Sails and kayaks

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Scaffolding

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When we wrote the fossil fuel divestment brief for the University of Toronto, we thought that humans could “pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees”.

If we’re aiming instead to stay below the 1.5 ˚C limit aspired to in the Paris Agreement, that falls to 353 gigatons more CO2, a figure that means “we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted”.

In a way, this makes the politics of climate change simple. Any new project that aims to develop new fossil fuel extraction capacity is either going to need to be abandoned prematurely as part of a massive global effort to curb climate change, or it will be another nail in our coffin as we soar far beyond the 1.5 ˚C and 2 ˚C limit.

Of course, this also makes the politics very difficult. People have a huge sense of entitlement when it comes to both exploiting resources in their jurisdiction and in terms of using fossil fuels with no consideration of the impact on others. The less adjustment time which can be offered to fossil fuel industries, and the more operating facilities that will need to be closed down to avoid catastrophic climate change, the harder it becomes for decision makers to act with sufficient boldness.

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Back campus field hockey

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Hoop

2016-09-25

in Photo of the day

Hoop

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Still, at a fundamental level, it is important to recognize that the military commands controlling U.S. nuclear weapons have been asked to do the impossible. Peter Feaver has used the phrase, the “always/never dilemma” to describe the twin requirements placed on U.S. military commands. Political authorities have demanded, for the sake of deterrence, that the organization always be able and willing to destroy an enormous variety of targets inside the Soviet Union, at a moments notice, under every conceivable circumstance. They have demanded that military commanders always be able to execute such attacks at any time of day, 365 days a year. They have demanded that our nuclear forces always be effective, regardless of whether the U.S. struck first or was retaliating after having suffered a catastrophic nuclear attack. And, finally, they demanded that the military, while doing all this, never have a serious nuclear weapon accident, never have an accidental detonation, and never permit the unauthorized use of a weapon to occur.

In retrospect, it should be acknowledged that while the military organizations controlling U.S. nuclear forces during the Cold War performed this task with less success than we knew, they performed with more success than we should have reasonably expected. The problems identified in this book were not the product of incompetent organizations. They reflect the inherent limits of organizational safety. Recognition of that simple truth is the first and most important step toward a safer future.

Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton University Press. 1993. p. 278–9 (emphasis in original)

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Pink flowers

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Royal Enfield

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Some people who favour the construction of new bitumen sands pipelines have been deploying a particularly weak argument, which echoes a couple of the points that have long been made by people who don’t want to take adequate action to avoid catastrophic climate change. They point out that — in one way or another — any person calling for new pipeline projects to be stopped uses fossil fuels. At a recent Toronto climate change consultation, Adam Vaughan pointed out that a woman wearing plastic-framed glasses was therefore an oil user. In her recent segment on The Current and on Twitter, Martha Hall Findlay has made a similar ‘argument from hypocrisy’, implying that only people with a 100% post-fossil-fuel lifestyle can call for systemic change.

This argument is weak for a number of reasons, but most glaringly it’s because a post-fossil-fuel future isn’t something individuals can ever build through personal choice. The transportation, energy, and agricultural infrastructure around us isn’t something that can be changed without society-wide policy decisions including the use of market mechanisms like carbon pricing, regulations, and sheer governmental determination to leave enough fossil fuel in the ground to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The fact that we’re presently dependent on fossil fuels is in fact a reason why we need to stop building new infrastructure that perpetuates that dependence. In a Canada where we’re seriously planning to be part of a fair and effective global transition away from fossil fuel use, we simply can’t build projects like pipelines which will lock in global fossil fuel dependence for decades to come.

The weak argument from hypocrisy is sometimes paired with a superficially more convincing but still deeply problematic argument about demand. People like Findlay assert that the real problem with fossil fuels is the enduring demand, and that we should therefore focus our policy efforts on reducing demand. This is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, if they are sincere about their desire to reduce demand sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, that would undermine any need for the pipelines they are promoting, which would be built to support expanded production from Canada’s bitumen sands. Furthermore, in the face of a climate crisis which requires incredibly aggressive action to reduce emissions, it makes no sense to only pursue demand-side policies. We certainly should use everything from carbon taxes to building and appliance standards to reduce demand, but we should simultaneously avoid investment in new extraction and transport infrastructure which perpetuates fossil fuel dependence.

The entitled argument that people who live on top of fossil fuel reserves have the right to dig them up and sell them regardless of the consequences for others (and that fossil fuel users are entitled to whatever demand-side activities they have become used to) is seriously faulty from an ethical perspective. We don’t have the right to impose suffering on others around the world, future generations, and nature. Now that science has made so clear that greenhouse gas pollution is terribly threatening and harmful, those whose economic systems depend on them have a strong and immediate obligation to move to other sources of energy. That moral obligation is fundamentally at odds with building new bitumen sands pipelines, and the ethical argument that supports this position is dramatically more credible than the flimsy assertion that anybody who uses fossil fuels should somehow support new infrastructure as a consequence.

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The capricious forces directing undergraduate teaching in political science have set me up for an extremely difficult term.

First, I was assigned to teach an hour’s $6 shuttle drive away, at the Missisauga campus. Second, my “tutorials” are starting with 30 students each. With only five tutorials in the entire course, this raises the question of how students can be meaningfully graded on participation.

Most seriously, they allocated all of my 210 teaching hours for the year to just this term. Since my fellow TAs are only doing half their hours this term, my huge surplus of hours must be dedicated to grading. This means I will be spending huge blocks of time grading the midterm and the essay — so much that it seems impossible within the standard turnaround time for exams and assignments. As a further vexation, all the grading must be done through tedious and fiddly online systems, rather than quickly and intuitively on paper copies.

At the same time, I am working hard with my committee to get my PhD project formally approved by the department, and to get research ethics approval. Judo aside (which ought to help remain sanity), this will be a term where further extras are essentially inpermissible.

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