Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why peregrine falcons should be de-listed from CITES

I have been trying to wrap my head around the recent decision by the Canadian government to call on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to de-list the peregrine falcon on the grounds that the species has made a robust and historic come-back and no longer needs protection.
It is certainly true that the species has made a remarkable recovery, at least here in Canada (I don't know about elsewhere in the world), partly as a result of the banning of DDT and partly as a result of the CITES ban on trade and trafficking. Indeed, it is not unusual now to spot the birds nesting in the high-rises of downtown Toronto.
But it seemed like tempting fate to completely remove the falcon from CITES list. After all, 228,000 adult birds may sound like a lot, but population numbers can swing very quickly and dramatically.
Apparently, the logic of the decision revolves around the idea that the CITES treaty can actually be strengthened by recognizing some success stories. It is argued that, if some countries in regions like Africa and Asia where endangered animal trafficking has escalated in recent years, see the restrictions being loosened on newly-healthy species, it would offer an incentive to hesitant officials and perhaps discourage some key nations from dropping out of the treaty.
So, Canada is encouraging the upcoming treaty meeting to agree to lift the trade ban on peregrines, as well as on the wood bison and the cougar, which have also seen major increases in their populations and species stability.
It may sound counter-intuitive, even risky, but I think I can now see where they are coming from.

Friday, September 23, 2016

When Mr. Li.comes to town, be very very wary

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is so keen to "forge closer ties" with China during his talks with China's second-in-command Li Keqiang that he risks making a deal with the devil in the process.
The immediate goal of Premier Li's visit from a Chinese perspective is an extradition treaty with Canada, such as it currently enjoys with some 40 other countries (France and Australia are the examples usually mentioned, presumably because these are the only "Western" countries who have agreed to such a treaty). 
Just to be clear, though, we would be extraditing people to a country named by Amnesty International as the world's top executioner, a country that routinely employs torture in its legal process, and whose judiciary is inextricably constrained and influenced by the ruling Communist Party.
Mr. Li, canny negotiator that he is, indignantly denies such things, and defends the Chinese use of capital punishment as a necessary evil. He maintains that Chinese security forces do not routinely administer torture, although he says the whole country cannot be held accountable for the odd maverick who does (news to.Mr. Lee: a country CAN and SHOULD). And of course he denies that Chinese secret agents operate in Canada to pressurized Chinese citizens to return to China to face allegations of "economic crimes", despite evidence to the contrary.
Whether he believes what he says or not, the reality is clear: this is not a country Canada should be making deals with, either extradition deals or deals of any other kind for that matter. Canada could really use Chinese spending power right now, and we do not want to be in the position of harbouring foreign criminals. But there are issues more pressing than free trade with China and a resolution of that pesky canola dispute. Once again, Trudeau's ethics are on the line, and I must confess that have nothing like the same confidence in the man that I had just after the election.

How climate change deniers can believe so many "impossible things"

There's an interesting, if slightly patronizing, article in today's Guardian about something I had often wondered about, namely how climate science deniers are able to accept so many impossible things at once.
For instance, some will say that statistics show that global warming stopped in 1998 (the so-called "Pause" - see an earlier entry of mine on the subject), but then claim that statistics from suspect agencies like NASA are entirely unreliable. Or they will blithely assert that global temperatures and CO2 levels are not actually causally related, but then, in the next breath, claim that CO2 is what keeps out planet warm and livable.
There are many such examples out there. One that has suddenly become news in the last day or two is the argument of the US Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, whose justification for not acting now on climate change is that, in a few billion years time, the sun is going to grow into a red giant and envelop the earth anyway! Mr. Johnson, presumably an intelligent person, must know that this snippet of real science does not have any relevance at all to contemporary climate change policy, but he is nevertheless willing to put it out there.
Anyway, a new paper published in Synthese (the International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science - yes, there is such a thing) seeks to find a psychological and philosophical reason for such contrary views. The paper is playfully entitled "The Alice in Wonderland mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism" after the White Queen in that book, who exclaims at one point, "Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." But its content and import is entirely serious.
The authors conclude that this kind of "incoherence" (a technical term) can exist in the minds of climate change deniers due to two main concepts: "conspiracist ideation" and "identity-protective cognition". Conspiracist ideation, or conspiratorial thinking, refers to the tendency of certain people to easily entertain suggestions of a conspiratorial nature (what might, in non-technical jargon, be called "gullibility"). Identity-protective cognition, on the other hand, is the idea that some individuals tend to selectively credit and dismiss scientific theories or asserted dangers in a manner that supports their own preferred form of social organization or political beliefs. Thus, in this case, some people will dismiss the scientific consensus on man-made global warming because to accept it would necessitate increased levels of regulation, which challenges their identity as free-market advocates. So strong and so deeply-entrenched is this political value belief that these people are willing to disbelieve and dismiss clear scientific evidence, and even to risk ridicule, rather than to accept the alternative.
It all kind of makes sense, but it doesn't really help us in any way to get past the problem.

Canadian kids fitter than Americans, but nowhere near as fit as Tanzanians

A global study of the aerobic fitness of international kids using the “beep” test (a global standardized evaluation of children’s general fitness levels), suggests that African and Scandinavian kids are the fittest, while Latino kids are the laggards. Canadian kids come, in our usual Canadian manner, somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Over a million children between the ages of 9 and 17 from 50 different countries were tested in the study. The results show Tanzanian kids way out in front, followed by Iceland, Estonia, Norway and (perhaps surprisingly) Japan. At the bottom of the list of the 50 countries tested are Mexico, Peru, Latvia (yes, a Scandinavian country - go figure!) and USA. Canada ranked 19th, just ahead of the UK.
The study was carried out by Justin Lang, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and a researcher at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (HALO) at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), in association with the University of North Dakota. It was recently published, for some reason, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, but its general findings and selected results have been widely covered by the Canadian press, usually with the angle, "why did Canadians kids do so badly?"
Interesting though all this is, I'm not convinced that we can draw too many firm conclusions from the study, and I'm not sure we need to completely revise our education system based on the findings. The only demographic correlation the study's authors managed to come up with was that countries where the gap between rich and poor is narrow tend to have fitter children, and fitness levels tend to fall as the income disparity widens, although they could hazard no guesses at why that might be the case. I would have thought comparisons with diets, educational systems, air quality, etc, might be more interesting and potentially fruitful avenues.
No source I have read, not even the original study abstract, gives the full results, and I would be interested to see which 50 countries were tested. For example, was Tanzania the only African country in the study, or were they regional outliers? Likewise with Japan and Asia. I guess the full text of the abstract is available for a price, but my interest does not run quite that deep, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

BC's Great Bear Rainforest gets more protection

Having just come back from the Great Bear Rainforest in northwest British Columbia, reports of more protection for the area comes as welcome news (and check out the cool video of the white spirit bears in that link).
Our naturalist on the trip was at pains to point out the messy patchwork of protected areas in the region, involving a bewildering array of conservancies, wilderness groups, Crown land, provincial and national parks. There are, however, still significant gaps in the patchwork, which many organizations are desperately trying to plug before it is too late. Some 9% of the area  (or 15% according to some sources I have read) is still fair game for commercial logging.
The recent donation of private land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada fills in a bit of the missing puzzle. 185 hectares of ecologically significant old-growth forests and estuaries may sound like a lot, but the overall area is so vast - it is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, and I have seen a variety of different estimates of it size, from 32,000 km2 to 21 million acres (about 85,000 km2) or about the size of Ireland - that even a large donation of this type can seem more like a drop in the proverbial ocean. But it is certainly a step in the right direction, and a boost to the protection of a very special part of the world.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are visiting the area later this month, and this will be used as a photo opportunity to endorse the Great Bear Rainforest under the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy Initiative (which aims to conserve forests around the world), although I am not sure what, if any, concrete benefit this might confer.

Grammatical rules we follow unconsciously

I remember being blown away (as were so many other people) the first time I read about the hidden rule on the order of adjectives that we unconsciously follow in English (e.g. we say "great green dragons" and "six small plastic tables", and not "green great dragons" or "plastic small six tables").
We are never explicitly taught this rule; it is largely intuitive - we use it because it just sounds right.
Other than in a few cases where a particular emphasis is intended or to put across a specific precise idea, multiple adjectives are used in the order: Quantity, Value/Opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material, Purpose (you may see slight variations on this list, but the essentials are fixed). Interestingly, the rule applies broadly to most languages, and linguists have argued for decades over just why it exists and what is its basis.
The idea that we follow grammatical rules unconsciously has come as a revelation to many people, me included. And now I read in Mental Floss, that there are other such rules, and that we are in fact constantly following a whole bunch of grammatical rules without even knowing it:
  • "My brother's house" sounds better than "the house of my brother", but, on the other hand, "the door of my house" sounds better than "my house's door". The "animacy hierarchy" theory suggests that there is a hierarchy of humannness, going from human to animal to inanimate, and the higher up this scale a noun is, the worse the "of" construction for a possessive sounds.
  • "Abso-freakin'-lutely" and "im-bloody-portant" sound much better than "ab-freakin'-solutely" and "impor-bloody-tant". There is a hidden rule in how we insert expletives into a word for emphasis, and it turns out to be that it sounds better if the expletive comes just before the syllable that is most stressed.
  • "What did you say that he ate?" sounds better than "what did you mumble that he ate?" or "what did you describe that he ate?" This is because "ate" is one of a class of verbs called bridge verbs, while "mumble" and "describe" are not.
  • "I cheered up my friend" sounds fine, but "I cheered up her" does not. This difference, caused by the simple substitution of a pronoun for a noun, occurs because "cheer up" (like "call off", "go over ", "put down", and many others) is what is called a phrasal verb, a verb made up of multiple words that has a different meaning than a simple combination of the words might suggest. However, some of these phrasal verbs are separable by a noun and some are not: you can say "don't pick on my sister" but not "don't pick my sister on", whereas either "I cheered up my friend" or "I cheered my friend up" are acceptable. Even worse, some phrasal verbs that are separable by a noun are not separable by a pronoun, "cheer up" being an example of such a case.
Maybe we should take some comfort from the fact that there ARE in fact some rules for these things, and that they are not just as random a they appear. But what a nightmare! It makes me so glad I never had to learn English as a second language.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ontario takes a wrong turn on electricity generation

After a couple of weeks away, exploring the wilds of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, I came back to the unedifying (but perhaps not unexpected) spectacle of the Ontario Liberal Party digging themselves into a bigger and bigger hole.
The Liberals and Premier Wynne (of whom, I have to say, I once entertained great hopes and expectations) have been manifestly floundering in recent months, and integrity and principles have been giving way to political expediency and an apparent preoccupation with the next election (still a couple of years away).
A prime example of this is the recent announcement of a subsidy for electricity prices, an across-the-board and completely unjustifiable measure expected to cost the province over $1 billion. After a few years of good strong leadership on renewable electricity generation and climate change initiatives under ex-Premier Dalton McGuinty (in spite of all the bad press attributed to it), Kathleen Wynne has shown herself to be wishy-washy and equivocal on the energy file. Electricity prices, much more than the price of gas, water, or anything else, has for some reason always been an explosive and highly politicized issue in Ontario, and the Liberals have obviously latched onto it as a means of vote-earning (or at least of damage limitation).
An article by Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, reported on Huffington Post, does a good job of critiquing this unabashedly political move. As Schreiner points out, the subsidy will be paid out of provincial coffers anyway, and so we will merely be paying it out of our taxes rather than through our electricity bills, with no net savings at all. Worse, it is also a regressive subsidy in that richer people with bigger houses and more profligate electricity usage will benefit the most, while poorer and more energy-responsible households will benefit the least.
Furthermore, it does does nothing to address the base systemic causes of our high electricity prices. Schreiner points out that Ontario currently produces more electricity than it needs, largely as a result of a continued over-reliance on base-load nuclear energy, the excess capacity ending up being sold at a loss. In addition, rolled-over debts from decades of Ontario's nuclear program are responsible for the so-called "debt retirement charge" that appears on our electricity bills each month.
Instead of the Liberals' subsidy, Schreiner suggests an immediate moratorium on new electricity mega-projects, including the billions of dollars that the province inexplicably wants to spend on already-outdated nuclear plants like those at Pickering, which would only serve to increase the surplus electricity we produce.
Secondly, halt the fire-sale of the provincially-owned Energy One utility for short-term financial gain. In the longer term, such a sale will cost the province millions of dollars, and in the process lead to poor energy policy decisions for decades to come.
Thirdly, invest some (or all) of those billions currently earmarked for nuclear plant repairs into energy conservation measures, which, dollar for dollar, still give by far the best bang for the buck. This can be combined with further off-peak pricing breaks, using the existing smart-meter system, to reduce maximum load requirements still further.
And finally, if new generation capacity is needed, build new transmission lines to Quebec, which has an excess of clean hydro power which it is currently exporting to the USA, a solution far less expensive than building or rebuilding nuclear plants.
Good, clear, sensible advice from the Green Party, that the Liberals would do well to heed. But don't hold your breath.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia resist the call of progress

Saskatchewan in particular, under the thumb of dinosaur-in-chief Brad Wall, is now by far the most regressive province in the country, and Mr. Wall sets himself up in opposition to pretty much any progressive initiative the feds might propose, almost as a knee-jerk reaction. He is blustering about bringing court challenges should the federal government have the audacity to impose carbon taxes on his province. I don't know to what extent Wall really represents the views of his province these days, but the fact that he is still there - he has been in power since 2007, and his rightist Saskatchewan Party won their third majority government just this year, so clearly he will be there for a while! - suggests that the majority of the province is just as dinosaurian as he. Which is a scary thought.
Most of Canada's coal production actually comes from British Columbia and Alberta, which have relatively progressive views on climate change and electricity generation these days (although they continue to produce and export coal in large quantities), followed by Saskatchewan. The Atlantic provinces produce relatively little coal today, although historically Maritime coal was much more important, and a coal tradition is deeply entrenched there. About half of Canada's coal production is exported for iron and steel smelting purposes ("coking coal"); the other half is used domestically, mainly for electricity generation ("thermal coal").
Currently, around 44% of Saskatchewan's electricity comes from coal, and 60% of Nova Scotia's and 13% of New Brunswick's. Alberta still relies on coal for about 55% of its electricity production, although it has plans to phase coal use out completely over the next 14 years. BC - like Ontario, Quebec and most other provinces - has already phased out its coal-fired power stations. Canada-wide, only 20% of our electricity generation is now powered by coal (this compares with over 40% in the USA)
The dissenting provinces claim that the federal plan to bring forward the complete phasing out of coal will leave them with worthless technology and drive up electricity prices. New Brunswick Power has plucked a figure of a 38% price increase from somewhere, although most reports suggest that wind power is more than competitive with coal these days. Credit where credit is due, all three provinces are doing something about cutting their carbon emissions, although Mr. Wall is relatively unapologetic and maintains that coal will remain an important part of Saskatchewan's electricity production mix, at least until 2040.
I have little patience with the arguments used, and even less with the attitudes of people like Brad Wall. Like it or not, coal is a moribund industry, and there are many compelling arguments as to why it should be discontinued. The Canadian government has poured subsidies into the coal industry for years, a practice which the current Liberal government has vowed to stop, so that coal will become even less price-competitive. If some coal reserves have to stay in the ground, that is fine by me (much the same can be said for products like asbestos). In the meantime, coal production should be actively discouraged, and investment encouraged instead into 21st century industries like renewable energy and clean tech.
Bluster all you like, Mr. Wall, the world is moving on, and we have to move with it.