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February 22, 2007

Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill - and the Wrong Mountain, at That

Hey, Ottawa? You guys might want to think about getting out more. Take it from me, man: you're losing perspective.

Let me stipulate that I think it was silly for the PM to bring up the article when he did; let me also stipulate that the allegation is overwrought - though no more, and in fact considerably less, than most of the bombastic rhetoric that flies back and forth in the House every day.

What amazes me is the way the Grits have misconstrued the allegation. Harper wasn't saying that Bains inappropriately influneced his colleagues on behalf of his father-in-law. Bains is hardly the heaviest hitter in caucus, after all. Even if that were the case, it wouldn't amount to an allegation that Bains was a terrorist; it would amount to an allegation that Bains was a nepotist.

The allegation is one of nepotism, but it's not against Bains: it's against the Liberal Party itself. Harper's claim, paraphrased, is: it's just like the Grits to oppose a provision they once supported, since it'll benefit one of their own. Overwrought, again, and silly. But not a personal slander; a partisan one.

I do think the Grits are purposefully misconstruing the allegation; it's easier to rouse outrage based on an ad hominem attack than based on a partisan attack (especially since, construed as a partisan attack, the allegation - silly as it is - has some resonance, at least inasmuch as it evokes real instances of Grit nepotism). But I'd be interested to hear how folks 'south of the Queensway' are reacting to this little brouhaha. My impression from way down here is that it's pretty much indecipherable to anyone not fully plugged in; it simply looks like politics as usual, with Harper saying something confusing about a topic not at hand, and the Grits getting all riled up for reasons that are less than clear.

Am I wrong? Is this the blunder that costs Harper his minority?

Posted by David Mader at 03:08 PM | (4) | Back to Main

February 17, 2007

Not Trying Hard Enough

Andrew Coyne's website is cool and all, but don't you wish he had a little more content?

Kidding, kidding. As always, Coyne is a trailblazer in seamless content integration. He's been trying to do this since he got into the blogging game, and I'm sure this isn't the final iteration.

Posted by David Mader at 07:25 PM | (0) | Back to Main

February 15, 2007

Quote of the day

"Judges may have their back room affiliation but unlike the U.S. we donít have divergent schools of legal thought."

- John Moore, criticizing the Conservative aim of increasing the ideological diversity of the bench. I may be mistaken, but it sounds to me like Moore is proud of the fact.

Posted by David Mader at 12:14 PM | (1) | Back to Main

February 13, 2007

Politicizing the Bench

Stephane Dion complains about the politicization of the judicial selection process:

"Canadians want our judges to be selected without political or ideological interference. Will the prime minister stop his shameless attempts to stack the committees with his ideologue friends?" Dion asked during question period. . . .

"Canada's system for selecting judges worked. The prime minister is pretending to fix something that everybody knows isn't broken," [Dion] said.

"Canada's system for selecting judges worked"?
Mr. Corbeil said the people who received the cash payments were part of a larger group of party supporters who worked at the Liberal Party's headquarters in Montreal during the election campaign. He said most of that larger group were lawyers, engineers or accountants from major firms, which he said hoped to reap federal contracts after the election.

"They don't want to get paid right away, they want to get paid later," he said, noting that many of the lawyers have since been named to the bench.

It's one thing to add ideological balance to the judicial selection committee. It's another thing to sell seats on the bench. If Dion wants to propose a standing RCMP task-force to investigate corruption in the appointment process, I'm all for it.

OF COURSE if Dion is concerned about the advice coming out of the committee, he could always push to have judges confirmed by Parliament...

Posted by David Mader at 11:44 AM | (1) | Back to Main

February 11, 2007

Help!

Paul Wells has been kidnapped by 1996!

(Screen grab here.)

Posted by David Mader at 10:22 AM | (0) | Back to Main

February 07, 2007

Avenue du Parc

Paul Wells is right. 'We' do deserve our own street. Here's what I propose: we change the name of "Rene Levesque" and call it, I dunno, "Dorchester."

Posted by David Mader at 10:49 AM | (0) | Back to Main

February 06, 2007

Preliminary Thoughts on Climate Change

I haven't been blogging for the past couple of months, but I have been thinking. Climate change has been a prominent topic. The election of Stephane Dion as Liberal leader confirmed that the environment would become a political issue in 2007, but there can be little doubt, I think, that the issue had taken hold of the public debate, if only in seed form, prior to his selection. (It will be a matter of historical contention, I think, whether Dion's election was a cause or consequence of the rise of environmental consciousness as an electoral matter; as I suggest, I fall on the 'consequence' side, though I acknowledge that it was a consequence in a mysterious and undefinable way.)

As I began to think about the issue last fall, I quickly realized two things: first, that I knew next to nothing about the issue, and second, that almost no one else did either. As I set about trying to rectify that, I realized a third thing: that it was almost impossible to find a critically objective summary of the issue.

This third conclusion was a little surprising: the great claim of science is its objectivity, a consequence of the scientific method and the notion of falsifiability. Indeed, I have no claim against the scientific methods used by those on either side of the climate change 'debate.' But what quickly became clear to me is that - perhaps because of the technical complexity of the issue - those who were seemingly best equipped to speak to the issue were at the same time ill-equipped to speak to the policy implications of the issue in a politically neutral manner.

I suspect we're all familiar with, on the one hand, the scientist who gets frustrated by any suggestion that global warming is not occurring, and, on the other hand, the skeptic who is categorical in his denials. Neither the frustration nor the categorical approach is helpful in developing a neutral understanding of the issue. Perhaps the issue really is binary, though I doubt it; but even if it is, absolute statements seem overwrought to me. Given the literally global nature of the issue, the evidence must necessarily (I should think) be cumulative, not independently dispositive.

As with most things, I think the root of this absolute contention is a failure to enunciate and understand the basic principles underlying each of the absolute positions. Sure, some of the disagreement is empirical - is the earth warming up, or is it not? - and that sort of disagreement can be settled, to the degree that any such disagreement can, through empirical evidence. But the real meat of the debate, I think, is over secondary and non-empirical factors, the most prominent being whether and to what degree humans are causing or contributing to climate change.

These are interesting questions, and I hope that as climate change receives more public attention it will also receive more critical analysis from non-scientific thinkers. But the more I thought about these issues myself, the more I came to wonder whether, in fact, the answers to these questions really mattered - from a policy standpoint. My tentative conclusion is that they don't. In other words, I'm willing to assume, for the purposes of discussion, that a) climate change is indeed occurring and b) humans are in fact a significant contributing factor to that climate change.

I hear you guffawing; how big of me to concede the reality of climate change. If you're guffawing it's because, I think, you take for granted your own first principles. But let's put that aside for the moment, since I've conceded those points. Let's instead focus on the next question: given the reality of climate change (posited for the purposes of discussion), and given the reality of human contribution to climate change (similarly admitted for the purposes of discussion), what should we - and specifically we as Canadians - do about it?

I) The Intrinsic Worth of the Present State of the Environment

One thing that's long bugged me about environmental claims as political claims is that they seem to assume that the present state of the environment is the desirable state of the environment. In other words, we want to 'save the environment' by acting to address climate change because, the claim goes, the state of the environment at present is 'better' - has a greater worth - than the state of the environment following climate change. But why is this necessarily so?

Presumably the claim is not that in its current state the environment is pristine; many an environmentalist would, I should think, locate the environment's pristine condition in some pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural age. But any declared 'pristine' state could be criticized based on the existence of a prior state; in the abstract, there's no logical pre-eminent pristine state of the environment.

Moreover, and as a related point, there's no good reason to exclude the consequences of human activity from the set of potentially pristine states. This is another thing that's bugged me for a while: humans are natural creatures, and therefore (I suggest) their products are as natural as the products of any other natural creature. Our beaver dams are monumentally complex, but they're still beaver dams.

The search for a pristine state of the environment is hopeless in the abstract; any given state of the environment, including the present state of the environment, has no intrinsic worth.

II) The Relative Worth of the Present State of the Environment

The present state of the environment has no intrinsic worth, but that doesn't mean that it has no worth whatsoever. It simply means that its worth will be tied to some function extrinsic to its present state. The pre-industrial environment had worth insofar as the post-industrial environment is less supportive of the health of creatures living within it. The same would be true of the present state of the environment relative to the state of the environment following climate change. In other words, the present state of the environment is worth maintaining not for its own sake but because (and to the degree that) it better supports human life than the environment that would follow climate change.

Accepting this principle - that the environment has value not for its own sake but to the degree that it achieves a particular task - changes the way we look at climate change and potential policy responses. It means that climate change, and the policies we enact in response, ought to be evaluated based on the impact on the environment's ability to achieve the particular task of supporting human life.

III) To the Degree That We Can Act to Avoid Climate Change, We Should Therefore Do So

Since I drew up my preliminary thoughts, voices have raised the possibility that a post-climate change environment would in fact be 'better' - which is to say, more supportive of human life - than the current environment. For instance, I've heard it suggested that Canada could benefit from climate change through the lengthening of the crop-growing season. This is in part an empirical question, in part a speculative one. Let's stipulate that climate change as currently forecast would have a net detrimental effect on the environment's ability to support human life.

Assuming that to be the case, I think it's fair to say that we ought to do what we can to make sure that a post-climate change environment is as good as the present environment at supporting life or, barring that, as good as it can be at supporting life.

I don't know what nature this duty takes or ought to take. At the very least it seems a moral duty. Whether it's a legal duty is another question, and regular readers will know that I oppose basing legal duties on moral duties absent some independent rational justification. There may be such a justification here: the American Judge Learned Hand once suggested that the existence of a breach of duty could be determined by calculating the cost of action on the part of the party with the duty and comparing it to the probability and size of the loss to the party covered by the duty. If the burden was less than the product of the probability and the size of the loss - if B[greater than]PL - then a duty had been breached.

This is an economic-efficiency approach to duty, and it can be applied in the climate change context: if climate change is likely to result in an environment that is markedly less able to support human life, then it would be efficient to spend up to the value of the loss of life (and attendant economic disruption) at present in order to prevent that loss.

This leads, of course, to a debate about both the likelihood and the magnitude of climate change: in order to justify the tremendous burden placed on the market by many of the currently proposed policy responses, the consequences of climate change would seemingly have to be nearly certain and nearly cataclysmic. But if such policies will in fact prevent (or mitigate to a significant extent) the negative consequences of climate change, then I think it's fair to argue that we indeed have a logical duty to enact those policies.

IV) However, Even if We Could, as a Theoretical Matter, Act to Avoid Climate Change, as a Practical Matter We Won't

I use 'we' here in a global rather than a national sense. Contribution to climate change is cumulative - there are no unilateral actors. Indeed, to the degree that there are unilateral actors, Canada is not one of them. According to a 2004 report by the Pew Center, Canada (in the year 2000) contributed 2.1% of global greenhouse emissions. That compares to the US at 20.6%, China (14.8%), Russia (5.7%), India (5.5%), Japan (4%), Germany (2.9%), Brazil (2.5%), and the UK (2.0%). The point is that absent global action, any green action Canada takes will have little effect; indeed, given the relatively small impact Canada makes in terms of emissions, it's not hard to imagine that a total cessation of greenhouse gas emissions by Canada (a theoretical impossibility, mind) would have zero effect on climate change due to the increases in emissions in other countries.

It's where those emissions - and increases - are coming from that makes all the difference. Take another look at the figures above. They're seven years old (if you can find newer, please forward them to me). I'm willing to bet that nearly all of the countries on that list have increased their greenhouse gas emissions. I'm also willing to bet that three countries - China, Russia, and India - have increased at a greater rate than the rest. Why? Because they're relatively poor - and they're industrializing. But here's the kicker: I think it's illogical to expect these countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global initiative to mitigate climate change.

Why? Because they're poor. Environmentalism is a rich man's game. Green technology is, for the most part, expensive. True, certain relatively cheap methods of reducing emissions may exist. But relatively cheap methods are still relatively expensive - they're expensive relative to the cost of not adopting those methods. As long as a green alternative imposes any marginal cost on a manufacturer, or farmer, or other emitter, there will be an economic incentive not to adopt that alternative.

Rich countries can, of course, incentivize the adoption of alternatives through tax schemes, subsidies, and the like. These schemes cost money, both directly and through opportunity and down-stream costs, but rich countries and their citizens can, in the aggregate, afford to take that hit.

Poor countries and their citizens cannot. First, they generally lack the wealth, both on the individual and the national level, necessary to incentivize emitters to adopt green alternatives. This timely article makes that point. Second, even if they could incentivize in theory, these countries generally lack the strong administrative structures necessary to enforce compliance with the incentivization schemes - in other words, they can't keep people from cheating.

The crucial fact is that in these countries the emitters are more likely to be poorer than their developed-world counterparts. This poverty results in a much greater marginal cost to the adoption of green alternatives, meaning a) the cost of incentivization is greater and b) the benefit of cheating is greater.

My contention, then, is that the very nations most likely to be increasing their share of global greenhouse gas emissions - those countries that are developing rapidly but as yet lack broad societal wealth - are the nations least likely to be expected to voluntarily enact or efficiently enforce policies that will reduce those emissions.

V) Without a Global Approach, Unilateral Action Will be Ineffective
Much of what I've said so far is subject to the possibility both empirical and theoretical rebuttal, which I look forward to. What I'm about to suggest is most clearly subject, I think, to quick empirical falsification. Here it is: if it's the case that developing nations are the greatest (or even coequal) contributors to climate change, at least as measured by greenhouse gas emissions, then it may well be the case that any reductions achieved in Canada - or even throughout the developed world - will be drowned out by the contributions of the developing nations. When costing climate change policies, then, the proper comparator would not be an environment that results from a global approach but one that results from a green approach by those countries that can afford it and no approach by those countries that can't. The cost per degree reduction in heat - as a rough measure of the cost of reducing or preventing climate change - is likely to be significantly higher under this model. Indeed, it may prove immeasurably high - such that all our action would have no significant impact on climate change.

VI) If Unilateral Action to Reduce Contributions Will be Ineffective, We Must Plan for the Alternative

If it is indeed the case that a) developing countries cannot be relied upon to engage in reductions of climate-change-inducing contributions, b) developing countries contribute more than (or as much as) developed countries to climate change and (therefore) c) unilateral action by western countries will have an insignificant impact on climate change, then unilateral action is pointless - except to the degree that it makes us feel better about ourselves. But if, as argued above, the only value to the present state of the environment is its greater ability to support human life relative to the state of the environment following climate change, then we shouldn't feel good about ourselves. We're not doing our part in taking unilateral action, because our action is not - by hypothesis - affecting the alternative. Rather, we ought to plan for the alternative: invest in accurately predicting the consequences of climate change and, more importantly, invest in planning to make the alternative as livable as the current state of the environment.


These preliminary thoughts point, I think, to two fundamental questions: how do the contributions of developing countries in fact stack up to the contributions of developed countries (and how can they be expected to stack up into the future)? And given the relative sizes of the contributions, what effect would unilateral action by developed countries have on climate change?

If these questions suggest that green efforts in the west are doomed to be ineffective absent global participation, we ought to refocus our efforts. It's not admitting defeat, because you can't be at war with time: it's standing athwart history yelling stop, to the extreme. Instead it's refocusing on the core justification for environmentalism: the amelioration of the human condition. If the post-climate change environment is less conducive to human life than the current, and if the current environment is unsustainable absent global action, and if global action is impossible, then the task is to make the alternative more conducive to human life, not to moan about the loss of the current environment. Darwin taught us that species adapt to survive. It's time to adapt.

Posted by David Mader at 02:55 PM | (2) | Back to Main

In Our Cities. In Canada.

CTV reports on Harper's mini throne speech:

Harper also addressed the government's currently stalled law-and-order agenda, including mandatory prison sentences for gun crimes. He issued dark warnings about the opposition parties -- criticizing them for holding up his government's law-and-order legislative agenda in Parliament.

Voters, said Harper, have "a clear choice between a country that values safe streets and safe communities, versus a country were the streets are ruled by guns, gangs and drugs.''

I've neither read the full transcript nor watched the speech, but as reported this is just silly. I don't like this sort of political hyperbole, regardless of the speaker.

UPDATE: Just so we're clear, I think Harper gave a great speech, and I don't at all think that this one line detracts from that speech. Regular readers will know, I think, that I'm a pretty committed Harper supporter. That's sort of the point; even among those politicians I support - or perhaps especially among them - I look for sensible, not overblown, rhetoric.

Posted by David Mader at 02:25 PM | (1) | Back to Main