We are losing the global fight against fossil fuels

Three examples from today:

1) Coal shortage and heatwave spark India’s power woes:

The government says it is doing all it can do to ensure supplies. Coal India, the world’s largest coal miner, has increased production by 12%, “strengthening India’s energy security”, according to the federal coal ministry. It also despatched 49.7 million metric tonnes of coal to the power generating companies in April, a 15% rise over the same month last year. The railways have cancelled more than a thousand passenger trains to transport more coal to fuel-starved plants.

2) Hydro-Québec mounts last-ditch effort to revive stalled power line project through Maine:

The planned project would carry 1,200 megawatts of electricity over a 336-kilometre high-voltage transmission line between Thetford Mines, Que., and Lewiston, Maine. Of the 233 kilometres planned on the U.S. side, 85 kilometres would cut through a forested area. Clearing work was already well underway at the time of the referendum.

According to Maine Public Utilities Commission, the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 3.6 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road.

However, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, has expressed a great deal of skepticism about the real environmental benefits of Hydro-Québec energy, questioning whether the project would actually reduce GHG emissions.

3) Ontario energy grid emissions set to skyrocket 400% as Ford government cranks up the gas:

Since all renewable energy projects were cancelled when Premier Doug Ford was elected, the province currently has no other way to compensate for the looming shutdown of a major nuclear reactor in Pickering, responsible for roughly 16 per cent of province-wide power. Only natural gas is available to meet rapidly growing demand for electricity, according to the IESO projections.

The projections show that the province’s natural gas plants — which only operate about 60 per cent of the time now — will run non-stop by 2033. The additional annual emissions this will produce over the next 20 years are equivalent to a large Alberta oilsands project.

Why public promises are often irrelevant to politics

“So accept the favours, sway the key blocs, and you will get into power — ruling with actions that look contradictory and stupid to those who don’t understand the game: privately helping a powerful industry you publicly denounced, or passing laws that hurt a bloc that voter for you. But your job isn’t to have a consistent understandable ruling policy, but to balance the interests of your keys to power big and small. That is how you stay in office.” (9:48)

Ginsburg documentary

After today’s three presentations on my research — and the surprise discovery of another very pertinent U of T PhD dissertation which I will read tomorrow — I learned that through the library I have access to the Kanopy streaming service and watched the RBG documentary which was the first thing recommended. It’s rightly praised as very well done, and I learned a lot about her life.

Progressive politics and “defunding the police”

While outside the area of climate change policy, the concept and slogan of “defunding the police” is revealing about important dynamics between progressive activist politics and policy-making by those who actually win power.

As The Economist reported in 2021:

The critical division is over whether or not the plan is a pretext to “defund the police”. Opponents insist it is sloganeering masquerading as policy. Shortly after Floyd’s murder, a majority of the city council appeared at a rally at Powderhorn Park on a stage in front of which “DEFUND POLICE” appeared in gigantic block letters. “The narrative all along until maybe five months ago, six months ago, was that they would be defunding the police and allocating the money elsewhere. The only thing that’s changed is the political winds,” says Mr Frey. He insists that alternatives to policing can still be funded without modifying the city charter, and that, if anything, more funding for the police is needed: “Right now, in Minneapolis, we have fewer officers per capita than just about every major city in the entire country.”

Advocates for reform have adjusted their language. As with the civil-rights movement, “those farthest on the left are what pushed the movement…we shifted the narrative from reform to defund,” says Sheila Nezhad, a community organiser running for mayor who is posing a stiff challenge to Mr Frey. Having contributed to a report on policing that argued that “abolition is the only way forward”, Ms Nezhad now avoids such rhetoric on the campaign trail, preferring words like “reinvest”. Kate Knuth, another candidate for mayor who supports the reform, says: “My vision of a department of public safety absolutely includes police,” funded at the same levels as today.

Public opinion in favour of “defunding” police departments was never high. The increase in violent crime has made it even less so.

In June 2020, 41% of Democrats told survey-takers for the Pew Research Centre that they wished to reduce local police budgets. By September 2021 that had shrunk to 25%. Among the general public, support declined from 25% to 15%.

I would say the dynamics of this movement mirror many of those in the progressive, intersectional, anti-capitalist climate justice movement. People who are sympathetic to the kind of analysis and solutions within the movement embrace them enthusiastically and selectively surround themselves to people who agree, losing touch with public opinion and losing the ability to influence people who don’t mostly agree with them already. This leads to policy proposals that over-reach what is politically plausible (abolish global capitalism!) but, because they feel swollen with moral superiority about their analysis and policy preferences, activists reject the public rather than revise their proposals. They end up powerless and isolated, but feeling like the moral lords of the universe. Because they see their opponents as so contemptible, the idea of developing an approach with broader electoral support is rejected both pragmatically and emotionally, in the first case because they can’t see how cooperating with such awful people will lead to an outcome they want, and in the second case because their revulsion and contempt makes them reject cooperation before even considering what it would involve.

The biggest thing we need to achieve to have a chance against climate change is to split the conservative side of the population between those with respect for empirical truth who won’t dismantle climate change protections to try to win popularity and the fantasists who either deny the reality of climate change altogether or dismiss the need to act on it. The latter would then hopefully be a small enough rump to be politically marginal. Something comparable on the left may be a helpful parallel development, characterized by the rejection of the idea that everyone who disagrees with progressivism can be ignored or converted. Recognizing that multiple political perspectives can be simultaneously valid is the basis of pluralism and the foundation of the central democratic concept that the defeated must acknowledge the legitimacy of the victors. Without that, politics becomes an anarchic ideological contest in which any tactic can be justified and where a coherent and effective agenda serving the public interest cannot arise.


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.