Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Canada! Canada! Canada!

You can hear the chanting in your ears as you fall asleep. The accolades of the world shower down; is it Olympic glory, no. Couldn't be the World Cup. Maybe a sweep of the Nobel Prizes, no! In fact, listening a little closer, one realizes that there's a tone of derision to the chanting. Yep, no doubt about it, there's something wrong here. Canada set a record by winning four out of a possible three Fossil of the Day Awards last Thursday at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change here in Poznan, Poland (bringing there total at the time to six). You heard me right, 4 outta 3, click here to find out how. Canada has become a world leader in avoiding (positive) action on climate change. By the by, if you're too lazy to click on the above link, three awards are given daily to the countries who give the worst input to the negotiations. While the US holds the all-time lead, Japan, Canada and Russia are leading the Poznan session.

It's easy to point fingers at Stephen Harper and his Conservative party, unfortunately you can't place the blame entirely on them for the current situation. No, the rot goes much deeper; perhaps Harper's latest maneuvering to hold onto power by shutting down the democratically elected Parliament could have some positive consequence if the people finally demand that their elected officials become responsible. While inaction on climate change has been perfected by the Tories, the Liberals were a very good role-model to follow. Someone should really be teaching a course in the seven-steps to avoidance,(very good .pdf here, I'm talking to you environment ministers) as other countries look for ever more effective methods of avoiding action.

But wait, what's that you say? There may be repercussions for these deniers, avoiders and do-nothingers? That's right my friends, there's good news as those in power may some day have to pay for their crimes against the planet. Of course it won't be only Canadian leaders; I'm sure all the industrialized countries will get their due as well along with the newer players on the scene, those wacky emerging markets. The home of the current Climate Change conference, Poland, along with her other Central/Eastern European neighbours should also expect to shoulder some of the legal problems for blocking an EU climate package. I'm talking about the class action lawsuit to be lodged by one Dan Bloom in the International Court of Justice against all world leaders for failing to prevent global warming this week. According to Reuter's he will sue the leaders for "intent to commit manslaughter against future generations of human beings by allowing murderous amounts of fossil fuels to be harvested, burned and sent into the atmosphere as CO2".

Alright, admittedly it looks more like a publicity stunt, but those responsible for pumping poison into our eco-system might want to take notice of a story I caught in the Guardian today. In a nutshell, the Oxford scientist quoted claims that science has advanced to the point where they can now judge the role of man in extreme climate events. According the Miles Allen, "We are starting to get to the point that when an adverse weather event occurs we can quantify how much more likely it was made by human activity. And people adversely affected by climate change today are in a position to document and quantify their losses". Up til now, tort cases involving civil wrongs have failed in several suits in the US however, as establishing causation has been difficult. Power companies and big oil are the most likely targets. Another course of legal action may also follow the example set by cases in the US against tobacco companies who deliberately misinformed the public about the effects of their business.

Disinformation, climate change deniers most effective weapon? Perhaps. As I pointed out in a previous post, even stories such as those in this post usually simply cause skeptics to roll their eyes and turn away. This won't stop those that are more passionate than I though from trying to shake the zombies out of their slumber. Stay tuned, there's more to come from Poznan.

Monday, December 8, 2008

D'Oh! Canada!

Can't resist urge... too tempting a target... must say it... Stephen Harper seems to be doing his best Robert Mugabe imitation. How could it happen you may ask, that a western democracy could sink to the level of an African dictatorship which also feigns democratic practices now and then. Well, watching the news from back home just seems to get more and more surreal. In October, it was the federal election in Canada, as the lemming hoard was lulled into repeating the same mistake they made on the previous trip to the ballot box and brought back a minority Conservative government. In times of economic turbulence such as these, most rational people would vote for change, but in the frozen tundra, the rules of logic don't seem to apply. Suddenly, a man who received a mandate from barely 20% of the eligible voting population has the means to effectively shut down parliament in order to maintain his grip on power.
Democracy in Canada is even stranger than the two-party farce known to their southern neighbours. It is best described as a Constitutional Monarchy where the highest ranking official in the land is an unelected hereditary monarch from a foreign power. Living so far away from her subjects, she (or he) is represented in the country by someone called the governor-general. While this monarch holds full executive powers in theory, the Prime Minister of this over-sized frozen land actually wields the real power. The PM is not directly voted for either; he or she is traditionally an elected representative of the party that has the most seats in the House of Commons, governing is a simple enough matter when this party holds a majority, but things get messy with a minority government...
OK, thanks for the Canadian electoral process lesson Shane, but didn't you say something about Mugabe and Harper being alike? Damn straight, here's what happened in Canada last week. The three opposition parties decided that enough was enough, had a meeting and decided to band together to form a coalition government by forcing a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. Since together they hold more than half the seats, Harper quickly got out his calculator and determined that they would succeed in removing him from power. After consultation with the nearest dictionary, he came up with a powerful new word, prorogue. What happens is he calls up the governor general and tells her that he's having some trouble with the view of the majority and needs a little time for his propaganda machine to convince the country that he is in the right. She is cowed, agrees, and in effect government is shut down for several weeks in order for him to avoid losing his office. Here's where the Mugabe/Harper comparisons start, alongside the seven forms of propaganda.
Robert Mugabe received 43.2% of the vote in the presidential election (the first this year, not the joke of a run-off where he received over 85%) whereas Stephen Harper's party garnered the support of 37.65% of the voters. While more people voted against them than for, both men claim to have the backing of the populace and therefore act as dictators. Both men don't play well with others. Witness Mugabe's inability to reach a real power sharing agreement with Tsvangirai's MDC and Harper's inability to compromise with the other parties. Here both men fall back on the glittering generality propaganda technique to lend credence to their cause; using slogans and catchphrases that no one can argue against, 'virtue words' that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. "Canada's government will use every legal means to protect our democracy, to protect our economy" says Stephen, "We will never allow an event like an election to reverse our independence, our sovereignty, our sweat and all that we fought for ...... all that our comrades died fighting for" says Robert.
Another common and effective form of propaganda is name calling. As the name implies, this one is nasty, but effective in forming a connection between negative thoughts and your enemy, creating fear and arousing prejudice. The Nazi's were pretty good at this technique (and maybe some will point the finger at me for using it here...). Harper is and will continue to play on the western Canadian fear of separatists as he links the mere idea of a coalition government to the separatists. The support of the Bloc Quebecois is needed to carry a majority in parliament, which explains why Harper used the word 'separatists' four times in a five-minute speech to Canadians last week, as in, "This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists". Funny how in his attempt to whip up fear in the west Stephen forgets that the tacit support of the Bloc has been necessary for the government to function for the last couple years; or worse his memory loss as to a similar plot hatched between the right and the bloc back in 2000. At a time when the Prime Minister and the governor general may have created a mechanism that future prime ministers will be able to use to bypass the legislature when it seems convenient, the Conservatives claim that the actions of the majority elected to parliament are "as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine". Mugabe's version, well, instead of villainizing the French and the elected majority, he prefers to blame all his country's problems on the west, "Countries such as the U.S. and Britain have taken it upon themselves to decide for us in the developing world, even to interfere in our domestic affairs and to bring about what they call regime change".
Next comes card stacking. Here the propagandist tries to make the best possible case for his argument and worst for the alternative by only using the facts that support his side. While most of the facts presented are true, the danger lies in the omissions. While Harper's Conservative party has used this technique to do a lot of damage, perhaps none is greater than that done to the environment, Mugabe has lead his nation to the brink of starvation and epidemic; it's almost cholera versus oil sands. Back in 1998, Canada became one of the first countries to sign the Kyoto Protocol, it was ratified a little more than four years later. However, the fprevious election of a minority Conservative government in 2006 brought Canada's participation into question as part of the right's platform was to abandon Kyoto and come up with a 'made in Canada' solution'. This was necessary to satisfy their western voting base in Alberta, the province sitting on the biggest environmental disaster in the world, the tar (oil) sands. The costs of Kyoto to the nation's economic output were played up, the costs the environment of the tar sands, played down. When they tabled their first budget, the Washington Post wrote "The government's environmental plan -- one paragraph in a budget document replacing 25 pages in the previous government's budget". Zimbabwe was once Africa's breadbasket, but through careful manipulation, Mugabe has reduced her to a food importer, and one who can't afford the costs. His campaign to get rid of the white farmers through land redistribution was presented as one which would bring benefits to the people, without mentioning the fact that efficient farmers were to be replaced by army and party loyalists with no idea how to work the land. The situation in Zimbabwe has been worsening daily, as inflation has reached unfathomable levels (1.6 sextillion percent) with no slow down in sight. To make matters worse, cholera has made a dramatic return. In Canada, Harper stacks the cards against any opposition (do look at this excellent page), in Zimbabwe they're stacked against his own people.
Bandwagon and plain folks propaganda techniques can be seen working together. As the names imply the bandwagon technique seeks to convince people to do as the rest are and ensure those on board stay, while plain folks tries to make the user look like an ordinary Joe, one of us. In an effort to ensure everyone stays on board during these troubled times, part of Harper's government's economic update a couple weeks ago included a pledge to eliminate federal civil employees right to strike over the next couple of years!!?! As to being an everyman, well, the New York Times recently described Stephen like this, "Mr. Harper is not charismatic and often appears irritated, particularly when he is challenged", sounds like the perfect conservative. Harper's tricks are a little more subtle than Mugabe's methods of forced loyalty (including killing, raping and general marauding of opponents), but he does let you know how to join his team, "Those who seek unity must not be our enemies. No, we say no to them, they must first repent…. They must first be together with us, speak the same language with us, act like us, walk alike and dream alike". Speaking of teams, Bob leaves little doubt as to which one he plays for and often attempts to sound like a man's man, for example when speaking of Tony Blair's government, "I have people who are married in my cabinet. He has homosexuals, and they make John marry Joseph and let Mary get married to Rosemary. We are saying they do not know biology because even dogs and pigs know biology."
Last but not least, the testimonial and transfer propaganda techniques are quite similar and often confused. While testimonials involve the classic celebrity or authority figure lending his or her endorsement to a product or cause, transfer is more about tying symbols to one's cause. Harper seemed to understand the power of symbols in the unity debate in Canada and deftly defused much of the tension by turning the nationalist symbols of Quebec Canadian. He neutralized Quebec's argument that Canada was trying to negate Quebec's distinct identity by endorsing a resolution that recognized it. He then used the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Quebec City to celebrate the birth of Canada. As to testimonials, what better way to show who would support Stephen than the short list of leaders who have prorogued in the past:

Yes, Mr. Harper, you've become part of an elite group, congratulations. Robert Mugabe has some neat tricks too, particularly transferring negative feelings and images to his political opponents, in this case the rival MDC, "We cannot discuss with allies of the West. The devil is the devil and we have no idea of supping with the devil", or speaking about Desmond Tutu, "He is an angry, evil and embittered little bishop", or even the PM of Australia John Howard, "They tell me he is one of those genetically modified because of the criminal ancestry he derives from". While it may be hard to find Mugabe supporters, everyone's favourite invisible friend is on his side, "Only God who appointed me will remove me - not the MDC, not the British". In case that's not a strong enough testimony, there's always Adolf, "This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources… If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold".
Reading some of the sites from Canada this morning, one would expect to see that public opinion had galvanized against a leader who has gone to such an extreme measure to hold onto power. Sadly, propaganda is a powerful tool, money talks and shit walks as they say, the opposition doesn't even have the resources to properly produce a video message (bumbling fools, truly funny stuff). Yet, one of the measures Harper tried to push through was the elimination of a subsidy to political parties, which would have disproportionately affected the opposition as the rich tend to support Harper's conservatives with their contributions. The idea of completely destroying the opposition was one step too far after eliminating much of the government's support for the arts, eroding women’s rights for equal pay for work of equal value, and on and on. While Harper may not yet seem on a par with Mugabe, keep in mind that there is a slippery slope that we're on here. Both men have chosen to ignore the voice of the majority of voters in order to hold onto power; as Mugabe said, "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X" (on a ballot). Once upon a time Mugabe was viewed by the world as a hero, it's taken nearly 30 years for the world to realize the extent of his evil; let's hope Canadians don't give Harper that much time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Crisis! Oh, you mean that crisis

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

-Henry Ford

It must have felt pretty cool being one of the selected few to be among the delegates representing 44 different countries at the Bretton Woods conference in the summer of 1944. Everything about it was planned to ensure that the talks would result in a world economic order that would foster cooperation and prosperity for future generations. The rural location, New Hampshire’s plush Mount Washington Hotel, was chosen so that the delegates would have no distractions, and no pressure from lobbyists or other politicians. While the focus was to establish a stable system of exchange rates, and how to pay for rebuilding the war-damaged economies of Europe, the meetings also led to the creation of the IMF, World Bank and to a lesser extent, the United Nations, the Marshall plan and the International Trade Organization (later GATT and the WTO). A lot has changed since those days when John Maynard Keynes, representing the UK, along with the other delegates hammered out the foundations for the American financial order.

Fast forward to the dying days of 2008 and the world is again in crisis. This time instead of worrying how to rebuild a world in the aftermath of a World War, we’re faced with the aftermath that 65 years of greed has wrought on the world’s economy and the planet. The stock market crash of 1929 and the decade of protectionism that followed was one of the main causes of WWII and the financial aftermath; this time it’s the devastation that has been brought about by the oil based economic model. If only Keynes had got his way back in ‘44 and a world central bank (to be known as bancor) would have been created to reflate the world’s money supply. Instead, it was left to America, who by the mid-70’s gave up the gold standard and switched 100% to the oil standard.

Last week and next, representatives from 190 nations are meeting in my adopted hometown of Poznan, Poland to try to map out a plan to Copenhagen next year, where it is hoped that a new emission protocol to replace Kyoto will be reached. Unfortunately, instead of being a headline event, it’s playing 2nd fiddle to the financial crisis. In the perfect world, the two would be sharing top billing, hand in hand giving policy makers the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. This won’t be the case though as special interests ensure that no compromise will be reached. As one government after another announces trillions of dollars in shock therapies for national economies, the only market that matters, the planet, will be left out in the cold.

Imagine, if you will, a world where greedy bankers actually pay for their lending mistakes. Or car makers are forced to be competitive. Yeah, I know that’s how it’s supposed to work, but it no longer does. I can hear the cries of “the banks need to survive to provide financing for investment”, but who can make rational investment decisions when governments are handing money out for failure? Imagine what could be done with the money if it was spent with the view of improving the world. Instead of delivering a better world, our desperate battle for growth at all costs has put us on a crash course with ecological disaster. The average person works more hours and has less to show for it than 30 years ago. Add to that the crumbling safety nets, such as pension plans and health care coverage and it makes one wonder why we’d want to fix the system at all. Let it crash, we have to start fresh.

What I can’t wrap my head around is the typical response that people have to the proposal of carbon taxes or the likes to try to reduce CO2 emissions. “Don’t spend MY tax dollars on something that might not even exist!” Yet they don’t seem to have any problems with having their tax dollars go to banks, or worse yet, car companies. Whether or not the theory that human activity is causing climate change is eventually proven or disproven should be irrelevant. Dependence on fossil fuels is ridiculous and all our efforts should be focused on lessening this reliance. It’s not a coincidence that oil prices have fallen drastically over the past few months. The world is hostage to the oil supplying nations, yet even those nations know that there is a line that when crossed, will force us to actually change the way the world works and end the reign of oil. Yes, I do realize that forecasts for demand have fallen due to the failing world economy, thus pushing down the price, but it’s more than that as anyone without fossil fuel blinders can see.

There’s a few reasons why the Poznan conference or the meeting to be held next year in Copenhagen won’t come up with an agreement to save the planet. The price of oil dropping to $20 a barrel is the easiest scapegoat, but it’s the public’s perception of the climate change debate that is the most troubling. One of my student’s referral to “that conference, or whatever you call it” causing traffic difficulties is the perfect illustration of how many people have been misinformed and feel there are more important issues to deal with. The developed world won’t tell Asia and Africa to choose poverty, disease, hunger and illiteracy over electricity. Kyoto was a failure, I don’t know of a single region or country that will reach their targets. Dubya made sure the people knew what he thought of it, and while he is Dubya, there are people whose opinions are formed by their president. These CC deniers will fight tooth and nail to defend their right to pay foreign nations huge amounts of money to import fuel in support of big oil companies.

The biggest problem though lies in the complexity of the issue and the way the media has presented it to the people. While the evidence pointing to human activity as the cause for climate change has been slowly solidifying, the media has been bombarding us with other discordant findings. In effect, the media is to blame for obfuscating the issue, creating a breeding ground for apathy. The arctic ice sheets melting, the Brazilian tree frogs disappearance and the hurricane season all might have something to do with climate change, but by hitting the people with these stories in rapid succession and linking them to CC, it’s easy to see why there are still so many skeptics out there. Another brilliant example comes from a Republican presidential debate in Iowa in which the candidates were asked, “How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?”. Here, the mistake of conflating two distinct questions into one only serves to confuse the issue: whether climate change is a ’serious threat’ and whether humans contribute to it. Furthermore, by wording the question in this way, the candidates were given the chance give general responses, without dealing with the issue, such as “I believe that global climate change is serious” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that climate change is real” (John McCain).

Poznan ain’t gonna be Bretton Woods. I wonder if the UN was trying to say something by choosing ths city to host the event. Poland burns so much coal that the air is often thick and yellowish while at the same time the government is doing all it can to stymie the implementation of an EU emission standard. The word homogeneous was invented for Poland, where 95% of the population is white and catholic. Real debate is impossible in an environment such as this, where just having a car is considered to be a status symbol. It seems natural to want to live in a cleaner world, so instead of scaring people, we need to focus on showing the benefits that a new way of thinking can achieve. Until the people can be convinced that we’re faced with an opportunity rather than a threat, events such as the Poznan conference will be nothing more than a blip on the media radar.