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Yesterday I photographed two rallies outside Toronto-area offices of Members of Parliament and Ministers of Finance and Foreign Affairs Bill Morneau and Chrystia Freeland.

With Freeland we asked if Canada was now going to withdraw our signature from the Paris Agreement. The sentiment was crafted to be possible to express in one photograph, but the issues are nonetheless closely related. The Paris Agreement’s central operative clause is an aspiration to: “Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

I say “aspiration” because the agreement says little about implementation. This is a treaty negotiated with the participation of every country on Earth and there are many who would have objected to explaining what those temperature targets mean in terms of greenhouse gasses, fossil fuels, and public policy. There are some who hope a magical technology will let us burn all these fossil fuels without dangerously warming the planet, but there are good reasons to question the efficacy and ethics of both geoengineering and carbon sequestration. As for a marvellous new energy technology so much better than both climate-safe options like nuclear fission and renewables and fossil fuel options, I don’t see that happening during the critical window of only a couple of decades where we will decide if the Paris targets can ever be attained or not.

The Paris Agreement is ambitious in its ultimate objective but frighteningly imprecise about the means of getting there. That means that for the decades ahead the locus of diplomacy will have to be convincing countries facing major problems of poverty and regional insecurity to commit fully to decarbonization as well. To achieve that, countries which have historically used the largest amounts of fossil fuel and where emissions per person continue to be the highest will need to be seen to be doing their part, cheerfully and in a spirit of global cooperation.

The clearest signals we’re sending are the big energy choices we make. A new pipeline says that the bitumen sands can continue to grow and that we expect fossil fuel use to remain as high as it is now for decades to come. It says that we’re not serious about Paris or avoiding dangerous climate change.

Canadian politicians want an easy answer that can satisfy Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the oil industry while also showing that sort of global leadership. That isn’t possible. At some point all of Canada needs to have a hard conversation about shutting down the oil sands industry, and that process needs to begin now by definitively stopping expansion.

To some degree the fights over Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Energy East have already sent important signals to industry. If you want a big fossil fuel project now, it is going to be a fight. That message is actually reinforced by the Trudeau government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain project. They think they’re telling industry that the federal government will step in to get things done, but they’re also suggesting that projects like this aren’t viable without exceptional government support. Even if Trudeau welds the last section of pipe personally, and the government’s dream of recovering taxpayer funds by selling the pipeline to the private sector is fulfilled, there will be big questions about how much sense any further bitumen sands expansion will make.

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I have been volunteering a bit for the campaign of University-Rosedale MPP candidate Jessica Bell.

Today I went to a rally beside city hall with volunteers from her campaign and got some photos.

Expect more political photos tomorrow.

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Many problems in nuclear strategy are unpleasant or even horrifying to contemplate. As the number of nuclear-armed nations grows, the chances that one will be put in a desperate situation and choose to use one more more nuclear weapons likely rises.

An article by Vince Manzo and John Warden considers potential American responses to the use of a nuclear weapon by a hostile power, including four scenarios involving North Korea and Russia.

Among all the international norms under threat, the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons is among the most valuable. If at all possible, it should be reinforced even if one state does use nuclear weapons. As the article illustrates, however, that will be one among many strategic considerations, and no option offers the kind of certainty that would be desirable.

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Writing in The Globe and Mail Thomas Homer-Dixon and Yonatan Strauch have a solid explanation for the incompatibility between the Trans Mountain pipeline and the climate commitments Canada has chosen for itself:

For these [pipeline] opponents, further massive investment in the extraction and export of some of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel on Earth is nonsensical – idiotic, even. In a dangerously warming world, we should be investing in a clean-energy future, not entrenching Canada more deeply in the economic past.

Continued investment in the oil sands generally, and in the Trans Mountain pipeline specifically, means Canada is doubling down on a no-win bet. We’re betting that the world will fail to meet the reduction targets in the Paris Climate Agreement, thus needing more and more oil, including our expensive and polluting bitumen. We’re betting, in other words, on climate disaster. If, however, the world finally gets its act together and significantly cuts emissions, then Canada will lose much of its investment in the oil sands and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, because the first oil to be cut will be higher-cost oil such as ours.

There are more sophisticated analyses of the situation which are necessary, concerning global budgets and international negotiations, but it’s fair and accurate to say that Canada’s progress toward decarbonization depends on not making heavy new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. If the Trudeau government or any other keeps pushing in that direction, Canada seems likely to end up the poorer while the world will be further imperilled both by the emissions we generate and the diplomatic consequences of putting fossil fuel profits before collective action to avert planetary disaster.

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A great deal has changed in my life since this site got broken in February.

Back then I was dealing with work as a teaching assistant for two courses, as well as a great many difficult personal issues and situations.

Now I am in the luxurious position of having the summer to work on my dissertation. In a pretty clear way, it’s actually the income-maximizing option when compared with trying to get one of U of T’s few summer TA jobs, trying to find some other work, or trying to do a lot of photography gigs. The biggest expense in a PhD is the forgone income from not working somewhere that would pay much more, and that semi-hidden cost accumulates the longer the program takes. Remaining a federal civil servant was psychologically impossible for me, given the pain of working on something I cared intensely about while only being allowed to implement policies that would completely fail to solve the problem (people working for Trudeau today don’t seem appreciably better off than I was when working for the Harper government). Still, there are plenty of jobs where in the last six years I could have earned several times my income from university funding and TA work, without paying tuition expenses. Furthermore, the work experience and career progression that would likely have involved is worth more to almost all plausible employers than the research skill development and demonstration from a doctoral program.

For those aspiring to academic jobs, there is probably also a degree to which the longer your PhD takes the less confidence potential employers may have that you will produce the prodigious research output which is the primary obligation of young professors. It’s a high bar, but a PhD is really still an apprenticeship: becoming a qualified academic researcher via a single relatively closely supervised project. All kinds of life and financial circumstances can stretch out that process, but given the incredibly competitive nature of the academic job market, you had better be making a lot of important connections, winning grants and scholarships, and publishing in journals important to your field while that is going on.

I don’t regret the time I have spent in the PhD at all because for me another five or six or seven years in university is a boon that could scarcely be hoped for. The University of British Columbia was the first place where I really felt I belonged in life and, despite all the frustrations and setbacks, the essence of that feeling persists for me here. When people ask about the wisdom of doing a PhD, I advise that they consider whether the experience of being in university is something they so greatly value that they are willing to sacrifice substantial lifetime earnings and financial security to get it. If the PhD is worth it to you in itself it may be a good choice. For most people, it’s not worth it only as a stepping stone to somewhere else, both because you are unlikely to ever get that tenure-track teaching job and (like practicing law) there’s a pretty strong chance you will hate it even if you end up there at the top of the academic pyramid scheme.

Despite the intention to focus on reading, research, and writing for my PhD, I am sticking with my long-term strategy of keeping multiple things on the go at once. For me, I think it actually leads to higher productivity because the specialized forms of exhaustion that can arise from pushing too long and hard on one task can be dissipated and managed by having other simultaneous projects. Equally importantly, a diversified set of tasks and obligations reduces the odds that everything will go wrong at once. And so I am working on some personal writing projects, doing some volunteering for the Ontario election and climate activism, trying to at least keep walking as exercise, and generally remaining open to opportunities as they arise.

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