Water in California

A briefing on the state of water policy in California contains a passage that I think is illuminating when it comes to the relationship between humanity and the natural environment in general:

Californians hate rain but love water, so three-quarters of them live in the arid south, spurn the wet north where three-quarters of the rain falls, and expect water to come to them by pipe, canal or aquifer, preferably courtesy of the taxpayer.

That sort of brute force approach will become harder and harder to sustain as we give up fossil fuels, both because of their growing scarcity and because of the damage they do to the climate.

U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has already raised questions about what climate change will do to California’s water supply, particularly as higher temperatures lead to a loss of summer snowpack.

Can Canada meet the Conservative GHG targets?

Small red apples

The Globe and Mail is full of coverage of a ‘landmark’ new report, considering whether and how Canada could meet the stated greenhouse gas reductions of the current government (20% below 2006 levels by 2020, 60-70% below by 2050). The report was paid for by the Toronto Dominion Bank and compiled by the Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation. Economic modelling was done by M.K. Jaccard and Associates Inc, Canada’s ubiquitous non-governmental providers of projections on climate plans.

The report includes estimates of what the GDP cost of meeting the government’s targets would be, for each province. Overall, the cost is estimated at 1.5% of GDP in 2020. Alberta would be the most affected, with an economy 8.5% smaller than it would be in a scenario with new restrictions on emissions. Saskatchewan is projected at -2.8% and B.C at -2.5%. Ontario would actually be 0.9% richer with regulation, while Quebec would be 0.3% poorer. Given the risks associated with climate change, such an investment seems appropriate. That is especially true when you recognize that we will inevitably have to abandon fossil fuels anyhow.

Of course, much depends on the precise methodology used to compile the report. It isn’t clear how the government’s Regulatory Framework would actually operate in practice – for instance, which compliance options firms would choose to employ, and how much of an effect that would have. The plan also assumes that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will rapidly emerge as an effective and affordable technology, though it isn’t quite as dependent on that outcome as Alberta’s even more worrisome climate plan. In an editorial by Jeffrey Simpson, he claims that:

The government must know its policies will fail. But if the Conservatives expect people can be fooled or will tune out because they don’t care or the issue’s too complicated, why not?

Another editorial argues that the targets were set without a plan for achieving them established. Very disappointingly, it then goes on to argue that since meeting Canada’s targets would involve “unacceptable damage to Canada’s economy and national unity,” the targets should be further loosened. What this ignores is the critical issue of dealing with climate change. If Canada and the world fail to adopt effective mitigation policies, the alternative isn’t going to be unity and prosperity amidst ever-higher greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures. The future of Canadian and global prosperity depends on maintaining a climate that is compatible with human prosperity. Furthermore, it seems absurd to say that growth of 8.5% below business-as-usual is a terrifically awful thing to inflict on Alberta. That’s the kind of impact that might arise as the result of some modest global economic blip or disruption in fossil fuel markets. Only in this case, the cost would be borne in order to help Canada make a credible start on the critical path to a low-carbon economy.

The ethics of letting Alberta and the oil sands off the hook are also highly dubious. People don’t have the fundamental right to keep doing what they have been, even when it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that their actions are harming others. Aside from those suffering now from the air and water pollution associated with rampant oil sands development, there is the key issue of the defenceless and innocent members of future generations who will suffer as the result of these emissions. Indeed, extracting and burning just 10% of the oil sands resource would release 15 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, a quantity sufficient to have a significant temperature effect in and of itself. In addition, continued failure to act on the part of Canada makes it less likely that a strong international agreement will emerge. Given the importance of reaching such an agreement soon, and setting the world on the path to decarbonization, more foot-dragging from Canada is shameful and inappropriate.

Among others, I have long argued that the targets lacked a credible plan for implementation. The government seems to be banking on the fact that they won’t be around in 2020 or 2050 to be held to account. As such, nearer term targets – such as those in the 10:10 campaign – could be usefully adopted in Canada. Anything else leaves too much of a gap between promises and mechanisms of accountability.

The full report is available online (PDF).

Inheritance law in Europe

Wheat stalks

One thing I didn’t know about continental Europe is that in many countries there inheritance isn’t something that you can allocate in your will. If you want to give it all to charity, tough luck: it is impossible and illegal. Instead, you are obligated to leave a set portion of your total estate to your children, divided equally among them. This is referred to as “forced heirship.” There are even provisions in place to “claw back” money given away in the last few years of life, so as to prevent people from circumventing the heirship law by donating while alive. As such, if you give a big dollop of money to a charity and die a few years later (less than two in Austria, or ten in Germany), the state might take it back and give some of it to your children.

This all strikes me as rather batty and weird. After all, the privilege of being able to assign where your wealth goes after death is a natural extension of private property rights in general (though is reasonably subjected to things like inheritance taxes). Particularly in the case of very wealthy individuals, you could also argue that giving a large set share of the estate to each child will do more harm than good. This is what Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and others have argued, when setting up their wills to give only a small fraction of their wealth to their children. Indeed, one of the major consolations associated with the way wealth tends to concentrate is that people who assemble truly colossal heaps of it often give a lot to charity as they age and die. Gates is certainly an example, as were Carnegie and others. The European system seems more inclined towards the establishment of dynasties. That said, it is certainly possible for people who have been given the ability to choose who will inherit their estate to make the choices poorly. There are definitely worse options than even distribution among children. Cases of people leaving their estates to their pets spring to mind.

In practical terms, there are lots of ways people could work their way around such requirements. They could hold much of their wealth in jurisdictions where the law is different. They could also convert most of their wealth into a life annuity upon retirement. It would be interesting to know what proportion of people use such mechanisms in European countries, and how they are distributed between different levels of wealth.

Climate change and food production

A recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute highlighted the degree to which climate change threatens global agricultural output:

In parts of the developing world some crop yields in 2050 could be only half of their 2000 levels. Irrigation may not help: climate change will hit irrigated systems harder than rain-fed ones. And the hope that gainers from climate change will outweigh losers looks vain: the damage from higher temperatures and erratic rainfall will be too big.

Couple that with ever-increasing population, and you have a recipe for a lot of suffering and strife.

Flu vaccine ethics

Electrical meters

An article in today’s Globe and Mail argues that it is selfish for people to refuse the H1N1 flu vaccine, given the risks it creates for other people. The argument is a pretty strong one. The chances of suffering serious side effects from the vaccine are very low, the illness is a serious one, and people who could get vaccinated choosing not to do so does very plausibly cause harm to others.

Firstly, people hospitalized with preventable swine flu will occupy beds and the attention of medical staff, to the detriment of other patients. There is also a chance they will make medical personnel sick. Refusing to get vaccinated also threatens those who are immunosuppressed.

Medical ethics is often a challenging field in which to reach conclusions about what behaviours are admirable, which are dubious, and which should be prohibited. There is often a trade-off between individual autonomy, individual risk and reward, and collective risk and reward. In this case, I think those who choose not to get the vaccine as mis-applying their autonomy. That is on account of a faulty perception about the risks and rewards they face. That said, I am wary of saying that people other than primary care providers should be mandated to take the vaccine. If anything, that might produce a more harmful backlash in the long term. That said, I think it is fair to say that people who choose not to get the vaccine probably aren’t acting very intelligently or empathetically.

[Update: 18 November 2009] I got the vaccine tonight – the first evening when it was available for non-priority groups in Ottawa.

The climate impact of pets

A new book estimates that the climate change impact of pets is considerable:

In a study published in New Scientist, they calculated a medium dog eats 164 kilograms of meat and 95kg of cereals every year. It takes 43.3 square metres of land to produce 1kg of chicken a year. This means it takes 0.84 hectares to feed Fido.

They compared this with the footprint of a Toyota Land Cruiser, driven 10,000km a year, which uses 55.1 gigajoules (the energy used to build and fuel it). One hectare of land can produce 135 gigajoules a year, which means the vehicle’s eco-footprint is 0.41ha – less than half of the dog’s.

They found cats have an eco-footprint of 0.15ha – slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf. Hamsters have a footprint of 0.014ha – keeping two of them is equivalent to owning a plasma TV.

Just another thing that needs to be tallied up when considering one’s individual climate impact. It is also another reason to support carbon pricing, such as through an economy-wide carbon tax. Such a tax would make people consider the climatic impact of their pets more appropriately, and possibly consider smaller and/or vegetarian options.

All that being said, having a pet is a lot less carbon intensive than having a child. For those out there who are using dachshunds or tabbies as alternatives to procreation, carry right along.

The Rebel XS and the 20D

Heron in Dow's Lake, Ottawa

Unfortunately, my year-old Canon Rebel XS suffered some kind of failure on Saturday: constantly reading ‘busy’ in the heads-up display and being unable to take photos. Henry’s is sending it back to Canon for repair, and estimate it will be away 4-6 weeks. Quite kindly, when they heard that I was planning to take photos for the Fill the Hill event, they lent me a 20D for the weekend.

The 20D is an older camera positioned at a higher level than the Rebel XS. It is larger and sturdier, and feels more substantial. It also feels more balanced with heavy lenses like my 70-200. Two things I really like about it are the shutter release sound (which seems a lot more pleasing and professional than the Rebel XS) and the intangible sense that this camera is always eager to take photos. Pressing the shutter feels like allowing it to follow through with a restrained urge. Part of that feeling may come from the absurdly fast burst shooting speed.

I do have some complaints about the 20D. Some of the controls are very confusing. For instance, the on-off switch has three positions. In one ‘on’ mode, you can use the rear control wheel for exposure correction, once you have half-depressed the shutter button. Nobody would ever guess that, and I spent a good 20 minutes trying to figure out how to undo the -1/3 correction I accidentally applied (I eventually got it back to 0 by switching from 1/3 stop increments to 1/2 stop). The screen is much smaller and less useful than the one on the Rebel XS, so it isn’t really all that useful for reviewing images in the field. Also, the processor is slower, meaning that photos take longer to download.

All told, I now have a better understanding of why people buy Canon’s $1000ish cameras, when their features are mostly the same as those in their $500ish cameras. The 20D certainly looks and feels more professional than the Rebel XS. That being said, I think I will stick with my plan of saving up and eventually buying a dSLR in the much more costly category of those with full-frame sensors.

P.S. With my Rebel XS away, it may be tough to produce nice photos of the day for the next month or so. I went out and took a heap of fall photos today, to try to see me through the dry spell. If I do end up going to a family reunion in Vermont in November, I will probably rent a dSLR (and maybe the 24-70 f/2.8L lens) for the duration.

P.P.S. One other lesson from all this is that megapixels really don’t matter. Which has more, the Rebel XS or the 20D? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

[Update: 14 November 2009] The Rebel XS came back from Canon with a new flaw introduced.

[Update: 14 June 2010] Recently, the electrical system on the Rebel XS failed again. Rather than get a replacement under the Henry’s service plan, I got credit towards a 5D Mark II.

Fill the Hill 2009 video

Today’s climate change rally on Parliament Hill was a great success, with a huge number of people showing up despite the nasty weather. The speakers were strong, and the mood in the crowd was very positive. It’s great that people have rallied around such a challenging target, with the 350 campaign. Let’s hope that this movement can grow to the point where policies to end deforestation and the use of fossil fuels become mainstream and effective, around the world. That’s the only way we will be able to avoid dangerous climate change.

I don’t have my brother Mica’s talent for editing video. If someone wants access to the unedited files, please let me know and I will provide them. Perhaps they can be incorporated into a more sophisticated product, with music and such.