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The world broke a record recently, one for which Canadians ought to be proud given our contribution to the effort: the monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since record keeping started. No doubt keenly aware of this momentous occasion, the Harper Government finally unveiled its long-promised plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

At a press conference in Winnipeg, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced a “fair and ambitious” emissions reduction target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Yup, sounds ambitious — if you ignore the fact this pledge is even more pathetic than the Harper Government’s previous pledge to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and well below the International Panel on Climate Change’s recommended cut of between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. In short, Canada’s plan is the weakest among the G7 (a.k.a., the wealthiest countries in the world, the ones most able to shoulder the financial costs of shifting to a greener, more sustainable economy) and lightyears behind our European friends whose reductions targets are almost three times greater than Canada’s. Even worse, Aglukkaq’s plan avoids regulations for Alberta’s tar sands.

On the environment, Prime Minister Harper is akin to Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. The planet is in crisis. The climate is already changing, perhaps irrevocably so. And yet, Canada, already late to the table, has arrived with what amounts to a back-of-the-napkin plan that does little to curb the runaway emissions from Alberta’s tar sands, or seriously confront the unacceptably high per capita carbon emissions we produce.

At her announcement, the Environment Minister invoked Canada’s cold, northern climate — no doubt some sort of Pavlovian ploy to shush those who say Canada is emitting too much carbon. Of course! CANADA COLD! FURNACES WARM! Except it doesn’t have to be this way, and our winters are no excuse.

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, countries, Canada included, rushed to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Most of the monies spent here and abroad were on infrastructure projects, a quick a dirty way to inject cash into the fledgling economy. Imagine, however, if our government had shown just the teeniest bit of ingenuity, creativity, vision: by all means, repair our aging infrastructure, but tie it to improved sustainability and efficiency metrics. Better insulating homes to lessen the energy losses during those — ding, ding — cold winters; more active and rapid transit options to encourage people to get out of cars and into buses or onto bicycles. Heck, make Canada a leader in wind power by investing in our small, but successful aerospace industry to pursue the research and development of made-in-Canada windmills.

Crazy. Crazy like James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the world’s best known climate scientist, who first testified to the US Congress in 1988 about the dangers of global warming. Hansen has been an outspoken critic of Canada’s abysmal record combating climate change, and has issued dire warnings for the entire planet should global temperatures rise above one degree celsius.

Many Canadians, however, may know Hansen best as the subject of then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s ridicule after Hansen argued the continued exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands would mean “game over” for the climate. Oliver, wary of those radicals and their science, accused Hansen of using exaggerated rhetoric. Something, of course, Harper and his band of ministerial cronies never do.

Science, of course, is on Hansen’s side: tar sands oil is even dirtier than other forms of oil, requiring three to four times more carbon emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Furthermore, it requires more chemical processing to meet acceptable fuel standards, and the open-pit mining methods used to collect the tar sands destroy forests and soil that naturally act as carbon sinks.

But by all means, burn baby burn. Why bother even trying if other countries, like China aren’t doing their part? Except, they are. Other countries are rapidly moving to transition their economies to more sustainable footings. Not simply out of necessity, but because it also makes good business sense. If indeed the climate is changing, the countries best able to adapt and prosper will be those who have harnessed their peoples’ ingenuity and innovation and see sustainability not as an impediment to growth, but an essential element of it. And yet Canada remains the laggard, the insolent child unwilling to give up his favourite toy.

It’s easy to imagine Harper himself uttering those famous words from that New Yorker cartoon: “Yes, the planet got destroyed, but for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Earth, Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf, which has existed for at least 10,000 years, will likely disintegrate completely within the next few years. Another world record, shattered.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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“When the facts change, I change my mind.” Famed economist John Maynard Keynes is purported to have made this comment when challenged to defend inconsistencies in his works over the years. To Keynes, dogma was a dangerous thing preventing otherwise sensible people from revising previously held ideas, beliefs, arguments or conclusions. Evidence, information, and facts ought to shape our beliefs and ideas, argued Keynes; if they change, so too must the conclusions drawn from them. What a shame it is the Prime Minister of Canada does not agree.

Indeed, if Stephen Harper has a legacy it is his utter contempt for facts, and his government’s thuggish efforts to ignore or eliminate those that clash with his dogmatic agenda.

Consider the census. Harper’s Conservative government replaced the mandatory long-form census in 2010 with a voluntary one. A promise rooted in Reform Party populism, the decision no doubt satisfied the Conservatives’ base; it has also all but eliminated vital information about Canada’s population in the years following the 2008 economic crash that ought to have been available to statisticians, policymakers, even politicians to inform the country’s thinking and guide its actions. Eliminated.

More recently, Harper’s government unveiled plans to allow Canadian bread-winners to split their incomes with their stay-at-home spouses to lower their overall household tax burden. Only a government that steadfastly, deliberately ignores the facts would enact such a policy. After all, according to at least one study, “The bottom 60% of all families (those making $56,000 or less) would receive, on average, $50. Most families would receive no benefit whatsoever… In contrast, the richest 5% of all Canadian families — those making over $147,000 — would see an average benefit of $1,100, with one in 10 of this elite group gaining more than $5,000 from this loophole.” Moreover, this policy, for which the top 5% of Canadian families will benefit more than the bottom 60%, will cost the treasury nearly $1.7 billion in 2015 alone.

Why let the facts get in the way of a campaign promise? Or for that matter, taking action to avert the greatest ecological catastrophe in human history: climate change.

For nearly ten years the Prime Minister and his ministerial minions have avowed real action to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions all the while doing nothing to actually reduce them. Worse, in the interim, they have gutted environmental protection legislation, eased restrictions on further oil and gas projects, muzzled federal scientists who might speak ill of the government’s agenda, and waged an all-out war against science.

Adding insult to injury, the federal government has spent nearly half a billion dollars in the last five years on advertising. A staggering sum relative to previous governments in previous years. If Harper and his ilk were guided by fact and reason, why so much money spent to convince Canadians they are doing the right thing? Exactly.

In a bizarre bit of irony, a little-known but significant project currently underway in Ottawa to commemorate the “victims of communism” might well serve as a fitting tombstone to Stephen Harper’s own legacy of intellectual cowardice. To be clear: the federal government is moving ahead with plans to erect a sizeable monument between the the country’s Supreme Court and Library and Archives to honour the memory of those people who lived and died under communist regimes. Seriously. This soaring concrete structure, which some architects (ahem, experts in their field) are concerned will dwarf the surrounding federal buildings, is meant to serve as a sombre yet scathing indictment of a particular economic and social theory. If only Ronald Reagan were alive today, those Irish eyes would be glistening.

This is not a memorial to the victims of forced collectivization or to state-sanctioned genocide. Nor is it a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s or Mao’s totalitarian tyrannies. Though such things will surely be invoked at the forthcoming ribbon-cutting ceremony. This isn’t even a memorial to the victims of an idea. Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny: pernicious ideas deserving memorialization. Communism? Socialism? Liberalism? A memorial to the “victims of communism” is akin to commemorating those factory workers who perished in that fire in Bangladesh with a memorial to “victims of capitalism.”

No doubt the federal government would argue communism is synonymous with so many heinous atrocities, hence victims of communism. Seriously, is Conrad Black consulting on this project? The conflation of an idea with the actions of those who purport to be motivated by it is intellectually dishonest, historically inaccurate, and paints a painfully simplistic worldview.

Then again, should we expect anything else from Stephen Harper? For nearly ten years, Harper has shown a profound disdain for intelligent discourse and for evidence-based policy making, for the scientific method and for academic research, for nuance and for history. In its place, baseless dogma — and a hulking mass of concrete and steel.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

2011 was definitely one for the history books, wasn’t it?

I find it hard to believe 2012 can top it, but, then again, who would’ve thought, at the beginning of 2011, three iron-clad regimes would collapse, Japan would be dealt an incomprehensible trifecta from Hell, Europe would teeter on the edge of dissolution, they’d find Bin Laden (let alone kill him), ordinary Americans would actually rise up against the elites (and their civilian police forces would stand not with them, but against them).

Yeah, it’s as if the only thing that could top 2011 would be, well, Armageddon — not that we’re doing much to prevent it.

Inasmuch as 2011 was one for the ages, it was also quite an interesting one for your faithful scribe.

I started 2011 still wet behind the ears culinarily and spent the better part of it cooking and cutting, chopping and slicing, braising, baking, roasting, toasting, sautéing and sweating, and, most of all, learning — be it at school or on the job.

With a year’s worth of work behind me, I can say, with confidence, I’ve come quite a long way — and have a much greater appreciation for how much farther I have to go.

A year ago, when looking back on 2010, I summarized my year with a single word: travel. (It was a decidedly different year!) How best, then, to summarize my 2011?

Kitchens.

So much of my year has been spent in kitchens — cooking in them, learning in them, laughing in them, sweating in them.

Yes, if 2010 was spent outside, traversing continents, 2011 was spent inside, in kitchens. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Kitchens are beginning to feel like my home, the place I’m meant to be, where I’m happiest and most comfortable; familiar with the tools, the implements, the methods, the madness.

2011: the year of the kitchen.

What word will come to define the year ahead? Onward — and let’s find out.

Our oceans are in peril.

Overfishing, pollution and climate change are a lethal combination threatening the very existence of our planet’s most diverse ecosystem. Fish stocks are dwindling; life sustaining coral reefs are disappearing at a record pace; oceanic “dead zones” are expanding; certain aquatic species are on the verge of extinction.

It’s no surprise this calamity has touched the foodservice industry.

Ethical diners, demanding chefs, and a network of advocacy organizations (Ocean Wise, an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada; Sea Choice, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.S.A.; the U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council) are together shifting the foodservice industry towards sustainable seafood in response to increasing concerns about the future of the world’s fisheries.

Just as they are already doing for meat products, diners are also slowly seeking out restaurants that approach their seafood purchases ethically. And for many chefs, while choice may be limited and prices slightly higher, the increased quality of the products makes the move an easy one. Line-caught fish are in much better condition than their net-caught brethren; there is less bruising, scales and overall skeletal structure is in much better shape, they can be held in refrigeration for much longer periods of time.

Of course, finding suppliers that carry sustainable seafood can be a challenge, which is where organizations like Ocean Wise, Sea Choice and the Marine Stewardship Council come in. They work with fisheries to ensure their practices are sustainable, monitor them on their progress, and each run successful labeling and branding programs to aid consumers and chefs alike make their purchases.

So, what is sustainable seafood?  Ocean Wise provides a concise definition:

“Species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.”

And when assessing a species to determine whether or not it is sustainable, Ocean Wise relies upon four basic criteria, asking:

  1. Is it abundant and resilient to fishing pressures?
  2. Is it well-managed using current research?
  3. Is it harvested in a method that limits by-catch?
  4. Is it harvested in a way that limits damage to marine or aquatic habitats and negative interactions with other species?

Best of all, for Ocean Wise, the answer is as simple as black-and-white: either a species is sustainable or it isn’t – making it that much easier for both the home consumer and for the foodservice industry to make the choice.

I was first introduced to sustainable seafood by the fantastic folks at Ottawa’s Whalesbone Oyster House. (They introduced me to quite a few things, in fact; Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum quickly comes to mind, but that’s a story best left untold!) There, they pride themselves on only serving sustainable seafood — and do so marvellously, thanks in no small measure to a brilliant team of culinary wunderkinds. Better still, the efforts of proprietor Joshua Bishop to promote sustainable fish and shellfish created such demand in the Ottawa region, a few years ago he opened a second, complementary operation: the Whalesbone Sustainable Oyster and Fish Store. Cool, eh?

Anyway, suffice it to say, it is heartening, as an aspiring chef, to see the industry move in this direction. We all, regardless of our profession or vocation, ought to find ways to conduct our businesses more ethically and sustainably. And, making the choice to buy, prepare and serve only sustainably caught or harvested seafood is a small, but important step in the right direction.