Categories: environment, politics

climate reality check

We seem to have reached a tipping point in public and policy opinion on climate change, which is something of a relief, but also very scary. Up until even the last few weeks, I felt that my tiny contribution to the debate was through occasional posts here, addressing some of the science as we know it, mostly in an attempt to make known the state of science. (In a previous life, I spent a few years working more directly on climate change issues, in policy, finance, and technology development).

But now that, in Canada at least, it has become politically untenable to deny climate change – the Liberals, NDP and Bloc are all climate believers; the Conservatives have just converted, either for political expediency, or after finally coming to terms with the science. There is no going back, unless the science changes. So the question is no longer: Is it a problem? or Should we do anything? but: What (the hell) do we do now?

The Liberals, NDP and Bloc have all come out demanding that the Conservative inplement policy to make Canada “meet Kyoto’s targets.” This is inane political posturing, and on the part of the Liberals, a little hard to stomach. The Liberals presided over the entire Kyoto era, and agreed in 1998 to GHG emissions reductions to 6% below 1990 levels; and in 2002 ratified the Kyoto Protocol (meaning those reductions became “binding”). As the Conservatives keep telling us (rightly) the Liberals signed and ratified the Protocol without putting in (or even proposing) one shred of binding policy, or any kind of serious plan to meet those targets. Under their dismal environmental stewardship, Canada emissions grew to something like 30% higher than the targets they agreed to as ratified (and is, by the way, twice as bad as the US that signed, but never ratified Kyoto). Stephane Dion may have a dog named Kyoto; and he may be serious about the environment, but his party sure as hell has not demonstrated any leadership on climate change in the past, except for ratifying an international treaty that binds Canada to reductions without giving any thought to how those reductions would be met. Which has one positive impact: it highlights in glaring blod face how much work we have to do.

Which is why the Libs/NDP/Bloc calling for the Conservatives to meet Kyoto targets is dishonest and laughable, though it does put the pressure on to come up with concrete policies (which, to their credit, the Conservatives have started to do, for all the criticisms heaped on their Clean Air Act).

To put it in context, to meet our Kyoto targets we would have to do several things (based on 2003 numbers):
1. make all Canadian houses 30% more energy efficient
2. make all Canadian cars 30% more efficient (or, say, make every Canadian take a bike to work two days a week)
3. make every business (including industrial manufacturing, mining, and oil production) 30% more energy efficient (or close them down for 2 days of the week).
4. shut down all thermal power plants (about 30% of electricty production in Canada, the balance being hydro 60% and 12% nuclear) and replace with nukes, or some other renewables, equalling a 4x increase in nukes, or a 2000% increase in renewable contributions, going from roughly 500 MW of wind to 10,000 MW of wind, an investment on the order of 10 billion dollars).

We should be doing these things, but the scale of change to our society needed is truly massive. All areas of energy use must change: housing, transport, food production, manufacturing, urban planning, oil and gas production. To make that happen the empty posturing of the Liberals and NDP and Bloc is perhaps politically useful (if disingenuous), but it does nothing to solve the problem, which transcends party lines.

What IS needed is a massive investment in time and energy to come up with some concrete and serious ways that we can address the issue in a reasonable way without throwing the country on its ear. The sooner we start the better. It would have been nice to start in 1998 when we first signed Kyoto, but for whatever reason – political or practical – that hasn’t happened.

I’m no great fan of the Conservatives, but they are in theory the hard-nosed pragmatic doers, not the political dreamers we lefties are supposed to be. That’s encouraging (though I said the same thing when Bush won the presidency on a CO2-regulation platform in 2000, and look where that got us). So: do the Conservatives have the political will to do something about climate change? Or are they just shifting their rhetoric in response to polls? We’ll find out.

Also, just an asside. What can the world of the web do to help address this problem in a serious, significant way? Anyone have any ideas?

climate (& iraq?)

According to a recent Globe & Mail poll, suddenly, strangely, climate change has become the most important issue for the majority of Canadians (climate change topped the list for 26% of Canadians, followed by health & security). A curious and surprising event, perhaps an interesting result of the democratic system.

When the Liberals (as a centrist/left party, theoretically more enviromentally friendly than the right wing Conservatives) were in power, they did NOTHING on climate change. No policy, no effective strategy, no concrete action, and no results, except a 30% increase in CO2 emissions. But when the Liberals were in power, the official oposition was the Conservatives, right wing, oil-based, and hostile to policies addressing climate change (which will have a big impact on the oil industry and energy-intensive business). So agressive climate action on the part of the Libs would have resulted in strong opposition from the Conservatives. So the Libs did nothing.

Now, the Conservatives are in power, and they just got slaughtered (by the Libs, Bloc and NDP, and public opinion) for their weak stand on climate change in their recent Clean Air Bill (tho, in their defense, at least they tabled serious policies/laws with actual impacts on industry: the Libs never did). Stephane Dion is leading the charge, and in all the hooplah, climate change lands at the forefront of issues in the mind of Canadians. Harper shuffles his deck, and climate change becomes the Conservatives shiny new focus.

So, strike one up for Minority government as a good way to get things done that people actually want: those who pull the strings in power (the Conservatives) are forced to adjust their policies according to pressures from the other side of the spectrum. Which, theoretically at least, is a good way to ensure balanced government…And one hopes, a step in the direction of taking climate change seriously as a problem.

Hopping from government to media, interesting shift in the Globe and Mail this weekend too. Rex Murphy is the Globe’s shrillest climate alarmist-alarmist (he worries endlessly about the climate change propogandists and doomsdayers that run the National Academies of Sciences in all the biggest countries and economies of the world). He has spent the last 5 or 6 thousand years scoffing at, sneering about, and dismissing climate change, with few updates in his rhetoric for annoying things like the scientific advances. But even Rex seemed to back off in his weekly column yesterday. Well, almost. He presents a couple of examples of climate research gone wild (an Italian study linking suicide with climate change, and Al-Qaeda’s insistence that the US sign the Kyoto Agreement) as evidence that the rest of the scientists are single-minded fools. Yet he after all that silliness, he finally says:

“If we believe global warming is as big a problem as the world’s experts are telling us, we also have to believe the world’s politicians are capable of fixing it.”

And concludes that their inability to fix potholes suggests they won’t be much good at fixing climate change. He might have a point there, who knows? But there was a subtle, grudging, shift, almost imperceptible, but present. A back-handed acknowledgment that maybe, perhaps, it’s possible that all those damned scientists might be worried about something worth worrying about. Even if he does not trust politicians to do anything useful about it.

Margaret Wente is another of the Globe’s usual “climate change is bullshit” columnists. A sample of her headlines from the last few years (the Globe is subscription only, so you can’t read the articles): “Ice the ‘polar bears are drowning’ theory,” “Will we freeze or will we fry?” “Kyoto always was a fantasy,” “The collapse of climate ‘consensus'” “The Kyoto-speak brainwashers” … etc.

In an article in this Saturday’s Globe, Wente finally, finally, finally actually talks to some mainstream climate scientists, instead of the odd-ball guys she fished up in previous articles (it’s all good and well to say there are scientists who don’t agree with the consensus, but they are a small minority, and often not active scientists, and more often not regarded as very serious in their research).

In any case, her article in Saturday’s Focus section of the Globe, is titled “A Questionable Truth.” She has spun her argument something like this: Al Gore’s movie an Inconvenient Truth exaggerates the likelihood of bad effects from climate change. And mainstream scientists think the probability of catastrophic climate change is … uncertain. In fact, much of climate science is uncertain. So …

And here is the interesting thing. In the past Wente’s “So…” used to be followed by, “So the climate alarmists are a bunch of propagandists, and we should ignore them…”. But this time she ended (almost, as well as a swipe at Gore) with: “So what can a worried citizen do?” To answer, she quotes Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University, who answers: “Lobby the politicians to put policies in place immediately that put a value on the environment … Drive your car to Ottawa if you have to. The most important thing is to get policies in place that are intelligent.” Translation (I think): we have a problem here, and something should be done.

(Not content to leave it at that, however, Wente finishes with a swipe at Al Gore, “even though much of what he says is dubious or just plain wrong, he’s going to win that Oscar anyway.”)

But when you read the text of her article, and what the actual scientists say (rather, what she decided to quote them as saying), it’s a funny thing. There is not one scientists there arguing that climate change is not a major problem worth addressing. Not one person saying: climate change is not happening. Not one person saying: humans have no impact on the climate. Not one person saying: there is nothing to worry about. Not one person saying: we should do nothing. The scientists she interviews, instead, are cautious, level-headed, and, like most scientists, uncomfortable with sensational headlines. Says one, “The probability of another metre of or sea-level rise in the next 50 years isn’t zero, but it isn’t 90 per cent either. And if you pinned me down to tell you what it really is, I couldn’t do that.” That is, there is a risk of serious problems, and scientists can’t pin down just what that risk is. Which hardly suggests: a) that there is no risk, or b) that we should do nothing.

Another interesting thing: Wente and some of her pals at the Globe (the paper probably has had a 50-50 split on the issue) have spent the last ten years pillorying the Kyoto Protocol. Yet when discussing how to address climate change in this article, she writes: “But climate economists generally agree that the first and most important thing to do is to put a value on the atmosphere. You do this with carbon taxes and emissions caps. If emitting carbon costs money, then people will have a big incentive to cut down on it.” The Kyoto Protocol was a loose international framework whose objective was to a) get nations to agree to emissions caps on their national emissions, b) provide a timetable to try to meet those targets, c) provide some loose mechanisms to meet them. The Kyoto Protocol does not say ANYTHING about how any one country should meet their targets; that is left to countries figure out for themselves. (Which is why the “Made in Canada” solution trumpeted by Harper is hogwash: Kyoto’s objective is to get every country to come up with their own solution). Wente’s main expert’s opinion about how to address climate change suggests, essentially, that we should have started working within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol years ago. Wente manages make it sound as if she had just uncovered a sensible and innovative answer to this climate problem, a solution ignored by the hordes of rabid alarmists with Kyoto as their bible as they made their joyful march to climate apocalypse. That’s pretty disingenuous. The whole point of Kyoto was to do exactly what she seems to agree with here. And she has spent 10 years mocking Kyoto. At least, Ms. Wente, have the decency to utter a quiet little mea culpa. There is more dishonesty (intentional or accidental, I don’t know) in that article, but Rome was not built in a day. Ms. Wente has written her pivotal article on climate change, hovering on both sides of the argument, but she won’t go back to her old ways. She will continue to be distrustful of the enviros (which is fine), but I’d wager that she’s now convinced that things must be done.

I wonder: does the Iraq debacle Iraq have anything to do with this sudden turn-around in the public’s climate opinions? After all, those for the Iraq war tended to be, on balance, those against doing anything about climate change. And personally I always found it strange the dichotomy between the logic of spending billions on Iraq as compared to billions on climate change. Both threats (Saddam’s WMDs/climate chaos), according to their proponents, could have catastrophic impacts on all of us. Both would take massive amounts of resources, effort and policy will-power to address. Yet Iraq will gobbled up an estimated $1 trillion, with probable results of: destabilizing the Middle East, weakening the American position internationally, both among friends and foes, exposing the US as bad failed occupiers, stretching the military to the breaking point, and emboldening enemies (after all, the US can hardly make any military moves now, and Iran is the big winner in their blunder). All this sold by the same folks who told you not to worry about climate change (including Wente, including Murphy). So, maybe this is the effect of a little reality settling in. If the right was SO wrong about everything in Iraq, maybe it’s time to wonder what else they might have gotten wrong. Is the collapse of the Neocons and their grand vision for Iraq a chance for thier more moderate cheerleaders (in the press and public) to examine everything they sold with a new eye? After all, you only buy a lemon from a car salesman once. After that you steer clear.

It’s pretty hard to believe anything the current President says these days. It always was, for me; but it seems the naked emperor and his disastrous war has been revealed. So if you don’t have any more faith in the guy who is President, maybe it’s time to take a look at what the other guy, that guy who *could* have been President, has been parroting on about for the past few years.

I didn’t like the movie, and sure he goes too far in parts, and gets some things wrong. But hark: that’s the sound of Wente and Murphy reevaluating climate change. A good sign.

Climate & Iraq?

I wonder: does the Iraq debacle Iraq have anything to do with this sudden turn-around in the public’s climate opinions? After all, those for the Iraq war tended to be, on balance, those against doing anything about climate change. And personally I always found it strange the dichotomy between the logic of spending billions on Iraq as compared to billions on climate change. Both threats (Saddam’s WMDs/climate chaos), according to their proponents, could have catastrophic impacts on all of us. Both would take massive amounts of resources, effort and policy will-power to address. Yet Iraq will gobbled up an estimated $1 trillion, with probable results of: destabilizing the Middle East, weakening the American position internationally, both among friends and foes, exposing the US as bad failed occupiers, stretching the military to the breaking point, and emboldening enemies (after all, the US can hardly make any military moves now, and Iran is the big winner in their blunder). All this sold by the same folks who told you not to worry about climate change (including Wente, including Murphy). So, maybe this is the effect of a little reality settling in. If the right was SO wrong about everything in Iraq, maybe it’s time to wonder what else they might have gotten wrong. Is the collapse of the Neocons and their grand vision for Iraq a chance for thier more moderate cheerleaders (in the press and public) to examine everything they sold with a new eye? After all, you only buy a lemon from a car salesman once. After that you steer clear.

It’s pretty hard to believe anything the current President says these days. It always was, for me; but it seems the naked emperor and his disastrous war has been revealed. So if you don’t have any more faith in the guy who is President, maybe it’s time to take a look at what the other guy, that guy who *could* have been President, has been parroting on about for the past few years.

I didn’t like the movie, and sure he goes too far in parts, and gets some things wrong. But his point, that something must be done, is starting to sound reasonable even to the Wente’s & Murphys of the world.

Climate Change & Blogging

Veeeerrrry interesting. I wrote a little post on Climate Change (a letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail regarding Rex Murphy’s latest bit of climate idiocy). And I got two comments from people who have certainly never been to this site before. I presume there is a concerted blog/commenting effort, probably funded by PR companies, to troll through the blogosphere and make “grassroots” comments. I noted this kind of thing before on my Zune post a while back, and if I were a PR company, I would be doing this too. Good, cheap, and very direct way to get your message out. Even if you don’t reach the writer (in this case me) you might sow some doubt in other readers of the post.

I was going to answer these fellows in the comments, but it’ll take some links etc, so I’ll do it here instead.

First, Ken Ring from has explaned his position onglobal warming: here. He’s from New Zealand and predicts weather partterns using moon cycle analysis. Here is his comment, and my response below:

Instead of berating Murphy, how about listing the ACTUAL evidence that the world is warming. By the world I don’t just mean the tiny areas occupied by the cities, I mean the oceans, icecaps, swamps, craggy monutain ranges, deserts etc that comprise, without human habitation, 98.4% of the Earth’s surface. Oh bother, there aren’t any thermometers in those places. (Now aint that the inconvenient truth..)

Evidence coming, but first some propositions:
1. earth’s climate is a complex system
2. human civilization has developed in a period of relative warmth & climate stability (allowing for agricultural food production)
3. global temperature is directly correlated with CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere
4. if CO2 concentrations rise, there is a good chance that temperature will rise too
5. if the temperature rises significantly, the complex system of the climate will be destabilized
6. if the climate system is destabilized, our ability to manage a global agricultural system will be destroyed
7. if we cannot manage a global agricultural system, human civilization as we know it is finished.
8. CO2 is rising, partly due to human emissions of CO2

Now for some evidence, the most powerful piece of data I have seen in climate change science, from the Vostok ice core:

vostock ice cores

Note CO2 concentrations follow temperature. Note also that the past 10,000 years (far right of graph, blue) have seen something extraordinary: relatively warm, stable temperature, also the period when human civilization developed.

Now perhaps doubling or tripling or quintupling C02 concentrations is fine. But if I were a betting man, given a graph like that, I would say there is 50% chance that rising CO2 will raise the temperature. And knowing a little about the history of the earth, I would say we don’t want temperatures to go up, and we should do what we can to make sure they don’t.

If you want some more evidence, in counterpoint to climate-denial, a good place to start is this article from Wall Street Journal vs. Scientific Consensus.

Regarding Ken’s other comment about measurement of temperatures out of cities, I’m not sure that’s even worth responding to, but satelite data, and the Vostok ice core (from Antarctica) are a good start. For more reading, see: NASA’s GISS Surface Temperature Analysis. For less theoretical evidence (ie. the kind you can feel in your cold, wet toes) here’s an article about the melting Arctic.

I think that’s all for Ken.

Now for the other commenter, Jeff Jones, no URL. Here’s what he had to say:

Notice how the doomsayers claim, as the host does, that each year the scientific community gets more certain. Which scientific community? Certainly not the 19,000 who signed the Oregon petition.

It’s the kind of dishonest device that the Church used to deny Copernicus and Galileo.

Maybe you mean the scientific community made up of political scientists like David Suzuki whose goal is to destroy the corporate basis of Western democracy.

So, the famous Oregon Petition is widely regarded as bunk. There was no control on petition signers, no required proof of academic creditials, no stated affiliation with academic institutions. I did a cursory search through the signatories, and of 15 names I checked I was able to find three academics: Earl Aagaard, professor of biology at Christian creationist university; Arthur Ballato, an Electrical Engineer with the US Army; and Daniel J Cantliffe, a biologist at University of Florida. None of whom has any direct experience with climate science, as far as I can tell.

But rather than spend time on the discredited Oregon Petition, better to answer the question directly: Which scientific community does get more certain? Well, for one (sorry, for eleven) the National Academies of Science of the following countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and the USA.

Say these Academies, in the following document (Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change-pdf):

We urge all nations, in the line with the UNFCCC principles, to take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change, adapt to its impacts and ensure that the issue is included in all relevant national and international strategies.

As for scientific literature, Naomi Orseskes did a random study of 928 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, with the key-words “climate change.” Of the articles, about 75% of them deal with the question of causes of climate change, 100% support the view that a significant fraction of recent climate change is due to human activities.

And what exactly is the consensus? According to, the consensus is:

1. The earth is getting warmer (0.6 +/- 0.2 oC in the past century; 0.1 0.17 oC/decade over the last 30 years)
2. People are causing this
3. If GHG emissions continue, the warming will continue and indeed accelerate
4. (This will be a problem and we ought to do something about it)

So … as they say: who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?

BookReview: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Climate Change Book by Elizabeth Kolbert

My first job out of university, as a fresh-faced, idealistic engineer, was in the energy industry, for a sort of international think-tank made up of eight of the biggest electric companies in the world from G7 countries. I got there in 1998 (a year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed), and climate change obviously was high on the agenda, so I got to know what many in the energy industry thought of it (it was a big problem, and these companies were generally worried about how to address it in the most efficient, and least-costly way. That is, they were concerned, but wanted to avoid losing lots of money as a result). From the E7 (now E8) I went on, in the summer of 2000, to a financial brokerage called Prebon in New York, which was setting up an investment banking team to build financial products tailored for Kyoto Mechanisms – financial mechanisms aimed at getting funding into projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was the policy guy, mainly, looking at national and international frameworks, as well as doing marketing of our insurance-based products to big energy companies around the world; and negotiating with potential sellers of emission reductions. I attended the COP conference in the Hague and talked to government officials all over the place. (Those were my jetset days of flying around the world, when I thought I might just be able to save the human race and become a multibillionaire at the same time). I worked at Prebon for a year and a half until the election of George Bush (and US abandonment of Kyoto, going back on a GOP campaign promise to regulate CO2 in the US); and then September 11 forced Prebon to shut down our group. Also a factor in shutting us down: we hadn’t made a nickle, despite having a $350 million deal in the works, though I don’t think we would have made the sale even without Bush and September 11. After I came back from NYC to Montreal, I spent some time working with a small alternative energy company here in Montreal, with toes still in CO2 waters … tho since 2004 I have been just an observer.

But I have been following Climate Change more or less closely for ten years or so, and have watched as the science matured (and Canada, incidently, did absolutely nothing except sign papers year after year). I am, you could say, a Climate believer…though I have an open mind to new research: if it were to turn out that everyone was mistaken about the climate, I would be happy to recant my former beliefs. But, the opposite has happened. Since 1998 when I started paying attention, various predictions from the models (then very uncertain) have started to come to pass: plants and animals are changing their breeding habits, the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, glaciers around the globe are receding, and the temperature keeps going up. Closer to home, the ski hill I grew up on no longer operates (they never made snow, and the natural snow isn’t enough to guarantee a viable season any more), and it regularaly rains in January and February.

And so when I first read Elizabeth Kolbert’s series of articles on climate change in the “New Yorker” in 2005 I was captivated. Field Notes on a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a compilation and expansion of those articles. It is the only climate book I have ever been inspired to buy — all the others seemed to rehash things I knew already, but there was something about the way Kolbert writes on climate — at once scientifically compelling and personal. And frightening. Of the many hundreds of articles I have read about climate change, Kolbert’s are the best.

In this book, Kolbert weaves a compelling tale, focusing on a handful of active scientists, their work on climate, and an underlying sense of terror that seems to infect all of them. They are at the front lines of climate research — out in the field and building the models. She visits the melting permafrost in Alaska, NASA climate modellers in New York, biologists studying butterflies in northern England, and Columbia paleoclimateologista with the world’s biggest collection of ocean core samples. She also talks to some historians who argue that massive civilization collapse in human history can often be attributed to climate changes destroying the agricultural systems those civilizations depend upon; and some of the people trying to do something about all this worrying problem that so many seem to ignore. The impressive thing about these scientists is not their much-trumpeted alarmism, though, but the opposite: the caution with which they make their claims. Scientists tend to be a thoughtful bunch, they are used to weighing massive amounts of data, inputs, and research from across many fields to make their conclusions. You make your hypothesis, you do your experiments, you publish your results in peer-reviewed journals, and others do their best to poke holes in your argument. More experiments are done, in various disciplines; in the case that other results consistently conflict with a hypothesis, it is rejected. When more data backs a hypothesis, from many different areas, it becomes accepted. Climate science is no different, and what’s happened over the past ten years, since I first started following the climate debate, is a hardening of certainty, as more and more evidence, more studies, and more data are backing up the theory that the climate is changing (not in doubt) and that we are forcing the change. But the real test of a theory is its predictive power: if a theory says such and such should happen, and such and such happens, it is worth paying attention to.

And this is why the much-maligned climate models are so powerful: they have been tweaked and improved over the past ten years, and have become more powerful. They back-check well against the past records, and have done a good job of predicting what is happening now. What’s scary is their predictions of what will happen in the future. It ain’t pretty.

Kolbert manages an impressive feat in this book: she presents the latest climate science clearly, and in enough detail that one gets a powerful sense of where most scientists think we are and where we are going. There are graphs and data sets, and evidence. But what emerges most powerfully is the sense of quiet, measured … panic (there is no other word for it) from the scientists working in the field. They are watching as our climate changes, and they know where we are likely to go. And most think we are pushing climate fast to that frightening place. In this slim volume, Kolbert has encapsulated the panic, and shown exactly where it comes from – scientifically and historically. And she shares this panic. As arctic researcher, Donald Petrovich relates to Kolbert:

The way I’ve been thinking about it, riding my bike around here, is, You ride by all these pastures and they’ve got these big granite boulders in the middle of them. You’ve got a big boulder sitting there on this rolling hill. You can’t just go by this boulder. You’ve got to push it. So you start rocking it, and you get a bunch of friends, and they start rocking it, and finally it starts moving. And then you realize, Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. That’s what we’re doing as a society. This climate, if it starts rolling, we don’t really know where it will stop.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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Rex Murphy and Climate Change

I just sent this to the Globe and Mail:

To The Editor,

I have read Rex Murphy’s climate articles with a sort of wonder for ten years now. Each year the science gets more sophisticated; each year the scientific community gets more certain; and each year more effects predicted in climate models are coming to pass (demonstrating the robustness of the models, while also showing that we are moving faster along a dangerous path than anyone expected).

Yet each year Rex Murphy’s climate articles remain exactly the same: the thousands of scientists who study this issue are alarmists and politically motivated; and those who disagree with overwhelming scientific evidence (like Mr. Murphy himself), are oppressed, unjustly attacked, and deserve to be heard with the same seriousness as the people who actually spend their careers studying climate change.

So my question, for Mr. Murphy, columnist, pundint and human: could you please list for us the evidence that *will* convince you that climate change is real, and worrisome? So that when, in a year or two, we have crossed those markers, we can all agree that it’s time for you to stop berating us with these inane columns on scientific issues, where you display total lack of interest in science?

What, I wonder, did Mr. Murphy, Newfoundlander, have to say about warnings that the cod fishery would collapse?

If you are interested what Rex Murphy did have to say about the cod fisheries, watch this wonderful video from the CBC archives, 1994.

art, society, data, stability

I haven’t written a ramble in a while. Here’s one:

I had an impromptu drink with Boris the other night – unfortunately the other brain I seem to be feeding off of a lot lately wasn’t there.

We rambled about art, data, open source, society, flexibility, stability, evolution to touch on a few things.

My experience with the open project LibriVox has been very interesting, and has influenced my thinking about a lot of what we talked about: it started small, and grew and grew; in about four places it encountered major environmental challenges – mainly having to do with putting together the structures to let the project accomodate more volunteers, and more projects. At 10 people and a couple of projects it was OK with me running the thing, and some help on the website design; then it went up to 50 volunteers and 10 projects, and I needed help, and a new mode of managing people and projects; the help appeared. It cranked up to 250 volunteers, and 40 projects; more help & organization was needed; it appeared. We’re now up to 1000+ volunteers and something like 150 active projects. Needing more structure and more support. It came.

Because the project was open everytime a major problem presented itself, someone seemed to be there who had just the skills needed (designing the site for clarity, setting up a forum, cataloging, documenting, setting up a wiki, a promo poster, catalog software). Like an organism encountering environmental challenges, LibriVox was flexible and open enough to easily evolve into something able to handle the new demands. One hopes it will continue to do so.

Is there anything in the little microcosm of LibriVox worth thinking about in a bigger context?

Boris gave this interesting visualization about society. (Boris can you draw it so I can link to a pic?) Imagine a bell curve, moving from left to right along a time axis. Stick a couple of wheels under the middle of the curve: the wheels are industry – driving things forward; the big hump is regular society who go along with things; and the front angle part of the bell-curve/snowplow are the out-there artists at the far tip, and then creative types who interact with industry making up the rest of the angle. There’s some interaction between the two. The artists are at the forefront, are misunderstood, and suffer the greatest amount of attrition because they are battling directly against the universe – in a way they both lead the way for the rest of society, and introduce us to, and protect us from, the new. You can go on about this metaphor, but probably there’s an optimal steepness of the curve – steeper meaning more arty & creative types.

I’ve seen two arty shows recently: Marie Chouinard’s dance show Body Remix/Goldberg Variations; and Anslem Kiefer’s Heaven & Earth. Neither was “beautiful” in any standard sense, but in both cases my mind was flying the whole time I was experiencing them. I don’t know what I was thinking about, but these two big shows — both very intellectual, and very abstract — had my mind whirrling around at top speed. There was something about the depth of the data transfer to me — chaotic and not really articulable by me — that influenced me in profound ways both times. And I think this is what Boris was talking about, about art, especiallly challenging art, communicating information about the universe that we are not really able to comprehend in any systematic way: we can take a bash at it, we can define & systematize, but the chaotic and big nature of out-there art is precisely powerful because we can’t describe it properly. By it’s nature it’s beyond a complete intellectual definition; so much data referring to so much, interacting with our own particular data processing systems. But somehow there is great value in that process, because it forces me to *try* (we are, after all, so earnest we humans) to process the data, and in doing so I reform my brain paths, and evolve my brain to try to cope with a changing universe.

And this, maybe, is why the free software/open source and open data movement is actually of huge importance. An open source approach to problems, along with an open data approach to the world will allow “us” to a) have access to the data we need to solve problems and b) allow all of us to contribute to the solving of these problems in open source projects.

I have a feeling that the world will become more chaotic soon. Two things in particular make me worried: climate change, and oil supplies. Those two issues are catastrophic in ways that most people aren’t willing to admit: human civilization has developed over a small band of time, the last 10,000 years, with relatively warm & relatively stable climate (scroll down to chart: “Temperature of Lower Atmosphere Last 400,000 years“). If things get unstable, we’ll be in trouble. As for oil everything in our modern world is based on cheap available oil, particularly our food-supply system. Without cheap fuel for farm equipment, and food transport, we’re in big trouble.

So if you consider that:
a) major environmental challenges (ie. global upheaval) are on the way
b) successful organisms are those that best adapt to environmental challenges
c) providing the maximum amount of data to maximum number of people will allow maximum adaptibility
d) and supporting open source solutions to problems is the most flexible & adaptable approach

Then any society that does not support open access to civic data; and open source solutions to problems … is likely to have major troubles soon. This is the next level of democracy … data democracy, and is I think crucial for our survival. Maybe that’s too much; but a country (say Canada) that embraces data democracy, will inevitably become more flexible, more nimble and more innovative in its solutions.

Do you think our politicians are at all ready to think about this? There’s a new, not yet public project, called, that will try to convince governments to start. Good work Mike.

stress & brain development, the open movement

From Seed: Reinvention of the Self:

To understand how neurogenesis “the process of creating new brain cells” works, Gould’s lab studies the effect of two separate variables: stress and enriched environments. Chronic stress, predictably enough, decreases neurogenesis. As Christian Mirescu, one of Gould’s post-docs, put it, “When a brain is worried, it’s just thinking about survival. It isn’t interested in investing in new cells for the future.”

On the other hand, enriched animal environments “enclosures that simulate the complexity of a natural habitat” lead to dramatic increases in both neurogenesis and the density of neuronal dendrites, the branches that connect one neuron to another. Complex surroundings create a complex brain.

This applies to my post about open data too, I think. A brain becomes more sophisticated in a situation when faced with “enriched environments” … chronic stress stops things. Note there’s a big difference between chronic stress – which puts you in constant survival mode; and discrete stress, which forces you to find a solution to a specific problem. I would argue that having a complex brain, stimulated by “enriched environments,” allows you to overcome discrete stress (call that environmental challenges) in more creative and effective ways.

As this applies to society: we will be best able to meet complex challenges if we expose society to “enriched environments.” Enriched environments mean, I think, access to maximum amounts of data; and public domain, open data movements mean just that. A vibrant public domain (free software, art, civic data, scientific information, agriculture) will mean a more vibrant and innovative society, better able to meet major challenges (say: climate change, peak oil, avian flu). The connections between art & software & science & civic acess are not yet clear to the world at large. But some are working hard to forge these links, across a spectrum of areas, seeking to increase data exchange, and give the tools of data production to new people. Others don’t quite get it yet. Still others seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot, by fighting the obvious. That’s OK. You can’t expect everyone to get it. But you can keep pushing.

(tip to: Tech Monk & mtl3p)

Free Mountain – on Reading Montreal

I was asked to write an article in Reading Montreal. Go check out the site. But here’s the text, and a photo (by Nika Vee):

In the mid 1840s, Sir James Alexander proposed that Mount Royal should be turned into a park, and twenty-five years later, 1869, the City of Montreal amended its charter to approve a $350,000 loan to purchase the land. At the time Montreal, population 112,000, was confined to ten city blocks by the river, and many city councilors argued that the Park was too far from the border of the city to be useful. But Mayor Aldis Bernard pushed for the project (as well as Ile St-Helene, and Parc Lafontaine), and the land was purchased, with a final bill of $1 million, an extraordinarily hefty sum for the time. The park wasn’t inaugurated until 1876, by which time the city had expanded significantly. A few decades later, the park was surrounded by houses and development: if the city had waited, the land would have been too expensive to buy. If Montreal had waited, Mount Royal would be a condo development, and not a park.

mount royal - by nika veeYet the value of the Park, however you want to define the word value, is incalculable. The value to ordinary citizens, the values of properties near the park, the value to the city as a tourist draw, as a hallmark of world-class status. If you could quantify the economic returns from the park, I’m certain you would find it had paid for itself many times over. And if you just measured its value as benefit to the people of the city, that million bucks would be a trivial steal.

We are currently at a turning point in the history of human knowledge, and clear battle lines have been drawn. On one side (let’s call it EVIL) you have those who think information should be controlled and parceled out based on various criteria: money, for instance, and the ability to pass entrance exams at certain universities. On the other side (we’ll call this side GOOD), you have the people who think information should be available to anyone who wants it: the wikipedians, the audiobook makers (disclosure: I am one) and their text-based ancestors, the creative commoners, and the free software crusaders who did much of the philosophical and legal thinking behind this exploding movement of internet do-gooders.

Web2.0 is one of those marketing-phrases that doesn’t mean all that much, and annoys those who have been citizens of the net – not just consumers, but creators – for years. But fundamental things have changed: everything got easy, everything got free, bandwidth all of a sudden got cheap, and kind folks made hosting space available for those who wanted to give their content away. All of a sudden we have blogs, and wikis, podcasts, vidcasts, and scanned books. We have universities committing to put everything online; we have scientists dedicated to explaining complicated issues properly, in public; we have communities writing text-books; academic journals opening themselves up to the world. Among thousands if not millions of other wonderful projects.

What had been the internet mall (or you could call it Web1.0) was opened up to the people, and they said: we want a vibrant city (Web2.0). And this isn’t just about the internet, it’s about all the sources of information you might imagine. It’s about Universal Access to All Human Knowledge. We’re just starting to see what this new city might look like, but certainly it will be a vibrant place, because, so far anyway, it’s got a big park in the middle of it. And the value that creates – economic or otherwise – will be, like Mount Royal, incalculable.

Yet there are forces pushing in the other direction. Forces who wish to influence our governments away from letting the internet be a park, and a market, and a sidewalk, and a home, and everything else a vibrant city is. There are forces who want to keep it as a mall.

London and Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney Australia, New York, and certainly Montreal, offer a mix of commerce, food, art, parks, public space, business, transport, relaxation, all in one place. The components of one add to the others, and make an integrated whole. Each of those cities have their own particularities (the pubs and pin-stripes of London, the Bistros and buildings of Paris, the cafes and churches of Rome, the butchers and chaos of Hong Kong, the taxis and galleries of New York, the terasses and staircases of Montreal). But all these cities give the sense that life is happpening, before your eyes, that you are in the midst of a place alive. Either by design or history, life is encouraged to happen in public.

In his book, The City After the Automobile, Moishe Safdie writes at length about Le Corbusier and other architects of the 20th century city, who laid the foundations for our lifeless, particularly North American cities, designed for cars, not people; arranged around unusable and unused public space, parking lots, highways, and commerce; the desire to close the formerly public within private walls; and the separation of the different bits of life into their component parts. That is, confine big commerce within malls (with no natural light to distort things!), with few controllable entrances, and no life to speak of outside; keep the schools over there and the churches over here, the business parks isolated, and the housing developments somewhere else altogether. And certainly no small shops anywhere near where people live.

In other words, among other things, the design of these cities took all the component bits of life, separated them, removed the “need” for public space, and sterilized everything, killed everything. The result everyone knows: cities no one likes, but which provide relatively large yards.

Public Space, and Public Domain improves life for everyone — even the rich who can afford to finance their own, sterile versions of life as they wish it. This is why vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods (such as Montreal’s Mile End) attract artists and students, and subsequently the rich. People like to live in places where life is happening. And life happens where there is public space for all the elements of life to intersect. New York’s East Village, for instance, is an astounding place (increasingly less-so, it’s being mallified slowly), and nothing is more wonderful than the those spaces squeezed between two tenement buildings that have been transformed into tiny community gardens, some of which have become the home to chickens! In downtown Manhattan.

The planners of Montreal were smart enough to buy Mount Royal when they still could. It was a fantastic amount of money at the time, yet Montreal is unimaginable without Mount Royal – just as New York is unimaginable without Central Park. These public spaces are the foundations on which the wealth of these cities is built. Today, we all need to be vigilant with our politicians, our governments, and with ourselves, to make sure we keep the internet a vibrant city, and not let it become a strip mall. Again.