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Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan

Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. – Greenpeace

It has taken the world four years to wake up to the horror in Syria. How we respond to the crisis will help determine the kind of world we live in.

The Syrian crisis is almost beyond comprehension – the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since WWII. Over 17 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance: 13.5 million people within Syria (over half of whom are displaced) and 4.2 million people who fled the country. Civilian deaths from the conflict are estimated at over 250,000.


Since 2011, the Syrian people have faced uninterrupted violence from Government forces and armed opposition groups. The European Commission states, “Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace.”

We cannot stand idly by. Not when our hands are so dirty. Not when the world has become so interconnected. Not as a looming refugee threat grows in many highly populated areas of the world. We need to get this right, because the refugee era has arrived.

Through our contribution to climate change, we in the West have helped create the mad state of affairs in Syria. Research conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute explored how a record-breaking drought between 2006 and 2010 contributed to the Syrian uprising of 2011. Up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” (Moreover, in 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal agency, published strong evidence linking the drought to climate change.) Millions of farmers and their families abandoned their properties, and joined hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees that had fled the American invasion of Iraq and the resulting sectarian violence. Syria’s big cities became overcrowded, food prices soared and water became scarce. Mismanagement and neglect by the al-Assad regime sparked the civil war still raging today. Fear, anger, misery and disaffection created the opening for ISIS to thrive in Syria.


How we deal with Syria affects our national identity and our international reputation. The Syrian crisis provides us with the opportunity to restore our tarnished image as humanitarians. We must do better than allowing in only about 2,500 refugees between 2013 and September 2015. Canada has a proud history of helping refugees. In 1957, Canada admitted 37,000 Hungarians. From 1979-1980, Canada welcomed almost 60,000 Vietnamese.

We can do more than accept a very small percentage of the refugees; we can send money to help care for and resettle over 17 million Syrian people, both inside and outside of Syria. Despite record levels of aid from the international community, the UN refugee agency reported in September a funding shortfall of an astounding $4.6 billion dollars (62% of the budget). The Canadian federal government has pledged $810 million in aid for Syria. In September, the government announced it will also match every eligible dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities for aid in the crisis, up to $100 million, until December 31, 2015.

The Liberal Government’s pledge to stop participating in the US led bombing missions in Syria and Iraq was the right move. Unfortunately, it cost us $528 million, fell outside of international law, and was deemed a failure by authorities including former US President Jimmy Carter, retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas (fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute), Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington), and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. All promote the pursuit of diplomatic solutions as the only way to establish peace in the region.

As humanitarians and peacekeepers we can hold our heads high and regain our positive international influence.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a trial run for the massive mobilization of climate refugees to come. Around 1 billion people today do not have adequate water for drinking, agriculture or sanitation, and the situation is going to get worse. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates (National Snow and Ice Data Center). More than half of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being depleted (Water Resources Research Journal, June 2015). About one in three people live in drylands susceptible to desertification. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, between 24 and 700 million people will be displaced by water crises. In January 2015, the World Economic Forum identified the water scarcity as the number one global risk based on impact to society.

This is a pivotal moment. The U.S. Defense Department issued a report last November identifying climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will impact national security. Do we turn our back on the destitute of the world and enhance security measures in an attempt to protect ourselves from their anger, their wrath and their desperation? Or, do we accept our responsibility toward our fellow man, extend a helping hand and share our good fortune? As the saying goes: United we stand


This is the second article in a series about the Third Industrial Revolution, the new economic paradigm that is transforming our lives. This article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.

Minto flywheel - a mechanical battery that stores energy as kinetic motion.

The Minto flywheel – a mechanical battery that stores electricity as kinetic motion.

Our world is undergoing a metamorphosis. Quietly, changes are happening. Smart meters record our electricity use. Solar panels and wind turbines are popping up everywhere. New smart devices are arriving every day. We don’t feel the impact on our lives, yet. But the smart grid is revolutionizing our relationship with energy, and it will change everything.

How we run our homes is being transformed. Not only do we have access to information from the grid to make better choices about our electricity use, but our gadgets will too. Imagine a fridge that will automatically defer its defrost cycle to off-peak hours, for instance. The grid itself, with our permission, will be able to make adjustments to the operation of our appliances during peak hours (using demand response technology). In essence, with smart information technologies, we will effortlessly be able to do much more with less demand on the grid (and more money in our pockets).

In some jurisdictions, demand response technology is already a reality. Homeowners can join the peaksaver PLUS program. Installation of a small device allows your electric utility to turn down your central AC system and electric hot water heater slightly during peak hours.

Appliances will also interface with an energy management system (EMS). With your EMS, you will program appliances (even to respond automatically to inputs from the grid), operate them remotely with a smart phone or computer, and get energy saving suggestions based on usage patterns. For instance, by showering at set times, you can program your water heater to turn down most of the day.

On the supply side, the smart grid allows renewables to become a first-tier energy source. Renewable energy poses new problems for the grid: Production is intermittent, widely distributed and of inconsistent voltage.

Ontario’s smart grid is developing ways to store excess energy. In July 2014, a flywheel, the first of its kind in Canada, was connected to the grid in Minto. (A flywheel is a mechanical battery that stores electricity as kinetic motion.) In August 2014, a lithium battery was installed in Central Strathroy. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), tasked with balancing supply and demand, is in the process of securing a total of 50 MW of energy storage services. Other options being investigated include: compressed air and vacuumed air, thermal energy, fuel production, magnetic fields, pumped storage (hydro power) and electric vehicles.

Renewable power requires flexible transmission and distribution networks. They will need to reroute power when necessary, accept power from many locations and be able to monitor and improve the quality of the power.

Ontario’s high voltage transmission networks already enable two-way flow and remote control, and use embedded monitoring sensors, controls, and automation in case of emergency. Large renewable energy companies connect directly to these networks.

Low voltage distribution networks, owned by private distribution utilities, originally just delivered electricity to consumers in a one-way flow. Now, small renewable power installations, like the solar panels on your home, connect to distribution networks (thus the term distribution generation), so the utilities are starting to smarten up. As more distribution generation comes on stream, less power will be brought in from high-voltage transmission networks and the demands on distribution utilities to manage the supply and quality of power will grow.

Most power outages are due to distribution network faults. With smart grid technology, power outages will be shorter and fewer in number. Sensors on the line and smart meters will locate problems for quick service. Power will be rerouted and restored to most customers automatically and without delay. Some problems will be picked up by sensors before any outages result and addressed proactively.

Development of the smart grid in Ontario has had some big bungles, to be sure. A small number of specialized meters for seasonal properties were replaced due to a possible fire hazard. Some customers were hit with huge “catch-up” bills after receiving no invoices or underestimated charges for up to two years. Others continued to receive bills after their homes burned down. And, the cost of installing the meters ran way over budget.

As disconcerting as these problems were, it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s early days, but as the infrastructure is put in place and the kinks are worked out, the full potential of the smart grid will come to light. We have relied on fossil fuels for two and a half centuries, and in that time we have used up the easily accessible sources and put the Earth’s biosphere in jeopardy. Now we have a viable chance of ending the fossil fuel era. Ontario has been a leader in pursuing this transition. That’s something worth getting behind.

Copyright 2013 by Leslie Varsava. All rights reserved.

Zoom, zip, hover, flit

On a blade of grass I sit

Then off again to hunt in flight

Keep you safe from bugs that bite

Copyright 2013 by Leslie Varsava. All rights reserved.

black-capped chickadee

Well into the depths of winter
Comes the song I long to hear
Sweetie, sweetie
A sound that fills my heart with cheer

The black-capped chickadee is calling
For the mate that he holds dear
Sweetie, sweetie
A promise spring will soon to be here

Copyright 2013 by Leslie Varsava. All rights reserved.

speckled alder

The small and shrubby speckled alder
Along the shore of the stream does live
This little tree has superpowers
A rare capacity to give

It seizes nitrogen from the sky
And then, with its leaves that fall
Enriches the soil and the water
Providing this nutrient to all

Beavers use the speckled alder
For building dams, the supreme source
Its catkin flowers the bees savor
Birds adore the seeds, of course

The dense tangle at the shoreline
Shelters creatures big and small
Amongst its roots down in the stream
Water creatures swim and crawl

And when a storm sends a deluge
The alders’ roots safeguard the shore
So you see why the saintly alder
Is a plant that I adore

Source: Up North by Doug Bennet and Tim Tiner

Copyright 2013 by Leslie Varsava. All rights reserved.

american toad


Aquatic, cute

Wiggling, nibbling, growing

Gilled, slippery, bumpy, poisonous

Hopping, hiding, breathing

Ugly, terrestrial