From Matt: What’s the deal with the oil spill off the coast of Vancouver? What began as a small bunker fuel spill last Wednesday in English Bay, near Vancouver, is quickly becoming a fiasco. The Mayor of Vancouver and the B.C. Provincial government both allege that the response from the Coast Guard was too slow, and that it took 12 hours for the city to be notified. Both the feds and the Coast Guard have defended the response. Brand new reports say the spill is larger than originally reported.
A small spill right next to a major port city should in theory be easy to clean up, so what was the problem in this case (if there was one)? In an interview with CBC News, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May argues in considerable detail that severe budget cuts at the federal level are to blame. Among these cuts was the Environmental Emergencies office of Environment Canada near Vancouver, and several others like it, closed in 2012. They were replaced by a “1-800 number in Quebec”, as May puts it.
For me, the fact that we barely have the environmental disaster response capacity left to contain a small bunker oil spill right next to Vancouver underscores the perils of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would require supertankers carrying dilbit (much harder to clean up than bunker oil) to navigate the Douglas Channel. It also underscores the fact that ‘smaller government’ – a common promise from conservative politicians – is often just what it sounds like.
From Ian: Advances in science and technology making existing ethics, law and policy obsolete: round 2
This week featured a surprisingly diverse list of ethical, legal and policy dilemmas posed by rapidly advancing scientific and technological progress. Here are a few such dilemmas, continuing what will become a regular sub-series of my links posts:
1. Active SETI?
With increasing numbers of earth-like planets being discovered and evidence from earth’s history suggesting that life forms readily under the right conditions, planetary scientists are increasingly coming to the consensus that our quest to find alien life is no longer a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’. This progress motivated a discussion amongst scientists of the pros and cons of initiating an active search for extraterrestrial intelligence (active SETI). Rather than merely listening for alien signals coming from space, active SETI consists of sending focused signals aimed at nearby star systems with messages of our own aimed at eliciting a response. So where is the dilemma? Essentially it is this: since our civilization is very young in astronomical timescales, any intelligent civilization we are able to contact is more likely to be older and thus probably more technologically advanced. This provides the potential for us to learn a great deal from such a civilization if we make contact (and they are willing to share). However, it also exposes ourselves and our position (and knowledge of a resource-abundant planet out there) to such a likely more advanced species, making us vulnerable. The history of our own species shows that when two civilizations make contact for the first time, one is almost always nearly obliterated (either by war, disease, genocide etc.). By extension, it is argued the same would be true if we ever came face to face with an intelligent alien civilization, one of us (probably us) would likely perish. Should we take that risk? I say we don’t and continue to look passively. Considering the rapid progress we are already making in finding and characterizing new exoplanets, the risks (although remote) don’t seem worth the incremental benefits at this point, even if they would only manifest a long time in the future. Luckily, even if we do and we make contact, most likely the return message won’t come back for thousands of years (most other start systems are so far away, even our signals take generations to travel back and forth). So if we start an alien war, it will be a problem for generations far in the future.
2. Genetically modified humans?
According to a recent report, Chinese scientists have, for the first time, created a genetically modified human embryo that is capable of transmitting these modified genes to its gametes (sperm/eggs) and thus to the next generation. The ability to edit the genome of IVF embryos before implanting them could have profound implications. They could allow parents to clean their genes of undesired or disease-causing mutations, for example dramatically reducing breast cancer risk or imparting immunity to HIV by editing out the gene that codes for the virus’s target receptor protein. However, the same technology could be applied for eugenics-like purposes, and could perhaps lead to unwanted social ills by forcing people to define ‘bad’ traits apart from ‘different’ ones. Bioethicists are now beginning to look at the implications of this technology and decide an appropriate course of regulatory interaction, with a few calling for a moratorium. Unlike active SETI, I think this is an experiment that should be allowed to continue, albeit with careful regulatory monitoring (as all medical research is in North America anyway). Considering all the low-hanging fruit of awful genetic diseases that could be cured, the benefits seem worth the risks. However, the regulatory bodies can – and should – severely restrict which genes can be targeted.
3. An international regulatory framework for geoengineering?
As Matt has pointed out in many posts here already (as well as in numerous letters to The Globe), climate change, and its human causes, are not only scientifically undeniable, but they are actually already observably happening, and are beginning to have devastating effects on our ecosystems, civilizations, and agriculture (the California megadrought is a great example). Already in the scientific community, this has led to a shift in discussion, going beyond just prevention (e.g. emissions reduction, carbon capture) to also include adaptation and mitigation. The topic of geoengineering, attempting to macroscopically re-cool our climate system (by releasing millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere for example) has also begun to resurface. A recent Editorial in Science asked us to think about how such efforts should be regulated. Suppose, for example, that Californians decide to resort to geoengineering to end their drought. These actions would not only affect their climate, but would almost certainly affect neighbouring climates as well, perhaps even distant climates. As Marcia McNutt of Science puts it, “What does this action mean for any individual country? Will it make the drought in Saõ Paolo better or worse? If the wheat yield falls in northern Russia, could it be due to the albedo modification? Can science apportion damage caused by such an intervention? Should the United Nations block such action?” One of the challenges of these scenarios is that there is little known about the global impacts of such measures. A recent NRC panel concluded that much more research needs to be done in this area. However, the idea of this type of research raises significant concerns with some scientists. There is a worry that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t: that doing the research could lead the public to embrace these drastic measures as an easy ‘backup plan’ and accelerate their eventual deployment, whereas if no research is done then no-one will understand the hazards (and maybe the best way to do it if there is one) before some desperate country unilaterally pulls the trigger. I tend to agree with the NRC panel, that it is time to start doing this research. In the meantime, we should ask ourselves how we have gotten to this point and take more serious steps toward emissions reduction (and adaptation), so that we never have to find out what geoengineering’s side-effects will be. A modest Canada-wide carbon tax and further diversification of our energy portfolio including expanded nuclear energy (where Canada has significant geopolitical advantage over other countries) would be great places to start.