The problem of natural and industrial carbon bombs

(Published as “When Canada permits loss of marshes, forests, it’s a carbon bomber”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 May 2022

701 words

The concept of a carbon bomb is pretty simple: It’s a potential source of a large amount of CO2 that could be released quite rapidly (or the loss of important carbon sinks), accelerating global heating and taking us beyond the 1.5°C and even the more damaging 2°C targets that have been internationally agreed.

Key to understanding the importance of carbon bombs is the concept of the carbon budget, which is the amount of CO2 that can be released into the atmosphere globally without pushing global heating above 1.5°C. In its August 2021 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to have a 66 percent probability of staying below a 1.5°C rise, we can add no more than 400 billion tonnes of CO2 from the start of 2020 and 1,150 billion tonnes to stay below a 2°C rise.

Globally, we currently emit about 36 billion tonnes annually, so we will exhaust the allowable emissions to keep heating below a 1.5°C rise in “just 11 years if no reductions are made, i.e. the global carbon budget runs out at the end of 2030”, the IPCC stated. We have only 32 years at current emission rates if we are to keep below a 2°C rise.

The term ‘carbon bomb’ was initially applied to what might be called ‘natural’ carbon bombs. I put ‘natural’ in inverted commas because while coming from natural sources – permafrost, forests and peatlands and marshes – these carbon bombs are nonetheless created through human action. More recently it has been expanded to include fossil fuel projects that will emit more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the project; together they have the potential to take us well beyond these targets.

Human-induced global heating – which is more marked at the poles – results in thawing of permafrost, releasing large volumes of CO2 and – even worse – the potent greenhouse gas methane. The amount of carbon locked up in northern permafrost is worrying. In a July 2011 article about the Polaris Project, a Woods Hole Research Center project looking at climate change in the Arctic, Dallas Murphy noted “there are very few mechanisms in nature that are capable – on short timescales – of transferring huge stocks of carbon from the land into the atmosphere.  Permafrost thawing heads the short list.”

In a 2019 review for the NOAA’s Arctic Program, Ted Schuur, a leading permafrost expert, noted these soils contain roughly 1.5 trillion tons of organic carbon, “about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere”. 
Moreover, about two-thirds of this carbon – 1,000 billion tons – is within the top 3 metres of the soil, so it is likely to be readily affected by thawing.
He reports that these regions are already releasing between 0.3 and 0.6 billion tons of carbon annually, which is equivalent to roughly 1 – 2 billion tons of CO2. Ongoing and indeed increasing global heating will likely make this worse.

Other ‘natural’ carbon bombs include the release of carbon from deforestation together with the loss of the carbon sink potential of the intact forest, as well as the loss through development of peatland and marshes, which are important carbon sinks. Just last week the Cowichan- Koksilah salt marsh was featured in this newspaper. Nina Grossman and Hina Alam reported that a recent study led by UVic graduate student Tristan Douglas found the estuary “seizes and stores double the carbon dioxide of a 20-year-old Pacific Northwest forest of the same size.” 

But Douglas also warned that “the world has lost about 70 per cent of mangroves and about 30 to 40 per cent of all marshlands and sea grasses in the past 100 years, and will lose another 40 per cent if it’s a ‘business as usual approach’ in the next century.”

So when Canada permits deforestation or the loss of peatlands and marshes to development, it is in effect being a ‘carbon bomber’, not to mention adding the vast amounts of CO2 and methane that will be released from permafrost in the North that is already starting to thaw. So much for ‘natural’ carbon bombs; next week I will focus on the fossil fuel carbon bombs, where Canada is a big and bad player.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

B.C. government’s LNG infatuation makes it dangerously radical

19 April 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

698 words

BC likes to claim it has a wonderful, world-leading climate action plan. So it is perhaps surprising that the Sierra Club BC announced in February that it is taking the B.C. government to court “for failing to present plans to achieve several key climate targets, as required by its own climate change legislation.”

Represented by Ecojustice, their suit alleges not only that B.C.’s 2021 report, required by the Climate Change Accountability Act, “falls woefully short, by failing to include a plan for the 2025, 2040 and 2050 climate targets”, but that “it also omits the government’s plan to cut carbon pollution from the oil and gas sector, which could rapidly grow in coming years – fuelled largely by the B.C. government’s support for fracked gas.”

In fact, the Sierra Club BC notes, “the B.C. government continues to support and subsidize the expansion of fracking operations”, adding that the LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat “and other proposed LNG terminals would almost certainly make it impossible to meet 2030, 2040 and 2050 targets.”

One factor that helps increase production is the extensive subsidies and other financial supports the fossil fuel industry receives from the federal and provincial governments.  A February 2022 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that among the provinces B.C. was the second highest subsidiser after Alberta, providing at least $492 million in royalty relief (more than Alberta), $232 million in various tax measures and $41 million in direct transfers, in the 2020/21 financial year.

While some of the tax relief and direct transfers may have been due to Covid relief, the IISD report notes that they could not count all the supports provided, as they are buried in other budget lines or programs. So their estimate is conservative, IISD states, and “provincial subsidies to fossil fuel production and consumption are likely much higher.”

All in all, the report concludes, “provinces are diverting significant public funds to incentivize fossil fuel production that may not otherwise occur, and provincial governments are missing out on millions in uncollected royalty and tax revenue from fossil fuels” (although it is to be hoped that B.C.’s still to be completed royalty review may change that somewhat).

Unsurprisingly, this is aided and abetted by a large and active lobbying campaign by the fossil fuel industry. In 2021 the Wilderness Committee started it’s @BCGasLobbyBot, a Twitter bot account that lets the public know every time a new lobbying activity is registered. In December 2021, the Wilderness Committee reported that “In total, the gas industry lobbied the government 768 times as it prepared its royalty review.”

A particularly pernicious aspect of the industry’s lobbying is providing classroom ‘education’ materials to schools in BC. In March 2022 Open Letter to the B.C. Minister of Education, the B.C. branch of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, supported by almost 100 health, education, and other groups, called for a ban on such fossil fuel promotion.

Specifically, they called on educators and School Divisions across B.C. to “reject the use of the FortisBC Energy Leaders K-12 curriculum”, an industry-focused curriculum that “is carefully constructed to promote and normalize the use of fossil fuels to children of all ages.” The letter states “the lessons are solely focused on natural gas, normalizing its use” and falsely touting it as a clean and renewable energy source.” In particular, the letter adds, there is “no mention of the negative impacts of hydraulic fracturing, burning natural gas, or methane emissions on human health, climate change and the environment.”

Importantly, a March 2022 report commissioned by the IISD found that wealthy oil and gas producing countries such as Canada must reduce production by 74 percent by 2030 and phase out production entirely by 2034, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

So if we are to meet our obligations to future generations, private sector lobbying has to be reined in and fossil fuel subsidies and supports have to go, as do misleading private sector ‘education’ curricula for school children. Failure to do so will earn the B.C. government the sobriquet of being “dangerous radicals” engaged in “moral and economic madness”, as the UN Secretary General recently put it.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Are our governments dangerous radicals or merely mad?

12 April 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Right now, globally, we have experienced global warming of about 1.1°C, and we saw last summer here in B.C.  what that can mean. Two recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paint a grim picture. And it’s probably worse than these reports state, because the IPCC necessarily presents a conservative picture as its reports have to be approved by all 195 government members of the IPCC. So think of what follows as the best-case scenario.

In February the IPCC Working Group 2 (WG2) reported on the impacts of climate change on people and the planet. Said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC: “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet.”

The WG2 report also reports on the steps being taken to adapt to the changing climate, and on the vulnerabilities that are apparent. So far, noted the IPCC press release, “there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks.” Moreover, “these gaps are largest among lower-income populations.” As a result, “The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C.”

Then this month, the IPCC Working Group 3 (WG3) released its report on mitigation – how we can reduce or stop climate change. The IPCC press release is clear: “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.” The report notes that “the continuation of policies implemented by the end of 2020” results in “global warming of 3.2°C by 2100.”

Keeping warming to “around 1.5°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43 percent by 2030”, while keeping it below 2°C also requires emissions to peak by 2025, and to be reduced by a quarter by 2030. But the IPCC notes that lifetime emissions from existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure will take us to 2 degrees. So as a May 2021 report from the International Energy Agency’s recommended, there should be no new investments in fossil fuels.

Less constrained as he is by the need to protect national fossil fuel industries, and able to speak instead in the interests of the world’s people and nature, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been blunt in his response to these reports. Responding to the WG2 report, he called it “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” In a speech in March he commented, “The 1.5-degree goal is on life support. It is in intensive care”, adding “if we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”

Then in a speech following the release of the WG3 report, he referred to it as a “litany of broken promises” and a “file of shame”, putting us “firmly on track towards an unlivable world”. And in a separate Tweet he stated: ““Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

Meanwhile, back in Canada, in defiance of all logic and sense, both the federal and provincial governments continue to support fossil fuel expansion. A December 2021 report from the Canada Energy Regulator projects oil production will continue to increase until 2040, while gas production will increase by 40 percent by 2050. And just a day after the release of the WG3 report, the federal government approved the Bay du Nord deepwater oil  field. It beggars belief that Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault can say with a straight face the project  “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

Here in B.C., the Sierra Club and Ecojustice are suing the government because it is “failing to present plans to achieve several key climate targets, as required by its own climate change legislation.” And it remains wedded to LNG and fracking, of which more next week.

So are our governments dangerous fossil fuel radicals, morally and economically mad, or both?

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Victoria’s new housing policies will benefit health

(Published as “Speeding development of non-profit housing is good for health)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 April 2022

701 words

Housing is fundamental to health. That should not be a surprise, especially in a country with Canada’s climate. The health impacts of being homeless or living in poor quality housing are well understood, and must be obvious to anyone.

But it is not just homelessness that is a concern, there is a much larger problem of affordability; lack of affordable housing can markedly affect people’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. In a July 2021 report commissioned by the City of Victoria, local housing and homelessness researcher Nicole Chaland noted: “Homelessness exists against the backdrop of the affordable housing crisis. Shortages of affordable housing for the lowest income group cause new inflows to homelessness and prevent exits from homelessness.”

She reported that according to 2016 census data 10,480 households in the CRD with an income of less than $23,536 met the definition for extreme core housing need by spending half or more of their income on rent; a further 2,500 households with incomes between $23,536 and $44,456 were also in extreme core housing need.

The situation is particularly severe in the City of Victoria. An October 2020 report from the CRD noted 61 percent of Victoria households are renters, the vacancy rate is low, rental costs have risen over the past 15 years and there has been “little development of new primary rental market units”.

The problem is simple, and hardly news; there is not enough affordable housing for low and moderate-income families in this region. Much of the blame must be laid at the feet of the federal government, which abandoned support for social housing in the early 1990s. This resulted in “drastic reductions in the amount of affordable housing available”,notes the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

In Canada, the right to housing has finally been legally recognized in the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act, notes the National Right to Housing Network. The Network adds: “This means recognizing that all people have the ‘right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity’”, as the UN puts it.

The Act “requires the government to implement reasonable policies and programs to ensure the right to housing for all within the shortest possible timeframe. It also means priority must be given to vulnerable groups and those in greatest need of housing”, and it establishes a National Housing Council and a federal Housing Advocate.

But securing the right to housing is not just a national problem, it is also a local one, as University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and his colleague Clayton Aldern point out in a recent interview with the Sightline Institute in Seattle about their book ‘Homelessness Is a Housing Problem’.

“Homelessness needs to be understood as a problem driven by a lack of access to housing”, they state. “It is a market failure. People are forced out of stable housing or are unable to access it when housing markets don’t provide sufficient and affordable options.” Put simply, inadequate increase in housing stock drive prices up, which is particularly problematic for low-income households.

So it is good news that the City of Victoria’s Rapid Development of Affordable Housing bylaw is going to a public hearing on April 14. The City notes they have heard the current approach, by adding time to the process, “adds risk to a project and increases costs and makes it challenging for non-profits to deliver homes to those most vulnerable in our community.”

So they propose changes to streamline the process specifically for the fairly small number of proposals each year for “housing that is wholly owned and/or operated by a registered non-profit residential housing society or government agency”.  

In essence, proposals for such developments that meet design guidelines, fit within existing residential zoning and do not exceed the density allowed by Official Community Plan could be approved by “the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development, and not go to Council.” Together, these changes will result in “time savings of three to nine months”.

This addresses one key aspect of affordability, and will help to improve the wellbeing of the most vulnerable and low-income people. It will be followed by policies for “villages and corridors” and the “missing middle”, which will help further.  More on that soon.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

WHO’s focus on planetary health is timely

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 March 2022

700 words

Thursday April 7th is World Health Day. The theme this year is ‘Our Planet, Our Health’. WHO wants to “focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being.” 

This theme is very timely, reflecting a growing global concern about what we are doing to the Earth, and what that means for humanity – not to mention what it means for all the other species with whom we share the Earth. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said it well, succinctly and bluntly in December 2020: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.” He has talked since of the ‘triple crisis’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

The WHO “estimates that more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes. This includes the climate crisis, which is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. The climate crisis is also a health crisis.” 

We have certainly experienced that here in BC. In the past year alone we have experienced a heat dome that contributed to the deaths of 525 people in a one-week period from June 25 – July 1st, according to the BC Coroners Service; for comparison, the Service reported 2,224 deaths in all of 2021 from a suspected illicit drug overdose.  In addition, the heat caused the deaths of more than one billion seashore animals, according to UBC marine biologist Chris Harley.

Meanwhile fires entirely destroyed Lytton and killed two people there, while also burning buildings in other communities and causing much harm to our forests. In addition, massive floods – exacerbated by deforestation – inundated farms, killing tens of thousand of animals, and destroyed highways and other infrastructure.

And this is before climate change becomes really serious! In a March 21st speech to the Economist Sustainability Summit, Mr Guterres told the attendees the world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe” and that meeting the goal of keeping global warming to under 1.5degrees C “is on life support. It is in intensive care.”

But the real threat is not just climate change, it is the combination of massive and rapid global ecological changes rooted in a way of life, driven by high-income countries, that is unsustainable.

Which is why the WHO wants to focus our attention on the urgent actions needed to create societies focused on well-being. The recent Geneva Charter from WHO defines such societies as “committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits”.

The WHO has some strong suggestions for what that means in practice, including keeping fossil fuels in the ground; stopping new fossil fuel exploration and projects; stopping fossil fuel subsidies and taxing the polluters. It also recommends repurposing agriculture subsidies towards sustainable and healthy food production and taxing highly processed foods and beverages high in salt, sugars and unhealthy fats – and much else besides.

Here in BC on World Health Day, Doctors for Planetary Health (D4PH) will be releasing and presenting to the BC government and all the MLAs its full Code Red Action Plan. Motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the people of BC, and of the world, the Action Plan calls on the BC government to declare a climate and ecological emergency and develop and implement a transformative emergency plan; take action on climate change; protect and restore nature; create broad transformative change focused on human wellbeing in balance with nature and ensure a Just Transition.

In addition, an article by D4PH to be released on the Healthy Debates website will outline what health professionals can do in their roles as care providers, patient advocates, part of the health care system, and as citizens. And it will urge them to take the Planetary Health Pledge and share videos of themselves doing so, an initiative that is fast becoming a global movement.

The pledge is a commitment “to work to protect the health of people, their communities, and the planet . . . and all of its life forms for current and future generations”. It is a pledge that all our political and corporate leaders need to take, for our planet and our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Redistributing power, money and resources will improve wellbeing

(Published as “A progressive tax on all forms of wealth would reduce inequality”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

22 March 2022

700 words

A few weeks ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine and began committing war crimes that have shocked the world (in a way that should have but, to our shame, did not shock the world when Russia did the same thing in Chechnya and Syria), I was writing about inequality and health, in the context of creating a Wellbeing society.

So even though innocent people are still being butchered by Putin and his terrorist army, I will return to this topic because the problem remains and must be addressed, both in Canada and globally.

To refresh your memory, the World Health Organization (WHO) is championing the creation of what it calls Wellbeing societies, in which equitable health is achieved within the ecological limits of the Earth. ‘Equitable health’ is not the same as equal health, but is about ensuring we all have a fair opportunity to be healthy, minimizing inequality as much as possible.

Inequality has health consequences: As the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health memorably put it in 2008: “Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale”.  Thus high levels of inequality are incompatible with a Wellbeing society.

But inequality does not just happen. Instead, as the World Inequality Report 2022 (WIR) noted: “Inequality is a political choice, not an inevitability.”  That political choice is not only killing people on a grand scale, it is creating much social strain and mental and physical ill health through poverty, marginalisation, social exclusion and alienation, resulting in what Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton calls the ‘diseases of despair’. 

The WIR notes “the period from 1945 or 1950 till 1980 was a period of shrinking inequality in many parts of the world”.  But at the same time, and perhaps contrary to our usual modern expectations, these were also times “of fast productivity growth and increasing prosperity, never matched since” for the countries of the West.

The report goes on to note: “The reason why that was possible had a lot to do with policy—tax rates were high, and there was an ideology that inequality needed to be kept in check, that was shared between the corporate sector, civil society and the government.”

That all changed with the advent of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology, first implemented by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA. As a consequence, the report notes, “contemporary global inequalities are close to early 20th century levels, at the peak of Western imperialism”. The result, says Deaton, a self-professed believer in social democratic capitalism who is now chairing a review of rising inequalities in the UK, is that “I think that today’s inequalities are signs that democratic capitalism is under threat”

To address this, as the 2008 WHO Commission put it in one of its three key recommendations, we have to “tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources”. Thirteen years later, the WIR made much the same point: “addressing the challenges of the 21st century is not feasible without significant redistribution of income and wealth inequalities.”

 So how should that be done?  The World Inequality Lab, source of the WIR, has what is really a very simple proposition: “a modest progressive wealth tax on global multimillionaires.” They point out that wealth – or at least, one form of it, namely property – is already taxed pretty much all over the world. But they point out it is a flat tax, not progressive – the very rich pay the same rate on their property as the average citizen. Moreover, much of the wealth of the very wealthy is in stocks and bonds and other forms of wealth, not property.

So their recommendation is to expand the property tax to encompass all forms of wealth, not just real estate, and to make it progressive. Such a tax, they find, ranging progressively from 0.6 percent to 3.2 percent of total wealth, would generate $1.74 trillion each year, or 1.6 percent of total global incomes, that could then be “reinvested in education, health and the ecological transition”.

As they note, “it would be completely unreasonable not to ask more of top wealth-holders in the future, especially in light of the social, developmental and environmental challenges ahead.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Freedom for the sharks, not the minnows

(Published as “Freedom from regulation helps sharks at the expense of minnows”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

15 March 2022

696 words

Last week I wrote about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ freedoms in the context of the Ukrainian fight for freedom from tyranny, compared to the so-called ‘freedom convoy’ that is seeking, Putin-style, to impose their idea of freedom upon us. But there is a level of ‘unhealthy freedom’ that is far worse, in terms of direct health impacts, than that exhibited by these ‘freedom convoys’; the freedom of people and corporations to make money by harming others.

The most obvious example is the tobacco industry, which has until recently been left free to make money for its investors by selling an addictive product that, when used as intended, kills and sickens people in large numbers. But we have seen similar stories in many other industries, most notably in the recent epidemic of drug overdoses, due in large part to the massive marketing of opioids.

Then there are the alcohol, fast food and other industries that have large adverse health impacts; the fossil fuel industry that keeps trying to expand and still tries to confuse the public on the science of climate change – a technique they took directly from the tobacco industry; the pesticide and other chemical companies whose products harm the ecosystem as well as human health, and a whole host of other industries and products that quite legally do harm.

The freedom to harm others for profit is the sort of freedom espoused by libertarians and neoliberals. These freedoms, which Guardian columnist George Monbiot, in an April 2016 column, called the freedom of the pike (I would say ‘sharks’), often come at the expense of what he calls the minnows.

He wrote: “Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.”

These ‘freedoms’ have another consequence; we have become obsessed with the need to get stuff cheap – at any price. As Monbiot notes, it leads to driving down wages and benefits to reduce costs and increase profits. Bizarrely, the ‘right to work’ movement beloved of American Republicans and their supporters involves weakening the power of unions to protect the rights, wages and working conditions of workers, attracting investors to their state to employ people in low wage, low benefit jobs.

The minnows are seduced into supporting such laws, which create jobs but make them worse off while feeding the sharks. But it also strengthens their need to get stuff cheap, because their wages are low, making this a self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling process.

Another consequence of the need to get stuff cheap is shipping jobs off-shore to low-wage economies to reduce costs; the result is not just low wages, but no wages. But it’s not only jobs that get shifted offshore, so too are toxic production processes and dangerous work. Following the logic of neo-liberalism, they go to places where regulations are less stringent and less enforced, thus avoiding the expense of safer production, to the detriment of the health of the local population and the environment.

The neo-liberal sharks, it seems, have been successful in pulling off a neat trick. In the name of populism, they have established a powerful political movement that encourages the minnows to support policies diametrically opposed to their own interests. This is what happens when money becomes the prime value in society. We facilitate and support the system because we save or make money from it – and we don’t really care where it comes from or who gets hurt in the process, as long as it’s not us.

But as Monbiot warned: “Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts.” Neoliberalism erodes democracy, and it erodes the power of the state to aid the weak and vulnerable, to support their freedom to achieve a good life, to thrive. It is the freedom of the sharks, not the minnows.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Freedom: The real deal v infantile foot stomping

8 March 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

For the past two Sundays I have joined thousands of others in rallies to stand with Ukraine, support the Ukrainian people and condemn the war criminal in the Kremlin. And on both occasions, we have also seen members of the ‘freedom convoys’, the people protesting vaccines, masks and other mandates. (I won’t call them truckers, that would blacken the name of the vast majority of truckers who have paid attention to the science, understand their social responsibility and have been respectful of the law.)

So I have been musing on these very different aspects of ‘freedom’. On the one hand, the freedom of the Ukrainian people from war, invasion and true tyranny; on the other, freedom from “being asked to wear a piece of paper over their nose and mouth to protect others”, as Dee Snider, former frontman of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, recently put it. In the 1980s he wrote a song, We’re Not Gonna Take It, that has recently become a resistance anthem for the Ukrainians. But it has also been used by anti-maskers: Mr. Snider approved of the former using his song, but not the latter.

When asked why, he tweeted: “Well, one use is for a righteous battle against oppression; the other is infantile feet stomping against an inconvenience.” In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s ‘As it Happens’ he elaborated further: “One group are fighting for their lives against oppression and tyranny for real. It’s a life and death situation”. The other group, as I already noted, are upset about wearing masks: “It’s just so ludicrous”, he added.

From a public health perspective, I find it useful to distinguish between what might be called healthy and unhealthy freedom. Healthy freedom enables people to fulfil their potential, to flourish. It includes freedom from hunger, fear and, of course, war. But it is rooted in a sense of community. It recognises that one has an obligation to protect the freedom, lives, health and safety of others – and not just others in one’s own family and community, but in humanity is a whole.

Thus it is a constrained freedom, linking freedom with duty, responsibility and obligation. Healthy freedom is not absolute; you do not have the right to harm me, and as a society we have a duty to protect people from the harmful activities of others. You can’t drive on the left because you feel like it, you can’t drive while drunk or ignore stop signs and red lights. Your freedom to smoke, we used to argue, stops at my nose. Or more relevant today, your freedom to make noise stops at my ear.

Unhealthy freedom is when people feel they are free to act in ways that harm others. At its simplest, you are not free to kill others, it is against all moral codes and laws – although there are clearly exceptions even to that; legitimate defensive war, self-defence and where it still exists, legally sanctioned executions. And you don’t have the right to endanger others by ignoring mandates for mask-wearing, vaccine passports or immunisation.

Society, in the shape of public health officials and governments, have put these restrictions in place because, based on what is known, they are likely to protect the majority of the population, including especially the more vulnerable members of society. Where possible, there have to be reasonable accommodations, and nobody wants to restrict freedom any more or for any longer than is deemed necessary. However, freedom is not absolute, there are reasonable limits in a democratic society.

These two sorts of freedom are about to be vividly contrasted in Victoria, it seems. According to a March 7th CHEK News story, a ‘freedom convoy’ is on its way to Victoria from Thunder Bay. The story quotes James Bauder, one of the organizers of the Ottawa occupation, stating “We’re coming to defend your lawful freedom of choice”, adding “We’re going to be occupying that area for two to three months” because the NDP and Liberals have “had their way for too long.”

Sounds disturbingly familiar? This is the same arrogant and shameful rationale behind Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. We can do without that sort of ‘freedom’ being imposed on us!

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

No health without peace

Published as “Here’s how you can help Ukraine — and the world”

1 March 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

I write my weekly columns a week or so before they are published, and submit them five days ahead. So when I wrote my column last week, while there was always the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine, there was still some hope that the Madman of Moscow would not actually do so.  But as I write this the invasion is in full swing, and who knows what the situation will be when it is published – but it does not look good.

I cannot possibly write a column right now about anything else to do with the health of the population, when we are faced with one of the gravest threats to peace I have seen in my 73 years.  A threat to peace is not only a threat to health but to life itself, whether locally or, in the event of nuclear war, globally. Which is why peace is listed first in a short list of prerequisites for health in the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, which is the key founding document for the work that has been the focus of my career.

What is happening in Ukraine is horrifying, as is all war. Indeed, we should not forget that there are equally horrifying international wars underway in Yemen and Ethiopia and numerous other smaller or internal wars around the world. But what makes the Ukraine war so troubling is that Vladimir Putin has compounded his war crimes by fairly explicitly threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

I was 14 at the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and recall the real fear we all had that nuclear war would be unleashed. While we avoided it then, the fear was omni-present, and was crystallised by a 1966 mock-documentary called The War Game, which I saw in my final year of high school. It graphically depicted the run-up to and aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain and it made me a supporter of nuclear disarmament.

Fifteen or so years later, as a public health physician working for the City of Toronto’s Department of Public Health, I helped the Department undertake a health impact assessment of a one megaton nuclear airburst above Toronto, as part of an international project coordinated by International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). The findings were horrific, as one would expect, and were of course the same around the world. The public awareness that resulted helped move the USA and Russia towards some degree of nuclear disarmament, and won the IPPNW the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

These large global geopolitical issues, this violence on the other side of the world, can leave us feeling over-whelmed and helpless, fearful and anxious – although it is of little import compared to the enormity of the fear and stress Putin has imposed on the people of Ukraine, of course, nor the stress experienced by their families and friends around the world.

So on the basis that the antidote to our fear and anxiety – and our outrage – is action, what can we do at a personal level to help the people of Ukraine, and in the process help ourselves? Here are some ideas. Attend rallies in support of Ukraine. Boycott all Russian goods until Russia withdraws – and beyond that. Donate to recognised disaster relief charities  – check with the Ukrainian Congress Canadian or donate through Canada Helps, which manages donations for thousands of legitimate charities –  

Write, phone or e-mail your MP and the Prime Minister  insisting the government support Ukraine in every way possible, including by supplying lethal armaments, and that it seek to brand Putin a war criminal and hold him accountable.

If you have friends or contacts in Ukraine, ask them what you can do. And if you have friends or contacts in Russia, help them understand what Putin is doing and how the world is reacting, because he is keeping them in the dark. If you are a member of an organisation of any sort with international links, see if there are ways to work through that organisation to support Ukraine and to reach out to and inform ordinary Russians about what is happening.

Because there is no health without peace.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Increased inequality was a political choice we must reverse

22 February 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

Given the well-documented relationship between high levels of inequality and poor health and social outcomes in high-income countries, which I discussed last week, high levels of inequality cannot be tolerated. But as I also noted last week, the World Inequality Report 2022 states simply: “Inequality is a political choice, not an inevitability.”

The Report’s authors tell us that in the countries of the West, the period between the end of the Second World War and about 1980 was one of “fast productivity growth and increasing prosperity”, and at the same time “a period of shrinking inequality in many parts of the world”. What kept inequality in check, the Report notes, was policies that ensured minimum wages, promoted unions, kept taxes on the wealthy high and regulated business and the economy.

But “income and wealth inequalities have been on the rise nearly everywhere since the 1980s, following a series of deregulation and liberalization programs which took different forms in different countries.” This, of course, was the neoliberal revolution spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, which rolled back the policies that had contributed to low levels of inequality

As a result, we now find inequality rising to levels not seen since the early 20th century. Around 1900, globally, the ratio of the income of the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent was more than 16 to 1, but by 1980 this had fallen to 8.5 to 1; today it is back up to 15 to 1, notes the Report.

Things were considerably better here in Canada: In 1900 the ratio was a bit more than 3 to 1, dropping to 1.5 to 1 by 1980. But nonetheless, the Report notes, “income inequality in Canada has been rising significantly over the past 40 years”, and now sits at about 2.5 to 1, due to a combination of “financialization, deregulation and lower taxes.” (Financialization, states Investopedia, is “the increase in size and importance of a country’s financial sector relative to its overall economy”, adding that it “has played a major role in the decline of manufacturing in the U.S.”)

In a 2016 article critiquing neoliberalism, George Monbiot – an eloquent social critic and a columnist for The Guardian in the UK – notes that the neoliberal era has been characterised by a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. This is accomplished through “the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.”

A political ideology that favours privatisation, he notes, results in the rich acquiring public sector resources “such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons”, and then charging ‘rent’ (a form of unearned income) for their use, either by private individuals or by the state. Similarly, he writes, the wealthy “acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money”; they can then charge interest for loans, another form of rent that transfers wealth from the poor to the rich.

Another important but less recognised consequence of neoliberalism is pointed out in the World Inequality Report: “Nations have become richer, but governments have become poor.” In fact, the Report points out, “The share of wealth held by public actors is close to zero or negative in rich countries.” This amounts to a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, with serious consequences: “The currently low wealth of governments has important implications for state capacities to tackle inequality in the future, as well as the key challenges of the 21st century such as climate change.”

The creation of rising levels of inequality was a clear political program, a set of policies explicitly intended to increase private wealth and offload responsibility on to the individual. This must be reversed, for the sake of societal wellbeing and future generations.

One obvious way is to re-introduce higher and more progressive levels of income tax; another is to bring in or beef up a wealth tax; a third is to increase corporate taxes. While these may seem radical ideas, in reality they would simply be a return to the way things were in the 1970s, prior to the disaster of the neoliberal revolution. Next week, I will explore some of these proposals for reform.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy