Dissertation extract: structural barriers to climate change action

Today I saw a Twitter post with some text that governments cut from the Summary for Policymakers from the 6th Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

B6.4. Factors limiting ambitious transformation include structural barriers, an incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in to infrastructure and assets, and lock-in as a consequence of vested interests, regulatory inertia, and lack of technological capabilities and human resources. (high confidence) {1.5, 2.8, 5.5, 6.7, 13.8}

This accords with the section on structural barriers to climate action in my in-progress dissertation.

In response, I have released a draft section from my dissertation on the structural barriers that make controlling climate change so challenging. The barriers are essential for understanding why growing scientific alarm has not translated into adequate policy responses. It also raises questions for environmentalists working to control the problem, since part of the issue is their own opposition to fossil fuel alternatives.

Should Elizabeth II end the monarchy?

An impression that I can’t shake the more I learn about the personal histories of people in the British royal family is that it has mostly been awful for them, and they might benefit as much as anyone from the abolition of the institution.

That makes this argument from Polly Toynbee more plausible: Clearly Britain loses more than it gains from the monarchy. Let us be brave and end it.

The only real argument I perceive for maintaining the institution is the idea that it’s a source of unifying stability within U.K. or Canadian or Commonwealth society. It’s the old argument against the French revolution: that things hallowed by tradition have an importance understood in culture more than it could be expressed in explicit rational argument, and that those seeking to design their institutions of government from whole cloth through rationality risk veering into tyrannical violence and social breakdown.

Arguably it’s an institution that can’t maintain its dignity in the absence of deference from the press, politicians, and the public. When society’s institutions are willing to reveal rather than conceal their weaknesses (I remember the character Charles saying something snotty in some docu-drama about not intending to be the first Price of Wales without a mistress) then their ordinariness transcends the high social status conferred on them by tradition and precedent.

COVID vaccination and medical triage

The CBC has some interesting reporting on the medical ethics of triage in relation to the voluntarily unvaccinated:

Udo Schuklenk, Ontario Research Chair in bioethics at Queens University and co-editor of the journal Bioethics, questions the argument that vaccine refusers are victims of misinformation.

“There’s many people in my field who go on about equity considerations, and [how] these people don’t know better and they have been misled,” he said. “And my view is, they have made their autonomous choice.”

“And if you’re telling me that they are unable to make a sensible choice, then we should take this choice away from them. But we should not, on the one hand, give them this choice, and then not hold them accountable for it.

“The vast majority of people in my field of bioethics would disagree with me on what I just said. They’d say there’s many people who don’t know better and have been misled. And my point is, that may well be true, but then this should have a consequence on the kind of choices that these people are permitted to make.”

I understand and can broadly applaud the ethics of doctors treating everyone equally based on the severity of the risks they face, without consideration of whether they brought on those risks voluntarily. At the same time, public health measures in the face of an epidemic are an ancient and appropriate authority of the state and it seems totally reasonable to restrict the activities of people who refuse to comply.

Surely one of the big injustices of the pandemic has been all the people who need non-COVID treatment suffering worse outcomes because the voluntarily unvaccinated are absorbing too many of the resources of the medical system.

Canada if the US collapses

The most disturbing thing about the January 6th riot and Trump coup attempt has been the reaction of American politicians. Despite being witnesses and targets of the attack, politics as usual has persisted, including Trump’s dominance of the Republican party.

This suggests a substantial danger that Americans in power will choose the victory of their tribe over the other above the endurance and peace of the union.

In today’s Globe and Mail, Thomas Homer-Dixon writes:

By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.

During my international relations undergrad, profs often told us about how for most of Canadian history the biggest threat to Canada’s sovereignty has been invasion from the south. If mass political violence does erupt in the US — likely accompanied by a mass sense that the federal institutions of the supreme court, congress, and the presidency do not hold legitimate power over the whole US populace — it’s hard to believe that the US-Canada border would be respected in the uproar.

Of course it’s undiplomatic to talk in public about what will happen if your neighbour and strongest ally falls into civil war or ceases to be a democracy. Nonetheless, given the pathologies in American politics and society, it’s something Canadians must consider with growing seriousness and urgency.

Disallowing rent changes between tenants in Ontario

Along with fellow NDP MPP Bhutila Karpoche, my former Member of the Provincial Parliament Jessica Bell is proposing a Rent Stabilization Act, which would stop landlords from raising rents between tenants. It would also establish a rent registry with the Landlord and Tenant Board.

If passed, the law would help rationalize the incentives faced by landlords, who at present can accept the ~2% per year rent increases set by the province with existing tenants or who can try to get rid of their tenants to reset the rent at a much higher level. Making it more profitable to cycle through tenants than to retain them also contributes to landlords wanting informal tenants rather than tenants on a formal lease, since only the former have protection from the Landlord and Tenant Board.

With the present provincial legislature comprised of 70 Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford, 40 NDP MPPs, plus seven Liberals and some minor parties there isn’t a realistic hope of the proposal becoming law.

Listening to the Abel espionage case

Because of its restrained and historically accurate storytelling, Bridge of Spies is one of my favourite films.

Looking for something a bit meatier than podcasts to listen to on my exercise walks, I am trying out an Audible account with James Donovan’s Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel. It’s the perfect kind of book for someone overly preoccupied with an academic project, insofar as it is interesting and detailed enough to be mentally engaging as well as mercifully unrelated to any work I need to do.

Canada’s election 2021 climate change platforms

UBC professor Kathryn Harrison was interviewed by the CBC’s Front Burner: Where the major parties stand on climate change

See also:

Texas’ bounty-based heartbeat law

America’s unravelling continues, with the Supreme Court declining 5-4 to hear an emergency appeal of Texas’ bizarre and cruel fetal heartbeat anti-abortion law.

Laurence Tribe has written about what the law’s bounty system will do:

It wasn’t just Roe that died at midnight on 1 September with barely a whimper, let alone a bang. It was the principle that nobody’s constitutional rights should be put on sale for purchase by anyone who can find an informant or helper to turn in whoever might be trying to exercise those rights.

That, after all, is how the new Texas law works. Its perverse structure, which delegates to private individuals anywhere a power the state of Texas is forbidden to exercise itself until Roe is overruled, punishes even the slightest form of assistance to desperate pregnant women. Doctors, family members, insurance companies, even Uber drivers, are all at risk if they help a woman in need. And the risk is magnified by the offer of a big fat financial reward for whoever successfully nabs a person guilty of facilitating an abortion once a heartbeat can be detected, typically six weeks after a woman’s last period, well before most women even know they are pregnant. There is not even an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. No law remotely like this has ever been allowed to go into effect.

The prospect of hefty bounties will breed a system of profit-seeking, Soviet-style informing on friends and neighbors. These vigilantes will sue medical distributors of IUDs and morning-after pills, as well as insurance companies. These companies, in turn, will stop offering reproductive healthcare in Texas. As of a minute before midnight on 31 August, clinics in Texas were already turning patients away out of fear. Even if the law is eventually struck down, many will probably close anyway.

Worse still, if women try to escape the state to access abortion services, their families will be on the hook for offering even the smallest aid. If friends or family of a woman hoping to terminate her pregnancy drive her across state lines, or help her organize money for a plane or bus ticket, they could be liable for “aiding and abetting” a now-banned abortion, even if the procedure itself takes place outside Texas.

Adding insult to injury, if a young woman asks for money for a bus ticket, or a ride to the airport, friends and parents fearful of liability might vigorously interrogate her about her intentions. This nightmarish state of affairs burdens yet another fundamental constitutional privilege: the right to interstate travel, recognized by the supreme court in 1999 as a core privilege of federal citizenship.

It’s a heartless and unfeeling religious morality that sees this kind of harassment as desirable. The Supreme Court’s conduct will also further erode its own position as a unifying public institution and legitimate arbiter of constitutional grievances. When people lose faith in unifying institutions — and in the perception that there are legitimate avenues for pursuing their interests — it threatens complete breakdown in the country’s self-understanding as one polity, and further progression into settling questions of policy and law by force rather than through reason and democratic debate.

Canada submits new 2030 climate target

Canada is now promising the UN that it will cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40–45% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The government says emissions are already set to fall from 729 million tonnes (MT) in 2018 (the last year with final figures) to 468 MT by 2030.

Canada’s choice of a 2005 baseline sets it apart from the global standard of setting targets compared to 1990 emissions as required by the UNFCCC reporting guidelines, effectively forgiving 15 years in which bitumen sands output and Canadian GHG pollution rose substantially. Canada’s emissions rose from 600 MT to 747 MT between 1990 and 2005.


Link rot and citations in authoritative publications

Researching social movements — where relevant information is often on social media, or the websites of NGOs, universities, or corporations that reorganize them frequently — link rot is an acute problem. Increasingly, the default way to let a reader see the source you’re referencing is to provide an internet hyperlink, and yet there is no assurance that a link on a site which you don’t control will continue to work.

Jonathan Zittrain has an instructive article in The Atlantic about many of the dimensions of the problem. Strikingly, he cites a study by Kendra Albert and Larry Lessig that half the links cited in court opinions since 1996 no longer work, along with 75% of the links in the Harvard Law Review.

Beyond the Wayback Machine, which I already use extensively both to find material which is no longer online and to preserve links to live content that may be useful in the future, Zittrain suggests several other initiatives to help with the problem, including Perma and Robustify.