Thursday, October 19, 2006

Clean Air - Act II

There may be good reasons for the opposition parties to allow the passage of the Conservatives new neutered Clean Air Act. While the new act is flawed, the keys to what may make it acceptable are the fact that it is only a regulatory framework - i.e. it does not set specific targets or standards, and that the opposition parties are united on strengthening environmental protection and hold a majority in Parliament. This would allow the opposition parties to pass additional legislation that would set far more aggressive targets and standards than the Conservatives have in mind.

For example, the new Clean Air Act has apparently encorporated the 1981 Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act - and the Conservatives plan to "Harmonize" Canadian fuel efficiency standards with those of the United States. Rather than complying with US federal emissions and fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards, the opposition parties should force the government to comply with tougher California standards which Washington, Oregon, New York, Massachusets, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island have all either already adopted or signalled their intention to do so. Likewise with Green House Gas emissions, the new legislation provides a regulatory framework (which Conservatives claim the Canadian Environmental Protection Act lacked) to allow the governent to set targets and regulate green house gas emissions. With the framework in place, the opposition parties, rather than demanding the government present a plan to meet its obligations under the ratified Kyoto treaty, should legislatively enforce the 2002 Kyoto targets.

Of course, from a purely political point of view this is probably bad politics. Opposition MPs from all parties would have to explain why they voted to pass the Conservative's new bill, while at the same time saying it is weak and ineffectual. The public generally doesn't have the attention span to understand nuanced arguments. Sometimes there is a political price to doing the right thing.

Monday, October 16, 2006

If CO2 was Purple ...

Blame God. CO2 is invisible. The problem is that Conservatives can believe in an invisible god, but can't accept the reality of pollution you can't see. With global warming a looming global economic, environmental and human catastrophy, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose and Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week announced their intention to table a new Clean Air Act, the primary focus of which is smog and air quality rather than meaningful reductions in green house gasses. In fact on October 5th, Minister Ambrose stated that air quality rather than global warming was the government's top environmental priority. You can see smog, you can't see CO2.

I don't meant to under estimate the health hazards from smog, which is a serious problem for the very young, very old and people with weakened respiratory systems. It is certainly not attractive to look from a distance at the purple brown haze that cloaks most of Canada's urban centres. But while air quality is an environmental concern, it is not the most pressing concern. The effects of smog are localized or at least regionalized, not particularly accute to the majority of the population and readily mitigated for others, and in the long term, completely reversible. Global warming is global, irreversible (at least for several centuries), highly accute, and could effect everything from agriculture to desertification, sea levels, the spread of certain diseases such as malaria and the frequency of severe weather incidents. Whole cultures such as those of Fiji and Tonga and Mirconesia could disapear under the rising seas. Perhaps it is God's revenge on Forida for electing an idiot to the White House.

On global warming, the conservatives continue their mealy mouthed double speak. While criticizing the Liberal's timid and half hearted efforts to meet Canada's Kyoto targets, Ms. Ambrose boldly announced that the Conservatives will do even less. Actually, they will change the targets and then fail to meet them as well. While the Liberal's programs were timid and ineffectual, at least they didn't change the targets to make it look like they were accomplishing something. The intensity based emissions targets proposed by Harper and Ambrose will ensure that Canada's green house gas emissions will continue to increase.

What will it take to put meaningful reductions in green house gasses on the federal agenda? The liberals paid lip service to global warming, recognizing the problem, but were too affraid of damaging the economy to do anything about it. The Conservatives, for the most part, have moved past denying global warming, but still don't think it's an environmental priority, at least not on the same level as smog. The New Democrates and Bloc are on record as supporting rigorous limits on CO2 emissions, but neither party will ever form a federal government. The retreat of glaciers, thinning of polar ice sheets, increase in severe weather, early harvests and other first signs of significant climate change are apparently not enough. Perhaps if you could easily see CO2. To their credit, the three opposition parties did manage to pass Bill C-288, An Act to Ensure Canada Meets its Global Climate Change Obligations Under the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately, this bill, rather than prescribing a plan, only calls on the government to present a plan. Once again, the opposition - even when united, comes up short. A private members bill, if supported by the three opposition parties could force a Kyoto plan upon the government. But then they would have to share credit. I guess it is considered preferable to just make political points.

In 1991, the Conservatives under Mulroney were finally (after 10 years) successful in getting the US to sign the Acid Rain Treaty. But it is easy to see dead fish, measure the ph level of lakes and trace the cause to high sulfer coal fired thermal energy plants in the north eastern United States and Ontario. Conservatives take their sport fishing seriously. While atmostpheric CO2 has been directly measured since the 1950's, global warming and its effects are far more difficult to measure and attribute to human activity. Thankfully, 3 decades of scientific research has finally and conclusively made the case for action. The Conservative no longer (officially) doubt the science (although many of their supporters still do). They just refuse to do any thing about it. The opposition refuses to force their hand.

I'm not sure at this point what is worse. The Liberals strong words and weak action, or the Conservatives weak words and weak action.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Heck of a job Denny!

So was this written by a Jon Stewart script writer or what?

Denny's very credible as far as I'm concerned." the president said during a one hour press conference with reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "And he's done a fine job as speaker, when he stands up and says: I want to know the truth. And I believe yesterday he said that if somebody on his staff, you know, didn't tell him the truth, they're gone. I respect that and appreciate that and believe him.

Karl Rove is obviously no longer pulling the strings.

G&M Subtitle Subterfugue

The Globe and Mail, no lets say all main stream news outlets, just doesn't understand the difference between academic research and think tank research. In reporting the findings of 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq published this week in The Lancet, the Globe and Mail Headlined the story as follows:

Iraq Civilian War Deaths top 650,000, Study Says.
The for effect they included the subtitle: Expert dismisses survey – with results far higher than other estimates – as 'politics' meant to influence U.S. congressional elections

In an effort to provide "balance" for the article, the G&M sought out an expert to provide a different view point. Unfortunately, the expert they found, Anthony Cordeman, while a recognized expert in military strategy, is not an expert in public health, nor would he be expected to be intimately familiar with instruments and methodologies used by public health researchers to measure mortality rates disaster ravaged areas. The Center for Strategic and International Studies - a right wing think tank which employs Mr. Cardeman, lists him as an expert in:
  • Middle East Military Balance;
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction;
  • Ballistic Missile Defense;
  • Critical Infrastructure Protection;
  • Homeland Security;
  • Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • US and Middle East Energy Policy; and
  • Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Cardeman currently holds an Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has also served as a middle east analyst for ABC News, a security assistant to Senator John McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has held a variety of posts with the US Department of Defense. He has also lectured at Georgetown University on National Security issues. Mr. Cardeman is extensively published on the subjects of military and security strategy and policy and while not an academic is widely considered a scholar in these areas. He is not an expert on public health nor is he likely to be even remotely familiar with the methods used by the Johns Hopkins researchers.

All research is not the same. The gold standard in research has the three "P's". Public funding, Peer review and Publication in a major journal. Private think tanks such as CSIS produce third rate analysis and little or no research. News outlets need to understand that "balancing" publicly funded, peer reviewed and published research with "expert" opinions from private think thanks is misleading and dishonest.

Private think tanks can pick and chose, via a closed process, which studies they want to fund and publish. The have obligations to the private institutions that provide their funding to espouse certain view points - regardless of what the evidence says. And they often have a lot to say on a lot of different topics. It is dead easy for a journalist to get a quote from one of these think tanks, be it the Fraser Institute, CSIS, the CATO instutute, Brookings Institute, American Enterprise Institute etc. But getting the ease quote does not always make for honest and balanced reporting.

If the Globe had wanted to provide real balance for the story, they would have had to do some research. Not scientific research, but journalism research. Such as that done by the Columbia University Journalism Review when the inital 2004 study was publish. The Columbia author interviewed 10 biostaticians and mortality experts and found that none of them had serious issues with the methods or conclusions of the report. The Chronical of Higher Education also interviews statisticians, public health researchers, epedemiologists, and mortality experts from several medical journals and universities, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization and concluded that the 2004 study was without fatal flaws.

But I guess it is much easier to mislead the public with lazy journalisme and call it "balance".

Not Credible

Lancet/Johns Hopkins report - 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq since 2003

President says not credible.

Public Health researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health surveyed 47 clusters of 40 homes on randomly selected residential streets from 18 cities and regions in Iraq for a total of over 12,500 Iraqis. They found that the crude mortalithy rate in Iraq has risen from 5.5 per 1000 per year pre-invasion to 19.8 per 1000 per year after the invasion. Excess mortalities, defined as deaths above the baseline established in 2003 now exceed 14.2 per 1000. In total they found that 655,000 Iraqis have died over above the number that would have been expected based on the pre-invasion mortality rates.

The same group did a previous study in 2004 and extimated, based on a smaller sample, over 100,000 excess deaths up until 2004. When the current survey results were applied to the period covered in the previous study they now estimate that 112,000 excess deaths up to September 2004, thus validating their previous work.

The president doesn't think these public health researchers from the nation's most prestigious health sciences school are credible. Even though their work was peer reviewed and published in the highly respected British medical journal Lancet - a journal with a publication history dating back to the early 1800's. A man who needs a road map to sort his name out of the alphabet blocks had the audacity to say their methodology has been discredited. I wonder how many times he had to reherse those words?

But then again, the president doesn't think that evolution or global warming are based on credible science either.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Foley's Follies

In scanning the stories in the Washington Post, NY Times and CNN online, I have to wonder which revelation the Republicans are more concerned about, that Representative Mark Foley is gay, or that he is a sick sexual predator relentless in his pursuit of teenage Congressional pages and that the GOP House leadership has known about it for years and covered it up? There seems to be about as much ink devoted to his sexual orientation as to the real scandal.