Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dying Bees

I've been doing a little bit of digging into the issue of mass die-offs of bees, mostly because it seems such a scare-story. There's little perspective given in most of the "green" news about this issue, so I decided to do a bit of reading.

So the problem appears to be that bees are dying in large numbers. Whole colonies die off in a matter of days. It's called "Colony Collapse Disorder", or CCD. There have been several documentaries produced about this, with alarming names like "Vanishing of the Bees". Most point the finger at pesticides. They are pretty scary and paint effective doomsday scenarios.

Of course this is quite alarming. I mean, bees are major pollinators, so this has the ability to really impact our food supply, not to mention the natural food web. So should I be concerned?

Here are some things I learned after a few minutes on the InterWebz, mostly Wikipedia and government-related science-y sites. Yes, I trust crowd-sourcing and state-backed research....

1. CCD or "colony collapse disorder" only happens with European honeybees. Hm. I didn't know this! Since these bees are not native to the Americas, native plants in the US and Canada do not need European honeybees to propagate. There are other, native, pollinators that will do the job. These include bumble and mason bees, which are not affected by CCD. In fact, if you remove the eurotrash, the natives take over - they tend to be more efficient, but are of course harder to round up and move around. Although some of our native bumblebees have been taking a hit also (cause unknown!), others are thriving.
2. the honeybee crash is really a problem for monocropping agriculture, where crops like berries of all kinds, melons, and cucumbers depend on mass pollination at specific times. The almond industry in California is the biggest "consumer" of European honeybee pollinators with 60% of the population being used there. Overall, about 30% of US crops rely on honeybee pollination.
3. The US Agricultural Research Service says that despite claims by the general and scientific media, a cause (or causes) has not been (definitively) identified by researchers. Many factors can contribute:
  •  limited genetic stock of bees and inbreeding
  •  virus and mite infestations, possibly exacerbated by stress (due to poor feeding, moving, weather...)
  •  overuse of specific types of pesticides (now placed on moratorium in the EU - which sets policy much more on a precautionary principle)...this is where the blame has been placed by the media, mostly.
4. the problem is likely exacerbated in the US because of the "bee rental" business, where hives are moved sometimes hundreds of miles, thereby spreading possible mite/virus infestations around, and also because the US doesn't use a native stock of bees (and hence has genetic diversity issues).
5. there is no scientific evidence that GM crops or electromagnetic radiation (ex. from cell phones - can bees use cell phones??) is causing excess bee deaths.
6. the rate of collapse (numbers of dead bees) has remained constant in the US, at about 30-35% for the last decade. While this is higher that in the years before, rate does not seem to be increasing. This rate has so far not resulted in any economic damage to either the bee industry, or to the pollination rates of crops. The beekeepers have been able to build up their colonies after collapse, and pass the increased cost of doing business on to the farmers, so we pay slightly more for our almonds.

So, are we all gonna die? Well, yes, of course, but not because of bee die-offs. Yeah, the research should continue (and it is), which is good. But doom is by no means imminent.

Should we limit the use of pesticides? I think so, certainly cosmetic pesticides are a crap idea.  That shit they sprayed on the trees in Oregon? Bad idea. Plant bee-friendly stuff in your yard instead: red clover, foxglove, bee balm.

Monday, June 10, 2013

New Pattullo Consultations

Last week, I attended the first of several small-group consultation sessions and open houses that Translink is putting on to gather public input on the Pattullo Bridge replacement/refurb project.

First of all, whatever else you might think about the process or the ideas presented, these sessions prove that Translink is listening to us (the public). New Westminster council and citizens were pretty united in their message regarding the planning process last year: none of the options presented by Translink were acceptable to the community. And Translink has listened. This is a good thing (as that lady who went to jail for insider trading used to say), and not something one might expect from, say, PortMetroVan, or even BC's own Ministry of Transportation.

So, if you go to one of the sessions (and I highly, highly recommend that you do) please be sure to acknowledge this fact. Thank Translink for listening. I did! And I will repeat that message on my feedback form.

At the session, 25 options (yes!! Twenty five!) for the bridge were presented and evaluated on their performance on 8 goals. These goals were agreed upon by the City of New Westminster, the City of Surrey, and Translink. There is a lot of information in this booklet about these various options and I encourage you to study them carefully. You will see that most of them have been "de-recommended" and the most important part of the process right now is for you to voice your opinion on all the options. If there is an option you particularly like, that is not currently up for further consideration, now's the time to speak up!

Anyways, here are my thoughts...
  1. First and foremost, I think one big goal is missing from the list, and that is: no additional - and preferably less -  though-going traffic from New West streets. There are currently on the order of 450,000 vehicles driving through our City daily, and the majority of the 70,000 vehicles per day using the Pattullo are not bound for any New Westminster destination. Any new bridge option needs to be evaluated based on how much SOV and truck traffic it removes from our City streets. Now, if you read goal #4, it kinda sorta maybe covers traffic in New West with weasily terms like liveability, but in my opinion the number of cars and trucks buzzing through town is the One Biggest Concern that New West has about any eventual Pattullo project. Anything that increases traffic on our already packed streets is not going to be a winner for us. So it should be on the list as a separate and explicit goal - I repeat: no additional - and preferably less - though-going traffic from New West streets.
  2. The budget for the bridge appears based on the assumption that 70,000 vehicle trips are both sustainable and required. Translink seems to have a provisional budget of $1-1.5 billion in mind. This number is what you get when you charge a toll of $3 (Port Mann toll) for 20 years to each of those 70,000 cars moving across that bridge. I happen to disagree with this assumption: 70,000 vehicles through New West is neither desirable nor sustainable. The lower-capacity bridge options have been discounted because they do not provide for 70,000 cars/day. I disagree with this.
  3. As a corollary to point 2 above, the thinking appears to be that if you make the structure bigger, you can attract more traffic, and generate more $. OK, now this is really not what we want. Unless the roads in New West (Royal, McBride, Brunette, Stewardson) magically expand, this is a recipe for even more gridlock. There is absolutely no reason why a 5 or 6 lane replacement is a good idea. Even a new 4-laner will likely mean more traffic in New West.
  4. The point of infrastructure is not that it should pay for itself. Infrastructure is built to shape the behaviour of citizens and to guide the growth of cities. You build the future you want. So ask yourself: what future do you want? What is best for your kids? What is most sustainable? Personally, I think it's a pretty safe bet that 75 years from now (when the New Pattullo will still be standing) there will be a lot fewer single-occupancy cars on the road. Oil isn't getting cheaper or more plentiful. There is not enough electricity in BC for everyone to simply switch to an electric car. The future is unlikely to resemble "today, only bigger", so I don't believe for a minute that a bigger population "requires" more road capacity - the life experiences of folks from the 50's notwithstanding. In fact Translink's goals 1, 2 and 3 are pretty explicitly aligned with reducing vehicle capacity.
  5. One billion is a very low figure for a new bridge. Two billion is probably closer to what the budge for a new structure should be -  it's a price the Province seems happy to cough up for its own pet projects: for reference, the construction cost of the Port Mann and affiliated highway is 2.5 billion, and this bridge carries about 100,000 vehicles/day... or, the Massey Tunnel with current traffic counts of  80,000 vehicles/day, price tag for new unknown as of yet, but I'm guessing well into the billions as well. 
  6. Do not labour under the illusion that tolls will ever pay for a new structure. In BC, no toll ever has. The Coquihalla toll eventually paid for the construction of the highway (after 20 years, when it was scrapped) but was never sufficient to pay for the ongoing maintenance (that was up to the taxpayer). The toll on the Port Mann will never, ever pay for this bridge. This is why there is actually no private partner - the Province (ie. the taxpayer) is on the hook for the full cost of this bridge, forever. Similarly, the Golden Ears bridge tolls will not pay for the cost of this bridge. And I suspect that tolls on any new Massey Tunnel will also simply go to offset the total cost, but that the taxpayer will be on the hook for a substantial portion (growing, as tolls start to divert traffic away from the tolled infrastructure and onto "free" alternatives thanks to the Province's lack of any coherent tolling strategy). So it is a bad idea to base your budget on the idea of "user fees". Not that TransLink has any choice, of course, it's the Province's favourite whipping boy.
  7. The Pattullo provides a connection for "local" people to get between Surrey and New West, and one of the stated goals (#5 - hidden in the local community plans, apparently) is that this needs to be preserved. OK fine, but I strongly suspect that the number of trips that start or end in New Westminster is a tiny fraction of the 70,000 bridge crossings. Let's face it: New Westminster is not a big driving destination. It is a speed bump along the way that most commuters wish was paved over.  If you really want to come downtown, take the SkyTrain (in fact: most of the new buildings coming to New West are on SkyTrain and are marketed as being so). So the right solution is: reduce the bridge capacity so it's really only attractive to local travellers, and provide the car-commuters and trucks with an alternative that leads straight to HWY1. Point of fact: an alternative route already exists: it's the new Port Mann, the widest bridge in the world. Remind me again: why do we need a bigger Pattullo?
  8. The length of a bridge is not a reason why people don't bike or walk on it. The two biggest reasons why you have no pedestrians or cyclists on the Pattullo are that: a) it is a horrible user experience, and b) there's nothing on the Surrey side to walk to. The latter is changing fast as Surrey densifies. So fix the former and you will see mode shift. Guaranteed. I can imagine a reborn Whalley with a lovely waterfront and a bike/ped/park link along the real estate there...
My overwhelming priority is to reduce traffic through New Westminster. It makes sense to me to reduce the Pattullo's capacity, because this traffic dumps right into downtown, into residential areas.  The goal cannot be to reduce congestion, this is impossible. You cannot fix it by building a bigger bridge (you'll just wind up with a bigger parking lot). Congestion serves as an incentive to get people out of their SOV's and onto transit - as long as that is available. And of course, along this route, there is excellent service: the best. Skytrain. The issue is the bus connections at the Surrey end: let's fix that instead!

If most vehicles are bound for Coquitlam and points east, direct a bridge there.  In fact, there is already an excellent river crossing, brand new, that leads right to the highway, it's called the Port Mann. It can serve trucks from the SFPR as well as Surrey commuters. It may be a little more out of the way, and it isn't free....but why should New Westminster, the oldest community in the Province, take it in the neck so that drivers can have a "short cut"?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rain Rain Rain

Yesterday I was caught in what can only be described as hosing rain on my way home, on my bicycle. My raingear proved of little use as I navigated my way through foot-deep puddles and was treated to several free showers by passing vehicles.

I had time to contemplate the vocabularly of rain. Remember that legend, that says the Inuit have 40 words for snow? Well,  I posit that here on the west coast, we have an equally large stable of terms for "rain".

In order of intensity, here is my list of verbs that I've heard used to describe our weather in all its grey and damp glory:

misting, drizzling, spitting, sprinkling, showering, raining, pissing, pouring, hosing 

A few more terms can be used as adverbs (but haven't been graduated to full rain-verb status yet):

pattering, pelting, hammering

Am I missing any? I get the feeling that the middle ground is a bit thin. I think we could use some expansion here. Any creative souls out there looking for linguistic fame? Here's your chance!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"What If" Fantasies...

Just after the election, my local twittersphere was lit up with tweets like "if we'd've had STV, the NDP would be running the province". Other dreamers uttered statements like "NDP/Green coalition with Andrew Weaver as Environment Minister". No backup data provided; that's hard to to in 140 characters. 

But still, I wondered if this were true.

Analysis by my favourite electoral reform organization shows that this would likely not have been the case.

Thoughtful number-crunching, using the electoral boundaries that would have been in place, as well as making some very reasonable assumptions about voting patterns results in the conclusion that under STV (which is a pretty proportional system), BC would still have elected a Liberal majority government.

The Greens would've got maybe one more seat; the NDP three more and the Liberals 4 less. No Conservative seats.

Perhaps the voters in this province really do prefer a center-right government.

Another interesting point of analysis by the same group: less than 50% of eligible voters turned out to vote. That's down from the last election. Counting another way: 52% of registered voters turned out - again, less than the last election. (Not all eligible voters are registered). Voter participation continues to drop.

And then, FVBC does a nice analysis of how many voters actually have an MLA they voted for (51.1% - a very typical number under our current electoral system)...and how many voters it would take to swing the election the other way (<0.5% of the votes, in a few key swing ridings). That last number, especially, really illustrates how crappy our system is. If you don't live in one of those few swing ridings, your vote really, really doesn't matter at all.

Ah well. I only wish more people took an interest in this problem.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Carbon Bubble

Here's a fascinating report...authored by Nicholas Stern (London School of Economics and author of The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) and institutions like HSBC, Citi, Standard and Poor's and the International Energy Agency as well as the Bank of England. I'll summarize for you:

The share price of oil, gas, and coal companies (quite a few of which are nationalized - owned by governments, that is) depends to a large extent on their stated reserves. Governments make money off of the companies (royalties) and use it to fund public services. Companies traded on the stock markets form part of many people's RRSPs and pension funds, especially here in Canada. We are all heavily financially dependent on these stated reserves. Now, the important point is that whether or not those reserves can actually be extracted is apparently not part of their valuation.

What would happen if these reserves could not actually be used, and this were somehow to be captured in the financial statements of the companies? This is what the report explores. These assets would then be "stranded", and companies would take a huge hit to their share values - the report finds the total amount is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 trillion dollars. This is an alarmingly large number. Such a bursting bubble would have a huge - and negative - effect on economies all around the world. Think the current financial crisis is bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

But why worry? Why wouldn't we dig up and burn all this carbon? Well, it turns out that if you add up all the stated coal, gas, and oil reserves of all the companies that trade publicly (and hence make such figures available), you wind up with a figure that is far, far larger than would be allowed if we were to limit ourselves to the 2C temperature rise that scientists deem prudent, and that most governments have pledged to stay below.

The maximum amount of carbon that can be allowed into the atmosphere while keeping below this temperature increase is about 1000 Gigatonnes. The total declared reserves of carbon (currently safely sequestered)? 2860 Gigatonnes.

So, clearly there is something amiss. Someone is not connecting the dots. Companies and governments alike appear to be betting that climate policies will fail, and that their stated reserves can and will be developed, so that the current market valuation is correct and that their financial planning is hunky-dory. The corollary is, of course, that the global climate is basically screwed.

Of course, this is not what any government or energy company says, publicly. All claim to be green, and the big oil companies say they are using "carbon pricing" to help make investment decisions. But the market is very clearly not pricing carbon assets in this way.

The bottom line is this:
  • either we burn up all the reserves we've got (and some of us get stinkin' rich in the process!), signing the planet up for a trip back to the Eoceneor
  • the valuation of these reserves gets adjusted through a combination of government action (ie. declaring that nationalized firms will leave the assets in the ground, rendering them valueless) and regulation (ie. forcing independent publicly traded firms to disclose the amount of carbon in their reserves and instituting some kind of carbon-limit-driven pricing scheme), which will lead to the bursting of a financial bubble of gargantuan proportions. Your Canadian RRSPs? Provincial resource royalties? Kiss them goodbye.
Either way, this is looking really, really ugly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Party Views on Reforming Politics

I like to keep my finger in the pie on electoral reform. I am involved with Fair Voting BC, the organization which represented the "YES" side on the 2009 referendum on STV. That referendum was lost, but the organization still exists and has several campaigns active at any one time, all with the theme of improving our democracy.

This election, FVBC is running a survey, which it sent out to all the major parties, and also to all candidates (even independents - the ones we could easily find, that is!). The survey asked about 20 questions about a variety of topics, including
  • ideas for increasing voter participation
  • campaign finance reform
  • decreasing party discipline
  • increasing citizen participation in decsion-making
  • electoral reform for municipalities
  • establishing a legislative budget office (like we have Federally)
The questions are posted here.  You will see that they are not easy to answer, and assume a fair amount of knowledge about how our government currently works, and about recent task forces and legislation related to governance. You, personally, may not be informed enough on many of these issues to formulate answers to all the questions, but the point is that your elected representative, who will be paid in excess of $100k per year, should be very well informed on these topics. If they are clueless, then why should we elect them??

The results have been collected and are rather interesting. They're posted here in detail.

The Conservative party declined to respond to the survey. The Greens had the most to say, and covered practically every question. Individual Green candidates provided extensive answers as well. The NDP and Liberal parties gave generic answers; the Liberals quite disappointing.

Several independent candidates also gave answers.

Locally, in New Westminster, independent James Crosty and Green party candidate Terry Teather answered the survey and their responses are posted.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Election Thoughts

I dragged my hubby out to a movie last weekend: Whipped (the secret world of party discipline).

I'm sure he appreciated this romantic date.

Seriously though, the documentary is very interesting. It's an exploration of how party politics works here in BC. It goes like this:
  • Government decisions are made by the Premier and cabinet, in closed meetings with no minutes available.
  • The decisions are then given to the party caucus at caucus meetings, again behind closed doors with no publicly available minutes. 
  • The MLAs are told when to show up and how to vote. They essentially have zero input into the decision-making process. In some cases, they are not even given enough time to read the policy documents in question.
  • MLAs find it very, very difficult to oppose caucus decisions. Free votes are very rare, and only in rare circumstances are MLAs excused from voting (ie. allowed to abstain). In fact, in BC, the "most rebellious MLA" voted against his party a whopping 8% of the time (that was Blair Lekstrom). Pretty low. In the UK - which shares our system - it's about 25%, and MLAs (or rather, MPs - they don't have "provincial" politics in the UK) openly speak against their party's policies. Somehow, here in BC, a culture of extreme party discipline has evolved.
  • in a majority government, it doesn't matter at all what the opposition says or does. House debates are purely for show and the opposition has no influence on the direction of government. 
  • The only thing that can sway a majority government is public opinion. Get the public incensed enough and you can see some change. But this is rather difficult to achieve, requires a lot of organization, and requires the attention of the media.

A further point of control is that the Premier is chosen by the party (and not the voters - it is very, very rare that the Premier does not win his or her riding - and if this should happen, another MLA in a safe riding is expected to stand aside), and the Premier picks the cabinet from the pool of elected MLAs. None of this is up to the voters. Once a party has won the election, there is no further input from non-cabinet MLAs required.

In the movie, you see interviews with several MLAs (now ex-MLAs for the most part - they got kicked out of their party for rebellion) who express frustration with this system. We've also seen it recently on the Federal level, with members of the Conservative caucus expressing frustration with not being able to air the views of their constituents.  But these people get shut down pretty quickly.

The situation is a bit different for MLAs who are from very small parties or who are independents. They are responsible to themselves and their constituents to a much larger degree. In the movie, you see interviews with independents as well.

My conclusion from all of this is that if you vote for the NDP or the Liberals, you are voting for the party. It doesn't matter who your MLA is. You might as well elect a rake with a wig. Now, this is not a comment about the ability or motives of the individuals actually running - many of them are upright, hard-working and very sincere - but the truth is that unless they have a cabinet post, they will have no say in government policy and will not be able to vote against the party line.

Now, while this sounds rather dire, there is an upside to all of this. Our electoral system (first-past-the-post) is designed to produce majority governments, which, together with the system of extreme discipline just described, makes for very predictable results.

Voters see the party platform during the election and essentially pick a dictator. You know what you are going to get (that is, if the cabinet doesn't change their minds!). Most people appear fine with this. In fact many people think that coalitions and minority governments are undesireable, because this is perceived to mean back-room dealing, compromise, and gridlock in the Legislature.

Efforts to bring in proportional representation and moves to lessen party control have so far been futile; for the most part strenuously resisted by those with a vested interest in the current system (politicians as well as party workers and political pundits) and abetted by the desire for predictability by many voters.

On that cheery note, go forth and vote!