The supervolcano next door

The horrific deaths of 16 tourists on White Island, New Zealand, are a reminder of the lethal force of volcanoes.

White Island

Lillani Hopkins, a 22-year-old student, witnessed the eruption. She was on a boat leaving the island when it blew. Clouds of scalding hot water and ash descended on those tourists still on the island. Twenty three of the tourists from the island were taken to Lillani’s boat where passengers frantically attempted to treat them. They were in bad shape.

Lillani had never seen anything like it. Welts and burns that covered every inch of exposed skin. People’s faces coated in grey paste, their eyes covered so they couldn’t see, their tongues thickened so they couldn’t talk. Some of them still screaming. The boat appeared to be filled with discarded grey rubber gloves. But they weren’t gloves, they were husks of skin that had peeled away from people’s bodies (Globe and Mail, December 11, 2019).

Most of those who survived the eruption at White Island on December 9 suffered burns and 28 patients remain hospitalized, including 23 in critical condition. Hospitals are calling on international skin banks for the large quantity of grafts required.

Lillani’s chilling eyewitness account reminds me of the victims I saw in Pompeii, Italy. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, plumes of scalding mud covered citizens. I remember one statue-like victim in particular, sitting on the ground, hands covering face, entombed for eternity in a thick crust of ash.

You don’t have to be standing on the rim of an active volcano to feel its affects. I still remember waking up on May 19, 1980, in Calgary the day after Mount St. Helens, Washington, erupted killing 57 people. Even though the volcano was 800 km away, there was a deposit of ash on my car.

The most powerful eruption in recorded history was at Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia. Most of the deaths that resulted were not from burns but from climate change –the 92,000 fatalities were largely from starvation. The ash from the eruption was dispersed around the world and lowered global temperatures in an event sometimes known as the “Year Without a Summer” in 1816. The resulting volcanic winter triggered extreme weather and harvest failures around the world.

However, the force of Mount Tambora pales in comparison to the supervolcano that hit what is now Yellowstone National Park before recorded history, 631,000 years ago. That was long before modern humans roamed the Earth. The Yellowstone blast would have been at least ten times that of Mount Tambora, leaving molten ash and rock so thick that it filled entire valleys and left debris over much of the North American continent. The resulting volcanic winter would have killed many animals including some of our prehistoric ancestors (Scientific American, Dec, 2018).

Yellowstone is a simmering supervolcano, characterized by a relatively cool pool of magma sitting on top of a hot plume. The magma is the consistency of crystalline mush that’s “only” 800 C degrees compared with the 1,200 C of the hot plume. The magma is not on boil at this time; however, the relative cool of the magma cap is deceiving. It only takes a few decades of cooking by the mantle below to cause the magma to blow explosively.

When that happens, a few ashes on our cars will be the least of our worries.

New Zealand’s experience with electoral reform

I sat down with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, to talk about her country’s experience with electoral reform. She was in Kamloops on June 21 at a reception held at a local pub where about 70 people had gathered.

   image: Wikipedia

“You have five minutes for the interview,” the organizer of the event told us. We made our way to a quiet table.

Two referenda were held in New Zealand, she told me. The first in 1992 was non-binding. It asked whether voters wanted to retain the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or if they wanted a change. And if they wanted a change, which of four systems of proportional representation did they prefer?

The results were overwhelming with 85 per cent in favour of a change. Of the four systems, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), was a clear favourite.

A second referendum was held a year later. This time the referendum was binding and the results closer with 54 per cent choosing MMP over FPTP.

I wondered how proportional representation had changed the culture of political parties. MMP leads to minority governments, Ms. Clark told me, which means that parties need to get along, not only after election but before. “Be sure to make friends”, she said, “you never know when you’ll need them later.”

After 20 minutes, I had asked all my prepared questions and we just chatted. “I thought the interview was only going to be five minutes,” the organizer scolded when he found us. Ms. Clark returned to the group where photos were taken and she gave a speech.

Afterward, I thought about the similarly of our upcoming mail-in referendum this fall to the one in New Zealand.

Two questions make sense to me: Do you want a change? If so, want kind do you want?  However, a B.C. lobby group called Fair Referendum disagrees. In a robocall call, they said that there should be just one question. I had to chuckle. The Fair Referendum proposal illustrates what’s wrong with our voting system. They want a single question with four choices, three of which are a type proportional representation and one being the existing FPTP. Those in favour of change will have their vote split three ways and those who don’t want change will have one choice. The ballot is rigged so that even if, say 60 per cent want change, 40 per cent will make sure it doesn’t happen. It seems obvious that’s what Fair Referendum hopes for.

The referendum, to be held from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot, is shaping up along party lines. The Greens and NDP favour proportional representation and the BC Liberals oppose it.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone says the referendum would be biased in favour of the NDP and that’s probably true –but only because the BC Liberals choose not to cooperate with other parties.

The Greens and NDP have made an extraordinary effort to be nice to each other because, as Ms. Clark suggests, it’s the only way that future governments under proportional representation will work. It’s a shift in party culture that the BC Liberals have yet to realize.

 

TPP rises from the ashes

Rumours of the death of the TPP are greatly exaggerated. After President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I congratulated him: “Thank you, Mr. Trump, for killing the TPP.”

 image: WMAL radio

I now realize that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was not an indicator of leadership, but a sign of retreat from the international community. It’s just another indication of the degree of U.S. marginalization. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is yet another indicator that we must carry on without him.

Where the original TPP had a number of flaws, the new TPP can be negotiated to Canada’s advantage. Canada was disadvantaged in the first round because we were latecomers: we had to accept what had already been negotiated.

Canada is a trading nation and as such, we depend on fair trade agreements. As politicians like to do, I’ll list my five conditions for acceptance of the new TPP -dubbed TPP11 after the number of countries left to pick up the pieces.

Investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) should not be part of TPP11. This allows companies to seek damages from governments when local regulations interfere with profit-making.

When disputes arise, as they are bound to do, they should be settled in a transparent manner by judges, similar to the International Court, not in private between arbitrators as is now done with NAFTA.

Environmental standards should not be part of TPP11. Environmental damage is seen by industry as a cost of doing business -a price which indigenous peoples and future generations will pay. Environmental standards need to be negotiated by separate accords like the Paris Agreement.

Intellectual property and should be excluded as well. Artists and small software companies need protection, but too often concern for intellectual property masks large corporate interests such as Disney.

Exclude health regulations as well. They are an excuse for Big Pharma to extend the patent life of drugs that could be made cheaper with generics.

TPP11 will be a meeting of middle powers now that the U.S. is out, and China and Europe were never in. Canada can then negotiate from a position of strength when it comes to superpowers. Trump favours individual bilateral deals because he imagines an advantage over smaller countries. But if those smaller countries can form a block where there is an alternative to the bully-tactics of Trump.

The TTP11 would give Canada access to markets not previously available, says Hugh Stephens of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. It will jump-start bilateral talks that were going nowhere, like those between Japan and Canada. With Japan in the TTP11, negotiations can proceed. And trade agreements under the umbrella of TPP11 can take place with other countries where Canada has no bilateral agreements such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam and Malaysia.

And in countries where Canada does have bilateral agreements, such as Mexico, Chile and Peru, the TTP11 can tie up loose ends.

Whereas Canada was a follower in the original TTP, we can be a leader in fair trade under TTP11. With the U.S. retreating into a fog of befuddlement, Canada needs to step up on the world stage.

 

 

Government powers are reduced during an election

The prime minister to likes to act prime-ministerial but his powers are reduced by a little-known convention. You won’t find the Caretaker Convention on any government website but I found a source.

caretaker-conventions

Caretaker conventions are like precedents in law: they determine how government functions.

Powers are reduced because the government has essentially lost the confidence of the house and is at the end of its term says parliamentary expert John Wilson in the Canadian Parliamentary Review.

“The fundamental significance of this observation – when it comes to the importance of maintaining responsible government in our system – is hardly removed by the distinction which is made between a government which has lost the confidence of the House of Commons and one which has merely dissolved parliament in the ordinary course of approaching the legal end of its term in office.”

Canada is in limbo during an election. Once parliament resumes, the Governor General will appoint a party leader most likely to command a majority in legislature. The rules are set down by the Library of Parliament’s instructions to parliamentarians called Constitutional Conventions.

“The Governor General may dismiss a government if (1) an opposition party has won a majority in an election and the existing government refuses to resign, or (2) a government has been defeated on a clear vote of confidence and neither calls an election nor resigns.”

Since this government seems to have a poor grip on the law, Canadians should watch for excesses. The government suspiciously keeps the convention hidden. Mark Jarvis wonders why in his National Post article: Why does Canada not disclose its rules concerning ‘caretaker’ governments (April 4)?

Other countries such as Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand make their Caretaker Conventions public. “By virtue of it not being a public document, it is impossible for the opposition, observers or the public to determine whether its rules have been followed or breached,” complains Jarvis.

Following Jarvis’ complaint, Blogger James Bowden decided to do a little digging and through a freedom-of-information request was sent an unredacted copy of Canada’s Caretaker Convention which he posted on his blog.

Looking at it, I see no reason for secrecy. It spells out the limitations established by experts and agreed to by governments. “Most of these directives serve as common-sense reminders to separate government and partisan activity,” says Bowden.

Failing to make the document publically available creates a sense that the government can do what it wants.

That seems to be the case when the Justice department warned its employees against social media: activity critical of the federal government. The department  thinks that civil servants have a duty of loyalty to the government and must refrain from criticism. That’s contrary to the Convention:

“Those who remain in their position and to become involved on a part-time basis may participate in campaign activities on their own time, outside normal working hours, while not carrying out official duties.”

Or maybe Prime Minister Harper doesn’t want us to know that his government is a caretaker only, just filling in, a nominal administration that will last only until the next government is declared.