Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Bitter Green


In our rush to save Earth from overheating it seems we have collectively embraced the concept of trying to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (the principal cause) by switching everything over to electric. First, of course, on the list is the automobile, of which there are approximately 1.5 billion scattered over the planet. With each one emitting of 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide every year that's a lot of potential greenhouse gas pollution (approximately 10% of global CO2 dioxide with airplanes contributing another 3%) that we could clear from the skies.

Instead of a combustion engine, the main component of an electric vehicle (EV) is its battery which contains a number of expensive components, particularly lithium and cobalt. 70% of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo where the miners (often children) are working long hours in slave-like conditions digging by hand, without protective clothing or face masks in dusty tunnels and unsafe, crowded conditions for less than $2.00 per day. Lithium on the other hand is mined in the triangle area of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile that produces 58% of the world's lithium. Bolivia alone has more than half of the world's reserves. The main method of producing lithium is through brine extraction mining which requires vast evaporation ponds to separate lithium from the salt and using enormous amounts of water in the process (2 million litres of water per ton of lithium). This in turn has created all sorts of water crisis issues in the surrounding area as a result of water contamination and unsustainable use of a critically diminishing resource.

Cobalt mining the Congo

Lithium brine extraction mine in the Atacama, Chile salt flats

How could anyone think that mining these components is any less devastating for the planet and its inhabitants? While we ride around in fancy EVs the people who work these mines are lucky to have a bicycle. And this doesn't even begin to address the environmental costs of producing the copper, nickel, aluminium, and other required metals or the one kg of rare earth elements that go into every EV for the magnets and other motor parts. For examble each EV requires 75 kg of copper which is triple the amount of a conventional vehicle, and rare earth elements (which by definition are not easy to find or mine) generate 2,000 tons of toxic and radioactive waste for every ton produced. Why is it okay to have all this radioactive waste lying around but not okay to run a nuclear power plant?

Even if we ignore the damaging effects of the mining on the environment to make these EVs, we have to figure out how to re-charge their batteries on a daily basis because the charge doesn't last that long. If everyone had an EV it would easily more than double the amount of electricity required for powering the electrical grid in our cities. With coal, oil, and natural gas being the primary fuel sources (> 75%) for most of the power plants in the world, which are already producing 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions just for heat & electricity, this is only going to make the problem worse. We need power plants that produce clean sources of energy but how?

Renewables like wind, solar, or geothermal provide 2% of the energy in the world and no matter how fast they grow they will never be able to provide enough power to make much of a difference, and they are unreliable. Solar panels and windmills only last 20 years and, in addition to desecrating the landscape, they require enormous amounts of refined minerals to construct. For example, it takes 1.5 tons of coal to make one ton of steel and, according to the American Wind Energy Association, each windmill uses over 200 tons of steel. According to the Nickel Institute, each wind turbine also uses 2 tons of nickel which requires another 50 tons of coal to produce and, according to the Copper Development Association, each wind turbine contains up to 5 tons of copper which once again requires lots of coal to refine. So making the components for renewable energy is hardly a green proposition nor one that is scaleable.

Site C dam under construction

Then there is hydro power which, because it is renewable, is considered clean and green, but it's not. Dams destroy fish spawning runs, flood valuable farmland, and disrupt the ecology of hundreds of species. The destruction caused by a hydro-electric project like the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. is massive, with over 9,000 hectares of prime farmland and other habitat destroyed by the dam's construction and a 5,000 hectare reservoir. On top of that it's being built on unstable soil conditions which is now adding to the overrun costs and turning the entire project into a $16 billion dollar boondoggle that's twice the originally budgeted cost. 

Nuclear power plant in France

There's only one realistic alternative to replacing the more than 40,000 fossil fuel burning power plants in the world and/or adding more capacity to the power grid and that's by using nuclear power. The eco fanatics may dream of wind and solar but it isn't green nor is it reliable, and it will never supply enough energy to power the conversion to an electric world. Nuclear power on the other hand produces no CO2, the power plants are always producing energy regardless of the weather or time of day, and the fuel cores themselves last for 3-6 years before they need replacement. There have only been three nuclear power plant accidents in the history of its use; Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima and, other than Chernobyl where 29 people died from radiation exposure, nobody else has died directly. Every year air pollution and accidents have killed far more people working at hydroelectric and fossil fuel plants. Even the disposal of nuclear waste is no longer a technological problem as storage solutions have been developed, some of the waste can be re-used in the newer designs, and the latest designs have no waste at all. 

We need to stop thinking of nuclear energy as some sort of scary monster. It's a myth perpetuated by oil companies and the like who hate competition and the ill informed half of the green movement who can't face facts. If we really want to reduce CO2 emissions we need to ensure every new power plant we build is a nuclear one and we need to start replacing old fossil fuel plants with new nuclear ones. Electrifying everything is only one part of the equation and if we don't embrace nuclear energy the world will turn out to be a very bitter green.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

No More DeadHeads


Now that the Queen has passed away, and before Charles gets too comfortable on his throne, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to re-visit the idea of having a monarch's portrait on our currency. Why we still want to have a monarchy in this day and age is another discussion. But even worse than having a current king or queen adorning our money is having a deadhead, like one of our deceased Prime Ministers (most of whom seem to have lost the sterling reputation we embued them with in our history books) staring at us whenever we reach for our wallets.

Yes it was nice that we took a break from old Prime Ministers to acknowledge someone like Viola Desmond, a black businesswoman, who was an inspiration for the pursuit of racial equality in Canada but what about some of our First Nations personalities like Big Bear or Poundmaker who led the fight for Indigenous rights? Or better still, how about Mary Simon, our current Governor General who is an Inuit woman?

Big Bear

Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada

Maybe we should stay away from people all together and avoid any controversy over skin colour, ancestry, political beliefs, religion, or gender, and look instead to the animal kingdom to grace our bank notes. What could be more Canadian than the beaver for example, or the polar bear, or the Canada goose? For regional representation it could be the salmon or the killer whale for the west coast, the bison is surely the most iconic symbol for the prairies, and for the east coast what could be more appropriate 
than the moose.

Wouldn't pictures of these magnificent creatures be more colourful, and meaningful than a bunch of deadheads? It might also remind us that we need to be looking after these animals and protecting the habitat that sustains them. The diversity of our wildlife reflects the diversity of our Canadian culture and, rather than looking to the deadheads of the past, why not instead let these iconic animals of the present serve as an inspiration to us as we confront the challenges of the future.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Justice For B.C. First Nations


Recently I had the experience of sitting in on a First Nations land claims case in the B.C. Supreme Court, specifically that of the Nuchatlaht people who are one of the Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly called Nootka) communities on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It was a session for the lawyers on both sides to clarify a few key points for the judge and it provided me with some insight into the tortuous, overly complicated, process the Indigenous people have to go through to prove the obvious. 

In order to meet the standards of the Supreme Court of Canada for claiming Aboriginal title to the land, the Nuchatlaht have to prove they occupied the land exclusively since 1846, which is the magic year that Britain claimed sovereignty after signing the Oregon Treaty with the United States that settled the last part of the boundary dispute between them. Never mind that the Nuchatlaht people were already living there when Captain Cook visited the area in 1778 and sailed into what he thought was called Nootka Sound and, quite by accident, ended up starting a fur trade in sea otter pelts with China as a result of trading with them. The Spanish had already been there in 1774 to assert their Pacific Northwest claim under the Doctrine of Discovery but, to avoid warfare between Britain and Spain, the Nootka Convention in 1790 provided for both countries to share in the settlement of the Pacific coastline that  Captain George Vancouver mapped between 1792-1794.  Notice that neither Britain or Spain had to prove they occupied the land in order to claim it, but I digress.

The Russians also tried to get into the land claiming/fur trading act and, while they controlled most of the coast of what is now Alaska, they tried to expand further south but in 1824 they settled with the U.S. that their territory would end at the 54:40 latitude. South of Alaska, however, the coast was open to free trade and there was fierce competition between the British and Americans. The headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was Fort Vancouver, built in 1824 on the Columbia River opposite the mouth of the Williamette River. To strengthen its coastal trade and drive away the American traders, HBC built a series of fortified trading posts, the first of which was Fort Langley, established in 1827 on the Fraser River about 50 km from the river's mouth followed by Fort Simpson (1831), Fort McLoughlin (1833), Fort Stikine (1840), Fort Durham (1840), and Fort Victoria (1843). In 1846 the Oregon Treaty extended the border between Britain and the U.S. along the 49th parallel from the Rockies to the Pacific ceding Oregon Country to the U.S. but giving all of Vancouver Island to Britain. With Fort Vancouver now in American territory it was no longer profitable to operate so HBC closed it down and moved its operations to Fort Victoria. In 1849 Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands were made into a colony and put under the administration of HBC and the Governor James Douglas. It wasn't until 1858 (following the 1856 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush) that the mainland was added to Vancouver Island and made into the Crown colony of British Columbia with Douglas assigned as its first Governor. 

James Douglas

Until Vancouver Island and the mainland became a colony, the Indigenous people were free to live as they always had with no restrictions on the resources of the land and water they used. With Britain now claiming sovereignty over the land, Aboriginal title had to be addressed, as per the requirements of the 1763 Royal Proclamation, before these lands could be settled or otherwise exploited. In order to establish settlements on Vancouver Island Douglas negotiated a few small treaties and also set aside some land as reserves for the Indigenous people but these were reduced or eliminated in 1867 by the Commissioner of Lands, Joseph Trutch, who went on to become the Province's first Lieutenant Governor after it joined Confederation in 1871. Under the terms of the Union, trusteeship of land for First Nations was supposed to be a Federal responsibility with land provided by the Province. But the Province refused to recognize Aboriginal title, so no treaties were signed that would have transferred title in exchange for reserves as had been done in every other Province and, as a result, B.C. became the only Province to join Canada on unceded land. It's also worth noting that in 1871 the ethnic makeup of B.C. was 25,660 Indigenous, 8,500 white, 1,500 Chinese, and 500 Black residents but in 1872 a law was passed that prohibited Indigenous and Chinese people from voting in Provincial elections.

The 1997 landmark Delgamuukw trial ruled for the first time that Aboriginal title did in fact exist in B.C. and it also accepted that Indigenous oral history is valid evidence in court and must be given equal weight as written documents. Aboriginal title is a right to the land itself, not just the right to hunt and fish, and when dealing with Crown land the government must consult with First Nations people and may have to compensate them if their rights are infringed. Infringements can include the development of agriculture, mining, forestry, and hydro-electric power. However, to determine proof of Aboriginal title it must be demonstrated the land was exclusively occupied prior to sovereignty and that the occupation has been continuous from then until now.

The 2014 Tsilhqot'in trial went even further in clarifying Aboriginal title. While asserting that Aboriginal title constitutes a beneficial interest in the land the underlying control is still retained by the Crown. Aboriginal title includes the right to decide how the land will be used, to enjoy, occupy and possess the land, and to proactively use and manage the land but the Crown can override Aboriginal title if they have carried out sufficient consultation and accommodation, there is a compelling and substantial objective, and the Crown's action are consistent with its fiduciary obligation to the Aboriginal body in question.

In 2019 the B.C. government passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act into law which is meant to align B.C. laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states "Indigenous Peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired." It is also part of the 
Province's framework for reconciliation as called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's "Calls to Action" and their supposed new approach to litigation which is supposed to lead to more negotiated settlements and less legal action.

So with all the precedent setting legal cases spelling out that Aboriginal title is real and how to claim it, and with the Province finally on board with First Nations reconciliation, you would think this should be a slam dunk for the Nuchatlaht people. Not so. First off, for some reason nobody at the Attorney General's office bothered to tell the Crown attorney that fighting this claim was not something they should be wasting their time with. But the first thing the Crown attorney said was that nobody was living on Nootka Island which is where the bulk of their claim is. The Nuchatlaht had to then point out that clear cut logging and destruction of salmon streams made the Island uninhabitable. In other words they were forced off the Island without compensation. To prove they were there in 1846, after Captain Cook had long since left, they pointed to culturally modified trees, shell middens, forest gardens, and other evidence of human habitation that are still visible. The total claimed area is only 200 square kilometres and there are no conflicting or overlapping claims from anyone else, but the Crown is determined to contest things.

In the meantime, while we all wait for a verdict, Themis, the Goddess of Justice, waits outside the courtroom, blindfolded and holding the scales of justice, impervious to all the injustice that has gone on for so long. Will this be another landmark case in favour of First Nations people or will it be another excuse to deny them what is rightfully theirs? We will soon find out.

On May 12th, 2023 a B.C. Supreme Court judge issued his ruling and said the Nuchatlaht First Nation did not prove it had rights to the entire claim area. Because they are a coastal group primarily using canoes to get around and haven't established any trails between locations they don't meet the current test for Aboriginal title. As a result the test may need to be reconsidered but this has to be done by a higher court. In the meantime they can try to finalize some of the claim area. The Nuchatlaht have said they will work with the court to identify locations of their claim and appeal the decision to not grant title over the larger area.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Bird Flu

What do dead sea lions on the beaches of Peru, minks on farms in Spain, otters and foxes in the U.K. and dead grizzly bears in the U.S. have in common? Avian flu, otherwise known as bird flu. Along with thousands of pelicans, various migratory birds, and millions of domestic chickens, turkeys, and ducks, this recurring virus has killed, it has now managed to spread into a variety of mammals as well and is posing a potential threat to humans.

Of the three types of influenza that infect humans (A, B, C) it is type A that has the zoonotic properties, (i.e. animal to human and vice versa) we are worried about and there have now been 6 avian subtypes that have infected humans; H5N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9, H9N2, and N10N8.

Avian flu infects the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract of birds and has been identified in more than 100 different species of wild birds around the world. Wild aquatic birds such as gulls, cranes, and shorebirds, and wild waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans are considered natural hosts for bird flu viruses. Most wild birds with viruses are asymptomatic but can infect domestic poultry through their droppings. 

H5N1 first appeared in 1997 in China and killed millions of birds throughout Asia, Europe and Africa directly with millions more culled to prevent further spread. In 2022 alone there were over 50 million chickens culled in the U.S. and 5 million in Canada. However, the threat to humans has been low with only 1,000 people to date who have been infected, but more than half of them died with a mortality rate of around 60% or roughly 10 x that of COVID. Another strain, H7N9 also first appearing in China in 2013 and since then another 1,000 people have become infected with about the same mortality rate. The good thing is that avian flu does not appear yet to spread from human to human but rather from working with infected birds in the slaughter and plucking process. For the other mammals who died it was likely because they ate an infected bird.

However, with a mink to mink transmission of H5N1, the first among mammals, what is worrying health officials is the development of a human to human version of avian flu. Particularly in Asia, where the conditions there have humans, swine and poultry often in close proximity to one another, and able to infect one another, which could lead to a mixture of a pathogens that could create a human avian influenza. Recent research into the genes of the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected a third of the world population and killed 50 million or more people, indicate it was also a strain of both human and avian genes.

After everything we went through with COVID I think it's obvious the world can't be trusted to handle another epidemic, but it seems it is only a matter of time before something like bird flu makes its appearance. When it does watch out and remember hope is not a survival strategy. In the meantime, if you see a dead bird don't pick it up with your bare hands, put it in a plastic bag and dispose of it in the trash.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Life's A Beach

Another storm and more washed up sailboats around the city's beaches but more importantly is the ongoing damage to the seawall everytime a storm happens and how it highlights our failed efforts to try and push back against the ongoing erosion damage. Last year around the same time we had a nasty storm that took out the seawall and Kits pool and cost a few million to repair and experts say this trend is only going to get worse.

Ironically it's the seawall itself that aggravates the problem by increasing the waves energy as they get redirected after hitting the wall and then begin scouring the seafloor which ultimately results in the seawall itself collapsing. 

Removing the seawall and allowing the beach to revert to its natural state and installing an elevated boardwalk along the shoreline might be the ultimate solution but according to Parks Board estimates the cost of replacing the seawall around Stanley Park would be at least $250 million.

Another approach to combatting beach erosion is to construct "living dikes" along the shoreline which means adding soil and salt marsh vegetation to low lying areas along with sand, rock and driftwood berms which is what the cities of Surrey and Delta are doing around Boundary Bay. 

A similar approach is building a "dynamic revetment" or cobble berm of gravel and cobble-sized rocks to mimic a natural storm beach. Unlike seawalls this allows wave action to rearrange the stones into a stable profile that disrupts wave action and dissipates the waves energy as the rocks move around. Eventually sand settles in between the stones and a beach begins to form. This is what they've been successfully building at nearby Washaway Beach in North Cove,Washington State to counter the massive erosion the community was facing. 

Both of these approaches also have the pleasant side affect of promoting the habitat that supports ecosystems for a wide variety of migratory birds, and coastal marine life.

With tides and sea levels predicted to continue rising and winter storms only getting worse, how we approach the management of our shorelines will determine whether or not life's a beach or if we will even continue to have one. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Waiting Game


With our annual flu/cold season upon us in the midst of an ever mutating COVID epidemic, people are understandably focused on their health. Unfortunately they don't focus on the things that would make it less likely to catch these things, like wearing a mask, making sure you have lots of fresh air, and avoiding crowded areas. They don't want to make any changes to their routine and they expect a magic pill of some sort to immediately cure them if they do fall ill.

Of course getting a pill or any other form of treatment would mean being able to access a doctor of some sort and currently over 1 million people in B.C. alone have no access to a family doctor, never mind the line-ups they face at the nearest hospital or the wait time to see a specialist. The reasons for this are complicated but they are basically for the same reason we have a shortage of nurses and other medical professionals. Our medical/nursing/technical schools have a very limited enrollment, we don't recognize the credentials of fully qualified and trained immigrants, and we can't even agree on a national acreditation standard or process for allowing Canadian trained professionals to work anywhere they choose.

Health care in Canada is now approaching $3.5 billion dollars annually. Half of that is split between hospitals, physicians, and drugs. Health care is mostly paid for through our taxes but it doesn't include  all prescriptions, dental care, eye glasses or a wide range of other professional services not to mention home care and services for seniors . The average Canadian's medical services costs work out to $8,500.00 annually with this amount divided between the public and private sector at a roughly 75-25 split. Private health care services are paid for by patients primarily out of pocket and/or through private insurance.

But while the Canadian health care system is a federal creation with universal coverage, it's a provincial responsibility to deliver and herein lies the problem. While the federal government keeps expanding the scope of health care, the provinces are falling behind in delivering their part of the bargain. Without bothering to tackle some of the root causes within their own control, which include an antiquated family doctor system, bloated hospital bureaucracies, a professional registration system that operates like a closed shop union, underpaid health care workers, and no central electronic repository of health records, the provinces keep asking for more money and expect the federal government to pay for something it has no control over. 

There are no metrics for timely delivery of services, be they emergency or elective, and both levels of government have until now refused to allow private clinics to help with the heavy lifting. Why is it not a problem to find a family dentist? A well known business maxim states that you can't manage or improve what you don't measure and, before the federal government gives the provinces more money, they are saying, rightly so, that the provinces need to demonstrate they can set up some measureable delivery targets and hit them. Targets for wait times for surgeries, to see a specialist, and to be looked after in an emergency ward need be fair and they need to be achievable. Furthermore these targets need to be made public so that everyone knows what they are and can govern themselves accordingly. 

In the meantime we could all do our own part in keeping ourselves healthier instead of complaining about the line ups. In spite of all the advantages of exercise the average person doesn't even go for a daily walk never mind jogging, cycling or swimming. It's not that exercise will make you live longer but it will certainly make your life more comfortable and easier to manage. That and eating and drinking properly. A little less time in front of a screen and a little more time outside moving around would do wonders. After all what could be more important than looking after your body? It's better than playing the waiting game.