king and simcoe

Toronto got a lot of rain last week. A record amount, actually: Over 3 hours the city saw about 126 mm of rainfall. That beats the 121.4 mm single-day record set by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 – and that amount took an entire day.

It caused a lot of chaos. Subway service came to a halt, and flooding diverted and stalled many streetcars. Power failures put much of the city in the dark. Cars wound up submerged in pools of water and abandoned, including a $200,000 Ferrari ditched in a pool of water in the Lower Simcoe Street underpass. And our worst nightmares were realized as the dreaded Snake-on-a-Train scenario came to life on a stalled and flooded GO train.

You can’t definitively connect this kind of thing to global climate change – not directly. But it’s certainly symptomatic of some of the kinds of changes we expect to see as the climate warms. And the Toronto Environment Office has warned that this kind of thing is going to get worse. As the excellent city hall journalist/wiseacre Matt Elliott has noted, the TEO recently gave a presentation to Toronto’s Parks and Environment Committee outlining the pending increases in extreme heat alerts, extreme storms, and other extreme things. And the Reckoner talked about this a couple of years ago too, when Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, hired consulting firm KPMG to find potential efficiencies in the city’s budget, and one of the areas the group highlighted for cuts was the TEO. The dangers of doing so were quite obvious then, and appear even more alarming now.

We should probably take a more proactive approach to climate change.

Other major cities are taking big steps. Rotterdam and Bangkok, for example, are arming themselves with byzantine systems of waterways to divert and soak up water from heavy rainfall and increasing sea levels. And in the wake of last year’s devastation resulting from Hurricane Sandy, New York City‘s mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced a $20 billion climate change plan revolving around the construction of a network of flood walls and bulkheads. The plan also aims to strengthen the city’s power grid, which is a great idea since the US Department of Energy recently sounded alarms about the vulnerability of the country’s power infrastructure as climate change worsens.

There’s been a bit of controversy over Mayor Bloomberg’s plan in particular since, first of all, he’s Mayor Bloomberg, and second, $20 billion sounds really really expensive. But when you consider that Hurricane Sandy is estimated to have done about $19 billion in damage, and that the proposed measures could potentially protect New York City from many such storms in the future, it starts to look like a pretty wise investment.

It’s hard to get penny-pinching mayors like Rob Ford to think in those terms, but there are encouraging signs. Recently he agreed to support a small increase in taxes to raise money for new subway line construction,which many astonished pundits took to be a sort of miracle. Though he stubbornly maintains that he opposes all such revenue tools, he did refer to the tax as “an investment” – a very encouraging sign with respect to other costly infrastructure projects. Also helpful is the fact that Ford hasn’t staked much of his ideological posturing on climate change issues, which leaves open space for reasonable discussion. And new data is starting to demonstrate that significant economic and health benefits can result from adaptation to climate change, which could help to defuse some of the concerns that cost-averse politicians tend to trumpet in opposition to measures aimed at climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Hopefully there will be a shift in Toronto’s attitude toward climate change planning. Now is certainly the time for it. But this kind of planning requires a bit of foresight and pragmatism, of course. It requires leadership, and a city that takes itself and its future seriously.

Is Toronto that kind of city?

Photo credit: Matthijs Koster, Flickr

Rooftop solar panels in Kunming, China. Photo credit: Matthijs Koster, Flickr

In a recent interview with the Guardian, environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham spoke at length about the myriad threats to climate stability, but he struck a hopeful note when discussing one particular country’s efforts to combat climate change.

“China is my secret weapon,” he said. “The Chinese cavalry riding to the rescue.”

He suggested that China’s political leaders have a particularly acute understanding of the seriousness of climate change, at least partly because “they have embedded high scientific capabilities in their leadership class.” And they’re forging ahead in the path to sustainability: “They have it within their capabilities to come back in 30 years with the guarantee of complete energy independence – all alternative and sustainable for ever,” he said. “They have an embarrassment of capital. We have an embarrassment of debt.”

There seems to be some exaggeration in what he’s saying here, but there’s also good reason to take these points seriously. China does have a lot of capital to invest, and it is putting much of it into renewable energy. It’s already widely considered a global leader in that field, and the Chinese government has recently set a number of further goals to that end.

In 2012, the Chinese government invested $2.1 billion (USD) in subsidies for domestic solar power development, and it recently announced plans to increase solar power generation to 35 gigawatts in 2015, a 67% increase from the 21 gigawatts originally planned last year. It’s also aiming for a 2015 goal of 100 gigawatts of wind power. And its most recent Five-Year Plan announced a goal to increase non-fossil fuel energy to 11.4% of primary consumption and 30% of installed energy capacity, emphasizing the roles of hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, and even biomass energy, and the development of a smarter energy grid.

So China is investing quite heavily in its own renewable energy, which is natural enough – but it’s also become a huge investor internationally. Over the past decade, it has invested $40 billion in the solar and wind industries of other countries, and most of those investments were made in just the last few years.  And the vast majority of those investments have gone to the US and Europe, even as those regions have imposed exorbitant tariffs (totaling about 30% and 50%, respectively) on Chinese solar exports to protect their own domestic solar industries.

Why has China been so insistent in its pursuit of green energy?

There are a number of reasons. Partly the state is motivated by environmental concerns: The country is thought to be highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, drought, and extreme weather; and many of its cities currently struggle with major smog problems.

It’s also just good business: Renewable energy is predicted to grow in value as oil extraction becomes more and more costly, and many Chinese investors saw opportunity in undervalued assets abroad after the devastating effects of the recession that began in 2008. As an added bonus, this may be a way for China to attain greater international respectability as a leader in the global transition to renewable energy.

So China’s interest in renewable energy shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. What’s really interesting is China’s ability to pursue it.

Consider Jeremy Grantham’s emphasis on the scientific understanding “embedded” in China’s leadership. That has real, substantial policy effects in China’s case because the state is so powerfully in control of its market. To be clear, America, especially under the Obama administration, has demonstrated a strong commitment to green energy subsidies; but it can’t provide them without some griping from fossil fuel energy producers, who’ve received very generous support themselves. Any action taken by the US government to reduce carbon emissions will be subject to push-back from powerful traditional energy lobbies who have attained a great deal of institutional power in that country. Similarly, Europe’s generous green energy subsidies have been subject to market forces: Germany has recently had its leadership call for a reduction in government spending on renewable energy – one of several European countries that are, according to a recent report, “losing momentum as a result of policy responses to the financial and debt crisis.” Meanwhile, a new Ernst & Young report notes that “[w]hile political change often results in policy reversals and varying appetites for a low carbon economy, there appear to be no such worries in China… Early indications are that significant investment in renewable energy is here to stay and remains a critical part of the government’s long-term growth strategy.”

This isn’t to say that the Western powers should strive to become more autocratic, of course. And it’s not to say that China is somehow greener than the others. But it’s very clear that China has the political cohesion to take substantial steps in whatever direction it chooses, and it is choosing to follow the path to sustainability. As Jeremy Grantham noted in his Guardian interview, China’s leaders are in a position to “set a stunning pace, which they are doing. And they could crank it up. To hell with their five-year plans, they should move up to 25-year plans for alternative energy – energy security, reducing pollution and low cost. They would have such low-cost energy at the end of it they will be the terror of the capitalist system.”

Shale Gas Drilling Tower

The International Energy Agency’s recent World Energy Outlook Special Report revealed an interesting trend (other than the increasing carbon emissions that are leading us to ecological cataclysm). Whereas historically, the most economically developed countries led the charge in pumping carbon into the atmosphere, non-OECD countries are now responsible for 60% of global carbon emissions, and some major OECD powers are actually decreasing theirs. Two of the major powers singled out in the report for curbing their carbon output are, encouragingly, the United States and the European Union.

In 2012, the US’s carbon emissions actually declined by 200 megatons, bringing its output down to the same level it was at in 1994. The US has benefited from increasing environmental regulation (the Obama administration has introduced legislation limiting carbon emissions from vehicles and new power plants, and is considering further measures to curb the country’s carbon output), greater investment in renewable energy sources (the US was a global leader in increasing wind power in 2012, and increased its solar installations by 73%), and relatively mild winter weather in 2012 (which meant people were using less energy for heat).

But the real hero of the US’s 2012 carbon emissions reduction was fracking1.

Shale gas development has been increasing rapidly in the US, contributing to a broader trend of increased natural gas production globally, for which the US claims 22% of the share, up from 21% in 2011 and 20% in 2010. In the US power sector, this has led to a shift away from coal, which is a much dirtier resource than natural gas in that its carbon emissions are greater in relation to the amount of energy it produces.

With their domestic market shrinking, US coal producers moved right along to exporting, and sent their coal to Europe. So last year the US’s coal exports to the EU increased by 23%. Why do the Europeans want the US’s coal? Because their gas is getting too expensive.

It’s kind of funny, because a number of EU countries are thought to have massive shale gas reserves – enough, it has been estimated, to meet their energy needs for 44 years. But there are a number of obstacles to getting that gas. The Europeans tend to be more wary than the Americans are about the environmental dangers of fracking (France and Germany have prohibited the practice), and the EU is also hindered by its own particular geological and geographical issues and a lack of gas production infrastructure. Indeed, in light of these recent developments, the Norwegian energy company Statkraft has announced the closure of one of its gas plants in Germany, and German energy company E. ON has announced that it’s considering closing a plant in Slovakia.

Given the difficulties of producing its own gas, the EU has thus been importing it from the Middle East. But lately that’s been growing increasingly problematic. As a science officer for the European Commission Energy Security Unit explained at the recent Unconventional Gas & Oil Summit – where attendees walk backwards and wear the clothes of the opposite sex- the EU now finds itself competing with India’s and China’s increasing demand for Middle Eastern gas, and this has driven up the price. So when the US suddenly had all this cheap coal to sell, that looked like a pretty attractive option to EU buyers.

But if the EU’s coal consumption increased so much in 2012, how did it still manage to have a net reduction in carbon emissions? The IEA’s report credits the 50 megaton reduction “to economic contraction, growth in renewables and a cap on emissions from the industry and power sectors.” In other words, the EU has enjoyed similar alternative-energy and emissions-regulation advantages to those of the US, but with one further advantage that has offset its increased reliance on coal: A more severe and prolonged economic crisis. Between 2008 (the start of the crisis) and 2011, energy consumption in the EU has fallen by 6%, a rather weak appetite for such a large economic power3.

So what happens when the EU’s economy gets back on track? At that point, the EU’s reliance on coal will start to look much more problematic from a carbon emissions perspective. Fortunately, though, there are a couple of good reasons to believe that the EU will swing back away from coal.

One is environmental regulation: Analysts with Deutsche Bank AG recently predicted that the EU would cut its coal consumption by 26% by 2020. That’s because, under emissions regulations that the EU has already implemented, a number of coal power plants are simply going to have to be shut down.

The other reason is geopolitical in nature, and all the more potent as such: The EU doesn’t want to be dependent on foreign sources of energy. It will be especially keen to cut off its dependence on Middle Eastern resources as its great ally the US strides toward its own energy independence, and many of its member states already bristle at their dependence on Russia and its national gas giant, Gazprom. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of the US’s coal exports went to Western European states; many of the Eastern EU countries are former Soviet states that remain in Gazprom’s grip, and they hate it. A recent survey conducted by the interest group Shale Gas Europe found that Polish respondents were very interested in developing their own gas resources; and Lithuania, to which Gazprom has been selling gas at prices 40% over market value, has vowed to push for shale gas extraction during its coming tenure in the EU’s presidency.

Finally, there’s a lot of money to be made.  Big energy companies like Chevron are already eyeing millions of acres of land in Europe to assess potential shale deposits, and they’ll be keen to pressure governments to open them up for extraction.

So there’s your trend. Environmental regulation has helped to push down EU and US carbon emissions, but so have economic stagnation and the pursuit of cheap, environmentally problematic energy, respectively – and in fact these latter forces have been the strongest. And the future of this trend will be shaped largely by the pursuit of energy independence. Profit and geopolitics are, as always, the most reliable motivators.

 

For the uninitiated, “fracking” is a colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of extracting oil from shale deposits by blasting them with high pressure bursts of a mixture of water and sand and/or chemicals. Many environmentalists are concerned about what effects this might have upon local water supplies, geological stability, and the atmosphere. Have you ever seen one of those videos where somebody lights their tap water on fire? That’s because of fracking.

Presumably.

There’s a pretty strong link between GDP and carbon emissions, but that’s taking us into Derrick Jensen territory, and we’re probably not ready for that.

hazy sky

The International Energy Agency, an autonomous organization with a mandate to provide energy analysis for its 28 member countries, recently issued a World Energy Outlook Special Report, entitled Redrawing the Energy-Climate MapIn it, the agency warned that the world is not on track to meet the popular goal of keeping the global temperature rise under 2 °C, and it provided four specific policy recommendations “that can deliver significant emissions reductions by 2020, rely only on existing technologies and have already been adopted successfully in several countries.” These recommendations, broadly speaking, consist of finding greater infrastructure efficiencies, eschewing coal power, curbing methane emissions, and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

This is nice. It has an almost quaint-feeling attitude of pragmatic optimism, which seems to have been undercut in recent years by humanity’s stubborn unwillingness to take meaningful action to combat climate change.

The report’s recommendations denote a refreshingly realistic assessment of humanity’s capacity for action on the climate change issue. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Chief Economist, stresses that the recommended measures “could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost.” This is key. Over and over, we have seen that the economic costs of substantial measures on climate change exceed the political will to take them on. With these policy recommendations, the IEA gets full credit for trying to find a set of options with an extremely limited cost, and the added bonus of being readily available on a technological level, and already tested in practice. They leave us no excuse for inaction.

Are these measures enough? We’ll see. Probably not.

In the relatively limited time that it has been the focus of any significant amount of study, climate change has proven to accelerate at an unpredictably fast rate, with scientific predictions and evaluations intermittently revised to read as more dire than previously thought. A good example is glacial melt, which has occurred at a far more rapid pace than expected, as an excellent National Geographic feature recently laid out. The article explains that, rather than melting at a steady pace, glaciers have proven to melt quickly and erratically, the process exacerbated by certain ‘feedback’ systems – natural mechanisms that, once activated by warming temperatures, perversely increase the rate of the thaw. For instance, as a glacier melts it may reveal dark rocks lying underneath, which absorb heat more efficiently than the ice did and thereby increase the temperature around the glacier’s ice.

Commenting on the glacial melt in Greenland, one NASA scientist observes, “We see things today that five years ago would have seemed completely impossible, extravagant, exaggerated.”

It’s hard to predict stuff like that in advance. There are so many “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it.

Along those lines, NASA is keeping a very close eye on the melting permafrost in the Arctic. This is an environment that, because it is always frozen, prevents organic matter from decomposing. Dead flora and fauna and bacteria just get buried under snow and ice. It’s been happening for hundreds of thousands of years, and scientists now estimate that between 1,400 and 1,850 petagrams* of organic matter is frozen there. That’s roughly equal to half of all the organic carbon stored in the planet’s soils, and it’s four or five times the total amount of carbon that humans have put into the atmosphere since 1850, the start of the industrial revolution.

Now, because of climate change, that permafrost is thawing. And, presumably, all that frozen organic matter – which is mostly in the topsoil – will start to decompose and release carbon into the atmosphere. What kind of effect will that have on the climate? We’re not sure. (“Current climate models do not adequately account for the impact of climate change on permafrost and how its degradation may affect regional and global climate,” is how it’s said in NASA-speak.)

So, that kind of thing might shake up current climate models, and it’s possible that the IEA’s very specific ideas about how to keep global warming under 2 °C would then have to be re-evaluated. (It should be noted that the WEO report itself doesn’t guarantee that the successful implementation of its recommendations will achieve this goal; it would just give us a good shot at it.)

And then there’s the issue that even 2 °C might be too modest a goal. As the report itself notes:

“Some analysis finds, however, that the risks previously believed to be associated with an increase of around 4 °C in global temperatures are now associated with a rise of a little over 2 °C, while the risks previously associated with 2 °C are now thought to occur with only a 1 °C rise (Smith, et al., 2009). Other analysis finds that 2 °C warming represents a threshold for some climate feedbacks that could significantly add to global warming (Lenton, et al., 2008).”

So, even if we are able to meet the 2 °C target, we might still find that its consequences are highly destructive. There’s a lot of uncertainty here. One thing is certain, though: Climate change will continue to progress as long as more carbon is pumped into the atmosphere. If we don’t wish to see the worst effects of climate change, we need to do something to curtail it. The IEA has put forward clear, achievable policy recommendations to that end, and that’s commendable. It’s hope in a climate of hopelessness.

*approximately one bajillion pounds.

“Climate change will result in increasingly violent weather patterns, drought and natural disasters that will call for military support to assist victims around the world, ranging from humanitarian relief to full-scale stability operations.” – Canada’s Chief of Force Development, “The Future Security Environment 2008-2030

“Climate change has the potential to be a global threat of unparalleled magnitude and requires early, aggressive action in order to overcome its effects.” - Lt.-Cmdr. Ray Snook, Directorate of Maritime Strategy, National Defense Canada, writing in 2010

“Many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural resource shocks that degrade economic development, frustrate attempts to democratize, raise the risk of regime-threatening instability, and aggravate regional tensions. Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.” – James R. Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, addressing Congress regarding his department’s 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment report

Global carbon emissions increased in 2012, by 1.4%. Most of this increase comes from non-OECD countries; the US, the EU, and China have all been decreasing their carbon emissions in recent years.

Over 80% of the world’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuels.

As of June, 2013, developing countries are currently responsible for 60% of the world’s carbon emissions.

In May, 2013, atmospheric carbon levels exceeded 400 parts per million. This hasn’t happened in hundreds of thousands of years.

Between 1993 to 2002, the average amount of carbon in the atmosphere increased every year, at an average rate of 1.7 parts per million. Between 2003 and 2012, the yearly average increase was 2.1 ppm.

Sources of anthropogenic carbon emissions since 1750: Coal and biomass - 34%, oil – 25%, gas – 10%, cement – 2%, land-use – 29%. This represents humanity’s total outpout of 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

During the end of the 20th century, the Earth was the hottest it had been in 1400 years.

Natural processes had led the Earth through an overall cooling trend that lasted over 1000 years, but this trend reversed in the late 19th century, despite the continued presence of those natural processes.

Over the past century, the average global temperature has increased by 0.74°C, and over half of the increase occurred has occurred since 1979.

March 2013 marked the 337th consecutive month that the global average temperature was higher than the 20th century average.

Since 1000 AD, the carbon concentration in the atmosphere hovered around 280 ppm, until the industrial revolution in the latter 19th century, when that number began a dramatic increase. It broke past 350 ppm in 1988.

Ice coverage in the Arctic is declining at a rate of 2.5% per decade.

The ice at the margins of Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap, which took 1600 years to form, has melted in just 25 years.

Between 2004 and 2011, Canada’s Arctic glaciers have lost 580 gigatons of ice, in what may be an irreversible trend. Glaciers in the Andes have been melting at an increasing rate since the 1970s; the region in general has warmed 0.7°C over the last 50 years.

2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. The average temperature was 1.8ºC higher than the average for the 20th century.

Pakistan’s wheat production from rain-fed land is expected to be 30% lower than usual in 2013, due to inclement weather likely related to climate change.

Pine beetles’ life cycles are regulated by heat. As the temperature has warmed, they have begun to produce two generations per year rather than one, and have invaded new habitats. This has reduced BC timber production by 10% since 2008.

Tells Tuvalu: ‘Boo-Hoo’, Dances Electric Boogaloo

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, glowering menacingly. Photo credit: Rajesh Jantilal, AFP, Getty Images, File, Edmonton Journal

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

Here at the Reckoner, we like silly headlines. And we hate pollution! Which is why we can’t let the old news of Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol pass us by without at least some comment. So here it is.

To many environmentalists, the news came as a huge disappointment. The Kyoto Protocol is the world’s only legally binding carbon emissions treaty; at the moment, there is no alternative, beyond the empty rhetoric of politicians trying to fool young people into thinking they have a future. So it’s a step back.

Of course, there are many who believe that Kyoto wouldn’t solve any problems anyway, that its targets are far too low to make success meaningful, and that debate over it is therefore moot. China’s commitments to Kyoto’s targets were strictly voluntary, and the U.S. was not bound by the treaty either – and these are two of the biggest polluters in the world.

But there is a symbolic significance to the Kyoto Protocol – and Canada’s withdrawal from it – that shouldn’t be ignored. Kyoto represented an ideal, a shared commitment among various factions of humanity to ensuring a sustainable future. It was an acknowledgment of the suffering that many countries of the Global South would experience as a consequence of the environmental rapaciousness of the prosperous North. It represented compassion, hope. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.

And what does withdrawal from the treaty signify?

For withdrawal apologists, it’s simply realism. Adherence to the treaty would have been difficult and costly. Impractical. Peter Kent, Canada’s environmental minister, said that the cost of meeting Kyoto’s targets would be $13.6 billion. “We believe that a new agreement that will allow us to generate jobs and economic growth represents the way forward,” he said. It’s a variation of the American pioneering spirit – the idea that this is a problem we can tackle with ingenuity and aplomb, and if we play things right, not only will it not cost us anything, but we will actually create jobs and make money in the process.

But what if a new agreement can’t promote economic growth? What if we can’t mitigate climate change without making economic sacrifices? Should we then just not bother with it? Is it not worth it?

Nobody is going to admit it, but I think that for some political leaders and business elites, this actually is the underlying logic – That it isn’t worth it. We know that there are things we can do to mitigate climate change, and we know that if we don’t do them the consequences will be catastrophic – but they won’t be catastrophic for everyone, everywhere. At least, not for a very long time. Certainly, those who are old enough to currently be in positions of power will not see the worst effects of climate change, and they are the ones with the most wealth to lose under any kind of onerous emissions-reduction regime. Many such people believe, perhaps correctly, that they will barely feel the effects of climate change, if it all; if anyone is going to suffer in the near future, it will be someone else, far away.

At the end of the Durban conference, the negotiator for Tuvalu – a low-lying island that is certain to flood in the near future due to the effects of climate change – asserted that for “a vulnerable country” like his, Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto was “an act of sabotage on our future.”

But they’re down in the Pacific, south of the Equator, and we’re up here. Kyoto “is in the past”, and different countries will have to deal with climate change in different ways. It will be hard on some, sure. But it won’t be bad for everyone.

The permafrost in northern Canada is melting. We can build cottages there.

Toronto wind turbine in Exhibition Place - Stuart Murray

James Byrne

The Reckoner

Wind powered generation has become a hot topic of public discussion in Ontario for the past half decade. The province of Ontario has adopted a strategy for climate change mitigation that includes the development of wind power as a main component of its energy policy. As a way to circumvent the use of coal generated electricity, which produces greenhouse gases and contributes to the effects of climate change, the provincial government has deemed that renewable energy will become the main energy producers to the electrical grid in the decades to come. This decree has spurred the proliferation of wind farms throughout the southern portion of the province. The rapid construction of wind turbines in various places has initiated a strong anti-wind mill response with many different issues of contention for their removal. The strongest outcry by the anti-wind mill faction has been over concerns of serious and adverse health effects reported by some people whose properties back onto wind turbine lots. This has become the main rallying cry of the anti-wind mill movement. I want to defuse this issue that wind power is a deadly pariah of energy production but a great tool to combat global warming. I believe that the strong opposition to wind generated electricity is a simple case of NIMBYism manifesting itself in mostly rural districts unaccustomed to rapid development or tall things (turbines can be 10 storeys high!).

To be succinct, as of 2011 there has been no direct connection between health related illnesses due to turbines. The chief medical officer of Ontario Dr. Arlene King tabled a report, The Potential Health Impact of Wind Turbines  in 2010, and found that there was not a direct causal link between turbine noise and health effects. The report cited peer-reviewed literature as a determining factor in Dr. King’s conclusion. The anti-windmill naysayers have claimed that people living in close approximation are suffering from a wide variety of symptoms such as: severe headaches, tinnitus, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation to name just a few. How can these people be ill when people living in other regions or countries have not cited the same claims.? It would be logical to find a huge backlash in Europe where 14 500~ wind mills have been built compared to Ontario’s 700. I have not found any such health reports submitted to the EU as of yet. That is why I believe that many of the adverse health effects are due to biological changes in the body and that have happened at the same time as construction or maybe people are projecting their fears and making themselves sick in the process.

This is what I have found thus far.

All turbines in Ontario follow the World Health Organization 2009 edict that residential sound limits should be no greater than 40dB (a decibel being the measurement for loudness). At the 550m turbine setback boundary from any surrounding residential household, the sound generated can be no louder than the prescribed 40dB. That noise is typical of the sound in a library or office chatter. The same noise restriction of 40dB has been the standard placed upon all industrial operations in the province since the 1970′s. Also, the 550m setback limit is noted as being the most stringent in all of North America which again calls into question why people are describing adverse health claims while others in different parts of world are apparently not. Infrasound, sound below the human hearing range of 20Hz, has been credited by some members of the anti-wind turbine movement as to be an unheralded culprit for the described illnesses. The government in its review of the literature had not come across any evidence that supported the claim of infrasound. Infrasound can be emitted by all types of sources found within the environment like fast-moving rivers or the blowing of the wind. Since the wind blows many Ontarians around, and since rivers are found everywhere, this line of argument was deemed contradictory.

The only true danger from turbines is the potential for ice accumulating on the blades which can then be thrown a great distance. Being crushed or impaled by a piece of ice is a frightening thought but yet again the operators can turn the turbine off and de-ice it if necessary. Lastly, people suffering from epilepsy have a greater risk than anybody else in the surrounding community due to the threat of an epileptic episode caused by the flicker of the blades. The report does blatantly state that even at a limit of 40dB the sound emitted can be deemed “annoying“ to some but not enough to cause physical symptoms as some people claim. Ironically, the authour of the study found levels of reported adverse health claims decreased when direct economic benefits occurred to the community with a wind farm than ones that did not. This placebo effect can be attributed to either a turbine manufacturing plant, a college program teaching installation, or some other factor. It seems that having direct contact with windmills has a soothing effect on the body, kind of like the effects dolphins have with people who have debilitating diseases (but not as frisky as dolphins).

When compared to other types of power generation like coal, gas, or nuclear, wind power has a much greater appeal to me to have in your backyard skyline then any of the aforementioned. They can directly stop the increase of CO2 emissions and thus aid in slowing down climate change by having them as a primary energy source. It is smart policy to institute turbines into an electrical grid. The detractors will say otherwise. There is nothing inherently evil about them. They are just misunderstood creatures of power production. With the sheen of nuclear battered after Three Mile Island and then destroyed in the wake of Chernobyl and again in Fukushima, the world is rightfully justified in taking precaution in any new forms of energy production. Wind power is not a disaster waiting to happen: it’s safe, climate friendly (a little to friendly), reliable, and cheap. How can we go wrong with this? There should be an IMBY movement to want to have wind power in everybody’s backyard. Hell, I’ll start it myself. I’ll take two windmills, a roof of solar panels, and a mini-nuclear reactor. Take that, neighbours!

Peanut Butter Pinched in Heat-and-Drought Sandwich; Jam ‘Still Tastes Great On Its Own’: Jam Producers 

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

The dismal tide of runaway climate change has washed yet another harbinger of doom upon humanity’s shores: The price of peanut butter is set to increase dramatically, spurring tough-talking journalists to ask a panicked public, ‘How would you deal with a peanut butter price jump?

How could this happen?

For starters, there has been a horrible drought in Texas – maybe you’ve heard? Well Texas produces a lot of peanuts. And Georgia produces even more, and it was affected by the drought as well. It’s the largest peanut producer in America, and this past summer it, too, endured record-breaking heat and a terrible dearth of rain.

One Georgian farmer, a three-decade veteran of the field, commented on the particular severity of the drought: “It was so dry you didn’t have any moisture in the soil to make the seed even rot. It just laid there in the soil. I’ve never seen that before.”

So farmers are suffering due to the catastrophic effects of a warming climate – we’ve heard all about that kind of thing before. But this is also going to affect consumers in a significant way: Americans will already have to face devastating peanut butter price hikes this year, and Kraft Canada plans a price increase of 35% on its peanut butter at the beginning of 2012.

“We’re committed to continuing to offer consumers the great taste and high quality Kraft peanut butter they enjoy and thus the increase,” one Kraft employee said through gritted teeth and with a forced smile, beads of flop-sweat forming on her twitching brow.*

Of course, this offers little consolation for the hard-working parents who are toiling away to provide their children with the lives they deserve. What about them? What about their children? Won’t someone please think of the children? The impact of this price increase on families could be devastating.

“We probably won’t be happy about it but we will still buy it,” one mother told a reporter in a discussion about the crisis. “As picky as children are with food, you will buy what they eat.”

Indeed. But how long can such a situation be tolerated? And how do you measure the true cost of such a disaster – how do you measure the sorrow, the pain? It adds up, and it isn’t peanuts.

Oh, btw, there’s going to be mass extinction in the oceans “within a single generation” – you can learn more about that here.

*The visage of Ms Stephanie Minna Cass is entirely the product of speculation on the part of the author.

Protesters in Tunis

Alex Perala
The Reckoner

There was a funny incident recently in a shopping center in Misrata. The mall has a walk-in freezer used by its resident restaurants to store perishable foods, but for a short time the freezer was used to store the corpse of the former autocrat of the country.

The corpse was that of Muammar Gaddafi. It was shirtless and bloody, lying on a quotidian mattress that was itself blood-stained where its plastic covering had been peeled off. A large contingent of Libyans had risen up against the dictator, causing him to flee across the country. Eventually he was found hiding in a drainage pipe.

This was one of the most dramatic consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, an upwelling of popular dissent against autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East. Western media pundits all agree that the Arab Spring was caused by Twitter and Facebook, but there are some secondary factors that are worth a look, too. One of them is bread.

It’s interesting to note that grain prices soared in 2007 – 2008, and that the Arab Spring was sparked in December of 2010, when a young, poor fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi grabbed hold of an electrified wire in an act of protest against the Tunisian state. Soon after that, Egypt became the focal point of the Arab Spring, when protesters began a peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square. Egypt’s bread prices had risen 37% during the 2007-2008 grain price spike, and the country saw general food price inflation increase by 18.9% until its people ousted their own dictator.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that revolution followed on the heels of a food crisis, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend it isn’t. Why did grain prices increase so much in the first place? A variety of factors were responsible. Meat consumption was on the rise in growing markets like China and India, with many crops going to livestock; many farmers were opting to produce crops for use as biofuels rather than food; market speculation on food commodities added some volatility to the mix. But also: declines in water tables, unpredictable weather events, prolonged and severe droughts. Climate change. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.

It seems as though the effect that climate change would have on crops was considerably underestimated in past scientific speculation. Previously, it was thought that increased carbon in the atmosphere might actually help carbon-hungry vegetation to grow; and the effects of severe weather were not given adequate consideration. Now, though, we’re realizing how sensitive crops are to seemingly minor changes in climate. For example, years ago Californian farmers began to notice that a more rapid springtime snowmelt was robbing their usually fertile valleys of a much-need source of water during the summer months – a product of a relatively minor change in climate. And blossoms can open too soon for migrating insects to pollinate them, and trees that need cool nights to recover between harvests may produce weaker crops – again, a small increase in temperature can throw off a delicate balance.

And when such delicate balances are disrupted to the point that crop yields are significantly reduced, then the stage is set for social unrest. New research suggests a firm, empirical link between food insecurity and civil disruption, and while there is still a greater focus in the research on factors like commodity speculation, agro-fuel and increasing overhead, the specter of climate change nevertheless looms over all.

So what’s next? Who knows. But early this year China experienced a significant drought, and later Russia endured the hottest summer on its 130-year record – along with a combination of drought and wildfires that destroyed a fifth of its wheat crop, prompting the state to ban its export. And heat and drought arrived in Europe this summer, too. The period of March through May in France was the driest the country had seen in fifty years, and the hottest in over a century.

All that heat could add up, and who knows who else might end up in a freezer.

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