THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
6 DEGREES OF KATRINA
For the first time, I find myself directly affected by a hurricane. Katrina destroyed much of Gulfport, Miss., where my wife's brother and his family make their home. They left the coast in good time, but we haven't been able to contact them yet, as reliable cell-phone service turns out to be one of the first casualties of hurricanes.
We are reminded once again of the increasing interdependence of just about everyone and everything in the early 21st century. In that spirit I will attempt to draw an unbroken line between Hurricane Katrina and what may at first glance appear to be an unlikely candidate, the never-ending softwood trade lumber dispute between Canada and the U.S. Bear with me. It's not as tenuous a path as you might think.
Let's begin in British Columbia, where most of Canada's softwood (pine, spruce, cedar, etc.) grows and falls. Canadian loggers have for the past few years been hobbled by billions of dollars in U.S. tariffs imposed on Canada's softwood exports. The American government argues Canada is subsidizing its wood because it doesn't charge loggers high enough fees ("stumpage") on logs felled on public lands.
U.S. loggers must pay higher stumpage because almost all logging in the U.S. is on private land. A dispute panel of the North American Free Trade Agreement has repeatedly ruled against the U.S., and ordered the tariffs to be repaid to the Canadian firms, but the U.S. refuses to be held hostage to a mere trade treaty. American negotiators point to interim rulings from the World Trade Organization that the Canadian stumpage fees do amount to an unfair subsidy, but the WTO appeals process has a ways to go.
Why does this matter? Because some Canadians want their federal government to use access to Canada's oil supplies to leverage an agreement on softwood out of the Americans.
While many less-imaginative pundits dismiss the threat as idle, the 175 billion barrels of oil in Alberta's tar sands are comparable to Saudi Arabia's supply. It is extremely costly to extract (though not too expensive at $70/barrel), and getting one barrel of oil out of the tar actually consumes the energy equivalent of more than one barrel of oil. But the U.S. has been eyeing those tar sands greedily for decades.
Which brings us to Louisiana and the nearshore Gulf of Mexico, which, according to today's New York Times, "produces 27 percent of the nation's oil and a fifth of its natural gas, [and] is dotted with nearly 4,000 platforms linked by 33,000 miles of underwater pipelines."
Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 5 storm as it reached the Gulf oil fields, 13 refineries closed down. Their capacity of 2 million barrels a day amounts to 10 percent of the nation's refining output. Some 615 platforms and 96 drilling rigs were also evacuated.
Whatever you think of the American government's ability to think critically, those in charge have proved one thing over the past four years: that they understand the significance of access to oil. Losing access to the country's largest oil field and refining capacity, even if only for a few days or weeks, is not something that will escape their notice.
Which means those analysts are probably rereading a recent series of scientific papers that explored the links between climate change and hurricane intensity. "Theory and modelling predict that hurricane intensity should increase with increasing global mean temperatures," says one paper in the journal Nature.
Many of them have also probably bookmarked a study by members of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that concluded
The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.In that context, you can bet that events of the past few hours have reminded the analysts of the importance of Alberta's tar sands, to which many Americans believe they have guaranteed access thanks to NAFTA, the very same treaty that U.S. trade negotiators pretend has no force in law when it comes to softwood lumber.
This may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with NAFTA, but there really isn't much debate among those in the know. As Charles Ruigrok, CEO of Syncrude Canada Ltd., a major tar sands developer, told New York business executives early this year: "... of course, we have clear rules regarding market access through the NAFTA agreement."
One of the most astute Canadian observers of such things (and recent Daily Show dupe), Eric Reguly, writes today in the Globe and Mail that "the oil sands are one of the last great Canadian assets. Foreign companies seem poised to pounce on it, and nothing, it appears, would make the energy-crazed Republicans happier."
Just last week came this reminder from Globe Net, an online industry newsletter:
Long considered a secure and essentially ‘domestic’ source of oil and electricity, increased pressure for more liberalized trade initiatives and increased political support for exporting more of Canada’s oil to the United States can be expected in the coming months. This could generate some concerns here in Canada.
To wit, a warning today from (economically) conservative Globe columnist John Ibbitson that "trade courts give and trade courts take away, but politics rules above all." Ibbitson suspects Canadian retaliation will most likely take the form of something like reciprocal tariffs on California wine, rather than restricted access to the tar sands, but he also recognizes the potential for something more consequential.
After all, he writes, the leader of the Conservative opposition party in Parliament, Stephen Harper, tends to be more pro-American than the Liberal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin, who is not above exploiting that difference:
"There's a joke that launching a trade war with the United States is like playing leapfrog with a unicorn. But Mr. Martin is willing to risk the game if it helps his chances of securing a majority government next February, silencing Stephen Harper for good."Bringing us back to softwood is another report in today's Globe and Mail that Jack Layton, leader of a perennial also-ran left-wing party in Canada's Parliament, believes "it is important to heighten pressure, in part by warning the United States that Canada will link energy exports to the softwood-lumber dispute."
It's all connected, folks. You could say, no man (one) is an island. Except, of course, during natural disasters.
By the way, since I began writing, word has come that my brother-in-law, his family and even their house, are safe and sound. The only casualty was, appropriately enough, a fence between neighbors.