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Archive for February 2014

Stand up for Science: the other speeches

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Speak up for science

Speak up for science

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago, unfortunately.  So I’ve collected excerpts to share for the next few posts. Previous posts include excerpts from the speeches of Sarah Otto,Thomas Kerr, Alexandra Morton, and Lynne Quarmby.

Speaking at the gathering were also a number of well known environmentalists: Tzeporah Berman, David Suzuki, Craig Orr, Fin Donelly, and Joe Foy.  They are public figures who have spoken on many occasions, and maybe because of that they are easier to tune out, and their speeches may not have the raw emotion of the scientists who spoke at the event.  But what they have to say matters a great deal (click on their names for more info, you’ll see).  I have collected excerpts from their speeches in this post.  (Longer versions of the speeches can be found here. A great overview of the issue can be found in Chris Turner’s book The War on Science and the documentary The Silence of the Labs.)

Tzeporah Berman said, in part:

Our government’s plan for 9 million barrels a day is consistent with a world that has 6 degree warming scenarios. The International Energy Agency said that for $1 spent on clean energy technology we will save $4 in dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Oil corrodes. It corrodes pipelines and it is corroding our democracy. Democracy thrives with the widespread dissemination of knowledge, with transparency, and with education. It helps us to make good decisions. Democracy thrives with shared knowledge that creates informed debate.

How about if we take the 1.2 billion dollars this year that our government is giving, our tax payers money, to subsidize the oil and gas industry, the most profitable companies on the planet, how about we use that to research the toxins leaking into the drinking water of the Athabascan Chipewayn First Nations of the tar sands, how about if we use that money to research the impacts that are happening in Canada from climate change?   How about if we use some of that 1.2 billion dollars so that First Nations have the resources to understand the projects being imposed on them?

This year the UN told us that more people will lose their homes due to global warming as a result of climate change than war. Yet our federal government has not only stopped talking about climate change. We’ve heard less concern from Candaian scieintists, seen fewer studies, heard fewer reports. There has been much less reporting.

It is said that knowledge is power and the suppression of knowledge is the oppressor’s most powerful tool. In the last several years, we have experienced a dramatic suppression of knowledge in Canada, a disturbing silencing of some of the country’s most important scientists. Some of our most important scientific bodies have been shut down because this is a government that does not want to talk about climate change and not address climate change and expand the tar sands at the rate they want.

Let’s be clear. This is not an issue of right or left. This is an issue of right and wrong.

 

David Suzuki said, among other things:

We now have a prime minister intent on pushing through the pipeline across British Columbia before all of the scientific information—the assessment—is even in. We don’t make informed decisions that way. We have to assess the information available. But what we are now is we are threatened with politicians deciding, not only whether or not to listen to scientists, but the kind of information that scientists are allowed to tell us about.

 

Craig Orr:

There is an uncertainty dichotomy in which scientists use uncertainty to drive inquiry while industry uses uncertainty to drive the status quo.

 

Fin Donnelly:

It is a tactic. If you muzzle scientists, if you don’t get that information out to the public, then there are no problems. You can move ahead with your agenda. And there is an agenda. Harper is focusing on the next two years as we move toward a federal election and he is focused on getting oil to markets.

The pattern is: do things behind closed doors. Do not include parliamentarians. Do not include the public. That has to change.

 

Joe Foy:

I understand that the truth matters, it matters how things work. Good decisions mean a good life and bad decisions mean a life trying to fix your mistakes and that’s why science matters.

More and more, at the Wilderness Committee, we have to rely on Freedom of Information legislation. Information our tax money paid for, we should be able to have access to that information. It can take as much as a year to get critical information on critical projects.

Detlev Raasch, 1936-2014

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Detlev, with Dinah and Liesel

Detlev, with Dinah and Liesel

Just as I was finishing my blog article on Hamburg, last Friday, I got really sad news: Detlev Raasch, Dinah’s uncle, passed away.  Two weeks ago, he went to the hospital for a bout of pneumonia, and never made it (doctors found he had advanced leukemia).

Though he could be a stubborn old coot (why didn’t you see a doctor earlier?), he had a cheerful outlook on life and a contagious smile, and was generous to a fault.  Detlev was our anchor in Germany, the main reason we’ve visited Hamburg so often in the past. 

I didn’t know him all that well – living continents apart will do that – and I can’t pretend to even imagine what life was like for a child in Berlin during the war (he was born there in 1936).   But there are some facets of his life I’d like to share, because that’s how I came to understand some aspects of life in Germany.

Detlev was part of that generation that lived the so-called German miracle, when the country quickly moved from post-war destitution to prosperity.  Detlev, trained as an electrician, soon moved from rental housing  to owning a house of his own for his family (two children).  He located a suburban area outside Hamburg that was developing, and had a house built there; part of the reason he chose that area was that it was well serviced by a commuter train within walking distance.

Detlev with grandsons Alexander and Nicholas, and me.

Detlev with grandsons Alexander and Nicholas, and me.

In that he followed countless people who moved to the growing suburbs after the war; my dad did the same in Montreal.  But there the comparison stops; the commuter train that had similarly influenced Dad’s decision soon had its service cut; the Germans, on the other hand, kept investing in commuter rail and subways.  While there’s been sprawl on both sides of the ocean, European cities contain theirs better and remain walkable because of their emphasis on transit.

The other thing I want to relate has to do with education.  Detlev was originally trained as an electrician, but he soon became an electronics engineer.  German education puts a strong emphasis on technical training, and it was relatively straightforward for him to move up the technical ladder.  This may be harder to do now (education has become more rigid everywhere); but in Canada, it is nearly impossible.  For instance, the skills and education of an electrician are neither credited nor valued when learning engineering (as a result, many graduating electrical engineers may know much valuable theory but wouldn’t trust themselves with wiring).

This is not a new revelation; much has been written on the superiority of the German technical education, which some claim is the reason for lower youth unemployment (see here or here, for instance).   That was noted at least as far back as 1955, as this Journal of Electrical Engineers article here attests, when Detlev was studying.

As an engineering instructor I was always struck by the fact that any of my students who already had a technical background did far better than the others; their technical education had given them a mental framework on which to hang the theoretical concepts.  Learn the how before learning the why, as it were; this works better than the other way around, which is unfortunately how formal degree education is structured in this country.

I always looked to Detlev as an example of this.  As he progressed in his career to more abstract integrated circuit design, Detlev retained his practical skills and his ability to tinker with things.  He did indeed do all the electrical wiring in his own house; and he had the self-confidence to invest in new systems, like his solar collector or the VW cogen system that heats his home (I wrote about it before here).   Wish I could say the same about our own Canadian grads; we do them a disservice by not stressing the practical skills.  But that self-confidence was an important component of Detlev’s cheerful disposition – nothing like a sense of control to make you feel like you can deal with whatever life throws your way.

Detlev with his VW cogen heat and electricity system

Detlev with his VW cogen heat and electricity system

Well, so long Detlev.  Sure wish I could have shared another beer with you.  You taught me that, bad as things can be sometimes, there are always reasons for hope – even for the environment!  

Written by enviropaul

February 16, 2014 at 8:50 pm

What’s green in Hamburg, Germany?

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Hamburg's green network

Hamburg’s green network

When people think about Hamburg and northern Germany, what usually comes to mind are grimy industrial cities and ports.  This impression, if it was ever true, is at least fifty years out of date, and Hamburg is one of the greenest European cities.

What is usually meant by that is plenty of city parks and trees, and Hamburg has that in spades.  But what I wanrted to look into is the other definition of green city: one that goes easy on the environment.

What that usually means is a city with good walkability and urban transit, as well as examples of energy conservation and renewable energy production.  Hamburg has plenty of that, too; but there are also unique intiatives that made the European Commission bestow the 2011 Green Capital Award, and they are worth describing.

(I should mention that I hope to go back to Hamburg soon, and this is a sort of travel planning on my part; things I’d be loath to miss.)

The energy bunker with ts new solar panels cover

The energy bunker with ts new solar panels cover

Some of the individual buildings are particularly noteworthy.  Among them is the EnergieBunker, an undestructible WW2 bunker (the occupying British tried to demolish the eyesore structure, but gave up) converted into into an energy centre.  Not only is it covered in photovoltaics, but its thermal mass (with two-meter thick concrete walls) is such that it is used as storage for hot water produced by solar energy and biomass.

The BIQ algal house

The BIQ algal house

Then there is the BIQ house, an appartment building that grows an algae culture within its windows and periodically harvests them to produce biofuel, which is used to produce both heat and electricity for the complex.  It’s a clever way to store solar energy, and on bright sunny days, the algae absorb excess solar energy and provide some shading; this is touted as the very first full-scale bioreactive facade.  Or again the woodcube house, an all-wood appartment complex made without any synthetic chemicals.  Environmental creds are so important that there’s a eco-hotel that builds its advertising around its features: solar electricity, cogen heat, rain water flusing system, recycled wood for materials, and of course local food. 

The wood cube

The wood cube

But a few nifty buildings aren’t enough to make a green city; urban planning is needed, and in this respect Hamburg shines, with several large development projects.

The most high-profile initiative is HafenCity, the largest inner-city redevelopment project in Europe (172 ha), with planned housing for over 10,000 people as well as office and commercial space for a whopping 45,000 jobs.  Sustainable architecture is used, with 30% getting a Ecolabel Gold rating (the equivalent of our LEED), and the buildings include functions as diverse as a university campus, the Spiegel publishing headquarters, a commercial centre, and even Greenpeace Deutschland headquarters (which the city brags about – goes to show the distance in environmental politics between Canada and Germany!).

The other major development is on Wilhelmsburg Island, which will see a large urban redevelopment project and in 2013 hosted the International Building Exhibition (as well as the International garden Exhibition, throwing in a few green roofs for good measure).  It will be interesting to follow whether this urban renewal project, set in a former low income industrial area, will age well and provide good low-income housing facilities, or whether it will simply lead to another gentrification problem.

Covering the A7 highway

Covering the A7 highway

The city is also covering a 2.5 kilometer section of highway A7, turning what was until now a noisy highway in a ditch into a linear green park (with a highway tunnel underneath, of course).  This is part of an ambitious plan to create a network of parks and green areas that will cover 40% of the city’s surface area.  One of the objectives of this plan is to absorb rain and provide flood control (the city suffered from a catastrophic flood in 1962, and last year’s flood reminded everyone about the dangers that climate change is bringing, both from sea level rise and increased storm intensity).

The city has also recently unveiled an ambitious plan to become a car-free city by eliminating the need for private car travel through the downtown area within the next twenty years, making pedestrian and cycling paths, along with transit and commercial vehicles, the main modes of transport.   All this is in keeping with Hamburg’s stated goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2020, and 80% by 2050 (with respect to 1990 levels).  It is boosting wind and solar electricity generation, as well as enforcing high-level energy efficiency standards on its housing.  Industry incentives are also helping reducing energy needs, such as the adoption of a new iron reducing process in Hamburg’s ArcelorMittal steel mill, showing that heavy industry can survive even when energy is expensive (a situation that actually drives innovation).

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Hamburg is an environmental saint; it is, after all, largely powered by coal, and made headlines with its 2013 announcement of a new coal plant in Moorburg.  But even then, this plant will be a high efficiency one, and along with generating electricity its heat will serve for district heating.   It is also designed with a unique feature: instead of having to remain on all the time, like other coal plants, it can ramp up to meet demand, so that it produces only peak demand (when there is no wind, for instance).

But even with that, we in Vancouver can only envy what’s going on in Hamburg.  And to think we’re Canada’s greenest city!

Written by enviropaul

February 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Speak up for Science 2013: Lynne Quarmby

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Biologist Lynne Quarmby

Biologist Lynne Quarmby

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  Among them was Dr Lynne Quarmby, and I have reproduced a few excerpts of her speech below.

The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago, unfortunately.  So I’ve collected excerpts to share for the next few posts. Previous posts include excerpts from the speeches of Sarah Otto, Thomas Kerr, and Alexandra Morton.

Lynne Quarmby, Molecular Biologist at SFU, has been called one of BC’s most influential women for advocacy of science. 

Dr Quarmby’s choice of research topic could hardly be more obscure, at least to the lay public.  Her lab was researching how a unicellular alga, chlamydomonas, sheds  its flagella in times of stress.  (The alga uses a flagella, a whip-like structure, to swim towards better lit areas or to avoid trouble, somehow.) This is research driven by pure curiosity: how does that work?  This is, unfortunately, also research that is often targeted by funding cuts.  What’s the point of finding out why and when something that looks like green scum gets rid of something so obscure?

Well, the results happen to show that the genes that control this phenomenon have a close relative in humans; and this has led to a much better understanding of how human diseases, such as kidney polycystic disease, progress, and potentially how they could be cured (see here and here).  This is one of the very many instances where curiosity-driven research has led, unexpectedly, to very important practical applications.  This kidney disease, which affects yound children, appears to be

Dr Quarmby is also a distinguished educator, having received the 2011 Teaching Excellence award from SFU (see here).  Her talent as a communicator may well be why she has decided to play an active role in the environmental community, one of the first ethical requirements of a scientist being to communicate information for the benefit of the general public.

She joined her SFU colleague Marc Jaccard in a civil disobedience action against coal trains, one of her first participation in a protest.  She gave a lengthy interview about it to JB MacKinnon in the Tyee (read the full transcript here), in which she said:

One of the long-term issues I’ve been involved with is women in science, and because of that I’m pretty tuned in to science policy, and I’d been working hard in the usual political channels to raise some red flags about what Harper’s been doing to science funding. On the other side, I am an environmentally inclined person — I’m reluctant to say an “environmentalist,” because people automatically put you in a slot — so when Harper started impacting science on the environment, I really got upset, and when I saw the White Rock blockade information come up on my Facebook page, I just said, “Yeah, I’m there.”

During the Stand Up for Science demonstration, Quarmby summarized her views by saying:

I never could have predicted where pond scum research would take us. But that is how basic science works. There are similar stories all over Canada in math, science, chemistry. The role of basic science is essential to find brand new ways to do things. It is a mistake to target funding to areas where we think the technology should go because basic science is a font of unexpected results. The discoveries of science are an enormous part of culture and have fundamentally changed how we see ourselves. We need to embrace the needs of the spirit and reap beyond ourselves, to understand things we never thought it possible to understand.

 

Written by enviropaul

February 14, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Postmedia, Mike De Souza, and the oil industry

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Mike De Souza laid off

Mike De Souza laid off

So Mike de Souza was laid off by Postmedia this week.  Postmedia is the Vancouver Sun, the Province, the Montreal Gazette, and many other papers.  Very sad.

I suppose it was predictable.  Reporters covering the environmental beat tend to be laid off depressingly regularly (think of Ben Parfitt, for instance); and Postmedia is hemorrhaging money and laying off staff, including reporters.    

But there is something special with respect to the De Souza layoff.  It comes as the Vancouver Observer reveals the very intimate links between the oil industry and Postmedia.  Postmedia is to work closely with CAPP to “put the spotlight on the oil industry” and address the issue that “while Albertans may be acutely aware of this fact, the rest of the country often fails to grasp the fundamental role the energy sector plays in building and sustaining economic prosperity.”  In other words, desperate for money, Postmedia is offering to shill for the oil industry.

This is regrettable, since critical energy reporting is needed for a good public understanding of the issues, especially for hot topics like the oil sands, the pipelines, or natural gas from the Peace area.  But the oil and gas industry is its own worse enemy, sowing distrust by manipulating information.

This is why reporter like Mike De Souza play such a vital role.  Many of De Souza’s articles were based on ferreting facts using legal recourses such as Freedom of Information requests, information that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise.  And it is information that often exposes the cozy relationship between the government and the oil industry, and the shoddy environmental or safety practices that result.

Here are some examples:  De Souza reported on how the feds were failing to address safety for oil shipped by rail; how environment minister Aglukkaq refused to endorse her own ministry’s report that climate change was serious and mostly due to human action;  how 500 jobs and $100M were cut from the departments in charge of protecting our waters;  how Ottawa’s failure to enforce its own laws is putting species and habitats at risk; how minister Oliver edited a report from his own department in a climate change report, or how references to climate were deleted from the Transport Canada website; how the oil sands are endangering caribou or birds;  how the feds admit asbestos is hazardous, but fight labeling it so.  The list is nearly endless; but a full list of his articles can be accessed here.

Knowing the situation, now, when I read any article from, say, the Vancouver Sun about the oil sands or the pipelines, I dismiss any positive news because I reflexively assume that these are propaganda pieces from the industry, uncritical press releases accepted and published as is.

And that is really unfortunate.  From a technical standpoint, there is much to be proud of in the oil sands industry, including recent improvements in efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reductions.  But the collusion of the federal government, mainstream media, and the oil barons themselves has poisoned the dialogue; there is now little chance of anything other than an adversarial relationship.

I believe that the oil industry, including the oil sands, have an important role to play in our economy.  We need to decarbonize our economy, but it is unrealistic to expect an overnight change.  What is needed as a sober, realistic consideration of all the options; for that, we need complete transparency and full information.  Instead, we are getting manipulation and distrust.  I expect even the oil bosses will come to regret that, and wish there were many more Mike De Souza types around to keep them honest.  There cannot be long term prosperity without honesty.

Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Speak up for science 2013: excerpts from Alexandra Morton’s speech

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Alexandra Morton addressing the Vancouver crowd of Stand Up for Science

Alexandra Morton addressing the Vancouver crowd of Stand Up for Science

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago.  I have collected some excerpts to share in this blog; the last two featured exceprts from Sarah Otto and Thomas Kerr.  The bulk of the material comes from the Vancouver Observer.

One of the speaker was Alexandra Morton. Morton is a marine biologist who specializes in salmon and salmon diseases.  What she has uncovered on the West Coast has prompted her to speak out and as a result she is a well known figure in environmental circles.  She is controversial, but her work has resulted in recalls of tainted farm salmon in grocery stores, and she received the Sterling award and the Ransom Myers annual lecture speaker invitation (see story here), as well as being recognized as a Kick Ass Canadian.

Alexandra Morton keeps a blog (a great source for day-to-day events), but an easier overview of her work may be the recent documentary Salmon Confidential.  The documentary is potent enough to have inspired a virulent, anomymous attack on a mirror website (here).  Its synopsis reads:

When biologist Alexandra Morton discovers BC’s wild salmon are testing positive for dangerous European salmon viruses associated with salmon farming worldwide, a chain of events is set off by government to suppress the findings. Tracking viruses, Morton moves from courtrooms, into British Columbia’s most remote rivers, Vancouver grocery stores and sushi restaurants. The film documents Morton’s journey as she attempts to overcome government and industry roadblocks thrown in her path and works to bring critical information to the public in time to save BC’s wild salmon. The film provides surprising insight into the inner workings of government agencies, as well as rare footage of the bureaucrats tasked with managing our fish and the safety of our food supply.

Here are some excerpts from Morton’s talk:

I am standing up for science because the evidence suggests that our life depends on it. We can sense that something is going very wrong but we are unable to get to work on it, we are unable to start fixing it. This is the quality of nightmares, where you are stuck and unable to respond to something that you know is going to affect your children and yourself.

….

Saving this planet is not a spectator sport. It does require your involvement and so we need to each pick up the tools of science and when you go and put your money down on the counter or you stick your interact card into one of the little machines, you should know what it is you are purchasing. Why are the bees vanishing from the planet? Because people are making money at it. Why are they shattering the earth’s crust to get the last little bit of gas out? Because people are making money at it. Why are atlantic salmon in the pacific risking everything, our economy, First Nations, the oxygen we breathe? Because Norway is making money at it. Your the fuel source. Has anyone seen Matrix? We’re the fuel source, that’s us. And so its very very important to know you actually are the only ones in control. You can feed the monster that is destroying our planet or you can help us rebuild a world that we can pass on to our children. We all know that what our children face is pretty bleak. I don’t know what Stephen Harper is thinking – he has children, all the work that we are doing will benefit his children, Obama’s children, our children, the babies of killer whales, the young salmon. There are no losers in rebuilding our planet.

As I see it there is one thing that we need to do. We need to learn how to work with the natural forces that made us, made our planet, made everything we love on this planet.

In 2011 we had the Cohen inquiry into why our biggest population of wild salmon is declining and I read the records of a government scientist who said he saw the evidence of European viruses known to kill massive numbers of salmon, he saw evidence that those diseases that are in the farmed salmon that are in the ocean in British Columbia. This changed my life. I responded. I have organized a national salmon sampling program. I have sought out two of the best labs in the world for these specific viruses and we agreed wtih the original government scientist, the BC provincial vet. We felt he was right. We found sequence of these three viruses in the farmed salmon of BC and in some of the wild salmon.

I had the feeling the government wasn’t going to react so I sent the filmmaker Twyla Rosovitch to Norway to film the experts, the Norwegian scientists who by the way were free to talk to us. They said the virus is dangerous, there is no way to stop it in Norway, it can keep salmon from swimming up rivers. They said, we suggest you contain it. The laboratories and I published in Virology Journal, the top journal on viruses. We published that the virus had come to BC in approximately 2007 and it matched a virus in Norway. How did that happen? Viruses don’t fly.

What has government’s response been? Complete silence. We have a Norwegian virus spreading through the farmed salmon and wild salmon in BC. Nearly 100% of the farmed salmon in BC that we are buying in local supermarkets are infected with this virus. What else happened? The lab I’m using was stripped of its international authority, humiliated amongst his peers. Nobody will say why.

What else has happened? In the last very short while, the original government scientist, the BC provincial fish farm vet, resigned from the vet college of BC. He is no longer able to practice veterinary medicine in BC. Two Canada Food Inspection Agency veterinarians, one has resigned and one has been suspended.

Does that feel like the situation is being handled with this virus? That anything is being done?

No.

…. I am taking up the role of regulator…. People ask me how I will get the government to accept the results of my research. I don’t have enough years left in my life to get them to accept the results. I need you to accept the results, to stand by my findings.