On fighting climate change and what it will mean for BC/Canada’s energy politics

Over the life of this blog I have written a lot about renewable energy and climate change and one thing I’ve come to recognize is how expensive the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will be. This topic is coming to the fore in BC where we are at the start of an election campaign and one of the big election debates will be about energy policy. Topics under discussion will include the Site C Dam and BC Hydro’s reliance on Independent Power Producers (IPPs).

The Site C Dam is a prime example of a topic where the environmental activists in our province continue to demonstrate cognitive dissonance. They demand that we achieve environmental goals while at the same time fighting against any of the compromises needed to achieve those goals. As I will spend the rest of this blog explaining, the transition to a fossil fuel-free future (and the fight against climate change) is going to require a lot of hard work, sacrifices, compromises and money. Unfortunately, the environmental community believes we can achieve the former without having to contribute any of the latter.

Let’s start with some background. It is almost a year since Canada agreed in principal to the Paris Agreement and Canada is working, slowly towards meeting our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In our NDC Canada committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In 2014 (latest numbers on Environment Canada’s chart) Canada emitted 732 Megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalents (all numbers from Environment Canada). To achieve our NDC goal we need to get that number down to 523 Mt. That is a reduction of 209 Mt of emissions. So how will we achieve our goal? Simply put we need to electrify everything we can while simultaneously ensuring that the electricity used is low-carbon or carbon-free.

Canada is a special case in the world in that we generate almost 80% of our electrical supply without emitting greenhouse gases. What does this mean? It means that we don’t have much low-hanging fruit to work with to reduce our emissions and meet our NDC goals. Since Canadian electricity emissions in 2014 were 78 Mt, even if we eliminated all our electricity emissions we would only achieve 37% of our goal. This means something else must give and one of the biggest culprits is our transportation sector which represented 171Mt of emissions in 2014. As I have described in a previous blog post, electrifying our transportation system will require a massive upgrade of our electricity generation capacity. By my calculations British Columbia will require on the order of 16,000 GWh of additional capacity for our gasoline vehicles and approximately 11,500 GWh for our diesel vehicles. Overall, using this blog’s favourite measure of energy generation we are looking at over 6 Site C Dam equivalents of electricity just to cover our transportation needs.

Another reasonable place to see major reductions in fossil fuel emissions would be in buildings (cooking, heating and hot water). Buildings generated 87Mt of emissions in 2014. Even with efficiencies, electrifying that sector will require the energy equivalent to 4-5 Site C Dams.

Now nothing I have written to this point is terribly controversial. Some may quibble about EV efficiency numbers but regardless of whether you agree with me, or feel I have overstated the numbers, the conclusion is the same: to achieve our Paris Agreement goals we will need a huge increase in our electrical generating capacity. This raises the question: why aren’t we hearing any of this from any of our politicians. The answer is simple, because none of our energy regulators have gotten around to producing new load forecasts that incorporate our Paris Agreement commitments. The last time BC Hydro did a major load forecast it did not include the need to electrify transportation or buildings, rather the 2012 load forecast assumed that 5% of light duty vehicles will be electric in 2020 with that number rising to 20% in 2028. Those are incredibly low numbers if we are going to address climate change.

As for natural gas, the 2012 forecast never envisioned the possibility that cities like Vancouver would seek to completely eliminate the use of natural gas. So when DeSmog Canada shows interviews of Harry Swain saying that we won’t need the electricity produced by the Site C Dam, the correct response is to point out that Mr. Swain’s work (and expertise) pre-dates the Paris Agreement and is not relevant in a post-Paris Agreement world.

As for Mr. Swain’s suggestion in his many DeSmog Canada interviews that we switch to alternatives like geothermal I will simply point you to what the environmentalists said the last time the government tried to make it easier to explore for geothermal energy. To save you the read, I can summarize by pointing out that they were almost unanimous in their opposition to the bill.

I know that someone is going to ask: what about solar energy? To that I simply point to  a solar insolation map of BC (also here is a simplified solar insolation chart of BC and a link to  spreadsheet from Natural Resources Canada for the entire country here) and remind you that Prince Rupert has one of the lowest average levels of solar insolation in North America. The term you should think about is regionally-appropriate renewables and frankly except for the extreme southeast, and limited parts of the Okanagan and maybe the Peace, solar simply isn’t the right approach for BC.

BC has three major viable sources of low carbon power: wind, geothermal and hydro (note I do not include tidal or wave energy because while we have a lot of potential these technologies are still not technologically ready to be broadly implemented). In order to develop those resources we will need to make use of the obvious opportunities (like Site C) as well as as many smaller, local projects that we can find. Given the time frames, the only way to develop all those new sources is by bringing in the money available from the private sector. The public sector simply doesn’t have the resources to build all those projects in the time  available and if you are going to need the private sector to invest then you are going to need to use the IPP process.

Now I’m sure my many detractors aren’t going to let me get away with saying the transition is going to be expensive without proof, so why don’t we look at what our friends at the Leap Manifesto foresee it costing. As anyone who has read this blog knows I have a lot to say about the Leap Manifesto having dedicated the equivalent of a novella’s worth of writing to debunking it; but for the sake of argument let’s assume that their estimate of costs is correct (I would argue it is massively low). Using their numbers it would cost Canada $1.8 trillion of investment by 2050 just for the basic energy generation installations. That doesn’t count infrastructure needs; the costs to upgrade our electrical grid; or the costs to decommission existing facilities. As I wrote previously:

Now assuming we spread the costs evenly between 2016 and 2050 (34 years) that comes out to the low-low-price of $53 billion per year to build that infrastructure. Remember we haven’t considered the infrastructure necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…) or the costs to do the environmental assessments on all those projects, we are simply talking about the capital costs of the actual units themselves. Talking about environmental assessments, given Canada’s history of welcoming large industrial power facilities, I am quite certain there will be no delays in initiating the construction of all these facilities…just look at how smoothly Site C has been progressing in BC. There have been no added legal costs or anything like that have there?

To close this post let’s reiterate a few facts: fighting climate change is going to be a very expensive, electricity-intensive project that will take a huge political will; the expenditures of massive financial resources; and cooperation between the private and public sectors. This is not something that can be accomplished by governments alone and it will mean making huge sacrifices and compromises. We need to massively ramp up our electricity supply and in doing so we need to ensure that much/most/all of that new capacity is low carbon. We must recognize that no matter how cheap solar PV panels get, solar will be no more than a marginal source of energy in a province this far from the equator.

By 2050, we will need to be self-sufficient in  low carbon energy because our neighbours to the south and east are fighting the same battles that we are. We won’t be able to simply dip into Alberta or Washington’s energy supplies when the wind is not blowing. Sure we will be able to get more power from the Columbia River Agreement but that won’t make a dent in our 2050 energy needs. To meet our climate change goals, we need to dive headlong into geothermal, wind and run-of-river hydro. We are going to need to take advantage of the massive financial resources of the private sector and to do that we must give them assurances that we will buy the power they produce, hence IPPs.

To build those new sources we have to accept that energy is going to get a lot more expensive but that is the price of completely converting our energy system from one based on carbon to one that is essentially carbon-free. That means we are going to have to get used to high energy prices and that our government is going to have to find a way to shelter the poorest among us from the sticker-shock. Most importantly, the environmentalists are going to have to learn to compromise. You can’t build geothermal if you aren’t allowed to drill where the geothermal is located. You can’t electrify our system without upgrading our electric grid and building new transmission lines. It is time to decide if you want to fight climate change or not because our environmental community appears to think that they can get rid of fossil fuels without building anything to replace the power generated by fossil fuels.

Author’s Note: This post has been revised to provide better detail on solar insolation in BC.

For a very good resource on renewables in BC I would head over to the Clean Energy BC website.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Why is Canadian Blood Services making it so inconvenient to donate blood?

This Saturday, at 2 pm, I was where you can find me pretty much every eight weeks at that time: at the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church attending the only mobile blood donor clinic held in North Langley. I have attended this clinic almost every time it has been run since it opened in the early 2000’s. Over that time I have seen a lot of changes and recently I have come to wonder what is wrong with the people who run Canadian Blood Services (CBS). Today I watched as donor after donor gave up on the clinic and walked out without donating, this according to the radio ads, during a blood shortage? While I was giving my donation I asked my phlebotomist a few questions and was disappointed with the responses. One thing she did make clear is that the only way things will change is if people speak out, so today I am going to do just that and speak out about the deterioration of services I have seen in the last 15 years giving blood at this clinic.

Let’s start with the good news. The people you encounter at the blood donor clinic are the best. They are always cheerful; they are quick to smile; and are ready to answer any questions. The major problem is that there simply aren’t enough of them. When this clinic opened they used to have eight donation beds and a couple recovery beds. Well in those 15 years this part of Langley has seen explosive growth with the population almost doubling. Given that growth you would expect to have seen a commensurate increase in the number of clinics or the capacity of the existing clinic? Well you would be mistaken. Instead we have seen the exact opposite. In a community that has nearly doubled in population they have held the number of clinics stable and have decreased the number of treatment beds by two (down to six beds). Instead of growing to meet our community’s growth the Canadian Blood Services have decreased our ability to donate by 25%.

All this week I have been hearing ads on the radio informing us that with the storm in eastern Canada there is a national blood shortage. The ads encouraged people to make appointments to donate. Given that information do you think that the CBS expanded its capacity at our clinic? Of course they didn’t. It had exactly the same number of beds as they always do, only this time around they didn’t have the staff to cover the limited number of beds they had available. When I arrived the sign was up informing us that they were down two staff members and that we should expect longer than normal waits. I would have been surprised except this is pretty much always the case with our clinic. I cannot remember a recent clinic where they weren’t at least one nurse/phlebotomist short.

So what does being two staff members short mean? Well during flu season (when lots of people don’t show up) you can often get through the entire donation process completed in under an hour and fifteen minutes. The fastest I’ve gone through is in 45 minutes (but I am a fast bleeder). Today, we sat for almost an hour and a half before we even got to see the first nurse, which brings us to the next problem: streamlining.

Over the last several years the CBS has been “streamlining” the blood donation process. They have automated the questionnaire and no longer require you to fill in the multiple choice exam before you see the nurse. In the process they have made it less efficient for the donor. Apparently, the streamlining is for CBS staff only and not for the donor. Instead I have seen a slower donation process that discourages donors in an era when they should be being as sensitive to keeping as many donors as they can. So what are they doing wrong?  Let’s start with the most obvious flaw: hemoglobin testing.

For those not familiar with the process, before you can donate they have to ensure you have enough hemoglobin to donate. Women often have issues with their hemoglobin levels and don’t even know it. In her life my wife has been rejected for low hemoglobin more times than she has been able to donate. Under the old process they tested you for hemoglobin as the first step in the process right after you registered. Then if you failed you wouldn’t have wasted your afternoon, you’d be in and out in under 10 minutes. Well under the new “streamlined” process the donor does all their interactions with the nurse at the same time which means that today it would have taken my wife almost 90 minutes to have her hemoglobin tested to discover that she couldn’t donate. What brain surgeon thought this idea up? Being rejected for donation is bad enough but wasting an hour and a half sitting in a building with no WiFi, no music and no magazines only to be rejected is just ridiculous.

Going back to hemoglobin levels, as a result of a small proportion of women regularly failing their hemoglobin tests the CBS has changed the rate at which all women can give blood. Now women can only give blood every 12 weeks instead of every 8 weeks. Even worse if you are a young woman (under 24) it is something like every 104 days. My mother-in-law has given blood every 8 weeks for the last decade and has no trouble meeting the hemoglobin levels but she, too, is now cut off. My wife who can have low hemoglobin even if she isn’t giving blood and is just as likely to fail every 104 days. Telling my mother-in-law that she can’t give blood because her daughter has trouble with hemoglobin makes absolutely no sense. Instead of treating women as individuals they treat them like a single group and base their cut-offs on the smallest and weakest of their kind. Why not simply continue as we have by testing hemoglobin and letting those with adequate hemoglobin donate when possible?

As for the waiting process, the CBS does nothing to help us out there either with no WiFi, no music and no magazines. Yes, rather than springing for a WiFi hub for donors CBS doesn’t provide WiFi and for reasons unknown they have eliminated the music and magazines. For years I would bring my used magazines (Discover and Science because I’m a nerd) to donate to the clinics. The clinics collected and shared the magazines so if they did have delays you weren’t stuck being bored. Well sometime in the last 3 years they decided to stop collecting or distributing magazines and turned off the music that the phlebotomists used to play in the background to improve the mood. I can still remember listening to an afternoon playoff game being played at a clinic to encourage folk to come in during the playoffs. Once again convenience to the organization takes preference over improving the donor’s experience.

So let’s summarize, during a purported blood shortage CBS didn’t expand their clinic to encourage walk-ins.They allowed themselves to open short-staffed so those with appointments ended up spending over twice as long as normal to donate without any distractions to keep us happy. That being said this clinic never seems to have the staff necessary to allow for a reasonable donor experience. This the only clinic in a growing community full of potential donors. Is it any wonder that the gent in front of me, a man I have seen for over 10 years at this clinic who has donated over 100 whole blood donations, stormed out vowing never to come back. This is exactly the type of donor they should cherish since repeat donors provide the vast majority of blood donations and they effectively blew him off. Meanwhile the young woman before me, making her first donation, wasn’t celebrated once she had donated because the clinic had one, yes that is right, they had one volunteer. My mother was a volunteer during the Red Cross days and historically they had a half-dozen volunteers to help out, keep people happy and celebrate the achievements of the young and repeat donors. Now, thanks to the bureaucracy that is the CBS, our clinic can only field one volunteer for the entire clinic.

If Canadian Blood Services’ plan is to alienate their core donor population while making the first-time donors wonder if this is how blood donations always go then bravo they have accomplished their task. If, on the other hand, their intention is to encourage new donors while making old donors feel special then they have failed miserably. Someone has to get the executives in charge of CBS to attend these clinics to see how frustrating it can be to donate blood outside of the Vancouver core. Remember, the vast majority of growth in the Lower Mainland has been outside of the Vancouver core but you couldn’t tell that from the way CBS runs its clinics. Growing communities like Langley are not seeing the level of service you would expect from an organization that depends on people coming in voluntarily to donate. They provide too few beds and then don’t schedule enough staff to cover the meager number of beds they do provide. The most recent change by CBS is supposed to provide a streamlining of the donation process. This streamlining may have been a success behind the scenes but it has made the actual act of donating blood more complicated, less convenient and frankly less appealing. When your entire business model depends on people happily coming in to donate then shouldn’t making them feel welcome and making the donation experience fast and easy be a priority? If so then the CBS has failed the people of Langley and in doing so are failing the people of British Columbia.

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On renewable natural gas and mindless anti-everything environmentalism

This morning one of my regular foils on Twitter posted a surprising tweet:


(source https://twitter.com/edwiebe/status/832624138103640068)

Mr. Wiebe is an outspoken environmentalist with expertise in the field of climate change and climate modelling so I was a bit surprised by this tweet? What could possibly be so wrong with an advertisement about renewable natural gas (RNG) that would warrant a complaint to Advertising Standards Canada?

I asked Mr. Wiebe about his tweet; specifically what he had against renewable natural gas? He provided a one-word response “Srsly?” [slang for Seriously?]. Now since I really had no clue what he found objectionable I asked again. Mr. Wiebe wasn’t terribly forthcoming regarding his complaint, but to the best of my understanding his argument was against any form of “natural gas” being called a “sustainable energy choice”. Apparently in his mind “natural gas” has to be a bad thing and cannot be sustainable?  In the next few paragraphs I will explain why RNG is indeed a sustainable energy choice and why reflexive environmental negativism, as evidenced in our exchange, is so damaging to the environmental cause in BC.

The obvious first question to ask is: what is RNG? To answer that question I will refer to the good people at Fortis BC (our provincial natural gas supplier):

Renewable natural gas (RNG) is a 100 per cent carbon neutral energy source. When bacteria breaks down organic waste from sources – primarily farms, landfills and wastewater treatment facilities – biogas is created. The gas is captured, purified, and blended into natural gas distribution pipelines and delivered to homes, businesses, transportation fleets, and industry. Customers don’t need to upgrade furnaces, water heaters and other equipment to use RNG.

Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Fortis (or any other supplier) traps gas produced by natural processes, that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere, and makes use of those trapped emissions for energy. Making use of these emissions for energy both replaces the need to get that energy from another source and is a much better alternative to what has traditionally been done with those emissions: flaring biogas like torches in the night or simply letting it waft away like we see at virtually every sewage treatment plant in BC. Imagine harnessing that energy for good? Well that is what RNG is all about.

As anyone familiar with the topic of climate change knows, agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represent a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions (16% of global emissions according to the IPCC). Reducing agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represents a necessary step in achieving our global goal of capping greenhouse gas emissions.

From a climate perspective RNG is considered carbon-neutral. How is this you ask, since it burns a fuel and generates carbon dioxide? To answer that question you have to consider the gases involved. As the atmospheric chemists from the EPA explain:

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, but methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period

This means that if we can trap methane before it escapes to the atmosphere and convert it to carbon dioxide (while generating energy) we can actually reduce global climate forcings. This has the effect of reducing the net effect on the atmosphere and meets the definition of carbon neutrality.

As for RNG being sustainable? Well as long as people and animals continue to poo and plants die there will be biological materials that need to decompose. The natural decomposition of human, animal and vegetable wastes generates methane. This is a fact of nature and has been the case since long before humanity began messing with global atmospheric concentrations. Since the plan is that humans and animals will be on the planet for the foreseeable future, we have a sustainable source of the gas.

As for burning natural gas being evil; well irrespective of what some will say, natural gas is not readily-replaceable in our modern society. That is why when the City of Vancouver prepared its “Zero Emissions Building Plan” it left open the use of RNG within the City. The City recognized that it had to allow restaurants, which rely on natural gas for cooking, and existing buildings, that cannot be retro-fitted, to continue to use RNG in lieu of the traditional fossil fuel-derived natural gas. You might ask what’s so special about restaurants? Well there is a good reason why the old adage “they are cooking with gas” is used; because for some foodstuffs gas or wood stoves represents the only way to generate a desired culinary outcome and typically gas does a better job than wood at providing a consistent cooking temperature.

By now you are probably asking: why would someone knowledgeable in the field of climate change say no to a carbon-neutral, sustainable source of renewable natural gas? I asked myself that question and since Mr. Wiebe refused to clarify I had to come up with my own answer. My best guess is pretty simple: some activists have a reflexive need/desire to say No! They seldom find things that they are for, but they are quick to find things that they are against.

I’m not sure what feeds this desire to always go to the negative response but at times it seems to be entirely reflexive. As appears to be the case in this example, it occurs before they even go through the exercise of understanding the problem and balancing the positives and the negatives. It represents their default position. In this case he reflexively considered that natural gas is a “fossil fuel” therefore, by definition, it must be bad and we must fight against it. Let’s ignore the fact that RNG is not a fossil fuel at all,  RNG is a naturally occurring byproduct of ongoing biological processes.

This reflexive need to “get to no” by the environmental community represents an ongoing barrier to the advancement of renewable energy projects and alternatives to fossil fuels in BC. As an example consider that activists have long argued that we should be taking advantage of geothermal energy, but when the BC government proposed a law to enable the drilling necessary to identify possible geothermal projects the activists were pretty uniform in their opposition to the Bill. Hydroelectric power is the obvious baseload complement to renewable energy sources but try telling that to the environmental activists who oppose the Site C Dam or the expansion of run-of-river hydro across the province. I leave it to your imagination what the response would be if the government suggested a new nuclear plant anywhere in Canada…the mind boggles at the outrage. This reflexive negativism explains why politicians aren’t willing to advance novel environmental projects. If you can’t even get political backing from the environmentalists for a renewable energy project then why waste any political capital on it.

As I have written before, Canada has made commitments under the Paris Agreement and to meet those commitments will call for compromises. These are compromises that the environmental activists appear completely unwilling to make. Today’s RNG exchange represents a microcosm  of the bigger problems facing Canadians in a post-Paris Agreement world. We have reflexive and mindless, anti-everything environmentalists who aren’t even willing to clarify what they are actually against. Politicians are just supposed to guess. To close, I will simply point to the conclusion of my discussion with Mr. Wiebe. I asked him to clarify, what was wrong with renewable natural gas and his reply was telling:


In retrospect it appears that he didn’t even know what RNG was when he made the complaint. All he saw was the words “natural gas” and “sustainable” and that was all he needed to make his complaint.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Why data in context matters – On reporting about aggressive dogs

This morning the radio and television stations in Vancouver were broadcasting the results of an investigation by Estefania Duran from CKNW. Her story had the click-baiting title “What dog breed is behind the most attacks in Metro Vancouver? It’s not what you think” and presented the results of a investigation that included Freedom of Information requests from the various municipalities in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.The outcome of her investigation was a graphic that showed that German Shepherds were the dogs most frequently declared by municipal governments as “dangerous” followed by Pit Bulls, Labrador Retrievers and Rottweilers. Wait you must be thinking, one of these things is not like the others? Yes, you read that right; according to this investigation Labs are the breed with the third most incidents standing behind only the Pit Bull and the German Shepherd. Now if this was the entire story then it wouldn’t be a big thing but this one data point is being expanded and stretched dangerously out of context to imply that Labs are an “aggressive” breed. You might ask: how could that be? and why would anyone do that? Well that is what this blog post is going to be about. How, when placed out of context, good data can result in the spread of bad conclusions and can ultimately lead to bad decision-making.

Let’s start with the potential conflicts of interest. I am the owner of a Labrador Retriever. We got our English Black Lab puppy six months ago and she has grown into a great big friendly lug. She joins us daily as I walk the kids to school. Only today, I was informed by a grandmother dropping off her grand-kids that our puppy is the third most dangerous dog out there. Since I hadn’t turned on my radio yet I had no clue what she was talking about and simply nodded but once I got plugged into the media I realized what she was talking about and that this was becoming a “big” news story, at least in our little part of the world.

Now our having a Lab is not a big surprise because Labs have been the most popular family dog in the US for over the last 22 years and in Canada for at least the last 20+ years  with the German  Shepherd coming in second on that list. On our street alone there are five Labs, one golden retriever and three other breeds that I now of. Labs make up 55% of the dogs on our street. So why is this important? Because were population stats included in the story it would change the entire dynamic of the discussions about this story.

Sadly, as Ms. Duran noted on the radio, none of the useful dog stat information is readily available so this next section will depend on info I have picked up where I could. According to a Georgia Strait story, in Burnaby pit bulls that made up only 2% of the licensed dogs in the city but were responsible for 24.7 % of the bites in which the breed could be identified. German Shepherds made up 5.4 % of all licensed dogs and 7.3 % of all dog bites. Anyone notice a slight difference there? Now to be clear I am not trying to be mean to Pit Bulls but by providing the numbers in context a different pattern appears. Per capita, German Shepherds look a bit less menacing but because of their higher numbers they end up with more total attacks.

As for Labs, well getting numbers of dogs by breed is a surprisingly hard thing to do online but a study showed that in Toronto there were approximately twice as many Labs as German Shepherds. If those numbers hold for Greater Vancouver, that would suggest that they might make up as much as 10% of the dog population and yet according to the report there are half the number of aggressive Labs as German Shepherds. When compared to Pit Bulls the numbers are even more telling: Labs are at least five times as popular as Pit Bulls but make up a smaller number of “aggressive” dogs than Pit Bulls.  See how putting the numbers into context makes all the difference?

So why you ask is Blair getting all annoyed by this story? Well my interest is in evidence-based decision-making and this story is already being used to advance/promote bad decision-making. If you go back to the online version of the story, who do they quote? A pit bull advocate; and what does the advocate say? That she “is hoping the new numbers will shift the conversation from breed to owner.” Other folks were also on the band-wagon, with the Georgia Straight running a similar story that once again highlighted the Labs while suggesting that we shouldn’t be banning Pit Bulls.

Now I am going to keep this post short as I just blew my lunch hour writing it and have to get back to my paying job. But I just want to make it clear that putting numbers into context makes a big difference for policy purposes. Since this report has come out I have seen it already used by supporters of Pit Bulls to discourage breed-specific bans. This story has already appeared on Global News and both online and on the radio at CKNW. As I noted, I have already had it mentioned to me on the street. I’m betting that by tonight I will be seeing it on the t.v. news and will hear about it more on the radio on my way home and I’m betting that few will point out the population demographics that underpin the story. To summarize, no Labs are not more aggressive than Rotweilers no matter what that out-of-context numbers appear to imply. There are just a whole lot more Labs out there than Rotweilers and a small percentage of a big population can often outnumber a large percentage of a small population. To conclude, any municipal politician who uses this data to pursue a decision about breed-specific dog bans is barking up the wrong tree.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

On tolerance for ‘alternative facts’ in the climate change debate

I have just spent the last couple weeks on twitter having heated discussions with a variety of climate change specialists (and many self-styled experts) regarding a tweet I posted on January 12, 2017. The tweet presented a quote from a Mashable.com interview with Dr. Michael E Mann where Dr. Mann made this incredible statement:

“It is the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that our the burning of fossil fuels is not just having ‘an effect,’ but (a) is most likely responsible for all of the warming we have seen over the past half century and (b) is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy,” 

My tweet asked the climate scientists on my feed whether they agreed with the statement specifically the use of the word “all”. My expectation was that a reasonable core of climate scientists would agree that Dr. Mann had overstepped the science. This was not the case. Instead, what I got was overwhelming support for Dr. Mann with not a single non-skeptic initially commenting negatively. It was as if Dr. Mann was the pope and the climate community his congregation. Nothing he said could be considered to be anything less than the truth, even if it took huge convolutions of logic to make it true. In the last couple weeks the term “alternative facts” has entered our lexicon. Well in the next few paragraphs I want to unpack Dr. Mann’s “alternative fact” and see if it is indeed defensible. Then I will go into what I feel this means for the climate change debate.

I think we can all agree that the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases have resulted in some global warming. But that is not what Dr. Mann said in his email. Instead he went several steps further. He said that it is the “overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that “burning of fossil fuels” was “most likely responsible for all the warming we have seen in the past half-century”. To be absolutely clear, he didn’t say “all anthropogenic emissions” but only those associated with the “burning of fossil fuels”.

I think we can also all agree that the IPCC represents the consensus view on climate change. Let’s look at what the IPCC has to say about the anthropogenic causes of global warming. There are lots of potential sources, but the easiest place to look is in the AR5 Summary for Policymakers. You don’t even have to go too deeply into that document; all you have to do is look at Figures SPM.1. It presents the “Total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions (GtCO2eq / yr) by groups of gases 1970 – 2010”. According to this graph the major sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are:

  • fossil fuel combustion and industrial uses – 65% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • forestry and other land uses – 11% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • methane – 16% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • nitrous oxide – 6.2% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • fluorinated gases – 2% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions

Later in Chapter 11 the IPCC clarifies that Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU) is responsible for just under a quarter of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. The EPA suggests that the number is 24% and that this is from the cultivation of crops, livestock and deforestation. The IPCC also indicates that 2.4% of global carbon dioxide emissions are the result of the production of cement.

We can stop there because we are already done. Had Dr. Mann simply said “most” in lieu of “all” he would have been correct but that is not what he said. According to the IPCC the burning of fossil fuels AND industrial uses are responsible for 65% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless one is willing to believe that 65% of the global greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming then he cannot be right. Were that the case then someone would have to explain to me how that remaining 35% of the emissions know not to effect the planet so we can teach the rest of the emissions their trick.

The argument that was most commonly made by Dr Mann’s supporters on my Twitter thread was that if it weren’t for aerosols, volcanoes etc… we would have observed greater that 100% of the observed current warming. They argue that based on this it is “likely” that Dr. Mann is correct. While that is an interesting argument it means nothing in this context of this quotation because Dr. Mann explicitly stated that “burning of fossil fuels” was responsible for “all of the warming we have seen [my emphasis] over the past half century“. Observed warming takes into account the negative forcings associated with aerosols; and so brings us back to the original question. It is clear that 65% of the emissions were NOT responsible for 100% of the warming; rather it is clear that 100% of the emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming; that is how the climate works.

As a minor side note, several individuals noted that the second half of Dr. Mann’s quotation “is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy” is also demonstrably wrong. This is easily proven since many sectors of our economy have seen little or no effects (and according to some literature some have seen net positive effects), to date, due to climate change. Now that is another kettle of fish that I don’t have time to discuss today but I leave it out there for consideration.

Going back to my original point the question arises: why did not one climate expert step up and say: “You know what; Dr. Mann may have overstated the effects of fossil fuels in his statement”? Why instead did several individuals (including climate scientists) step up to support Dr. Mann’s clearly incorrect statement? To be clear, my twitter feed is not the be all and end all on the topic of climate change. So I did a few searches to find if anyone had been critical about his comments in any of the other usual venues and instead all I found was…crickets? There were lots of comments about the story but none questioning Dr. Mann’s statement. The entire community was mute as Dr. Mann spread his “alternative facts”.

It has been suggested that the Donald Trump’s reliance on alternative facts is something of a loyalty test. That by watching how people respond to the alternative facts he can test their allegiances and know who is going to be loyal and who is not. While I would never put Dr. Mann in the same box as Donald Trump; I would suggest that this is an exactly parallel situation. This is a situation where Dr. Mann’s loyal supporters have decided to give Dr. Mann a pass on the facts, possibly as a sign of loyalty. The problem is that unlike Donald Trump, who is a politician and known for stretching the truth, Dr. Mann is supposed to be a man of science whose credibility rests entirely on that fact that he is supposed to stick to the facts. So when he doesn’t there will be repercussions. The obvious one is that Dr. Mann is one of the faces of climate change science. In a time where we need credible leaders to fight the misinformation being spread by the Trump loyalists having one of your top leaders make claims that are easily discreditable is not a good thing.

Many might ask why I am harping on such a little point? Well the answer is that the monomania of activists like Dr. Mann; and let’s be clear here in this scenario he was acting as an activist not as a scientist, about fossil fuels is resulting in bad policy decisions. As reported by the IPCC, 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from sources other than the burning of fossil fuels. If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow the climate change issue would not go away. We have to deal with that other 35% of emissions as well. The activists who have fixated on fossil fuels ignore the bigger picture that the aim of the game is to get to a scenario where we are no longer seeing a monotonic increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This means addressing 100% of the problem not just 65% of it.

Remember there is still low hanging fruit out there that can be addressed immediately. Sending a couple hundred million dollars worth of equipment, men and supplies to Indonesia to put out those peat fires would have a bigger effect on global greenhouse gas emissions than eliminating every car in the United States which will cost trillions. Putting money into stopping the deforestation of the Amazon would be a much better way to spend a dollar than another carbon capture facility in Saskatchewan and would have the added benefit of saving vital ecological niches as well. We need clear thinking on the climate change file and that means real facts and not factoids and sound-bites. So c’mon folks be brave, speak truth to power. When someone makes demonstrably incorrect claims in your name isn’t it time to speak out?

Posted in Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, General Politics, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Flu shots save both money and lives

The New Year is upon us and with the New Year comes an event as expected as the swallows return to Capistrano. What would that event be you ask? Well it must be Bill Tieleman’s annual articles against BC’s flu vaccination program. This year’s offerings are titled: Costly, Ineffective Flu Shots Fail Again (in the Tyee) and Flu shots fail again – at great cost – and what if all you hear is wrong? (in 24 Hrs). Last year’s offering was Time to End Expensive, Ineffective Forced Flu Shots (in the Tyee). His previous efforts including December 2014’s (Are Flu Shots as Effective as Billed?) and December 2013’s (More Evidence Against Forced Flu Shots). These are in addition to his similarly themed articles in Vancouver 24 Hrs (2013 and 2014) and his blog (Oct 2013,  Dec 2013 and 2014). As I have written previously, one could almost suggest that he is a one-man content provider for the anti-flu shot brigade. Mr. Tieleman’s yearly pieces are similar in form and content and provide excellent fodder for any class studying the communication of science. As I explained last year, and will explain again this year, his articles provide excellent examples of problematic science communication and for those not able to take a science communication class, I will now examine parts of Mr. Tieleman’s latest articles for you.

Now to be honest, since he keeps repeating talking points it is only fair that I repeat a few things from my last year’s blog on the topic. Let’s start with a simple explanation of one of the critical terms used in these articles: “vaccine effectiveness”. Vaccine effectiveness is the “ability of a vaccine to prevent outcomes of interest in the real world”. To further clarify, if a vaccine has 50% effectiveness that means it reduces the likelihood of getting the flu by 50%. This does not represent a one-time deal, it is a seasonal effect. During the flu season you can be exposed to the influenza virus numerous times a day, numerous days a week, numerous weeks in the year and 50% effectiveness means that over that entire time the vaccine has reduced your likelihood of getting the flu by 50%. So let’s understand vaccine effectiveness is not some one-time event like turning the key in your ignition. Individuals are exposed to the influenza virus repeatedly over the course of the flu season.

In science communication we are always looking for good analogies. An apt analogy would involve some medical device or public safety innovation that had a comparable effectiveness in reducing a negative outcome. Happily for our discussion such an innovation exists, it is called “the seat belt”. A properly used seat belt reduces your likelihood to be injured in the event of an automobile accident. Seat belts aren’t perfect, however; and they won’t prevent all injuries. No seat belt in the world will save your life if you get t-boned by a semi but seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by, yes you guessed it: about 50%. Thus using the same descriptive criteria as is used for vaccines the effectiveness of seat belts would be defined as 50%. As presented by the CDC, the flu vaccine since 2004 has varied in effectiveness between 10% and 60% with an average just under 50%. Funny, I don’t see Mr. Tieleman suggesting that we should be giving up on seat belts in automobiles because they only have an effectiveness of 50%.

Now sticking with our seat belt analogy, as I pointed out above the best seat belt in the world will not save your life if you get T-boned by a semi. Similarly, the best vaccine in the world won’t work if it is designed for the wrong strain of influenza. The problem is that there is not one single human influenza virus, rather there are dozens of strain/subtype variations and experts must pick which viruses to include in the vaccine many months in advance in order for vaccine to be produced and delivered on time. Sometimes they get it wrong and like last year’s vaccine you end up with lower effectiveness. That is not a reason to abandon a good program. Even in a bad year (like 2014-2015 where we saw 23% effectiveness) the result is a substantial reduction in illness rate. This year it looks like we are going to be lucky as it appears that this year’s major strain (H3N2 a particularly virulent form) is in this year’s flu vaccine.

Going back to his standard rant, Mr. Tieleman’s talking points always seem to include a section deriding stats about the number of flu-related deaths. His lines this year:

A group called “Immunize Canada… a coalition of national non-governmental, professional, health, consumer, government and private sector organizations” — including major flu vaccine manufacturers — claims that: “Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians can die of influenza and its complications annually.”

Really? Because the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that in 2011-12 there were just 104 deaths; in 2012-13 deaths were 317; 331 in 2013-14; 591 in 2014-15 and 270 in 2015-16. In no year did flu fatalities approach 4,000 to 8,000.

The reason for the identified mismatch is because the flu is not the sole (or even major) cause of death in many/most cases, rather it is a contributing cause and thus the numbers do not match up perfectly. Instead public health agencies rely on regression modelling which allows scientists to peel out the effect of the influenza on increased death rates. In the old days they used to call the influenza the “old man’s friend” because it was the disease that ultimately weakened the severely ill enough to allow them to die of their diseases rather than lingering on with a debilitating ailment in an era prior to the development of effective palliative care.

As for statistics for emergency-room visits, in our modern era doctors don’t necessary see the need to actually submit samples for confirmation of flu strain when an elderly patient with a preexisting condition dies. Thus, only a small percentage of the deaths “attributed to influenza” are actually confirmed as being a caused by influenza. To be absolutely clear here when we are talking “deaths from influenza” (the stat he quotes from the Public Health Agency), we are talking only about cases where a person has died and because there was not an underlying condition a test was undertaken to confirm the diagnosis of “influenza”. In a purely technical sense a death is not recorded as an “influenza” death unless a test was administered that confirmed the actual influenza virus was the cause of the death.

As a personal example, this weekend my wife got bad news about a colleague’s son. This vibrant 30+ year-old man caught the flu and this flu left him dehydrated. When he tried to get up from his bed he fainted, and suffered a head injury in the fall that caused a cerebral bleed. He died later that day in hospital. His cause of death will not be reported as “influenza” even though that is precisely what killed him. Absent the influenza, that otherwise healthy 30+ year old would be alive today. His was an influenza-related death but would not be called “influenza” on the death certificate as his actual death was caused by a head injury related to a fall. A fall he only had because of dehydration caused by influenza.

The final point of today’s blog will be a topic Mr. Tieleman always makes a centerpiece of his anti-flu vaccine tirades: the cost of the vaccine. Like his other points, this is another case of being far too pedantic and thus missing the forest for the trees.

Consider that in the last two weeks of December 2016, the proportion of visits to BC Children’s Hospital Emergency Room (ER) attributed to influenza-related illnesses represented, 22%  of all visits. That is a huge number. An even marginally effective vaccine can cut the number of hospital visits dramatically resulting in less crowded emergency rooms and bundles of saved government money. Taking a look at this resource from the CDC, it shows how incredibly effective the flu vaccine has been at reducing hospital admissions and thus reducing our national medical bill.

But we don’t only have to consider hospital stays because there are other ways in which influenza costs our economy money. According to the research for every 7 healthy children vaccinated 1 case of influenza is avoided. Now consider that number from a policy perspective. Take a class of 21 kindergarten kids. Vaccinating that class would avoid 3 cases of influenza. Now consider that a typical case of the flu usually lasts 7 to 10 days. That represents missing 5 days of school. Those 5 days of missed school are 5 days when the sick child has to be at home under the care of a care-giver; in my family’s case that means me (using sick time from work) or my wife (using her family leave from her her work as a school teacher). Each day our child is sick costs either my employer, or our provincial government (my wife’s ultimate employer) money.

Consider that an average teacher gets paid about $200 per actual school day. Missing those 5 days to take care of a sick child represents a direct cost to our government of around $1000 (to pay for the replacement teacher while my wife is at home on paid leave). Considering the flu shot costs about $20/shot  those 7 shots cost the government around $140. In return they can generate a direct reduction of employment costs by about $1000. That represents $860 in reduced government costs. Don’t even get me started on the cost savings when you also include the doctor’s visits and the hospital and emergency room admissions. Can you show me any other health care intervention that saves the government over 7 times the cost of the program that Mr. Tieleman would like to cancel?

The data is clear: the flu shot reduces incidences of infection and does so at an impressive rate (around 50% effectiveness). In doing so it reduces the likelihood of serious illness for thousands upon thousands while preventing hundreds of deaths a year. Moreover, the vaccine program saves the health care system (and the public purse) a boatload of money. The 2016/2017 seasonal influenza vaccine program exists because there is a public health need for the program. It saves lives and saves money and so as long as Mr. Tieleman insists on slamming this program, I will write blog posts pointing out how wrong he is on the topic.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Risk Communication, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Electrifying BC’s transportation system, debunking the myths: Part II night charging of vehicles

In my last post I started the process of debunking some of the fallacies being put forward by the electric vehicle (EV) community as part of their program to encourage people to convert to EVs while simultaneously maintaining their NIMBY attitudes towards energy generation and grid strengthening activities. As I wrote in that post, my desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or slow the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. In my last post I debunked a widely cited number used to minimize concerns about how much electricity it will take to electrify our transportation system. Today I want to address two more of their talking points. The ones I plan on addressing are:

  • that the median commute is only around 7 kilometers, and
  • a favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.

These two points are closely linked as one feeds into the other. Specifically, the argument goes that since the median commute is only 7 kilometers EV owners will not need to charge their vehicles during the day. This will theoretically leave all the re-charging to the overnight hours when electricity demand is low and in doing so avoid the need to build up electrical capacity in the system.

Commuting distances

When the attack on me by the EV community began the proponents of EVs were particularly quick to send me to a report  “Electrifying the BC Vehicle Fleet” by the Pacific Institute for Climate (PIC). It is a useful document that make a number of useful points but also makes a number of interesting choices in how it presents data. The biggest weakness (in my mind) is its reliance on a median number for all its subsequent assertions about energy use etc…. As they point out:

In a recent report of BC driving statistics (Norton, 2008), 79% of commuters used a vehicle to get to work. The median one-way travel distance for all commuters in B.C in 2006 was only 6.5 km. This data also shows that a large portion of commuters (40.5%) travel less than 5 km to work, and that only 8% of commuters are travelling more than 30 km one way (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Now anyone who knows math and statistics knows that the median is a useful indicator, but not one upon which you will want to do statistics. When you rely on a median you inadvertently make a lot of assumptions about the underlying population. You assume the population is statistically normal and that the population is not heavily skewed. Since the median is literally the middle value it tells us nothing of interest about the population it is describing. To take an inane example, since females make up 50.4% of the Canadian population the median Canadian would be female. Using that knowledge would anyone seriously suggest that we abandon all services for men? Of course not.

When looking at the commuting population what we want to consider is whether there is a large percentage of that population that commutes a distance substantially greater than the median. As the PIC report points out, 8% of commuters travel more than 30 kilometers, one way to work. Now this might sound like an insignificant number until you realize what that that 8% represents. According to Stats Canada almost 80,000 British Columbians commute more that 35 km to work and another 28,000 commute between 30 and 35 kms to work. This means that in winter time over 100,000 electric vehicles commute greater than 30 kms to work. Given the range limitations on electric vehicles (presented in my previous blog post) that could mean more than 100,000 vehicles that will need to be plugged in during the day.  That reads a bit differently than saying that the median commute is only 6.5 km doesn’t it.

Night-time-only charging of vehicles will not be as prevalent as claimed

One of the biggest selling points by the supporters of EVs is their claim that most of the vehicles will be charged overnight and therefore we don’t need to add electrical capacity. That is frankly one of the big the take-away messages from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions study. That, as I will demonstrate below, is likely not going to be the case. As I present above, a significant constituency of commuters are going to exceed the threshold where they will feel comfortable only charging overnight. Much like a driver who doesn’t want to get caught with an empty tank, most commuters are not going to want to get caught with a dead battery in the middle of the road. That means if they even come close to using half their charge on the way to work they are going to want to top up their batteries while at work because if you only have a few kilowatts leeway you are not going to want to risk running out of charge on a cold evening if there is an accident on the Trans-Canada.

Moreover, as a family man I can assure you that our car doesn’t just get parked when the commute to work is done. Rather there are activities to go to: soccer, piano, basketball, shopping, these are the things we do every night and if I have used my entire battery charge commuting to and from work then what will I have in reserve to drive the kids to their activities? Because most EV users have a second, non-EV car  (80% of British households with an EV have a non-electric car as back-up. I’m still looking for Canadian stats) this is not currently much of an issue. They just use the gas guzzler for chores while using the EV for the work commute. But what happens when all the cars are electric? Then you will need to have a charged car available for you after school/work and if the drive to the soccer pitch is more than just a few kilometers that will mean having to charge your car during the day.

In winter electric vehicles need to be plugged in to keep engine (and cabin) warm

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the big downsides of EVs in winter is the power needed to keep the engine and the cabin warm. Without an internal combustion engine pumping out excess heat, all heat will need to be electric, which will drain your batteries, that is why many sources suggest “preconditioning” your auto.  Preconditioning your auto is a nice way of saying turn on the heat a half-hour early to get the engine and the cabin warm enough for use. The funny part of the article I cite is where they recommend you plug your car in at work to keep it warm. That pretty much rules out the idea that the car will not draw power from the grid during the day. Rather the car will be drawing power during the daily peak, and thus will put added strain on the electrical grid. Moreover, can you imagine the spike around 4 pm on winter workday when all the employees are  preconditioning their cars in preparation for the commute home, right at the start of the evening peak in power use?

Off-hour charging and its effect on our energy supply

Finally, I want to address one of the most-misunderstood arguments about electric vehicles: that by charging them overnight we can reduce demands on our energy system. While that will be true in some cases, it ignores some pretty important points about British Columbia’s energy picture. As everyone who talks energy in BC knows the vast majority of our electricity comes from hydro-electric sources (mostly large reservoir dams). Now the good thing about a dam is that the energy is readily dispatchable, that is energy parlance for energy sources that can be immediately turned on when demand is high and readily turned off when demand slows down. In a dam if you want to get more power you just let water through the generator. Want to reduce the amount of power? Close a water supply. There are limitations, however, you can only generate as much power as you have water behind your dam.

This issue came to a head in California during their recent drought when, due to an absence of water behind the dams, hydroelectric generation dropped by 50%.  To bring it closer to home, in 2015 during our West Coast drought 12 of BC Hydro’s 31 hydroelectric facilities had to be shut down due to lack of water. Now consider the idea of off-peak electricity. Under current conditions, during the off-peak hours, like in the middle of the night, BC Hydro just keeps the sluice gates closed and imports cheap power from outside of the province. Were demand to ramp up overnight (due to charging of EVs) in BC, Alberta and Washington (remember we are in a fossil fuel-free world) then the excess flow from out-of-province would become less available and we would be forced to use our hydro to meet the demand. Ramp up enough demand overnight and we would start putting excess stress on the system, essentially we would use up all the available water behind the dams. Given a multi-year drought we could have a scenario where we simply did not have enough water to generate power. As such, absolute demand for power is an important consideration in the equation. Adding extra reservoirs and more run-of-the-river (as well as geothermal) would provide the cushion necessary to get us through the dry years.

This brings us right back to where I started. Electric cars are a good thing but contrary to what the EV activists claim their mass implementation will have a significant effect on our electricity demand in BC. We will not be able to get away with charging only overnight, the increase in EV numbers will result in increased demand spikes that will require us to increase capacity, even if we could stick to charging overnight the result will draw down the levels of our existing reservoirs and leave us vulnerable to drought.

To conclude, when EV enthusiasts claim on one hand that we need to all move to EVs and on the other hand that we don’t need to build new dams or other power generating facilities you can explain to them why those are two mutually exclusive positions. In order to achieve a fossil fuel-free BC we need to ramp up the production of electricity in BC and we need to expand and strengthen our transmission system.The movement away from fossil fuels will need to be accompanied by a massive upgrade to our electrical grid and a substantial increase in electricity supply. Any activist who tells you otherwise is simply sharing their pipe dream.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, General Politics, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | 14 Comments