Thursday, November 26, 2020

So you want me to be your graduate research supervisor, eh? Some thoughts to consider...

So you want me to be your grad school research supervisor, eh? Well, thank-you - I'm truly honoured and flattered! One of the coolest things about being a professor is that prospective students periodically get in touch asking about the possibility of working together. It's very exciting to learn about inquisitive students who share my research interests, and I've been very lucky to have worked with a range of students who have written theses and Major Research Papers on various themes tied to environmental policy debates (in particular climate policy debates) and questions relating to ecological political economy and sustainable development. 

Here are some thoughts to consider as you decide whether this is the best fit for both of us...

First, there are a few different contexts in which supervisory requests arrive in my inbox, so let's start by breaking it down into a) students who are seeking an expression of interest from me as a potential supervisor as part of their grad-school application or planning process; and b) students who have already started their programs at the University of Ottawa

a) Students seeking an expression of interest from me as a potential supervisor as part of their grad-school application or planning process: First off, just to be clear - if I receive an email that appears to be broadly disseminated and impersonal (it isn't specifically addressed to me or doesn't seem to match or align with my research interests in any way; or doesn't mention a specific program of interest at the University of Ottawa) I will most likely not answer it (I'm sorry, I'm reserving my time for students who are genuinely interested in exploring the possibility of working together).
    In terms of genuinely interested students, most commonly I receive requests from those who are applying for a Master's or PhD in the School of Political Studies (the latter is my 'home department'), or for the Master's in Environmental Sustainability at the Institute of Environment (with which I am affiliated)[Note: the Institute now offers a PhD in Environmental Sustainability as well, and I'd be very happy to receive expressions of interest from those considering applying to this program).
     It used to be the case that students at the Institute of Environment would first enter the program and then contact potential supervisors in the fall, once they had already started courses and began to develop their research topics more thoroughly (most MSc students in the Institute complete the 1-year program with Major Research Paper (MRP); however, the Institute offers a 2-year thesis option as well). However, the Institute recently changed the entry requirements and now ask students to secure a willing and interested supervisor as part of their application to the program. This means I'm often getting expressions of interest about 10 months before a student would even start the program they are applying for. So I understand that the following may seem like a lot, but you should know that before I officially sign-off on a 'willingness to supervise' statement, I will want to see: 
  1. A clear statement about which specific program you are applying to (what do you expect to see on your diploma when you are done and when do you expect to complete your studies; and if doing a Master's - MRP or thesis option?***)
  2. A basic outline of your research project (see below);
  3. Some background information about your academic experience and current context (a CV helps, as does a clear statement about your grade; I don't need to see a transcript, rather a sense of what your recent GPA is); 
  4.  Any pertinent information about plans to apply for scholarships and/or access to adequate funding to carry out a degree.

This 'broad picture' is extremely helpful to me in enabling to determine whether I'd make a good fit as a supervisor. It is especially important to see this 'broader picture' for any students planning to write a thesis (Master's or PhD) - even though I am fully aware that things may change, your interests may evolve and travel in new directions once you start, and that's ok... but for the sake of the application, this 'big picture' is important, and the supervisor needs to 'fit' nicely in that big picture or else your application to grad school (or graduate scholarships) may not be as compelling.

Even for 1-year Master's students wanting to complete an MRP and no clear sense of what they want to write their MRP on, I will need to get a clear sense of the specific research topic you plan to examine. 

Here is what I mean by a basic outline of your research project: Send me a one or two pager answering the following questions (in any format you like; though point form is actually helpful for this): 

    • What is the main research problem you hope to examine? 
    • How do you see this problem situated within the literature in that field? (Does it respond to ongoing debates in the field? Does it refute or defend a particular school of thought in the literature? Does it fill a gap in the field?)
    • What specific program do you plan to apply for (what degree to you want to have, and do you plan to do an MRP or thesis* if you're a Master's student? 
    • Why is this the right program for you? What is about the program (and particular pathway within) that appeals?
    • Have you started to think about how you're going to examine and answer the research problem? (Aka, have you considered what types of methods you will need to employ?)
    • What is the contemporary relevance of this research project? Why does is 'matter'?

b) Students who have already started their programs: I will often receive requests from Master's students who have already started their programs at the UofO and are now moving on to the final MRP stage (usually these are students from the School of Political Studies or Graduate School of Public and International Affairs). I will certainly consider these requests, but please note I will want to see the same level of detail as laid out above. In an ideal world I will have heard from these students before they started their degrees, but I understand that many students enter their programs without having contacted a potential supervisor.

Here are some other things to consider about our potential student-supervisor collaboration:

Thematic fit: While I do ultimately get to 'choose' whether I'd like to supervise your project (and you get to 'choose' whether you want me to supervise your project), I do NOT have a say on whether you get admitted to the program. The admissions committee will review your statement, check with me if it states that I've agreed to supervise, but they might be curious if the project you propose doesn't seem to 'jive' with their impression of my research. It's part of the overall storyline - does the proposed supervisor 'fit' with the proposed project themes? If not, the overall storyline isn't quite as compelling and your application may not be competitive. What does this mean? In your application you have to demonstrate a good balance between demonstrating that you will be carrying out independent research while also demonstrating how that research fits with the proposed program objectives and the supervisor's research program. As noted above, my research interests are listed here (but these days I'm working on three fairly distinct projects - i) one on discourses of the growth-environment debate; ii) another on the role of animal sourced foods in sustainable development, including related debates about protein and the environment; and iii) a third on how to mitigate climate change in the transport sector; focusing on a range of scales between individual action through to global governance. 

Stylistic fit: What kind of supervisor do you need to help you get the degree done? If you're looking for someone who will meet on a weekly basis throughout your degree I'm probably not your guy! Unless my students are in one of my classes I may not see or hear much from them for a significant portion of their degrees (especially while they are completing course work). That does change once they start getting ready to work on a proposal. With previous Master's students I'd say we've met on average about once per month once the student has turned their attention to MRP or thesis work. I try to strike a balance so I'm not too overbearing while also not being totally absent. I do aim to support you, but my expectation is this is a partnership in terms of you leading on the administrative side of things (I need you to keep track - and remind me - of the specific requirements for your program) while I will help guide with the content and facilitate strategic thinking about your program of study. (I don't think I'm overbearing or absent, but I'd be happy to put prospective students in touch with current students so they could hear the straight goods from them! If you're doing a PhD I highly recommend talking with students currently enrolled in the program). 

     Oh, I should also mention that I am quite a stickler for clarity in academic writing. I loathe overly-complex writing, academic jargon, and lengthy sentences. You can have the best ideas in the world, but they don't count for much if you can't express them clearly. Just be forewarned that I will often challenge my students to write more clearly, and that I get annoyed when writing is too dense to understand.

EPE Lab: In 2020 I started up a 'lab' for my students. At this early stage it is merely a 'network' of students who share my interests in Ecological Political Economy. For now the idea is to meet as a group once or twice per semester and more importantly connect students of mine who are at similar stages and places in terms of their academic programs. Inevitably I will likely ask most of my students who help review another student's draft proposal or outline or chapter, etc., and the expectation is they will receive this support in turn down the road. So signing up as one of my students does come along with the expectation you will join my lab, though you should know it's not very onerous and comes with the benefit of collegial support.

Financial Fit: I sometimes receive emails from prospective students asking if they can be part of my 'lab', and the sense I get is that there's a presumption that I have funding for all my students. Unfortunately I do not have funding to support all my students (luckily there are lots of other funding arrangements for grad students, from TAships to internal and external scholarships, and so on...). What I do have - sometimes - is minor funds to support a Research Assistanceship here or there for some of my students. It takes time and effort to supervise RAs, and so I will rarely offer more than 1 or 2 of these per semester (again, it assumes I have funds available, which is not always the case). When I do have funds I will often prioritize my current PhD students or Master's thesis students for RAships. This means that if you are applying to do a Master's with MRP it is unlikely that I will be able to offer you a paid RAship; and even if you're a thesis student I'm sorry to say I can't guarantee an RAship (this is not personal; just an issue of supply vs demand). Just FYI, many of the RA and TAships at UOttawa are posted here (though there are some exceptions).

In short, I may be a good potential supervisor for you in some respects, but I may not in others - and that's fine; I respect that you may want to "shop around" (and in fact I recommend it). And there's always the possibility of switching supervisors even after I've agreed to supervise your project (that's ok, it happens; no hard feelings). You should think carefully about a supervisor beyond just the factor of "he's the guy who does environmental politics at uOttawa" - so let's make sure that I'm the right fit so we both have a fruitful collaborative relationship.


OK, there's a lot here so I will leave it at that. The final thing I will say is that it's good to arrange a time to chat once the basic details have been shared. So if you're getting in touch with all the documents above and are short on time, feel free to propose a time to meet so we can discuss. Best of luck with your applications, and thanks again for considering me as a potential supervisor.


*** An MRP is usually a shorter document of around 60-80 pages and while you are conducting independent research there is not an expectation of conducing primary research; a Master's thesis is usually around 150 pages and seeks to make a contribution to the literature through primary research and analysis; the MRP is usually graded by the supervisor, sometimes with a 'Second Reader'; the thesis has to be 'defended' and passed by a committee and examiners].



Monday, October 19, 2020

Taking the train across Canada is worse for the climate than flying (and why the government ought to do something about that)

Despite its reputation as a more sustainable form of transport, long-distance passenger rail travel in Canada typically results in a higher carbon footprint per passenger than long-distance commercial air travel. This is what I discovered after diving into the emissions data (recently published in the journal Canadian Geographer). I know it seems crazy, but that's what the data suggest...

So, I wrote a blog post about this, which the folks at the University of Ottawa's Institute for Science, Society and Policy kindly published on their blog site. Check it out! In it I explain why Canada’s long-distance rail services defy the ‘green’ reputation held by rail transportation globally, and offer some policy proposals for improving the situation.

Here's the link-->

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Pandemic, the Economy, and Climate Change: Three Takeaways So Far

Early in the pandemic there was a lot of confusion about the impact of COVID-19 on climate change. Here's a link to my blog post about this for CIPS, and here's the VIDEO version that blog coordinator Philip Leech-Ngo put together:

Friday, December 6, 2019

Canada’s oil and gas sector and climate mitigation – Part 1: The problem

The following is from a two-part guest blog I wrote for the McLeod Group. See the original here.

The 2019 federal election revealed an underlying contradiction between Canada’s climate change mitigation policy and its energy development strategy. On one hand, voters rewarded the Trudeau government’s efforts to take bold action on climate change. On the other hand, the Prairie provinces demonstrated deep discontent with what they saw as a federal government bent on stifling the energy sector.

Despite trying to find a balance between economic and environmental interests, the Trudeau government’s balancing efforts during its first term – particularly its decision to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline and put a price on carbon – only aggravated both sides. Environmentalists believed that the pipeline concession was a death blow to a viable climate plan, while proponents of the oil and gas sector argued that the “carbon tax” would increase the cost of everything and fail to reduce emissions.

Canada thus faces an extremely difficult challenge ahead in reconciling these competing interests. It wants to do well by the world in terms of contributing to climate change mitigation. And yet it also wants to accrue some economic benefit from being in the fortunate position of sitting atop the world’s third-largest oil reserves (169 billion barrels, 10% of the world’s oil).

The Canadian government also wants to achieve reconciliation with First Nations communities. While some of these communities see commercial opportunities in oil and gas development, others vehemently oppose the sector. Moreover, it wants to unify a country which is deeply divided along provincial lines, with Qu├ębec and B.C. effectively blocking Alberta oil from reaching the East and West coasts, respectively.

So, what is to be done? I do not claim to have all the answers. But if the Trudeau government sticks with the same approach as before, it is destined to fail.

The previous approach was kneecapped by its unnuanced interpretation of the relationship between the economy and the environment. The Trudeau government’s mantra became “the environment and the economy go hand in hand!”. This adage was rammed down Canadians’ throats at every turn.

The problem is that this is not always true. What’s good for the economy is not always good for the environment, and vice versa. While it is possible to lessen the environmental footprint of growth (in fact, for every dollar of GDP growth today, Canada only emits 65% as much CO2 as it did in 1990), there are nevertheless limits to this trend. In some spaces this type of win-win relationship between economy and environment is simply unattainable.

Attempts to reconcile climate action and growth is a lost cause in the oil and gas sector in particular. Even if it were possible to achieve carbon-neutral production (a nearly impossible target in the case of Alberta bitumen), there is the additional challenge of decarbonizing the transport of oil and gas to market.

Pipelines currently emit the equivalent of 7.1 million tons of CO2 in Canada, more than all emissions from domestic aviation. We would also have to neutralize leaks, known as fugitive emissions, which amount to astonishing 54 million tons of CO2, or 7.5% of Canada’s total emissions. In addition, we would then need to decarbonize oil and gas consumption within the end-use sectors such as transport and heating, which account for 28% and 11% of Canada’s emissions, respectively. Oil and gas extraction alone accounts for nearly 15% of Canada’s total, and these emissions are expected to increase in the coming years. In short, any form of support for oil and gas – be it regulatory approval of a pipeline, or a fossil fuel subsidy – poses a direct challenge to climate action.

By the same token, most aggressive climate mitigation policies – such as putting a price on carbon or investing in renewable energy – pose a threat to the viability of the oil and gas sector. In this particular instance, what’s good for the economy is not good for the environment.

However, that is not to say that there’s no possible win-win scenario, even in the Prairies. In fact, numerous opportunities await, with four obvious areas of opportunity: a) renewable energy; b) regenerative agriculture; c) oil well reclamation; and d) alternative fuels.

The renewable energy opportunities in Alberta and Saskatchewan are exceptional. The potential for wind power, solar energy, and geothermal are orders of magnitude greater than presently installed capacity of those energy technologies. They could be expanded with the aim of generating tens of thousands of green jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity over the next decade.

The Prairie provinces are also agricultural powerhouses. While agriculture presently emits about 8.4% of Canada’s greenhouse gases, the switch to regenerative practices like no-till crop production or grassland conservation grazing have potential to sequester enormous amounts of CO2. That would offset some of those emissions, all while producing high-value food commodities and generating other ecosystem benefits, relating to biodiversity, soil quality and watershed management.

After decades of oil and gas development, Western Canada has a significant problem on its hands, with 139,000 inactive or abandoned oil wells requiring clean-up. Alberta’s share of the clean-up will cost $260 billion. As Regan Boychuk and Avi Lewis recently pointed out, this could be interpreted as a $260 billion opportunity. One of the obvious benefits is that the same jobs which were created by the drilling industry could be sustained by substantial investments in the reclamation industry. Since reclamation involves restoring topsoil and re-establishing vegetation, these projects would also support additional carbon sequestration.

Finally, alternative fuels offer tremendous promise in the Western provinces as well, particularly since they are linked to existing sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fossil fuels. There are a number of different kinds of low-carbon alternative fuels.

Biofuels are in theory carbon-neutral because they are made using crop by-products or other materials, such as forestry residues and waste from the agri-food sector. They thus return CO2 to the atmosphere in a cyclical manner when burned – as opposed to burning fossil fuels, which just pumps additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

Hydrogen is another proposed alternative fuel for the transport sector. There is presently a carbon-neutral trucking pilot project in Alberta underway. It is fuelled entirely by hydrogen, which only emits water when burned.

The most common source of hydrogen is fossil fuel (of which there is no shortage in Western Canada!). One recent scientific effort has found a way to extract hydrogen from oil deposits underground, leaving the carbon dioxide underground as well. This is also useful for a third kind of alternative fuel known as electrofuels. They combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide sucked out of the air to produce synthetic hydrocarbons that mimic fossil fuels, but are carbon-neutral.

In many ways, these four opportunities are already being explored. The renewable energy sector is red hot in the Prairies. The expansion of no-till agriculture across the Prairie provinces, which started decades ago, has increased yields, reduced fertilizer and fuel costs and continues to support the drawdown of CO2. This year, there were more decommissioned wells than drilled wells in Alberta. One report on bioenergy found that between 2007 and 2014, bioenergy projects in Alberta produced a savings equivalent to 11 million tons of CO2 and gave rise to a $2 billion dollar industry supporting thousands of jobs.

But there’s a catch. These climate mitigation and economic development opportunities will only be truly maximized if they receive the requisite levels of support from the rest of Canada.

The federal government in particular has an essential role to play. Instead of extending olive branches in the form of pipelines, the feds should get out of the oil business and focus their efforts on achieving a genuine, just transition led by the innovative people of the Prairies. Instead of merely paying lip service to incentives for clean energy through tax breaks, Canada ought to fork over major investment dollars – in research, development and, in particular, support for new infrastructures required for this transition. Instead of centring its economic development strategy on getting Alberta oil to tidewater, the Trudeau government ought to recognize the vulnerabilities lurking behind high-cost synthetic bitumen in a very volatile world market. Finally, the government should support indigenous leadership in climate change mitigation, particularly by fully implementing the 94 calls to action laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The post-2014 downturn in Alberta has exacerbated sentiments of Western alienation. The resurgence of secure, well-paying jobs in the region could help reduce these tensions. The Trudeau government must recognize the opportunity before it. It needs to tackle economic development, national unity and climate change all at once. There’s not enough time left to keep making the same mistakes as before.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

How to deal with news stories claiming the end of civilization is nigh...

I've had yet another conversation with a student feeling worried, anxious and confused about yet another report pointing out the dire threat of climate change. This headline (or variants of it) has been making the rounds today: "Climate change could end human civilization by 2050: report". 

What are we to make of this information, and such extraordinary headlines - which suggest that we could literally be dead in 30 years!? Here's my attempt an an answer for students:

1) Before reading the rest of this... if you are feeling anxious just take a moment to look around your current context and breathe, and take a moment to appreciate what a wonderful world this is and what a wonderful life you have. If you're reading this then the walls are NOT coming down around you at the present moment. You're not facing an imminent threat (as in, your life is not in danger at this moment). You have access to all your needs for survival (food, shelter, water, companionship, etc.), and likely many amenities too. Quite frankly, by virtue of just being able to read this it is likely the case that your life is - relatively speaking - pretty darn fantastic. So just take a moment to appreciate that before trying to process this type of news...

2)  The situation is indeed urgent, but the future is not already determined. Try not to get your focus diverted by sensationalist headlines... the actual report itself isn't actually saying much new when you boil it down: It's saying IF we don't tackle climate change the consequences will be extremely dire. But we actually have already known that for a while, right? The important thing to note is that this is not inevitable. We CAN avoid that fate, but we have to change our BEHAVIOUR. One way to think of reports like these is that they are like 'interventions' for a friend who's an addict. It's not that they WILL die from their addiction, but rather that if the situation doesn't change things could get very, very bad. So... change!

3) Sometimes it feels like changing our personal behaviour is the only thing we can do, and there are lots of good reasons to change our personal behaviour and consumption. But ultimately the most effective changes are at the COLLECTIVE SCALE. In other words, instead of JUST cutting down on, say, single-use plastics, join a campaign or sign a petition or write a political letter about it. Ultimately we need the COLLECTIVE to change behaviour, not just individuals, and the best way to bring those changes about are through political change or regulation or laws or policies or programs, etc., that target entire communities of people. And if you feel the governments of the day aren't addressing the situation adequately, join a political movement to express your concern along with others.

4) Try not to DWELL on the shitty stories. Instead try to focus on good news stories. There are amazing things happening - even in terms of climate mitigation. For instance, another story came our today which was eclipsed by that report: Finland - a developed Northern country - has announced a plan to be carbon-neutral by 2035. That's remarkable, and it serves an example we can point to. The Clean Energy Canada weekly newsletter is full of stories like this. Subscribe so it ends up in your inbox each week.

5) Channel your concern into action of some sort. This is kind of a repeat of point 3 above.. but it's so important. It will also help you feel better and give meaning. ACT, with others, in a POSITIVE way. There's a bazillion things you can do. From attending/organizing a rally to planning trees to writing a song, or calling your MP to express your frustration, whatever... just try to CHANNEL your concern into action (and again, not JUST more sustainable consumption).

6) Don't let yourself slip into despair. In fact, remind yourself that as one of the world's privileged individuals you have a RESPONSIBILITY to NOT become a climate defeatist. And for those times when you're having trouble, talk. Talk to your friends, your family, your colleagues, your professors, your psychologist, whoever! Just don't sink into a world of despair, and especially not on your own. Talk it out... and seek professional help if you're having trouble with this (there's nothing wrong with getting medical support for this).