Green Drinks…and it’s not St. Patrick’s Day!
Smiles abounded in Gert’s bar last night, and not just from the dozens of jack-o-lantern faces being carved. Coming in from the crisp fall air, students flocked to the warm, yellow glow of Gert’s on Tuesday evening to carve pumpkins, drink beer, and collaborate. The SSMU Environment Committee’s “Green Groups Mixer” was meant to bring together students from McGill’s various environmental groups in a fun and informal way, in the hopes that this would lead to future collaboration on projects and ideas. MacDonald campus supplied the pumpkins, Gert’s supplied the beer, and students from various faculties supplied a plethora of enlightening conversations.
McGill is filled with environmental groups, from Organic Campus to Greening McGill, with dozens of others in between. They all have similar goals, yet do these groups really talk to each other and coordinate? Sahil Chaini, an environment student who is a Clubs and Services Rep to SSMU this year, thinks that there is still a lot of room for improvement. While organizations like SSMU Clubs and Services, or SSMU’s Environment Committee (EnviroComm) act as umbrella groups for McGill’s environmental clubs, there are rarely connections between clubs themselves.
But SSMU is working hard make some changes. Jane Zhang, who is part of the EnviroComm, believes that events such as tonight’s play a significant role in getting clubs to start thinking about their relationships to each other, so they can not only collaborate with each other on projects, but also avoid repetition in their initiatives. In addition to tonight’s event, the EnviroComm is working towards creating a new “Green Corner” on the first floor of SSMU, where various clubs can post their events and ideas, so everyone is up to date on each other’s activities. EnviroComm hopes to eventually hold monthly meetings with representatives from “green” clubs at McGill.
But why encourage such collaboration? According to Omer Dor, an engineering student who is coordinating the SSMU Case Competition for a new sustainable campus café, inter-faculty coordination is integral because environmental and climate change issues affect all of us, regardless of our backgrounds. In the very near future, those of us who are students now will be leaders in Canada, each in our respective fields. We will need to work together to tackle issues of sustainability and climate change, and collaboration needs to start now. Dor says that we’re certainly not at an adequate level of coordination yet, but that events like this one show that we are at least on the right track.
Moving Planet Montreal
By: Ben Harack
Moving Planet was a worldwide event that took place on September 24th, 2011. It was conceived by the folks over at 350.org as an effort to help the world transition away from fossil fuels.
The Moving Planet event in Montreal (which took place in Parc Jeanne-Mance) was planned by local volunteers and a few McGill students. All we got from 350.org was the name and the logos. We did get some very significant help from the David Suzuki Foundation (Montreal chapter) with regards to planning and execution of the event as well as media releases.
The event included what we called a ‘kilometer drive’ in which people could contribute their green-transport kilometers to a collective total. A green kilometer would be one achieved on foot, bike, skateboard, roller blades, unicycle, etc. The goal of the kilometer drive was to demonstrate the power of active transportation.
Our group achieved a total of 496 kilometers by the end of the day, using some unconventional methods such as:
- Juggling a soccer ball with just feet
- Passing a Frisbee between three people
- In another person’s shoes
- Carrying a toddler in ‘airplane’ position the whole way.
Moving Planet Montreal organizers and friends.
I think it is sufficient to say that we had a great time with the kilometer drive. Next year we think it would be an excellent idea to get active transport groups involved in the planning and execution of the event. Montreal definitely has communities of cyclists, skateboarders, joggers, rollerbladers, etc. We think it is reasonable that some of these groups might be interested in showing off the capabilities (and fun) of their chosen mode of transport.
I like to think of the kilometer drive as a celebration of the tremendous human capability to achieve active transportation. By doing so, we are improving the long-term health of both our environment and ourselves. A transition towards less energy-intensive transportation is a must in the decades to come. It seems extremely unlikely that we as a society will be able to continue to spend such incredible amounts of energy on our personal transportation systems. This seems likely to be true even if we do not factor in the broad and substantial costs of continued fossil fuel usage by our societies.
The other major thrust of the event was a ‘grand picnic’. The central idea was that food plays a major role in both our everyday lives and the (un)sustainability of our society. We all brought food and shared it. It was a delicious and fun experience. I wish you all could have been there!
More worthwhile things
After the event, the planning volunteers got together and brainstormed ideas for a media release about the event. I think it is fair to say that Nadine Légaré of the David Suzuki Foundation did the vast majority of the work on this front, but we did help a bit! A quote from me appears in our completed media release, which you can find here (in French): Le rassemblement mondial Planète en mouvement, un succès au Québec
I am also rather proud of a sheet I circulated containing what I think are the ten most important things you can do to live a ‘Green Life’ and help our society towards genuine sustainability. I made a distinct effort to keep the list concise and clear, so hopefully you will find it to be a good read. You can find it at: Envisioning a Green Life: 10 ways you can make a difference.
McGill Global Food Security Conference: Days 2 and 3
The morning after David Morley’s public lecture, a more distinguished looking crowd gathered in the elegant basement ballroom of McGill’s New Residence. The speakers sat near the front of the room, their conversations casual, yet brimming with intellectual flair. The remaining round tables housed businesspeople representing the conference sponsors, as well as members of the Montreal community. Scattered near the back sat a few students, standing out rather markedly from the rest of the crowd.
I attended the first two panels of the day. Each panel was an hour and a half long, and consisted of four speakers, followed by a question and answer period that involved all the speakers together.
The first panel was titled “Food Security and Natural Resources,” and the speakers addressed various questions concerning the use of natural resources, given the rapid increase in population and the growing demand for food around the world. Amit Roy was first to take the stage, and spoke about the benefits of fertilizer. He argued that increased use of fertilizer is vital to future food security: there is only so much arable land available, but with the use of fertilizers, we can achieve increased yields without devoting additional land to agriculture. However, he criticized the lack of research and development in this key field, citing that this $150 billion dollar per year industry spends less than 0.1% of its budget on research. He hopes that his centre will be able to provide this research and improve fertilizer technology.
Brent Patterson, the following speaker, spoke about how regions such as Alberta are key in producing food for a growing population. Alberta is well-endowed with rich farmlands and water resources. With additional crop and irrigation technology, this province could significantly increase its food output. The next speaker, Mark Rosegrant, followed Patterson’s speech by presenting a positive view of these problems. Rosegrant suggested that increased energy prices, increased use of energy in agriculture, and problems accessing water, are actually beneficial because they provide incentives to produce new technology and create better farming practices. It is only when we face great need that breakthrough inventions such as biofuels and food modifications take place.
Finally, David Hallam suggested that all of these positive changes could take place more easily if responsible Foreign Direct Investment is encouraged. Developing countries need FDI to access technology and increase production, but this investment will only be beneficial for all parties if we establish rules regarding responsible FDI, and limit bad investment and land grabbing.
“Food Safety, Trade and International Markets” was the title of my second panel. I found them to be particularly lively as a whole, and kept the audience interested and engaged in the discussion of global market challenges and solutions.
Robert Thompson echoed the sentiments of the previous panel by emphasizing the strategic importance of food. He expressed his concern, however, that food security has largely been off the development agenda since the 1980s. Moreover, research funding for agriculture has dropped significantly in recent years, yet we cannot hope to reach a world in which every country is self-sufficient without improvements in agricultural technology.
Ronald Doering also stressed that the actions of developed countries are significantly hindering the ability of developing countries to reach self-sufficiency. He specifically discussed the issue of food safety regulations, saying that stringent food safety regulations are often used as protectionist measures by Western countries. He stated that “you can’t separate science and politics” and developing countries need to set up fair trade regulations, rather than hide their political agendas behind the “science” of rigorous food regulations.
Spencer Henson, a dynamic and well-spoken professor from the University of Guelph further commented on food regulations and the food production focus. The increasingly stringent food regulations are due to the fact that we are no longer simply concerned with the final product for consumption. Instead, we have a “system focus,” in which we are concerned and interested in regulating the whole production process. Henson suggested that the private sector can play a key role in filling in the gaps on these standards, and ensuring that they are fair for all parties involved.
Finally, Bruno Larue brought the discussion back to developing countries, outlining how market failures can be particularly devastating for poor people. While consumers in the developed world can easily substitute their consumption when prices change, poor farmers in developing countries are victims of price volatility – they have few consumer goods to choose from, and generally have a minimal array of products to sell. Thus, they are particularly vulnerable to price changes, especially when these are exacerbated by trade barriers.
I left day 2 of the conference with many new perspectives to mull over, but with a general sense of hope in the ingenuity of the human race.
The following morning I arrived again at New Residence Hall, this time to hear the panel on Public-Private partnerships. This panel addressed many of the problems brought up by speakers in the previous lectures. In general, the speakers focused on the ways in which public-private partnerships can overcome market failures. The speakers commented how public private partnerships in agriculture can fill in the “missing” middle, by bridging the gap between smallholders and commercial markets. Having partnerships between public and private actors can encourage investment in agriculture, which, as had been mentioned in previous discussion, is integral to food security.
For more information about the conference and the presenters, or to find out how to get involved at next year’s conference, visit: http://www.mcgill.ca/globalfoodsecurity/
McGill Global Food Security Conference: Day 1
UNICEF Canada’s CEO David Morley took the stage in Moyse Hall last Tuesday evening to kick off McGill’s 4th annual Global Food Security Conference in front of a haphazard array of audience members. Well-dressed businesspeople sat next to environment students in torn khaki pants; some frantically noted down Morley’s every word, others sat back and calmly pondered his address. But everyone seemed drawn to Morley, and the questions poured forth at the end of his speech.
Earlier that day, government buildings in Mogadishu, Somalia were bombed, inflicting heavy casualties, and Morley began his lecture with a moment of silence for the victims of this violence. He then continued on to talk about the famine in the horn of Africa, and UNICEF’s involvement in the crisis.
“The worst place in the world right now to be a child is Somalia,” said Morley passionately. Because, amidst the world’s economic crisis is another often-ignored crisis: a nutritional crisis.
In North America, we complain about the rising price of oil, but rarely about the rising prices of food. Why? In North America, the average family spends less than 10% of its total income on food, whereas in developing countries, families can spend up to 75% of their income solely on food needed for survival. And the economic crisis has produced volatile food prices, which create a life or death situation for the world’s poorest people, especially in Somalia, where food is already scarce.
Yet at present, there is a global surplus of food. People don’t go hungry because of random environmental events like famines or flooding, but because of problems of distribution, lack of infrastructure, wasted food, and food being redirected to biofuels, just to name a few examples. In Somalia, farmers who normally rely on subsistence agriculture have not produced enough to survive due to the famine, and thus are forced to look elsewhere to buy food. However, obtaining money for this food is difficult because, as all subsistence farmers seek to make money at the same time, the demand for labour decreases, wages decrease and prices for farmers’ assets (such as livestock) also decrease. All the while, food prices continue to rise.
While people in Somalia and other developing countries have numerous coping strategies to deal with economic or environmental risks, these are often inadequate in prolonged periods of disruption, and often lead to long-term problems. For instance, to cope with volatile food prices, families will often eat less food, or substitute for cheaper, less nutritional food. They will also cut back on health care and education or send children to work, often in dangerous conditions. Thus, malnutrition becomes an underlying cause for many other problems. This is what is meant by “nutritional crisis.”
While UNICEF has launched a significant campaign to relieve famine in Somalia, it faces many challenges in this effort. The primary obstacle is the lack of political stability in Somalia. Morley talked about his personal experience with border guards and entry requirements that change each day. The country has a significant lack of infrastructure, making it difficult to transfer food and aid around the country. Furthermore, overcrowded refugee and aid camps throughout the country and especially the huge Dadaab refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya are vastly overcrowded, leading to security and access issues that make it difficult to provide aid to those who need it. The impact of Somalia’s political instability is all the more dramatic when one compares Somalia to nearby Kenya and Ethiopia, which have also been struck by the famine, but which have been able to provide relief to their populations due to their significantly more developed infrastructure and government programs.
Despite Morley’s focus on the horrors of famine, complete with numerous heart-wrenching personal stories, he attempted to finish off the talk on a more positive note. “I don’t want people to think it’s a bottomless black hole,” he said. “The solution cannot be humanitarian aid alone.” Morley believes symposiums such as this one, which bring together people from all different backgrounds, bring him hope and demonstrate the global effort to try to meet the challenge of famine.
Green Fire: An Interdisciplinary Approach
Given my goal to foster an interdisciplinary conversation through this blog, it is fitting that my first interview of the year left me convinced that this is exactly what is needed.
Last week, the film Green Fire was shown here at McGill by the MSE – its first screening in Canada. I had the chance to speak with Curt Meine, who was a key figure in the creation of the film, and who appears as the film’s on-screen guide.
Green Fire tells the story of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), who is considered by many to be the founding father of the American conservation movement. But Leopold is not only renowned for his efforts to protect the land and wilderness that he loved; Leopold’s concept of a “land ethic” was monumental in shaping our modern ideas of human relationships with nature. Leopold was the first to emphasize the need for harmony between people and land. He believed that the field of ethics cannot be limited to human-human relationships, but can only be complete when it addresses human-nature relationships as well.
Meine is an expert on Leopold: he wrote the first biography of Leopold for his PhD, and is now a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation (just the many hats he wears!).
Meine is convinced that Leopold’s story is essential for understanding contemporary environmental issues. “No other figure in our whole history combines so many parts of the big puzzle.” Meine emphasizes the importance of telling the story of the history of environmental ideas, policy and science through one figure. Understanding the history of those who have come before them gives people (especially young people) a sense of background, helping them to feel less lost in the tumultuous, muddled array of discourses they are faced with today. Thus, the film’s originality comes from its unique approach, which is neither entirely historical nor contemporary, but rather seeks to show how knowledge of the past is essential for a true understanding of the issues we face today.
Meine’s work as the Director for Conservation Biology and History at the Centre for Humans and Nature and as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin combines conservation science and history. This idea of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the environment was first put forth by Leopold. Leopold, recognizing the inevitability of ethical questions associated with environmental problems, called out to experts in ethics, such as philosophers and theologians to help solve science’s ethical questions. Leopold stressed the need for an ethical interpretation of scientific knowledge, and promoted the idea that scholars of all fields need to work together to tackle environmental problems. His legacy is evident today in the newly created field of environmental ethics, as well as in the recent trend to include social and economic fields in the study of environment.
When asked what Leopold would think about how the conservation movement has shifted and grown today, Meine responded positively, saying that “Leopold would be encouraged, if not satisfied.” Meine believes that we live today in a “litany of woe,” constantly bombarded with seemingly insurmountable problems: population growth, increased consumption, overstressing of the oceans, terrestrial biodiversity, just to name few. Meine emphasizes the need to avoid becoming discouraged by these trends. We should to be aware of them, know we can make a difference, and be sure to understand and include human values and needs in our solutions. “Discouragement is our greatest threat.”
Indeed, this is the message portrayed by Green Fire. The film showcases a variety of people working in very different circumstances, but all carrying on, and expanding, Leopold’s legacy. Meine says the key to success is to understand the world around you by enriching your experiences on earth and enjoying a positive relationship with nature. We cannot hope to make a difference when we are motivated by obligation or guilt; it is only when we find a meaningful point of connection with the natural world that we can come to understand our individual, unique ability to make changes.
Welcome back to the MSE Blog!
Hello and welcome to this year’s School of Environment blog! My name is Kaitlyn and I’m a Political Science and International Development Studies student in my final year at McGill. As one of this year’s MSE reporters, I have a lot to look forward to. First of all, the MSE has decided this year to have two reporters, so I am excited to collaborate with Alex and hopefully the two of us can spark some interesting debates. As in past years, this blog will keep you up to date on events on campus or in the Montreal community, as well as comment on general environmental issues affecting McGill. Our goal for this blog is to introduce you to people who can contribute to the conversation surrounding environmental issues, whether they are specialists visiting Montreal, McGill professors, McGill staff, or students of all faculties. It is my belief that environmental issues can be of interest to everyone, no matter their studies or expertise. We hope that this blog will unite people from various backgrounds, who all have unique perspectives to bring to the conversation. And on that note, we want to encourage as much dialogue as possible through our blog. We hope to see lots of comments, and perhaps if there is enough interest, we can organize some face-to-face discussions. So tell us what you have to say!
The importance of applied research
Thursday April 14th 2011, 12:06 PM
Filed under: In The News
“Of the 29 courses that I have taken, 27 required essays,” said Jonathan Glencross, an MSE student, at last semester’s TedXMcGill conference, “and only 1 of the 29 required me to directly talk to anybody in the real world. Of 74 essays, 73 of them are collecting dust. I’ve never lived the change that I came in to [the university] to learn about.”
Many students share this frustration – we often come to university expecting to learn how to make a difference in the world, but much of our work never sees the light of day. McGill has often rejected the “how-to” sensibility. Want to effect change in the world? Join a club or volunteer for an organization. But don’t expect to do it through a class.
There are however, opportunities for involvement that some may not be aware of. Applied research is a broad term, but generally means research proposed by a student or an institution – be it a community group, non-profit group, or corporation. It means that your essay doesn’t just collect dust, but can make a change in the world around you. You’re helping the world and getting credits for it too.
“There’s a fine line between applied student research and extra-curricular activities,” said Ari Jaffe, a student and active environmentalist now involved in the creation of applied student research programs through the Office of Sustainability. “But McGill does have a lot of avenues that you can take [to do applied research].”
“There’s often this understanding that there’s a big disconnect between student-university life and academia and the real world,” said Caitlin Manicom, a QPIRG board member who sits on the organizing committee of this weekend’s Study-In-Action, a conference that, in her words, tries to “bring those two worlds together and give students a place to promote research that is socially useful.”
Applied research allows students to deal with real-world scenarios, which, according to Jaffe, will help students from all faculties search for job opportunities. “If you had one independent study that allowed you to specialize, it would offer you a competitive edge, you could sell yourself better to your employer.”
According to George McCourt, a McGill School of Environment professor involved with applied research, it also helps students learn better. “I think a better way of [teaching critical thinking] is having people do research projects as opposed to sitting in a classroom and being given a bunch of information.”
But the most important aspect of applied research is that it seems to empower students to make change that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to make. Lilith Wyatt, the administrator of the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), who also facilitates sustainability-oriented applied research, said, “the students that participate in that kind of research would have a chance to engage meaningfully in the campus and have an impact on it. And have a chance to not just read and learn about the kind of change you can make in the world theoretically but have a chance to do it and to see it. Some people call it campus as a living laboratory.” McCourt added, “you can be a Don Quixote and joust at windmills or you can get inside that windmill and try and make change.”
Applied research is also valuable to the university. Often understood as “ivory towers,” the institution’s role in society can easily be discredited. That the university structure is becoming less recognized is increasingly clear from government funding cuts all over the world. McCourt suggested that more diversity in research and more community involvement could mean a wider recognition of universities’ importance. A logical way out of the funding crisis in education would be to prove that universities do make a difference. As it is, it seems that the large population of undergraduates are a wasted resource for the university.
According to McCourt this is because the university, as an 800-year-old institution, is still very conservative. “So much of what we’re seeing right now requires the taking down of barriers. The infrastructure of universities is still set up with significant boundaries between disciplines.” Manicom added, “I think that there’s often a tendency within academia to do research on behalf of a community without actually engaging with that community or without necessarily doing research that’s even being called for. But I think that it can be a really empowering thing to be doing research that people are asking to have done.”
Manicom explained that students initiated the community-University Research Exchange (CURE), for this purpose. CURE links community groups with students willing to do community-involved research, but who don’t know where to start, and offers information and resources for students to do so. It presents “different types of learning that aren’t always validated within the academic context.”
After her experience trying to get her own applied research approved, Jaffe does think that it takes a lot of effort to pursue, but warns against a flat-out critique of the structure of the university. “It takes a bit of organization on the student’s part as well. I think it would be a little bit myopic to blame the administration on not having enough options, because I think those avenues exist, you just really need to take the reins.”
“I think it is on the increase,” said McCourt, “but it’s a slow process. Universities are big institutions. Big institutions don’t change quickly.” A different understanding of a university may be taking shape, but putting better systems in place for alternative types of research may yet take a while. A view of the university as simply a space for academic research and an assembly line of undergraduates may be giving way to an understanding that it does have responsibilities for the society in which it exists.
Personally, I’ve taken some courses for my environment degree where I could practice applied research, GEOG 301 and ENVR 401, and they’ve been liberating. In one, our team was able to help shift the McGill food system towards more sustainable directions by recommending a sustainable food purchasing coordinator, and in the other, we were able to help Santropol Roulant expand its presence on campus through recommendations and student surveys. Applied research has taught me about what it means to work on environmental research and has helped me understand better how to affect change in the world beyond the university.
Juan Carlos Serio-Silva develops links with the MSE
Friday March 25th 2011, 10:57 AM
Filed under: In The News
Juan Carlos Serio-Silva, who has been studying primate patterns in Mexico for the past 20 years, thinks of his research as a piece in the puzzle. “All of us have things to contribute,” he says, “the final result is to better understand the behaviour, the ecology, the physiology, and the conservation of these animals, and with these puzzle pieces we can protect other animals.”
Serio-Silva has been a visiting scholar to the MSE since last March. As monkeys’ habitats in Calakmul, Chiapas, and Tabasco have become increasingly fragmented, many populations have had to adapt to higher risks and difficulties for survival. Along with his team of researchers, he wishes to expand knowledge of how spider monkeys, black howlers, and manatees adapt and survive in shifting habitats, their role in sustaining ecosystems, and what the best practices would be for their conservation.
“It’s so hard for them,” says Serio-Silva, “on the one side you have very preserved areas where the monkeys don’t need to worry about how to survive and on the other side you have very fragmented areas.”
Fences, cars, seasonal fires, and human interactions have all affected the primates. Changing ecosystems and eucalyptus plantations impact their behavioral patterns, as they are forced to change diets and foraging practices. Another difficulty lies in moving from forest to forest—the monkeys must now spend more time on the ground, which increases the danger of predators and parasites.
To conduct this research, Serio-Silva and his team have been using a wide variety of methods: collecting feces to measure the stress level of the monkeys, studying behavioral patterns and genetic diversity, analyzing the health of the monkeys by testing for common diseases, determining the sex ratio of the monkey populations, and testing the modeling tools already in place to predict behavior patterns.
What they’ve found is that, while monkeys seem to be surprisingly healthy, their adaptive behavior changes significantly and many of the models often don’t match up to the actual behavior. All this information is contributing to a better understanding of how monkey species adapt in changing environments, which would lead to better practices for conservation and more cohesive understanding of pattern changes as climate change occurs.
“Another thing we’re working hard on is being able to teach field courses for students interested in primatology,” says Serio-Silva, “we have students from France, Czech Republic, Nicaragua, and Columbia. These are very good experiences because, all together, we interact. It’s a dynamic field course.
“Another thing we’re working with is environmental education for local people,” he adds. Through workshops, Serio-Silva and his team have been determining how people perceive the monkeys and raising awareness about the role of monkeys in the ecosystem. By distributing pamphlets, books, showing videos, and playing games, students in the field courses are able to learn to communicate about the research projects without using technical language. “We need to make a big effort to talk to local people,” Serio-Silva remarks, “it has a lof of direct impact for them.”
Serio-Silva has been working closely with McGill professor Colin Chapman, who has been doing extensive research on primate behavior and habitats in Uganda.
“We’ve been identifying similarities and differences,” says Chapman, “and both are interesting… The interaction between Carlo’s group and mine provides our students with more options.” Serio-Silva adds, “We are making new collaborative links all the time. We have a lot of similarities [in our research]. It’s a very dynamic link … a very intensive and interactive relationship.”
When asked where this correspondence will take them, Chapman remarks, “I think there’s no end-point. We’ll keep comparing things and having students be involved, having McGill Students go to Mexico and Mexican students come here. Hopefully some Mexican students can go to Africa.”
Serio-Silva has a very positive attitude about working with students. “With my students my strategy is to try to identify which is their interest first. If they have some passion for some idea, it’s better for us as academic directors because they feel [better] with their own research if they propose the idea…. All ideas and experiences could be useful, make good interpretations, and allow new possibilities.”
Photos courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio-Silva
Mining, Climate Change and Martians
A mime dressed as a silver miner waves to the visitors at the Mexico booth during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) International Convention, Trade Show and Investors Exchange-Mining Investment Show in Toronto March 6, 2011. (Xinhua/Zou Zheng)
The largest convention in Canada was held in Toronto this past week from March 6-9 for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) to bring together the world’s mineral industry. The convention hosted an estimated 26,000 delegates, including exhibitors and investors from 125 countries for what is the biggest gathering for the mineral extractive industry in the world. A wealth of information was shared over the four days of the conference reflecting a broad range of issues- from technical aspects of exploration and development, company finances and management, investor information, and specific country prospects to environmental impacts and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
As members of MICLA (the McGill Research Collective for the Investigation of Canadian Mining in Latin America), we decided to attend this convention to get a real perspective of the workings of the extractive industry upon which our economy is so dependent. One of the most memorable talks we attended was the keynote address at the luncheon held by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) and PDAC, sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The address, titled ‘Climate Science? The Real Social, Environmental and Economic Costs’, was delivered by Lawrence Solomon, who was introduced as ‘One of Canada’s leading environmental scientists”. Solomon is the founder and managing director of Energy Probe (an “environment and consumer research group”), and author of the book on arguments made by climate change skeptics, ‘The Deniers’. On the heels of Naomi Oreskes’ MSE-sponsored talk at Mcgill about the climate change denial campaign, it was fascinating to witness firsthand the arguments of a real, live, self-proclaimed climate change denier.
Solomon’s sensationalist lecture was about his and other ‘deniers’ disagreements with the damaging policies and regulations designed to support the climate change policies such as the Kyoto protocol, and all the bogus science behind claims of global warming. According to him, regulations of GHG emissions are not only unnecessarily restrictive but also just plain bad news for everyone. Everywhere.
He began by explaining how the development of the ‘green industry’ is effectively destroying the economy and driving up unemployment rates. European countries such as Spain and Germany that have invested in alternative energies have experienced rising costs of energy and fuel poverty, and now whole economies are crashing because of “the failure of the green industry”. No mention was made of any other possible explanation for recent economic downturn. For every green job created in the UK, he said, an average of 3.7 traditional jobs are actually lost. Fossil fuels are the most economic option for the future, he explained, and countries are starting to wake up to this and seriously rethink their transition to a ‘greener’ economy.
He also outlined the damage incurred by anti-global warming policies of governments. He focused on the Kyoto accord, dubbing it the “single biggest destroyer of the global environment”- not because it was ultimately unsuccessful in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but because restrictions on GHGs inherently lead to rampant environmental degradation. For example, carbon credit systems created in an attempt to adhere to Kyoto targets to offset emissions essentially work to expropriate land from poor farmers in developing and cut down old-growth forests in order to create eucalyptus plantations for carbon sequestration.
The part of the talk we most enjoyed was when he got down to talking about what he really specializes in: the unfounded science that has created what he calls the “global warming hysteria”. Not only are the policies economically and environmentally harmful, but according to him and his band of deniers, they are based on total fabrications by alarmists such the IPCC and the UN. He dove into the problems with climate modeling by digging up the infamous hockey stick graph of rising global temperatures over the last 1000 years, versions of which were used by the 2001 IPCC third assessment report and Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. The graph has been criticized as a flawed representation of climate change and has since been reconstructed by the original publishers, still producing much the same conclusion that temperatures are rising faster now than in recent history. The graph and its conclusion may still be controversial, but what Solomon does with this example is to negate pretty well any climate modeling whatsoever. Solomon then declared that the SRES models used by the IPCC do not replicate the complexity of earth’s climate, and thus it was dangerous to use them in any policy decisions. It is interesting to see that he is the head of an environmental agency that focuses on economics, yet does not seem to understand the purpose of models.
He then suggested that scientists had gone further than simply debunking climate change science and had actually come up with explanations of why any global warming that may be happening is not anthropogenic. He referenced Russian scientist, Dr. Habibullo Abdussamatov, who has observed similar temperature increases on Mars and Earth and chuckled that any warming on Mars is certainly not due to Martians and thus, any warming on earth is not due to humans.
He wrapped up his address by concluding that because of the evidence stacked against climate change, the U.S. will never adopt climate-change policies. Furthermore, he said an increasing number of scientists and laymen alike are skeptically eyeing the climate change theory, citing a recent survey that found that 2/3s of Americans do not believe in anthropogenic climate change.
His use of outdated language (“third-world” countries, “global warming”) and misinformation about current global debate on climate change and policy suggests a lack of formal education in environmental science or international policy. Our attempts to obtain information on his educational background were unsuccessful, despite the fact that he is a “leading Canadian environmentalist”, the head of a prominent research group and a regular National Post columnist.
The content of Solomon’s talk was eyebrow-raising on its own, yet it was even more alarming knowing his audience. The international mining convention brings together the leaders of an incredibly huge industry that has massive impacts on the environment, economy and people all over the world. A denial of the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use by this group could spell unchecked development and extraction of the earth’s resources, particularly in countries with weak or no environmental standards. Unfortunately, PDAC publicly stated its disapproval of bill C-300, the responsible mining bill, and applauded its defeat in the Canadian House of Commons in fall 2010. Bill C-300 would have called for the government’s response to human rights and environmental abuses by the Canadian mining industry abroad. An industry with deforestation and transportation as two of its top environmental impacts must have a serious attitude about global climate change, and understand the consequences of its activities.
The good news is that Solomon’s opinion appeared not to be reflective of the general regard for the environment held by the industry. Although his claims were met with some nods, there was also evident disbelief and shakes of the head by some of the 250 industry members in the room. The industry has a lot of inertia to continue with its business-as-usual practices, but changes are being promoted to address the impacts on the environment. One such initiative on display at the convention included PDAC’s new promotion of industry-wide corporate social responsibility certification called E3plus. Although E3plus is still only a CSR guideline framework for projects, many hope for its future development into corporate environmental and social regulation. Discussions with industry members at the convention and after the luncheon showed us a movement towards incorporation of real, effective CSR initiatives among some of the more progressive companies. With a new generation of mining engineers, geologists and administrators, Canadian extractive industries will hopefully see a shift towards projects that consider and attempt to mitigate all the impacts they have- social, environmental, political, and economic.. This will, of course, take a serious concerted effort by those within the industry, environmental and social justice advocacy groups, policy makers, local community organizations, and Canadian citizens in general.
For more information about the McGill research group Investigating Canadian mining in Latin America (MICLA) and our research, visit our blog: http://www.miclamcgill.blogspot.com/
Also, for more information about Lawrence Solomon and his writings for climate change denial, check out his endlessly entertaining blog: http://energy.probeinternational.org/blog/lawrence-solomon
Lachlan Crawford, B.Sc Hon. Environment
Kate Bodkin, B.A International development studies, B.Sc Environment
Kate Whysner, B.A Environment