Why Canada will Waste Money on the Trans-Mountain Pipeline


As I stare at the blank page. Thinking how to begin, I sense I am about to pound my head against a rather solid wall yet again.  Logic does not always overcome politics, and to understand Canada’s love affair with what used to be called the Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline, we need to understand the politics.  Trans-Mountain is a small part of our wider love affair with pipelines built (or not) to ship tar sands product to market.  Trans-Mountain already exists and is being used to ship product to Burnaby BC for export (mostly or entirely to refineries on the US west coast).  It is the expansion of this pipeline, its twinning, that is the subject of concern.

The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline involves twinning its entire length and operating in a way that will almost triple carrying capacity.  Image © National Energy Board

Back in that long-ago time when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister of Canada, our nation maintained or accelerated or consolidated the idea that our prosperity as a country was intrinsically tied to the rapid expansion of extraction and export of product from the tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.  (I use the word ‘product’ for politeness; ‘bitumen’ is perhaps more accurate although untreated bitumen does not flow through pipelines, ‘glurp’ is another good descriptor and ‘oil’ is a euphemism designed to pretend that this product really is much the same as the oil that used to flow so freely, but now gets pumped, against its will, from what are called ‘conventional’ wells.)

PM Stephen, being a solidly conservative politician, could not really see government as much more than an entity for delivery of the set of laws, policies, decisions and actions undertaken by the State to clear away anything that might lie in the path of private corporations seeking to maximize profits for their shareholders.  Being an Albertan, he also saw Canada’s economy as pretty much Alberta’s economy, plus a tiny bit of other stuff done in other parts of the country.  Alberta, of course, devotes two weeks a year to cowboy hats and bucking broncos, and the rest of the year to digging up stuff to sell wherever there are buyers (or at least, that is what the movers and shakers in Calgary’s corporate towers would have us believe).  The Right Honorable Stephen bought into the Grand Tar Sands Myth, hook line and sinker, and dragged the rest of us along with him.  A couple of years ago, I called that myth a tar baby, because it seemed exceptionally good at entangling politicians who got anywhere near it, and Stephen was inextricably stuck to that tar baby.

Stephen Harper loved the tar sands, didn’t really understand environment.
© Theo Moudakis/Toronto Star

What is the Grand Tar Sands Myth?  Well, first of all, its adherents refer to it as the Magnificent Future that will be Delivered to All of Canada by the Rapid Expansion of Production and Export of Ethical Oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands.  (True believers really do speak in capital letters.)  One part of the myth was that Canada had a noble responsibility to develop the tar sands fully and as rapidly as possible, making this vital source of energy available to the less fortunate nations of the world, while building the prosperity that Canadians deserved.  Nothing should stand in the way of achieving this noble future.  Another part of the myth was that Canada’s economy was tightly tied to the success of the tar sands, and that any failure to sustain rapid growth in tar sands production and export would be met by near-total economic collapse, loss of jobs, and removal of Canada from the list of advanced nations.  The apocalypse would be Wagnerian in its fulsome comprehensiveness, and it would come very quickly if anything should create so much as a tiny pause in said expansion.  A final part was that all this effort could be undertaken with nary so much as a tiny ding to the pristine, white as snow, state of Alberta’s environment – environmentalists did not know what they were talking about.  Spelt out in august tones by learned men (always men) the Grand Tar Sands Myth is a tale that will keep children from their slumbers and their parents anxious and afraid as they huddle, wringing their hands, waiting for some good news out of Alberta.

In 2015, Stephen Harper was out of office, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ushering in his sunny ways government, setting out to right some of the wrongs put in place by his predecessor.  Being a true liberal, however, PM Justin is a middle of the road kind of guy – not too far to the left to upset those who do not trust government, and not too far to the right to risk losing the support of those who actually believe government has a reason for existence beyond acting as a giant snowplow/bulldozer clearing the way for whatever plans are being implemented by the wealthier members of the private sector.  And as any wise chicken knows, it’s OK to cross the road, but standing in the middle of it for any length of time is a perilous act.

The middle is not always the best place to be!  Image © Greg Perry/Winnipeg Free Press

As well as being a sunny liberal, PM Justin is Pierre Trudeau’s son, and so he felt compelled to work to convince the west, especially Alberta, that though he was his father’s son, he most definitely was not his father.  Soon after being elected Prime Minister, he was assuring voters that his government would be working hard in support of the Grand Tar Sands Myth, while simultaneously addressing Canada’s appalling record on climate change.  He was going to work just as hard as his predecessor to ensure the unfettered growth of tar sands production and export, while also taking actions that would place Canada among the world’s leaders in the battle to reduce the rate of climate change.  He’d do all this while remaining sunny (he was intent on bringing Canada to a new, brighter, happier place than it had been for the decade prior).

When PM Justin spoke about the economy, or the tar sands specifically, he spoke like a true believer in the Great Tar Sands Myth.  Canada’s economy is very strongly dependent on resource exploitation.  We have a moral obligation to extract and export tar sands oil.  Pipelines to tidewater are essential in this less certain world, and with proper consultation and appropriate concern for environmental issues, they can and will be built responsibly.  Alberta can depend on it.

When he spoke about climate change, he was equally sunny about Canada’s bright future as a leader in the technologies underlying renewable energy, and he was clear that Canada was going to do its full share to ensure the world transitioned to a far less carbon-intensive economy.  His government, barely into office, was notably active during the COP21 climate conference in Paris in November 2015, leading battles to cement the +2oC target, and install an even better +1.5oC aspirational target for future warming.  This was a pleasant change from past performances, surely an arbiter of great things to come.

So far, things have not worked out as we might have hoped.  A major part of the problem for Justin Trudeau lies in two facts: 1) The Great Tar Sands Myth has always been a fairy tale and more and more Canadians are seeing through it, and 2) Nature does not seek political compromises and Trudeau’s effort to compromise on pipelines and climate has floundered accordingly.  I’ll start by dissecting the myth, endeavoring not to get too stuck to the tar baby in the process.  Then I’ll look at what Canada needs to do if we are serious about doing our fair part of the effort to achieve +2oC.

The Grand Tar Sands Myth

This myth has several parts.  Tar sands bitumen production and export is a major part of Canada’s economy, we have a moral obligation to monetize our mineral resources, pipelines to tidewater are essential for the industry, and all can be done without serious environmental problems.  Let’s look at them one by one.  (In much of what follows, I am drawing on Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018.

How important to Canada’s national economy is the production and export of tar sands product?  Depending who you ask, it’s amazing how different a spin can be put on the answer to this simple question.  The bare facts are generally agreed:  In 2017, according to the National Energy Board, Canada produced 4.3Mb/d crude oil (million barrels per day).  Of this, 2.9Mb/d or about 63% was in bitumen extracted from the Athabasca tar sands, and worth about $ 43.6B to Canada’s GDP for that year according to StatsCan.  The production of conventional oil has been declining slowly since 1999, while tar sands production has increased four-fold from about 0.6 Mb/d.  Most (85%) of Canada’s oil is exported, mostly to US refineries.  There are currently about 400,000 people employed in the oil and gas industry in Canada, half in production and distribution and half in construction – as expected, employment can fluctuate substantially, depending on the oil price, and construction jobs are always short-term.  Tar sands-related jobs were about 75% of total oil and gas related jobs in 2015.

In Canada’s Energy Outlook, 2018, David Hughes uses StatsCan, National Energy Board and other official sources, reporting total revenue from extraction and processing of fossil fuels, plus related construction across Canada, was $137B or 8.3% of Canada’s GDP in 2015.  As a percentage, this is down from 10% in 1997, despite the substantial growth in production (combined gas and oil production up 33%).  More than 2/3 of this occurs in Alberta, where the tar sands represent 63% of total production but only 51% of economic value (tar sands production represents about 3% of Canada’s GDP in 2015).  Other sources put the tar sands annual value as less than 2% or more than 4% of Canada’s GDP (an HIS Cera 2014 report claimed a $91B contribution by tar sands operations to GDP in 2012, presumably by liberal inclusion of flow-on activity).  There are many ways to measure contributions to GDP.

The tar sands are also contributing less to government revenues than they were in past years.  Revenues come principally as royalties and corporate income tax, plus some lease and land sale income.  Hughes points out that StatsCan data reveal a 63% decline Canada-wide in oil and gas royalty revenue since 2000 despite a 27% increase in oil and gas production over that time.  Royalties are down 74% as a proportion of total oil and gas revenues over that time.  In Alberta, the decline in royalty revenue since 1980 has been 90% despite a doubling in production, and now amounts to just over 3% of Alberta revenue.  It seems we Canadians have been selling off our fossil fuel resources for less and less money as time goes by.  Just to rub in some salt, Hughes also documents a decline of 51% from its 2006 peak in corporate tax revenue in the industry.  While some will argue that the income taxes paid by workers in the industry should be included in revenues derived from the industry, most of these people would be working in other construction jobs if we were not employing them to build out the tar sands.

Royalties are way down, while production and corporate revenue are way up.  Does that make economic sense for Canada?  Image © Hughes GSR

I put these numbers together and draw the same conclusion Hughes does.  The tar sands industry is substantial, but it is not so big that Canada would collapse economically without it.  And its contribution to GDP and Government revenues has been falling despite its growth in output.

How about our moral obligation to dig up and ship out every mineral resource in this fair land?  Yes, this can generate jobs, but Canada has a well-educated work force that should be capable of doing far more than hewing wood, drawing water, or digging.  In 2018, we should be seeking to expand the kind of high-value-added, knowledge-based employment opportunities that might be able to provide the employment security that used to characterize heavy industry.  Also, there is something plainly dumb about exporting raw resources so people elsewhere can get the value-added profits – Canada has a long history of this kind of dumbness, ever since we started shipping furs to Europe.

Fur traders in Canada 1777.  Image © Library and Archives Canada

The transition away from a carbon-intensive economy is going to require heavy construction to provide enhanced electrical and data grids, expanded generation capacity in renewable and nuclear energies, modern, high-speed road and rail transport.  Construction skills learned in the tar sands are transferable.  Furthermore, just because we have resources does not mean we are obligated to use them – they don’t have use-by dates, and we can always dig them up later if new opportunities for creative use come along.  And, climbing briefly onto my moral high horse, if we properly understood our relationship to the environment, we’d not get stuck thinking of it as a larder full of stuff for us to use.  In fact, as I show below, we simply cannot afford to fully exploit the tar sands no matter what some tar baby-stuck politicians may think.  The failure to convert natural capital into dollars can become a virtue, as well as a great way to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere, something we all should reflect upon from time to time.

Pipelines to tidewater – it’s a cry heard repeatedly across this land in recent decades; some shout it out as a business necessity, something that must be ensured by any government worthy of its name in order to sustain the economy, others shout it out as a red line never to be crossed, a sign that Canada has no soul, has not listened to First Nations people or other affected parties, or is dead to the environmental risks that expansion of the tar sands enterprise will bring.  There is a lot of heat on both sides of this argument; is it possible to discover the truth?

The argument from proponents is that the Alberta oil industry suffers from a lack of capacity to ship the products from wells to refineries.  Buried in history, there were sound reasons for not building more refinery capacity within Alberta, I’m told. (How sound, I often wonder.)  At present the great majority of product heads south to the refineries of Texas, Oklahoma and so on, and the process of building additional pipeline capacity has become fraught as environmental restrictions have been tightened, and resistance to pipelines has grown.  The argument includes the word ‘tidewater’ because, as well as a need for additional capacity, there is a need for more flexibility with respect to markets, and an argument that Alberta tar sands bitumen sells at a steep discount relative to world oil prices because it goes to one, well-supplied market.  People who support this argument look askance at anyone who questions it – the economic logic seems so compelling.  But is it true?

Firstly, nobody claims that bitumen is piling up across the Alberta high prairie because there is no way to ship it out.  The claim is that the extra capacity is needed very soon to cope with the expansion of production that is going to occur.  And it is needed as soon as possible so we can capture the rich Asian market before other suppliers fill that demand and shut Canada out.  (Perhaps worth reflecting here that oil arriving on the west coast via the existing Trans-Mountain pipeline goes almost entirely to Washington and California; Asia does not seem to be clamoring for a piece of the action.)

I have reported before on David Hughes masterful documentation of the flaw in this pipeline capacity argument.  He repeats the argument in Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018, and I have yet to see anybody refute it.  (It’s uncanny how the proponents of pipeline building continue to make the argument, but don’t bother to shut down Hughes’s traitorous claims.  If he is incorrect, surely one or another oil tycoon could take the time to point that fact out?)

Fig. 81 Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018, showing how existing pipeline capacity is sufficient for need well past 2030, and with a tiny use of rail through 2040 so long as Alberta’s cap on tar sands production is complied with.  Both Keystone XL and Trans-Mountain expansion are surplus to need.  Why are they being built?  Image © CCPA.

This chart contains the germ of Hughes’s debunking claim.  Using data from CAPP and National Energy Board and updating his presentation to take account of recent decisions on pipelines, the figure shows that there is ample capacity into the future at least to 2040 for any realistic expansion in production.  True, most of the capacity shunts the bitumen south to Texas and Louisiana the way it has always been, but separately Hughes reveals that the price discount that requires pipelines to tidewater was a transitory thing that has now disappeared again, apart from a residual amount that has to do with the lack of desirability of this product relative to oils from other places.  Like it or not, Canada’s Ethical Oil is nasty stuff to handle, and refining it costs more than is the case for other crude.  It will always command a lower price.

True, back in the heady days when everyone ‘knew’ that tar sands production was going to triple by 2030, the need for additional pipeline capacity in the near future was a strong argument in favor of building more of them.  But that scenario is long gone, and there now exists a cap on tar sands production put in place by the Alberta government as part of its own program for responding to climate change.  Hughes’s argument against additional pipelines is simply that if the cap is going to be complied with, and if Canada is going to at least try to meet its self-imposed obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, then production capacity in the tar sands is not going to expand to the point where additional pipeline capacity will be necessary.  Why build them if they are not needed?

The final part of the Myth is that a rapid expansion of tar sands production is not only necessary and desirable, it is compatible with sound, sustainable environmental management including mitigation of climate change.  To deal with this we must look at emissions due to extraction and processing (to the point of export) and Canada’s permissible total cumulative emissions if we are going to meet our Paris Agreement targets.

While some may call it ethical, tar sands ‘oil’ is definitely dirty and hard to handle.  Because it is a semisolid, it does not flow readily in wells or in pipelines.  Some of it is extracted from vast open pit mines requiring heavy equipment and the energy such equipment consumes.  Mostly it is too deep to be dug up and is mined by injecting steam deep underground to warm up the bitumen and make it more fluid.  Producing and pumping all that steam adds to the cost, and to the energy cost, of bitumen mining.  Either way, bitumen extraction is an energy-intensive operation.

Once at the surface, the product must be modified to make it possible to ship it through pipelines.  Some of the peanut butter-like bitumen is upgraded to produce synthetic crude oil; most is mixed with diluents to make it more liquid, either before upgrading, or before shipping as dilbit (diluted bitumen – the stuff that will flow through the Trans-Mountain expansion).  Upgrading is a set of energy-intensive fractionation and chemical processes that strip out much of the sulfur and heavy metals.  Adding diluent is a simpler, physical mixing process that dilutes the bitumen with other hydrocarbon thinning agents.  These diluents are mostly natural gas condensate, a widely available byproduct of oil and gas mining, but refined naptha or synthetic crude (from upgrading) may also be used.  The industry even builds pipelines for shipping diluent to points where it will be combined with the bitumen (the existing Trans-Mountain line ships condensate from the west coast to Alberta, and then ships dilbit back to the coast).  All of these steps add cost and consume energy.

Getting tar sands product from the ground to the foreign refinery, whether in the US or elsewhere, is thus an expensive, and an energy intensive operation.  The energy cost or EROI (energy return on investment) averages about 4:1 for in situ operations and about 8:1 for surface mining and upgrading.  Conventional oil mining has an EROI in the 11:1 to 17:1 range (the ratio refers to units of energy obtained vs units of energy consumed in extraction and processing).  When you are using the equivalent of one barrel of oil for every four barrels you obtain, profit margins are thin.

From an environmental perspective, emissions of CO2 per barrel are an important characteristic, and as expected, tar sands bitumen compares unfavorably with other sources of fuel.  Total emissions resulting from getting tar sands bitumen out of the ground and to refineries range from 189.1 to 254.6 kg CO2 per barrel, compared to 97.6 kg CO2 per barrel for typical conventional Canadian oil, and 55.1 kg CO2 per barrel for Hibernia oil (Newfoundland), a high-quality, light, sweet oil.

These high emissions per barrel produced make operation of the tar sands projects now the most important source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.  Total emissions in 2015 from this source were 71Mt CO2e (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) and Alberta has legislated a 100 Mt CO2e per year cap on total tar sands emissions as part of its climate change policy.  On current growth projections, the industry will reach this cap in about 2024.  The tar sands currently contribute about 10% of Canada’s total emissions.  By 2024, the cap limits production, although improved technology permits continued slow growth in output so that tar sands production reaches about 4.5 Mb/d at an emissions cost of 100 Mt CO2e per year by 2040.  And this is where the real crunch comes; tar sands production creates too much CO2 pollution to be compatible with Canada doing its part on climate change.

To summarize at this point, every part of the Grand Tar Sands Myth is debunked.  This is an important but small portion of Canada’s economy – a fact revealed when tar sands activity collapsed during and following the 2008 recession, while Canada, overall, did better than many G8 nations.  We do not have some moral obligation to fully exploit Alberta’s tar sands, and certainly no obligation to dig them up and export them quickly.  We have sufficient pipeline capacity already, and the tidewater argument (the price differential for Canadian oil) is invalid.  And the GHG emissions that result from tar sands exploitation are so massive that continued mining at current or expanded rates is incompatible with any reasonable response by Canada to climate change.  (Note I have not bothered to comment on the other environmental impacts – consumption of water in a semi-arid environment with a drying climate, heavy metal and PAH contamination of the land and water, low altitude NO, SO2 and particulate air pollution, vast, toxic tailings ponds and no known processes for eventual environmental restoration – I’ve commented on them in the past.)

Canada’s commitment under the 2015 Paris agreement

Every signatory country to the Paris Agreement is required to provide a voluntary commitment on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  Canada has done this and had made earlier commitments with reference to the Kyoto Agreement, and the Copenhagen Accord.  For Kyoto, Canada pledged to reduce emissions to 6% below levels in 1990 by 2012.  For Copenhagen, Canada pledged to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  For Paris, Canada pledged to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and ultimately by 80% below 2005 levels by 2050.  These commitments have all been judged insufficient by independent bodies, given Canada’s capacity to do more.

So much for promises.  The trend in emissions in Canada had been upward since 1990 until a slight dip during the 2008-9 recession, followed by a more gradual increase since.  Throughout the Harper years, government obfuscated, including the memorable phrase “half-way to our 2020 target” when emissions were actually increasing instead of decreasing.  With the arrival of PM Justin’s sunny ways government, there was a sense that things would be different, but the pledge made in Paris, was the one prepared by the Harper government before they lost power (woefully inadequate), and it has yet to be strengthened.  Meanwhile targets are failing to be met.

Environment and Natural Resources Canada reports Canadian GHG emissions in 1990 were 603 Mt CO2e (these data do not include any contribution from land use changes such as timber harvest or reforestation).  In 2005, they had risen to 732 Mt CO2e, and they reached 745 Mt CO2e in 2007.  In 2012 (the Kyoto target date) they had declined slightly to 707 Mt CO2e, or 17% above 1990 levels – 23% higher than the Kyoto target!  In 2020, current trends suggest emissions will be in the range 693 to 725 Mt CO2e, well above the 607 Mt CO2e target!  In 2030, the expectation is 636 – 775 Mt CO2e, again well above the 512 Mt CO2e target.  Canada is doing a deplorable job of meeting its own targets, and growth in tar sands production is one of the main roadblocks standing in the way.  In fact, as this graph shows, if Canada were somehow able to get onto a path towards meeting the 2030 and 2050 targets (the dotted line), the planned growth in tar sands production – fully supported as part of our sunny ways – requires that all non-gas and oil emissions in our economy must be cut in half by 2030, and must be pinched off almost completely by 2040.  The likelihood of that happening is sort of like the sky outside my house filling up with a flotilla of winged pigs.

The inadequacy of Canada’s targets also needs reflection.  If the world behaves as Canada is behaving in setting too timid emissions reduction targets (and many countries are doing as poor a job in this respect as Canada), the world is heading for a +4oC warming by the end of this century and further warming in the century following.  Kiss 2oC goodbye, maybe?  Or maybe recognize that sometime soon, enough people will realize that we really do not want a 4oC world, and countries will step up to do a better job of wrestling climate change to the ground.  That means substantially stronger commitments to reduce emissions, and actions to achieve those commitments.  Where does that leave Canada’s tar sands?  Or, more particularly, where does that leave Canada?  It leaves us recognizing that, barring some amazing new technology that permits continued use of oil and gas, with the CO2 somehow captured and stored away from the atmosphere, most of the tar sands bitumen that we plan to extract and process between now and 2040 is going to stay in the ground.  We cannot afford to unpack it.  Furthermore, as well as keeping the tar sands in the ground, we will be rapidly transitioning away from use of all fossil fuels by mid-century – just 32 years from now.  Now that is a task that will provide ample employment, government revenue, and GDP value to replace the tar sands industry – an interesting form of mining for a strange product during its relatively short history in Canada.

Politics, Logic, and Pipelines

Back to the present and the Trans-Mountain expansion.  One of the most difficult lessons for politicians and businessmen is that Nature does not compromise.  Nature just is.  Nature operates by various natural laws, and these laws are immutable.

The world is currently starting to grasp the fact that climate change is real, that it is happening, and that its consequences for our happy little lives are every bit as challenging as scientists warned they would be.  North Carolina is just now grappling with a relatively weak hurricane Florence – only a category 1 when it finally reached land, and rapidly downgraded to tropical storm status.  But climate change has ensured a) that Florence would move slowly (weather across North America has been moving slowly for months now because a warm Arctic is causing the jet stream to meander more), and b) would carry immense amounts of water to be dropped on the land as torrential rains.  North Carolina famously legislated sea level rise out of existence in 2012; a pity they did not do the same for hurricanes.

Preparing for Florence at North Topsail Beach, North Carolina.  How long will we keep pretending this is land rather than a shallow sand bar?  Image © Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Justin Trudeau figured he could compromise on climate and oil, achieving a classic win-win, while boosting his popularity with environmentalists wanting a serious commitment to climate change, and Albertans wanting the son of Pierre Trudeau to support their oil industry against those who would shut it down.  If anything, climate is changing more rapidly than expected, and the absolute inadequacy of what Canada has committed to so far in terms of mitigation is becoming more and more obvious.  Never mind the fact that actions have been far less committed than words.  Environmentalists have become tired of the Liberal government going gently, gently on climate, rather than supportive of a government that claims it is trying to do the right thing.  Poor Environment Minister McKenna, hosting a meeting of G8 Environment Ministers in Halifax this week, finds herself forced to talk up the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans because it is a relatively straightforward issue that might get a measurable nudge forward at this conference, in contrast to climate change (also on the agenda).  McKenna needs the occasional win, and nothing is happening in Canada on climate except for a growing noise from unenlightened provincial Premiers who want to challenge the planned federal carbon tax in the courts.

Nor has the task of appeasing the oil industry gone well.  The environmental opposition to expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline is as strong as ever.  Kinder-Morgan, the previous owner of the pipeline, eventually decided the battle was not worth it, and Justin Trudeau, in desperation, announced Canada would buy it and complete it.  Kinder-Morgan’s decision, made on an evaluation of the business case, provided a glorious opportunity to stop his impossible straddle between the tar-baby and the climate, but PM Justin decided he could not afford the political cost of ‘abandoning Alberta’.  Now Canada owns the pipeline, and the intention to get it expanded is as strong as ever.

And so, government funds will be spent to employ some construction workers and buy some pipe and whatever else is needed to build a pipeline we do not need.  Justin knows in his heart that the days of the tar sands are numbered even if he mostly avoids saying so.  He did let it slip out once early last year, referring to a ‘managed phase-out’ of the tar sands, but apologized quickly for ‘mis-speaking’.

So here we are, proud Canadian owners of a pipeline for an industry that shows plenty of evidence that its glory days are behind it.  Major overseas investors are walking away or announcing intentions to divest from the oil industry.  Capital investment in the tar sands has dropped to about $12B in 2018 from $25B three years earlier.  Jeff Lewis, writing in the Globe & Mail this April, said, “Here we have oil [globally] almost back to a 4.5 year high and Canadian names are languishing” – his meaning – that the lack of value in the tar sands was recognized within the industry.  Jeffrey Sachs, also in the Globe & Mail in April, in an article titled “Forget Trans Mountain” pointed to the fact that the world must substantially decarbonize by 2050, and that higher-cost, higher-polluting sources of oil will be the first to go.  In his view, Canada should be investing in a strengthened, North American, electricity grid, and selling low-carbon hydroelectric power to the USA which wants low-carbon sources of power.  This would be a far more profitable, and a far more environmentally responsible action than paying for the Trans Mountain pipeline for nothing to nowhere.  Of course, Sachs is just a US academic (Columbia University) who does not understand the need to support Alberta’s oil industry.   We Canadians know better.  Or do we?

The Trans Mountain pipeline – will it become the pipeline to nowhere?  Image © Kinder-Morgan

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | 2 Comments

Restoring Our Relationship with the Natural World


On 6th August, 2018, a paper was published on-line at the PNAS site.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS to its friends), is a highly respected science journal that has been published since 1915.  The article, by Will Steffen, of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Australian National University, and 15 co-authors from European and US institutions, was titled Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.  In it, Steffen and colleagues claimed that there now exists a significant risk that human-caused warming has already brought the planet close to a tipping point beyond which the action of various, naturally-occurring, positive feedback mechanisms will push the planet towards further warming.  Rather than allowing stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises, we would experience continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway, even as human emissions are reduced.  Their use of “Hothouse Earth” undoubtedly helped garner attention, but the idea of a runaway greenhouse effect has been around since James Hansen wrote Storms of my Grandchildren in 2009.  It’s a chilling prospect, but a careful read of Steffen et al suggests we are not quite there yet.  Maybe we will buckle down and undertake the massive behavioral and technological change to transition ourselves away from use of polluting sources of energy.

Planet Earth has been cycling around the glacial-interglacial cycle since the start of the Pleistocene, 2.6 million years ago.  Recent human activities have bounced it outside the normal path of that cycle (small globe just above center of image).  Steffen and colleagues fear we may be close to a tipping point at which non-anthropogenic, positive feedbacks will propel us onto a new trajectory towards a hothouse Earth with temperatures well above present day conditions.  With appropriate human action, it may be possible to move onto a sustainable path with temperatures little warmer than at present.  Points A, B, C, and D on the hothouse path refer to sets of conditions that may be reminiscent of times in the distant past, when Earth was substantially warmer than today.  Image © W. Steffen and PNAS

The notion that what people do as we operate our global economy plays a major role in determining the state of the planet is still novel, poorly appreciated, and even not yet heard by many people (see my earlier comments here).  The idea that we cannot continue on our present path, or even one close to it, without causing great changes to the nature of this planet remains an idea that many people have never taken seriously, and the idea that we must begin to act to steer the planet in a favorable direction is even less appreciated (I elaborate on this here and here).

In recent months I have been mulling over why this message is not getting through, because despite the growing evidence of the serious problems we are creating for ourselves, and despite the growing effectiveness with which this story is being disseminated around the world, only a minority of us understand either the seriousness or the urgency of our predicament.  Although people like me often talk about the environmental crisis, it is a growing crisis for our own way of life.  Rational self-interest should ensure that we are much more concerned than we are.

Few of us understand the real challenge of the Anthropocene; not only must we care for our planet, we have to steer it to safe places using skills we’ve never used before, much as modern Hawaiians learned to use ancient skills to move safely across its oceans.
Photo of Earth
© Sustainingourworld.com, Photo of Hokule’a © Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Among the several possibilities for why most people still don’t get this message – I have blogged about these possibilities here and here – is the nature of our relationship to the rest of the biosphere.  Because we have objectified nature, turning it into a storehouse of things freely available for our use and a garbage container for our waste, it is difficult for us to recognize that we might have responsibilities to nature as well as rights.  Because we have become so very powerful, we need to temper our actions so that we preserve the status of the biosphere, maintaining it in a state that, among other things, favors our own continued well-being.  In short, perhaps we need to evaluate and reconfigure our relationship to the natural world and begin to act as if we are an important part of the biosphere rather than its owner.  With that changed perspective, we’d be better able to accept the need to behave in ways that are environmentally sustainable.  And that brings me to #2018MSE.

Muskoka Summit on Environment

On May 24-25, 2018, the fifth Muskoka Summit on Environment took place at the Rene Caisse Theatre.  The fact that Summits have been held every other year since 2010, in a tiny town of 16,000 residents, speaks volumes for the degree of commitment towards environment in this part of Ontario.  True, we live in a marvelous place of rocks and trees and water, one of the top tourism destinations in North America, but Muskoka is also a municipality which walks the talk.  Municipal governments, the business community, and residents all recognize the importance of our vibrant natural environment to our economy and to our lives.  The existence of the Muskoka Summit is proof of that commitment, and a demonstration that even tiny communities, devoid of a university or other center of academic excellence, are able to develop ways to come together and deliberate on important environmental issues.  As in previous years, I took part as one of the organizers.

One tradition we have maintained ever since the first 2010 Summit has been to develop a communiqué that summarizes the outcome of our discussions.  In 2018, the Summit dealt with our relationship with the natural world, a relationship we find in serious need of restoration.  This year’s communiqué was not a statement outlining the steps to take in rebuilding that relationship – we did not arrive at a specific set of steps in just two days.  It was, instead, an attempt to state the problem, make suggestions, and raise possibilities.  Getting to that point was an achievement, given that sizeable numbers of people in western society have never given a thought to the nature of our relationship to the natural world, never mind, to the possibility that it needs to change.

It did not end up as a one-pager, let alone a single 288-character tweet, and it’s possible that at just over 4 pages it will prove too long for many people to read it through.  But I have faith that some people will.  And I also believe that it makes some arguments that deserve a wider exposure than it has received so far.  What follows is an unedited text (you can also download it here).  My hope is that it will stimulate the kind of thinking, and the kind of action, that will help bring about a major realignment of humanity’s view of itself in the world.  I see such a realignment in our future, giving far greater recognition to the needs of the biosphere than we in the consumer-based, global economy have typically shown.

Restoring our Relationship with the Natural World

A Statement from the 2018 Muskoka Summit on Environment



In 2018, humanity faces environmental challenges of epic proportion.  Through our success in building an enormous global population and a similarly large and dynamic economy, we have created a complex web of interacting problems that threaten the continued reliability of this planet as a place in which humans can live their lives.  Our actions have made us a major driver of the substantial environmental changes now taking place: changes to the climate, the landscape, the structure and dynamics of natural ecosystems, the availability of essential nutrients and that of numerous pollutants, and both the abundance and the genetic and biological diversity of life itself.  Ironically, we mostly understand what we are doing, and how we might correct our behavior.  Yet we are failing to mobilize sufficient will to act to make the changes that are necessary.  Telling people about the problems and asking for corrective action simply is not working.

The goal of this Summit was to examine our relationship with the natural world, and ask whether, and how, we might change it to build a greater commitment to act to bring the human enterprise into harmony with the biosphere.  Each of our speakers brought a particular perspective; this statement sets out the problem, and possible solutions. 

Our prevailing attitude to nature – that we own it, have dominion over it, or are entitled to use it – both objectifies nature, and sets us clearly outside it.  With nature objectified, environmental problems become minor ones, even irrelevant when compared to political, economic or other societal problems.  The reality is that humanity is one of many living parts of a complex, interconnected system that sustains life on this, the only planet known to support life.  We are inside nature, not outside.  We must do a much better job of informing people of the many ways in which environmental problems impinge on human well-being.  In this way we can better convey the urgency with which the environmental crisis must be addressed – ignoring it directly impacts our own lives and those of our children.  We must also do a better job of reporting environmental successes and describing solutions to present problems.  In other words, we have a major communication problem, rather than a science problem before us.  We can solve that problem using a coalition that draws from a broad range of expertise and experience to convey the reality of humanity in the 21st century — that we are a part of the biosphere, and that pragmatic self-interest, rather than tree-hugging naiveté, drives calls to alter attitudes and behavior.  Taking this approach, we should find far more success in reaching out to other people for whom the natural world is still a set of things available for our use.

Our perspective on the world

When we are asked to visualize a map of the world, most of us see some approximation of a Mercator projection, north pole at the top, with the familiar shapes of the land masses neatly subdivided into an irregular checkerboard of small and large patches in various primary colors.  For many of us, Canada is a cheerful red!  The real world does not look a bit like this; it is a mainly blue sphere with land masses colored in greens and browns, and any patchwork evident bears no relationship to the patterns we imagine.  Our image of the world has been shaped by our education, traditions, and cultural identity; it is an image which emphasizes ownership.  We imagine the land masses, and increasingly the coastal oceans, to all be owned by individual humans, by corporations or other socioeconomic constructs, or by one of a series of nation states.

Legal systems are societal constructs that exist to facilitate the interactions among humans, providing a framework of rules that helps us conduct our individual lives in ways that minimize conflicts with each other for space, for mates, and for food and other resources.  Two thousand years ago, legal systems were designed to sustain strongly hierarchical social structures with a sovereign individual at the top of the pyramid.  Over time, legal systems have evolved to lessen the differences in rights among individuals.

When the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, voted to approve the final text of its Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776, it included the now well-known phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  That phrase, novel in its time, referred to white men with property.  Only in subsequent years did the US legal system extend these ‘unalienable rights’ to less wealthy men, to women, or to people of color.  Legal systems in Canada and other nations have undergone similar patterns of change[1] as humans, worldwide, broadened our conception of the entities deserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Non-human lifeforms and the forests, watersheds, or other ecosystems they comprise have until very recently been granted no such rights.  Instead, they have been objectified and treated (if treated at all) as property, things to be owned and used.  Meanwhile, non-living human constructs such as corporations, states or nations have been declared to be persons with most or all of the same rights as other people.[2]

It does not have to be this way.  In some societies that have developed outside the western tradition, recognition of rights has extended beyond humanity and its constructs.  This may also have been the case in our earliest social groups prior to the development of written law and the rigorously-structured legal systems mostly familiar to us.  It is worth reflecting on why legal systems which narrowly circumscribe those entities entitled to rights and privileges have come to predominate in the modern world.  It is worth asking whether this needs to be the case, and whether this is a good thing.

Our impacts on the environment

At present, humanity consumes natural resources at about one and a half times the rate at which they can be produced by our planet[3].  The waste products of our economies and our individual lives place nearly impossible burdens on natural systems, polluting water, soil and atmosphere.  Our impacts are now so large that human activities are a major driver in the planetary-scale changes taking place.  Many of these changes, such as those in climate, are now far more rapid than at any time in the history of civilization from the earliest dawn of agriculture.  The difference between this human-influenced world, and the world of the Holocene (which commenced 11,500 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene), is so great that the world geological community has proposed naming the present age the Anthropocene (the start date is currently under discussion).  Our impacts on the planet are expected to increase substantially as our population grows from today’s 7.6 billion to about 10 billion by 2050, and as our average standards of living increase across the world.  Our growing impacts have severe consequences for the biosphere, for many individual species and ecosystems, and for our own lives.[4]  While the ideal of environmentally sustainable human development has long been aspired to, and was formalized in the 1987 Brundtland Report[5], and in the 1992 Rio Declaration[6], the trend in subsequent years has been for continued degradation of environmental quality when viewed at a global scale.  We now face challenges of existential proportion.

In 2018, the UN IPBES[7] released a series of reports on impacts of land degradation.  They reported that less than 25% of the global land surface remains free of substantial negative human impacts.  This fraction is projected to become less than 10% by 2050, mostly in desert, high altitude, tundra or polar regions largely incapable of supporting human societies.  This degradation contributes significantly to biodiversity loss and loss of ecosystem services such as water purification, food security and energy provisioning.  It compromises the lives of 3.2 billion people and reduces global economic output by 10%.  The largest driver of land degradation is the expansion and poor management of croplands and grazing land which now comprise more than one third of all land on the planet.  Some ecosystems have been hit harder than others: globally we have lost 54% of wetlands since 1900 (an 87% reduction in the last 300 years).  All of Muskoka’s forests have been clear-cut at least once in the last 200 years.

In the oceans, the extent of human impacts began later, but is now catching up to that on land.  No part of the oceans remains unfished, and we have reduced the standing stock of fishery species by 90% over the last 100 years.  Bottom trawling, which resuspends 22 gigatonnes of sediment per year, has substantially degraded benthic habitat over 20 million km2 or 75% of all continental shelves, significantly reducing the productive capacity of these environments.[8]  Chronic pollution has generated over 400 dead zones in coastal waters[9], and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, three times the size of France contains about 80,000 tonnes of floating plastic debris[10].  Our atmospheric releases of CO2 have not only warmed the oceans, but the dissolved CO2 is reducing ocean pH at a rate more than 10 times faster than at any time in the last 66 million years, threatening the existence of many marine species.[11]  Our warming of the planet has likely already shifted the equilibria of the immense Greenland and Antarctic ice masses sufficiently to ensure sea level will continue to rise for the next several hundred years, submerging all of our coastal cities in the process.

There is now a real risk that human activities could push the Earth system outside that state in which it has existed throughout the Holocene, likely destabilizing it in the process.  A Holocene planet is the only planet civilized humans have known, and it is not clear that we could easily adapt our agriculture or our economies to a radically different world.  A precautionary approach suggests we’d be wise to rein in our environmentally destructive behavior and learn to live within the parameters set by the planet, as governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.[12]

Our need for a new perspective

Our impacts on our planet, as witnessed during the last couple of decades, were anticipated by scientists working in the mid-20th century.  Science is now providing clear projections of what the next few decades will be like, depending on whether, and how we modify our activities.  News about the environmental crisis is widely available, especially news of ongoing climate change.

There are substantial changes being made within our societies:  Our care of environment is much more effective than it used to be, at least in those places where a serious effort to manage is made.  Most nations are now transitioning towards a carbon-free economy that uses energy more efficiently and chooses non-polluting energy sources where possible.  And yet we do not seem to be able to move quickly enough.[13]  The global rate of greenhouse gas emissions has not yet begun to fall.  Most national commitments under the Paris Agreement are insufficient (often woefully insufficient) to achieve the objective of no more than a 2oC increase (from preindustrial levels) in average global temperature by 2100.[14]  Land degradation, biodiversity loss, and many other measures of our destructive impacts all continue to worsen, sometimes at increasing rates.[15]  Obvious problems, such as massive plastic, pharmaceutical, and other chemical pollution, grow worse day by day in the face of too feeble efforts to correct them.  Short-term personal, corporate, or political interests continue to be put ahead of longer-term communal or global interests whenever they clash.

Providing people with the facts of the environmental crisis, as understood by scientists, has failed to be a strongly motivating factor getting most people to change the ways in which we interact with nature.  Indeed, in some countries the topic has become heavily politicized and the science is either ‘believed’ or ‘denied’ depending on one’s political affiliation.   We need more effective ways of raising awareness of the need to change.

It seems very likely that our prevailing perspective on environment is a large part of our problem.  Our conventional societal attitudes and legal systems can blind us to the need to manage environment for the long term rather than for today.  Our objectification of nature is blinding us to the fact that nature has needs that must be fulfilled; that it cannot continue to provide for our needs, no matter how we treat it; that in the final analysis, the physical, chemical, and biological laws of nature trump any laws crafted by humans.




Several of the Summit speakers, from different perspectives, talked of the need to approach the natural world with respect, and the ethical responsibility we share to care for it.  While such ideas resonated with Summit participants, these are not widely accepted ideas among those of us raised in a modern consumer society.  We must find ways to bring such ideas to the broader community, to help all of us understand that we are a part of the biosphere rather than its owners, and especially to appreciate that the environmental crisis directly threatens our own lives, not just the well-being of natural systems.

Bringing about such a fundamental philosophical shift within society is a major educational challenge; one that cannot be met solely by asking scientists to make the results of their research accessible to the public.  To achieve it will require a multifaceted effort that draws upon cultural, spiritual, esthetic, economic and political, as well as scientific traditions.  Achieving this change in perspective will also require modifications to conventional legal and economic thinking, although the argument that this more inclusive perspective is incompatible with a democratic, capitalist society is almost certainly overstated.

Acknowledging the need for this fundamental philosophical shift does not obviate the need to continue efforts to address specific aspects of the environmental crisis, but it does help reinforce the idea that each specific issue is part of an overarching problem – the problem of how we moderate our footprint on this planet.  Individuals adopting a more inclusive perspective on the world are likely to be more sympathetic to the need to act quickly and responsibly to address environmental ills.

Discussions at the Summit revealed a number of strategies for more effective engagement.

  • We have much to learn from other societies, and from other genders, ethnicities or cultural groups within our own.
  • Disciplines outside the sciences, including indigenous knowledge and faith traditions, have valuable messages to enrich our understanding of this world we inhabit and share, but while seeking to speak beyond the choir, we must learn to really listen to one another when we offer differing ideas.
  • Participants recognized that effective communication is a learnable skill, one that should be mastered by all those interested in a more ethical relationship with the rest of the biosphere.
  • We must become better story-tellers, using available data to tell engaging stories and to paint clear pictures of the consequences of NOT acting to correct environmental wrongs.
  • We must make even greater efforts to truly engage the political community, getting beyond the photo op in a political world of short timelines, and constant campaigning.
  • We should focus on involving our children in the natural world, since you only take care of what you love, and love of nature is readily accepted by the young.
  • We might also search for new ways to recognize the rights of wildlife, trees, or nature itself, and the obligations those rights impose upon us; ways that resonate in a fast-paced world of gadgets and media that isolate us from environment.  Would we not benefit from giving Muskoka the respect and care it deserves by striving to turn it into the greenest region of Ontario?

While there is clearly much work to be done, there are reasons to be optimistic.  We have solved complex environmental problems in the past, and we largely understand the problems that currently confront us.  There are feasible solutions, using current technology, for the environmental challenges we face.  Indeed, the global environmental crisis could become the impetus we need to create a world where people live in genuine harmony with nature, and there are encouraging signs that we may be starting to move in that direction.  Achieving that world is a worthy though challenging goal for every individual who values life.  Continuing down that path requires only that each of us takes another step.  And then another, preferably while holding hands in a forward-thinking coalition.

It is much easier to care for a place if you love it first.  It is easier to love it, if you see yourself as part of it.  North Muskoka River, 2013.


[1] See Boyd, David R., 2017, The Rights of Nature: a legal revolution that could save the world, ECW Press, Toronto.

[2] Ibid.  Boyd’s book provides an accessible account of the evolution of legal thought and legislation on rights

[3] ‘our planet’ is used to refer to the planet on which humanity exists, not to suggest that we own it.  It is our home in this universe.

[4] Data on the current extent of human impacts on our planet are available in Steffan, W., et al., 2015, Science 347 (622), 1259855; Rockström, J., and M. Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press, New Haven; and many other articles and books.

[5] The Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future was the final, and primary product of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission, established as an independent entity in 1984 by the UN General Assembly, and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway.

[6] The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was the primary agreement of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3 to 14 June, 1992.  The Rio Declaration included 27 principles intended to guide sustainable development by the 170 signatory countries, including (#15) the precautionary principle, and (#16) the polluter pays principle.

[7] IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a UN organization, released the Summary for Policy-Makers for its thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration in March 2018.  It can be downloaded at https://www.ipbes.net/event/ipbes-6-plenary

[8] Oberle, FKJ, et al. 2016, What a drag: Quantifying the global impact of chronic bottom trawling on continental shelf sediment, Journal of Marine Systems 159: 109-119.

[9] Diaz, RJ, & R Rosenberg, 2008, Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems, Science 321: 926-929

[10] LeBreton, L, et al., 2018, Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic, Scientific Reports 8: 4666

[11] Jewett, L & A. Romanou, 2017, Ocean acidification and other ocean changes. Chapter 13 in: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I (DJ Wuebbles, et al. Eds.), U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, pp. 364-392.

[12] Rockström, J, & M Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press.

[13] Boyd, DR, 2017, The Rights of Nature, ECW Press, Toronto

[14] Hill, JS, reports on emissions commitments on 4th May 2018, at Clean Technica: The “Paris Tango” — Some Countries Step Forward On Climate Action, Others Step Backhttps://cleantechnica.com/2018/05/04/the-paris-tango-some-countries-step-forward-on-climate-action-others-step-back/

[15] IPBES, 2018, Thematic Assessment of Land Degradation and Restoration, Summary for Policy-Makers. https://www.ipbes.net/event/ipbes-6-plenary




Categories: Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics | 1 Comment

Dragons and Tribes: more about communicating the coral reef story to the public.


I’ve been pondering the relative lack of impact on people of the coral reef crisis.  Reefs have been degrading for a long time, probably ever since human populations became powerful enough to rearrange the landscapes near them or catch fish in significant quantities from their waters.  But degradation and loss of coral reefs has hastened over the last 40 years or so, and projections for the future are dire.  I thought that would prove a powerful wake-up call to humanity about what we were doing to our planet.  That did not happen.

This figure, from a recent paper articulating a triage approach to choosing which reefs to save shows a) the increase in atmospheric CO2 and major bleaching events, b) an image of bleaching coral, and c) a projection of episodes of significantly warm water, suggesting most reefs will be lost even if we do bring climate under control (achieve the Paris 2oC goal).
© HL Beyer et al.

I’ve been pondering because I want to know why this global change to coral reef ecosystems, so powerfully obvious to scientists, managers, and just plain citizens who spend time around reefs, has had a relatively minor impact on people around the world.  I vividly remember being at a coral reef conference about a year after the 1998 pan-tropical global bleaching event triggered by the strong 1997-98 el Niño.  Talk about the extent of the losses was frequent in the lobbies and bars, and there were numerous papers documenting just how extensively some coral reefs had been damaged.  One hope kept emerging; this would be the crisis the world needed to wake up to the risks of climate change.  Those corals would not have bleached in vain because, like so many canaries in coal mines, they would wake up the world.  Shows how naïve the science community can be!  We saw what was happening and understood what it predicted; rest of the world, not so much.

Severe bleaching has been hitting coral reefs only since the early 1980s (a), but the frequency of events is increasing (d) and very few reefs have now not been severely bleached at least once (b).  Most reefs have been bleached multiple times (c), and each time there is some mortality.  Overall, this is a grim picture for people who’d like to see reefs on this planet later this century, especially given that the return times are now insufficient for adequate recovery of reef ecosystem structure.  Figure © TP Hughes and Science.

While I am particularly sensitized to news about how coral reefs are faring as the climate changes, there is now abundant evidence from all over the world that our changing climate is having major impacts.  Yet still there remain many people who think climate change is unimportant.  It’s an environmental story, something that is ‘too bad’ or ‘a pity’ or even ‘Geesh, who’d a believed that’.  But it’s not a sign that we really need to move on combating climate change before it is too late.  Somehow, the great bulk of humanity is far less troubled by the signs climate change is leaving all about us than am I, or many other environmentally aware people.  Most people have no sense of urgency.

As I have pondered, as I have watched reactions when I speak on climate change to groups of citizens, and as I have lain awake nights wondering why most people just don’t get it, I’ve identified, talked about, and then discarded one explanation after another.  Most people have not yet been confronted with the evidence.  Most people do not understand the science.  Most people have been led astray by a powerful denialist campaign of disinformation and contradiction.  Most people have belief systems that just do not permit the possibility of existential crisis.  Most people are in denial because while they understand what is happening they are too selfish to make any changes to their lives to prevent it.  Each of these possibilities is valid, to a degree, for some of those people.  But even when I talk about these reasons for failing to see what is happening, that does not seem to sway people.  There has to be something more.

As a scientist, I have found it difficult to recognize that people do not make most decisions based on a rational analysis of the evidence.  As a person, who likes to think that he acts rationally most of the time, I’ve found it even more difficult to recognize that most people do not try and become rational evaluators of the evidence the moment a scientist points out to them that they should do so.  It is not that we fail to succeed at rational analysis of the evidence; it’s that we don’t put all that much stock in the value of acting rationally.  As a scientist, I now know that most people do not go through their lives acting as a scientist would.  And I have a nagging suspicion that I also do not go through life acting as a scientist would either.  Apart from the decisions we make in order to satisfy immediate personal needs – everything from scratching an itch, to grabbing food when hungry, to seeking sexual gratification – our decisions may contain an element of rationality, but they are also a driver of our behavior as members of social groups, and as such they are in turn driven by many other factors beyond a science-like attention to facts.  Two psychological papers demonstrate some of the complexity involved.

Slaying the Dragons of Inaction

A colleague recently drew my attention to a 2011 paper by Robert Gifford, published in American Psychologist.  Gifford is an environmental psychologist who investigates the psychological aspects contributing to why we think and act the way we do on environmental issues.  Under the delightful title, “Dragons of Inaction” his paper discusses seven general types of psychological barrier that together impede our ability to act to remedy climate change.  As Gifford puts it, there is a “gap between attitude (“I agree this is the best course of action”) and behavior (“but I am not doing it”) with regard to environmental problems.”  This gap is created by these dragons, the psychological barriers.  These are not new barriers devised by Gifford, but his paper was the first to bring discussion of them together.  Gifford identifies 29 different barriers, which he groups into the seven dragons.

A dragon made of pieces of a CD

The seven dragons are limited cognition, ideology, comparison with others, sunk costs, discredence, perceived risk, and limited behavior.  By limited cognition, Gifford means that we are famously less rational than we tend to assume.  Within this category, he includes the fact that our brains evolved to respond to immediate, personal threats (those stalking sabre-toothed cats), and ignorance.  He suggests ignorance on topics such as climate change includes both lack of knowledge that the problem exists (there are undoubtedly a few people still so ill-informed even in developed countries), and lack of knowledge about what to do about it.  Many people are unable to state precisely what is causing climate change and what possible remedies exist; and while knowledge of this type is growing, that learning is impeded by 1) the technical complexity of the subject, and by 2) the mixed messages in the media.  The latter arise due both to ineffective simplification of complex issues in publicly accessible media, and to deliberate denialist campaigns to distort or confuse, funded by groups or individuals with vested interests in continuation of present policy on e.g. use of fossil fuels.

To these obvious aspects of limited cognition Gifford adds environmental numbness, uncertainty, judgmental discounting, optimism bias, and perceived behavioral control/self-efficacy.  (I cannot resist observing here that ecologists are not the only ones who can make topics complicated in the process of explaining them!)

Environmental numbness arises because we are organisms that always tune out perceptions that are less immediately important to us, and because we also tune out repeated messages, the no longer new news.  Uncertainty is a barrier to responsiveness to environmental problems because we are organisms that tend to act in ways that favor immediate self-interest (those sabre-toothed cats again).  Since it is not possible to predict with certainty the pace, extent or consequences of future climate change, and since the science is usually presented along with accurate statements regarding degree of certainty, the human organism is predisposed to discount the risk of not acting to mitigate climate change, preferring to continue current patterns of behavior.  This effect of uncertainty creates real difficulties for those attempting to explain the science; making scientifically unjustified claims of certainty about future events might galvanize action by the public, but at the real risk of blowing up any credibility environmental scientists still possess.  Presenting the information accurately and dispassionately leads to a less effective uptake by the lay public.

By judgmental discounting Gifford refers to our rather weak capacity for correctly estimating risks at distant times in the future.  We tend to estimate risks of poor environmental outcomes as greater in other places than here even when there is no real difference, and we underestimate the severity of future risks here.  Consequently, we are less likely to act here and now to mitigate those risks.  Optimism bias refers to the widespread tendency to assume the best for ourselves.  Each of us will live forever in a happy and prosperous society even though other people will suffer and die.  I have difficulty seeing how Gifford separates optimism bias and judgmental discounting.  They seem to me like two sides of the same coin.

Limited cognition’s final aspect is perceived behavioral control, by which he means the perception that an individual’s actions can have any impact on future events.  Climate change is so complex and so global that it is common for individuals to shrug their shoulders and conclude that anything they might do will have no meaningful effect.  In Canada, while I often run into the ‘what good can I do’ comment reflecting this perceived lack of individual behavioral control, I also hear the comment, “Why should it matter if Canada reduces its CO2 emissions; we only contribute 1.7% of total emissions per year?”  That Canada still ranks within the 10 most highly emitting countries is forgotten, sometimes deliberately as a way of justifying inaction, but sometimes simply because of perceived behavioral lack of control applied not to the individual but to the nation.

The second of Gifford’s seven dragons is ideology.  He includes here worldviews, suprahuman powers, technosalvation, and system justification.  A commitment to free market capitalism is the worldview least likely to favor action on climate.  Formal religious beliefs in an all-powerful deity that cares about individual humans, more secular belief in an all-powerful ‘nature’, faith in humanity’s capacity for technological innovation to solve problems, and strong desire to not disturb the status quo socio-political system are other identified aspects of ideology.  In all these cases, the belief system provides strong incentives to not act on climate change.  Putting it more simply, beliefs trump facts.

This person is not putting beliefs ahead of facts, he’s just refusing to reach a conclusion!

Comparisons to others is the third dragon.  Included here are social comparison, social norms and networks, and perceived inequity.  People tend to act in ways that mirror actions of others.  Sometimes normative action is perceived and emulated (this tendency can be enhanced by effective social networks that facilitate the behavioral comparisons).  When societies are perceived as inequitable, the tendency to behave unselfishly is reduced.  Taken together its clear that changing behavior to achieve environmental goals has to take account of the social milieu in which the individual actors are embedded.

Sunk costs, the fourth dragon, includes behavioral as well as financial costs, conflicting values, goals or aspirations and attachment to place.  Habitual patterns of behavior are an impediment to behavioral change because they are habits, in much the same way that prior investment in particular ways of doing things – ownership of a car, for example – can impede changes in behavior because change will cost money.  Humans rarely find their various individual goals all aligned, and conflicting values, goals or aspirations can all impede the kind of behavioral change needed to solve environmental problems like climate change.  Attachment to place can give rise to classic nimbyism because of a desire that that place never change and, in this sense, such attachment becomes a sunk cost.  Of course, attachment to a place can also be a prime motivator for action to protect that place, including action to protect its climate.

Sunk costs are lost, whether or not you realize it.  But the act in many ways to stop us correcting views or changing behavior.  Cartoon © Scott Adams

Discredence, the fifth dragon, refers to tendency to disbelieve or even to be defiantly opposed to those supplying information and recommendations on environmental issues.  Trust is generally seen as essential for listeners to receive messages being delivered, and trust of citizens towards scientists or government officials can easily be lost. Sometimes recommended programs of action can seem unlikely to be effective, particularly programs that are modest in scope or entirely voluntary.  Perceived ineffectiveness does not encourage adoption and participation in the program.  A more aggressive level of opposition comes in the form of denial, sometimes simply a way of rationalizing a desire not to comply with or support environmental action, but sometimes denial is motivated by fear and becomes a way of blocking out bad news.  Also included under discredence is reactance, the tendency to react negatively to messages from particular distrusted sources.  Many people begin their assessment of information about climate change under an assumption that if it comes from a government agency, or from a member of ‘the elites’, it is not to be trusted.  Again, I’m unsure how I would differentiate lack of trust from reactance; the difference is nuanced.

Gifford’s sixth dragon is perceived risk.  This is the risk one takes on by changing behavior in order to address climate change – the risk of acting, rather than the risk incurred by ignoring the problem.  Again, Gifford sees several different types of risk in acting: functional, physical, financial, social, psychological and temporal.  Functional risks are risks that the new behavior will not be effective in combating the environmental problem.  Physical risks are direct risks to individual wellbeing incurred by changing behavior.  Financial risks refer to the possibility of added costs that may never be recouped, relative to the cost of continuing one’s life ignoring climate change.  Social risk is the risk of being ridiculed or ostracized by one’s social group because of the new behavior adopted, and psychological risk is damage to self-esteem such ridicule might provoke.  Finally, temporal risk refers to the time in planning and undertaking behavioral change that will have been wasted if the new behavior does not improve the environmental issue.  Gifford illustrates these kinds of risk by considering the purchase and use of a PHEV (plug-in hybrid) vehicle as a way of cutting one’s carbon footprint.  Such a decision carries each of these risks.  The PHEV, as new technology, may have problems preventing it from performing as expected (functional), it may be a less safe vehicle than the old SUV traded in for it (physical), it will certainly cost more to purchase (financial), owning it may invite scorn or ridicule from erstwhile friends (social) which may lead to depression (psychological), and the time taken in researching, deciding to purchase, learning how to operate it, and perhaps obtaining professional psychiatric help (temporal) may not have been worth it.

Who knew purchasing a PHEV could pose so many different kinds of risk?  I did it anyway.
Image of Honda Clarity © Car Gurus.

Having recently purchased a PHEV, I’ve found all these risks miniscule.  So maybe the PHEV option has become less risky since 2011.  Or maybe I am still busy justifying to myself that I made the right decision?

Gifford’s final dragon is limited behavior.  Today, many people are engaged to some degree in actions to reduce climate change.  Some people are more engaged than others, yet most of us could do more than we are currently doing.  As well as buying a PHEV, I could choose to become vegetarian and put solar panels on my roof (among many other choices), but I have not chosen to do so.  In this way, I have limited my behavioral change.  Gifford divides limited behavior into tokenism and rebound.  Tokenism involves the adoption of easier, less costly or less disruptive changes to behavior and then ignoring other possible changes.  Most of us are guilty of this to some degree.  Rebound occurs when, having made a behavioral choice in favor of reducing emissions, we slack off, perhaps bringing our carbon footprints back to where they were before we acted.  Taken together, tokenism and rebound act to limit what each of us might do in response to the climate emergency.  In essence, we are accepting that there needs to be a reduction in emissions of CO2, and we make some modest attempt in that direction; then we move on to other things (because it’s not healthy to obsess constantly about climate change), perhaps increasing our emissions in the process.

Gifford argues that these seven dragons of inaction need to be dealt with in any planning exercise or modeling effort designed to improve the acceptance of the need to act on climate change or similar environmental issues.  He notes that some of these dragons may be far more important than others, and like all good academics he calls for more research.  But he also makes clear that how individuals respond to messages about issues like climate change depends as much on social milieu, emotion, and motivation as it does on the nature of the message sent.  He also stresses that those of us seeking to inspire people to act on climate change need do the necessary research to identify ways of slaying these seven dragons.

Listening only to one’s tribe

The second article appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science in July 2018.  Written by Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado, and two colleagues at UC Santa Barbara, the article is titled, “Psychological Barriers to Bipartisan Public Support for Climate Policy”.  It is specific to the USA context, but I believe the principles it highlights would apply, with variation in other countries also.

At the present time, there appears to be a stronger polarization of attitudes to climate change in the United States than is the case in most other countries.  For many reasons the issue of climate change has become particularly strongly politicized in that country, and politics there is now very strongly polarized.

Data from the League of Conservation Voters reveals a widening gap between Democrat and Republican members of US Congress.  This gap reflects the politicization of climate change in that country.  Image © Inside Climate News.

Van Boven and colleagues did three things.  First, they conducted in-depth interviews with four recently retired members of the US Congress – two Democrats, two Republicans, one of each from the House of Representatives and the Senate.  All four had had particular interest in climate issues and had worked on cap-and-trade or climate-tax proposals when in the legislature.  Second, they undertook two population surveys (in 2014 and 2016), each of just over 1000 voters from across the USA.  The surveys explored voters’ opinions of climate change issues, but also explored their expectations concerning the opinions of others.  Third, they had participants in the 2014 survey take part in an experiment in which each read a description of a climate mitigation strategy (a cap-and-trade strategy or a carbon-tax).  The participants were divided, based on the survey results, into Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, and half of each group received information that the policy they read about had been proposed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in Congress.  The other half were informed that the policy described had been proposed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

The results are interesting.  Van Boven and colleagues showed that the majority of Republicans as well as the majority of Independents and Democrats, accept the reality of human-caused climate change.  True, a smaller proportion of Republicans than of Democrats share this view – the mean response for Republicans was < +1 on the scale from -3 to +3 in each year, while the mean for Democrats was slightly less than 2.  But both distributions of responses were clearly on the right-hand side of the figure they provide.  Independents scored between Democrats and Republicans.

Results of surveys in 2014 (a) and 2016 (b) in which respondents were asked to rate a series of statements about climate change on the scale: –3 = strongly disagree; –2 = moderately disagree; –1 = slightly disagree, 0 = neither agree nor disagree, +1 = slightly agree; +2 = moderately agree; +3 = strongly agree.  It’s clear that Democrats agree with the idea of anthropogenic climate change more strongly than Republicans, but it’s also clear that the majority in both groups generally supports this concept.  Independents are intermediate in their responses in both cases.  Image © Van Boven and Sage Publications.

Van Boven and colleagues comment on how well hidden is the fact that most Americans of all three political persuasions accept the reality of climate change.  This observation seldom appears in media reports.  The observation that the great majority of climate skeptics (71% in both surveys) are Republican is the sort of result that does get emphasized by the media (while the fact that these are a minority (only 25%) of all Republicans is seldom spelled out).

The surveys asked respondents for their opinion on how the ‘typical’ Democrat or Republican would view climate change.  Respondents tended to underestimate the extent of support for climate change ideas by ‘typical’ voters from both parties, but they underestimated Republican support more strongly.  In other words, people think voters identifying with the two political parties are further apart in their views on climate than they are.

From my perspective, the most interesting result was in how respondents reacted to cap-and-trade or carbon tax proposals, depending on whether they had been told the specific policy had been proposed by Democrats or Republicans.  If people were rational decision makers, they would evaluate described policies in a way that was congruent with their own view of the importance and the cause of climate change.  But that is not what happened.  To a much greater extent, their responses were dictated by which party was reported to have proposed the policy.  Democrats disliked Republican policy and Republicans disliked Democrat policy even when the policy description was identical.

Figure showing actual responses by respondents of designated political affiliation as well as their expectations of responses by ‘typical’ members of each party, to policies ostensibly proposed by either Democrat or Republican legislators.  Democrats favor Democrat policy and Republicans favor Republican policy, even when it’s the same policy.  And respondents think ‘typical’ members of each party will give party even higher priority than they do themselves.  Figure © Van Boven and Sage Publications.

Conservation science has long recognized the importance of ‘respected local leaders’ in encouraging the adoption by a community of novel conservation actions.  It is always more effective if a respected older fisher is able to articulate the benefits of establishing a closed season or a no fishing reserve as a way of sustaining the local fishery.  Far better they hear it from the respected elder than from a youngish, foreign-looking stranger who flew in to talk to them one Friday.  The same clearly applies to American members of political parties, and, I suspect, to some degree, within all advanced societies.  Better we hear the novel proposal from someone just like us.  Otherwise, on what basis do we believe the message?

How Do We Have Rational Discussion and Consensus Building around Environmental Policy?

Climate change and the environmental crisis more generally inevitably becomes a political problem the moment we move from describing what is happening to talking about changes in our behavior to remedy, repair, or avoid such problems in the future.  Taken together these two papers tell us that the discussion cannot be assumed to be entirely rational, a dispassionate examination of the facts.  People do not work like that.

In discussing his seven dragons of inaction, Gifford has focused on impediments to individuals changing their own behavior to improve climate outcomes.  He has revealed a long list of ‘extraneous’ factors that impede rational decisions to act.  Van Boven and colleagues have looked at one ‘extraneous’ factor that influences how individuals respond to climate change or policies being proposed to deal with it.  The importance of political affiliation, both of the individual and of the messenger (politician) who offers a policy for consideration, is remarkably clear.  In Gifford’s terminology, there are three dragons acting here: Ideology, Social Comparison, and Discredance.

In the USA, bulwark of capitalism, anything that smacks of limiting individual action will be resisted by a large minority of people.  Many Americans are ideologically incapable of viewing socialist solutions to shared problems favorably – be they a clean environment or a functioning health or education system.  They have been vaccinated against approaches that do not begin with the primacy of individual freedom.  At present, political polarization in the USA is so pronounced that one’s political ‘tribe’ or social group is of major importance in determining how to respond to environmental messages.  And recommendations that come from outside one’s tribe are automatically discounted.  In less politically polarized communities these effects of ‘tribe’ will surely be less pronounced, but we’d be naïve to expect they would not be present.

Climate change is an immense problem which is only going to be solved by a monumental transformation of the human enterprise.  While ‘the market’ may well ultimately adjust our behavior, I don’t have any expectation that markets will move against short-term self-interest and in favor of long-term communal (actually global) benefit sufficiently quickly to avoid catastrophic changes to our environment.  The time lags in the climate system are simply too great, and the required shift in human behavior too large for us to rely on market forces, no matter what some economists may believe.  Market forces work best when they are serving short-term self-interest.  Where is the evidence they have ever worked against that in favor of long-term global interest?  Nor is climate change going to be solved by us somehow engaging significant numbers of individuals across the planet to each do those things they can do individually to rein in their carbon footprints.  Apart from the fact that individual actions would do little to transform continental scale power grids to the extent they must be changed, Gifford’s seven dragons have not magically disappeared simply because he named them and provided a list.  How do we get an individual like me, who certainly sees climate change as a major problem that must be solved, to go beyond the token steps I have taken so far in my personal life?  On the kind of time scale that we must adopt if we want a smooth transition into a safe post-Holocene world?  Individual action won’t go nearly far enough, fast enough to do the job, any more than will waiting for the markets.

Whether we admit it or not, we have already left the Holocene and will have to do what we can to keep the Anthropocene livable.  Knowing how and why we individually respond to climate messages as we do should help us forge better policy, likely not in time to save many coral reefs.
Cartoon © David Pope, Canberra Times

Solving climate change is going to require a global, political effort.  The largest such global effort ever attempted, at a time when we are still infants in learning how to behave as an effective global community.  We have been making halting progress until now, using the politically weak structures we have in place, and the pace has been distressing to those who recognize the problem and want to see solutions.  Political action requires consensus (except in systems run by autocratic strongmen), and global political action is particularly challenging in this regard – especially so in a world made up of nations with very different worldviews and modes of governance, including some autocratic dictatorships.  It is not the job of the scientist, or other technical expert, to solve the problems of how to effect global change, but that expert does have an obligation to attempt to provide sound information to people who have the skills to navigate the passageways, tunnels, and smoke-filled rooms that constitute the path toward effective political action.  Finding the most effective ways to influence political leaders, including finding ways to encourage strong coordinated pressure from constituents of those leaders, and finding effective ways to reward positive achievements while shaming inaction or action in inappropriate directions have to be high priority for those who want climate change brought under control.  Gifford’s seven dragons stand in front of each of us.  They are seven of a larger set of dragons, including some that focus only on derailing useful political progress.  The sooner all the dragons can be named and discussed, the sooner they can be tamed.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics, Politics | 3 Comments