Open thread: ballistic missile defence

An episode involving missile defence* from the West Wing holds up very well today. The craggy old American chief of staff is in favour, out of fear of what rogue regimes might do to America. The British ambassador is opposed because it’s impractical, violates international law, and risks worsening the global nuclear weapons situation.

I can see why people like the idea of being able to stop a few missiles launched by North Korea or Iran, or by a rogue commander somewhere. At the same time, I think the dangers of a nuclear arms race make the development and deployment of such a system unwise, even if the major technological hurdles could be overcome. It’s the classic security dilemma: you build something meant to make you safer, potential opponents interpret it as making them less safe (by reducing the credibility of their deterrent) so they build expensive countermeasures. In the end, everyone has wasted money on the race and everyone ends up less safe. It could also tempt decision-makers into recklessness, based on false confidence that the system will nullify any response to their aggression.

We should be working to de-alert and dismantle the nuclear arsenals of the authorized nuclear powers under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Against that backdrop, resisting proliferation to new nuclear states would be more plausible.

* I don’t mean defending things like aircraft carriers from ballistic missiles. I mean systems to protect domestically-located military facilities and population centres from ballistic missile attack, probably with nuclear weapons.

Open thread: decolonization in Canada

Supposedly, Canada is in the midst of a national effort at moving toward reconciliation after centuries of exploiting and oppressing its Indigenous populations. Signs include efforts to protect and investigate crimes against Indigenous women and girls; the renaming of buildings and monuments to people who played a role in Canada’s troubling past; and supposedly efforts to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – though here, as in so many other areas, there is good cause to question the sincerity of the Trudeau government.

Of course, there has been resistance from white supremacists and others.

It’s encouraging to see Halifax taking down Cornwallis monuments (put a bounty on the Mi’kmaq in 1749) and the Langevin block in Ottawa renamed (helped set up Canada’s genocidal residential schools). I would like to see everything named after Columbus renamed, though ultimately renaming is a small and symbolic part of what decolonization will need to include.

In the long term, Canada needs to recognize that its sovereignty has always been illegitimate – based on coerced treaties that Canada has routinely violated or the naked use of force. The path toward reconciliation can’t be seen from beginning to end in advance, but some of the actions we ought to be taking seem pretty clear, starting with providing services in Indigenous communities comparable to those in the rest of Canada, helping Indigenous peoples built toward self-government, and no longer imposing economic and resource projects on them despite their political and legal opposition.

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.

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.

Plea bargains

In several important ways, the plea bargain system in American courts perverts justice: encouraging prosecutors to pile on charges in hopes of frightening defendants into bargaining, and forcing those being charged to consider falsely pleading guilty because the punishment that would arise from going to trial and losing would be massive.

Nonetheless, The Economist reports that plea bargaining is spreading, from 19 countries in 1990 to 66 now. In federal courts in the United States, “close to 100%” of convictions arise from plea bargains. Less than 3% of federal court defendants go to trial.

The flaws with plea bargaining dovetail with other injustices, from the insufficient provision of public defence lawyers to the structural discrimination embedded in discretionary prosecution and exploitation of civil forfeiture.

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.

Pullman on authoritarianism and eroded democracy

Along with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Phillip Pullman’s essay “Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms” must be one of his most radical pieces of writing. It corresponds to his general concern about lack of oversight over powerful institutions and speaks out powerfully against the authoritarianism that can arise in parallel with public fear:

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

One early passage in his new novel La Belle Sauvage evokes a similar theme:

She tried to keep a steady pace. She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeus corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumors were true. (p. 153–4)

Authors like Pullman and Margaret Atwood play a valuable societal role in drawing attention to such dangers: that fear will drive us to hand over control to unaccountable entities and that a drift toward dystopia is possible. Among all the dangers we face, we mustn’t forget the nightmares the state is capable of imposing.


Civil disobedience as a climate change activism tactic

Friday’s episode of “The Current” discussed the case of Michael Foster who — after warning the pipeline control centre to shut off the pumping stations — turned a valve to shut down the flow of bitumen through the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. It’s a very self-conscious act of civil disobedience, with Foster sending video to the company in real time showing that the shutdown was imminent and discussing beforehand his expectation that he would be convicted of a crime (transcript / MP3).

Few who take climate change seriously would see this action as unjustified. Canada should have started shutting down the oil sands decades ago and should never have developed them to their current size. There is much debate, however, on the effectiveness of such actions. Their logic depends on influencing external actors: either the general public or the legal system.

Fairly recently my friend Stuart was involved in a non-violent direct action blocking automobile access to Heathrow airport. The objective was essentially “consciousness raising” (he said it was to “stir up the national debate about Heathrow”), that the willingness of activists to put themselves in legal jeopardy would make people accept how terribly unethical our casual use of air travel is.

In the Heathrow case, it’s hard for me to imagine that outcome. Air travellers are stressed and deeply entitled. They feel totally justified in complaining about any inconvenience, and I doubt more than a trivial number would reconsider the broad context of their air travel use when exposed to an action like this.

The situation discussed in the pipeline shutdown case podcast seems to offer a little more hope, largely because of the opportunity to use the legal proceedings as a vehicle for public education. Pipeline companies are already seen as villains by many, and the public and the courts may be more sympathetic to the value of disrupting them than of disrupting the air travel of ‘normal’ people. That said, the courts are a bad mechanism for trying to change climate policy for several reasons: they tend to defer to elected politicians on questions of policy, they can prohibit specific things but rarely order broad outcomes, and rulings requiring broad policy changes are often ignored.

We don’t have good options though. The general public are entitled, selfish, and determined to defend the status quo even when it imposes catastrophe on others. It’s common to say that they are apathetic, but I think that’s a misdiagnosis; it’s less that people have accepted the need to act but are unwilling to do so personally and more that they are constantly acting to support the system that is destroying nature and the prospects of all future human generations. They are unwilling to change their lives or their politics nearly enough or nearly quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe. No political party in Canada, the U.S., or U.K. has a serious plan to meet the Paris Agreement targets, much less to actually avoid dangerous climate change. And so, in an unprecedented situation and with no good options, activists are trying what’s available and sacrificing their freedom to do so.

One of the most insightful comments about climate change is George Monbiot’s observation that:

[The campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

No matter how strong the scientific consensus and how undeniable the real-world evidence becomes, nothing so far has convinced people to take action even slightly commensurate with the scale of action required, and people turn all their intellectual and rhetorical skills to justify that inaction (such as by pointing to the other good things they do). Overcoming those psychological responses may be just as important as breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry in a global campaign that can keep us from imposing so much suffering on future generations that we threaten the very ability of human civilization to endure.


Open thread: Michael Marrus and Massey College

For at least a year now people have been quite appropriately doing important work in questioning legacies of racism and institutionalized forms of racism at Massey College, including in the traditional use of the title “Master” to refer to the head of the College.

A hurtful, callous, and offensive remark made in the dining hall has added urgency to the discussion. It was described in the resignation letter of the scholar who made it as “a poor effort at jocular humour” and a “bad joke”. In part, Dr. Michael Marrus’ letter from 1 October 2017 says:

First, I am so sorry for what I said, in a poor effort at jocular humour at lunch last Tuesday. What I said was both foolish and, I understood immediately, hurtful, and I want, first and foremost, to convey my deepest regrets all whom I may have harmed. What I said was a bad joke in reference to your title of “Master,” at the time. I should never have made such a remark, and I want to assure those who heard me, and those who have learned about it, that while I had no ill- intent whatsoever I can appreciate how those at the table and those who have learned about it could take offense at what I said.

I’m not going to link the rather foolish editorials published by The Globe & Mail and the National Post (two papers that seem to share lazy assumptions and ineptitude much like Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties). Some more meaningful commentary has already been in the public press:

Op-ed: Reconciliation at Massey College
An Indigenous Junior Fellow shares her story
By Audrey Rochette

Op-ed: The importance of forgiveness
A former Don of Hall reflects on moving forward from conflict at Massey College
By Juliet Guichon

Black faculty members pen letter condemning Marrus, coverage of incident
Open letter criticizes media outlets for framing incident as “political correctness run amok”
By Aidan Currie

In my six years at Massey College, I have had regular routine and polite interactions with Dr. Marrus. My only exposure to his academic work has been two lectures he gave on the theatrical quality of trials.