Category Archives: Opinions

Looking for Hope in a Hopeless World

by Jim Stephenson

Earth Day Sermon 2017, Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Earthly prospects seem less hopeful in 2017 than on previous Earth Days. The window of opportunity for an orderly transition off fossil fuels is rapidly closing, and recent election results offer little promise of timely action. The whole idea that our species has and uses rational decision making is now questionable. In the face of this, how does one find hope and live a life based on purpose, morality, and optimism?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 environmental movements around the world have had many successes and many failures.

Ten years ago my friend Rex Weyler gave the Earth Day sermon from this pulpit. Things were still cautiously optimistic 10 years ago. Today, however, things have changed. A proposed budget reduction of 30% for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is but one of the many symptoms. The problems are not limited to what’s going on in the US; recall the recent reactions in Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of an eventual phase out of the oil sands.

How bad are things?

It’s been known for some time that the sooner humans started reducing their CO2 emissions the easier and less costly it would be to reduce the risk of global warming. One estimate was it would require only a 3% per year reduction if we started in 2005. Starting in 2015, on the other hand, would take a 6% per year reduction, while waiting another 10 years until 2025 would require a 15% per year reduction. This increasing cost of waiting is what we refer to as the closing window of opportunity.

Some are more hopeful. James Hansen, regarded as the father (or now perhaps grandfather) of the effort to recognize and stop global warming, was the first to testify before the US Congress about the problem. Hansen has a new plan calling for a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions starting in 2021 which, his calculations show, would keep us below a 2o C rise in global mean temperature, and perhaps even closer to 1.5oC. Why does his plan not start until 2021? That’s after the next US presidential election.

Regardless of which estimates are correct, there is a window and it is closing. Whether we can solve the problem with a 6% reduction rate or we really need a 10% reduction, the fact remains that in our world today emissions are still increasing.

We’ve known about the problem for quite a while. The basic science of climate change due to CO2 emissions was known in the 1800’s, demonstrated in the 1950’s, and reported to President Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1965. It was with the testimony of James Hansen before a congressional hearing on June 23, 1988 that global warming finally received international awareness. Hansen spoke of a “99% confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. If humanity had acted on that warning at the time our prospects would have been much brighter at a lower cost. But instead many of our leaders either denied the facts on global warming outright, or simply expressed concern but took little action.

There is no rational basis for denying global warming

What is logically required to reject the science of global warming? One has to reject either (1) that humans, through burning fossil fuels and deforestation have emitted gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans, or (2) that the measured buildup of this CO2 does not produce a greenhouse effect and warm the earth.

Have humans emitted CO2? We actually have a year-by-year accounting of human CO2 emissions. Between 1850 and 2007 emissions totalled 384 gigatons from fossil fuels and 160 gigatons from land-use changes. Of the fossil fuel emissions, 48% came from coal, 36% from oil, 13% from natural gas, 2% from cement production, and 1% from flaring. Of the total emissions 54% were absorbed by the oceans and soil, and the rest stayed in the atmosphere to raise the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm by 2007. By 2016 mean global CO2 concentration had reached 405.1 ppm.

Does higher atmospheric carbon dioxide create warming? To me the most persuasive evidence of the effect of CO2 on the greenhouse effect is how the CO2 concentration is measured. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been monitored daily at the top of Mona Loa in Hawaii since Charles Keeling started these measurements in 1953. To measure CO2 concentration, you pass an air sample through a tube with glass windows on each side. Through the windows, you shine infrared light radiation (like that radiated from the earth’s surface). You can precisely measure how much of the infrared light passes through and how much is absorbed by the CO2. If CO2 gas in the atmosphere didn’t absorb infrared light radiation, this measurement simply wouldn’t work. And yet, it’s been precisely calibrated under laboratory conditions.

Despite the closing window and the continuing denial we shouldn’t give up hope

First – we probably still have time to avoid the worst consequences as reflected in Jim Hansen’s latest plan.

Second – it is possible for political inaction to quickly change.

Think back to 1983 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with Reagan’s guidelines, stopped all research on ozone depletion. On September 16, 1987, (just four years later, while Reagan was still president), 24 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and EEC nations signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . One reason for the quick turn-around was that there was a ready technical fix in the form of an alternate, less damaging chemical (hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)) to replace CFCs. Another factor was that a giant hole in the ozone had been discovered over Antarctica and it showed up on NASA satellite images. World citizens responded to the disturbing visual and factual evidence.

Third – a lot of good things are happening. Click here to learn why 2016 was a good year for humanity on a number of fronts.

But: humanity is behaving irrationally when it comes to global warming

Stopping global warming has never been a question of whether it was possible to do so, or even if it could be accomplished without unreasonable sacrifice of our modern lifestyle. It’s always been a question of whether humanity would recognize the science and organize internationally to make it happen. That is seemingly easy for a species which has developed modern medicine, transportation and communications. Perhaps its not so easy given the results of recent elections. Today it’s an election in France.

The failure to act on global warming has called into question the whole concept of humans being rational and having the ability to use foresight. As rational humanist Unitarian Universalists it seems so straightforward to recognize a problem, analyze options, and then implement a solution. It’s hard to understand how so many, particularly those in power, can deny the problem and reject any solution offered. What can they be thinking?

One plausible answer is related to the free-market dogma and a preference for reducing the role of government which has gained such ascendancy in some countries in recent decades. Addressing climate change requires greater government action, more regulation, and more government involvement in the market. Think carbon taxes to correct price signals, regulation of emissions, and promotion of green energy over fossil fuels. Is it any wonder that those opposed to increased government action will be tempted to deny a problem whose solution requires more government action?

If we’re going to understand and respond to this irrational behavior, we should turn to psychology

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology researcher who has scientifically studied how people arrive at their values. He has published a number of books and given some TED talks, which I highly recommend. Some of his research has examined the differences in values of liberals and conservatives.

Haidt has identified five foundations of morality: Preventing Harm, Ensuring Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity or Sanctity. Everyone on the spectrum agrees about Harm and Fairness, but only conservatives value Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity/Sanctity. Liberals are 2-channel, Conservatives are 5-channel.

Sometimes the difference is what we apply the value to. The political right may be criticized for its moralizing about sex, yet the political left moralizes about the purity of food.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at a cost to those at the bottom. Haidt postulates that righteous minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

We may not be so rational ourselves

What we want is a passionate commitment to the whole truth. Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on possessing this commitment. But do we practice it?

James Hansen, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that speaking truth to power these days is pretty much a one-way street. He views nuclear power as playing an important role in the carbon-free economy. He thinks of the typical environmentalist opposition to 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear energy as “religious dogma”. Many of my Unitarian friends seem more willing to have an objective discussion of religion than of nuclear energy. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: these were all shocks to our emotional systems which make rational analyses and discussions of nuclear power difficult for us.

There were various nuclear reactor designs proposed 30 years ago. While molten sodium and molten metal designs have some obvious advantages, boiling water reactors were chosen, apparently due to the US preference for this design in nuclear submarines. The safer designs shut themselves down if they overheat, produce much less and easier-to-manage waste, are less susceptible to proliferation and fuel theft, and would not require any additional uranium mining for more than 2 centuries. Bill Clinton shut down research into these designs under pressure from environmentalists.

Nuclear power might not be chosen in an unbiased, rational analysis, but it seems to me that it was not rationally considered by most environmentalists. Now Germany, the poster child of green energy, has closed its nuclear plants and replaced some of that capacity with coal, which has led to increasing CO2 emissions.

What Makes Us Happy?

Besides exploring the increasing divide between the political left and right, Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Happiness Hypothesis in which he examines the factors leading to greater happiness. One finding is that each person appears to have a happiness set-point. Some people tend to be happier than others independent of circumstances. He regards those with a high happiness set point as winners of the genetic lottery. While good or bad fortune may temporarily change one’s level of happiness, over time we return to our set points. If one person wins the lottery and another is paralyzed in an auto accident, within a year both will be back at their happiness set point.

The second main conclusion in The Happiness Hypothesis is that happiness comes from social connections with friends and family more that from material possessions. This is the wisdom we all seem to know rationally but keep forgetting as we pursue material success and go shopping. This point is relevant for preventing global warming, because the sources of true happiness are low carbon activities, while travel, shopping and status seeking, which do not lead to true happiness, are carbon intensive. We’re destroying the environment for all the wrong reasons.

So, where does this leave us in our hopeless world?

First – it’s probably not too late, but it will be before too long. So, this is a great time to work for a solution. If it is too late and we are destined for run-away global warming, we will need the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 stages of grief. In the meantime, we should follow the guidance of Joanna Macy. In her book Active Hope she is adamant that we should be realistic about how dire the situation is, but not allow despair to be incapacitating. Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral of the Work That Reconnects includes coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.

Second – the enemy is not evil. They’re different, but they’re as rational as we are. Which isn’t saying much. If we’re going to stop global warming, they will have to be brought on board. Marveling at their stupidity isn’t a very effective way of getting them on board. We actually have to befriend them, respect them, and understand and acknowledge their concerns about loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. We may well have to consider the purity of both sex and food. No one wants to destroy the future of their grandchildren, not even conservatives. This may be our most urgent need for befriending the “other”.

Third – we need to enhance our happiness by living simpler, more sustainable lives with lower carbon footprints. You will be happier, whether or not your simple lifestyle filled with meaningful human interaction leads to a successful world-wide effort to save our environment.

 

Seeking a spiritual foundation for an environmental renaissance in these trying times

by Stan Hirst

I have occasionally heard some of the Suzuki Elders refer to our group as a Unitarian/Anglican conglomerate. It’s meant as a flattering reference, although statistically its not quite true. A mental rundown of the sombre faces around the Council table indicates that neither group is in the majority and the combined number makes up just half the total Council membership. The remainder of the Council membership seeks formal spiritual attachment through a wider range of channels.

However the pages of this site attest to the fact that spirituality is a deep-rooted facet of the Elders’ group. Karl Perrin has written “…..my faith, my long term spiritual discipline, is in seeking truth and offering service.” Don Marshall makes a case for spirituality as a part of building resilience to the psycho-social impacts of climate disruption. Guest contributors Sally Bingham and Anneliese Schultz  write eloquently of the strength of spiritual traditions and communities in supporting our ongoing efforts to care for Creation. Paul Strome writes of the importance of his spiritual connections to Inuit communities in the North. A review of Pope Francisencyclical Laudato Si published just 16 months ago on the website has to date attracted 2500 readers.

Apart from personal convictions, why should we be concerned at all over spirituality and its role in the activities and future of the Suzuki Elders? For one thing we need perhaps to draw on spiritual convictions to highlight the growing importance of connecting personal, social and political transformations in the public realm.

It is rapidly becoming evident that the world is changing very rapidly and not at all for the better. Global climate change has become the norm along with all its consequences – deterioration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine resources, widespread social unrest, political instability and economic imbalances. The world’s existing and emerging challenges seem to be so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be enough. They often seem to compound problems, not reduce them.

Canada, and especially British Columbia, have policies and procedures in place to try and manage and ameliorate the conflicts of exploitation and extraction. Planning and assessment guidelines, environmental and social assessment requirements, and mandatory consultation procedures have been in place for close to half a century. Most of them have been adapted and upgraded with experience over the years, yet major conflicts between proponents and opponents continue to be the norm. Oil and gas pipelines, marine transportation of fossil fuels, hard rock mining, hydroelectric dams and marine aquaculture, all commonly deemed indispensable to a modern economy, are prime conflict zones. Why?

One major issue continues to be the deep and sometimes widening divide between, on one hand, corporate interests and their political supporters who drive resource exploitation and economic enhancement and, on the other hand, communities and groups who stand to benefit economically from such activities but who also bear the burgeoning environmental and social costs and losses.

There is a growing sense that more importance be attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. A revised understanding of human nature and our relationship to the earth and its bounties would help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the U.K. speaks of the unfortunate fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. Some in the political sphere point out that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just the objects. Spiritual perspectives play a role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. They deepen the vision and lend structure and texture to human development and maturation. The overarching societal role of spirituality should be to serve as a counterweight to purely utilitarian thinking.

Many of the world’s environmental conflict zones already have ‘spiritual’ elements. They are a key pillar of First Nations’ defence of their territories and resources against the inroads of fossil fuel and other extractive exploitation from outsiders. Non-native society by comparison seems unprepared or unwilling to acknowledge a spiritual dimension, and is unwilling or not equipped to seek common ground at such a fundamental level.

Spirituality is ambiguously inclusive by its nature and cannot be easily defined, but at heart it is about the fact that it is we who are alive at all, rather than our personality or status. It’s about our “ground” rather than our “place” in the world. It is possible and valuable to give spirituality improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience. The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.

Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).


Table 1
Environmental:
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450


Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.


So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.

 

Toxic discourse in the public square – searching for common ground

by Stan Hirst

An overcast morning in August: the Suzuki Elders gathered at the Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, B.C. to debate the recent book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot – The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How To Clean It Up.

In the book author James Hoggan notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The Elder retreat set itself the task of thinking seriously about how to move towards understanding or agreement on thorny issues, finding a way to work together, or at least respectfully differ. Discussions were focused by considering real developments which currently create deep discord in B.C., including the Peace Site C hydroelectric project, salmon farming along the B.C. coast, and the use of nuclear energy.

As reported in post-retreat evaluations, the Elders never actually found anything resembling common ground within these examples. They did find that emotions clouded the issues and that facts were divisive! I personally came away from the retreat wondering if common ground could realistically even exist between proponents of large disruptive projects like estuarine salmon farms or hydroelectric dams and the eco-minded segments of our diverse population.

What actually is this common ground of which we speak so easily?

Historically, common ground was an actual place which was available to everyone, e.g. a village square or the verge of a local thoroughfare, a neutral zone where important issues were discussed or argued. Today it means simply a level of accord around a specific theme or themes between persons or groups otherwise in opposition to one another.

Common ground requires a minimum set of characteristics if it is to function effectively. These include things like respect, trust, acknowledgement and/or mutual interest. As the name suggests, there must be some form of commonality in views surrounding key issues. Features common in modern social interactions such as suspicion and polarization have to be set aside. Finding common ground with others does not necessarily mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is “shareable” ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with.

When large actions such as Site C or the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are pushed into the public arena, finding common ground typically takes a back seat behind much more prominent and aggressive actions. These include public testimony, bureaucratic manoeuvring, media initiatives, community forums, lobbying, electoral politics, litigation, boycotts and demonstrations.

The problem we face in finding common ground in such cases is basically that the factions opposing the proposed projects are actually created by the projects themselves. For example, the ranchers, homesteaders, hunters and anglers in the lower Peace River valley have been going about their business for more than a century. The First Nations bands using the area for hunting, trapping and exploitation of other natural resources have been doing so for centuries. Only when the threat of losses to the resources they rely upon looms as a reality do they form into groups to oppose the damming of the river by a power utility. The success of such environmental opposition groups is actually reliant on how well they can make their case against the project in the public arena (and often in the legal arena as well), and this means they accentuate the differences between the project goals and their own interests so as to make a stronger case. This is the exact antithesis of finding common ground!

Some might point out that agreements are often made between proponents and antagonists on specific issues, and that this necessarily means they have reached ‘common ground’, at least on that specific issue. For example, in the Peace Site C area some First Nations bands whose traditional trap lines would be impinged by the rising waters of the Site C reservoir have signed agreements with B.C. Hydro and have accepted cash payments as compensation for their losses. Is this a form of finding ‘common ground’? I suggest it is more a case of opponents making a rational decision between options and then joining the proponents!

It seems to me that at least part of the ‘common ground’ problem is that we seek it in the wrong place. Expecting to find common cause between a developer engaged in actually building and operating a project such as a hydroelectric dam or a fish-farm and the opponents of such projects is like expecting a wide receiver who has just caught the ball to stop and have a dialogue with the opposing linebacker. In truth, the faster and smoother the execution the better the outcome, no matter who wins the encounter!

Where we could and should seek out common ground between groups with differing objectives is where there are options available to reach mutually acceptable goals. Thus, moving a farmed salmon operation from ocean-based net-pens to a land-based system using tanks and recirculating flows might be a workable common goal for an aquaculture operation and for any opposing environmental groups. This would remove the threat of sea-lice and virus infections carried by farmed salmon being transferred to wild salmon migrating past the sites of the net pens, It could still be a viable and economic basis for aquaculture. The proponents might express a level of unhappiness at the added expense of having to build an on-land water purification system, but would find their commercial operation no longer in disfavour with local communities, commercial marine salmon fisheries and the concerned public.

The challenge facing humanity is to sustain the processes of economic development and poverty eradication while shifting gears to avoid greater damage to the environment from such economic activities. Developed countries must preserve their achievements while shifting the focus to more sustainable development and ever-diminishing environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. Now there is common ground worthy of the name!

Common-Ground-FG

 

The COP21 Climate Change Conference is over: now what?

by Stan Hirst

A spanking new year is upon us. Time to clean out all the junk from 2015. Christmas cards, old calendars, used gift wrappings stuffed under the sofa. Time to file away bills, notices, demands and platitudes dated 2015 or earlier.

We live in a technological age, so there are huge amounts of clutter on my PC in the form of e-mails hastily scanned and then forgotten. Also web pages saved in a dozen hastily labelled folders for perusal at some later time. Hardly ever happened, the study part I mean, but my good intentions leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. That could be the lingering effects of the new year’s celebratory wine.

I’m struck by the large amount of communications in 2015 which dealt with the U.N. Climate Change Conference (also known as COP21) held in Paris from 30 November to 12 December. As evidenced by the number of stored e-mails on the topic on my PC, we Suzuki Elders spent a lot of time discussing the underlying climate change issues. They were lurking in the background of much that we debated in 2015 – climate change, oil pipelines proposed to bisect British Columbia, the future of the Alberta tar sands. Thanks to the efforts of our energetic Council Chair we even managed an honourable mention within the huge mass of news and publicity swirling around the halls and desks of the non-governmental component of the Conference at Le Bourget.

The pre-conference attitude amongst most groups such as the Elders was generally one of hype, rah-rah-rah and speculation. Expressions such as ‘our generation’s last hope’ and ‘historic opportunity’ were dropped everywhere. The post-conference phase by comparison is a tad more reserved. Almost lacklustre in fact. My rough guess is that media pieces on the meeting have dropped twenty-fold at least.

One reason for this is that the conference itself was overshadowed by the events around Bataclan and in neighbouring Belgium in December 2015. Greenhouse gases belched out by Chinese coal-fired plants or Melanesian islands slowly disappearing under the waves are editorial small potatoes compared to people being mowed down by brain-washed maniacs.

One estimate puts the total costs of COP21 at $1.2 billion. What will we get for that monumental outlay? What difference will it make in the coming years? I’ve spent a fair chunk of the Christmas vacation period perusing the better quality journals on their take on COP21 while assiduously avoiding reports that feature photos of Ban Ki Moon and Christiana Figueres. Here is what seems to be the general consensus.

The sober thinkers amongst the journalistic fraternity think that the overall outcome in Paris was better than had been expected. That is really no surprise, since the previous big international climate gathering in Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009 was a disaster in terms of international cooperation on the global climate. Anything would have been an improvement.

The 195 countries meeting in Paris actually agreed on a goal of keeping the future increase in the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Canada’s new Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna, made lots of friends back home when she told a stunned crowd at Le Bourget that she wanted the Paris agreement to restrict planetary warming to just 1.50C and not the generally accepted figure of 2°C.

The fact that 195 countries were able to reach an accord on anything is remarkable, but the fact that they reached a consensus after all the years of arguing, conniving, back-biting and outright hostility following the initial attempt to forge an agreement at Kyoto in Japan back in 1997 highlights the shift in perceptions of climate change amongst the world’s nations, rich and poor, east and west, in the last 20 years.

But its not all blue skies and sunny ways from here on forward. For starters what are the “pre-industrial temperature levels” that we don’t want to exceed by more than 20C? Conference reports and news items keep it a secret (suggesting that they have no idea either). The definition doesn’t seem to appear in formal reports of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But if one stares at all the charts showing measured and assumed global mean temperatures published over the years, it is obvious the temperature curves all start no earlier than 1850. That is when the industrial revolution reached its climax in the western hemisphere.Global Surface Air Temperature Anomaly

If you stare at the charts a tad longer you’ll notice that the present mean global temperature already exceeds those pre-industrial levels by about 10C. That leaves us wiggle room of just one more 10C before we reach temperatures which climatologists fear will cause us serious grief. NASA estimates the current global warming trend to be 0.68°C per century. One can fiddle around with curves and projections until the cows come home, but its hard to avoid the conclusion that Minister McKenna is in for a huge disappointment 50 years from now. As will my grandchildren who will have to deal with the ecological and social consequences of the massively altered climate.

Most of the participating countries in COP 21 vowed to make ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs). These are publicly stated pledges as to how each country intends to take action in the post-2020 period to assist in reducing GHG emissions. Pledges will be lodged with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for all the world to see. The process will hopefully work by each country determining its respective contribution to emission reduction in the context of its own national priorities, circumstances and capabilities. There will be no legal framework for enforcing the pledges, it will simply be up to the participants to demonstrate their commitments to the common cause. The optimists and the pessimists amongst us will have a grand debating point on that for years to come.

The good news is that to date 158 of the COP21 participating countries have submitted their INDCs to the UNFCCC. These collectively cover around 94% of global emissions (as estimated in 2010) and the participating countries contain 97% of the global population.

The bad news is that most INDCs submitted to date don’t meet the targets debated and cheered at Le Bourget. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action, considers only five of 32 reviewed INDCs to be ‘sufficient’, i.e. stating clear goals and providing an acceptable rationale for reduction of GHG emissions. All five are developing countries with rural economies and generally low levels of industrialization. Eleven of the submitted INDCs, including that submitted by the U.S.A., are judged ‘medium’, i.e. room for improvement, while 14 are rated ‘inadequate’.

Canada’s INDC is rated ‘inadequate’ because our widely-publicized economy-wide target to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 equates to a reduction in the lowering of actual emissions of only 21%. To meet the stated target, removal of atmospheric carbon would have to be implemented through terrestrial sinks such as land use, land-use changes and enhanced forestry (LULUCF) activities which are not yet in place. Canada’s stated INDC at COP21 is in fact equivalent to a mere 2% below actual 1990 emission levels.

If all nations are sincere in their commitments to their pledged reductions in GHG emissions, will that get us to the track we need to be on? Based on past performances in all endeavours over the millennia, the chances of maximum commitment by nations are zero. Even if by some miracle this were to come to pass, Climate Action Tracker‘s analysis suggests this would hold us down to a global increase of between 2.4 and 2.70C by the end of the century. Restricting global temperature rise to anywhere near 1.50C by century’s end would mean not only reducing total emissions to near zero but would necessitate actual removal of global CO2 from the atmosphere. Effects of pledges and policies on global temperature edit

The countries participating in COP21 did commit to pursuing a goal of zero net emissions, but were sketchy on the ways and means. Reforestation is one option which has not been hugely successful at the global level over the past decades. Deep underground storage of carbon will require technologies capable of storing carbon dioxide underground, but there is no proven technology of carbon removal capable of working on anything like the scale required, let alone at a reasonable price.

Like so many other policies, plans and agreements of our modern world, the COP21 Climate Change Conference guarantees us nothing. It does provide a roadmap of sorts to the future, and there is no doubt that our world will continue to change in ways and at scales the likes of which we modern humans have never seen before.

Musings on change

by Aryne Sheppard

Our world is facing some big problems: growing economic insecurity and political polarization, social unrest and the rapid increase in mental health issues, paralyzing bureaucracy and corporate corruption, the looming threats of climate change and environmental degradation. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all experience the impacts of these problems by virtue of being part of a shared social and planetary system.

We want to do the right thing. We want to be ‘good’ human beings. And yet, our response is often inaction. Despite the urgency of the issues we face, our denial has continued to grow along with our consumerism.

Like anyone grappling with issues of social change, I have struggled with this paradox for many years. Why don’t humans change? What information or insight are we missing? Many parallels can be drawn between our approach to self-change and our approach to social change. These similarities provide a critical perspective that has been missing.

So often in our lives, we set out to change something about our selves or our lives that we don’t like, only to fail…often repeatedly. We want to lead healthier lifestyles, create more fulfilling relationships, engage in more meaningful work. We want to be less stressed and feel more at peace.

But despite starting out on the road to change with energy and optimism, we watch our commitment and willpower wane over time, and find our selves back where we began. In my experience, this cycle easily leads to feelings of resignation, helplessness and a loss of faith in our abilities. So the question is, why don’t we follow through on our best intentions? Why can’t we be good?

I have an inkling that Jung was right when he said, “the salvation of the world consists in the salvation of the individual”. Deeper dynamics are at play and we are called to do more than tinker with the external circumstances of our lives and world. If we are brave enough to look inward – a uniquely human ability – the insights we can gain from our inability to change our selves will shed light on our failures to shift the big problems we face collectively.

Without realizing it, my teacher Viola Fodor helped me write this blog – her wisdom and guidance over the years have been invaluable and always infuse my work. However, as Thoreau reminds us, it is always the first person that is speaking, so any fumblings are my own.

 

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