Being a “First Gen” Grad Student

After the orientation to my MA program, I went home and googled “masters thesis.” Perhaps I didn’t “Google,” since the monster corp had yet to infiltrate the internet or our vernacular, but I certainly left my first day as a graduate student wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

Continue reading “Being a “First Gen” Grad Student”


Carbon prices victims of federal politics

Canada’ new carbon price is adept federal politics. It leaves the provinces with a series of tricky decisions. The policy is insufficient to meet our (meagre) pledge toward the Paris Agreement. It is also incremental, providing time the provinces and territories to get used to the idea and decide which instrument – tax or cap and trade – will work best for them. It dips Canada’s toes in chilly October waters long enough to accept the feeling.

What’s left to be seen is if Canadians will be angry with the federal government for creating the minimum price, or with the provinces for not giving them their money back. The carbon price takes effect in 2018. By that time, the provinces will have their policies in place, including whether or not the price will be revenue neutral. Provinces could follow BC’s lead and return the proceeds of a tax to their citizens.

Alternatively, Canadians could blame their governments for taxing them in the first place. Cap and trade applies to industries only. Companies buy and sell carbon credits, and in so doing set the price of carbon through the laws of supply and demand. Unlike a tax, the government does not see the revenue. There is nothing to return to citizens. While consumers may see some increased costs, something that is not guaranteed or the experience in other jurisdictions with cap and trade systems, they will not see a return from the carbon price in their wallets.

These decisions are only really difficult for politicians. Many companies are already on board, and indeed well ahead of Canada’s elected officials. Over 140 companies – including oil companies, airlines, banks and mining companies, joined the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition calling for a carbon price. Shell and other oil companies already have an internal ‘shadow’ price to anticipate and manage risk from future regulatory action. When an oil company says a carbon tax is a good idea, you know you’ve fallen behind.

All these discussions of prices are on one side of the ledger. Canadians will reap cost savings in the health system. We could save up to US$250 billion per year in health costs, more than offsetting the costs of mitigation, according to the WHO. We’ll have cleaner air, predictable precipitation and weather patterns, and fewer natural disasters. This is only good news to Canada’s economy and citizens.

A carbon price is one part of a climate policy. Renewable energy needs an even playing field, which could man increasing investment to leverage the sector’s already impressive job creation record. Or, it could mean reducing the $3.3 billion in fossil fuel subsidies Canada currently doles out. We’re already paying these companies to pollute. All this meagre carbon price does is get a little of our money back.

Clark's Carbon Pause Passes the Buck

Christie Clark’s climate plan buys time, not leadership. The government’s advisory panel recommended to increase the tax $10/tonne every year from 2018-2050, but the Premier hit pause. Clark passed the buck to the federal government, who would have to handle any fallout from a possibly unpopular tax decision.

In her comments on The House, Clark placed the blame on other province’s inaction. She stated that industries will move to other provinces without a carbon tax, where the cost of doing business is lower. In the climate world, this is known as carbon leakage. Emissions are not reduced, just moved elsewhere.

This underestimates the immobility of some large emitters. Some industries are place-based such as mines, oilsands facilities, or agriculture. Other industries have large set up costs. An incremental increase in a carbon tax would not be far less than the costs of dismantling in one place and setting up in another.

Instead, the plan relies on forests. Forests soak up carbon dioxide, but emit it when they are cut or burnt down. This province faces wildfires every year; the forest industry is still recovering from the pine beetle. It is not the time to rely on the forest sector to meet climate goals. It is creative carbon accounting, hoping to soak up the carbon spill into the air, rather than plug the source.

As Maclean’s surveyed the national situation: BC’s carbon tax is $30/tonne, a figure Alberta won’t approach until 2018. The cap and trade system used by Quebec, and soon Ontario, currently values carbon around $16/tonne (Maclean’s fails to mention that the price under a cap and trade system is set by the market and can change more quickly). All this to conclude, aptly, “The objective of a coherent national climate change policy should be a single, consistent price across the entire country.”

The assessment is correct. A single, consistent price provides regulatory certainty for industries and provinces. Whether your business is farming or cement, in BC or Newfoundland, you know the cost of doing business. Provincial leaders don’t need to worry about a carbon tax becoming an election issue. Canada’s climate policy is a patchwork quilt, mirroring the global picture of carbon markets.

The Canadian story of policy experimentation underlines the need for leadership. We are a (very) federal country; provinces control several (now) important portfolios. Equalization payment further support experimentation, providing provinces the funding to try new things. This equation of federalism plus equalization loomed in the background of the health care experiment in Saskatchewan. The last element is leadership. Without vision to reframe the debate about what government should do, and what goods we should (or in the climate case, should not) value, policy experiments never begin or grow.

Clark chose safe.  Now decision in federal hands, in cooperation with the provinces. Clark could have continued to show that economic growth can decouple from carbon emissions. That climate action is not only possible but popular.  Instead, she limped in with a soft plan before an election. This are not the things that leadership is made of. It will not secure us a consistent, cross-country carbon price.  The Prime Minister needs leaders, he is finding few.

Campaigning to Yes

Last night I attended an event on how democracies can address climate change, co-hosted by UBC’s Center for Democratic Institutions and the David Suzuki Foundation. It was a tale of two panels – which is bad news for the Yes side of the MetroVancouver Transit Referendum.

The first panel spoke of the politics of the possible – what California and Ontario have achieved by setting climate targets and phasing out coal, respectively. Both experiences shared a similar approach to getting the word out, and securing public support – grassroots campaigning. In California, there were people making signs and rallying for more renewable energy. In Ontario, there were public demonstrations and other signs of popular support for phasing out coal and moving toward green energy.

In both cases, reducing fossil fuels use was a human issue – it was about helping asthmatic kids and creating jobs in the renewable energy sector. In Vancouver, it is precisely this human element that is missing from the transit referendum Yes side, because the Mayors are campaigning like Mayors and not like activists.

The Mayors are using math, statistics and sound policy advice to make their point. Debating policy is what Mayors do. It could get them re-elected, but will not win a referendum. It’s easier to say no, to use knee-jerk reactions and to support the status quo. The Yes side needs to inspire people. Math isolates people – visions and narratives inspire.

The referendum will not be won on the content of the policy – it will be won on the ability to connect the content of the plan to the everyday lives of people. What is needed is a growth of grassroots advocacy where a 1000 flowers bloom, rather than a network of organizations. The Better Transit and Transportation Coalition need to reach out and start seeding advocacy at household levels. It’s great that 100+ groups support the Coalition (a link which should be upfront and center on the webpage). These members may have their own connections, but they cannot do it alone.

It’s easier to campaign for a No vote. It’s easier to use knee-jerk reactions rather than reasoned debates. By making the campaign personal and public – telling the stories of people and doing so in the media and on the streets – the Yes side can prevail.

When asked what the Coalition wants everyone in the audience to do, a representative of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition replied “pledge your vote.” That is an insufficient. It does not encourage people to act – a pledge is not registering to receive a ballot and it makes any action a private affair. We need support for the plan to be very, very public.

Here is what the representative should reply in the future:

  • Register to vote, and send the registration link to your friends
  • Work with your friends to start a Twitterstorm using #40moreaday – the transit plan will save commuters at least 40 minutes more per day – what would you do with that time?
  • Talk to neighbours, friends about why you will vote yes
  • Organize a registration center at your local church or community center
  • Write to the newspapers, call into radio shows
  • Get everyday people to talk about how their lives, health and community will be better served by better transit
  • Get offline and knock on doors.

Where are the rallies? Where are the media events with everyday people? Where are people’s personal stories (such as the Director for the Centre for Democratic Institutions reasons why he is happy to vote Yes in the referendum).

The public may trust municipal politicians more than provincial or federal ones, but they trust their neighbours even more.

Does Google Help Climate Deniers and Anti-Vaxers?

In a recent CBC interview, an anti-vaccination supporter declared that “I’ve done my research, and come to my conclusions.” The interview revealed that this “research” was incorrect, fraught with in accuracies, and ignorant of basic sources of information, such as publicly-accessible databases and inventories of information on vaccinations. In our age of ever more accessible information, how could such information be missed? Modern algorithms trick our old-fashioned brains into thinking there is more support for a minority argument than what really exists.

Google launched its personalized search system in 2004, and made is part of all Google searches in 2005. All searches on Google are associated with a browser cookie record, which informs the results you see on future searches. When you type in your search words, the list of results is not only based on up the words entered, but the previous browsing history. Someone else could enter the same key words and see different results, given their different browsing history.

When a climate denier or an anti-vaxer enters the terms “climate change” or “vaccinations” they will see information posted by skeptics of the science of climate change or vaccinations. This leads to the assumption that this information is more popular and the views more widely held than they actually are.

This is where our old-fashioned brain comes in. We use heuristics all the time. Heuristics are shortcuts. They can be helpful in many situations – instead of rationally thinking through every situation, we can make quick decisions based on past experiences and impressions (which is useful when crossing the street and a bus is barreling toward you). Think of the hundreds of decisions you make in a day, large and small, heuristics keep us moving forward.

A well-studied heuristic is the availability heuristic. We use readily available information to make a decision. For example, if you see several news reports of airplane crashes, you may question if air travel is unsafe. In reality, the news reports may be highlighting the very few cases of airline crashes because they are dramatic, and, frankly make for good TV. The availability heuristic can fool as much as help.

When someone searches for climate change or vaccinations who has a past browser history of climate denial or anti-vaccination sites, their results will fool rather than help. They easy availability of information – ranked highly by Google, no less! – will trick their brains into concluding that this information is correct, because it is so available.

When, in reality, climate denier claims are thoroughly debunked (even by former climate skeptic scientists) and the only study linking vaccinations to disease was retracted after the results could not be replicated. The results these people receive are the result of their past searching history, not the facts of the issues at hand, or the considerable weight of the scientific evidence.

In part because of such personalized searches, those who are already skeptical become more entrenched in their positions. Societal debate and dialogue is reduced to the vast majority trying to convince the minority to accept reality. It’s a base, and black and white debate that no one can win.

There are of course other factors, such as the heavily-resourced mobilization campaigns to create biased views, and a growing culture of skepticism. Yet, they are based on similar ideas – that there is a community out there with readily available information that can prove that something is dangerous. The problem is that the fact checking is now also biased, leading individuals to dangerous conclusions.

The Curse of Round-Numbered Years

This year will be a very busy one for global environmental politics, perhaps even promising momentous milestones, or more momentous failures. Several disparate processes all have significant decisions to make this year, as mandated by decisions made years ago.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be finalized this year, to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. This will reset the global development agenda – where efforts and funds are directed.

Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are to agree to a new legally-binding instrument or “outcome with legal force” by the end of this year.

The UN Forum on Forests is to review its Global Goals on Forests and the Forest Instrument as part of its review of the intergovernmental arrangement on forests. Beneath this jargon lies a substantial decision on how – and perhaps whether – to continue the Forum and forest governance under the UN Economic and Social Council.

Years ago, delegates in completely different arenas chose a number out of the air to renew, revamp or reset their governance arrangements. Now, they are all struggling to complete this work, and figure out how these various moving parts fit together. This careful dance is the curse of a round numbered year.

The work on forests is related to the SDGs – there are SDG targets and activities explicitly on improving forest cover and livelihoods. The SDGs are related to climate change because low-carbon sustainable development is a key part of mitigating future greenhouse gas emissions and adapting the climate change impacts. Forests which are both a source of and sink for greenhouse gases, creating multiple links between forests and climate change.

The UNFF is deciding the future of (its part) of forest governance in May; the SDGs are expected in September; and the climate agreement is due in December. Likely, the steps will be reshuffled. The UNFF is the least powerful or effective (or resourced) of the three, meaning it will want to strengthen its links and work with the SDGs and climate change. Member states may do the minimum now, and wait for the other pieces to shake out.

If the other pieces fall into place, that is. The SDGs have underwent considerable consultation and hopefully seem on fairly solid footing. There is a looming debate on if there are too many SDGs, which may radically alter the number of targets and activities. So, while there is a draft out there for states and civil society to peruse and consult on, there is no guarantee that this will be the final list.

The likelihood that there will be a climate agreement is even more slim. As I’ve written before, the Paris agreement is at best going to be the beginning, not the end of the climate negotiations. There are five negotiation sessions planned, including the two weeks in Paris in December. Given the rift that remains among key states on fundamental issues, including whether the agreement should be legally binding and if all states will undertake commitments, it seems unlikely that there will be a lengthy, document outlining targets for all. Instead, the negotiations are already “bottom-up,” meaning that each state is able to determine their own actions and contributions toward controlling climate change.

Such uncertainty leave the other multilateral fora in a quandary – do they take action, knowing that the largest environmental negotiation currently underway may supercede or undercut their efforts? There are strong calls to have a special place for forests in the 2015 climate agreement. With no such strong agreement in the works, how long should others hold their breath?

It is possible that the SDGs could, by virtue of having an agreement, surpass the climate change negotiations in terms of political support, participation by key states, resources, and – most crucially – implementation of actions that have a real-world impact. As the number of climate-related activities outside the UNFCCC grows, the ability of the UNFCCC to deliver may decrease.

In part, this is the curse of the round-numbered year: others are also looking ahead, identifying strategic areas where they could engage, and, seeing weakness, others could take over your work.

Snowballing Green Policy

In the last week, Australia’s Senate voted to axe the carbon tax –er, price. It is another example of a frustratingly unique aspect of environmental politics – just how easily reversible environmental policies can be.

The decimation of Canadian environmental regulations at the federal level is another recent example. Conservatives even scrapped fisheries and water protection rules created by previous Conservative governments.

A study by Australian National University found that the carbon tax curbed carbon emissions by 1-2% from the electricity sector in the few years it existed. The deputy leader of the Greens lamented repealing the tax is Australia’s “asbestos moment, our tobacco moment.” The IPCC finds that carbon pricing is a powerful tool: it makes cleaner energy sources more attractive and promotes innovation in low-carbon sectors.

Environmentally, a carbon price is the right thing to do. Politically, like other environmental policies, it fails to create its own longevity.

If you invest in your pension for 30 years, you will fight any government that wants to repeal pensions. You’ll fight for better pensions. You, and millions of your fellow seniors and soon-to-be retirees. Key voters no politician can ignore.

Pensions create their own biggest supporters – voters who are monetarily invested in the system and rely on it for their future well-being. The policy becomes self-perpetuating by its very nature.

Environmental policies do not create groups of people invested in a policy’s future. Parks have eco-tourist companies that benefit, yet they are too few and too small to defeat recent changes to BC Parks Act allowing for feasibility studies of roads and pipelines. Asthmatics benefit from air pollution rules. They may not realize how, and how much, they benefit – certainly it’s not like getting a cheque in the mail.

Highways and infrastructure also keep snowballing along because they require a big, initial investment. After that pot of money is dedicated, and the road or train line is built, it’s very costly and difficult to change. Other policies, like health care, can be the same way. After you invest in setting up one system, it’s nearly impossible to reverse course and start anew.

Environmental policies ask industries to put some technologies in place, such as filters to scrub the sulfur from the emissions coming from the stack pipe.

Here’s a modest suggestion: the profits from carbon taxes should go to two places. Individuals who pay the tax when the fill up their cars and heat their houses should get that money back when they file their income tax. For individuals, a carbon tax should be revenue neutral.

The second pot of money earned from big corporations slow to reduce their emissions should go into health care. For corporations, the carbon tax would help support Canadian society, particularly our health system.

Canada’s health care system could use the boost. People would care about the carbon tax, they would have a vested interest in seeing the tax continuing. Given the links between health and climate change, this is not a stretch

Any politician wanting to repeal the tax, and take money from our precious health care system, would have a tough time explaining this to Canadians who love, and need, our health and environmental systems.

The limits, and potential, of Earth Hour

Every year, I turn off my lights for an hour in support of Earth Hour. A few years back, I hosted a candlelit housewarming party. I understand my efforts contribute an infinitesimally small amount to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, every year I support the effort.

I participate, despite mixed feelings about the event, and a sense that, in very fundamental ways, Earth Hour sends the wrong message at the worst possible time.

It’s a chance reflect and start a conversation about living green in whatever city I happen to be in (I’ve celebrated Earth Hour in Paris, Vancouver and Edmonton in recent years). It’s a chance to, literally, unplug and unwind, to enjoy conversation without distraction.
Each location brings a new view of the challenges and opportunities for lightening my ecological footprint. In Edmonton, public transit was slow and difficult to navigate, while the city is one of the least dense in Canada. Paris has much better transit and far less efficient waste management and recycling. Vancouver stands out as a contender for Greenest City in Canada, and to some, in the world, and yet despite my bus riding, bicycling, energy saving practice, etc, my ecological footprint is still too high.

This is what is fundamentally misplaced about Earth hour – it says that the individual is responsible for both the problem and committing to the solution. Our homes, cars, and overconsumption of course matter. Without systemic change to how we design and develop cities or generate and transmit energy, there are strict limits on the ability of individuals to deal with environmental issues such as waste and climate change. If someone in Alberta chooses an electric car, they are increasing demand for electricity based on coal. That is not that person’s choice, but the result of government support for dirty industries and perverse subsidies privileging fossil fuels.

This is not meant to pick on Alberta – reliance on fossil fuels mean no individual, or large group of individuals, can possibly do enough to solve the problems we face. No amount of recycling and bicycling can overcome the lack of renewable energy in the mix, or institutional investment (e.g., universities and banks) in industries that damage the environment and our health.

Earth hour accomplishes what Michael Maniates calls the “individualization of responsibility.” By telling people that they as individuals need to do better and do more glosses over the need for rethinking the design of our economies and societies. Maybe our cities need to be smaller, and our energy systems decentralized. Maybe our values, as a society need to change: buying the latest gadget to replace a perfectly-good gadget should be shunned, not praised.

We have much work to do on our systems and on collective ourselves. To reconsider how we organize ourselves in a way that protects the ability of future generations to live happy, healthy lives is a communal undertaking. Together, it’s time to redefine what prosperity means and how we seek to achieve it. Such conversations can be had by candlelight, but also need to be taken to the halls of power – to demand our leader do more and do better.

Earth hour can be the start of a conversation, but it cannot achieve transformation.