I was all set to write about the pending government decision over whether to allow the purchase of Canadian oil extractor, Nexen, by the Chinese government-owned CNOOC, when I saw Jeffrey Simpson’s prediction in the Globe & Mail that the Northern Gateway pipeline will not get built, and a piece on the website policymic.com about the essential uncertainty of the future. So, I’ll try and weave these all together.
The Harper government will be making its decision soon, probably well before its end-November deadline on whether the friendly takeover bid by CNOOC for Nexen is in Canada’s national interest. Trial balloons being released from the PMO suggest that there are differences of opinion within cabinet, and that mail from voters is predominantly against letting the deal go forward. The opposition NDP has already stated its opposition. The issue centers around the fact that this is a buyout, not simply purchase of a significant fraction of Nexen, and that CNOOC is owned by the Chinese government.
Nexen is a publicly traded Canadian mining company with interests outside Canada as well as in the tar sands. Its ownership seems to be approximately 50:50 Canadian and US. CNOOC proposes a buyout and the shareholders have accepted the offer. As I have said in previous posts, I think the central economic issue should be about whether Canada is getting enough of the value of the raw materials it permits corporations (Canadian or foreign-owned) to dig up and export, but commentators do not seem concerned about that. If we continue to sell off our patrimony for a few trinkets in royalties, we are simply doing what we have always done. A second and equally important issue, in my opinion, is the environmental one of whether our government should be so whole-heartedly championing the rapid expansion of tar sand mining given that a) Canada does not need to use this oil now, b) it will not lose value if left in the ground, and c) its extraction is contributing substantially to Canada’s GROWING greenhouse gas emissions. I think a slow-down or cessation would make eminent sense, given that we seem not to have any other plans in place to reduce our emissions. (And diversifying our economy will only strengthen it.)
The Harper government tried initially to suggest that ‘Canada’s national interest’ meant ‘Canada’s national economic interest’, but may have backed off on this narrowing effort. Some of the opposition seems to be xenophobia, but China has not been known to always do what it says it will do, and giving a foreign government the right to operate within Canada does seem a little different to giving a group of foreign individuals that right. That China is currently buying farmland, water rights, and other access around the world, and that China’s need for all resources is growing rapidly probably underlie a lot of the concern, including my own. This seems a lot like the 21st Century version of colonialism, and I do not think we should become a Chinese colony without thinking carefully about it. Let’s hope the Harper government, which has refused an open enquiry, makes the correct decision. One that says there are limits in what we are prepared to do with Canada’s national estate.
Jeffrey Simpson is not normally a pie-in-the-sky optimist, so his prediction that Northern Gateway will not get built was encouraging to read. In his view, the opposition to the pipeline, particularly from within British Colombia, is far too strong, and growing. Despite the Harper government’s evident enthusiasm for pipelines and ramping up of tar sands production, the process cannot reach a conclusion in which construction happens. Great news. Something the new Defend our Coast outfit will doubtless rejoice in. But let’s not start the party yet. There are plenty of interests pushing for this pipeline, and they have ample funding to push their preferred decisions. So, all you people who think pushing a pipeline through the middle of some of the most magnificent country in Canada, and opening a large oil export hub in pristine coastal waters with immense biodiversity and tourism value, not to mention the spiritual value of such places, do continue to support the planned protest in Victoria, B.C. on 22nd October, and do continue to keep your eyes open as the campaign to build Northern Gateway rolls onward. The fight is not yet over.
And finally, the lack of predictability in our future. It’s not just decisions like that on Northern Gateway that could go one way or the other, tipping us into radically different futures. The essence of what humanity is doing to the planet is that our actions now and in the future will fundamentally affect our lives, but that the details of how we will be affected cannot yet be known. Because we have not undertaken our future actions yet. Molly James’s article at Policymic.com argues that those who want to see us change our behavior to reduce the risk of climate change are making a mistake by responding to the climate deniers with arguments for the certainty of various predicted future possibilities. She says that doing this risks being tagged as scientifically unsupported, or even indefensible.
James has a point. We do not know what the future will bring, and claiming that we do can play into the hands of those out to discredit any suggestion that the environmental crisis might be a problem. In writing Our Dying Planet, I was very careful to stress that there were multiple futures out there, and that which one we got was going to depend a lot on what we chose to do between now and then. This remains true. The IPCC has taken a similar tack, using a substantial number of different scenarios based on different assumptions about our future actions. This gives them a range of future possibilities to discuss, ranging from quite bad ones in which we continue much as we are doing now, consuming ever more fossil fuel, releasing lots of greenhouse gases, and generally over-using the world., to quite good ones in which humanity takes serious steps to rein in our use of the world to a sustainable level.
Molly James draws attention to a 26th September post by David Roberts on grist.org in which he examines the uncertainty about the future. He says there are three types of uncertainty here: policy, epistemic and aleatory. Policy uncertainty is what I have been referring to above – uncertainty about what humanity will do between now and then. We are far from completely rational automatons, we do not necessarily work in harmony for the common good, and we are definitely capable of pursuing short-term goals while ignoring long-term ones. IPCC’s use of differing scenarios is also directed largely at policy uncertainty. Epistemic uncertainty has to do with the science. While we understand a lot about the consequences of specific human impacts on the planet, the fine details are not well known. Reality in places like the Arctic seems to be consistently tracking at or above the upper confidence limits of the most disturbing scenarios in their collection because we do not fully understand the links between CO2, other greenhouse gases, warming, climate change, sea ice melting, changed ocean circulation and so on. We keep finding unexpected feedback loops, often positive ones, which change our expectations of the effects of particular impacts. Science always has a certain level of uncertainty and our ability to predict the future will always be constrained by this. Finally aleatory uncertainty is a reference to the inherent unpredictability of the natural world. This is easily seen with reference to major weather events: While cyclones invariably cross the Great Barrier Reef, moving from the Coral Sea to the Australian mainland, Cyclone Hamish (2009) travelled nearly the length of the Great Barrier Reef instead, causing far more damage to the reef environment than a cyclone of its size normally would. And more recently, Hurricane Isaac which was heading straight for Tampa, Florida and the Republican National Convention, chose instead to swing north-west and hit New Orleans. Even with complete understanding of the underlying science, even with an excellent knowledge of human responses, there will always be some slight uncertainty about the future because we live in an uncertain world.
The difficulty for those of us concerned about the environmental crisis is to be able to explain the certitude of the causal relationships, account for the extent (large and growing) of our understanding of the mechanisms that link cause and effect, and describe the more likely as well as the less likely futures given certain courses of action by humanity. We must do this while acknowledging that we do not, and can never know with certainty how the future will turn out. And we must do this in ways that successfully counteract the deliberately dismissive or confusion-generating claims from those who’d prefer the public remained largely ignorant of what we are doing to our planet. I think we can do this, because I think people are actually a bit smarter than we sometimes give them credit for.