrow, it wouldn't have any effect on climate change."

Currier declined to comment on Friday, except to say he had no idea the groups intended to make the content of the meeting public.

"They never indicated to me this kind of report would be forthcoming," he said.

From the Winnipeg Free Press. Well duh... why the hell would you think these organizations would be asking candidates' opinions unless they planned to publicize them?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wonders never cease...

The Ottawa Sun is actually saying good things about the NDP (thanks to JanfromtheBruce for the link). For some reason the following image seems appropriate to the situation.


Looks like a banger really is greener than a Prius!

A lot of countries are considering schemes where people are paid cash to buy new, supposedly greener cars. Well, it is indeed true that newer cars produce fewer smog-producing emissions, and some of them are better on fuel, but even taking these into account this may not wash:

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is lobbying Mandelson to ape a German scheme and offer British motorists a £2,000 "cash-back" if they will scrap their old car and buy a new one. Just to help out the car-makers. Mandelson has let it be known he is considering the idea.

My Guardian colleague, George Monbiot, laid into this scam in his column this week. Yes, he says, modern cars are slightly greener than old bangers (though much of that gain is lost because we insist on buying more powerful vehicles). But that £2,000 could deliver far more emissions reductions if it were invested in public transport, or low-energy lightbulbs, or nuclear power plants or, well, almost anything else you care to mention.

But there is another aspect to this, raised briefly by George. What about the carbon footprint of manufacturing that new car? Here is where the real greenwash lies in the Mandelson plan for cash-back on old bangers. For apart from giving up the car altogether — which I recommend — the greenest thing you can do is to keep the old vehicle for as many extra years as you can manage.

From the Guardian. Of course, when the auto industry is crumbling, this is not a popular viewpoint, but from an environmental perspective those cash payments just don't wash.

Sacramento and Its Riverside Tent City

No, not Nairobi, not Mumbai, but Sacramento:
A tent city is burgeoning in Sacramento, Calif., prompting local officials to consider whether such an encampment should be made permanent, with plumbing and all.

The primitive settlement sits in the shadow of the state capitol and is home to about 300 people who have no toilets or running water, creating unsanitary conditions that advocacy groups worry could promote diseases like cholera. With the downturn in the economy and more working-class people losing their jobs and their homes, the tent city is expanding.

The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, said in an interview that he wants to create a permanent tent city for the homeless, although he is not sure where it should be. He said he recognized that doing so would be difficult politically. But he said a permanent site could bring sanitation services and regulations like a ban on drugs and alcohol.

Source. How the hell does this happen in one of the richest countries in the world? Oh yeah -- they have fuck all for social programs. Meanwhile, huge numbers of houses are sitting vacant. Go figure.

Oh yeah, check out Tom Tomorrow's latest (hat tip to Blaque).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My tentative prediction for River Heights-Fort Garry

I think Orlikow will win.

Having been phoning a fair bit on the campaign, a good many people seem pretty noncommittal, but there's more support for Orlikow than Currier in just about every poll I've called. Interestingly, one fellow, after speaking in a critical way about the way school taxes have gone up, said that he was leaning toward Orlikow nevertheless because Currier, well, failed to impress him with his intellect. Of course, River Heights is one place where being intelligent can actually count for something, and where being a CJOB broadcaster might actually be a stroke against you. I haven't done much calling into Fort Garry or Linden Woods, so I'm not sure how well the pattern holds in those areas.

So yeah, I think Orlikow can pull this off.

More dirt from the by-election campaign

The Ikea proposal is, of course, one of the big issues in the campaign. John Orlikow, and many residents of the area, are not opposed to the store in principle but are concerned with the way this is being rushed through. And then there's Mr. Currier's comments:

Geoff Currier said the Ikea development is a great opportunity for the city. He said Winnipeg will suffer serious damage and reduce its chances of attracting other large companies if it blows the deal.

"If Manitoba and Winnipeg chase a $400-million project out of town, not only will we never get a development from these people again, nobody will come to Winnipeg," he said.

From this CBC story. And on the radio this morning, he was implying that any delay (like, say, to take a close look at the pros and cons of the proposal) will result in the project being "chased out of town". In other words, he seems to be saying "Accept this proposal, no questions asked, or nothing good will happen here ever again." Gotta love reasoned debate, eh?

Let the dominoes fall!

A left-wing wave seems to be sweeping across parts of the Americas. It would be stretching things to say Obama is part of this except in a relative sense (I'd call him a centrist, or even centre right) but consider: Not only do we have Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Lula, but it looks like they may soon be joined by Mauricio Funes, the FMLN's candidate for the presidency of El Salvador. Indications are that he's ahead in the polls:
Former leftist rebels in El Salvador appear poised to accomplish at the ballot box what they were unable to accomplish on the battlefield: win power.

In the 1980s, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front drew the U.S. into a bloody Cold War conflict in Central America.

Now, as a political party known by its acronym FMLN, it has been leading in public opinion polls for presidential elections slated for March.

If the party's candidate wins, he would be the first leftist president in El Salvador's history.

At an FMLN rally in the capital, San Salvador, supporters call Mauricio Funes — despite his white skin — "El Salvador's Barack Obama."

A former journalist, Funes once hosted a television talk show for which he had a reputation for holding government officials' feet to the fire. He has electrified the left in El Salvador in a way that previous FMLN candidates haven't.

From NPR. Meanwhile, back in our own country, Gary Doer may soon have some company in Canada again:
Nova Scotia should get ready for an NDP minority government, pollster Don Mills told a business luncheon Tuesday.

"The strength of support for the NDP has been constant and consistent for almost two years, and there seems to be very little that will disturb that in an election," he told reporters after his speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

"Any time in the last year, we would have predicted an NDP government. The reason we are predicting now is because we believe we are close to an election. We’re probably two months away from an election."

Mr. Mills, of Corporate Research Associates in Halifax, said the only thing that could derail an election call in the near future is if the Liberals decide they want to give leader Stephen McNeil, who was chosen in 2007, more time.

The pollster said the most recent survey showed the NDP was the top choice of decided voters with 36 per cent (down from 37 per cent in November), the Liberals were in second with 31 per cent (up from 27 per cent) and the Conservatives were third with 30 per cent (down from 33 per cent). Another three per cent chose the Green party (unchanged from last quarter). Of those surveyed, 37 per cent were undecided.

From the Chronicle Herald. This could get interesting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The convention

As noted previously, I spent the weekend at Provincial Convention in Brandon. The general vibe was positive, and it was pretty productive as far as getting resolutions past goes. In fact, virtually all of the resolutions regarding the environment were debated (on Friday night), and most of them passed. Some highlights included support for centralized composting programs like those found in many cities in Ontario (using the methane produced to generate electricity), a resolution urging the government to legalize low speed electric vehicles like the ZENN, and support for First Nation partnerships for Hydro projects. One rather curious resolution was one advocating an active program to reintroduce species extirpated from Manitoba; while I sympathize with the idea, it seems to me that the cost would be high for the environmental benefit (as compared with, say, putting more natural areas under protection).

Many other subjects were dealt with too of course, though not quite as efficiently as environmental issues were. The most interesting and contentious debate centred around whether or not to continue the tuition freeze that has been in place since 2000 (it was eventually decided that continuing the freeze would be unrealistic, something the government has already accepted anyhow). Nothing else was as controversial as that; some standouts, though, include support for a civilian police commission (something this province badly needs) and a resolution advocating free dental care for children under 18 (ambitious, but also badly needed). Of course, resolutions at Convention are not actually binding on the government, but I'm optimistic that a fair amount of this will become government policy (actually, much of it already is).

Of course there were also the obligatory speeches. Doer and Layton both spoke on Saturday afternoon; curiously both speeches were introduced with a Damhnait Doyle song.

All told, the most important effect of the convention was to rally the troops (not that there's anything wrong with that). Everyone I talked to came away with a positive feeling about things (and with byelections around the corner, that's a good thing).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Horwath takes Ontario NDP leadership

This looks like a good thing:
For the first time in three decades Hamilton has a provincial party leader.

Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath won the leadership of the Ontario NDP in a three ballot contest yesterday.

The last party leader that came from Hamilton was Dr. Stuart Smith. He represented Hamilton West and lead the Liberal party between 1976 and 1982. The bulk of his old riding is now in Horwath's riding.

"Thank you New Democrats," Horwath said, after she was pulled to the stage by supporters when the vote result was announced at about 7:30 p.m.

"I feel great," the 46-year-old mother of one told reporters. "It's been an excellent convention. It's been very exciting."

Horwath received 6,742 votes, or 60 per cent of the total. Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns placed second.

Horwath, a Stoney Creek native and former Hamilton councillor, had been in the lead since the first ballot was announced just after 5 p.m. and never faltered.

Her victory comes just one day before International Women's Day.
From the Hamilton Spectator. Truth to tell I don't know that much about her, since I left Ontario before the leadership race and haven't followed it that closely as a result, but my overall impression of her is good, and most of the people I know and respect back in Waterloo supported her, as did Charlie Angus. Maybe this is the start of a new era for the NDP in Ontario. Let's hope so, anyway.

I just got back from the Manitoba NDP convention in Brandon. Plenty of activity, general good vibe... details to follow after I've had time to unwind and get some rest.

Friday, March 6, 2009

John's career goes down the toilet

John Tory, that is:

KAWARTHA LAKES - PC leader John Tory has gone down to defeat in the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock byelection.

Voter discontent struck Tory a blow from which his political career is not expected to recover. He has scheduled a press conference at Queen's Park at 2 p.m. on Friday to announce his future plans.

The stunning tight race that led to an upset sends Liberal candidate Rick Johnson to the seat in the Ontario Legislature that former MPP Laurie Scott gave up for Tory.

Tory appeared at the campaign party at the Olympia Restaurant in Lindsay shortly before 11 p.m. The upstairs banquet room was filled with sombre supporters and suspenseful media.

He was accompanied by Scott, his wife and other family members.

"It was a spirited and honourable campaign," he said, looking composed.

Tory hoped that Johnson "will learn from the example of Laurie Scott." He noted her integrity, courage and team loyalty.

He added that he was sorry her public service had been interrupted. He later spoke of her as "a special friend and true inspiration."

From the Lindsay Post.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

So who's in charge of the Republican Party now anyway?

How about Rush Limbaugh?

Make no mistake. Right now, Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican party.

No other Republican is getting any attention, and you can credit whomever you want.

Maybe it is the brilliant scheming of Rahm Emanuel, David Plouffe, Paul Begala, and James Carville. They seem to think so.

Thanks to Blaque for the tip. Imagine what the Republican ticket of 2012 might look like? Limbaugh-Palin? Limbaugh-Huckabee?


Geoff Currier shows where his priorities lie

The first of several debates for the River Heights-Fort Garry by-election took place today. It seems that the subject of affordable housing was a bit contentious:
Two candidates vying to be the next city councillor for River Heights-Fort Garry squared off today over whether to mix luxury and affordable housing in future residential developments.

In a ward that is part of Winnipeg’s expanding south side, the difference between former school trustee John Orlikow and broadcaster Geoff Currier was particularly resonant.

City hall should mandate that all future residential projects include affordable housing, Orlikow said.

“Some portions of (suburban residential developments) should be available to people on a low income,” Orlikow said, noting he meant even higher-income suburbs such as Waverley West.

But Currier suggested communities of mixed housing would make selling expensive homes difficult.

“You cannot attract high-end home customers to an area that has low-end housing beside it,” he said.
From the Winnipeg Free Press. Blah blah blah, the usual right wing bullshit. If you don't want to live next to people who might be (gasp) different from you, kindly move to Niverville and leave the rest of us alone.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

An alternate look at tackling climate change

In today's Independent, Simon Usborne has published an article entitled "Inconvenient truths: Don't believe the greenwash", in which he makes some rather odd claims about what needs to be done to tackle climate change effectively. I have to admit some of them sound plausible, but I'm uncomfortable with them as well, and I'm not convinced on a lot of them. For instance:

Cute animals will have to die

You may not have come across the Bewick's swan. The smallest swan found in Britain, it reaches our shores from its Siberian breeding grounds in October and, along with 65,000 other water birds, it splashes down in the wetlands of the Severn Estuary. It is, without doubt, very cute.

But soon, it will have to find somewhere else to feed. In a few years' time, hundreds of lorries and cranes are set to sling 10 miles of steel and concrete across the most beautiful and ecologically diverse of estuaries, flooding the swans' habitat. Could anything be more of an affront to the eco-minded? The call would seem to be as clear as they come: save the swans, say no to construction.

But it isn't that simple. All that steel and concrete will become the Severn Barrage which, by harnessing the tides, would provide 5 per cent of Britain's electricity, with no nasty carbon emissions. So, which to choose: clean electricity, or the protection of birds and beasts?

Now there are situations where this might actually apply. Maybe this is one; Bewick's Swan is relatively common worldwide, though I'd like to know more about its range in the UK before passing judgment. If a distinct subspecies was endemic to a small area, it would be very hard to justify building the plant if there were any reasonable alternative (like, I dunno, how many wind turbines could you make with the money that will be spent there?)

To be fair, Usborne doesn't pass final judgment on this particular case either, but it's inevitable that many other hard choices like that will arise in the future. We have them now; consider Manitoba Hydro's own Wuskwatim Generation Project. If we want the midwestern US to stop burning so much coal, we have to be prepared to provide them with an alternative. And note that hydro dams are also vital energy storage devices, vital for really effective use of solar and wind power. (When the wind is blowing and/or the sun is shining, you can reduce the flow through the turbines and allow more head to build up behind the dam, which can be tapped later when needed). Yet it can't be denied that it will have impacts on local ecosystems, not to mention some people's livelihoods.
We need nuclear power

"The whole universe runs on nuclear energy, so why not us?" argues the environmental scientist James Lovelock. While there are associated concerns about weapons and radioactive waste, a government White Paper published last January found that nuclear power emits only 2 to 6 per cent of carbon per kilowatt-hour of that emitted by the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas. And it factored in everything from the uranium mining through to power-plant decommissioning.

About 18 per cent of the UK's electricity is currently generated by nuclear power, with all but one of our existing plants scheduled for decommissioning before 2023. We need to build more now because, however much we'd like it to, wind power cannot be relied on to generate enough electricity at the times when it is needed. As John Constable, the director of policy and research at the Renewable Energy Foundation, said in December: "To generate 30 or 40 per cent of our electrical energy from wind power would present unmanageable and unaffordable difficulties at the present."

Even Sweden has just announced plans to overturn a 29-year ban on atomic plants. "I'm doing this for the sake of my children and grandchildren," said Center party leader Maud Olofsson.

This may actually be true in some cases. In some parts of the world there may not be enough hydroelectric capacity to stabilize the grid as mentioned above, though I still wonder if something like flywheel energy storage couldn't be rolled out pretty quickly (certainly as fast as wind turbines themselves). But if not, nuclear energy might be the best of a bad lot. I certainly don't think there's any place for it in Manitoba, despite what some small-town mayor might think.

Moving on:

Counting food miles will get you nowhere

It's true that our suppers have never travelled so far to reach our plates – asparagus from Peru, green beans from Kenya, lamb from New Zealand. Importing bananas and kiwis is one thing (they don't grow so well in Kent) – but surely it's madness to fill our supermarket aisles with butter, apples and beans from the other side of the world?

Well, not necessarily. The food miles argument is perhaps one of the most criminally oversimplified in the whole green debate.

First, it's worth looking at just how much food we do import. According to the Department for Environment and Food's latest figures, we are 61 per cent self-sufficient; crucially, when it comes to foods we can produce here, that figure rises to 74 per cent.

But what of the relatively small percentage of food we do ship in? The food miles argument would have it that a leg of lamb's carbon hoofprint is in proportion to the number of miles it travels. But that ignores the concept of scale. Say a small local farm produces 10 tons of lamb, and has a lorry that can carry one ton at a time. And say it is 100 miles from the nearest market. You get lamb with 100 food miles, but the farmers have to make 10 trips to transport their meat.

Meanwhile, lamb from a bigger farm 500 miles away would travel 500 food miles, but they've got a 10-ton lorry so they do it in one trip. Sure, the big truck guzzles more gas than the little one, but not five times as much, so the carbon footprint of the far-flung lamb is smaller.

This example is hypothetical, but apparently there are some real-world examples that support this:
OK, that's a fictional example. But there have been more rigorous studies. Adrian Williams, an agricultural researcher at Cranfield University, has called the food miles argument "foolish: provincial, damaging and simplistic". Williams and his team have looked at the relative carbon footprints of produce grown locally and thousands of miles away, taking into account factors such as fertilisation, irrigation, means of transportation and harvesting methods – not just the number of miles from field to fork.

Williams showed that apples from New Zealand may be "greener" than those grown locally because the climate there allows for much greater yields, and farms rely mostly on electricity generated by renewable sources. A study at New Zealand's Lincoln University showed that lamb shipped to Britain produced one-quarter of the CO2 emissions of British lamb when you accounted for the relative reliance on fertiliser and energy-hungry irrigation systems, as well as the method of transport – shipping emissions have been shown to be about one-60th of those produced by air travel.

Now this is indeed interesting, though I have to wonder; if the UK does adopt enough alternative energy sources to drastically reduce their coal consumption (and they bloody well have to), how much of this will still apply? The reduced reliance on fertilizer might still make a difference, I dunno. It would help if they had absolute figures rather than merely relative ones. It would also help if I knew more about agriculture than I do.

An old banger beats a hybrid

Driving a banger might well be greener than zipping about in a hybrid car such as the Toyota Prius. The zeal with which green-minded drivers have embraced the Prius is scarcely credible, because the hybrid's eco-credentials are far from clear. Since its 1997 launch, the Prius, which combines a battery with a petrol engine, has become a big seller – Toyota has shifted a million of the things, and drivers include a clutch of celebrities led by Leonardo DiCaprio – and a symbol of everything a standard car is not: green, clean, virtuous.

But is it? Petrolheads have questioned Toyota's claims. Not always successfully; in 2007, an American market research company pitched too high when it published a report claiming that the Humvee, thought to be the worst-offending car on the road, had a smaller carbon footprint than a Prius. Further studies discredited that, but the researchers were on to something. Because the Prius uses a big battery to complement its engine, a Prius is green when it gets to the road, managing (Toyota says) a respectable 65.7mpg in mixed driving. But that hulk of a battery includes almost 14kg of nickel – and the Prius, therefore, requires more energy to build than a standard car of a similar size.

And some road tests have questioned whether it's even that green on the road. Drivers claim their dashboard gauges rarely show the promised 65.7mpg. In one test, the motoring journalist Jason Dawe took part in an experiment in which a Prius and a BMW 520 diesel were driven 545 miles from London to Geneva, including 100 miles of urban driving. The Prius guzzled 11.34 gallons of fuel (48.1mpg) compared to the BMW's 10.84 gallons (50.3mpg). Yet the Prius owner would pay £15 in road tax (£115 for BMW), be exempt from the London congestion charge (£8 a pop) and get to feel smug.

There is indeed something to this. Certainly for someone like me, who doesn't drive that often, scrapping my VW to buy a Prius would be highly counterproductive. On the other hand, if you drive a lot, especially in the city, a hybrid might be the best choice (there's a reason the taxi companies are snapping them up as fast as they can). On the highway, not so much; a good diesel is better than most hybrids. My dad's Jetta TDI got 60 mi/gal (Imperial), which is 4.7 L/100 km, or 50 mi/gal (US), on a trip of around 2100 km. You'd be hard pressed to do that in a Prius.

Coal is not a dirty word

The coal-fired power station is the ultimate symbol of the way we send clouds of carbon into the atmosphere – yet the latest wisdom is that we should build more coal-fired power stations.

Why? Solar, wind and tidal power will only get us so much electricity. The other part of the solution may well involve a dirty, black rock we might have thought had been cast into history. Coal is seen as a key part of Britain's formula for green energy. Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy and Climate Change, recently said the black stuff "has to be part of the energy mix, partly because there is an abundant source in Britain". Britain still has enough coal to power the country for a century – and, in the longer term, "clean coal" is seen as a viable if imperfect way for developing countries to green up their power.

But how can coal be clean? The answer lies in a technique called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Traditionally, coal power plants belch tons of CO2 straight into the atmosphere. CCS power stations, or those fitted with the technology, would capture the greenhouse gas and bury it, usually in depleted oil or gas fields in, say, the North Sea. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a modern power plant with CCS could reduce CO2 emissions by 80 to 90 per cent compared to a standard plant.

The first pilot CCS plant began operation in Germany last year. The Schwarze Pumpe processing plant separates and squashes its CO2 emissions to one-500th of original volume before pumping the gas into cylinders for transport and burial 1,000 metres underground in a gas field. In the next few weeks, the German energy company E.ON is expected to get approval to build a plant at Kingsnorth, in Kent.

The prospect of Britain's first new coal-fired power station for 30 years horrifies green campaigners, and Kingsnorth has seen clashes between police and protesters who say CCS is expensive, requires huge amounts of energy itself and won't greatly cut emissions for decades. But "clean" coal has momentum.

This one I have a hard time accepting. Given that nobody has yet been able to demonstrate that widespread CCS is even feasible, we should be looking at conservation, solar, wind, and even nuclear before we even consider adding coal capacity.

Organic farming doesn't add up

Organic must be good, right? Better food, free from nasty pesticides, packaged in recycled cardboard (preferably brown), with a bit of soil thrown in to confirm its wholesome provenance; better for us, better for the cows and chickens and lambs and fruit and veg, better for the planet.

Or have we been fooled by the virtuous glow of organic brands? There's a reason a kilo of organic carrots at the online supermarket Ocado costs £1.49 while a bag of standard carrots the same size costs 95p. Organic food is more expensive to farm. That's because, per acre, the yield is usually lower than for standard crops because organic fertilisers aren't as effective. And smaller farms are often less efficient in harvesting, processing, transporting and associated carbon emissions (see food miles).

Organically reared livestock provide less meat per acre, and their impact is greater than that of vegetables. According to the Department for Environment and Food, 75 per cent of the greenhouse gas methane on farms is emitted directly by ruminants – cattle and sheep. But feed for organic animals is higher in roughage and low in concentrates, resulting in higher methane output per beast. A study by Dr Andy Thorpe at the University of Portsmouth suggested that 200 cows emit the annual equivalent methane to a family car driven 111,850 miles.

The big problem I have with this is that it focuses primarily on organic meat, and it's pretty doubtful that farmed meat of any sort, organic or otherwise, is a good move as regards carbon emissions. But more on this later.

Ancient forests must be axed

It isn't picturesque – but it is practical. It sounds ruthless, but wheezy old trees can't suck up the carbon like they used to. A tree absorbs roughly 1,500 tonnes of CO2 until it reaches 55 years of age, after which absorption slows. And when that tree decomposes, it belches all the CO2 back out again. So although the results won't be terribly scenic, if we were utterly rational, our trees should get the axe after reaching their CO2-hoovering peak. The wood can then be used to make furniture, houses and many of the products we currently manufacture from less sustainable materials. We should then plant fresh seedlings to farm.

Again, there's a ring of plausibility to this, but it overlooks a very important point. Sure, older forests don't absorb as much CO2, but they may still absorb more than newly planted tree farms will for a few decades. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that a disproportionate amount of the 1500 tonnes cited above comes later in that 55 year period -- and we need to be absorbing the stuff now. So unless a forest has reached a point where it is releasing more CO2 than it consumes, better to plant over an existing clearcut, perhaps with some selective logging of some older growth.

Not to mention, the slogan "a tree farm is not a forest" has a lot of truth to it. A replanted forest does not have the biodiversity of an old growth forest, and ecosystems that are less diverse are usually less stable, i.e. more vulnerable to sudden events like a severe pest or disease outbreak, which could throw a big monkey wrench into the carbon absorption scheme.

On the other hand, if a forest has died (like large areas of BC's forests have) then it might be better to clearcut those areas as much as possible, before the trees decay.

Nature needs GM crops

The public image of genetically modified foods lies somewhere between that of asbestos and nuclear weapons. Think GM and many of us picture tomatoes being cloned in laboratories with nasty strip lights and bubbling test tubes, or campaigners in white suits tearing up "frankencrops" in fields of undisclosed location.

But for many of those pondering the future of food, GM doesn't evoke such horrors – it's the answer to a potential global crisis taking root in fields from Bedfordshire to Brazil. The price of feeding a global population of more than six billion is its huge environmental impact.

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture – with all its chugging tractors, fertiliser production and farting cows – accounts for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, throwing out tonnes of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. That's more than the world's cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes put together. In fact, UN figures suggest meat production alone churns out more greenhouse gases than transport.

An easy solution would be to reduce the posterior emissions of ruminants by eating less beef, but before we all go semi-veggie, perhaps we should give bioengineers, and their genetically modified carrots, a second chance. One third of agriculture's greenhouse emissions are caused by the production of nitrogen-based fertilisers. Some of the biggest names in GM are developing crops whose greater efficiency would mean higher yields for less fertiliser.

The thing is, reducing our meat intake is likely to have much more effect on our carbon footprint than they're likely to achieve with GM crops in the near future. And the near future is what we're talking about. Further down the line, when we have a better idea of what we're doing, there might indeed be a legitimate role for GM crops, but I don't think we should be relying on them right now.

Carbon offsetting doesn't pay

Dreamed up by politicians and businessmen rather than climate change scientists, carbon offsetting has been described by Friends of the Earth as "a smokescreen to avoid real measures to tackle climate change". In the same way as the medieval church allowed monied folk to buy their way out of sin, so offsetting is designed to allow the wealthy to salve their consciences for all those shopping trips to Dubai. It would be far greener not to "spend" the carbon in the first place. And that's without going into the impossibility of accurately calculating how much carbon is emitted on any given flight and ensuring the "offset" doesn't involve planting a tree that will end up emitting even more carbon.

Usborne is far from the first person to point this out; on the other hand, depending on how the offset money is spent it might be an unfair comment. Probably not all offset agencies are created equal, though.

China might be the solution

We've all seen "Made in China" stamped on disposable goods – but you're now likely to find the same stamp on solar panels, wind turbines and the rechargeable batteries used by electric vehicles. According to a Climate Group report, China is on the way to overtaking developed countries in creating clean technologies. The world's largest emitter already leads the world in terms of installed renewable capacity. With its own coastal cities threatened by flooding, and soaring world demand for its green technology, China is on the way to becoming a "low-carbon dragon economy".

More plausible than a lot of the propaganda would have us believe, though I'm not sure if the alternative energy technologies they produce are enough to make up for the coal they burn. But maybe they are working on phasing out coal; again, I don't know enough to say. One thing that's clear, though; a certain former boss of mine would hate to be told this, which gives it some appeal for me.