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Next Big Tech Corridor? Between Seattle and Vancouver, Planners Hope

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The Amazon campus sprawls throughout downtown Seattle. The political, academic and tech elite of Seattle and Vancouver are looking for ways to bring the cities closer together. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Seattle and Vancouver are like fraternal twins separated at birth. Both are bustling Pacific Northwest coastal cities with eco-conscious populations that have accepted the bargain of dispiriting weather for much of the year in exchange for nearby ski slopes and kayaking and glorious summers.

Yet 140 miles of traffic-choked roads and an international border divide the two cities, keeping them farther apart than their geographic and cultural identities would suggest.

Now the political, academic and tech elite of both cities are looking for ways to bring them closer together, with the aim of continuing the growth of two of the most vibrant economies in North America.

“Vancouver has a lot more in common with Seattle than we do with Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, anywhere else in our country,” Christy Clark, the premier of British Columbia, said in an interview. “We should make the most of those cultural commonalities.”

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Pedestrians pass a Microsoft location in Seattle. American tech icons like Microsoft are expanding their presence in Vancouver, but the cost of living there is an obstacle. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Whether their grand vision of a “Cascadia innovation corridor” — which borrows its name from the region’s Cascade mountain range — ever materializes, leaders on both sides of the border have motives for getting cozier immediately. American tech icons like Microsoft, with voracious needs for global engineering talent, are expanding their Vancouver offices, partly because of Canada’s smoother immigration process.

For its part, Vancouver wants to bring more American technology companies to the city in hopes of spinning out future entrepreneurs who will expand its comparatively small base of technology companies.

One serious obstacle to Vancouver’s tech ambitions is its head-spinning housing costs. The median price for a detached home in the metropolitan area in August was 1.4 million Canadian dollars (about $1.06 million), a 27.8 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, the median single family home price was about $848,000, according to Zillow.

But while median pay for tech-related jobs is $112,000 a year in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is just under $49,000 in Vancouver, according to an analysis by PayScale, a compensation data firm. (Some of that discrepancy is due to a drop in the value of Canada’s currency relative to the United States dollar.)

We have San Francisco real estate prices with the incomes of somewhere between Reno and Nashville,” said Andy Yan, acting director of the city program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

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The University of British Columbia. Plans to deepen ties between Seattle and Vancouver include more collaboration between the university and the University of Washington. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

On the thrumming streets of downtown Vancouver, signs of the Seattle region’s growing economic ties to the city are hard to miss. A rectangular glass and steel office building with a large Microsoft sign occupies nearly an entire city block, sitting atop a large Nordstrom store (another Seattle brand).

Microsoft says it invested $120 million in its new offices in Vancouver, which opened in June, and expects to spend $90 million more annually on wages and other operating costs. It plans to employ nearly 750 people in the city.

Microsoft is hiring Canadians for the facility, but the country’s more open immigration policies were an important factor in its investment, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in an interview. Microsoft and other tech companies have long complained that the United States education system does not produce enough computer science graduates, forcing them to rely on immigrants from India, China and elsewhere.

Foreign workers in the United States can wait about three times as long for a work visa as those in Canada do, the Boston Consulting Group estimates. And the prospect of Donald J. Trump winning the presidency has raised concerns among tech companies, because of the Republican candidate’s comments about further restricting immigration to the United States.

“Right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty about open immigration,” Mr. Smith said.

Last month, officials and executives from both cities huddled in a Vancouver hotel to discuss how to enable people, ideas and capital to flow more freely between them, as heedless of the international border separating the cities as a pod of orcas swimming in the sea.

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Christy Clark, left, British Columbia’s premier, and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington signed a memorandum of understanding affirming their shared interest in creating regional economic opportunities for innovation in the technology sector. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

At the Cascadia conference, Ms. Clark and Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, signed an agreement to deepen the ties between Vancouver and Seattle, including more research collaboration between the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and Satya Nadella, its current chief executive, talked about globalization and education.

One proposal to deal with traffic between Vancouver and Seattle was for a high-speed rail line that would whisk travelers at more than 200 miles an hour between the cities in 57 minutes (it can take four hours or more by car). The details on financing the project — which could cost an estimated $30 billion or more — have not been worked out.

A group of Seattle techies proposed a cheaper alternative: a dedicated lane for autonomous vehicles on Interstate 5, the highway connecting Seattle to the Canadian border.

The plan — which relies on autonomous vehicles that still need a lot of work — would not shave much time off the commute between the cities, but could make the ride less tedious by letting travelers work or watch a movie, said Tom Alberg, a managing director at Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle venture capital firm, and an author of the proposal.

With roots in timber and shipping, Vancouver’s economy has diversified in recent decades with the growth of film and video game production. The city claims a tech “unicorn” — a start-up valued at over $1 billion — in Hootsuite, which makes social media tools.

But Vancouver remains a relative small fry in tech, with about $1.78 billion in venture capital flowing into local tech start-ups in the last decade, compared with about $8.9 billion in Seattle, the research firm Pitchbook estimates.

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Microsoft offices in Vancouver. Canada’s more open immigration policies are a draw for American tech giants. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Still, the city’s hoped-for tech boom may hit a wall if it cannot address its cost-of-living issues, which are by some standards more acute than those plaguing other thriving cities. Vancouver was ranked the third most unaffordable city in the world, after Hong Kong and Sydney, in a study published this year by Demographia, a consulting firm.

Mr. Yan has spent years analyzing his hometown’s soaring real estate values and concluded that a surge in foreign capital, primarily from mainland China, has decoupled Vancouver home prices from the local economy. British Columbia recently imposed a 15 percent tax on new home purchases in the Vancouver area by foreign buyers, a move now facing legal challenges.

The housing market is showing signs of cooling off, though it is not yet clear how much of that is because of the tax. The total number of homes sold in the area in August dropped 26 percent from a year earlier and price growth has slowed, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

Dennis Pilarinos, chief executive of Buddybuild, a Vancouver maker of developer tools for mobile apps, says affordability has been less of a problem for young tech workers, who may be willing to rent smaller apartments and live with roommates.

But when start-ups get bigger, many struggle to recruit senior executives with families, said Mr. Pilarinos, who previously worked for Microsoft and Amazon in Vancouver.

“Companies tend to run into scaling issues,” he said. “You end up with fewer Microsofts or Amazons.”

 Arsonists of Fort McMurray have a name

As the fire that ravaged Fort McMurray finally moves past the city, and the province tallies the heartbreaking damage, a search will begin to discover the source of the destruction.

Investigators will comb the nearby forests for clues, tracing the fire’s path to what they call its “point of origin.”

They’ll interview witnesses, collect satellite imagery, and rule out natural causes—much like the work of detectives.

Except in the age of climate change-fuelled mega-fires, this truly is a crime scene.

Not, I mean, the handiwork of troublesome teenagers, nor a campfire left accidentally burning. The devastation of Fort McMurray is the predictable outcome of arson on an entirely different scale.

These arsonists have a name and they’re hiding in plain view—because their actions, at the moment, are still considered legal.

They’re the companies that helped turn the boreal forest into a flammable tinder-box. The same companies that have undermined attempts to rein in carbon emissions.

The same companies that, by their very design, chase profits with no mind for the ecological and human consequences.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Today, twice as much land in Canada is being devoured by fires as in the 1970s—and that will double or quadruple again in the decades to come.

Climate change is putting such pressure on the boreal, which covers most of northern Canada, that a study published last year in the journal Science issued a stark warning: “this forest will convert to a type of savannah.””

Fossil fuel corporations are causing the climate change fuelling mega-fires
theguardian.com|By Martin Lukacs

Yet in the fire’s aftermath, it has seemed impossible to name them: fossil fuel corporations. Of course they’re not the only ones who have fuelled climate change: all of us consume oil at every level of our lives.

But the record is clear that we are not equally responsible: an astonishing 90 companies alone have caused two-thirds of global carbon emissions. And all the oil giants involved in the Alberta tar sands are among them: ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Total, CNRL, Chevron.

In the last week, these corporations have escaped accountability as quickly as ordinary Albertans have risen to action. Across the province, people have opened their homes to evacuees, offered gas, shared food.

The most marginalized have given the most: First Nations welcoming thousands to their communities; Muslims praying for rain at the Alberta legislature; and Syrian refugees, barely resettled in the province, gathering donations.

Stories of heroism have abounded: like the school principal who drove a bus full of children out of the burning city, reuniting each one with their families, and filling extra seats with strangers from the roadside.

At almost a moment’s notice, a province often written off as dog-eat-dog individualists proved the naysayers wrong: they have come together in a spirt of fellowship and solidarity.

Most of these people had no idea of the disaster that was coming. But there were some who did: the corporate arsonists themselves.

As far back as forty-five years ago, certain Canadian oil corporations already knew the lethal climate consequences of their business model. Last month, building on similar revelations about US companies, investigative reporters discovered stunning proof in the archives of a Calgary museum—a clue as good as any about this mega-fire’s “point of origin.”

An uncovered report produced in 1970 by Imperial Oil, the Canadian branch of ExxonMobil, put it crystal clear: “Since pollution means disaster to the affected species, the only satisfactory course of action is to prevent it.” Except the oil company proceeded to spend decades lying about what they knew, and ensured the disaster would be as profound as possible. Little wonder the same company report branded its own actions as “anti-social.”

The very picture of anti-social?

A fire ripping through a city. The incineration of homes. Irreplaceable possessions and family albums burned to ash. Climate refugees spilling across a province and country, stripped of their livelihoods and uncertain of their future.

Science may not show a direct link between climate change and the existence of one particular fire, but there is no doubt why the blaze that devoured the Alberta town was so powerful.

“We have loaded the dice for more extreme wildfires,” says Mike Flannigan, a wildfire scientist at the University of Alberta. “We attribute the increase in wildfires and their severity and intensity to human-caused climate change. We’ve been saying it for years. Many of us saw a Fort McMurray-like situation coming, but none of us expected anything as horrific as what has happened.”

Today, twice as much land in Canada is being devoured by fires as in the 1970s—and that will double or quadruple again in the decades to come. Climate change is putting such pressure on the boreal, which covers most of northern Canada, that a study published last year in the journal Science issued a stark warning: “this forest will convert to a type of savannah.”

To remain mute about those responsible for this devastation is not an act of sensitivity toward the citizens of Fort McMurray. It is to stand idly by while these corporations move on to claim their next victims.

To argue, as prime minister Justin Trudeau has, that making the connection between climate change and this infernal fire isn’t “helpful,” is not a gesture of statesmanly maturity. It is the prevarication of political cowards.

Other politicians have adopted an even more toxic approach: not letting the crisis go to waste. Former Conservative natural resources minister Joe Oliver argued on national television that Trudeau should seize the fire as an opportunity to force through a tar sands pipeline to the coast.

And British Columbia premier Christy Clark insisted the economic impact of the blaze could be balanced by ramming oil and liquified natural gas projects through the regulatory process—doubling down on what helped cause this crisis in the first place. In the days ahead, watch for this argument to grow even louder.

But the greatest model of insensitivity is this: the arsonists don’t seem content with the burning of just one Canadian town. The latest climate science has told us exactly how much fossil fuels we can burn before we lock in catastrophic warming—warming that will make today’s mega-fire look modest.

But companies have access to four or five times that amount in their reserves. They plan to extract and burn it all.

If we want to contain warming to the Paris climate accord’s target of 1.5 degrees, we will need to keep most fossil fuels in the ground—to strand these assets and shift to clean energy. But corporations have no such intention. “We don’t see any stranded assets. We think all our assets will be required,” an ExxonMobil spokesperson said after the signing of the Paris accord. It “reinforces our approach,” Shell added. In other words, they’re bent on arson on a global scale.

The law is finally catching up to this planet-altering recklessness. In the United States, both California and New York’s attorneys general are investigating ExxonMobil for spending decades misleading the public about its knowledge of the risks of climate change.

Meanwhile, both Democratic presidential candidates have joined the chorus of voices demanding the federal Department of Justice join the investigation.

Last month, lawyers in the Philippines launched another precedent-setting case: a lawsuit against fifty of the world’s fossil fuel companies for damages the country has suffered from climate change-driven hurricanes.

This path should show the way forward for Canada, entrenching a basic moral principle: the polluter pays. Fossil fuel companies shouldn’t be celebrated for the minimal corporate paternalism they are now demonstrating—housing, feeding and flying evacuated workers out of Fort McMurray and the surrounding work camps.

They should be footing the bill for the devastation. They invested billions in an industry knowing it would prove destructive to the air, water, climate, and health of Albertans?

It’s time to put our hands—through higher taxes, royalties, even a public takeover—on some of their gargantuan profits, and use them to transition to a new economy full of good clean jobs and beyond these dangerous energy sources.

That would mean rejecting the lopsided sacrifice currently demanded of us: that corporations derive the rewards while we cover their damages. Canada’s fossil fuel companies have vacuumed billions in profits out of Alberta, and used their political influence to prevent the emergence of a more diversified economy in a province with incredible renewable energy potential.

Yet the relief and recovery effort, which may cost upward of $10bn, will be paid for by the government and taxpayers. The donations offered by individual Canadians are a testament to incredible generosity: they also represent an outsourcing of responsibility.

But that spirit of solidarity and mutual aid, of compassion and confidence in each other, is the best expression of ourselves. It points the way forward. Two people tragically died in the evacuation of Fort McMurray—but many more no doubt were saved, by courage and heroism and the deep care and love for fellow citizens that can flourish in a period of catastrophe.

Such are the values we will need to mount a collective fight against the unfolding disaster of climate change

Imagine these values actually governing our society—for a start, relaxing EI rules to ensure dignity for all of the evacuated workers. Imagine this resiliency, courage and generosity being harnessed to lead the transition to a healthier, more just post-carbon society—helping prevent even more extreme weather to come.

Imagine the rebuilding of Fort McMurray being not just a page turned on an unprecedented disaster, but the beginning of a new direction.

If that can happen, the smoke will truly lift from this country and this town.

On Twitter: @Martin_Lukacs


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