As a kid growing up I never understood the Holocaust. I didn’t understand how anyone could hate a group of people so much that they would want to annihilate them. Attending a Catholic elementary school, I remember thinking “Hey, wait, wasn’t Jesus a Jew? So why do people hate Jews again…?” Nazi Germany’s evils seemed so complete to me that just the sight of the spine of the jacket cover of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in our family library instantaneously filled me with disgust. (The book is a must read – it gives a ringside seat to the emergence of humanity’s most heinous ideology.) Throughout my life I thought, or preferred to think, that hard-kristallnacht-antisemitism was a thing of the past, harboured only in strange and powerless corners. But I did listen closely to my Jewish colleagues in physics and mathematics who warned, in quiet conversation, that hatred of Jews lurks under the surface in well-to-do, mostly “progressive” society. Without Israel, at least as the last point of refuge, Jews will always be in jeopardy.
In the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel last month, here in Ottawa I have seen those warnings from my colleagues play out in full. I find it incredible that massive groups of people took to the streets in our capital city chanting antisemitic slogans – a scene repeated around the world. Instead of steadfast opposition to Hamas and everything it stands for, trendy progressives truck with terrorists who call for the literal extermination of Jews. In just three weeks, antisemitism has become a new way to show your “nuance” and signal your “sophistication”. It’s disgusting.
The leadership in Gaza has had nearly two decades to start building a Singapore of the Middle East. Instead, they spent and continue to spend resources on rockets, tunnels, and antisemitic indoctrination. Instead of setting the conditions for prosperity, tolerance, and peace – with a world and an Israel who wants them to succeed – Gaza leadership doubles down on hatred, propaganda, and war. Even if we accept that Hamas hoodwinked Palestinians in the 2006 election, where are all the mass uprisings to overthrow Hamas today? The truth is, Hamas has a deep core of support in Gaza, even if mostly passive. Of course the Israeli Defense Force wants to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. But given Hamas tactics and their terrorist aims, Israel’s self defence will lead to unavoidable deaths in crossfire. The world needs to point the finger squarely at Hamas for Palestinian suffering.
Years ago, a New York Jewish community leader asked Thomas Sowell, “What can Jews themselves do in order to minimize the hostility they face?” Sowell responded, “Fail. Because as long as you succeed you are going to be hated.” Jews have so often risen from the bottom, in conditions of grinding poverty and rank discrimination, and yet passed so many other groups in achievement. In that regard, almost all people fail to grasp the staggering loss from the Holocaust. Sure, the inhumanity and industrial cruelness represents a singular blot on the human race, but more than that, the Nazis destroyed the Jewish intellectual and cultural conditions of central and eastern Europe that just produced Einstein, Szilard, Bohr, Ulam, Born, Meitner, Wigner, Pauli, von Neumann, Haber, Hausdorff, Tarski, Erdös, and Noether, and with it, one of the roots of our modern technological age. These men and women were my heroes in young adulthood. Fortunately for the Allies, Jewish refugees and American Jewish physicists played an outsized role on the Manhattan Project. To humanity’s benefit, the Jewish intellectual tradition survives – look at the lists of Nobel Laureates, Field Medallists, Oscars, and virtually any creative discipline on Earth since WWII. Never in history has such a small group of people contributed so much, despite the millennia of hostility.
To all those “progressives” on my street: The world needs Israel; Hamas we can do without.
I don’t think climate change is a big deal. I don’t think it makes the top ten list of global problems, and I don’t think that we should do much to stop it. In fact, I think that we need to burn more fossil fuels than we do right now as it is the surest way to lift an energy-starved planet out of poverty. I know people say they disagree with me. Some even say we face a climate catastrophe that threatens us all with extinction. But when I look at how these climate change hand-wringers live, they act as though they are in complete agreement with me. Even more oddly, when you look at how I live, you’d swear I was the one who was the climate change hero trying to save the world. I guarantee that my carbon footprint is minuscule compared to just about everyone else in Canada. I don’t care how people live, and I certainly don’t care how others think I should live, but if you believe that the world faces a coming climate change induced extinction and you don’t even try to live like me, then you are worse than a hypocrite. Your convictions run only as deep as the point of your vanishing convenience.
The CBC recently ran a First Person piece by Heather Kitching. Heather says that the world faces a climate calamity, but finds it too difficult to cut carbon from her life given that she lives in Thunder Bay. Her main complaint is that EV car sharing isn’t available and that heating her home without natural gas is just too expensive. I am sure Heather thinks she cares about the world. She clearly wants to tell us about how much she cares and she wants us all to know how hard she’s working to do the right thing. A public confession of sorts, I suppose. But she hasn’t thought carefully about what she claims to believe. Consider this thought experiment:
Imagine it is WWII all over again. And imagine that you can save one Jew from the Holocaust. You have no ability to stop the Nazis or their evil machine, but you have the opportunity to save one human being. Now imagine that to save that person you have to move into a major Canadian city, rent a nice apartment (or buy a nice condo), give up car ownership, ride your bike all year long no matter the weather – hardly ever even taking public transit – and eat a mostly plant-based diet. If you live this way for the rest of your life, you will save one Jew from the Holocaust. Would you do it? If you claim that climate change is destroying the planet and there is nothing individuals can do about it, you’re wrong. You can live like me. At the very least you’ll be able to say, I couldn’t stop it, but I didn’t go along with it. And, you can say that in expectation my meagre contribution to the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere saved one statistical life somewhere on Earth over the next century. Maybe the great flood of 2087 in Bangladesh will be just a fraction of a millimetre lower because you spent a lifetime living a low carbon lifestyle. What’s more, is that as terrible and evil as the Nazis were, people like Heather claim climate change will be even worse – to their mind we face human extinction if we don’t do enough! Now, I don’t believe climate change is a threat at all so I don’t think that my lifestyle benefits anyone but me. But if you believe climate change is about to usher in an apocalypse and you go along with carbon burning because it’s convenient, that makes you a collaborator.
What people like Heather from the CBC say is that they’ll help stop what they believe is the near certain death of humanity up to the point that it becomes too personally inconvenient. That’s her real confession. She could ride a bike all year long, even in the winter. I do so in Ottawa – and my bike isn’t even electric. She could section off living space in her home during the winter and heat her reduced living quarters with electric radiators. She doesn’t have to live in Thunder Bay if not contributing to climate change is that important to her. Now I don’t find Heather evil but I do find her dangerous. I believe she’s an honest soul who wants to be a good citizen. What makes people like her dangerous is that she doesn’t think. She falls prey to social desirability bias which leads to a world run by demagogues. Cost benefit analysis goes out the window in service of lofty ideals, opening the gates of hell for the demagogues to impose serious consequences including poverty and endless human suffering on the rest of us. (Peace, Land, and Bread anyone?) Heather shouldn’t feel bad about her carbon footprint. She should enjoy time with her girlfriend in her gas-powered car. Life is short enough as it is.
As for why I live in a box in the sky, with no car (I’ve never owned one), biking all year long, it’s not for climate change. It’s for time. By living this way I get time back for what’s important to me. I’m at work in 12 minutes, and on the tennis court with my wife in 15 minutes. And tennis is life to us. Everything I need is within a 25 minute bike ride and often within a 5 minute walk. And biking turns your legs into Sexy Flanders! My life isn’t for everyone. If you live on an acreage with a big pickup truck and ATVs, fill your boots – have fun! I’d love to have a beer with you. No one should have to live like me and certainly not for climate change.
Natural language generation has improved remarkably over the last decade and OpenAI’s ChatGPT showcases an unbelievable performance of state-of-the art systems. Like many curious people over the last month, I played with ChatGPT from time to time. It’s super impressive – it can create poems, write prose in nearly any style, and provide detailed answers to all sorts of questions. Oh, and it’s also an amazing bullshit artist and it will lie with abandon.
I decided to ask ChatGPT a specific question about particle physics that is a bit subtle but has a straightforward answer. ChatGPT’s response is stunning bullshit.
ChatGPT gets the first part right – the most common decay mode is to an electron, an electron antineutrino, and a muon neutrino. Now, the rest of the answer is completely wrong. First, the muon is kinematically forbidden from decaying into pions. The muon is simply not massive enough to do so. Second, even if the muon were massive enough to decay with three charged pions in the final state (like the tau lepton can), conservation of lepton number still requires neutrinos. Apparently ChatGPT has thrown lepton number overboard so that it can give me an answer!
The correct answer to my quetsion is: Theoretically yes, but hopelessly rare. No observation of muon decay without emitting neutrinos has ever been observed.
In the Standard Model (the theory of fundamental particle interactions) with massless neutrinos, muon decay must include neutrinos in the final state. The Standard Model with massless neutrinos conserves family lepton number and so neutrinos in the final state are required to conserve muon and electron number (a muon neutrino and an electron antineutrino). However, neutrino flavour oscillation observations tell us that neutrinos have very, very tiny masses. Extending the Standard Model to include neutrino masses allows for the muon to decay without neutrinos (for example to an electron and a photon) but at rates so extremely small that we have no hope of observing neutrinoless decays of the muon unless the Standard Model is further extended with exotic physics.
It turns out that natural language generation in systems like ChatGPT suffer from hallucinating unintended text. Its creative power, its ability to write poems etc., requires such an enormous amount of flexibility that ChatGPT seems to start making things up to complete an answer. I’m not an expert on natural language processing, but I know that researchers are aware of the phenomenon.
I happen to know something about particle physics so it’s not a big deal that ChatGPT fibbed to answer my question. In fairness, my question is a bit subtle (short answer is No with an if, long answer is Yes with a but). But imagine circumstances that are more important. How do you know if you can trust the answers? Asking it for reference doesn’t seem to help.
To me the lesson is that systems like ChatGPT are going to be ever more useful with the potential to make life much more convenient. But these systems are not a substitute for human cognition. For the teachers out there – don’t worry about ChatGPT writing your students’ essays, just check to see if the references exist!
Update (February 23, 2023)
I returned to ChatGPT last night, getting into a discussion with it about the top quark. ChatGPT continued to give insane answers about QCD, electroweak physics, and the nature of the Higgs sector. I thought I could get it on track if it would just realize that the muon’s mass is less than the pions. It produced this gem:
As COP27 gets underway in Egypt, I am reminded of the remarks made by world leaders and politicians about what is allegedly at stake:
“We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. In our globally connected world, no country and no corporation, can insulate itself from these levels of chaos.” – Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General
“There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of a changing climate.” – Barack Obama, former US President
“My “Oh Shit” moment came early in my days as Environment Minister. We need to be absolutely clear-eyed about the accelerating climate crisis while using fear, anger & hope to activate us to do everything needed to ensure a safe climate.” – Catherine McKenna, former Environment Minister of Canada
These kinds of statements by world leaders, high level bureaucrats, activists, and former politicians abound in the media. The central message is that we must move heaven and earth within the current decade and beyond to avoid an absolute climate catastrophe. While these people might believe their rhetoric, the implications and logical conclusions of their statements are terrifying – they implicitly suggest a willingness, if not a desire, to torch liberal democracy while offering our youth nothing but a culture of nihilistic despair.
It is clear that climate change is not a massive world problem. The best economic estimates on climate change loss place the global GDP drag at about 0.15% per annum for the next 80 years if the world warms to the upper end of the IPCC forecast range. That is, if the world warms 5C by 2100, the world GDP will be about 10% to maybe 20% smaller than it otherwise would have been without climate change. As a comparison point, it means that climate change delays our well-being by about 10 to 20 years by the end of the century. It’s a bit like re-living the 20th century with a growth drag that puts the year 2000 at the level of the mid 1980s. Not great, but not quite the end of the world either. I explore the climate change story further in a previous post.
But let us suppose that you are unconvinced by the economic arguments and that you believe people like Catherine McKenna. Perhaps like her, you have had an “oh shit” moment too. In that case, you believe that climate change will make the world nearly unlivable if we don’t make significant changes to our economies right now. The problem now pivots: liberal democracies are slow and incremental with a focus on splintering political power, respecting individual autonomy, and building legitimacy through consensus. Parliaments, congresses, and executive branches face built-in constraints from divisions of power and the rule of law. Through centuries of experience and experimentation, our liberal democracies have given rise to the most successful and prosperous societies the world has ever known. But what if our democracies are too slow to satisfy climate change activists? Even worse, what if our democracies elect, at least from time to time, governments with a tepid view toward climate change mitigation? Seriously, between now an 2050 – the year we must, for some reason, hit net-zero emissions – what is the chance that Western countries will elect and re-elect governments that put climate change well down their priority lists? It’s certainly not zero. And if it is likely, what is the chance that liberal democracy over the coming decades can deliver on saving us from the climate catastrophe that activists tell us awaits?
Therein lies the rub. If activists can’t convince liberal democracies to move quickly on climate change by gluing themselves to famous works of art, setting fires at tennis matches, or making apocalyptic pronouncements at climate change conferences, the next logical move is an attack on liberal democracy itself. The unintended consequence of Catherine McKenna’s rhetoric, and people like her, is a deep disdain for democracy. If the electorate chooses wrong too often, changing the message from fear, anger, and hope to only fear and anger, what should we activate? In that eventuality, only benign authoritarianism can deliver us from the coming climate catastrophe. It’s not Donald Trump or “ultra-MAGA Republicans” I worry about, it’s the climate change catastrophe people who truly frighten me. The penny will eventually drop for them if they come to believe that our democracies can never bring the rapid change they think is necessary to save us from destruction. After all, what good is liberal democracy in a used up world?
In addition to sowing the seeds of authoritarianism, the climate change movement offers nothing but nihilistic despair to our youth. Again, let us suppose you believe the climate change message and that you know it is probable, if not likely, that we won’t do enough to combat climate change. The rational response to that belief is to hedge your life choices. What is the point in making long term investments in yourself with payoffs in a far off future that has a significant chance of never materializing? Why sacrifice the present and why bring another life into a world that has a large chance of being destroyed by inaction? Even if you think that our democracies will eventually choose well, you still must assign some non-zero probability that they won’t, and that non-zero probability should rationally inform your life choices today. It’s a bleak pessimistic worldview, and it’s wrong.
The climate change message terrifies me, not because of the climate change stories that will be told at COP27 over the next two weeks, but because it sets the stage for authoritarianism with all the confidence of religious zeal while simultaneously offering a philosophy of nihilistic despair to our youth. The desire to centralize power is as old as humanity itself; our liberal democracies help us resist that temptation. Let us hope that our democracy will endure the climate change activist tide.
The famous economist Thomas Sowell once wrote, “No race has a monopoly on high achievement and no race is incapable of producing high achieving individuals.” If we look across the arc of history, from the Chinese dynasties to the Indigenous peoples of North America, this truth is so plainly evident that it’s difficult to understand how eugenics programs ever gained traction. And yet today I read a CBC story, Ojibwe horses are endangered, that undermines the legacy of Indigenous ingenuity by building a narrative of mysticism while rejecting both science and history.
The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that there were no horses in the Americas when Europeans made first contact. The vast majority of reputable sources on the evolution, domestication, and the history of the horse state that while horses existed in North America tens of thousand of years ago, they went extinct well before European contact and were only reintroduced after the arrival of Columbus. Genetic research shows that all horses in the Americas descend from Eurasian stock. Yet the CBC reports that the Ojibwe horse “lived around the Great Lakes long before European contact”.
Without question the Ojibwe horse, also called the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony, is a national treasure fully deserving of protection. The breed nearly disappeared in 1977 and the Herculean preservation efforts since have given the breed a chance. The most remarkable fact is that the Ojibwe horse is a breed of pony matured by Indigenous people in Canada. Indigenous people used them in the bush along trap lines in Northwestern Ontario. As a breed, they are perfect for such conditions. Genetic testing shows that the Ojibwe horse originates from European introduction. Professor Gus Cothran, an expert on the genetics of horses says in Equine Monthly, “They are derived from horses that Europeans brought to North America. They did not originate in North America as a distinct strain of horse.” Research shows that the Ojibwe horse is a cross between the Spanish mustang and Canadian horses originally from France, but it was Indigenous people who created the breed.
Instead of doing research on the Ojibwe horse, the CBC simply states myths as facts. My guess is the CBC is trying to be sensitive to some Indigenous groups who insist horses in North America predate European arrival. (There are other groups in North America that insist on pre-contact horses, including some Mormons who wish to reconcile passages in their religious texts. I suspect that the CBC would be less generous entertaining Mormon narratives). By promoting mythical or religious beliefs to fact, the CBC not only undermines Indigenous ingenuity, but science itself. How does the CBC retain any credibility when confronting the anti-science crowd on climate change or vaccines when the CBC shows a willingness to behave exactly the same way with Indigenous issues? I find the CBC’s story on the Ojibwe horse disheartening – almost racist – because it robs us of the real story worth celebrating: Ingenious Indigenous people created a new breed of pony from European stock to fulfill their needs. It’s fine to discuss Indigenous beliefs, to create a greater understanding about rich Indigenous story telling, but it’s a form of neo-Lysenkoism to dismiss genetics to serve a political purpose.
Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, answers the question why the Europeans didn’t encounter a mirror copy of Europe in the Americas. The racist and terribly incorrect answer that has shaped so much of the awful history of this continent is based on racial superiority. But Diamond points out that the confluence of poor geography, and the general lack of domesticable plants and animals, such as the horse, meant that the flow of people from Europe to the Americas was always destined to go in that direction. The genetic potential of both peoples were the same, it was their unfair respective environments that set the course of history. The story of the Objibwe horse shows that if Indigenous people did have horses pre-contact, they would have created a plethora of breeds for every single need. And if that had happened, Columbus and Champlain would have faced Indigenous armies more powerful than the Huns – and perhaps during Indigenous first contact in Europe.
Thomas Sowell is right: No race has a monopoly on high achievement and no race is incapable of producing high achieving individuals.
A university education is not what it seems. The usual story, the one that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, tells us that a university education – regardless of discipline – builds critical thinking skills, engenders a worldly view, and creates an informed citizen. We are empty vessels into which the fount of knowledge pours forth, filling us with enlightenment. Students graduate with skills that command a higher wage as they contribute more to society. But there is an alternative story that equally explains the facts. A university education is a signalling mechanism that does not pour knowledge into empty vessels, but instead sorts like jeweler’s loupe. Think about it. Most people can’t remember much of what they studied at university. In this story, a university education is a giant IQ test, coupled to a test of perseverance and conscientiousness. Students graduate with a signal that says they’re generally smarter than average and can put up with a lot of tediousness for years, and that’s exactly what an employer needs. Students who graduate had all the requisite attributes the day they entered university and the purpose of the degree program is to show the world they in fact have them. Who cares if you can’t remember the details of your liberal arts degree? Your employer certainly won’t. But your employer will care that they’re getting what they paid for – someone who can get a university degree. In truth, the human improvement and the signalling story are simultaneously true and the relative weight of each varies across degree programs. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has an excellent book on the subject, The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.
CTV News London has an interesting story, A tale of two institutions: Western and Fanshawe deviate on return-to-school COVID-19 policies, that nicely illustrations the nature of signalling. Western University has opted to make COVID-19 boosters mandatory for all staff and students as well as to demand in-door masking at least until Thanksgiving. On the other hand, Fanshawe College will not implement masking or a vaccine policy this fall citing the Middlesex-London Health Unit. These two post-secondary institutions are in the same city (London, Ontario) with students of the same age. So why the difference? How is “the science” different at Western than at Fanshawe? Of course there’s no difference in the science, but the institutions fill subtly different roles in society. As a university, Western has a much larger signalling component in its diplomas than Fanshawe’s, an institution that operates more as a technical trade school. Students at each institution seek different products with different sensitivities to signalling, often coming from differing socio-economic circumstances.
Increasingly, adherence to high risk averse COVID-19 polices match political affiliation. Wearing a mask while riding a bike with no helmet – and I see this behaviour nearly every day in downtown Ottawa! – is a signal of political beliefs. We shouldn’t be surprised to see those institutions which trade in a signalling market, composed mostly of people from the urban upper middle class, will on average demand stricter COVID-19 policies two and a half years after the start of the pandemic.
Disclaimer: I attended Western for my undergraduate and I had an amazing time. It’s a great school and I learned amazing things from phenomenal minds. But I’m a bit weird. To me, going to class is a form of recreation, even a form of entertainment; it’s an end in itself.
So, how can I believe the science but not the climate change mitigation story? First we need to be precise in our questions and goals. Clarity matters. Stripping away all the romance, the real question is:
If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to make the world a better place in 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?
An answer to this question centers on three lines of reasoning:
1) Lifting worldwide GDP growth. 2) Avoiding a rare but potentially catastrophic possibility. 3) Protecting the planet’s biodiversity.
Implicit in the climate change narrative is the statement that climate change mitigation tops the list for addressing all three points. Let’s address each.
Lifting worldwide GDP
To begin we need a measure and a sense of scale. When comparing economic well-being, economists use GDP – the value created through production of goods and services. Of course GDP is an imperfect measure, but GDP and GDP growth correlate strongly with all the aspects of life that we consider important. We do not see a rush of immigration from countries or regions with high GDP to lower ones; it’s always the other way around. Since 1950, the planet’s GDP has grown by over a factor of 12. As a percentage of the population, fewer people live in abject poverty, lifespans are longer, health care is more readily available, infant and maternal mortality has plummeted. We are better connected, better educated, more fulfilled, more peaceful, and we are more productive than ever before. In short, the world has gotten an awful lot better for so much of the world’s population. Economic growth has been the key feature for shattering poverty. Nothing else comes close. Unfortunately we have a long way to go. There are many parts of the world where GDP growth has been tepid to say the least. On growth considerations, the germane question is:
If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to increase the world’s GDP to the greatest extent possible by 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?
Not all countries have seen the same growth prospects and some countries switched paths over time. A great example of a path change occurred with China in the late 1970s. As China opened up and started to move to a more market based economic orientation, GDP per capita exploded. From 1990 to today, China’s GDP per capita has grown by more than 1,000%. When we think about poor countries and the lessons around economic growth, it’s hard to think about anything else! With China, we have a direct example from the last 30 years which shows what is possible by adopting at least some level of a market based economy. Going back to the end of WWII we have examples at least as impressive as modern day China such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. If Africa took a similar trajectory to any of these examples, 1,000+% GDP per capita growth over the next 30 years is not only completely within the realm of possibility but could even be the most likely outcome. Think of a world in which another 2 billion people experience such economic growth.
Now let’s compare 1,000% GDP growth over 30 years to anything that climate change has in store. The best economic estimates suggest that at 6C of warming by the end of the century – the very upper end of the climate models – the world economy will be about 10% smaller than it otherwise would have been without climate change in 2100. Even if the estimate is wrong by a factor of 2, and the actual effect is 20%, the effect size of climate change is about 0.25% of GDP loss per annum! Climate change is peanuts compared to the variation in growth we see between countries which organize around markets and those which do not. So if we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today with the goal of making the world a better place in 2100, would it not make more sense to use those resources to persuade as much of the world as possible to follow the success path of well known examples? It’s hard to believe that chasing 0.25% per annum growth level effects come out at the top of the list. Such small effects in our own GDP growth sit at the level of the inefficiencies in the Canadian tax code.
It’s pretty clear that if the path to a better world in 2100 is GDP growth, climate change is one of the last places to start – 0.25% per annum growth effects just don’t make the leap for us. But there are other concerns. Suppose that climate change triggers some presently poorly understood tipping point which catastrophically ruins the environment and makes the miracles of economic growth impossible. In that case, spending tens of trillions of dollars today on climate change mitigation might make a lot of sense. But now the question changes:
If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to make the world safer by avoiding a potential yet poorly understood catastrophe by 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?
In other words, we seek to spend a lot of money today in a precautionary sense – buying insurance – so we can have a future with economic growth. To answer this question, we need to think about how climate change compares to other potential catastrophes. We are just coming out of a pandemic that in 2020 shrunk the world economy by an effect greater than 10 years worth of expected climate change damage. Now, imagine a pandemic much worse than Covid, or even much worse than the flu of 1919. A severe global pandemic could erase decades of economic growth almost overnight. But it’s not just pandemics. There are only seven principal cereal crops in the world of which just two, wheat and corn, make up over 60% of global production. Suppose that a serious blight or virus destroys much of the world’s grain output, something like the Irish potato famine but on a global scale. Global debt runs could ruin our economies and throw us into a worldwide great depression that lasts decades. And of course nuclear war always hangs over us like the Sword of Damocles, not to mention a comet or asteroid impact, a major volcanic eruption, the collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field…you get the point. There are many, many, low probable highly catastrophic possibilities to worry about all of which could in part be mitigated right now by tens of trillions of dollars worth of spending today. Where do we start? We can’t insure against all possibilities. To make the case that climate change is special, we have to show that somehow, of all the unlikely but horrible possibilities that exist, climate change makes the top of the list on a cost-benefit insurance basis. It’s hard to make that argument, but I have some limited sympathy for it. But to put catastrophic events in perspective, for at least the last decade governments have told banks and corporations to plan carefully around climate change exposure. Now imagine if a decade ago governments instead suggested that financial institutions and businesses put a potential pandemic at the top of their mitigation priorities. Perhaps Covid would have been handled much better. Stuff that really threatens us are events like Covid on steroids; real catastrophes come out of the blue, not something that gives a century of notice with gradual change.
Climate change mitigation seems like a weird place to start if we want greater economic growth or mitigation against rare but potentially catastrophic outcomes. But climate change might be special when it comes to biodiversity. Perhaps climate change will be so awful for the planet’s plants and animals that, while GDP will hum along, we will irreparably harm the biodiversity of the planet and eventually poison long term growth prospects. Again we need to think in terms of cost-benefit. The question now becomes:
If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to ensure the biodiversity of the planet through 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?
The biggest problems around biodiversity are habitat loss and destruction by direct human intervention. The large mammals of Africa and Asia have nearly been hunted to extinction. Ocean life suffers from over-fishing. Direct human effects on the environment have so far proved far more destructive than the indirect effects caused by climate change. Even if we manage to get all of the Western world on electric cars by 2050, rhinoceroses and elephants will hover near extinction, if not already extinct by then, and another 30 years of over-fishing risks colossal implications for sea life regardless of a slightly cooler climate. I doubt our green infrastructure renewal will save even one giraffe or increase the length of single tuna fish. It’s not clear that climate change is the place to start if we want to protect the environment and biodiversity. Perhaps sectioning off large parts of the Earth as no-go zones for humans might lead to better outcomes. Returning to economic growth, it’s countries with high GDPs per capita that treat their environments the best. Thus a virtuous cycle of higher economic growth with increasingly cleaner environments may end up being the best way to protect the natural world. In that case, the pathway to rapid GDP growth could be the saviour of biodiversity.
Squaring the climate change agenda
Somehow the public has become captivated by an arbitrary, almost magical, threshold of 1.5C of warming with an implicit belief that the world will end at the 2C mark within a hundred years or less. Climate models make no such predictions. Worse, when experts do offer preliminary cost-benefit analyses, they often leave out the effects of human adaptation. Rising sea levels do not mean 187 million people will be displaced over the next century. Urbanization saw billions migrate to cities over the last 100 years. Patterns of human habitation will continue to change over the coming century. Humans live in extreme climates and elevations already, from the Sahara desert to nearly the north pole, from the Tibetan and Andes plateau to The Netherlands and the Mekong Delta. We have lived across this enormous variation for millennia. There is no model of climate change, even with 6C of warming by 2100, that has a level effect larger than the variation that already exists.
The more I think about it, the more I see climate change as a solution in search of a problem. Every time we rephrase the question to precisely address what we hope to achieve in the far off future, climate change does not seem to offer the leading solution. It’s hard to imagine how climate change tops the list for increasing economic growth, protecting us from a potential catastrophe, or sustaining biodiversity. Yes, climate change contributes in some way to all three of these lines, but it’s not leading order. It’s true that climate change is a classic example of an externality in which an unregulated market is unlikely to generate the optimal amount of global warming given the benefits from carbon intensive production that humanity receives. Spending something to mitigate climate change makes sense, but it’s not an all-hands-on-deck-or-it’s-the-end-of-the-world kind of problem and it certainly does not warrant anything close to the attention it receives. And if ultimately the political will is insufficient to address climate change in any substantive way, it’s not a big issue – we’ve learned to live with all kinds of externalities that are just too costly to address. We know how to adapt.
So if climate change represents a rather small or moderate externality, why does it attract so much attention? I am sure there are true believers who claim to “believe the science” and yet focus all their concern on highly improbable catastrophic climate change events as though those outcomes are the most likely to occur. But for others, I think climate change offers a seductive channel for capturing government power. Under the climate change lens, CO2 emissions are a form of pollution, creating an externality for government action to solve. But we have to remember that heavy direct government regulation of pollution is the backdoor to the government marshaling production. After all, pollution is a byproduct of production; you can’t touch one without touching the other. That’s why in industrial settings, economists argue for narrowly targeted pollution mitigation, often emphasizing indirect government involvement that relies on some form of market or price mechanism, tied to carefully delineated property rights and the rule of law. A government that shepherds a sea change of the entire economy through direct action and direct government participation – whether justified or not – ends up in the driver’s seat of the economy, deciding on what gets produced and who produces what. Regardless of intent, as President Eisenhower recognized over 60 years ago, that centralization of power is a danger to democracy and liberty. We face enormous institutional and political risks from the clarion call to centralize power to save the planet from what all reasonable estimates tell us is a rather small problem. But maybe that’s the point…
Now that the convoy protest has largely ended and my street is clear of vehicles, I am filled with a confusing mix of sadness, relief, and disappointment.
This protest has centered almost exclusively on the Covid vaccine mandates. The media and some politicians have ascribed all kinds of other goals to the protesters, including overthrowing the government, but over the three weeks in my conversations with the protesters, reading hundreds of signs on their trucks and their handheld placards, nothing suggested a goal other than the end of the vaccine mandates. I am sure some people in the protest had zany demands, apparently even some of the higher profile figures, but I didn’t meet any myself. This protest was grassroots. No manifesto bound them; their opposition to the mandates forged their solidarity.
Polite society spilled a lot of ink (flipped bits?) telling Canadians that an unruly seditious mob inhabited my street and that nothing short of invoking the most extraordinary powers in the country could contain it. They told us the convoy represented an unprecedented threat to our nation. Whatever polite society has become, they are not students of Canadian history and it would serve us all well if we better understood the origins of modern Canada. What happened this month in Ottawa echoes two major disruptions from Canadian history: The Winnipeg General Strike, and the On-to-Ottawa Trek. While the parallels only go so far, they are worth exploring. Both involved working class people and both had a profound influence on the shape of our society.
In 1919, veterans returning from the front and working class people suffered from high unemployment and poor working conditions across Canada. Many workers demanded collective bargaining rights and better wages. The spring of 1919 saw Canada’s third largest city, Winnipeg, erupt into a full scale general strike triggered by failed labour negotiations in the metal and building trades. Virtually the entire city stopped working with 30,000 workers taking to the streets. As the strike continued to build, acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and the Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson travelled to Winnipeg in an attempt to learn the facts on the ground. Both men refused to meet with the Strike Committee, and instead issued inflammatory statements portraying the strike as “a cloak for something far deeper—an effort to overturn the proper authority”, and “the motive behind this strike undoubtedly was the overthrow of Constitutional Government”. The conflict lasted six weeks, reaching its climax with violence on Bloody Saturday (June 21, 1919) in which government forces fired into the crowd. Strike leaders were brought up on seditious conspiracy charges, others were blacklisted, and some were even deported as foreign agitators. While the strike failed to achieve its immediate goals, it had a lasting influence on the labour movement in Canada. Some the strike leaders went on to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the progenitor of Canada’s New Democratic Party. Today, we celebrate the Winnipeg strikers and their “seditious” leaders in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
During the height of the Depression, the Canadian government built a system of nationwide camps to provide work for single unemployed and often homeless men. Suffering under poor working conditions and low wages, resentment boiled over in 1935 when over a thousand men from camps in British Columbia went on strike and started the On-to-Ottawa Trek in the hopes of confronting the government. Hopping the rails – even commandeering freight trains – while adding to their ranks as they went, the men made it as far as Regina where they halted for initial negotiations. With the strikers moored at the Regina Exhibition Grounds, eight leaders continued on to Ottawa for further negotiations with Prime Minister Bennett. Nothing came of the talks, which quickly broke down, and upon the return of the strike leaders to Regina, Bennett decided to arrest them, even as the Trekkers were dispersing. A riot ensued and two people were killed. The ugliness of the incidence led in part to Bennett’s decline and a recognition that our approach to the Depression needed better efforts. Today, the location of the Regina Riot is a National Historic Site.
While these incidents from Canadian history have some similarities and stark differences from the events in Ottawa over the last three weeks, they share the common root of marginalization. The vaccine mandates cut people off from their livelihoods and prevent them from full participation in society, putting them on the fringes and making them desperate. These tactics have limited public health benefits – even UN vaccination initiatives in the developing world avoid them. If vaccinating the last 10% of Canada is of such paramount importance, culturally sensitive outreach is the only way to proceed with a recognition that no matter what we do, there will always be vaccine refusals. Insults and mandates not only fail to achieve public health goals, but they serve to divide us and erode trust.
A popular trope in the media today is “being on the right side of history”. If being on the right side of history was so easy, we wouldn’t have witnessed the near 40-year parade of Canadian prime ministers apologizing for historical state action which was propelled at the time by popular support. Reflecting on our history, I would not be surprised if the men and women on my street these last three weeks eventually end up in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. History is not obvious as it’s being made.
On Saturday I watched from my living room as the convoy slowly collected themselves for departure, piling leftover supplies for donation at the local church, and all of them moving with a deliberate intent that suggested a quiet resignation to the fate that awaits them. As the last truck exited from view with a low winter sun hanging over an empty Kent Street, I felt the whisper of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
“To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.”
I live in downtown Ottawa, right in the middle of the trucker convoy protest. They are literally camped out below my bedroom window. My new neighbours moved in on Friday and they seem determined to stay. I have read a lot about what my new neighbours are supposedly like, mostly from reporters and columnists who write from distant vantage points somewhere in the media heartland of Canada. Apparently the people who inhabit the patch of asphalt next to my bedroom are white supremacists, racists, hatemongers, pseudo-Trumpian grifters, and even QAnon-style nutters. I have a perfect view down Kent Street – the absolute ground zero of the convoy. In the morning, I see some protesters emerge from their trucks to stretch their legs, but mostly throughout the day they remain in their cabs honking their horns. At night I see small groups huddled in quiet conversations in their new found companionship. There is no honking at night. What I haven’t noticed, not even once, are reporters from any of Canada’s news agencies walking among the trucks to find out who these people are. So last night, I decided to do just that – I introduced myself to my new neighbours.
At 10pm I started my walk along – and in – Kent Street. I felt nervous. Would these people shout at me? My clothes, my demeanour, even the way I walk screamed that I’m an outsider. All the trucks were aglow in the late evening mist, idling to maintain warmth, but all with ominously dark interiors. Standing in the middle of the convoy, I felt completely alone as though these giant monsters weren’t piloted by people but were instead autonomous transformer robots from some science fiction universe that had gone into recharging mode for the night. As I moved along I started to notice smatterings of people grouped together between the cabs sharing cigarettes or enjoying light laughs. I kept quiet and moved on. Nearby, I spotted a heavy duty pickup truck, and seeing the silhouette of a person in the driver’s seat, I waved. A young man, probably in his mid 20s, rolled down the window, said hello and I introduced myself. His girlfriend was reclined against the passenger side door with a pillow to prop her up as she watched a movie on her phone. I could easily tell it’s been an uncomfortable few nights. I asked how they felt and I told them I lived across the street. Immediate surprise washed over the young man’s face. He said, “You must hate us. But no one honks past 6pm!” That’s true. As someone who lives right on top of the convoy, there is no noise at night. I said, “No, I don’t hate anyone, but I wanted to find out about you.” The two were from Sudbury Ontario, having arrived on Friday with the bulk of the truckers. I ask what they hoped to achieve, and what they wanted. The young woman in the passenger seat moved forward, excited to share. They said that they didn’t want a country that forced people to get medical treatments such as vaccines. There was no hint of conspiracy theories in their conversation with me, not a hint of racist overtones or hateful demagoguery. I didn’t ask them if they had taken the vaccine, but they were adamant that they were not anti-vaxers.
The next man I ran into was standing in front of the big trucks at the head of the intersection. Past middle age and slightly rotund, he had a face that suggests a lifetime of working outdoors. I introduced myself and he told me he was from Cochrane, Ontario. He also proudly pointed out that he was the block captain who helped maintain order. I thought, oh no, he might be the one person keeping a lid on things; is it all that precarious? I delicately asked how hard his job was to keep the peace but I quickly learned that’s not really what he did. He organized the garbage collection among the cabs, put together snow removal crews to shovel the sidewalks and clear the snow that accumulates on the road. He even has a salting crew for the sidewalks. He proudly bellowed in an irrepressible laugh “We’re taking care of the roads and sidewalks better than the city.” I waved goodbye and continued to the next block.
My next encounter was with a man dressed in dark blue shop-floor coveralls. A wiry man of upper middle age, he seemed taciturn and stood a bit separated from the small crowd that formed behind his cab for a late night smoke. He hailed from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. He owned his own rig, but he only drove truck occasionally, his main job being a self-employed heavy duty mechanic. He closed his shop to drive to Ottawa, because he said, “I don’t want my new granddaughter to live in a country that would strip the livelihood from someone for not getting vaccinated.” He introduced me to the group beside us. A younger crowd, I can remember their bearded faces, from Athabasca, Alberta, and Swift Current Saskatchewan. The weather had warmed, and it began to rain slightly, but they too were excited to tell me why they came to Ottawa. They felt that they needed to stand up to a government that doesn’t understand what their lives are like. To be honest, I don’t know what their lives are like either – a group of young men who work outside all day with tools that they don’t even own. Vaccine mandates are a bridge too far for them. But again, not a hint of anti-vax conspiracy theories or deranged ideology.
I made my way back through the trucks, my next stop leading me to a man of East Indian descent in conversation with a young man from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. They told me how they were following the news of O’Toole’s departure from the Conservative leadership and that they didn’t like how in government so much power has pooled into so few hands.
The rain began to get harder; I moved quickly through the intersection to the next block. This time I waved at a driver in one of the big rigs. Through the rain it was hard to see him, but he introduced himself, an older man, he had driven up from New Brunswick to lend his support. Just behind him some young men from Gaspésie, Quebec introduced themselves to me in their best English. At that time people started to notice me – this man from Ottawa who lives across the street – just having honest conversations with the convoy. Many felt a deep sense of abuse by a powerful government and that no one thinks they matter.
Behind the crowd from Gaspésie sat a stretch van, the kind you often see associated with industrial cleaners. I could see the shadow of a man leaning out from the back as he placed a small charcoal BBQ on the sidewalk next to his vehicle. He introduced himself and told me he was from one of the reservations on Manitoulin Island. Here I was in conversation with an Indigenous man who was fiercely proud to be part of the convoy. He showed me his medicine wheel and he pointed to its colours, red, black, white, and yellow. He said there is a message of healing in there for all the human races, that we can come together because we are all human. He said, “If you ever find yourself on Manitoulin Island, come to my reserve, I would love to show you my community.” I realized that I was witnessing something profound; I don’t know how to fully express it.
As the night wore on and the rain turned to snow, those conversations repeated themselves. The man from Newfoundland with his bullmastiff, a young couple from British Columbia, the group from Winnipeg that together form what they call “Manitoba Corner ” all of them with similar stories. At Manitoba Corner a boisterous heavily tattooed man spoke to me from the cab of his dually pickup truck – a man who had a look that would have fit right in on the set of some motorcycle movie – pointed out that there are no symbols of hate in the convoy. He said, “Yes there was some clown with a Nazi flag on the weekend, and we don’t know where he’s from, but I’ll tell you what, if we see anyone with a Nazi flag or a Confederate flag, we’ll kick his fucking teeth in. No one’s a Nazi here.” Manitoba Corner all gave a shout out to that.
As I finally made my way back home, after talking to dozens of truckers into the night, I realized I met someone from every province except PEI. They all have a deep love for this country. They believe in it. They believe in Canadians. These are the people that Canada relies on to build its infrastructure, deliver its goods, and fill the ranks of its military in times of war. The overwhelming concern they have is that the vaccine mandates are creating an untouchable class of Canadians. They didn’t make high-falutin arguments from Plato’s Republic, Locke’s treatises, or Bagehot’s interpretation of Westminster parliamentary systems. Instead, they see their government willing to push a class of people outside the boundaries of society, deny them a livelihood, and deny them full membership in the most welcoming country in the world; and they said enough. Last night I learned my new neighbours are not a monstrous faceless occupying mob. They are our moral conscience reminding us – with every blow of their horns – what we should have never forgotten: We are not a country that makes an untouchable class out of our citizens.
As we enter what are likely the end stages of the Covid-19 pandemic with the virus transitioning to an endemic state, our society has become angry and self-righteous, egged on by our political and chattering class. Pandemics at some point in their trajectory often find someone to blame. During the Black Death, the Jews made for an easy scapegoat, and in more modern times homosexuals served as the perfect minority to hate and blame during the beginning of AIDS pandemic. The pattern is always the same – find a group that nobody likes, claim that they are the party most responsible for the on-going disease, and then pour all of our hate and derision on them. Use political power to punish them and satiate the mob’s need for retribution. Today, with Covid-19, society’s scapegoat is the unvaccinated. Yes, people should get the vaccine; yes, they are safe and effective at preventing serious complications, especially for high risk populations, but a near religious fervor has gripped Canada in blaming the unvaccinated for our current woes with a near insatiable appetite to punish.
The story sells itself. Unvaccinated people are much more likely to experience severe illness, hospitalization, or death, especially if they have comorbidities. Currently in Ontario about half of the Covid-19 ICU patients and one quarter of all Covid-19 hospital patients are unvaccinated even though they only represent about 10% of vaccine eligible citizens. Clearly the unvaccinated are highly disproportionate in their need for health care services should they contract Covid-19. Yet the unvaccinated are in fact scapegoats for much larger problems.
The vaccines are not particularly effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19. With the rise of the Omicron variant, Covid-19 is so transmissible that the argument for externalities completely falls apart. The Covid-19 vaccines almost exclusively provide their protection to the person receiving the vaccine, conferring negligible spillover effects in the form of transmission interruption in the wider community. Thus, the refusal to take the vaccine, however misguided, only hurts the unvaccinated person. Most professionals recognize the ineffectiveness of the vaccines to control transmission. Hence, even with 90% of eligible Ontarians vaccinated, we see tens of thousands of new cases per day leading to explosive exponential growth in the vaccinated population. However, politicians and the chattering class argue that the unvaccinated play a special role because they disproportionately place demand on the health care system.
To get a sense of our problems, we can look to our health professionals on the ground. An emergency room physician, Dr. Brett Belchetz, told Global News “We are looking at hospitals that are struggling to keep up and now you add in all of those extra patients…we are in a dangerous situation here. You see patients being treated in the hallway with regularity and often that is just a choice we have to make — provide no care or provide hallway care.” An anonymous nurse added, “the volume of patients is insane. We are so overcapacity.” Dr. Belchetz continued, “It doesn’t take a mathematical genius or an expert in health care to understand that having more people in the province, especially people that are older, that are sicker, with fewer hospital beds, is a recipe for hospitals to operate overcapacity. And not just overcapacity — dangerously overcapacity.” It gets worse, Michael Garron Hospital, formerly Toronto East General Hospital, has postponed seven cancer surgeries as a result of a shortage of beds in the ICU since December. Carmine Stumpo, vice-president of programs at Michael Garron Hospital, says it’s been a juggling act for surgeons, “So we work with our hospitals to ensure that sort of situation hopefully is completely avoided, but if it’s necessary it’s minimized.” Serious issues for sure but these are not stories from this winter or even last winter; they are from the flu season of 2017-18! Ontario hospitals have been in an overcapacity crisis long before Covid-19.
If all the unvaccinated had been vaccinated, Covid-19 would still be over-running Ontario’s health care capacity. Data on the comorbidity status of the unvaccinated is not readily available, but at least some of them would have still ended up in the hospital and the ICU vaccinated or not. Eliminating a quarter of the Covid-19 hospital cases in Ontario still leaves us terribly strained. Canada has one of the worst health care capacities in the developed world and vaccinating the last 10% of our population is not nearly enough to hold the ground against the Omicron wave. The unvaccinated are not the cause of hospital overcapacity but they allow our governments to distract us from their failure to build a robust health care system, and their additional failure to build adequate Covid-19 specific health care treatment capacity. Even though we have been trudging along with a broken health care system for decades, which Covid-19 has exposed for all to see, our political class can now just blame the Covid-19 unvaccinated. It’s an easy way out.
Blaming the unvaccinated is bad enough, but the Ontario government’s lockdown policies create a super regressive health care tax. The argument for lockdowns is that, at this point, they are the only way to protect our health care system. I doubt that the lockdown approach is correct, but even if it is, the people who pay for that protection are the working class who can’t find timely daycare for their children and who find themselves locked out of work. They pay the “health care tax” in-kind today, protecting the health care system, to make up for what wasn’t paid earlier. And all the while the laptop class enjoys full salary and the opportunity to work in their pajamas. We’re all in this together….yeah right we are.
How did we get here? Canada has large structural issues that are undermining our democracy and harming our institutions. These problems go well beyond Left vs Right or any political stripe. Our country has not properly addressed its regional composition either in the BNA of 1867 or the Constitution Act, 1982. Instead of a properly constituted federation in which representation by population is tempered by strong regional power, we have quasi-federalism or some kind of hyphenated federalism (executive-federalism, collaborative-federalism, shared-cost-federalism, fiscal-federalism, etc.) and in that regard governments responsible for delivering programs become increasingly divorced from the government that raises the revenue. By constitutional necessity, Canada leans on Ottawa’s spending power to address regional needs which has had the perverse effect of turning health care funding into a circus of side deals between the provinces and the federal government, not to mention the complexities of indigenous health care delivery. The locus of decision-making shifts like sand dunes across the political landscape, making it difficult for the public — and at times even Parliament itself — to hold the appropriate government and decision-making body to account. We have deep structural institutional and democratic problems in Canada which Covid-19 has laid bare through our health care systems. Blaming the unvaccinated for our difficulties in the current Covid-19 Omicron wave distracts us from the important work that lies ahead of us not only for our health care systems but for the health of Confederation itself.