Hold politicians accountable for ‘ignore-ance’

Hold politicians accountable for ‘ignore-ance’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

19 November 2018

700 words

In a 1997 book, Elizabeth Ellsworth defined ‘ignore-ance’ as “an active dynamic of negation, an active refusal of information”. In my view, the wilful ignoring of evidence by political leaders that results in harm to the public is unacceptable and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

Perhaps the greatest example these days is climate change denial, or at least, a failure to take the issue seriously and make public policy consistent with the enormity of the challenge. The recent spate of studies, including from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, makes it clear that we are not taking this problem anywhere near seriously enough.

But while it is all too easy to point to the views and actions of Donald Trump, or to the new President of Brazil, we have plenty of local examples closer to home. Justin Trudeau, for example, wants to bring in a carbon pricing measure to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time wants to push though the Trans-Mountain pipeline that will result in an increase in the climate-damaging extraction of oil from the Alberta tarsands.

Doug Ford, meanwhile, leads the opposition to carbon pricing from several provincial Premiers and the Federal leader of the Conservatives. And here in BC, while John Horgan opposes the Trans-Mountain pipeline, he embraces LNG, which will make it very hard for BC to reach its emission reduction targets.

In fact a study released last week in Nature Communications shows that if the whole world acts with the same nonchalance as Canada, China and Russia, we will have temperature increases of about 50C by the end of the century. This is well above the 20C upper limit target adopted by all the world’s nations in the Paris Accord.

Unfortunately, the price to be paid for these leaders’ ‘ignore-ance’ on climate change will not be paid by them but largely by poor and vulnerable people – some in Canada but mostly elsewhere around the world – who will lose their lives, or be injured or sickened, by the impacts of climate change.

A somewhat different aspect of political ignore-ance has just been confirmed here in BC, where the Ministry of Transportation has rolled back increases in speed limits that resulted in increased deaths and injuries. These increases were brought in by the previous Minister, Todd Stone, in spite of clear and consistent evidence and expert advice to the contrary from many different stakeholders.

As a recent article by two of my public health colleagues, Drs. John Carsley and Kay Teschke, in The Province pointed out, those opposed were “the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, RoadSafety B.C. from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the B.C. Ministry of Justice, Road Safety Unit, the B.C.A.A., the B.C. Truckers Association, the provincial health officer, all five regional chief medical health officers, emergency room physicians, trauma surgeons, and all B.C. road-safety researchers”.

The headline of their article says it all: “Turns out — duh! — that increasing speed limits didn’t increase highway safety”. In fact, studies show “more than twice as many deaths and serious injuries on roads with increased limits”.Sadly, as my colleagues point out, “this will not bring back those killed nor undo the wounds of those injured as a result of this fiasco”.

But why should the Minister reponsible for this appalling decision, made in the face of all the evidence and expert advice, be allowed to get away with it? What happened to accountability here? It seems to me the victims and their families might have a basis for a class action suit against the Minister, and I hope they initiate one.

On a larger scale, I think we are getting to the point where there may well be a case to be made that in continuing to ignore the evidence on climate change and instead promoting the fossil fuel industry, our political leaders may be guilty of a crime against humanity. In fact Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, suggested exactly this in an opinion piece on CNN’s website just last month.  It is time we held politicians accountable for their ignore-ance.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018




The environment should be front-page news

The environment should be front-page news

Dr. Trevor Hancock

12 November 2018

700 words

“Good evening. And now, here is the environment news”.Well, that is a daily news segment we won’t be coming across soon – although we should. But we do hear or see the business news on a daily basis, in fact many times a day.

What prompted this column was listening yet again to the endless stream of largely meaningless stock exchange numbers that comes with the morning news on CBC Radio, in the context of the very troubling reports on loss of vertebrate populations globally and in Canada that I discussed last week.

The FTSE went this way, we are told, the Nasdaq that way, copper up this much, gold down that much and so on. Who ever really listens to this, never mind knows what it really means? And tomorrow it will all be different. The daily fluctuations in the Dow Jones are not all that meaningful for most of us, most of the time. What really matters is change over time as well as dramatic changes; the rest is just background noise.

It’s not just the stock exchange numbers; I recall a time what there was no business news as a regular part of almost every news program. In fact, my recollection is that back in the 1970s there was a concerted effort from the business sector to make business part of the regular news broadcasts, as a way to heighten the awareness of the importance of business to Canadians.

But this also serves to distort our world view; business is made to seem important while other issues – such as the environment – are not. There is a separate daily business section in the Times Colonist and in most other newspapers, and for that matter a sports section, but no dedicated  daily environment section, nor are there environment news updates as part of the regular radio or TV news bulletins. Yes, we do get environment stories, but they are not covered systematically in the media and thus do not attain the same importance as do business or even sport.

Yet in the final analysis the environment is much more important to our overall wellbeing than the business sector. After all, the most fundamental determinants of our health – air, water, food, materials, fuels – all come from nature. To be sure, it is the business sector – and to some extent the public sector – that brings these resources to us, but they do not create them, they and we exploit what nature provides. But in the process, we collectively cause harm though pollution, over-harvesting, destabilising the climate and wiping out other species.

What we really need to know is how well the environment is doing, and whether we are harming or improving the environment. So what might a dedicated daily environment news section feature?

As with the business news, a combination of stories and indicators would be needed, covering a wide range of environmental issues, including climate change, resource use, pollution and loss of habitat and species, at scales ranging from the local to the global. There are many potential indicators, but we can only report on a few each day. As is the case with many business indicators, however, not many environmental indicators change in a meaningful way on a daily basis, leaving plenty of scope to cover some only every month, each quarter or even only once a year.

If I were designing an environmental section, I would want to include a mix of good news and bad news stories; not just what is going wrong, but stories of positive change from around the world that show that change is not only possible, but is actually happening.  Local relevance would also be important; not just what is happening on the other side of the world, but in our own backyard, such as examples of passive housing or local conservation efforts .

This is necessarily a very incomplete picture of what the environmental news would be. But the central point is this: If we don’t regularly measure and report on the state of the environment in a very public way, if we do not make it part of our daily conversations, we cannot manage  our interaction with the environment, and we will pay a high price for that ignorance.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018




We are making Earth spineless

We are making Earth spineless

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 November 2018

702 words

Humans are primates, part of the great class of animals known as mammals. Mammals in turn are part of the vertebrate subphylum, along with birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians; animals with spines. As a species, we are nearing the end of a population explosion that has seen us grow from about 1.8 billion a century ago to 3.5 billion 50 years ago and 7.6 billion today; we are expected to peak at about 9 – 10 billion in a few decades.

Our domesticated species have undergone a similar growth. In a 2010 article Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute indicated that between 1960 and 2008 chicken numbers had increased about five-fold, goats nearly tripled, pigs more than doubled and cattle and buffalo numbers were up by about half. TheEconomist estimated in 2011 that the world has almost 19 billion chickens,  1.4 billion cattle and about 1 billion each of sheep and pigs.

But our expansion has come at a terrible price, as is made clear in the latest edition of the Living Planet Report from the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF); we are wiping out other vertbrates. Every two years, the WWF compiles the Living Planet Index (LPI), a count of  global wild vertebrate populations. This year the data comes from the monitoring over time of 16,704 populations of 4,005 different species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Note that these are not species extinctions (although that is happening too), but represents “the average change in population abundance”.

Between 1970 and 2014, there was “an overall decline of 60% in the population sizes of vertebrates . . . in other words, an average drop of well over half in less than 50 years”. But this decline was not equally distributed. In South and Central America and the Caribbean, the LPI has declined a staggering 89 percent, and there has been a 64 percent decline in the Indo-Pacific region.

There have also been “catastrophic declines in freshwater biodiversity”, with the LPI falling by 83 percent  – and 94 percent in South and Central America and the Caribbean. These ecosystems have been harmed by “habitat modification, fragmentation and destruction; invasive species; overfishing; pollution; forestry practices; disease; and climate change”, all factors that apply to our own ecosystems here in Canada.

WWF Canada produced its own Living Planet Report for Canada in 2017, and we have no room for complacency. The report was based on 3,689 populations of 903 monitored vertebrate species in Canada between 1970 and 2014. The good news is that for half the species, populations are either “stable or faring well”. But “half of our monitored species (451 of 903) are in decline. And of those, the index shows an average decline of 83 per cent”.

Overall, the report found a 43 percent decline in mammal populations, while “grassland birds suffered 69 per cent loss; reptile and amphibian populations dropped almost 34 per cent, and fish populations declined by 20 per cent”. And we are doing a lousy job of protecting species at-risk, despite the Species at Risk Act. The study looked at 64 species listed under the Act and found that between 2002, when the Act was passed, and 2014 “these populations declined, on average, by 28 per cent — with an average annual decline of 2.7 per cent”; this was higher than the rate of decline in those populations prior to the Act’s passage.

So why does this matter? Well, at a philosphical level, by what right are we destroying ecosystems and other species that have as much right to exist as we do? But in addition to these important philosophical objections, there are clear pragmatic reasons why humans should care. Because as the WWF report puts it, “Everything that has built modern human society is provided by nature and, increasingly, research demonstrates the natural world’s incalculable importance to our health, wealth, food and security”. Biodiversity, the report states. “is, simply, a prerequisite for our modern, prosperous human society to exist, and to continue to thrive”.

It is a catastrophic failing that our political and economic system does not understand or act on this; future generations will pay a heavy price for our neglect of this simple fact.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018


The Sidney Summit and the One Planet Region

The Sidney Summit and the One Planet Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 October 2018

698 words

We may be at an important turning point, at least locally. We have just seen a municipal election in which many young, progressive, environmentally conscious candidates have been elected, forming a potential majority on such issues in Victoria and Saanich, which between them are half the population of the CRD. Whether formally endorsing it or not – and some of them were involved in creating it – they are likely to support many of the policy ideas found in the Common Vision Common Action solutions document, which is based on the principles of ecological and social justice.

Saanich in particular can and should set a new course, as one of five communities around the world selected to work with the UK-based organisation Bioregional to support the development by a variety of community stakeholders of One Planet Action Plans. Hopefully the new Council can swiftly move beyond a Climate Action Plan to officially proclaim a municipal goal to become a One Planet community in the next couple of decades. But it may not be alone.

The Sidney Summit on Habitat and Environment, to give it its full title, will be held on Saturday November 10that the Mary Winspear Centre (http://www.SidneySummit.ca). Like many such events, it is organised with the support of a large number of local people and organisations, ranging from local community associations and environmental groups to the business sector and local governments and politicians; for the record, I have not been involved in organising this event.

Focused on preserving, restoring and enhancing the natural habitat and environment of the Saanich Peninsula, the Summit has succeeded in attracting a stellar cast of local speakers – and all for the very modest price for participants of $25 for the day. Green Party MLA Adam Olsen and guests will open the summit, rooting it in a time when First Peoples were the only inhabitants of the Peninsula.

They will be followed by Elizabeth May MP, who will bring her own energy and passion for a sustainable and just future to the event, by Robert Bateman with his great artistic and personal commitment to the beauty of nature, and by CBC Quirks and Quarks host Bob MacDonald with a multi-media planetary journey.

But it’s not just local big-name speakers. A couple of the most interesting parts of the Summit actually occur before the event. First, local Conversations to discuss some of the issues have been happening at small community venues around the area during October. Second, on the day before the Summit, Parkland High School is hosting an interactive gathering called The Summit@School, with live broadcasting by Radio Sidney.

Local organisations involved in the Summit will make presentations and engage with students, whose habitat and environmental concerns will be captured in print, as video clips and radio interviews, to be shared the next day at the Mary Winspear Centre. Hopefully this will be the start – or perhaps the continuation – of the intergenerational collaboration we need; it is, after all, these young people’s future that will be discussed, a future that my generation and the generation after mine have jeopardised, and it is our problematic legacy that they will have to deal with.

Hopefully the Summit will recognise that its laudable goals cannot be achieved with our current economic and social approach, and that a new One Planet approach is needed there too. Finding how we can all live well within the physical and ecological constraints of this one small planet is THE challenge of the 21stcentury. We already have the Conversations for a One Planet Region I have been coordinating for the past 2 years. The Sidney Summit shows that similar concerns are being voiced across the region, and helps broaden and deepen this important conversation.

With our wealth of environmentally and socially conscious people and organisations, with a set of newly-minted local politicians who share those same concerns, with emerging businesses and social enterprises that want to do well while doing good, this region can be among the pioneers, certainly in North America, in addressing that challenge. Events like the Sidney Summit are to be applauded and celebrated for helping move us towards the goal of a One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018