What You Don’t Know

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It is a commonplace expression that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. This is patently false and a little bit foolish. If you don’t know that Lyme disease is spread by the bite of ticks, you can easily turn a walk in the woods into a very long and painful illness. If you don’t know that malaria and dengue fever are spread by mosquitoes, you risk death when all you wanted to do is photograph lions.

Ignorance is often fatal yet many embrace it like their long-lost brother. People take comfort in not knowing things. There are those who publicly take pride in being ignorant of the facts, in not being experts in anything, in not being scientifically literate. Sadly many of these people are political candidates.

Things get worse. There are those who are happy to tell big lies in service of what they see as a bigger truth. Someone might think that a certain behavior is evil and offensive or just too damn titillating (so many of the liars get caught on film in tawdry bathrooms), so they make up things to make it look even worse. They make up lies to make innocent people look like villains and evil people look like heroes.

No one can stop people from lying. As soon as we learn language we learn how to use it to get what we want. Everybody does it a little. Makes things up to make themselves look better. Sometimes the only way they have to make themselves look better is to make others look worse. So maybe it is in our natures to lie.

But why are so many people willing to believe those lies? Usually it is because it is too hard not to believe them. If we don’t believe that climate change is a conspiracy of scientists to pry money out of the taxpayer, then we have to believe that maybe it is a real thing. A real thing we are contributing to.

And that, one presumes, would mean that we would have to change. And most people are averse to change. The joke on them is that by refusing to change a little today, they will have massive change forced on them later on. Ha, ha, very funny.

When that happens – and you can pick your own set of lies to believe or truths to be ignorant, about race, or economic inequality, or women or refugees or vaccines – they will be angry. And they will do everything they can to cling to the lies that political or religious or corporate leaders blithely tell for their own self-interested purposes. Like shoot people at women’s health clinics. Or beat up protesters at political rallies. Or set off bombs at mosques. Or any number of evil acts.

Of course they didn’t do it because of the lies they were told or because they were ignorant. They will have done it because they were deluded. But who fed their delusions?

Don’t ask me. I prefer not to know.

But that’s ten minutes.

Climate Tinkering

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Technology has been and will be a critical part of any climate change solution. If we are to stop emitting large amounts of carbon into the air, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and start using alternative sources of energy. We could simply stop consuming as much, I suppose, and live a simpler life. That’s fine for me, I already have been lifted into relative prosperity but I for one am not prepared to condemn a billion people to remain in poverty. Energy is related to economic prosperity. Energy efficiency and conservation are good practices but in a still growing world, they don’t address development issues.

Besides, people seldom pay enough attention to exhortations to ‘be good and sacrifice your interests’ to make a real difference. Not to mention the rebound effect.

A lot of progress has been made. Thanks to the US government’s support of alternative energy programs, the commercial price of solar power is now competitive with any other alternative, including coal and oil. Natural gas still has an advantage and for a while that’s okay. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels but even it has to go within the next decade if we are to achieve our climate goals. Environmentalists may need to choose between fracking and bitumen in the short term.

We have also made progress with biofuels and wind power but they have their own problems. Ethanol from corn takes almost as much energy to produce as it provides for vehicles – and all that energy comes from fossil fuels. And it creates other environmental problems. Ethanol or methane from other sources are better. Bio-fuels, of course, release carbon, as well, but that carbon was recently taken out of the atmosphere by growing the product: a presumably virtuous cycle. Still, even these sources have their issues – requiring some oil and gas energy and lots of water. But hope is on the horizon from third generation ethanol production from cellulose or from fast growing pond scum (I should warn you – such scum has been genetically modified).

What about nuclear power? We should keep what we have but the likelihood of being able to build more plants is low, given the successful (if often misguided) campaign against it. Besides, new plants – if we started today – wouldn’t be commissioned for 12-15 years. As for fusion, it is ten years away and always will be.

But what if all our efforts aren’t enough? What if we keep putting carbon in the air at a slower rate but faster than we can take it out through natural carbon sinks? Then we still have a problem. And given the likelihood that we may in fact fail to do what we should and could do in the next forty years – what are the alternatives?

Some have suggested geo-engineering. Two proposals have gotten a lot of attention because they are cheap and easy to do. The first is to dump iron filings in the ocean to promote algae blooms – it certainly appears to work (on the surface) and has even been tried – illegally. The problem is that no one can say whether it really removes that much carbon from the air or, for sure, what the long-term or even short-term impact on ocean health will be. Sick oceans are not in the world’s best interests. Which is why it is now illegal to try this particular hare-brained experiment.

Another option would be to dump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the lower atmosphere, this chemical produces rather nasty and deadly smog but in the upper atmosphere they produce aerosols that reflect sunlight back into space. We would wind up with a slightly darker but cooler world. It is in effect a manmade volcano. In two years, the sulfur comes back to earth (acid rain anyone?) so at best it is a temporary solution or one that needs constant renewal. But it can be done with current technology.

More hopeful technologies exist in labs all over the world. Those GMO ethanol-producing algae are a fair option in a controlled environment (and could make for interesting pool parties). Better yet are artificial trees that remove carbon directly and produce solid carbon compounds that can then be buried or otherwise disposed of. Both of these have the advantage of not requiring us to perform ill-considered experiments on the only planet we know we can live on. Science may yet save the day.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

Climate Certainty

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We are almost certainly going to see a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures – we are already about half way there. The tipping point for two degrees is about 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. This year we will likely pass 400 and since we add about 2 ppm every year, the math is easy. We are on track to hit 450 by the year 2040, give or take a couple of years.

Carbon stays in the atmosphere for a very long time and even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases next year – an impossible task – we would still see another half degree rise. They say 1.5 is unpleasant but manageable. Given that we are unlikely to stop emitting carbon; the question is no longer if we will hit two degrees but when.

Most scientists are saying that even with an aggressive plan we are probably looking at 2.5 to 3 degree rise in temperatures; with the proposals on the table in Paris, it may be a degree above that. This may not seem like a lot but we’ve already seen an increase in droughts and massive storms so it is more than you think. And it may be enough to trigger feedback loops over which we will have little or no control. Runaway climate change won’t end life on earth – life is resilient. But it will probably end human life or at least human civilization. And those of us who are left will live lives that are truly nasty brutish and short.

But not all is doom and gloom. One thing we can do is buy time. Reducing our emissions by half over the next decade – something that we can do – would delay the arrival of 450ppm by 20 or even 40 years. Which would give us time to get down to zero by say 2060 or 2070. It will be too little to stop us from crossing the 2 degree barrier but it may save us from 3.5.

But the models tell us that this is still too much for our current economies and much of our infrastructure to survive. Certainly sea level rise itself will destroy many countries and cities and put a massive strain on economies struggling to adapt. And if we get feedback loops kicking in, we’re all doomed anyway.

So what are the options? On the one hand we could be even more aggressive in reducing emissions – get down to zero by 2040, for example. It won’t be cheap but neither is building a dike around New York City. Sadly we would have been there already if we had listened to Al Gore in 2000 and not spent trillions of dollars fighting wars in the Middle East over oil – the thing that ironically is going to kill us now. Still, humans eventually wake up – I hope – and zero by 2040 is something we could shoot for.

And, on the other hand, there is always technology. Nobody really wants to go there but geo-engineering is an option. Which I’ll explore tomorrow. But in the meantime ask yourself this: do you really want to experiment on the only planet we know we can survive on?

And that’s ten minutes.

Climate Insecurity

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In 2007, in the dying days of the Bush administration, generals in the Pentagon had already identified climate change as a major security risk. They didn’t talk much about it – climate change wasn’t exactly a popular topic with POTUS at that time. Times have changed.

All over the world, military planners and defense strategists not only accept that climate change is happening (and many acknowledge it is manmade as well) but are factoring it into their security and defense considerations. While the evidence that climate change has directly led to conflict remains slim – though not non-existent – the military considers it a major factor in exacerbating and multiplying risk levels, as well as actual conflicts.

Clearly, as climate change causes disruptions to weather patterns – increasing both droughts and floods, depending on where you live – people will seek to move to someplace more stable. At least, they will while such places continue to exist.

Low-lying island nations and places like Bangladesh will be the first to be hit as rising sea levels – brought on by melting ice and the expansion of water as temperatures rise –wash away their land, leaving them no choice but to sail away to someplace with higher ground. Sea level rises will hit the developed world, but those economies are better able to cope with lost coastline – at least for a while.

The tropics will be the next to fall into crisis as higher temperatures reduce the ability of Africa and South America to produce food – perhaps by as much as 25%. When people are hungry and afraid, they have little choice but to move. If the West thinks a few million refugees moving away from war zones is hard to handle, wait until they face  a few hundred million climate fugitives.

The military isn’t merely planning for climate change; they are trying to do something to mitigate it. Many European nations have adopted green defense strategies, trying to find ways to reduce energy consumption in notoriously gas guzzling operations. What they can do is limited in a world where high performance is a necessity to meet combat responsibilities but nonetheless, they are greening their buildings and bases, finding fuel efficiency where they can and integrating alternative energy into their operations. In France they are even turning training grounds into ecological preserves.

In Gabon they are going one step farther and using the army to plant heat hardy trees to replace those being damaged by changing weather (and lousy industrial practices). One might envision the day when those same forces will go after those who caused the devastation in the first place. Indonesia might be a good place to start.

This is all well and good but the military can’t get at the root of the problem, only their host states and the politicians that run them can do that. Scientists already say we are looking at a 2.7C temperature rise by the end of the century – when 2C is where we lose control. The upcoming meeting in Paris is unlikely to stop that from going even higher but they need to at least get a start on it – before the real climate wars start.

And that’s ten minutes.

Savings

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There are lots of things going on in the world today but for some reason I didn’t feel like writing about any of them so I thought I might skip 10 Minutes today. But then I started thinking about my next vacation which led me to wonder how I’m going to pay for it.

My wife often says that if we just drank a little less we might have more money to spare. Now I don’t drink $50 bottles of wine or sip from $200 bottles of scotch. No my preference is cheap wine and cheaper beer with only the occasional treat of something special. Still, it adds up and, over the course of the year, might well – if I were to stop altogether – pay for a (modest) week somewhere not too expensive.

But why stop there? If I were to stop eating anything I didn’t prepare myself, I’d certainly be better off – especially if I cut beef out of my diet, which some people seem to think is more healthy (others, thankfully, disagree). Again , we aren’t talking about eating out every night at five star restaurants but I do go out a couple or three times a month, plus the occasional lunch at the cafeteria or pub and the three times a month order of pizza… and a few muffins; again, it adds up. It might not pay for a week in Paris but a long weekend in Montreal? Sure.

Savings abound. For example, I live downtown and, while that means I don’t need to own a car, it is a bit expensive when you add up mortgage, condo fees, taxes and so on. Not penthouse in downtown Toronto expensive but not cheap. I could move to the suburbs and, as long as I was on a bus route, save quite a bit each month. Now that would pay for a week in Paris for sure – maybe two.

But wait, I thought of something else. I read about 35 books a year. I could probably increase that to 45 if I cut out drinking and eating out and spend my time commuting on the bus reading. But, I generally buy 60 to 70 books a year. And not e-books either but usually hard covers and trade paperbacks. Cutting twenty or so of those would pay for a weekend in Toronto for sure.

Look at that – four simple changes in my life and I can have another three or four weeks holiday time paid for without sacrificing anything. Well, other than wining, dining, reading and the comfort of my turn-key condo.

And think of the money I could save if I stopped going on vacations! Why, I’d be as rich as Howard Hughes. And pretty much living his lifestyle, too. Which means I’d be saving on soap, shampoo, haircuts, nail clippers and telephone bills. Hmm.

I guess I’ll have to cash in my RRSPs and pay for my holiday that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Losses

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Last weekend I attended SFContario where the annual CanVention – the national SF con – was also being held. Each year they give out the Aurora Awards and this year I was nominated in the category of Best Related Work for Strange Bedfellows. I would have liked to win as I am very proud of that book – an anthology of political science fiction. I didn’t, which was a bit disappointing especially when I discovered that I was in first place until the final round of balloting. Such is life with preferential ballots.

Still, I could hardly gripe. I did finish second to a very deserving OnSpec magazine. Given that I support them every month through Patreon, I obviously think they are worthy. And there is always next year.

Meanwhile, on Monday the NWT territorial election was held. I had a number of friends running – most of whom did not win (though some did). My boss’s son was one of the losers and though he finished respectably (almost) tied for second, I’m sure he is feeling disappointed. I know the experience from my own electoral career and suspect he is probably second guessing himself now. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t people support me? Whose fault is it? His disappointment is significant – it feels like a personal rejection – but may be less severe than the incumbent MLAs, including two Ministers, who lost their seats. It is well known that losing your seat can lead to depression, though it usually passes in a year or so.

And, in any case there will be another chance to run for office. In a democracy it happens with great frequency at one level or another.

To put all this in perspective:

On the Friday evening before SFContario, I learned that Barry King, an SF writer and organizer had died suddenly from complications of pneumonia. He was in his forties and I had seen him only a few weeks before, when he seemed in perfect health. I didn’t know Barry really well. We had met half a dozen times and I had recently bought one of his stories for my latest anthology, published in October. He had invited me to take part in Limestone Genre, a new SF gathering he had helped organize last year in Kingston.

I had got to know him well enough to know he was a smart witty man, a good writer, and was well loved by his friends and of course his family. Their sense of loss makes anything I or my political friends experienced in the last week completely trivial. For Barry, for Barry’s family and friends, there is no next year, there is no future opportunity. There is only the permanence of loss and grief.

My heart goes out to them but in the end only time and their love for each other can heal the loss they have experienced.

I was once told that when a bad thing happens to you, you should ask yourself if it will matter one year or five years from now. Losing an award is a transitory thing, losing an election is forgotten in five years. Losing someone you love never goes away. Perspective.

And that’s ten minutes.

Northern Elections

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Today is Election Day in the Northwest Territories. Given my long association with the North, it is not surprising that I know many – though certainly not all – of the candidates that are seeking office today. Some of these friendships go back decades. Paul Andrew, for example, had a lead role in the first play I ever had staged, Hemingway Crosses the Mackenzie, while Ben Nind was my ‘brother’ when we acted together in Melville Boys. Meanwhile, Randall Sibbeston is the son of my boss, Senator Nick Sibbeston. I’ve known him since he was a teenager.

Many of the other candidates I’ve worked with or consulted with over the last fifteen years. Many of course were part of the last or previous governments. One of those, Glen Abernathy, is the son of a man I worked with in the mid-80s. Man, sometimes these blogs make me feel old.

For those who don’t know – the NWT doesn’t have political parties. Every MLA is elected as an independent. Subsequently, the elected members meet to choose a premier and Cabinet from among themselves. The Cabinet becomes the government but is in a permanent minority situation, requiring the support of some of the ‘ordinary’ members to get measures passed the Assembly. Often, though certainly not always, that support is unanimous, as the Ministers and the members work together in committee to craft legislation and budgets that are acceptable to all.

This system is called consensus government and has operated, more or less effectively (depending on who you ask) ever since the 1970s when fully responsible government began to be developed in the NWT. The government of Nunavut uses the same system. Yukon, on the other hand, uses the more familiar (to southern eyes) party system.

There is a lot to be learned from the consensus style of government. For example, the process of pre-budget consultations that used to be very secretive and limited has now become commonplace in Canada. But it was pioneered in the NWT where it was a necessity to keep the wheels turning. Did it always work? Not at all. There were certainly stumbles along the way – I still recall a Minister losing his job for passing a note threatening a project in a Member’s riding if he didn’t cooperate.

Still, the system has lasted despite numerous failed attempts to introduce party politics into the mix. In fact, several times when candidates have run as a slate in a proto-party fashion, every single one of the candidates was defeated. It may be that they were lousy candidates or it may be that the people really don’t want a change – despite the frequent grumbling of some people in the media. I think they miss the rough and tumble of partisan politics.

In any case, it will all be decided today – or at least the first part will. In a couple of weeks the government will be formed and I’ll either be working with the same old crowd or with a whole bunch of new faces – even if some of those faces I’ve known for decades.

Good luck to all the candidates.

And that’s ten minutes.