Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Conservative Party of Canada Getting it All Wrong So Far...More Science Please

Anyone who reads my writing knows that I am a fan of the scientific process. Science leads us to truth. Not always immediately, nor even as quickly as we may like, but it does eventually lead us to the truth and realities of the world we live in. Hence, the best approach to any and every issue humanity ever faces is to examine the evidence with an open mind and then form your conclusion from the evidence, whether you like the conclusion or not. The history of humanity is full of examples of people going about things in exactly the opposite manner: having an agenda and trying to find evidence to fit that agenda. Religion is an obvious example: no religion would have ever sprung into existence if people had objectively examined the evidence in the world around them without agenda or assumptions. Modern governments appear to take the same flawed approach: they have an agenda, ram that agenda into action, and then find evidence to sell it to voters. Inevitably this leads to decisions being made that are not in the best interest of the citizens of the country. All parties do this. But some parties seem particularly apt at ignorning the evidence and seeking their agenda. Or perhaps another way of looking at it is that some parties have an agenda that seems particurarly bent on ignoring the stark realities of the world we live in, as established by the scientific process.

The Conservative Party of Canada currently in power, has a Minister of State for Science and Technology that does not understand the basics of science. He has openly denied evolution and then when pressed on the issue, has shown that he doesn't understand the most basic facts about the process of evolution. This is the best example of the Conservatives simply ignoring the realities of the world we live in. Evolution happens. It is a reality long since established and overwhelmingly supported by facts and data. Continuing on as if it doesn't happen is to put blinders on and pretend we live in a fairy tale. But more importantly, this is an example of the same attitude of ignoring the facts that the Conservatives take on every other issue. If one denies something so established as evolution, then one can easily also dismiss the notion that humans (and other species as well) require clean water, food, and air for survival, that chemicals introduced into our bodies will cause diseases such as cancer, and that more money and jobs is not the answer to every problem faced by Canadians.

All of this is to say, it is easy to simply disagree with everything a political party does when in power. Seemingly that is the position the official opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada, takes. But, more important is to oppose those decisions and policies that go against or ignore the realities of the world we live in. In that light, let's take a look at some of the decisions that the Conservative Party has taken since winning a majority in the spring of 2011, and examine why they are poor and uninformed decisions based on ignorance of the facts.

1. The new crime bill C-10.
The bill introduced to the House of Commons and labeled colloquially as "Safe Streets and Communities Act" purports to make Canadians safer (from crime) by taking a number of steps including longer mandatory sentences for certain drug related offences, increasing prison sentences for marijuana offences, and increase the power of government in monitoring its citizens through online activity (though this portion has since been reduced). The reality of the bill is that it will increase the provincial costs of incarceration though greater nubmers of convictions. The bill is expected to cost Canadian taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the coming decade, all in an attempt to make our streets and communities safer. But, what is the greatest safety risk that most Canadians face on a daily basis? What is the activit that is most likely to lead to a parent losing a child or vice versa? What do most Canadians take part in on a daily basis that is most likely to cause pain, turmoil, loss of money, and long-term damage to their lives? Traveling in a motor vehicle. Making streets and communities safer from the gravest risk we all face on a regular basis should focus on making the daily commute safer. Most of know someone who has lost a loved one to a motor vehicle accident. How many of us know someone who has lost a loved one to a drug-related murder? Now, proponents of the bill argue that, just because crime rates are at their lowest rate in Canada in four decades, doesn't mean we can't do better and reduce crime even more. That is true, and as a society we chould always strive for better ways to keep each other safe, but the problem is that there is a finite amount of resources to do so. There are only so many billions of dollars to go around. If we spend the money on reducing the little bit of crime that we face, the money won't be there to actually make our streets and communities safer from the biggest risk we all face on a daily basis. Facts be damned though, fighting crime (whether it exists or not) looks good come election time.

2.Northern Gateway Pipeline
The Northern Gateway Pipeline is a proposed oil pipeline to run from northern Alberta to the northern coast of British Columbia (Kitimat, BC). The pipeline will move bitumen from the oil sands in northern Alberta to the coast for shipping across the Pacific Ocean, mainly to China. China is a huge energy market. If Canada is going to continue to access the oil resources available in the oil sands (which undoubtedly the country will), then movement of this oil to China makes sense economically. But, there are significant concerns over shipping it by pipeline across the Rocky Mountians, approximately 7,000 streams, creeks, and rivers, and to the coast where supertankers will travel up one of the most pristine and beautiful fjord systems in the world (and also one of the most violently stormy in the winter) to dock and load their toxic cargo. It is inevitable that and oil spill will occur if the pipeline goes ahead. Enbridge, the company proposing the pipeline, has a massive record of oil spills. Between 1999 and 2010, 804 oil spills occured on Enbridge pipelines, releasing over 168,000 barrels of toxic hydrocarbons. Given that each gallon of oil contaminates approximately 250,000 to 1,000,000 of water, that translates to up to 42,000,000 gallons of water contaminated by Enbridge in one decade. If the average North American human goes through 100 gallons of water per day (which is a reasonable estimate for showering, washing dishes and clothers, drinking, etc.), then between 1999 - 2010 Enbridge was responsible for contaminating the water for 1,150 people for a whole year. This is miniscule in comparison to the damage an oil tanker spill on the coast would do.

So, there are some significant disadvantage to this proposed pipeline. There are also some significant economic benefits. Why look at only one side of the equation though? Why only examine the economic benefits and ignore the ecological downside and risk? We all require clean air, food, and water on a daily basis. That is not negotiable or debatable. Yet, the Conservative government has already decided to support the pipeline before any of the discussion has taken place. Over the next two years, a government appointed committee will hear from all those with vested interests in the proposed pipeline, including a significant number of First Nations people who live in the areas most affected. Yet, even before this government appointed committee has heard any of the issues, the government itself has already made up its mind that the pipeline is a good idea. Talk about putting an agenda before evidence. Maybe the pipeline will be a benefit, maybe it won't. Maybe we should allow it, maybe we shouldn't. But the decision should not be made before the evidence has even been examined.

3. Plans to spend tens of billions on F-35 fighter aircraft.
Canada is a huge country. Defending it from invasion would be a huge and impractical problem for a population of only 35 million. I'm not suggesting that Canadians, like any other nation, would not try to defend their country valiantly if invaded, but I think it is safe to say that Canada is not actually defendable by Canadians for a few fundamental reasons. Firstly, there are only 35 million of us stretched over a huge area. Strategically that would spread any defence forces very, very thin. Secondly, no nation is ever going to get close to invading Canada unless the United States allows it to. America will never allow any country to invade and occupy its neighbour to the north unless it is in American interests to do so. This brings me to my third point which is to look at the only countries that have any hope of invading Canada. Though unlikely, America is at the top of the list. Geographically it would be easy for Canada to be invaded by the U.S. Canada would be completely overpowered by the huge military might of the United States. Due to my second point above, any country that invades Canada is going to do so either with America's blessing (and presumably with their help), or they are going to have to take on both Canada and the United States. In either scenario, 65 fighter aircraft are going to make not one bit of difference in the defence of the country. Yet, Canada wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on 65 F-35 fighter aircraft. The price quuotes have been all over the map. The goverment will never give a real appraisal of what the cost will be. But it is likely to be $25 - $35 billion dollars up front with another $20 - $40 billion in maintenance and ongoing costs over the next 20 years. Crazy money. And all for naught. The up front costs alone would wipe out the entire federal deficit. Yet, the Conservative Party wants to forge ahead with this unecessary and wasteful expenditure that is not based in evidence or facts.

4. Development of the Tar Sands
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to think that Canada is the next Saudi Arabia. We have a massive amount of oil in Canada, some say second only to some large deposits in the Middle East. Canada is now the greatest supplier of oil to the United States, which is surprising considering the magnitude of the oil thirst of that nation. The problem is that most of the oil in Canada is located in Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, mixed in with sand. It is not a traditional oil field in which you can pump the crude out of the ground for processing. The tar sand must be processed at a much higher energy cost and with much greater waste products than traditional oil. In addition the process takes a massive quantity of water, leaving the water impure and unusable. In decades past one could hardly blame a Prime Minister for wanting Canada to devleop its oil resources no matter the environmental cost. The amount of money available to the country is massive. But, we are not in the 1970s here. We know a lot about how the ecosystem is fragile and necessary. We know a lot about how fossil fuel use alters the environment very drastically and dangerously quickly. What should we do? Should we just leave all that oil lying in the sand in Northern Alberta? Perhaps not. But should we accelerate the extraction, build pipelines through the mountains and over rivers to the sea for export to China? Perhaps not. Isn't there a moderate approach that might be a little more carefully thought out? Yet, this Conservative government is trying to accelerate the process of selling Canada's raw resources abroad. No one seems to stop and consider the question of what happens when those resources are gone. Where will Canada be in 30 years from now when most of the oil is gone? We will have a huge economic crash if we don't start planning for that now. Prime Minister Harper will be dead by then (though his kids will be very wealthy), so he perhaps doesn't really care.

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