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

2013/03/24

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:

Image: 350.org

Image: 350.org

 

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:

Image: 350.org

Image: 350.org

 

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

2013/03/22

“Wind turbine syndrome” is an illness whose symptoms include 
a 
range 
of
 health
 disorders
 including
 dizziness,
 memory 
problems,
 tinnitus (ringing in the ears) 
and 
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

2013/03/21

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: chathamemergency.org

Graphic representation of a storm surge. Image: chathamemergency.org

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: katrinadestruction.com

Horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Photo: katrinadestruction.com

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?

The End of a Stable Climate?

2013/03/19

On March 8th (yes, I know, I’m a little late), researches at Oregon State University and Havard University published the most comprehensive reconstruction of global temperatures ever done, going back 11,300 years. When combined with projected warming this century, the results are rather astonishing:

In blue is the temperature reconstruction, based on results from the analysis of ice and sediment cores from around the world. In red is the projected warming, based on scientific literature.

(I’m reminded of a Sesame Street song: One of these things just doesn’t belong here.  One of these things just isn’t the same!)

The reconstruction illustrates many important points.  First, our modern society has evolved (over the past 10,000 years) in a relatively stable climate.  Second, the planet is warmer today than it has been during 70 to 80 percent of the last 11,300 years.  Interestingly, during the past 5,000 years, the Earth cooled about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit).  However, it has warmed by about the same amount in only 100 years.  In other words, due to our emissions of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases), the temperature in the last 100 years has changed 50 times faster than the period during which our modern civilization (and the agriculture that feeds it) developed.

And it is this rate of change that scientists say is most important.  According to the lead author of the study, Shaun Marcott, “It’s really the rates of change here that’s amazing and atypical.  Even in the ice age the global temperature never changed this quickly.”

Climatologist Micheal Mann also see the importance of the rate of warming:

This is an important paper. The key take home conclusion is that the rate and magnitude of recent global warmth appears unprecedented for *at least* the past 4K and the rate *at least* the past 11K. We know that there were periods in the past that were warmer than today, for example the early Cretaceous period 100 million yr ago. The real issue, from a climate change impacts point of view, is the rate of change—because that’s what challenges our adaptive capacity. And this paper suggests that the current rate has no precedent as far back as we can go w/ any confidence—11 kyr arguably, based on this study.

I would add that this incredible rate of change not only challenges our adaptive capacity, but nature’s as well.  Evolution through natural selection is a process that, for the most part, happens slowly.  Over thousands, if not millions of years.  That is why scientists believe that 40 to 70% of all species on Earth could go extinct if the globe warms by 4 degrees C (above pre industrial temperatures).

We know what the threat is (climate change).

We know what the cause is (emissions of greenhouse gases)

We know what the solutions are (renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation).

We have the technology (wind, solar, geothermal, smart grids, electricity-powered transportation, LIGHT SWITCHES!).

All we need now is the political will to act.

I think I’m going to go write a letter to my local MP.

The Muzzling of Canadian Scientists is Getting Worse

2013/03/17

Last July, I wrote a post about what I believe is the role of government-funded science.  What instigated that post was a march on parliament by a group of Canadian scientists protesting against, in part, the lack of public access given to government scientists.  Say a government scientist discovers that climate change is negatively impacting the health of polar bears and a news reporter wants to write about the research.  The reporter approaches the scientist and asks for an interview.  According to the rules put in place by the federal Conservatives, the scientist would need approval from a bureaucrat in order to give that interview.

That’s how bad it was last year.

Since February 1, 2013, a new rule has been put in place that affects all scientists working in conjunction with DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) in the Central and Arctic Region.  The rule states that the scientists must consider all findings the property of DFO.  Translation: scientists must get approval from a bureaucrat before they can publish their results in a scientific journal.  Even scientists from outside of the government that are planning to work with the DFO must sign a contract agreeing with the new restrictions.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  On February 7th, DFO scientists received an e-mail stating that they must obtain prior consent before applying for research grants!  It’s not enough to just stop the general public to hear about these studies to the press.  As Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, puts it,

The tightening of control over science must be established far earlier in the process. Stop the research from being submitted to journals. Stop the scientists from collaborating with others. Stop scientists from applying for research grants. Stop science from happening at all.

It’s simple really: this is all about oil, gas and coal.  The federal Conservative government has a goal of making Canada into an “energy superpower” through increased production from the Alberta Tar Sands and any other piece of land or water that may hold untapped reserves of fossil fuels.  And in order to reach its goal, the federal government is systematically destroying environmental regulations, and eliminating the scientific research that could make the endeavor look environmentally irresponsible.

From my perspective, we are destroying our democracy and poisoning our country in order to sell the one drug that world has to get off of as soon as possible.  Canadian politicians will argue that projects like the Alberta Tar Sands and Old Harry in the Gulf of St. Lawrence create jobs and are an important part of Canada’s economy.  To them I would say that slavery was once an important part of the American economy.  And just like we’ve come to understand that slavery is wrong, we will come to understand that digging up and burning every last bit of fossil fuel is wrong as well.

The Bearded One Takes a Swing at Keystone XL and Canada’s Environmental Record

2013/03/13

The leader of the NDP, Thomas Mulcair, is in Washington D.C. this week to meet with leaders of the American Congress.  One of the topics of conversation has been the Keystone XL pipeline.  While he acknowledged that the final decision laid in the hands of the Americans, Mulcair did his best highlight the risk that the pipeline poses to our change.

…A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve [the Keystone pipeline] project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem.

He also took the opportunity to take a swing at Canada’s track record on the environment.

In the U.S. people know how to read.  They know that Canada is the only country that has withdrawn from Kyoto. They know that the Conservatives can’t possibly meet their Copenhagen targets (on greenhouse gas emissions) precisely because of the oilsands. They have to stop playing people for fools.

Unfortunately, this was when Mulcair’s brain seemed to shut down as he added that he’d rather see a cross-Canada pipeline.  (Head slamming against the wall!)

Anyways…

As you probably guessed, the federal Conservatives did not take this lying down.  Here is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s reply, courtesy of an Op Ed in the Globe and Mail:

We expect Mr. Mulcair to stand up for Canadian workers and their families. We hope he will not repeat the mistake of his deputy leader and travel abroad to lobby against approval of this critical project, especially at a critical moment prior to the presidential decision.

A responsible politician would not travel to a foreign capital to score cheap political points. I call on Mr. Mulcair to make Americans aware of the reality – that Canadian measures to combat global warming are as good as, or better, than those taken in the United States. He ought to point out that Canada, which has aligned its greenhouse gas emissions goals with the United States, is already halfway to our target of a 17 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. Trying to undermine this important message would endanger Canadian jobs and economic prosperity.

Someone should tell Minister Oliver and Leader Mulcair that battling climate change while expanding the Tar Sands is like buying more and more drugs while trying to kick the habit.  In the end, you just end up with an overdose.

A Petition For Climate Action From the Youth

2013/03/09

I need your help.  I want to create a petition demanding climate action of our politicians.  However, I want that petition to be specifically for those that have the most to lose when it comes to climate: the youth.

The text below is a first (well, actually, second) draft of a petition that I would like to distribute and have signed by high school, college and university students.  I am posting the petition here because I would like to “hear” your opinions, comments and criticisms regarding its content.

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 5.20.25 AM

Opine away!