Thursday, January 31, 2013

Another warm winter demonstrates economic risks

One of the confounding factors in climate change is how it works differently in different places. In the United States, whose politics and economy weigh so heavily on world action, it seems to mean less. Global warming is stronger the further you get from the equator, so we see more effects than our neighbours to the south. They are getting hotter, drier summers but that’s weather they’re used to, so it seems less notable. And where winter is basically a nuisance, a milder winter is seen as a blessing.
For us it’s another story. Winter is not only a fact of life; it’s deeply ingrained in our culture, our psyche, and our economy. Winter industries drive much of our income; skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling and ice fishing are major economic drivers. A warmer winter can hinder or even destroy many long-established business models.
It’s an ecological problem, too. A long, cold winter kills off many insect pests naturally, pests that are learning to survive our milder winters. A false spring like this week’s risks fooling trees into putting out buds too soon, only to have them frozen a week later. Last year it wreaked havoc on our local apple crop; this year we may see the same.
Even our kids face disappointment, as toboggan hills turn to mud, and traditional snow and ice activities at winter festivals get swamped by rain and slush.
In decades past, the ice harvest from Kempenfelt Bay kept our rail link profitable, with freeze and thaw dates that have been carefully charted for over a century. They tell an undeniable story of a steadily warming climate, as the number of ice days has dropped by more than a month’s worth.
And although the tropics see the least atmospheric warming, they get the greatest sea level rise, threatening the very existence of tiny island nations and huge cities alike. Due to an unlucky twist of geography, the country that most needs to get the message of climate change (the United States) is situated where it will least feel the effects.
One would think the recently increased damage from hurricanes would be a wake-up call, and in some respects it has been. Still, much of the impact gets lost in the tug-of-war between states over federal emergency funding that turns ecological news into selfish finger-pointing or partisan political spats.
We must not let this discourage us, however. There is much we can do to reduce climate-warming emissions, so watch this column for further suggestions on how families, local businesses, global corporations, municipalities and higher government can each do their part, alone or together, to protect the world we’ve adapted to live in. It’s the only one we have!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Climate-changing emissions can be controlled"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Film shows how society is making the SWITCH to a smarter energy future

The year is 2020 and you are just home from work. You plug in your electric car to charge as the automatic garage door closes. A sensor light illuminates your entrance into the house, where a timer on your oven began cooking dinner an hour ago. You open the fridge for a cool refreshment to wash away the day’s frustrations and flip on the radio for an update on the markets. Your washing machine is monitoring the price of energy on the grid in anticipation of a window of cheap power in order to wash a load of clothes. You notice the house is slightly warm; earlier today the local power authority remotely set your A/C slightly higher to reduce the power use. A scorching July afternoon had created excess demand; reducing the draw from residential air conditioners is a key part of managing it. Unlike the energy surpluses Ontarians enjoyed from 2010 to 2016, the last few years have seen demand start to outpace supply. Ontario is again struggling to ensure capacity for increasingly hot summer days.
As you move through your home, sensors monitor your activity to maximize comfort while minimizing energy consumption. Smart grids combine with smart homes and smart, efficient appliances to conserve your power use.
All those conveniences still require energy. The appliances run on electricity. The food you eat takes energy to grow, harvest, process and transport. Everything in your house needed energy to grow or mine, manufacture and package, transport, display and deliver. Electric vehicles reducing greenhouse gas emissions now compete on the grid for electricity.
The past decade clarified the need to reduce fossil fuel use and improve efficiency of homes, vehicles and electronic gadgetry, but our world continues to create new uses for electricity. In 2020, things have changed dramatically. The electronics that facilitate your lifestyle have become much more efficient. Yet there are many more people and we have all become increasing dependant on electronic automation.
So what will power us through the decades ahead? In 2013, Ontario’s electricity came from nuclear, hydro, natural gas and wind, retiring coal-fired electricity. But now in 2020, nuclear plants we refurbished less than a decade ago are coming to the end of their useful life. Many other industrial nations still depend on burning coal for electricity, an increasing problem of emissions impacting our climate.
So what are the options? What technologies will power our future as we cope with changing circumstance in both demand and supply?
This Saturday, Living Green’s Green Screen cinema project, in partnership with the City of Barrie, will host a screening of the award-winning “SWITCH, the Movie” (trailer at for one showing only at noon at the Uptown Theatre, 55 Dunlop St. West. Join Dr. Scott Tinker on a trip to 11 countries around the world as he explores the energy that might power our society over coming decades, as we transition to a clean, sustainable energy future. Stay after the show as Living Green announces the launch of a wonderful new contest for Barrie residents.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins and Mike Fox are directors of Living Green.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Don't betray 1812 by accepting the FATCA assault

Last time the United States tried to rule us, we sent them packing. Yet 200 years later, our government is about to surrender without a fight!
The assault comes under America’s new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Aimed at those using foreign havens to dodge taxes, this law will punish law-abiding Canadian citizens and residents.
When I taught and paid tax in Korea, I notified Canada Revenue about my move and didn’t need to file or pay Canadian taxes while away. But my American teaching colleagues faced a double burden, still paying US taxes, even if they’d been away for years and weren’t planning to return any time soon. The US is the only nation in the world to fully tax non-resident citizens.
Now they’re putting the squeeze on Canadians, too. Under FATCA, anyone the IRS considers a “US person” must report to them and pay tax, if applicable, even if they permanently live in Canada; even if they’re Canadian citizens! Non-filers face huge and punitive fines, even if they owe no tax. To facilitate this, FATCA demands Canadian banks give America’s Internal Revenue Service the private account information of anyone the IRS thinks might be a “US person”. This includes people who were never American citizens, but at some point lived or worked in the US, had a Green Card or a Social Security Number.
The potential for distress is huge. One woman I met was born to Canadian parents living in Connecticut but moved back to Canada at six months. She’s never lived in the US since, and is fully Canadian, but because of her birth, the IRS considers her an American taxpayer. She just sold her condo in Vancouver. America has no principal residence capital gains exemption, so though her sale isn’t taxable in Canada, the US wants a cut. If she doesn’t pay, she risks arrest at the border!
My colleague is a dual Canadian/US citizen. She opened a Tax-Free Savings Account (modeled on America’s own Roth IRA), but had to close it because the IRS sees it as a “foreign trust” subject to full taxation, despite our government’s savings intent. The same goes for registered education or disability plans (RESP & RDSP).
Can you avoid this headache by renouncing US citizenship? Only if you pay a $450 fee, and they won’t process it if they suspect you are doing it to avoid taxes.
As Finance Minister Jim Flaherty noted correctly in 2011, there is no reason for Canadians to be subject to these laws, because Canada’s not a tax haven and people don’t come here for lower taxes. Yet this past fall, his Department of Finance announced they are working on an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) to comply with FATCA.
If you agree this step violates our rights, or are worried about Canadian taxpayers having to cover the costs of IRS enforcement, contact your Member of Parliament and share your concerns.
Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner entitled "American FATCA punishes law-abiding Canadians".
UPDATE: Barrie reader David wrote this informative email in response to the article's publication:

It is not only the federal government and Revenue Canada which are not
responding effectively to the U.S. tax imposition on Canadian residents.

From what I have seen, the accounting firms have done nothing to assist with
solving the problem, and are simply using it as a business development

The cost of preparing U.S. tax returns is some multiples of the Canadian
returns' cost.  For example, very likely a difference of $1,500 as compared
to $250.

For the vast majority of taxpayers who are subjected to this, having paid
their Canadian taxes, they owe nothing on their U.S. returns.  As we all
know, our tax rates are considerably higher than U.S. rates.

All in all, a ridiculous situation, which it seems that no one in a position
of authority or influence is even attempting to resolve.
(My response) In general, US federal income taxes are far more complex than Canadian. Most Canadians can do their own taxes on a 4-page T1 General or a 2-page T1 Special, and even then about half the lines are blank. Or we can get tax help at a low cost (or even free). Americans aren't so lucky, and if they want to claim deductions or have any other special circumstances, they need to pay a lot more for professional tax preparation. This is especially galling when, as is the case for most "US Persons" living in Canada, they don't actually owe any tax!

UPDATE: This article has been cross-posted by the Isaac Brock Society.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and Earthsharing Canada.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year's wish for renewed parliamentary democracy

A New Year brings a promise of renewal, something sorely needed in our democracy.
First, a review of Canada’s democratic foundation. Voters in each riding elect one Member to Parliament to serve their interests in Ottawa. Although MPs are also members of political parties, responsibility to their constituents and their nation is supposed to come before loyalty to party.
And our parliamentary system is not winner-take-all. Despite one party having a majority of House seats, all MPs (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet) sit as equals. This is crucial, because no one party, much less one leader, has all the right ideas, especially not for a diverse, continent-spanning nation of 34 million. 308 equal MPs can ensure a variety of views are brought forward, considered, evaluated, and democratically incorporated into our nation’s laws.
Bills are to be introduced in the House, discussed and improved in committees, returned to the House for further discussion and improvement before they are passed, followed by the Senate having a second look. Traditionally, even majority governments accepted good suggestions from the opposition.
But no longer. In 2012, we saw this system’s demise. Two omnibus bills of nearly a thousand pages changing over a hundred laws were pushed through without allowing any improvements or meaningful debate. That means our local MPs were shut out, even if they are in the ruling party. Instead, laws were written in back rooms and rubber-stamped by a one-party majority representing fewer than half of Canadian voters. This isn’t representative democracy; it’s not really democracy at all.
The government House Leader even tried to introduce a motion to disallow MP Elizabeth May from introducing amendments, arguing it would be a waste of his time since he was going to vote them all down anyway. If we’re going to treat House votes as a foregone conclusion, why even elect MPs? Luckily, the Conservative Speaker ruled against this travesty, yet the intent speaks volumes.
Our elected MPs are also being left out of important decisions on international treaties, like the FIPA investment agreement to let Chinese companies secretly sue our municipal or provincial governments for billions of dollars for enacting laws to protect us. Or the American Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA, more on that next week) to force Canada’s banks to break our privacy laws and disclose confidential information about Canadian citizens or residents to the IRS if the IRS declares them to be “US persons”. Neither of these far-reaching agreements have been debated in the House by our elected MPs, even though that’s why we elect them.
My wish for 2013: that our government re-commit to democratic principles and allow elected MPs from all parties to fulfill their constitutional role of discussing, debating, and improving, not just approving, the laws and treaties that will govern us.
A version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Let's hope MPs re-commit to democratic principles"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Thanking those who helped make it a great year

As the end of 2012 approaches (or has already passed, if you follow the Mayan calendar), it’s time to reflect on another eventful year.
Perhaps the biggest collaborative activity I wrote about was the Time to Care event put on by the Barrie Chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness this past fall, which helped so many people prepare for winter. More people and organizations gave support than I was able to write about earlier, so I would be remiss to end the year without thanking Naomi Burden of Just One Click Photography for donating her skill and equipment to give so many people a precious memory. Noelle Hennessey helped turn many children into princesses or other fantastical creations with her face-painting art. I already wrote of Rick the Barber, but must also thank Irma Young for styling many women’s hair that day.
Doris Tretter of Mapleview Community Church brought Tammy Dillman and Linda English to give great foot care, while volunteers Jeff and Norm assisted wherever needed. Central United Church kindly provided the facilities to make the whole day possible.
Quite a lot of clothing was brought in and distributed by Youth Haven, Samaritan House, the David Busby Street Centre and Off the Rack. Generous monetary donations from Medigas and Wal-mart funded some of the day’s extra needs.
The chili cook-off was a great success, and since my own “Vegan Volcano” was the first to run out, I’m claiming top honours, although everyone had a great recipe and the variety was wonderful.
But that day was just the start of good things. Having read about the event in my column and inspired to come out and help, Isabella and Ashley Lamoureux of Kempenfelt Bay School started up a sock drive and gathered hundreds of pairs for the Busby Centre to distribute to people without proper housing. Thanks to these girls and their desire to help the community, may people will have warm new socks this winter when they need them.
Like many others, they read of valuable community causes in this column or elsewhere and came forward to be part of the solution. Hopefully in the coming year, more will do the same, to help build a stronger, more resilient Barrie where we can all prosper together.
What sort of stories would you like to see in Root Issues in 2013? Please comment to the paper or at my blog and let me know. I have local entrepreneurs that will see the spotlight, political issues that need sunlight, and environmental stories and tips to bring forward, but there is still room for requests.
And finally, let me thank the Barrie Examiner for providing this space for another year.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Thanks for making 2012 a very eventful year"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.