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Flame of light

Flame of light. Often used as a symbol of hope. Photo provided courtesy of fotomoments.

This past Sunday I gave a talk on global climate change at a church in Hamilton. The question came up afterward, why we should even bother, given the magnitude of the problem? In other words, is there any reason to hope that we can address this issue? This blog post will attempt to answer this question in realistic terms.

Is there Really Such a Thing as Global Climate Change?

I realize that I may be “putting the cart before the horse”, so to speak, as many people feel the jury is still out as to whether global climate change is actually a problem. If you are one of these people, I urge you to read books such as Australian Tim Flannery’s Now or Never or Canadian Andrew Weaver’s Keeping Our Cool. Other great sources of information are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, or the Pembina Institute’s Climate Change Program (Not to blow my own horn, but you can also send me a request to give a talk on the subject, as I have been doing at various secular and non-secular venues.)

Reasons to Hope We Can Address the Issue

But to return to the question of why we should even bother, I feel there are many reasons of late to feel that climate change is something that can be addressed. These include:

  1. The recent passing of private-members Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, on May 5th. The legislation calls for greenhouse gases to be cut 25 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 2050 respectively. Out of interest, the bill narrowly passed third reading with a vote of 149 to 136.
  2. The fact that Ontario has created Canada‘s first feed-in tariff program for renewable energy. Introduced on October 1, 2009, this program is called MicroFIT. Homeowners who are small energy producers will be reimbursed 80¢/kWh for installing solar photovoltaic cells in their homes. Reimbursement is also available for producing other renewable energy, ranging from that produced by wind, biogas and waterpower.
  3. How the United States (U.S.) National Academy Of Sciences has released on their website a series of reports on climate change this past Friday. In one of the reports, “Advancing the Science of Climate Change”, the conclusion is made that “a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

While I would not want to say it is exactly hopeful, given the devastating tragedy that caused it, one cannot help be heartened by witnessing the strong public outcry over the BP oil “spill”. As proof, just visit the Boycott BP Facebook group, which has over 100 thousand fans, to realize the extent of anger about this disaster.

A Measure of Realism

While I have listed many reasons to be hopeful, there are no doubt many reasons to be a bit dubious. I lay out below some of the reasons why.

Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311)

Whether Bill C-311 actually gets passed still remains to be seen. It was originally tabled in October 2006 in the Canadian House of Commons as Bill C-377 by the New Democratic Party (NDP). However, parliament was dissolved before it achieved royal assent.

MicroFIT Program

In an ideal world, people will recognize the wonderful benefits of the MicroFIT program and take advantage of it. However, one needs to be cognizant that the program will not last forever. There are those that oppose the program and will do their best to see it cancelled.

A prime example is an article generated by Don MacKinnon, President of the Power Workers’ Union in a special information feature this past May 13th in The Globe and Mail. With the headline, “Ontario’s green energy policies are not sustainable”, the article criticizes the government for spending money on wind and solar power. It also asserts that “Nuclear can provide the clean, cost-effective, base-load power that Ontario needs.”

Climate Change Research

With regard to the developments surrounding climate change research in the U.S., undoubtedly this sets a positive tone for working towards addressing the issue (much more favourably than, for instance, the situation during the previous presidency of George W. Bush). However, while the public is angry about the effects of oil today, how long this will last remains to be seen. It is no secret that the American way of life is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and any activity that obstructs this may be viewed unfavourably.

As for Canada, whether we follow suit on the research front remains to be seen. In 2007, the Harper government shut down the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network (C-CIARN), whose mandate was to promote and encourage research on climate change impacts and adaptation. While there is some research going on in Canada about climate change, it seems to be quite limited. For evidence, just review Canada’s action on climate change as outlined by Environment Canada. Nowhere in this is there any mention of climate change research.

This is a serious concern, for, without a solid understanding of the impact of global climate change in Canada, knowing how to respond appropriately is difficult. To borrow a phrase that I have heard used in a different context, it is like driving down a winding country road in the fog without the lights on. It just doesn’t make sense, does it?

***

My aim in writing this blog post has been to provide a measure of optimism about what is happening regarding global climate change. At the same time, I have attempted to reveal how much work remains to be done.

So…let the politicians know of your support for initiatives aimed at addressing climate change. And try to take advantage of the MicroFIT program while it lasts. Only by doing so will the gains that have been achieved be maintained and built upon.

As always, I am hopeful, while at the same time realistic about the challenges the future holds in store.

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In deciding what to write about this week, I couldn’t help but think that biking might be a good subject. Biking, that accessible, low-tech, help-you-get-ultra-fit way of exploring the city and countryside, without the need of emitting harmful exhaust and enabling you to take time to really notice and appreciate your surroundings.

I must admit that some of my bike plans for various reasons were nearly derailed this week. Was I ever happy though that I did still choose to bike! The day was Sunday and the weather was gorgeous. Everything was lush and the temperature was neither too hot nor too cold. Added with the fact that I was biking with a friend, things could not have been much more perfect.

Of course, not everyone is into cycling. For that reason, I decided to write this blog with tips about how to get started, stay involved, and become part of the movement to get more “people-powered” vehicles on our roads.

Getting Started

I have a few friends who are nervous about, or just learning, to cycle. As a result, I know that the concept of cycling, particularly in the city, can be daunting. Apart from deciding what bike to get (which is a matter not covered here, but which I found is discussed elsewhere at places like BikeAdvice.net), this can be a major hurdle.

Does one need to be concerned? Of course. There are bicycle accidents and one needs to be careful. Not to be alarmist, but as many of you probably know, just this week four bicyclists were run down and killed by motorists in Quebec. But by learning a few safety tips, you should be able to avoid problems. If it is any encouragement, I have been biking for years and have not had any unfortunate incidents with motorists, or anyone else for that matter.

Perhaps the most basic tip to keep in mind is that generally the rules of the road as they apply to vehicles also apply to cyclists. So yes, stop at red lights and stop signs. Signal with your hands toward the direction you are turning. And make sure you have a bike light if riding at night so people can see you.

A few places with other helpful safety tips for cyclists include the Healthy Ontario and the City of Toronto’s websites. Also worth noting is a program being organized by the Canadian Cycling Association called CAN-Bike. The program is being offered in conjunction with assistance from the Region and area municipality community centres. With courses being offered from May through June, now is the time to sign up.

Sticking With It

Cycling around your neighbourhood and while going to work, shopping and the gym can all be great ways to work cycling into your daily routine and ensure you “keep with it”. Requesting that your work or other routine places of destination provide bike parking and showers can also be a great help.

However, another great benefit of cycling is that it can be (minus the fuel burned to get you where you want to cycle at) a zero-emissions form of recreation. If you’d like to start cycling on a recreational basis around Waterloo Region, there is a list of bike clubs featured in a recent article in The Record.

Just keep in mind that the difficulty-level and types of rides of these groups vary. Some rides are also better suited for road bikes or hybrids, while others require mountain bikes. The best advice here is to take your time to find one that is right for you.

Encouraging Others

Perhaps you are already enthusiastic about biking and want to be part of the movement that encourages others to be as well. Wonderful! If you are like me though, you may not be aware what you can do about this. So both for the elucidation of myself and others, I investigated the matter.

In the process, I unfortunately have come across, as they say, some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that unfortunately the public meeting on the preferred “Regional Transportation Master Plan” (RTMP) just finished last night. The good news is that:

  1. People still have a week or so if they wish to submit any outstanding comments on the RTMP.
  2. The Region will also start working in the next few months on an “Active Transportation Master Plan”, which will map out in greater detail transportation planning with respect to bicycles and other forms of active transit.
  3. On a more local level, the City of Waterloo has started a “Transportation Master Plan” to review its existing transportation system. Likely similar activities are going on throughout all of the Region’s municipalities, given that they must all update their Official Plans to be in line with that of the Region.

For details on how to get involved at the regional level, just visit the MovingForward2031 website.

If you want to get really involved, consider participating in a two-week GPS bike survey with the Region. This involves carrying a small GPS unit that tracks where you are cycling. Using this information, the Region can determine where best to place bike lanes and paths. To learn more, contact Transportation Demand Management planner, John Hill, at the Region.

My concluding advice on getting involved at the political level with cycling issues? Well, despite (as I’ve already admitted) my limited political involvement with transportation issues, I have been active enough to say that your voice can make a difference. I’m being completely honest when I say there are many well-meaning people working in public office in and around Waterloo Region. They just need to know that they have the public’s support when making decisions that promote us living in a more sustainable community.

***

Hopefully, this blog post has given you some inspiration to either start cycling or cycle more. As I’m sure you’re aware, if not now then before reading this post, not only is it healthy, it’s good for the environment. Consider also voicing your concerns about cycling at the municipal and regional level. By doing so, we can help bring about the necessary changes to make cycling become an even more accepted and supported activity in the Region.

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As most of you probably know, a tragic oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion on a BP oil rig on April 20. I am slightly embarrassed that as a writer of an environmental blog, I have not commented on this extremely disturbing and concerning tragedy earlier. However, perhaps now more than during the first initial shock of the disaster, it is a useful time to reflect on how events over the past few weeks have been unfolding.

À Priori the “Spill”

To start, let’s go back and consider what was happening before the spill occurred. Just days before the spill, The Globe and Mail (G&M) produced an article entitled, “Why no offshore drilling on the U.S. shelf?” (April 19) The article boldly states with regards to Hurricane Katrina that “Although the storm destroyed oil and gas platforms, it produced no significant oil spills and broke no submerged pipelines.”

Viewed in retrospect, the foolishness of this statement is starkly apparent. While the reasons for the spill are still being determined, clearly a massive weather event as associated with Katrina was not required to cause it.

Early Days

In the initial days after the disaster, reporting focused mainly on the facts of the disaster. Thus, for instance, in an article focusing mainly on the environmental fallout of the spill, G&M readers are informed on April 23rd of what could happen to the oil. While some of the light crude oil is expected to evaporate, readers are horrifyingly told much of it will turn “into a pasty mess called a ‘chocolate mousse’ that ultimately breaks apart into ‘tar balls,’ small chunks of oily residue that can wash ashore.”

Is not that lovely? With such talk, one can assume that even the most hardened anti-environmentalists would be bound to reconsider their views.

Tough Talk

Speed forward a week or so following the disaster. To a certain degree, readers are still learning the environmental horrors of the spill. As evidence, consider the headlines, “Disaster looms as worst oil spill in decades reaches shoreline” and “Surface area of oil slick has tripled, experts say”, of articles run on May 1 (the latter article accompanied by a heart-wrenching picture of a bird being rescued).

However, reports on the extent of the disaster start to be replaced with assurances that the situation is being taken seriously and that something will be done to prevent events of a similar nature in the future. Thus, on April 26 and April 29, readers learn that the spill could affect energy regulations in the Canadian Arctic. As though readers have not been reassured enough, a few days later another G&M article states, “Ottawa will take tough stand on offshore drilling” (May 4).

Business as per Usual

Interestingly, soon after that, the tide begins to turn again. By May 6, the same paper informs readers that Environment Minister Jim Prentice says there is no need for a moratorium on future offshore drilling in Canadian waters.

Then, in what could be construed as an attempt not to miss an opportunity to feed on the public’s emotions, readers are greeted with an article on May 7 entitled, “Oil sands less risky than offshore drilling, Prentice says”.

Finally, yesterday, as though to add fuel to the fire, an article is run in the G&M entitled, “Africa: The new crude frontier“, claiming that Africa could be a new source for oil.

Challenging the “Orthodoxy”

With regards to a lack of a moratorium on offshore drilling, yes, undoubtedly the lack of a relief well is partly to blame for the disaster in the Gulf. However, the Chevron well, which just started in the past few weeks to be drilled off the coast of Newfoundland, faces similar problems. One is forced to ask then, why there is no need for a moratorium.

In terms of finding other sources of oil, as the G&M itself reports, the oil sands by no means offer an “environmentally-friendly” alternative. Rather, significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions and water contamination will prove to be the legacy of such activity if we choose that path.

Of course, assuming ideal conditions (i.e. political cooperation) Africa may prove to offer an alternative source of oil. However, this overlooks the fact that the United States and China also have their eye on these reserves. Which means the supply of any oil taken from there will be more quickly depleted. That is not to mention that much of this oil is located offshore, meaning that oil drilling would place the nations and peoples of Africa also at increased risks of oil spills.

In addition to the above mentioned problems, there is still the often overlooked issue of global climate change. I do not wish to go into great detail about this problem here. However, suffice it to say that there is widespread scientific agreement that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major factor that will, if not already has, negatively influence(d) our climate.

At a Crossroads

In considering these matters as a whole, it would seem we are at a crossroads. They are as follows:

  1. Path one involves following down the “same old, same old” pattern of drilling for oil and the associated environmental devastation and assumedly acceptance thereof.
  2. Path two would take the more innovative route of increasingly adopting conservation as well as renewable energy. In this way, we could better avoid having to deal with the problems associated with reliance on oil.

(Although nuclear power could offer a third path, this is not presented here as an option given associated safety issues).

If we were to learn from recent events, ideally we would take the softer and more benign second path. After all, the BP spill occurred only two days prior to the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. And Earth Day was an event which was largely triggered by another oil spill, that one by Union Oil, off the coast of California.

To the superstitious amongst us (of which, I will once again admit with embarrassment, includes myself), I cannot help but viewing recent events as a final wake-up call. Whether we will actually choose to respond appropriately is another story. I myself am hopeful, but know there are many cynics out there. Let’s hope they’re wrong!

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embarrassment

Garlic mustard plants.

Garlic mustard plants. Photo courtesy of Christine Hanrahan and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Click photo to enlarge

Something wicked this way comes, and it’s not the circus. It comes in the form of a relatively innocuous looking, small, white-flowered, but invasive plant from Europe called garlic mustard. Bicycling and walking around my community, I have been appalled to see this weed gaining a growing foothold along paths, in woods, and in people’s gardens.

Why is it such a problem? Well, native to Europe, garlic mustard is a rapidly growing and prolific plant with few if any natural competitors. For these and other reasons, the plant is capable of invading and dominating forest understory communities, including at least some seed saplings. As a result, without efforts to control it, entire forests can potentially be overtaken by this weed.

I have learned that the leaves and roots are edible, useful in things like chutney and salad. However, I have never personally tried it. What is more, as shown by the above picture, the weed can become so pervasive that picking it for consumption will do little to help.

If you are interested in assisting, there a few things you should know.

  1. When pulling plants, remember to remove the roots. If the root is not completely removed, the remaining root often will send up a second flowering stalk.
  2. Pulled-out stalks may have enough food reserves to allow seed pods to grow and ripen. As a result, pulled plants should be removed from the site (In Waterloo Region, this should involve placing the plants in yard waste bags for the municipality to pick up).
  3. Once produced, the seed pods may survive in the earth for up to five years. This means that any efforts to control the weed must be sustained over a long period of time.
Garlic mustard plant.

Garlic mustard plant. Photo courtesy of Christine Hanrahan and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Click photo to enlarge

Of course, none of this information is helpful if you don’t know what the plant looks like. Typically a biennial, garlic mustard starts out its life as a small plant sort of looking like a violet (but not quite so, given in part its long taproot) that eventually can grow as much as 3 to 4 feet fall. The seed pods are long, thin, and green. More detailed descriptions and photos of the plant are available elsewhere.

Unfortunately, despite the seriousness of the situation, not everyone knows about garlic mustard. This is the case from what I have gathered from talking to others in my community as well as doing a Web search. Specifically, with respect to the Web I discovered that garlic mustard is not even listed on the Ministry of Natural Resources site and is only mentioned in passing on Environment Canada’s website.

Awareness is key as the problem is too great for one individual to solve alone. The ladies (and a few gents) in my neighbourhood have been working to control the weed in our local woods over the past few years, and have made great progress. Please, tell others about this weed. By working together, we can prevent garlic mustard from overtaking our precious natural areas!

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