Tag Archives: climate change

A green perspective

by Stan Hirst

Introduction

In a blog posted on this site earlier in the month, Elder Bob Worcester proposed a new view of the world, termed the ‘green perspective’. The prime purpose of this view is to provide a framework for mitigating the present worldwide vitriolic conflicts between the world’s “globalists” and “localists”.

“Globalists” are broadly considered to include the urban elites who support world-wide integration of communications, commerce and transportation, while “localists” are groups who are sceptical about moves from traditions, homes and families to so-called “new world orders” and their associated clash of cultures.

Between global and local perspectives are ‘ecological’ views which imply that everything has its role and place. While globalists see local perspectives as limited and narrow, they forget that the global is made up of a mosaic of local conditions, each of which emerged from the particular circumstances of that region. Locals, on the other hand, discount cosmopolitans as being out of touch with the day-to-day realities of lived experience.

The green perspective is not just the middle ground between two extremes, it can be a radical position beyond either extreme; something outside the lines of the conventional. The green perspective should dive deeper into the imagination to find things unseen. It can derive much from nature which provides a deep, rich model of how the world works, and from spiritual traditions which claim that by “seeing through the glass darkly” more depth may be revealed.

The conflict between the two viewpoints is exemplified by carbon extraction (in the form of oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) and its combustion, creating the very real possibility of local impacts from spills and contamination, and global threats to climate and planetary ecosystems from carbon dioxide and methane emissions. These impacts will affect virtually every person on the planet in some way, and the negative effects will be handed on to succeeding generations.

Locals are mollified by global capitalists who appear to value environmental quality (at least in their own backyards), who also have children and grandchildren who they want to see live happy and productive lives but who also seem quite ready to sidestep the obvious implications of negative global impacts and focus instead on the materialistic benefits – jobs and money.

Thus far the conceptualization of a ‘green perspective’ has been based only on consideration of the prevailing toxic dialogue around the environment and the extent of human exploitation of global resources and ecosystems. Missing from the discussion so far are ethics and spirituality, a deeper appreciation of global ecosystems, and concern for environmental rights and freedoms.

This post attempts to provide these additional perspectives.

Incorporation of ecological intelligence

Differences and/or shortcomings in perception have huge consequences for the way in which we manage the planet. It is suggested that the green perspective would be amplified by inclusion of liberal doses of ecological intelligence, described by its inventor Daniel Goleman as an understanding of ecosystems lending the capacity to learn from experience and to deal effectively with the environment.

Current human use and consumption of natural resources far exceeds Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. At the same time, modern society has lost touch with the sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. As Goleman expresses it – our collective mind harbours blind spots that disconnect our everyday activities from the crises those activities cause in natural systems.

Ecological intelligence supports the ability to categorize and recognize patterns in the natural world – ecological, geological and climatic. Humans have been doing this for centuries, but the global extent of human-induced change now requires that ecological intelligence be extended to the planetary level. Moreover, our other levels of intelligence – social and emotional – enable us to take other people’s perspectives, assimilate these and feel genuine empathy.

The sheer efficiency and widespread prevalence of modern technologies have severely blunted the survival skills of billions of individuals on the planet. Modern economies require and encourage specialized expertise, which in turn depends on other specialists for tasks in another field. However, while many excel in narrow specialized fields, we all depend on the skills of others – farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics – to make life work for us. Modern society now falls short in having the abilities, the attunement to the natural world, and the custom of passing on of local wisdom to new generations to find ways of living in harmony with our patch of the planet.

Our collective ability to perceive significant global issues has been rendered ineffective. Our attention has been drawn, slowly and reluctantly, to symptoms like the slow rising of global sea levels or the pesticide-induced demise of our bee populations. We have no sensors for other indicators and little insight into natural disruptions. Our otherwise impressive neural systems are ill-designed to warn us of the ways that our activities are impacting our own planetary niche. We have to acquire new sensitivities to a growing range of threats and learn what to do about them. In other words, we need to sharpen our ecological intelligence.

Adequate development of ecological intelligence requires a vast store of knowledge, too much for any one individual. While intelligence has traditionally been a characteristic of individuals, the environmental abilities we now need in order to survive must necessarily be collective.

Large organizations already make good use of distributed intelligence. Goleman cites the examples of hospitals where technicians, nurses, administrators and specialist physicians coordinate their skills to provide appropriate care to patients. Another example is that of modern commercial enterprises in which sales, marketing, finance, and strategic planning each represent unique expertise yet operate together to provide coordinated, shared understanding and implementation.

Incorporation of ethics

Nearly 70 years ago the conservationist Aldo Leopold published a series of essays under the title of A Sand County Almanac in which he proposed adoption of a land ethic. Leopold, a naturalist by choice and a forester by training, considered that Old Testament religion had played a major role in environmental deterioration in twentieth century America through its Abrahamic concept of land as a commodity. That meant that the non-aboriginal relationship to land was basically economic, entailing privileges but no obligations.

Leopold proposed a “Land Ethic” which expanded the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well – soils, water, plants, and animals. In the lexicon of the late 19th century all these ecosystem components were conventionally lumped under the term “land”. Leopold’s revolutionary concept of land was in fact “a community to which people belonged”, thus entailing use with love and respect.

The land ethic has been a significant contribution to conservation in North America, and the concepts are embedded in many state and federal resource management policies. One reason it is popular with mainstream environmentalism is that it does not require huge sacrifices of human interests, but instead seeks to strike a balance between human needs and interests and a healthy and biotically diverse natural environment. It also permits framing of global land as a commons, to be governed on a global scale based on international cooperation and conservation.

Incorporation of environmental rights

As fundamental as the right to food, shelter or freedom from discrimination is the right of all members of society to live in a safe physical environment in which the continued diversity of non-human life is also ensured. This can be promoted by promoting stronger environmental laws and better enforcement of existing laws through the framework of the green perspective.

The right to a healthy environment is widely recognized in international law and enjoyed as a constitutional protection in over 100 countries, but not in Canada (the Canadian Constitution makes no mention of the environment). Ironically, environmental rights and responsibilities have been a cornerstone of indigenous legal systems in Canada for millennia. The right is currently recognized in five provinces and territories (Quebec, Ontario, Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut), and has been tabled in draft legislative form in B.C.

The formulation of rights is a legal mechanism for creating or shifting the balance between competing interests. Such a right residing in each Canadian would provide the courts with direction in, for example, determining the strength of the individual Canadian’s claim for environmental health in cases where it competed with the right of another individual or corporation to develop property. An environmental bill of rights is also seen as a mechanism for removing obstacles which currently prevent individuals and public interest groups from participating in the environmental decision-making process and litigating issues of environmental degradation.

The David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot movement is a national grassroots campaign seeking country-wide implementation of environmental rights. To date more than 110,000 people across Canada have participated at various levels, and 160 municipalities have passed resolutions in support of legislation. The end goal is the amendment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include the right to a healthy environment.

Characteristics of a green perspective

The characteristics of a green perspective can now be summarised as follows.

  • Seeking a broad picture that encompasses all viewpoints.
  • Open-ended.
  • Recognizing that positions affect people and there may be multiple sides to an issue.
  • Recognizing that being in the majority on an issue is not a reassurance that it is wise.
  • Knowing when an acceptable course of action can be a middle ground between two extremes, or possibly even a position outside the lines of the conventional.
  • Welcoming spiritual traditions being brought in to reveal depth to the perspective.
  • Defining a strong ethical framework for planning, approving and implementing.
  • Recognizing the right to a healthy environment as a cornerstone of any plans and actions involving individuals, communities and ecosystems.
  • Responsible understanding of ecosystems and their functioning lending the capacity to learn from experience and to be proactive in environmental management.

 

February Gloom

by Stan Hirst

Even though February was the shortest month of the year, sometimes it seemed like the longest -J.D. Robb

From my perspective on a dark and gloomy Vancouver North Shore being assailed by interminable chilly rain February absolutely seems like the longest month. And the whole world seems dark and gloomy. Environment Canada says we have just had the fifth wettest January on record. The trend is set.

Its actually a most appropriate backdrop from which to consider the world situation right now.  Its depressing and made more so by the unfettered barrage of negative news delivered non-stop from a multitude of TV talking heads and contained within rain-sodden pages of the daily papers.

News commentators view the US presidential decision to transfer the American embassy to Jerusalem as a strategic and political move. However, to many Christian evangelicals (who make up 26% of the U.S population) Jerusalem is of special significance. It is tied into the concept of the rapture — a time when, according to evangelical tradition, believing Christians will be suddenly and unexpectedly “raptured” up to heaven before the events that presage the end of the world. In most accounts of the rapture, believers go straight to heaven while nonbelievers are left behind to undergo a period of political chaos and personal torment.

Are we living in some kind of “end time” now?  Theatrics aside, we are definitely living in a highly altered world of rapidly and visibly changing climate, massive disruption of terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, and burgeoning  and shifting human populations. Its not just that so many of the basic physical, ecological, social and political parameters have changed and now approach breaking points.  The thought that we are at some kind of breaking point has now become a point of focus.

Its hugely ironic that we now sit in this situation while at the same time being in possession of more scientific knowledge and technology than at any point in the whole history of our Earth.  There is more computing power in the laptop in front of me than there was in the whole IBM mainframe computer I timidly used just a half-century ago.  We know what is on the other side of the moon, we have closeup imagery of the surface of Mars, we can dissect and manipulate strands of DNA to produce new forms of life.  But we can’t stop ourselves from destroying the very foundations of the global ecological system that gave us life in the first place.  The ridiculousness is all too much for an eldering brain to embrace.

In his book Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas addresses this very question.  He believes that we are fundamentally unable to comprehend the greater perspective.  As a global society we suffer from a profound metaphysical disorientation and groundlessness.  Something essential is  missing, and it is tempting for many to think it might be on the spiritual level.

Pope Francis, 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, took a brave chance at responding to this type of global challenge back in 2015 and produced his 2nd encyclical Laudato Si. This emphasized connectedness and the need for global action, both socially and politically. The document has been read by millions worldwide but seems to have become more of a polemic than a mode of genuine transition to something better.

Ken Wilber, the creator of Integral Theory (or The Theory of Everything), provides another type of framework for (the attempt at) the understanding of what is going on with our planet and ourselves.  Often difficult to understand, at least to this Elder brain, the theory postulates four levels of universal consciousness, coded ‘red’, ‘amber’, ‘orange’ and ‘green’.

The world was once at the red level (egocentric, self-referential, instinctual), followed by amber (ethnocentric, authoritarian, pre-modern) and lately at the orange level (world-centric, rational, individualistic, modern). Apparently back in the sixties we started to move onto the green level (world centered, pluralistic, post-modern)

Wilber postulates that, somewhere along the way, Green  began to wander off course, increasingly caught in some internal contradictions that were inherent in its worldview from the start (e.g. maybe there are no such things as the widely supposed universal truth and universal values in the first place).

This brings me to the point I feared when I started penning this piece in the first place. I really don’t know how to end on a positive note.

Certainly, the world will continue to unravel the complexities of our existence, from the very, very large (think deep space and black holes) to the very small (snippets of DNA being coerced to do magical things). New ideas will come and go, hopefully some will leave a residue behind. The kids will grow up and hopefully be much better at this existence business than we Elders.

But I fear the wars, greed, interminable bickering, and upsurges of horrible diseases and ecological afflictions will also go on.  Why will the search for the magic bullet not continue to be an utterly futile quest?

It has stopped raining. I’m going out to clean the gutters.

 

Dear Premier Notley

It is our pleasure as British Columbians to welcome you to Vancouver this coming week. We understand you have come to our fair city to address the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on the merits of the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline project.

We must apologize for our weather; it is a bit dark and damp at the moment. That’s Vancouver in November for you. Mind you, better to visit now than too far into the future when it is likely to be positively stormy from the effects of this annoying climate change that is going around. It would have been warmer and drier had you popped over during the summer, but then again that was a tad too hot and dry. From all the smoke that drifted over your way from B.C. this past July and August you wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that 2017 brought us the largest total area burnt in a fire season in recorded history, the largest number of total evacuees in a fire season, and the largest single fire ever recorded in British Columbia. To say nothing of the costs incurred, which will be borne by the B.C. taxpayer. That’s jolly old climate change for you.

Now we are certain that the fine people down at Canada Place will give you a rousingly warm welcome and an enthusiastic response when you tout the many economic advantages of shoving yet more Alberta crude down the KM pipeline. After all, that’s what they know best – trade, jobs and profits.

But we really feel that you could be doing so much more with your valuable time here in southern B.C. You could be talking about the issues surrounding your pipeline that really matter with the local folks. Those would be the people most responsible for the current less-than-enthusiastic attitude towards Kinder Morgan in our fair city.

  • Like the Tseil-Waututh Nation who have lived directly across the Inlet from the Westridge Terminal for at least three millennia. The first things they now see in the morning and the last things at night are the loading platforms, the massive oil storage tanks and the endless stream of oil tankers coming in and going out.
  • Like the people who live in Westridge and on the slope of Burnaby Mountain who any day now could face fire and holocaust when the inevitable happens.
  • Like the hundreds of thousands of people who live in Vancouver (the 3rd most liveable city in the world according to The Economist) and who would have to contend with Aframax tankers crossing Burrard Inlet and English Bay as part of the daily scene, knowing that when the inevitable dilbit spills occur, not more than half can ever be recovered using the best available technologies.

However, we do realize that you are very busy these days and do not really have the time to dally in our fair city to have all the above conversations. So we would like to pose just one question to you as you dash by on your way to Canada Place. Our question is this:

You have proudly stated that Alberta’s plan on climate change is the cornerstone of Canada’s own climate initiative under the 2015 COP21 UN Climate Change agreement. You state further that Alberta’s contribution is to be based on a carbon tax, a cap on oil sands emissions, and a phase-out of coal-fired electricity in the province. We are with you one hundred percent on this. But how on earth does this square with the Kinder Morgan expansion, which will lead to the combustion of an additional 590,000 barrels of bitumen per day somewhere in Asia and the rest of world?

Yours truly,

Suzuki Elders

 

 

Back to the future, kids

by Stan Hirst

Permit me to introduce the apples of my eye – my grandkids.

They’re Canadians, so naturally there is one boy and one girl. I use the term ‘Canadians’ somewhat collectively, since a quick review of their family trees shows ancestors from 10 known genetic ancestries. Plus, there is a bit of Neanderthal in there as well, according to DNA analysis.

They do well at school. They can play the piano, ride bicycles, swim, cross-country ski, play soccer, fiddle with anything that has dials, knobs and switches or goes beep, and they frequently aggravate their parents. Totally normal, well-balanced kids. Take after their grandfather in every respect, except for the piano bit. I’m proud of them.

But I am deeply concerned for them. Not as kids, mind you. They’re well supervised, guided and taught. No, my concerns are for them as the grown-ups which they one day will be, and for the situation in which they will find themselves in as they enter maturity and have to fend for their own children in this rapidly changing world of ours.

What will their world look like? I don’t own a crystal ball, but Big Think, an internet portal set up in 2007 to cogitate and debate on such things, has ventured a variety of prognostications which at least give me a good impression of whither goest my kith and kin.

By mid-century there will likely be 9 billion people on our planet, consuming ever more resources and leading ever more technologically complex lives. According to the futurists the majority of these people will live in urban areas and will have a significantly higher average age than people of today. My unfortunate middle-aged grand-kids and their offspring will, figuratively speaking, be immersed in a great sea of cranky old elders like me. Nothing new for them then, just more of the same. I’m betting that medical science, despite its ever-accelerating rate of discovery and innovation, will not have eliminated ageing and its unwanted attendant afflictions such as mental illness.

The kids are tech savvy now (8-year-olds with their own e-mail addresses!?), so as adults they will merge seamlessly with the pervasive and highly interconnected networks of the future. They and their children will spend their whole existence immersed in overlain and interacting smart grids running every detail of their lives. Their homes and they themselves, via their Apple 1105’s, will be multi-linked to energy, information and resource distribution systems which will provide their every need and requirement. Well, almost every need – they’ll still have to open their own boxes of Choco Pops.

Their work environments will be similarly completely multi-linked. There are drones zooming around the countryside now delivering parcels, so a few decades hence will almost certainly see offices and industrial plants linked worldwide on a real-time basis. Grandson engineer in Calgary, he of Lego renown, will design a supermod skyscraper, transmit a few million specs to a company in Guangzhou who will set up the production contract and eventually build the modular monstrosity in Kyrgyzstan.

Granddaughter neurosurgeon, who as a 6-year old once expressed the concern that “people don’t have very good brains” will sit in her plush (pink?) workspace in Vancouver, surrounded by consoles and sensors which watch her hands and eyes. On the monitor she will see, in crystal-clear resolution, the shaved head of her tranquilized patient in Mombasa, Kenya, 15,000km away. She will also see the many electronic instruments and strobes positioned around her patient, all of which are controlled by the switches, buttons and mice on the console in Vancouver. In 6 minutes she will scan the patient’s brain, detect the lesion, analyze it, transmit the diagnosis to the resident surgeon in the Mombasa hospital, bombard it remotely with iomega waves, check the patient’s responses, transmit a report to the printer in the hospital admin office in Mombasa, wave goodbye to the theatre staff, and sign off. All in a day’s work.

My grandkids might be well equipped for the future, but I can’t say the same for the country I’m leaving behind for them. The Canada we know now is already a land of extremes, from freezing cold to searing heat, from drenching rain to parched drought. We all know what climate variation is like now, but the change forecasts from climate scientists suggest that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It will certainly be warmer by mid-century – a country summer average of about 20C higher. Wetter too, by an average about 5%. However, averages are statistical devices to summarize large amounts of data and can be misleading. Climate change will feed into Canada’s already considerable natural variability and won’t do anything to smooth the fluctuations out. In effect, the likelihood of droughts or more wet periods in whatever region my kids choose to live will certainly be quite different to what they now know.

The additional rain is unlikely to fall as gentle spring showers, much more likely as great flooding downpours or winter rains that drain away before they can nourish crops. In Saskatchewan where the other grandparents in the family tree once resided and farmed, the amount of water that falls as snow has already declined by 50 per cent. The number of multi-day rains has increased by the same amount. These trends will very likely continue, but ironically prairie crops will not benefit from the longer growing seasons because the precipitation gains will be offset by higher temperatures and higher evaporation.

The mild winters will allow mountain pine beetles to survive and infest forests in western Canada, killing trees and turning parched and overheated trees into tinder boxes. Wildfire seasons already begin weeks before they used to. In the Northwest Territories, where temperatures are climbing at a rate faster than almost anywhere on earth, the 2014 fire season set a record of 3.4 million hectares of scorched forest. In the earlier part of 2017, B.C. experienced its worst-ever wildfire season, with 894,491 hectares burned by 1029 recorded fires at a cost of $316 million. It’s a tad mind-numbing to project such figures to the time when the next generations have to deal with, and pay for, the ongoing consequences of climate change caused by their grandparents.

This is a dynamic that will be seen more frequently across the country in coming decades – financial benefits for some and devastating losses for others. A warmer climate and longer growing season may benefit crops such as corn, soybeans, forage and horticultural crops in eastern Canada, but the same climatic pattern could be calamitous for southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where food production already takes place in a semi-arid climate.

Western Canada may still look a lot like the country that the kids’ pioneering forefathers called home, but the ecological boundaries will shift. By 2050 extensive areas of the boreal forest’s southern fringe will have converted to prairie. Drought-prone spruce will be lost first, followed by pines and then aspen, to be replaced by prairie grassland. There will no more glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and in the coastal ranges.

Along the Pacific coast fishery catches will decline by an estimated 4 – 10% by 2050. Wild Pacific salmon hauls are calculated to drop by an estimated 20-30%. Not all the prognostications are negative – west coast fishermen can expect more pacific sardines and clams. Over on the Atlantic side catches are expected to increase, but fishermen will have to sail further north to find them. Commercial fisheries could also open in an ice-free Arctic Ocean with catches of turbot, Arctic cod and Arctic char. It has yet to be estimated if these fisheries will be sustainable in the long-term.

Some climate change forecasters see many positives in Canada’s future. Melting ice in the Arctic will open up shipping routes in the Arctic Ocean, significantly reducing the time and cost of international trade. Changing ecological conditions could bring more fish into the Arctic Ocean and into the northern reaches of the Pacific and Atlantic. The implications are that global trade in and out of Canada could triple, while the economic value of the planet’s oceans could to trillions of dollars.

Canada currently has access to more than 20 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves – a resource that will be more valuable than gold over coming decades. Climate change will impact those reserves by eliminating glaciers and altering precipitation but, compared to the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and the southwestern USA, we’ll still have an advantage. The challenge will be defending our fresh water from others, especially the Americans.

Countries that are already struggling economically are going to be severely pummeled in the next decades. Drought may set off more civil wars in Africa. Entire cities and regions of the Middle East might become too physically hot to survive in. National income declines of 80 to 90% compared to growth scenarios without climate change could become common across the developing world.

Canada – the true North strong and free – has always been an open country in all senses of the word. It has been especially welcoming to immigrants, as the kids’ own family trees attest. It will become even more attractive to outsiders a few decades from now. A lot of these immigrants will come from south of the border as Americans are driven from their homes by flooded coasts, storm-ravaged cities and deluged or drought-stricken prairies. Some U.S. immigrants may seek alternatives to an increasingly violent and erratic governmental system in their own country.

Other waves of immigrants will show up in Canadian cities from Asia, Africa and the middle East as the internecine strife and wars so prevalent now in those areas becomes worse with burgeoning populations and diminishing water and agricultural land resources. Huge waves of future immigrants and refugees will certainly strain the tolerance for which Canada is so famous. As regions and countries across the planet collapse, millions of refugees and other migrants will head north. Future governments will inevitably attempt to admit only the most skilled or in-need migrants; the country’s population could swell to 100 million people as a result. The most likely situation is that many migrants will be turned away, and Canada’s land borders could become militarized with drones and gunboats patrolling our shores.

I frankly doubt my grandkids will wind up as fishermen, foresters or firefighters, so will heavy rains, severe droughts, burgeoning bark beetles and burning forests make any difference to them? Without any doubt – a resounding yes. Everything is connected, especially when the ecosystem components and resources undergoing the changes are the lifeblood and economic underpinnings of their society. There are very few items in the list of resources they will need or seek out in their future that will not, in some way, be impacted by climate and population changes. Just as now, and even if they’re living in some super condo in some or other supercity, their essential food supplies derived from land-based agricultural crops and farmed livestock, or from marine-based fisheries and seafood sources, or from freshwater-sourced crops and fisheries, will always be totally dependent on favourable climates and on adequate supplies of fresh water.

Am I justified in being concerned for my grandkids as they go into the future? Its hard not to be concerned, that’s what you sign up for when you become a grandfather. Need I be concerned? Surprisingly, I don’t really think so. They are being given love, support, encouragement, education and motivation in spades now. I think they will be as prepared as any for the changed world they will inherit.

There is one more factor in their favour – those 10 ancestries buried in their DNA. In the murky entwining of their genetic heritage are Dutch, English and Asian ancestors who journeyed centuries ago in rickety sailboats from the far reaches of the world to Africa to establish homes, farm the land, and dig for diamonds. Their ancestry includes grannies and granddads from central Europe and Scandinavia who hauled themselves halfway around the world to establish farms and entrench their families on pristine Canadian prairies.

So will the kids make it in the new world coming?

Hell, yes.

Wildfires and climate change: seeking the facts through the haze

by Stan Hirst

Living under smoky skies every day is an uncommon experience for Vancouverites. The TV spectacle of thousands of people having to evacuate their homes and ranches in the interior of British Columbia as threatening forest fires advance is not so unfamiliar. Just one year ago we watched over 88,000 people leaving their homes in Fort McMurray as wildfires swept through nearly 600,000 hectares in northern Alberta. This year nearly 500,000 hectares have burned within B.C., 75% of those in the Cariboo region and another 25% around Kamloops.

It was probably inevitable that the conversation would switch easily to global climate change and its connection to the wildfire blight. For many people and most Suzuki Elders the link between wildfires and climate change is taken as a given. The linkage is now commonly quoted in the press, in current literature and in conversations. The same theme of wildfires becoming ever more frequent as the world warms appears often in the media for western Canada, the western U.S.A., Australia, Portugal and parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Yet the sceptics remain unmoved and say so through social media. “Fires have always been a feature of forests and rangelands in North America” they say. They point to history books abounding with descriptions of massive fires, some deliberately set, but many linked to natural causes, especially lightning.

It’s not uncommon to find fire scars in centuries-old trees such as sequoias and western junipers across western North America. Studies of lake sediments have found wood charcoal layers which can be dated back for thousands of years. Early researchers attributed these historic fires to lightning strikes, but studies in the past few decades indicate that they may also have resulted from deliberate burning by aboriginals to keep forests free of undergrowth and small trees.

The specific question is not whether wildfires are a natural feature of North American forests or not, but whether global climate change is prompting an increase in wildfires. By being overly simplistic about the two parts of the equation (climate change and fire) we could obscure the underlying linkages between the two and possibly mistake the causalities.

I find it helpful to break the subject matter into simpler relationships (dissecting the argument always helps in winning arguments anyway).

First, the question of a changing climate. This is the easy part; the answers are unequivocally yes. Temperature trends summarized by Environment Canada for the period 1948 through 2012 show statistically highly significant rises across most of Canada. Mean increases range from 0.5 to 3oC, with the highest numbers occurring in the arctic and subarctic regions. Mean ambient temperatures in the Pacific region of B.C. rose 0.7 oC over the same period and 1.2oC in the mountainous areas of southern B.C.

There are also statistically significant changes in geophysical and ecological parameters which are driven by ambient temperatures:

  • longer growing seasons, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost;
  • earlier river ice break-up;
  • increase in precipitation over large parts of Canada;
  • more snowfall in the northwest Arctic;
  • earlier spring runoff and the earlier budding of trees.

Indigenous people of the Arctic are no longer able to predict the weather as accurately as their forefathers did (cited by the Society for Ecological Restoration).

Have wildfires increased significantly in B.C. over the same period? This brings us to the realization that fires can be measured by more than one parameter, i.e. the frequency with which they occur, the area which is burned over, the costs of fire damage, suppression and management, etc. Any, all or none could be linked to climate change.

Three measures of wildfire activity in B.C. are available from the B.C. government website. These are all shown below for the twelve most recent years.

 

The broad conclusions from these data are that while the annual frequency of wildfires across B.C. has dropped by roughly one-half over little more than a decade, the areal extent of wildfires for the same period has increased six-fold and the associated costs of dealing with the fires has increased twelve-fold.

These results are very similar to those reported in the western U.S. for recent years. University researchers and federal and state forest agencies in California have linked the occurrence of more widespread, bigger, longer-lasting wildfires to higher ambient temperatures and less or later snowfall. They have also indicted past practices of aggressively preventing fires as having had the perverse effect of creating much more fuel within forests themselves to feed future wildfires. The average California wildfire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as the average fire in the 1990s. Escalating fire-associated costs have also been linked to higher levels of damage as more homes are built on picturesque hillsides and mountains and other areas prone to wildfire.

A recently published study from the University of Idaho has neatly linked wildfires in western forests to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. The research group has quantitatively examined the statistical relationship between the essential requirements for wildfires (fuel availability, fuel aridity, etc.) to climate variables such as ambient temperature and vapour pressure which are changed by human activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The university research group concluded that for the period 2000–2015 climate change contributed to 75% more forested area across the western U.S. experiencing high fire-season fuel aridity. It also added an average of nine additional days per year of very high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate changes were calculated to have accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in forest fire fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests.

Hopefully this all adds a little more fuel to the fire in a quest to hasten meaningful climate action in B.C. and the rest of the reasonable world.

 

 

 

First Nations and pipelines

by Karl Perrin

Abridged from a sermon delivered May 21, 2017, to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Chief Seattle once said: “This we know. The earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

We are meeting today on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation.  Unceded: what does that mean? Never conquered? Never sold? Never given away? So are we guests? Perhaps we are guests of guests, of our 2- and 4-legged relations, our finned and winged cousins, the lords and ladies of the deep, the whales who inhabit this home. We owe a debt of gratitude to all our relations. Thank you.

In “A Native Hill” farmer and poet Wendell Berry wrote:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world. . . .

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. . . .  

For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.

On that very theme I take you back to 2004 when I had an insight into the spiritual rebirth of Coastal First Nations. I recall an exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology entitled The Abstract Edge featuring Haida artist Robert Davidson. He had a new collection which used the Haida alphabet of shapes, myths and heraldry but which he had deconstructed and reimagined with a 21st century global sensibility.

Some pieces of his new collection featured an old shape with a new meaning. The tri-negative or tri-neg was traditionally used as a three pointed filler in negative space, i.e. the background, to add fluidity to the form lines and to simply frame the foreground. Robert Davidson’s innovation was to take the tri-neg shape and, through colour and position, turn it into foreground, i.e. into positive space instead of negative space.

At that point I had a revelation. I realized that just as Robert Davidson had demonstrated with his tri-neg space filler that foreground and background were interchangeable, so too were our cultural perceptions of the First Nations. Based on our cultural history we colonizers had seen the so-called wilderness – the heathen, dark pagan forest – as negative space. We thought it empty, devoid of Christian civilization, devoid of Europe, which was the only reality which made any sense to our collective wisdom. And the denizens of this emptiness were to us simply negative people lacking our blessings and the salvation of our Bible. We settlers saw them as un-settled.

But as First Nations broadcaster Candy Palmater has taught me: “We were not “settlers”; when we arrived this place was already settled. We didn’t settle anything!” Likewise, whenever I see old Haida representations of white men they look ridiculous. Not intentionally ridiculous, but the hats and beards seem odd as if they were copied but not understood. We were in fact lacking Haida culture. We were the negative space; we were the devoid and lacking savages.

Everyone had the same view of Captain George Vancouver on the deck of the HMS Discovery, whether it was the First Mate, a Musqueam warrior looking up to the ship’s deck, or a random eagle circling overhead. But what did the view mean to each? Captain? Devil? Friend? Foe? Disgusting? Maybe delicious? The visual information was the same, but the meaning was completely different.

As we know today only 40% of our vision is what is actually out there, the remaining 60% is what we expect to see. That’s why we have optical illusions – our biased brains just insist that our eyes must be wrong until proven otherwise. Usually we just categorize what doesn’t make sense as simply “wrong” and what does make sense as obviously “right”. Whether something is wrong or right is determined by our culture, our language, our fashion, popular history and mythology, our religion, and sometimes by what is called our “slow thinking”. Evidence and logic together make up our weltanschauung or worldview. And worldviews don’t appreciate tinkering or correction, e.g. creationist vs. evolutionary worldviews.

What does any of this have to do with the Kinder Morgan pipeline? It all depends on how you look at it. Does another oil pipeline mean development and jobs, or does it primarily mean tar sands exploitation, more corporate colonization, plundering our common ground, killing our Mother Earth bit by bit by bit? It all depends on how you look at it, your weltanschauung.

I won’t review here the litany of smallpox, addiction, residential school cultural genocide, and social fragmentation which has maimed First Nations since George Vancouver first appeared on the horizon. I do want to point out the prevailing, cumulative, corporate colonialism represented by the industrialization of Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River and the Salish Sea. Where was the “free, prior, and informed consent” to pollute this unceded native land? Where was the respect for the Tsleil Waututh clam beds and the Musqueam fisheries? Where is the invitation from First Nations to dredge Burrard Inlet for huge dilbit tankers?

As we approach the 150th Anniversary of Confederation we can remember what Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George said 50 years ago at the 1967 Canadian Centenary: “When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority”

What did John A. MacDonald, our first prime minister, say about Indians in 1879?  “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

My goal in terms of stopping the Kinder Morgan (Trans-Mountain) pipeline expansion project is to speak truth to power. The Unitarian fourth principle encourages free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the seventh principle is to respect the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. My goal is to fulfill my vow to my son and to his generation that I will do EVERYTHING in my power to prevent his premature death due to global warming.

So, take courage my friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage, for deep down there is another truth: You are not alone.

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