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Bill McKibben Talks Climate Change and Religion


On Sunday, April 28th, 2013, activist Bill McKibben was a guest preacher at his former church, the Riverside Church in NYC.  During his sermon, McKibben made connections between religious values and climate change, corporate greed and the divestment of fossil fuel stock.  Although I am not a religious person myself, I felt the sermon was excellent.  Please take a look.

March 2013 is Number 337



According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, “the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for March 2013 tied with 2006 as the 10th warmest on record, at 0.58°C (1.04°F) above the 20th century average of 12.3°C (54.1°F).”  That makes March 2013 the 337th consecutive month with temperatures above the 2oth century average.

And so, despite the fact that North America had a rather cold and snowy March, the global warming trend continues.  Here is a map that shows the weather and climate highlights for the month of March 2013.

Map of significant weather and climate events for March 2013.  Image: NOAA

Map of significant weather and climate events for March 2013. Image: NOAA

Oil Spills Are More Common Than We Realize


Climate change and oil spills have something in common.  They do not get enough media attention in North America.

While the bitumen spill in Arkansas got its 15 minutes of fame, the reality is that oil and chemical spills are much more common than we realize.  In fact, from March 11th to April 9th of this year, there were 13 significant spills, releasing more that 1,000,000 gallons  (4,000,000 litres) of toxic chemicals.  Take a look.



Just one more reason to transition towards renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.  After all…



The NDP Supports a West-to-East Tar Sands Pipeline


I received an e-mail this morning inviting me to watch the previous night’s “town hall” type event that happened at the NDP’s policy convention.  I have to admit that I was interested.  So, I clicked the link and prepared to be impressed.  Unfortunately, I didn’t watch for very long. (If you’d like to watch the town hall yourself, I’ve embedded the video at the end of the post.)

The first question that Leader Thomas Mulcair answered was about the economy.  The person asking the question wanted to know what the NDP would do differently than the current Conservative government.  Mulcair began by discussing how, since the election of the Federal Conservatives, Canada’s international trade imbalance has gone from a surplus of $18 billion to a deficit of $68 billion.  Then, he discussed how the provincial NDP government in Manitoba has lowered (to zero!) taxes on small businesses.  (Apparently, this has lead to one of the lowest unemployment rates in Canada.)  He compared this to the Federal Conservatives who have given more than $50 billion in tax breaks to large businesses such as banks and oil companies.  As part of his answer, Mulcair also mentioned that the NDP would consider the economic, social and environmental impacts of every decision they made.

That sounded promising, but it clashed with what came next.

The second question was regarding the creation of a sustainable economy, managing Canada’s resources and the need for creating jobs here in Canada.

Now, maybe it’s my own fault that I was so disappointed.  I was hoping for something along the lines of “let’s fight climate change while growing our economy (blah blah blah) increasing efficiency (blah blah blah) and renewable energy (blah blah blah).”  But, no.  His answer was, rather than building a pipeline from Alberta to Texas (the Keystone XL pipeline), we need to build a pipeline west to east, refine the bitumen in Canada and create jobs here.  This will lead to greater energy security, more jobs for Canadians and more royalties for the provinces.  In Mulcair’s words, “that’s a win, win, win situation.”

And that’s when I stopped watching.

Not only do I have some serious doubts that a west-to-east pipeline “will lead to greater energy security, more jobs for Canadians and more royalties for the provinces”, but, hasn’t Mr. Mulcair seen what is happening in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas?

"Bird's eye view" of Alberta bitumen passing through Mayflower, Arkansas.  Image:

“Bird’s eye view” of Alberta bitumen passing through Mayflower, Arkansas. Image:

Alberta bitumen delivery - right to your back door!  Image:

Alberta bitumen delivery – right to your back door! Image:

Example 1 of why Exxon-Mobil has no concern for the quality of the clean up they do:  Those buoys are useless because bitumen is heavier than water.  Image:

Example 1 of why Exxon-Mobil has no concern for the quality of the clean up they do: Those buoys are useless because bitumen is heavier than water. Image:

Example 1 of why Exxon-Mobil has no concern for the quality of the clean up they do: they are using paper towels to clean up the thousands of liters of oil that has been spilled.  Image:

Example 2 of why Exxon-Mobil has no concern for the quality of the clean up they do: they are using paper towels to pick up the thousands of litres of oil that have been spilled. Image:

As a result of Mr. Mulcair’s (and the NDP’s) position on this pipeline, I decided write to the NDP’s environment critic, Megan Leslie.  Here is what I told her:

Dear Megan Leslie,

My name is (Mr.) Jocelyn Plourde.  I am a teacher, living in PEI.  In my spare time, I study environmental issues and am working on my Master’s degree.  My thesis will be about public policy and climate change adaptation.  So, as you can imagine, environmental issues are at the top of my list of priorities.

I began watching yesterday’s “online town hall” that your party put up on Youtube.  Unfortunately, I stopped after Thomas Mulcair discussed your party’s plan for a west-east pipeline, from the Tar Sands to Atlantic Canada. 

According to world-renowned climatologist James Hansen, if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, it’s “game over” for our climate.  It will be the same is we build any pipeline leading from the Tar Sands.  And the reason is simple: there is enough carbon in Alberta’s oil that if we dig it all up and burn it, by itself, it would increase global temperatures by 0.4 degrees Celsius.   

We can talk about the safety of pipelines carrying Alberta Tar Sands oil, as is currently being demonstrated in Mayflower, Arkansas.  However, the more critical point is that any pipeline from Alberta will allow the growth of production in Alberta’s Tar Sands.  And this is an irresponsible position to have.  As the NDP’s environmental critic, I assume that you are aware of the risks of climate change and the incredibly short amount of time that we have to transition our economies away from fossil fuels.  As such, we cannot allow our Canadian economy to continue to rely on fossil fuel revenues.  Instead we need to invest our efforts on energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy.

I regret to say that if the position of the NDP is to support the building of this (or any other) pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands, then I will give my next vote to someone else.  And I will do my best to encourage others to do the same.


Jocelyn Plourde 

I’ll let you know what she says if she replies.

In the mean time, here is the town hall.

How To Influence Your Politician on Climate Change


Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting much over the past 2+ weeks.  It isn’t as though there has been a lack of events and news to post about.  Rather, I’ve been keeping myself busy organizing two climate talks and helping a friend put together a blog about climate action.

First, the climate talks.  The first talk was supposed to be in front of five classes at a high school outside of Charlottetown (PEI’s capital).  I say “supposed to be” because it didn’t happen – I got into a car accident on the way there.  Luckily, no one was hurt, however, both vehicles have been badly damaged.  The irony is that I hit the car of one of the teachers whose class I was on my way to speak to!

The second talk will happen later this month and will be for the general public.  I’ve already done two talks to the public in Charlottetown.  However, this one will be the first in French.  Also, I’m getting some really great help advertising for the talk so I hope that turnout will be good.

Now, to the website.  Well, technically, it’s just a blog…  So, the blog is called “Climate Action – What political parties, environmental groups and citizens need to do”.  The idea is to discuss constructive ways to get action on climate change.  Beyond the actual post, we’ve put together four additional pages that can be accessed by the menu at the top of the page.

The page titled “Earth Day Panel” gives information about a panel discussion occurring on April 22nd.  The topic of the panel will be “A critical look at why political parties have not taken climate change action, what needs to change within the environmental movement and how do we create momentum for concrete action.”  Speaking will be politicians and members of the environmental activism community.  The page “Prince Edward Island Earth Week 2013” is listing of events occurring during the week of April 22nd.  Next is “Climate Change 101” is a kind of “climate change for dummies” text that I put together.  And the final tab brings you to several quotes about climate change from Canadian leaders.

I hope you’ll take a look.

And just in case you don’t, I’d like to share with you something that we posted on “Climate Action”, that I believe is useful to anyone who would like to lobby politicians to take action on climate action: the top 7 “dos” and “don’ts” to influence your politician on climate change.

Top 7 Things to do to Influence Your Politician on Climate Change

  1. Set up a meeting at their office to talk about why the issue is important to you, not just the science of climate change
  2. Host a meeting and invite them personally to either attend or participate (either in person, through a letter or personalized email)
  3. Call your politician or leave a message for them to personally call you
  4. Work with them on a petition for them to personally present
  5. If they are supportive, ask how you can help them build more support
  6. Write a personal, hand-written note
  7. Tweet @ them or private message them on facebook

Top 7 Inefficient ways to influence Politicians on Climate Change

  1. Hosting a protest without sufficient numbers and unclear messages/asks
  2. Online petitions that are not able to be presented in the House of Commons or Legislature
  3. Postcard campaigns
  4. Impersonal or standardized emails or letters
  5. Hosting meetings or protests without informing the politician or without sufficient time for them to attend or participate
  6. Long reports (great for evidence but hard for any politician to read all that come in)
  7. Complaining at your kitchen tables but never voicing your concern

Good lobbying!

Two Tar Sands Bitumen Spills in One Week


As President Obama continues to ponder the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline (I’m sure it’s keeping him up at night!), this past week saw two significant spills of Alberta Tar Sands oil in the US.

The first spill occurred on Wednesday, March 27th.   Fourteen cars (of a 94-car train) left the tracks, dumping 30,000 gallons (120,000 liters) of the gooey stuff.  Apparently, tar sands bitumen shipment by rail has rapidly increased over the past three years as pipelines of the stuff are facing important public opposition.  Interestingly, according to Reuters, this was the first major spill of the “modern North American crude-by-rail transition boom”.  Makes you wonder: are pipelines really the safest way to move oil?  Or is it simply the fastest (and hence the most profitable)?

Train derailment.  Photo: Minesota Pollution Control Agency.

Train derailment. Photo: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The second spill occurred this past Friday, March 29th.  This time, an underground pipeline belonging to Exxon Mobil leaked 10,000 barrels (that’s 1,6 million liters!) in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas.  As a result, 22 homes had to be evacuated.  The leaky pipeline can normally carry 90,000 barrels per day.  Keystone XL would carry almost nine times that amount.  Makes you wonder…

Cleaning up Tar Sands oil in Mayflower Arkansas.  Photo: Reuters.

Cleaning up Tar Sands oil in Mayflower Arkansas. Photo: Reuters.

On an a side note, all of this occurred the same week that Exxon was fined $1.7 million for a pipeline that leaked 42,000 gallons (160,000 liters) in the Yellowstone Rive in 2011.  This fine is pathetic in two ways.  First, it works out to only $40 per gallon!  Not bad considering the incalculable damage it must have done to the river ecosystem.  Second, $1.7 million is less than half an hour of profits for the oil giant.  So, we’ll call that a very week slap on the wrist.

For me, what all of this shows is that transporting oil, by which ever method you choose, is a dangerous process.  You could argue that if the fines for spills were heavier, companies would have a greater incentive to make the pipelines (and trains) safer.  However, as that is not likely to happen, we have to consider the fact that Tar Sands bitumen is not like other oils.  The fact that it is heavier than water makes it extremely difficult to clean up.  For proof of that, you only have to look to the state of Michigan.  People there are still cleaning up the Kalamazoo River where more than a million gallons (4 million liters) of bitumen spilled back in July of 2010!

Just one more reason why we should all be against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Reckoning With Canada’s Hidden Deficit


The following was written by Bill Wareham and published on the David Suzuki Foundation website. 

$100 dollar bill.  Image: Wilson Hui.

$100 dollar bill. Image: Wilson Hui.

It’s budget time, and we’re hearing a lot about deficits and declining economic growth. Like many Canadians, I’m worried that today’s federal budget is creating a hidden deficit that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for.

The March 21 federal budget cuts programs that protect nature. This lack of support for environmental programs is drawing down on our natural heritage. We might not have to pay now, but the long-term consequences are serious.

Canada is blessed with rich natural resources, an abundance of fresh water, bountiful farmland and oxygen-producing forests. But the 2013 focuses on how to exploit our natural heritage rather than sustain it.

Canadians expect every level of government to look after our collective wealth, whether it’s in education, transportation infrastructure or national defence. When it comes to collective wealth, there’s nothing more important than the elements we depend on and share the most: our air, water, soils and biodiversity. These shared elements are what Canadians expect their governments to watch over and safeguard.

Cuts to scientific monitoring cast doubt on whether we can make good decisions about our environmental wealth. If we don’t know what’s happening with fish populations, ocean acidity, rainfall and carbon emissions, how can we expect our governments to properly manage our most precious resources?

This hidden deficit is most obvious when it comes to protecting our coastal waters. Canada has the world’s longest coastline but is a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to protecting it. “Conservation actions are not keeping up with the increasing pressures faced by our oceans,” is how Scott Vaughan, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, bluntly put it.

What did government put in the budget to move forward the 20 proposed marine protected areas? A mere $4 million. The Green Budget Coalition, a respected umbrella group of environmental organizations, had suggested a minimum of $65 million to get these protection measures on the move.

It looks like the priorities of Commissioner Vaughan the Green Budget Coalition are not the same as the federal government’s.

However, there are priorities in the budget, including $57 million for “aquaculture renewal”, which in plain English means “help for fish farms”. Did the federal government forget about the findings of the Cohen Commission?

Even if this budget were only about protecting our economy, the choices are wrong-headed. “Conserving and protecting marine biodiversity is not solely an environmental priority…[the ocean] is intrinsic to the health and functioning of the world economy,” Commissioner Vaughan said. It’s not surprising that he also has an economic perspective on marine biodiversity. He is, after all, in the office of the auditor general of Canada.

Clearly, our magnificent and awe-inspiring blue planet has more value than any ledger can quantify, but even through the distorted lens of an economy-first perspective, safeguarding productive ecosystems must become part of the calculation when balancing a budget.

An Up-and-Down Week For the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline


The Germans are out!

It all started on Tuesday March 19th when 20 scientists from the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, Germany’s largest and most prestigious research institute, pulled out of the government-funded Helmholtz Alberta Initiative (HAI).  The goal of the HAI was to develop solutions to make coal mining and the tar sands “environmentally sustainable”.

A tailings pond of toxic waste water from the processing of tar sands.  Does this look "environmentally sustainable" to you?  Image: David Dodge, Pembina Institute.

A tailings pond of toxic waste water from the processing of tar sands. Does this look “environmentally sustainable” to you? Image: David Dodge, Pembina Institute.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on where you stand), the scientists from the German research institute feared for their environmental reputation.  According to Frank Messner, head of staff for the Helmhotz Association of German Research Centers, “As an environmental research center we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.”

A moratorium has been imposed on the collaboration while an independent assessment of the Alberta Tar Sands is being conducted.

(For more on why the Alberta Tar Sands are an unsustainable form of energy, click here.)


First Nations say they will fight the tar sands

While Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources claims that pipelines to the Pacific coast (Northern Gateway) and Texas (Keystone XL) are in the First Nations’ economic interest, many First Nations groups oppose the pipelines and the tar sands themselves.  And on Wednesday, March 20th, an alliance of First Nations leaders from both Canada and the US went to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to discuss their opposition to both tar sands pipelines.

The Canadian government continues to talk of trying to “respond to the concerns” of these First Nations groups and being able to “develop our natural resources while protecting the environment”.  However, the US-Canada alliance of First Nations is not talking about negotiation.  They are preparing to fight the pipelines in court.  And if all else fails, they are willing to consider “unspecified direct action”.

As the picture below says:




US Senate votes to approve the Keystone XL pipeline

Finally, the week ended with a (very little) bit of good news for those that support the Keystone XL pipeline.  On Friday March 22, 62 US Senators voted to give congress the power to approve the Keystone pipeline.  The thing is, the budget to which this amendment  was attached is very unlikely to pass.  And so, at the end of the day, the final decision of whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline still lies with President Obama.

And if you are wondering “Why did they even bother voting on this amendment?” consider the following:




Wind Turbines Don’t Make You Sick. But Anti-Wind Campaigns Do!


“Wind turbine syndrome” is an illness whose symptoms include 
 tinnitus (ringing in the ears) 
headaches.  As the name suggests, sufferers of this illness tend to live near wind turbines.  However, 17 independent studies around the world have failed to find convincing evidence linking turbine noise, turbine vibrations and “infrasound” (sound whose frequency is below that of human hearing) from the turbines to the “syndrome”.

So what is causing these people to feel ill?

Two studies, one out of the Australia, the other out of New Zealand, have come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t the turbines.  It’s the advertisement created by people trying to stop the development of wind farms.

The first study was done by professor Simon Chapman, associate dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.  Professor Chapman mapped out the history of health-related complaints about wind turbines throughout Australia.  His study created some interesting results.

In some cases, complaints of health effects were made before turbines were even operational.  Also, despite the fact that wind turbines began operating in 1993, health complaints did not begin in earnest until 2009.  This also happens to be the year when anti-wind activists began advertising the “negative health effects” of wind turbines.  In addition, 68% of the complaints came from only 5 of the 49 wind farms in Australia – the five that were the focus of anti-wind activism.  This means that there were no health-related complaints from many of the large wind farms, including none from the wind farms in western Australia.

During an interview, professor Chapman stated that he found it “implausible that if wind turbines in themselves were harmful, there would be whole farms using the same equipment, mega-wattage, everything, where people weren’t saying they were affected.”  Instead, the results from his study led him to conclude that “people have mis-attributed their common health problems to wind farms because of activists’ campaigns. Some may have even become more ill because they believe that wind farms make them sick — a phenomenon called the ‘nocebo effect‘”.

Nocebo effect.  Source: Wikipedia.

Nocebo effect. Source: Wikipedia.

Scientists in New Zealand went a step further to demonstrate the power of anti-wind campaigns.  From their group of volunteers, some were exposed to anti-wind campaign information.  The rest were not.  Then, every volunteer was exposed to 10 minutes of infrasound as well as 10 minutes of fake infrasound.  As you would expect, the volunteers who had not heard the anti-wind campaign information never complained of any health symptoms.  However, those that were exposed to the anti-wind info complained of “wind turbine syndrome” symptoms when exposed to infrasound and when exposed to fake infrasound.

I think we can all see what’s happening here.

Now, we can’t make the mistake of simply ignoring the people that make these health complaints.  And we certainly can’t ignore the anti-wind campaigns.  However, it is important to note that these types of problems are not found everywhere that turbines are built.  While cases of “wind turbine syndrome” are common in Australia, the USA and Canada, they are almost non existent in Germany and Denmark.  According to an interesting post on the website RenewEconomy, there are three explanations for this.

First of all, Germans and Danes are more aware of the risks associated with nuclear energy and climate change.  This makes them more willing to put up with the true annoyances of wind turbines: how they look and the noise they produce (neither of which actually make you sick.  They’re just annoying!).  Second, there is no powerful fossil fuel lobby in Germany or Denmark creating opposition to renewable energy.  And finally, in both Germany and Denmark, farmers and average citizens have made the majority of the investments into renewable energy (see image below).  As a result, people are paid for the electricity that the turbines produce.

Who is investing in German renewable energy? Source: German Renewable Energies Agency.

Who is investing in German renewable energy? Source: German Renewable Energies Agency.

Moral of the story: if we are serious about increasing the production of renewable energy, it has to come “from the bottom up”.  Like in Germany and Denmark, we need to create the financial conditions that will allow everyone (not just large corporations) the opportunity to invest in (and make money from) renewable energy projects.  That means putting in place feed-in tariffs that will guarantee a rate at which renewable energy can be sold to the grid.

You do that, and people will forget about their headaches – they’ll be too busy thinking of ways of spending their extra income!

New Study: One Katrina-Like Storm Surge Every Other Year


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), a storm surge is an “abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tide”. (See image below)

Graphic representation of a storm surge.  Image:

Graphic representation of a storm surge. Image:

In other words, the wind of a storm pushes the sea at a higher level than the normal tide.  The result is flooding of coastal areas which can cause not only incredible damage coastal homes and infrastructure, but also great loss of life.  Still fresh in the collective memory of North Americans are the storm surges associated with Hurricane Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Katrina (2005).

Flooding in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy.  Photo: Scott Anema.

Flooding in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Scott Anema.

Horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.  Photo:

Horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Photo:

According to a group of researchers from the Neils Bohr Institute (NBI), extreme storm surges like the one caused by Hurricane Katrina, are set to dramatically increase in the years to come.

Graphic representation of the results from the Neils Bohr Institute study.

Graphic representation of the results from the Neils Bohr Institute study.

The scientists from the NBI used data from monitoring stations along the coast of Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic coast of the US to predict the frequency of hurricane storm surges into the next 100 years.  Their results led to the conclusion that if warming of the planet reaches 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial temperatures, we would see 10-fold increase in the number of Katrina-like storm surges.  Put in different units of measurement, this translates into one Katrina-like storm surge every other year.

Unfortunately, the situation becomes even worse when you consider that sea levels will also be rising as temperatures continue to rise.  This means that the starting point of any storm surge will be higher, resulting in greater flooding and greater destruction.

Every day that we delay, we reduce the odds of limiting warming to 2 degrees.  Every day that we delay, we increase the chances that this is in our future.  So what the hell are we waiting for?