B.C.’s latest move against the Kinder Morgan pipeline

When it comes to stopping unsustainable fossil fuel development, anything that creates investor uncertainty can be useful. By that metric, the British Columbia government’s announcement of a diluted bitumen shipment expansion moratorium while it studies how a diluted bitumen spill would unfold is a small contribution to shifting Canada to an acceptable development pathway.

Still, I wish governments would look squarely at the real problem: the fundamental contradiction between continued fossil fuel exploitation and the climatic stability objectives that states including Canada asserted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and in their own climate announcements. Making it all about local issues may be politics as usual, but it misses the main ethical issues at play.

Canada is still in denial about climate and the bitumen sands

Canada’s bitumen sands continue to be the largest source of growth in Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution, and the biggest barrier to Canada’s fair participation in a global climate change mitigation strategy.

Not only does continued bitumen sands investment perpetuate an industry which undermines Canada’s claim to be serious about Indigenous reconciliation, but giving the industry specially lax environmental treatment would force other sectors to pick up the slack, if that is even possible given the industry’s relentlessly growing pollution.

An article by University of Toronto professor Danny Harvey and Lika Miao now argues that only an oil sands phaseout would allow Canada to meet its (insufficiently ambitious) 2030 emission reduction targets. They see a complete bitumen sands phase out by 2030 as necessary to meet the targets, alongside major action in sectors like energy generation, and emphasize how meeting the more ambitious temperature targets of the Paris Agreement would require much more aggressive action.

All this highlights the chasm between Canadian politics and what would be necessary to curb climate change. Prime Minister Trudeau either doesn’t understand the relationship between fossil fuel use and climatic stability or is choosing to mislead Canadians for political reasons, continuing to assert that Canada’s fossil fuel reserves are usable. That kind of timidity or misdirection serves us all badly, leaving the bulk of Canadians misled into believing that the industry can somehow be compatible with a stable climate.

Canada’s National Gallery

During my Christmas visit to Ottawa, I visited the National Gallery with Myshka’s mother and sister.

It was a rapid tour where I focused on statuary. The concrete aggregate work by Ugo Rondione (“We run through a desert on burning feet. All of us are glowing. Our faces look twisted.”) near the group entrance reminds me a bit of one of Bathsheba’s commissions. The dépanneur installation was odd, though it’s easy to read it as about surveillance as the convex mirrors and digital cameras reflect back the visitors exploring it. It also seemed notable to me that so much of the purpose of the shop was dedicated to alcohol (the European painting area has a most unflattering portrayal of drunken excess).

It’s neat to see statues made with such a variety of materials, from marble to plastic patio chairs to some kind of simulated camel hide.

The gallery has an unusually permissive photography policy, with everything in the permanent collection available to be freely photographed. The one time I got shut down was trying to photograph a Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux marble from a private collection, where the guard tried to stop me from even photographing the ‘no photography’ sign.

Galicia Division controversy

The National Post is reporting on controversial Canadian monuments to Ukrainians who volunteered to fight with the Waffen-SS starting in 1943. A large number of those who fought in the division immigrated to Canada after the war, aided in part by intervention from the Roman Catholic Church. While the immediate context of the controversy is critical comments from the Russian embassy (possibly with questionable motives), some of those quoted advocate more critical thought within the Ukrainian community about the wartime roles of their compatriots:

“It would be refreshing and perhaps a form of self-healing …” writes University of Alberta professor David Marples in a 2007 book on “heroes and villains” in Ukrainian national history, “if Ukrainians could offer a conception of their recent past that looked at all aspects of these events, recognizing in passing that heroes could be criminals.”

One of the monuments in question is at St. Volodymyr Cemetery in Oakville, Ont. It commemorates a major battle, the Brody, fought by the Ukrainian Galician Division of the German Waffen-SS against the Soviet Red Army, during which more than three-quarters of the Ukrainian soldiers perished.

The article also describes potential involvement of future Galician Division soldiers in anti-Semitic actions and war crimes. A spokesperson for the B’nai Brith is quoted saying that they would oppose future such monuments, but do not object to the existing ones remaining in place.

The article mentions the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada (Deschênes Commission) which concluded in 1986 “that members of the Galician Division who immigrated to Canada hadn’t had charges against them substantiated”. I was once able to briefly speak with a former commission member at a Massey College event, but he did little but reiterate the high level conclusions of the commission.

I should read Marples’ book.

New big dams in Canada

Some earlier comments discussed the Site C dam project in B.C. Today, B.C.’s NDP government committed to finishing the $10.7 billion project.

Like the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador, this is a multi-billion dollar project facing extensive criticism from environmentalists and Indigenous people.

On the one hand, it is desirable to get as much low carbon generation as possible. On the other, these projects seem to represent continued Indigenous exploitation by Canadian governments (ignoring the standard of free, prior, and informed consent from UNDRIP), and it’s not clear there aren’t lower cost options which are equally desirable from a climate perspective. Loss of glaciers and summer snowpack might also have a catastrophic effect on hydro production.

Encouraging equitable tutorial participation

This is my sixth year as a teaching assistant at U of T. While a big part of my TA duties has always been grading, for almost all the courses I have helped teach I have lead tutorials.

Early on, I tried to emulate a system that was common in my small group classes in Oxford (“tutorials” there means one-on-one discussions with your supervisor). The instructors would ask everybody to write a concise summary of each assigned reading and would then call on a student at random for each reading to present their work. The idea is to create a stronger incentive to be prepared for tutorials, and also to give all students an equal chance of contributing. The second part is important because tutorials can easily be dominated by the students with the most privilege, in the sense that they feel entitled to speak and for others to listen to them.

At some point, I conducted a survey and wrote a report on this approach. The big downside was that people were worried about being called on to present, so they did not attend. Attendance in U of T political science tutorials is poor to begin with, so I concluded that this was probably asking too much.

Much later, for a course at UTM, it was necessary to assess participation in tutorials with impractically large numbers of students. On the advice of a fellow TA, I devoted 10 minutes of each 50 minute tutorial to students writing a paragraph or two based on a writing prompt I provided, then rapidly graded participation based on them showing me what they wrote at the end of class (basically on the spectrum of ‘wrote nothing at all’, ‘wrote two lines of nonsense’, ‘pass’).

This year, I am TAing two courses to try to cover the cost of another unfunded summer. In one students are meant to give one presentation. In the other, tutorial grades are all up to me.

My aims when leading a tutorial are principally to encourage a respectful and educational discussion among the students. This is often hampered because nobody is prepared for the tutorial, so all my leading questions about the readings, tutorial topic, and discussion questions yield little response. It is also often hampered for a different reason: because some students dominate discussion – interrupting others, feeling entitled to respond immediately to evert comment made by others, and generally inhibiting the respectful atmosphere which is a precondition for participation among the less privileged and confident. This is especially true in the huge tutorials which are standard in political science at U of T.

So, I am considering alternative means of moderating the discussion. My intuitive approach is to begin by calling on those who first raise their hands, to always call on those who have not spoken yet before calling again on someone who has, to call on people who spoke before earliest before letting people speak a second time, and to gently correct students who speak without recognition from the chair (me) or whose comments are otherwise problematic.

In my six tutorials next week I am planning to explain some of these issues of equity and the mechanics of maintaining a speakers’ list. I will summarize my intuitive approach and suggest some alternatives. One of those would be asking for a student to volunteer in each tutorial to manage the speakers’ list: taking note of people who raise their hands and using some combination of agreed rules and their judgment to choose who gets to speak next.

One idea from U of T seminars generally attended by graduate students and faculty which might be worth incorporating is the “two finger” gesture. As opposed to raising one’s hand, one raises two fingers to say that one has an immediate response to what was just said. This can be important because back-and-forth between people with theories and those who question them (or between people with different points of view) can enrich discussion.

I will also bring up the basic version of the Progressive Clock, which tracks speaking time for female, male, white, and coloured people and can generate graphs and exportable data. If people think it would be valuable to track speaking time in that way, I would ask for a second volunteer to do so and send the data to me.

I take my work as a teaching assistant seriously. That’s central to grading, obviously, but the pedagogy of teaching matters too. I welcome comments on any part of this (and I will try to find that report on random presentations).

Stranded assets and regulatory risk

One of the most important economic and political points arising from climate change is uncertainty about how seriously future governments will respond to the problem. If some kind of political change makes governments serious about hitting the 1.5 – 2.0 ËšC temperature targets from the Paris Agreement, it will mean doing everything possible to rapidly reduce emissions, from imposing high carbon prices to mandating the abandonment of especially harmful technologies and practices like burning coal and using exceptionally filthy fuel for international maritime shipping. This is termed “regulatory risk”. Whenever a potential investment project has finances that rely on governments continuing to talk big but do little about climate change, the project risks becoming non-viable after all the costs of development are spent if the government subsequently starts to take climate change seriously.

When it comes to actual fossil fuel reserves, there is a related issue of “stranded assets” – fossil fuel reserves that would be economically viable to extract if they could be sold, but where the climate change and energy policies of governments either directly prohibit their extraction or add other costs like carbon taxes which make the extraction unprofitable. In such a scenario, firms that depended on the value of these reserves to justify their own market value could be in trouble, along with everyone who has invested in them.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail describes how firms are aware of these risks:

[Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec] The Quebec-based pension fund is part of a growing tide of institutional investors – which includes giants such as Vanguard and BlackRock Inc. – pressing companies for more information on how they will manage the transition to a low-carbon economy. Companies in carbon-heavy industries such as energy and mining face the highest pressure, as investors fear being stuck holding stranded assets: companies who fail to plan for the future and whose valuations will likely plummet as a result.

“It’s a risk that we could be left holding the bag in a Minsky Moment and it could be quite costly,” says Toby Heaps, chief executive and co-founder of Corporate Knights Inc., a Toronto-based organization focused on corporate social responsibility. “I wouldn’t say we need to sound the fire alarm, but certainly it’s time to pause and take a serious look at how we can accelerate our transition to a low-carbon economy.”

The pressure has catapulted climate risk to the top of the agenda in many of Canada’s boardrooms as companies grapple with how to measure, mitigate and disclose potential liabilities. Last year, the board at Suncor Energy Inc. recommended that shareholders approve a proposal put forward by NEI Investments to enhance the company’s climate-related disclosures. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution.

There is every reason for advocates of stronger climate change mitigation policies to pressure firms to consider these risks before investing. There are ample examples of how – once a project is built and operating – it becomes politically impossible to shut down, regardless of how much harm it is causing. A classic example is coal-fired power plants in the United States that were built before the Clean Air Act and are thus exempt from the obligation to install scrubbers. Arguably, the entire bitumen sands is a massive example of a terrible idea that has become impossible to discontinue because too much has been invested, too many jobs are now at stake, and governments have become too dependent on royalties and other related revenue.