Sunday, September 30, 2007

War, the tar sands, and the dollar

If George W. Bush had campaigned for a weaker economy and a weaker dollar it's doubtful he would have been reelected in 2004. Bush didn't intend for the American dollar to lose 40% of its value relative to the Canadian dollar but this was the unintended consequence of the Iraq war.

When the neo-conservatives in Bush's administration planned the Iraq War their intentions were probably twofold: to secure a steady supply of oil for the American economy and, by making an example of Iraq, to shock and awe the rest of the world into agreeing with whatever Americans wanted.

But the history of the twentieth century is littered with wars like the First and Second World Wars that got way out of hand, creating chaos and destruction unparalleled in previous human history.

Before the American invasion, Iraq, under Sadamm Hussein, was a stable country. Soon after the invasion social and political order crumbled. As a consequence Iraq produces less oil now than it did before the war. This, and the uncertainty that goes along with wars in an oil producing region, has led to a huge increase in the price of oil. Because the United States imports so much oil, the high price has led to a steady loss in the value of the American dollar.

While the Iraq War has led to the recent decline in the American dollar, it has also led to the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar. The higher price of oil has made the Alberta tar sands, which contains almost as much recoverable oil as Saudia Arabia, a very valuable piece of real estate. As the price continues to rise, investment money pours into Alberta, helping raise the value of the Canadian dollar. Unlike the United States, which has to import most of its oil Canada is a net producer of oil.

But what if the Bush administration were to launch a “pre-emptive war against Iran, which it is, in fact, threatening to do? Iran would likely attack oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, shutting down the flow of oil from Saudia Arabia. The price of oil might reach two hundred dollars a barrels as a result.
The unintended consequence? The Canadian dollar would surge ahead of the American dollar as American dollars pay for Canadian oil and foreign investment pours into Alberta and drains out of the United States. The Alberta economy has benefitted from the Iraq War and would benefit even more from a war in Iran.

But the rest of the Canadian economy would be squeezed between skyrocketing energy costs and the high dollar, devastating the manufacturing industries in Ontario and Quebec. This would be especially true if we are locked in to producing more and more oil for export to the U. S. as a result of the NAFTA proportionality clause, and U. S. demands for greater “energy security”, which is the theme of the new “Security and Prosperity Partnership”.

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Harper has echoed American foreign policy, from uncritical support of Israel's agression in Lebanon to helping the Americans fight the Taliban on a semi-permanent basis. If the U.S. bombs Iran, will Harper fall in behind George W. Bush yet again? It would certainly benefit Alberta but not the rest of Canada.

With the possiblility of higher oil prices on the horizon the least we could do is increase the royalties from oil production and put a surtax on oil profits. The oil companies will protest that they will pull out if it happens, but that's a joke. Right now, almost no-one is making as much money as the oil companies. A country like Norway, which produces similar quantities of oil is receiving twenty times as much in royalties as Alberta.

At eighty-five dollars a barrel, oil profits are not earned but are the unintended consequences of America's wars. And the rest of Canada is going to need some compensation from the crippling rise in energy costs.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Where does sex come from?

Why is sex important and where did it come from? I'll let you know right off the bat, that I'm not going to be talking about the sexual act. What I want to talk about is what preceded it and what comes afterwards, in evolutionary terms.

Scientists tell us that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old. And life is 3.4 billion years old. But sexual reproduction originated about 600 million years ago . That means that life was around for three billion years before sex came along. Before sexual reproduction, life consisted of bacteria and single-celled algae, which both reproduce by splitting in two.

When a bacterium reproduces it makes an identical copy of itself and then it divides into two. So, for asexual reproduction all that is needed are the basic ingredients of life: air, water, nutrients, energy, and DNA. What's interesting is what you don't need. When a bacterium reproduces asexually it doesn't need to relate to other bacteria, and it doesn't need to take care of the copy of itself.

Bacteria don't mature and they don't die either -- they just keep on dividing. No wonder it took three billion years for sex to develop: eternal life, no commitments, and at the first sign of responsibility bacteria can always say: "I'm splittin’."

For the purposes of this talk I'm going to define sexual reproduction as the production of offspring from two parents. Going from one to two changes the whole world. All of a sudden sex makes reproduction very complicated because it doesn't just require the elements of life that I mentioned previously. Now we're talking about a relationship between two parents, and a relationship between parents and their offspring, and the maturation of the offspring so that it too can become a parent, and then the inevitability of death. That's right -- the price of being able to reproduce sexually is death because once you start to mature you can't stop.

But where did sex come from? Somehow bacteria started relating to each other. They started to communicate -- they exchanged genetic material. And when they did that they were able to change their own genetic makeup. That's why bacteria can develop immunity to antibiotics so quickly -- because they can transfer the genetic material that confers immunity amongst themselves.... Smart little critters....

OK, but that's not real sex, so where did sex come from? I believe that sex is inherent in all life, from the very beginning, even though it was not always manifest. But I can't explain it in scientific terms, so instead, let me tell you a story:

When the solar system was created, at first there was no life on Mother Earth. She has had a long-standing relationship with Father Sun -- there has always been an attraction between them. But at first nothing came of it. We know that for sexual reproduction to work the prospective parents need to be in just the right relationship. Mother Earth and Father Sun had maintained just the right distance from each other. If Mother Earth had been any closer she wouldn't have been able to protect their offspring from the heat of Father Sun's rays. And if she had been any further away she wouldn't have been able to capture enough of Father Sun's heat to keep their offspring warm.

But in sexual reproduction the relationship isn't everything. You also need to reach a certain level of maturity. And here is where Mother Earth had to take the initiative. We know that females mature faster than males and I propose that this is because women bear more of the responsibility for raising children so they need to be ready sooner. It was just so with Mother Earth and Father Sun.

You just have to look at the way Father Sun treats everyone else to realize why this is. You see, Father Sun shines his light on everyone without fail. He can't help it. For all the light that he radiates he has no way to discriminate, no way to choose who to shine on and who not to shine on. Talk about ironic -- his light may be the origin of consciousness but he himself is blind and couldn't care less.

On the other hand, Mother Earth grew and physically matured. From out of her body arose the oceans and the atmosphere and these interacted to form perhaps her most beautiful feature -- the ever-changing patterns of weather. For she never appears the same from one day to the next.

Just as sexual reproduction requires two adults, the creation of life required both Earth and Sun. For without the continued outpouring of Father Sun's energy life could not flourish. The Sun is a dependable but a harsh father because he shines on everyone without mercy. His rays of ultraviolet light would kill all life without the protective blanket of Mother Earth's atmosphere. And just as a blanket keeps us warm by keeping the heat from our bodies from escaping, Mother Earth's atmosphere holds Father Sun's heat even when she has turned her back on him, which she does every night.

Thus, out of the enduring relationship between Earth and Sun, life came forth to clothe and transform the Earth into a being unlike any that the universe has ever known before. So different from either parent, the living Earth creates its own chemical, physical, and biological environments in a single evolutionary process called the web of life.

To answer the question, "Why is sex important?",
I bring your attention to three vital factors whose evolutionary development was only made possible by sex and whose qualities help to define both our humanity and our unity with all life. These three are: biodiversity, consciousness, and love.

Sexual reproduction first occurred roughly at the boundary between the Pre-Cambrian and the Cambrian eras from 500 to 600 million years ago. Before sex we have three billion years, during which single-celled creatures replicated asexually. After sexual reproduction becomes possible there is an explosion in the variety of life forms: from single-celled, to multi-celled, fungi, plants, animals: crustaceans, echinoderms, fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. All because when two parents reproduce sexually they create offspring that's different from either parent. This magical increase in genetic variety accelerates evolutionary change which, in turn, accelerates biodiversity.

It's obvious that asexual reproduction, which creates copies of the same creatures, (which is what happens in cloning) does not produce biodiversity except via mutations over fantastically vast spans of time. Sex changed all that, it made complex forms of life possible, it made human beings possible, and it made possible the wonderfully intricate interplay between the myriad of species which we call an ecosystem.

As we all know, there's logistics in sex, which we mostly take for granted but, when you think about it can be quite challenging. First you must be able to find and distinguish members of your own species. Then you must distinguish those of your own species who are members of the opposite sex from those who are of the same sex. Then you must choose a member of the opposite sex and communicate to them who you are such that they in turn can recognize you as a member of the opposite sex and make the appropriate choice.

Asexual creatures, on the other hand, don't have to go to all that trouble. They only need to recognize food or danger and they have no need to be recognized. But sex requires cooperation and communication and reciprocal recognition. These needs seem to point evolution in the direction of increasing powers of awareness and consciousness and to the development of love in humans and higher animals.

From the point of view of asexual reproducers these powers of consciousness, cooperation, communication, and love are unnecessary expenditures of energy. But the most wasteful of all is the goal of sexual reproduction, the production of offspring. Instead of simply making an identical copy of yourself you gotta nurture and take care of a baby. Pre-Cambrian critters must have been scandalized. Why make that kind of sacrifice when you could be immortal -- busy churning out copies of yourself forever and ever? A baby has half it's genetic material from somebody else. You're gonna grow old and die for that?

Whenever we see a baby we can't help but smile. We often feel joy. Sometimes a lot of joy. We can't help being interested in a baby, wanting to care for it. Babies grow up to be so different from either their mother or father. Maybe from the point of view of an asexual reproducer this is a scandal, but from the human point of view it's always a miracle.

Babies need to be protected, loved, and nurtured. Mothers do this naturally because they can't help loving their babies. Caring by it's very nature, spills over into caring for others and other kinds. We care about our children and our grandchildren and even about everyone else's children. We develop complex networks of cooperation between peoples who are not just our kin, to further the goals of caring. Indeed, we are here today because countless generations of people loved and cared for their children and families and fellow humans. Without sexual reproduction this would not be so.

We see a direction in evolutionary development which originates with sexual reproduction, such that sexual attraction which initially guides animals towards prospective mates leads to more enduring forms of love via the birth and nurturing of babies. We hardly ever see fish and amphibians caring for their young. Among reptiles, only alligators and crocodiles do this. But when we get to the higher animals such as birds we see them feeding their young and helping them to fly, and we see mammals caring for their young for extended periods of time. Only a handful of animals form enduring bonds of love: geese, who mate for life, elephants, killer whales, the great apes, and humans.

A mother bear will fiercely defend her cubs. She will stand her ground against bigger and more powerful males. But a father bear has no love for his cubs and will just as soon kill them as look at them. But something beautiful happens when humans arrive on the scene because not only does a mother love her child but a father does too. And unlike most other animals, children are capable of loving their parents even into their adulthood.

In humans affection and caring comes to transcend procreation as we develop deep relationships amongst family and friends. These relationships add to a web of social cooperation that makes up human societies. Our caring for others has come to transcend caring for ourselves and our offspring because our survival depends on cooperation with many others. But our consciousness is evolving even further as we come to realize that caring for our kind requires that we care about the entire web of life of which we are a part.

For, just as the evolution of sex was contained in the relationship between Earth and Sun, the evolution of consciousness is contained in the relationship between humankind and the entire web of life on Earth. The Sun shines on, indifferent to whether we live or die. But we are conscious. We can choose whether to create or destroy, whether to love or to hate. We have that power and that responsibility. Just as all life depends on the Earth and the Sun, our future depends on what we do with our consciousness.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Real Cost of 'made in China'

When market fundamentalists argue that the free market works best for the general welfare if it is not 'handcuffed' by regulations they are ignoring the problem of the cost to the environment. But, they say, the U. S. economy saw rapid growth in its first two hundred years with very little in the way of regulations. Once the American economy grew big enough it then became easier to tackle pollution. This is the approach that China is taking, but unfortunately, because of global warming, it is too late for it to work the way it did for the United States.

Capitalists love China because labour is so cheap. That's why so much Capital has flowed into China from abroad. Consumers from the developed world love the cheap clothes and the cheap electronics. A win-win deal. Everybody benefits - right?

What's more, not only do we pay less for Chinese goods, we don't have to suffer from the pollution that Chinese factories emit. Instead the Chinese people get to live their lives immersed in grey toxic clouds of smog. In China cancer is the leading cause of death. Deaths from unsafe air and water dwarf deaths from traffic and mining accidents. The Chinese Communist government is so concerned about this that it has banned the publication of statistics on public health and air and water quality. They say that that they have to do this in order to prevent social unrest.

I guess if there was this much pollution here people would get up in arms about it. Eventually we could get the government here to do something about it either through various means of persuasion, or by the ballot box. But the Chinese people have capitalism with a communist government. They get to work for low wages and they don't have the option of free speech or democratic change.

Regulations or taxes could work to lower emissions. A carbon tax at the well-head and the mine entrance could make the price of fossil fuels better reflect the cost of global warming and pollution. We could slash expensive subsidies to fossil fuel corporations in order to get rid of perverse incentives that encourage fossil fuel production and consumption. We could require that all new coal-fired power plants sequester their CO2 emissions and old power plants be retrofitted. Unfortunately the Chinese people have no way of pressuring their government to do these things. They are prevented from even discovering the extent of the problem. After all, it could cause social unrest.

According to Joseph Romm, founder and CEO of The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, in his book Hell and High Water, if the United States had made the Same goods that were imported from China during the period from 1997 – 2003 there would have been 720 million metric tons Less CO2 in the atmosphere.

China's rapid rate of economic growth now depends on energy from coal. Coal is the cheapest form of energy but the dirtiest in pollutants and carbon dioxide. China uses coal for two thirds of its energy needs. That is the source of the smog blanketing Chinese cities. They say every week a new coal-fired power plant is built in China. And these power plants are less energy efficient than power plants built in North America. But hey, their cheaper to run.

Cheaper labour, cheaper power, less regulations and “social stability”makes building a factory in China very attractive to Capitalists. So naturally capital flows into China and away from the more costly developed world.

The problem comes further down the road when the Chinese economy overtakes the U.S. economy. Not only will they outproduce the U.S. in manufactured goods they will also outproduce it in emissions of CO2 and particulates.

The least we could do is help countries like China become more energy efficient. And we should set an example by significantly lowering our CO2 emissions ASAP. By allowing so much capital to flow to China the “free market” is accelerating the growth in CO2 emissions which will increase the risk of irreversible global warming. It's a lose-lose proposition and no amount of baloney about unfettered markets is going to save us from climate melt-down unless governments work together to lower emissions now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Politicizing threats

The larger a threat is, the more important it is for us to face and fight it together. In the worst of times, a good leader, like Franklin D. Roosevelt rallies his country and inspires citizens to give the very best of themselves. But a poor leader uses a crisis to enlarge his powers at the expense of others and by doing so he makes his country more vulnerable to threats.

George W. Bush was given an opportunity by the terrible events of September 11 2001 to build on the unity and the good will of the world. But he chose to squander that good will by unilaterally invading Iraq, a country which was not a direct threat to the United States and had not been involved in the events of September 11. This is not an isolated mistake but it is the way his administration operates. They use threats such as "terrorism" to drive a wedge between potential critics and supporters, Then they act unilaterally, giving themselves special powers and shrugging off national and international cooperation. Ultimately this has weakened America's power.

But it's not just the war on terror that's been used to win by dividing people. Frank Luntz is a Republican public relations consultant who came up with the idea of discrediting global warming in order to keep this issue from benefiting the Democrats in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections. In an infamous memo he distributed to Republicans in 2002, Luntz, who now says he accepts the science behind global warming, wrote the following:

"The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science... Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to make the lack of scientific certainty the primary issue in the debate."

It's apparent from this memo that Luntz was aware that the science behind global warming was sound, but he chose to make it a partisan issue to help win elections for the Republican party.

We can see how influential Frank Luntz has been. The Bush administration has sucessfully stalled any action on global warming and significant numbers of Americans are in the dark as to the meaning and importance of climate change. All to serve the delusion of a permanent Republican majority.

In America, winning is everything. American politics is all about winner-takes-all, unlike the possibilities in a true parliamentary system. American TV reflects this zero sum game with it's "survivor" and "Idol" and it's game shows.

Who wins when terrorism gets a new lease on life in Iraq? Who wins when inaction on global warming puts future generations at risk? When you're so involved in winning you lose sight of the long term goals. Kill Iraqi's and the next generation become terrorists. Delay acting decisively on global warming and you destroy the chances for coming generations.

The Republican strategy of winning at all costs will lose conservatives votes and influence over the long term. As hurricanes become more frequent and destructive and flooding and drought become more common Republicans will be seen as the party that stood in the way of doing something to prevent it.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Sky Isn't Falling

Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian mining executive and amateur climatologist has pointed out a flaw in the way NASA is measuring temperatures. Apparently NASA changed the way temperatures were recorded after the year 2000. So when NASA went back and recallibrated everything before 2000 they discovered that, in the United States, the year 1934 was 1/50th of a degree Centrigade warmer than the year 1998. In fact, in the U.S.A. six of the warmest years in the twentieth century were in the “dirty thirties”. What gives?

Why would the Great Depression with its drastic fall in production, have a warming effect? Wouldn't the resultant lower levels of CO2 emissions cause the temperature to fall? Rush Limbaugh is having a field day with this. Lorne Gunter writing in the National Post August 13, in a piece called “Global Warming? Look at the Numbers,” positively crows. “There is no discernable trend, no obvious warming of late.” he says triumphantly.

Those wildfires in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and California – that's not a trend. Record flooding in North America and India – that's not a trend either. Or the first time since records began, the Canadian Northwest Passage is open to shipping. Don't worry, it isn't a trend.

A year ago PBS showed a documentary called “Dimming the Sun”.
What the scientists in this documentary said was that the global output of soot and particulate matter has increased and this has caused clouds to reflect more sunlight. The reason is that the particles in these polluted clouds have ten times as many water droplets attached to them as particles in unpolluted clouds. Thus the polluted clouds act like giant mirrors. This trend of the rise in particulates in the atmosphere is caused by humans.

Human produced carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere. But particulates usually drop out of the atmosphere in a matter of weeks if they are not continually replenished. In the thirties when U.S. production nosedived, U.S. emissions of CO2 and particulates must have fallen considerably. The decrease in CO2 emmisions wouldn't have effected the CO2 that was already in the atmosphere. But the decrease in particulates would have had an immediate effect. It could have led to the uncharacteristically higher temperatures in the United States in the thirties.

This business of global dimming has complicated the global warming picture. Even environmentalists have tried to ignore the evidence in order to keep the explanation of climate change simple. These two forces oppose one another. In the short term they are comparable in strength but in the medium to long term global warming is vastly more powerful because of positive feedback effects which are only now coming into play. But the danger is, that by ignoring global dimming we may be seriously underestimating global warming.

Contrary to what the climate change deniers are arguing, many of the climate change models have underestimated the strength of global warming because they have not included these positive feedbacks in their computer models. What are these effects? Think of the oceans and forests as huge carbon sinks. Unfortunately, as the temperature of the oceans rises the amount of CO2 that gets absorbed declines because CO2 is less soluble in warm water. So as the temperature rises the oceans will begin to emit more CO2 than they absorb and this will accelerate global warming. As the temperature on land rises and more water evaporates from the soil, forest fires become more common. Fires destroy trees that absorb CO2 and they release more CO2 into the atmosphere as they burn.
Ice reflects light so that it has a cooling effect . But the more ice that melts the more the heat of the sun is absorbed instead. As the Arctic Ocean becomes more ice free, it warms up faster because the open water absorbs heat. At the bottom of the Arctic Ocean are frozen deposits of methane. Once the temperature of the oceans increase enough these deposits could melt releasing billions of tons of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.

The permafrost in the arctic and mountainous regions is starting to melt. There are billions of tons of carbon locked away in the permafrost. Once melted the carbon will start to decay, releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. All these positive feedback effects I have mentioned will work to accelerate global warming. Once they come into play there is nothing we can do to stop them. However there is one thing we can do that will make a difference and that is to lower human emissions of greenhouse gases by conserving energy, by reducing our use of fossil fuels and by embracing renewable sources of energy.