Viral pandemics and climate change – different pace, different response, a message perhaps?


We tried to follow our usual Saturday morning routine on Saturday morning.  We were foiled, in part, because of the way our community is responding to the onset of Covid-19.  There are lessons here on tipping points, on climate change, on pandemics, on human and societal response to emergencies.  And our town has zero cases of Covid-19 yet reported.

I live in a small town, but we are relatively well connected to the rest of the world because we have many retired folk who travel and many seasonal residents who move regularly up and down the highway connecting us to Toronto.  There are still no cases of the virus reported in Muskoka, but we all know it will be here sooner or later.

A pond of water

Description automatically generated

Early spring in Muskoka can be breath-taking.

Saturday dawned mild and sunny, a wonderful Saturday hinting at a Spring that is still a few weeks off up here.  I’d have expected the town to be bustling, with families out enjoying the day, visitors strolling and looking into the shops, people pretending that winter has gone already.  True, we had cancelled a dinner with friends the night before because two of our guests had only returned from Spain five days ago (with zero symptoms), and one of our guests could not afford to become ill at this particular time.  We had the food bought and ready to cook, but prudence got the better of us.  Still, as we ventured out on our regular Saturday morning visit to our favorite coffee shop and the library, we weren’t thinking about viruses, pandemics, or anything else.

The streets were quiet.  Then we found the public library closed until further notice.  We put the books we were returning into the drop-chute at the door, wondering when we’d get to browse for something new to read.  The coffee shop was bustling, but mainly because two large families were encamped at its two largest tables, with board games and the usual devices plugged into ears.  I suspect they’d ended up there having run out of places to go with the kids.  We had our coffee and returned home.  My wife got an e-mail advising that her regular Monday/Wednesday exercise class was cancelled until further notice, and immediately panicked because that meant no after-exercise latté with her friends.  I got an e-mail advising that a discussion group I belong to would not meet this week, because the building we meet in was closed indefinitely.  I was supposed to lead that discussion.  Sitting at my computer, I’ve discovered scores of other cancellations and closures in our town, all to stem the spread of what we know is coming.  Yesterday, I cancelled a trip to Europe we’d been planning for a year.  It was not going to happen until July.  Now it won’t happen at all, for the foreseeable future.

In Canada, governments at all levels are acting prudently to curtail social gatherings, particularly of older people.  One of my nephews has announced that his friends are referring to Covid-19 as ‘the boomer remover’ – a sign that the young are taking this emergency in stride and won’t be in need of psychiatric counselling as our society collapses around them. 

This prudent closing down of social interaction and travel does not prevent the spread of the virus, but it greatly slows the spread and could significantly reduce the proportion of the population that becomes infected before the current pandemic is spent. 

The NIH’s Anthony Fauci, one of the saner Americans on television these days, famously attempted to explain how social distancing can flatten the curve, thereby avoiding overloading of emergency care capacity when lots of people become ill at once.  He gave his explanation at a White House press conference on Tuesday evening and again on Thursday.  Not shaking hands, keeping some distance between you and others in a group, avoiding gatherings of large numbers of people… this is social distancing.  It’s what Canada is putting in place; it’s what Fauci is recommending; it’s behind the cancellation of most professional sporting events in North America.  President Trump thanked Fauci and shook his hand.

A picture containing text, map

Description automatically generated

The rate of increase in number of new cases depends on the rate at which an infected person infects others.  If that can be lowered by measures such as social distancing, the total number of people ultimately infected may not change, but the peak is lower, perhaps below the level that would swamp the capacity of the health system to provide care.  Diagram © US CDC.

My town has clearly embraced social distancing, as has the rest of Canada.  I suspect a lot of people are a bit fuzzy on what social distancing does.  They might be surprised to learn it has the potential to prolong the period when we will be at risk of infection.  In fact, it may prolong the period and fail to reduce the proportion of the population that actually contracts the disease.  It all depends on how effective social distancing is in curtailing transmission.  The US Center for Disease Control has provided diagrams and a good explanation here.

WHO reports that the average person infected with Covid-19 infects between 2 and 2.5 other people.  That number will be higher when people are in crowded situations, and when symptom-relief is poor or the infected individual is careless about avoiding affecting others.  It will be lower when infected individuals self-isolate, are quarantined, and/or practice behaviors that minimize spread – coughing into one’s elbow, avoiding shaking hands, wearing a mask.

With the average infection rate of 2.0 to 2.5, it follows that social distancing will reduce this.  That means the rate of increase of infected individuals in a population will be lower.  If the distancing and other measures are successful enough, the number of infected individuals may not grow at all (an infection rate of 1.0) or rapidly decline to zero.  If the social distancing is less successful, the rate of increase in the number of infected individuals will be lower than otherwise, but there will still be an increase.  The peak number of infected individuals will be lower and will be reached more slowly; both these factors are important in avoiding swamping available medical capacity to treat the small number for whom this disease becomes life-threatening.  From a public health perspective, avoiding swamping the capacity of the system is important and leads to a far better community outcome than otherwise.

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

This simulation shows the value of introducing measures such as social distancing rapidly (the graph is based on a model, not real data for Covid-19).  Image © US CDC

As of now, it is too early to assess the likely health impact, globally or locally, of this virus.  As a novel virus to humans, none of us have immunity and it could infect a substantial proportion of the human population, perhaps 20 to 60% of us.  With a mortality rate of somewhere around 2%, if 40% of us get infected, that translates to about 150 million deaths due directly to this disease.  Public health officials are hoping it won’t be that bad but preparing for major challenges in coming days.

The coronavirus is also having undeniably large impacts on human behavior and on the global economy.  Social distancing means stopping many activities that bring people together.  The travel industry will soon be on life support.  Mass entertainments whether sporting events or theatre are following closely behind.  The downturn in travel, long-distance and local, is curtailing the need for energy, and, given that Saudi Arabia and Russia have chosen now to engage in a tit for tat fight to garner increased market share of oil, we suddenly see the price of oil collapsing.  For Canada, that downturn is an added complexity.

Forbes is currently suggesting that if the disease pandemic declines and withers away by summer (an optimistic possibility), the world will see a wave of rolling recessions as the impacts peak in each nation, but there won’t be a global recession.  The OECD, earlier this month, said that global GDP growth could fall by half, to 1.5% instead of the 3% it was projecting prior to the crisis.  Such relative optimism may continue, but not if the Covid-19 outbreak intensifies in coming weeks.  One positive aspect of all this is that the total CO2 emissions to the atmosphere this year may plateau, or even fall, compared to 2019.  We need some good news at present!

The global response to Covid-19 has been interesting.  There has been a lot of variation in effectiveness of response among countries, and even now there is evidence that nations are not working closely together to achieve common goals.  Different countries are implementing different measures to combat the spread, with differing effectiveness.  Leadership from the USA has been wanting, and that leadership is missed.  In one particularly jarring action, Naked Emperor in Chief announced on March 11th a ban on all travel from Europe.  The ban, which went into effect on Friday, did not include the UK (with the second highest number of confirmed cases behind Italy) and did not apply to American citizens or permanent residents.  Apparently, this ‘foreign’ virus does not travel on Americans or Britons, or at least that was the thinking in Washington on Wednesday.  The ban has subsequently been extended to include travelers from the UK, but still exempts Americans and permanent residents.  Most amazing of all, this travel ban was announced without any consultation, or even a heads-up to Europe!

Despite such bumbling, most countries have been responding, and at least trying to put in place sensible measures in a timely manner.  But they don’t appear to have been working together as well as they might.  China was quick to provide data on the outbreak and details of the sequence of the virus, and some coordination among leading countries is starting to happen as containment actions are ratcheted up.

The coronavirus outbreak has all the hallmarks of a tipping point for human behavior and the structure of the global economy.  The push for social distancing in most affected countries will show us that working from home is a viable option for a majority of workers for non-urgent times as well.  There may be a jump in online shopping, but there may also be a move away from rampant consumerism as well.  I searched online today but could nowhere find information on the likely duration of the need to practice social distancing, but there is growing awareness that schools that close now may be closed into summer, and on Sunday evening the US CDC explicitly recommended social distancing in the USA for the next eight weeks.  That the virus has established itself in Australia, most South American, many African, and Southeast Asian countries suggests to me that it is unlikely to wither and die come the northern summer, much as I would like it to.  It’s not going to be over quickly and back to normal, whatever that is.

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

This up-to-date map is provided by the European Center for Disease Control reports 151,363 confirmed cases and 5758 deaths between start of 2020 and 15th March.  Many infections reported are in people who have travelled from China, Iran, or now Italy, but most countries begin to show in-country infections once they have a few cases reported.

This is what a tipping point is like.  It creeps up to you without you being aware.  Then it rapidly reveals its significance.  And if you are lucky, you don’t stand transfixed like a deer in the headlights for too long.  In the case of Covid-19, we did not stand transfixed but mobilized quite quickly to deal with it.

Climate change is an on-going, and more serious crisis, in the long term – one likely to bring many tipping points of variable severity.  We have not responded to climate change with the urgency we should have, and the contrast with the response to Covid-19 is instructive. 

Our seeding of the atmosphere with excessive amounts of greenhouse gases leads directly to warming and the warming then leads to a widely ramifying array of impacts on our environment.  These environmental changes, in turn, lead to changes in the goods and services for which we depend on the environment, and to changes in the conditions governing human health.  This multilinked web of causes and effects is complex – far more complex than the idea of a deadly new virus multiplying rapidly in some human population far from home but linked to us by the miracle of long-distance travel.  The old idea that we are all 6 degrees or less separated from each other helps us understand that Wuhan, China is not in another universe, and we understand the concept of deadly disease.  We understand Covid-19 far more than we understand climate change.

Unlike climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic is fast-moving.  Public health agencies are racing to keep abreast of it, and sometimes, as recently in Italy, they fall behind with tragic consequences.  But its pace is also a good thing – we are built to recognize rapidly moving threats, far more ready to jump out of the way of the sabre-toothed cat than we are to move our cities out of the way of a rising sea.  Sea level rise, one of the climate change impacts on environment, has been going on for decades, and will continue for at least the next several centuries.  Southern Florida, large parts of Bangladesh, and many other places will be submerged as sea level rises meters.  Perhaps it will only rise a couple of meters (assuming we end our period of transfixion and get busy curtailing the warming); perhaps it will rise many meters, sometimes abruptly as glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica slip and slide their way into the ocean.  But either way, it will be slow, easily something we can keep abreast of.  We could start now to plan for the migration of coastal settlements and coastal cities over the next couple of centuries, but I think we probably won’t.  Instead, we will try a series of expensive band-aids, refusing to recognize the extent of the change we have already put in train, and we’ll waste a lot of money in the process.  We’ll be remaining transfixed, gazing at the headlights. 

This image shows Florida with 3 meters of sea level rise.  That’s the sort of rise we might see at the end of this century.  Image © Sarah Frostenson/Vox.

Sea level rise is one of the slower processes that climate change has initiated, but even the rapid changes and the warming itself are slow by human standards.  True to form, thoroughly transfixed, we have been sitting around discussing, arguing about, denying, and definitely not getting down to dealing with, the problems we are causing.  Climate change happens too slowly.

The environmental changes caused by a warming climate are much more rapid, for the most part, than sea level rise.  Some of them, like the rapid degradation of coral reefs, are both quite rapid and quite conspicuous.  But the collapse of coral reefs is still slow when measured against human timeframes, and we are proving very slow to recognize the consequences of reef degradation for us.  Many of the reef scientists get it; they are the ones with tears in their eyes when they speak about reefs.  Many others still think that somehow reefs will miraculously get through largely unscathed – how this will happen is seldom articulated, except by those pushing the latest way to build an artificial reef, or the latest way to mobilize support for an MPA.  And that’s the scientists, the people who should understand best. 

The enthusiasm for technological fixes is not limited to coral reefs (just think of the absurd schemes to remove plastics from the mid-Pacific), but there are ample examples from coral reefs.  This 2018 video from Vice spends its first half on super-expensive ways to get more precise data on how much coral has died around the world.  That does not fix the problem at all, it just documents the problem in exquisite detail.  (The second half talks about some technologically advanced science that might succeed in developing corals that might live in Anthropocene seas.)  Just think of the schemes that have hit the press over the past couple of years to protect, or to rebuild coral reefs: plastic sunshades to float on the ocean over a reef; cold water pumped from depth to keep reefs cool, using small solar-powered pumps; an endless assortment of different forms of scaffolding on which to suspend coral nubbins that will be then out-planted to replace coral that has bleached; coral planulae being distributed to dead coral reefs using underwater drones. 

The latter is a particularly ridiculous case of clever engineers modifying underwater ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to carry live coral larvae to a reef.  First announced in 2018, by late 2019 they had progressed to the point that a set of CoralBot ROVs could work from a single LarvalBoat full of larvae.  Gentlemen, the problem is not in getting viable larvae to dead reefs, its in finding ways to prevent juvenile corals being killed by the next heat wave.  That will likely require some selective breeding of corals, as mentioned in the Vice video, and some concerted effort to reduce emissions and keep warming down closer to 2.0 or 1.5oC.  Go play your ROV games in someone else’s playground.

We have been very inventive.  But none of these plans scale up to real solutions for a world that has already lost 50% of its coral and is getting warmer every year, heading towards a +3.5 to +5.0oC increase by the end of this century.

What we should be doing, apart from speaking out loudly and repeatedly against global inaction on efforts to reduce emissions, is intensifying our efforts to understand the details of how coral reef ecosystems function, and to explore ways of retaining at least some of those functions even as coral reefs degrade.  A few of the world’s coral reef scientists are doing this.  They include ecologists and evolutionary biologists, molecular and cellular biologists, geneticists, and many others.  They focus on corals but also on fishes and crustacea and molluscs, and on all those other creatures, including algae, that make a reef possible.  See for example, the articles in this special issue of Functional Ecology.

Cover of Functional Ecology 33 (6), containing an eight-article, special topic on coral reef functional ecology in the Anthropocene.  Photo © Tane Sinclair-Taylor.

But these scientists are a tiny minority of the now very large reef science community.  I only hope they prosper and become the leaders that can bring about sensible adaptations that will help us preserve some of the functions, some of the goods and services, and some of the wonder that healthy coral reefs now provide.

If we can build a future world which has shallow-water ecosystems that largely replace the functions of the coral reefs of the 1950s, coral reef science will have done well.  And in doing well, it would have shown the rest of us how to help our world transition to a good Anthropocene.  This may now be the best we can aim for.  We have had forty years (since the 1982 bleachings) in which we have failed to grapple with the root problem of excess emissions, and we show little sign that we are starting to act aggressively on climate yet.  Perhaps, just perhaps, Covid-19 might help us to understand how to work as a global partnership to manage global crises.  This is learning we clearly need and learning that would help us deal with climate change.

Categories: Climate change, coral reef science, diseases, Economics, In the News, Politics | Comments Off on Viral pandemics and climate change – different pace, different response, a message perhaps?

Climate Change Update: Where we are in early 2020


As I write this, Covid-19 is extending its impacts around the world, cruise ships are being quarantined, global stock markets are in a tailspin and the price of oil is collapsing.  The new Coronavirus is going to have some major impacts on our world, including a likely drop in CO2 emissions in 2020.  Whether it will substantially alter the grim forecast I close with remains to be determined.  But it could.  We do live in interesting times.

It seems appropriate, now that Winter might be giving way to Spring, to take stock of where we are in this great battle we claim to be engaged in to shut down climate change.  You’ll remember, back in the heady days of late 2015, when the world seemed likely to become a better place, at the Paris Climate Meeting, COP21, the nations of the world agreed to hold

the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”

If I remember correctly, Canada played a leading role in getting that bit about 1.5oC into the agreement.  Canada had just elected the first Justin Trudeau government and we were bringing Sunny Ways to the world community.  Oh Happy Day.

A person wearing a suit and tie

Description automatically generated

The fact is, of course, that climate science had long pointed to the need to contain climate change if we wanted to continue to enjoy the kind of world in which human civilization had developed, and 2.0oC was going to be too much warming to permit that.  That 2.0oC target had been the result of an earlier (COP15, Copenhagen, 2009) political compromise between a target of 1.0oC recommended by scientists and doing nothing.  The politicians felt 1.0o was way too hard a task, so why not just ease the task by doubling the goal and declaring victory?  After all, that is how politics is done – seek middle ground.  Such was the origin of the primrose path we’d been happily following, until Sunny Ways arrived in Paris and we all nodded wisely and embarked on the quest for 1.5oC.  Or at least, that’s what we all like to believe, and that’s what we keep telling ourselves  Every nation which has ratified the Paris Agreement has signed on to doing its share to keep the extent of climate warming well below 2.0o and preferably close to 1.5oC.  We all claim to be doing so.

And we have continued increasing our annual contributions of greenhouse gas emissions, year after year, all while “putting in place stringent measures” to stop doing this.  As we add emissions, the atmosphere traps more heat and the planet warms.  We already see the consequences of that warming in warmer temperatures, more erratic weather, more storms, floods, droughts and wildfire, more retreating glaciers and incremental rises in sea level.  The warming we have already caused has set in progress a melting of ice and raising of sea levels that is going to continue for 2000 years.  The changes to weather have been sufficiently profound that the overwhelming majority of people finally believe that something strange is happening to our climate.  Current projections indicate we are nowhere near limiting warming to +1.5oC, and that 3, 4, or 5oC is far more likely. Yet we are not yet reducing emissions.

A screenshot of a map

Description automatically generated

In 2017, scientists were projecting warming of anywhere from 2o to 6oC by 2100, depending on what humanity decides to do.  The 2o futures are achieved in scenarios that involve significant removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, not just reductions in emissions.  Technologies for massive CO2 removals do not yet exist except in pilot projects and there is no certainty they will be feasible.  Image © Global Carbon Project.

While most of us accept that we are changing the climate, few of us grasp the extent of the changes being set in motion or the seriousness of what is happening to the world we live in.  There are many reasons for this disconnect, which I won’t go into here.  This problem of our changing climate is far and away the biggest problem humanity currently faces, and yet it is not the only problem confronting us in 2020.

The global environmental crisis includes lots of problems, not just a warming climate

Late in 2019, a team led by Bill Ripple of Oregon State University published an opinion piece in BioScience (it appeared on-line in November 2019, and in print in January 2020.  Titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”, it was signed onto by over 11,000 environmental and climate scientists from around the world.  In their warning (more on that in a moment), the authors took pains to draw attention to a number of other troubling trends now in place.  These included the continued rapid growth of the human population, the concurrent growth in global GDP, the growth in numbers of our cattle, sheep and goats, and a concomitant growth in the rate at which forest cover is being lost.  Our population is now growing at about 15% per decade, although growth continues to slow and a peak is anticipated around the end of the century.  Our economy is growing at about 80% per decade, and the size of our livestock herds is growing at nearly 9% per decade.  Ripple and colleagues could have chosen a number of other concerning trends to highlight – our use of water and of fertilizers, the amount of land used by agriculture, the delivery of nitrogen pollution to coastal zones, and the rate of loss of biodiversity are all increasing rapidly.  These changes pose many problems for ecosystem functioning and for our ability to continue to feed ourselves and provide potable water.  They also interact with each other in various ways that make the overall impacts on the planet more complex and also more severe from the perspective of organisms like us.

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

A set of disturbing trends documented in the World Scientists’ Warning.  Reductions in fertility and in Amazon deforestation (but not total forest cover), and the increase in the funds divested from fossil fuel industry are what I’d call positive trends.  All the rest are downright alarming.  Image © Alliance of World Scientists.

Many of these trends are clearly related to, or caused by, the warming we have induced, but others are unrelated to climate change.  Together, the rapid changes in condition that we have forced upon the global biosphere are the global environmental crisis, a multifaceted problem that is talked about not nearly often enough.  Climate change is the most obvious, ugly core of this crisis.

Where is the Climate Right Now?

During the week ending 24th February 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa was 414 ppm.  The rate of growth in atmospheric CO2 continues to accelerate, due to a growing rate of emissions from extraction and use of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and land use changes.  Of these the fossil fuel contribution is by far the greatest.  Other greenhouse gases, particularly methane show similar trends.  On 19th February 2020, it was reported in Nature by Benjamin Hmiel, University of Rochester, and colleagues, that the ‘fugitive’ emissions of methane in the gas and oil industry are almost double what has been reported. 

I know the word ‘fugitive’ sounds like these emissions are secretive, unnoticed, nothing to do with the people doing the extraction and refining, but most of them are from deliberate flaring of unwanted gas, plus a certain amount of wellhead leakage – a factor which is closely monitored because of the potential for explosions.  The industry, not wanting to pay the cost of not releasing these gases, finds ways to not notice them.

Specifically, Hmiel and colleagues used an isotopic analysis of carbon in methane molecules to partition atmospheric methane into natural and anthropogenic.  They show that while reported anthropogenic methane emissions are 40 to 60 Teragrams per year (that’s 40 to 60 million tonnes of CH4 per year), that is an underestimate of from 38 to 58 Teragrams CH4 per year.  In other words, industry has been underreporting by somewhere between 25% and 40%.  In other words, our total emissions of greenhouse gases are even worse than we imagined.

Looking specifically at CO2, our accumulated emissions since 1850 are a bit over 2.3 Trillion tonnes CO2.  Annual emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels account for the great majority of this amount and have increased virtually every year in recent decades.  The emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels for 2019 are currently estimated as 36.8 Gt CO2 (Gigatonnes = Billion tonnes).  This trend is shown nicely in this graph.

Annual emissions of CO2 from extraction and use of fossil fuels are shown from 1955 to 2019.  Emissions have increased almost every year since 1955, and there is little evidence that climate change policies are yet bringing about a peak, followed by a rapid decline. 
Animation © FutureEarth and Global Carbon Project.

Needless to say, the consequence of steadily increasing emissions is a steadily warming world.  All the major climate science institutes which monitor global temperature agree on what is happening.  While it was not the case a few years ago, few people now dispute the validity of such data (although some continue to spin intriguing stories to avoid admitting that our emissions are the root cause).

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

Temperature data showing rapid warming in the past few decades, the latest data going up to 2019. According to NASA data, 2016 was the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 140-year record all have occurred since 2005, with the six warmest years being the six most recent years. Image courtesy NASA/NOAA.

As a consequence of the warming, we are seeing a broad range of environmental changes.  These include more extreme storms, rapidly melting glaciers and concomitant sea level rise, more extreme wildfires. 

A picture containing outdoor, nature

Description automatically generated

Three major storms at one time! Katia, Irma, and José (west to east) are seen in this satellite image taken 7th September, 2017.  Image courtesy NASA.

A large body of water

Description automatically generated

Polar bear photographed from the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Louis S. St-Laurent, in Franklin Strait in 2013.  Photo © Adrienne Tivy.

A sunset in the background

Description automatically generated

Alberta wildfire in 2017.  Photo © Cameron Strandberg/Flickr

The severity of droughts and floods is likely also increasing, growing seasons are lengthening, and plant growth zones are shifting poleward.  Each of these trends appears to be more rapid than at any previous time during the 8000 years of human history, so the impacts on our cultures, or lifestyles, and particularly on our agriculture are likely to be profound.

A carbon budget

Since our emissions cause the warming, it is possible to visualize a budget of emissions that if released will cause a given amount of warming.  The world used a budget of 2.3 Trillion tonnes of CO2 to achieve the approximately 1oC of warming that has occurred between 1850 and today.   A somewhat smaller quantity of CO2 will be sufficient to add the 0.5oC of warming to meet the Paris Agreement goal.  This currently available budget for releases of CO2 by the fossil fuel industry is generally estimated to be about 650 Gt CO2

(Why this is only 650 Gt and not 1150 Gt – half of 2.3 trillion – is because the warming effects of the 2.3 trillion tonnes already released are still being felt over the next several years.  In other words, the 2.3 trillion tonnes will ultimately achieve more than 1o of warming and our remaining budget is all that is required to top that total ‘committed warming’ up to 1.5oC.)

Think of the budget as emissions poured into a bucket of a certain size by the various countries as they emit their CO2. Turns out, our bucket, which we started filling in 1850, is now almost full. Given that humanity is currently emitting about 36.8 Gt CO2 per year, our available budget if we intend to keep warming to 1.5o, works out to a bit over 17 years at current rates.  That is why climate scientists talk about the urgency of acting to reduce emissions.

In fact, by thinking about the allowable budget, it’s easy to understand why we need to have been acting far more strongly than we have.  The global budget allows for continued emissions at the present rate for 17 years, or a linear ramp down to zero over 34 years.  But if we sit around and think about acting for a few years, as we have been doing, the task becomes a lot more difficult.  An appropriate rate of ramp-down today (one that remains within budget) is no longer appropriate if we procrastinate for a few years more – we have to use a steeper rate, much more difficult to do.

A screenshot of a map

Description automatically generated

This diagram shows how delaying action requires much more stringent action subsequently if the world is to remain within the agreed budget.  The diagram uses either a 600 Gt or an 800 Gt CO2 allowable budget at 2016.  It also shows how its possible to delay action (from 2016 to 2020) and still have a gradual decline in emissions, but only by increasing the allowable budget and therefore the amount of warming.  Image © Global Climate Project.

Fairly Partitioning the Budget

This 650 Gt CO2 budget is a global budget.  It is being shared by all countries, which means we also need to think about fair ways of sharing – how much of the budget should be available to each country?  Not a ‘nice’ topic to talk about when we realize that some of the countries are led by men who probably think they are entitled to use as much as they want.  But without a fair plan for sharing, we are never going to be able to stick within the budget available.

Canadians, being such fair people, should be able to relate to this task.  So, let’s think about Canada’s fair share of the global allowable budget.  Perhaps the fairest way to do it is to assume every human is entitled to an equal share of remaining emissions.  Then, given the present population, Canada deserves a 0.48% share, or 3.1 Gt of the 650 Gt CO2 we are working with. 

Or maybe the emissions should be allocated according to area of each country.  That would give Canada a much larger share (I don’t have the area data to make the calculation). 

Maybe we should apportion budgets according to the relative sizes of national emissions today.  That would give Canada 1.8% of the remaining budget, or about 11.7 Gt CO2, because our current emissions are 1.8% of the global total.  That’s substantially better (= larger) than a per capita distribution, but less than a distribution based on area. 

Or maybe we should not just be sharing out the allowable budget now remaining but should be apportioning the total budget allowable at 1850.  That becomes complex because populations have changed greatly over that time and it’s unclear how best to apportion.  Still that approach would likely leave Canada worse off (a smaller share of the remaining budget because we have used so much already) than either of these other approaches. 

Creative people will be able to think of other ways to apportion the emissions budget fairly.  My point is that different formulations will favor different countries so deciding which formula to adopt will not be an easy negotiation. 

Just imagine the United States magnanimously agreeing to a per capita share – even with a rational President at the helm, that would be a tall hill to climb. 

A close up of a book

Description automatically generated

Tom Toles’ cartoons on climate change have a habit of hitting the nail on the head!
Figure © Tom Toles/Washington Post.

Yet, if there is no agreement on how to apportion the budget, how will it be possible to tell if countries are ‘doing their fair share’ in the effort to reduce emissions and rein in warming?  Our decades of failing to act have made the task of reducing emissions to reach a 1.5o or even a 2.0o target far more difficult than it might have been and therefore made the challenge of agreeing to a fair apportionment far more difficult. These facts conspire to make it appear likely that we will fail to reach the target we have all signed onto in the Paris Agreement.

I find it fascinating that none of the politicians in any country seem to be spelling out these difficult problems.  In fact, to listen to politicians speaking we are all well on the way to solving the climate problem.  It’s time to get real.

What Does Canada Have to Do to Meet its Paris Commitment?

Canada is in a particularly difficult position.  We are a high emissions country, with the third highest per capita rate of emissions among developed nations (we lag the USA and Australia in that race to be bad).  If we decide fairness means a per capita apportionment of the budget, Canada only has a bit over 4 years at our current emissions rate available.  A linear ramp-down to zero over 8.8 years means decarbonizing at a rate of 11% per year, when we have been slowly increasing emissions year after year for decades.  Do you see any signs around Ottawa or Edmonton that we are about to begin this 11% per year climb-down?

Justin Trudeau, who likes to portray himself as compromiser-in-chief, a thoroughly reasonable, fair-minded leader, has suggested that Canada must act responsibly on climate, and must take care to ensure that doing so does not hurt the western Canadian, chiefly Alberta, economy in the process.  As if this challenge was insufficient for his skills, he has also decided that major industrial projects like new oil mines or pipelines must be undertaken only after full and meaningful consultation with all affected parties, and has managed to wrap that undertaking up in a commitment to genuine reconciliation with First Nations and other indigenous communities.

I cannot fault his logic, but I do worry about the ambition.  Is this remotely possible politically?  When members of an indigenous community, perhaps one of the many indigenous nations who never entered into any treaties with us immigrant Canadians, have deeply imbedded beliefs that they are of their land, meaning literally a part of the life on their land, it is not possible to simply wave away this belief with an assumption that all that is needed is a rational, respectful conversation followed by some exchange of money or sustained income.  Being of the land is not simply another way of saying, I own this land.  In fact, we’d all be a lot better off if more of us had the sense of belonging to place that many indigenous persons do, because it is a very different, far more respectful attitude to place than us immigrant Canadians tend to hold.  And that’s just the bit about consultation with all parties.

What about the idea that we can act responsibly on climate and still sustain the oil and gas economy of Alberta particularly, but also British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.?  That is going to be extremely challenging for quite a different reason.  When Canada’s current emissions are divided among economic sectors, the gas and oil industry accounts for 27% and the transportation sector (which also transports some gas and oil) accounts for 25%.  Transportation, at present, is heavily dependent on oil and gas as the fuel, and the extraction and refining of oil and gas are activities that generate lots of CO2 emissions.

A picture containing writing implement, stationary

Description automatically generated

Canada’s total emissions, and emissions by sector have changed only marginally over the last 30 years.  The most noticeable trends have been the growth in emission by the transportation and the oil and gas sectors.  Together these now comprise 52% of our total.  Ramping total emissions down to zero in 8.8 years is an enormous challenge and there is no sign that we have begun to make this transition.  Image © Environment Canada.

Talk to your average Albertan, and a good many other Canadians, and you’ll hear that not only should the gas and oil industry continue as a major component of Canada’s economy, it should be a growing component.  Indeed, there are many among us who believe that we Canadians have almost a moral obligation to exploit the resources provided for us beneath our land.  (The difference between this perspective and the indigenous belief in being of the land is vast, and a major hurdle to overcome by anyone interested in a rational discussion leading to appropriate, respectful decisions.)

Let’s make a compromise.  Let’s agree that the oil and gas industry should be allowed to continue at its current level of emissions, while the rest of the economy takes on the task of ramping total emissions down at 11% per year.  (This even permits an increase in oil and gas production, if the per barrel emissions can be reduced!)  I’m not even sure people around Fort McMurray would agree to this compromise, but let’s assume they will.

If the 11% per year ramp-down is to be put in place, but with the sector responsible for 27% of emissions to continue unaffected, the rest of the economy will have to ramp down at 16% per year.  And in just 6.6 years, all emissions in Canada will come from the oil and gas sector. 

Whoops, what happens then?  Then the oil and gas sector has to ramp down and cease all emissions in just 2.2 years.  If I thought that Albertans might not be too keen on a compromise that said, continue operating but no growth, I’m damn sure they’d complain once they understood that that was for only 6.6 years!

To put it bluntly – something the politicians seem incapable of doing – Canada cannot live up to its obligation to the Paris Agreement (keeping to close to 1.5oC or warming) and continue to have a major oil and gas industry indefinitely into the future.  It’s impossible.  The decarbonization required of it as a fair proportion of the overall global decarbonization means at best that oil and gas production have to be totally decarbonized in 8.8 years.  From right now.  Or sooner.

A person wearing a suit and tie

Description automatically generated

Justin Trudeau speaking at the Prospectors and Developers Association, 2nd March 2020, and stating that Canada has to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.  It’s a start, but he was not very clear on how we’d get there while still having an oil and gas industry.  Image © Fred Lum/Globe & Mail.

It’s time for some honest talk about what we do want to accomplish, and how to go about doing that – both within Canada and in the global community, because Canada is not the only country that has been pretending.

This situation frustrates me deeply, because we could have easily dealt with climate change if the world had listened to the advice and taken timely action back in the 1990s.  Now we have a snowball’s chance to stay within 1.5oC, and no sign that we are taking even that slim chance seriously.  Frankly, we’d all be better off if global leaders would agree on a goal they were prepared to reach, explain that goal to the rest of us, and let us then figure out how we will deal with the huge difficulties a 3o or 5o target would bring us.  The leadership needed for this is sadly lacking.

What I Fear Is Happening – The Anthropocene We Are Going to Get

While the political rhetoric at present is all about how we are tackling climate change, the reality is that the world is largely frozen (and I don’t mean cooling down).  There are impressive advances being made in provision of solar and wind power, in moving towards energy-neutral buildings, and in development and sale of hybrid and electric vehicles.  But these positive trends are not reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, because the growing global economy still needs as much or more oil, gas, and coal as it did last year.

News worth celebrating!  Image © CBC

The impressive strides deserve to be talked about.  They are good signs.  But they are not good enough.  On the political front, there seems a growing tendency to announce new climate initiatives, suggest these are part of an overall plan that a government is rolling out over time, and then stand about, patting each other on the back. And lots of time being wasted in meetings that achieve no results.

There have been four global climate conferences since Paris: COP22, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco; COP23, 2017, in Bonn, Germany; COP24, 2018, in Katowice, Poland; and COP25, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.  COP22 had the unfortunate fate of coinciding with Donald Trump’s election and accomplished effectively nothing.  Attendees at COP23 experienced the surreal presence of an American delegation despite Trump’s having signaled his intention to withdraw from the climate effort.  Sometimes this delegation behaved responsibly, sometimes not.  Again, there was little real progress, but plenty of talk about future goals and actions, lots of planning, little sign that countries recognized the urgency.

COP24, held in the heart of Polish coal country, got off to a rocky start with countries disagreeing over whether or not to ‘welcome’ the recently completed IPCC report on a 1.5oC world.  The report had been requested at a previous COP, but some countries, including the USA, only wanted to ‘note’ it.  Such are the subtleties of international climate diplomacy. 

Otherwise COP24 was relatively successful, approving most of the rules under which national performance towards the Paris commitments will be evaluated.  COP25, the longest climate negotiation on record, was a dismal failure.  Even UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was “disappointed” with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”  The conference failed to finalize the Paris rulebook, and provided little that would encourage a belief that countries are stepping up to the task before us.

Both at international conferences and within nations, what appears to be happening is political stasis, masked by lots of vague promises about what will be done soon, or next year, or over the next decade.  Meanwhile a growing economy is increasing demand for fossil fuels (except for coal) despite the enormous growth in alternative sources of energy.  And global temperatures are continuing to rise.

If this situation continues, and I see no signs that it won’t, it really is time for us to start discussing the Anthropocene we are going to have, rather than the one we hoped for – that ‘nice’ Anthropocene with temperatures 1.5 – 2.0oC warmer than in the preindustrial past.  So here goes.

Average global temperatures will continue to rise, reaching 3o or 5oC by the end of this century and continuing to rise after that.  Scientific discoveries will continue and will demonstrate that climate is changing more rapidly than anticipated and in many ways.  Glacier melt and sea level rise may be the aspects that surprise us the most.  The releases of methane as permafrost melts may also provide unpleasant surprises.  Extreme weather of many kinds will be the new normal and will keep getting more extreme year after year.  Dramatic changes will occur in the structure and functioning of ecosystems that actually matter to us.

Some parts of the planet are going to be impacted more seriously and sooner while others, including the southern half of Canada, will suffer less extreme impacts.  This differentiation among parts of the world, already starting to be apparent, will become more pronounced and, unfortunately, it will be parts of the developing world that are most savagely dealt with.  In parts of South Asia and the Middle East, lethal temperatures will occur and kill substantial numbers of people during heat waves ( I am not exaggerating – temperatures too hot for humans to survive).

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

These maps plot wet bulb temperatures in the recent past, and under a moderately successful and an unsuccessful ‘business-as-usual’ battle against climate change.  Wet bulb 35oC is lethal for humans.  Image © I. Eun-Soon and colleagues, Science Advances.

Politicians in developed countries who have not already learned, will discover that there is an art to providing a semblance of progress on climate change while not really doing anything too grand.  Bad news due to extreme events will be attributed to anything other than inexorable warming – ‘the loss of life was due to a flood, for god’s sake, not to climate change’; or, ‘agriculture is a difficult business and crop failures happen from time to time.’  (Australian politicians have already proved themselves masters of this tactic.)  Fossil fuel producers, such as Canada, will struggle to prop up the faltering fossil fuel industry, keeping it alive long after it should have been put to rest, and emissions will continue to soar.

The trend towards increasing nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia will continue, and wealthy, powerful communities will find ways to ensure they are protected from the effects of climate change.  The world will devolve into a small number of well-defended, isolationist communities, surrounded by a wasteland of failing agriculture, lack of water, disintegration of societal structures, suffering and mortality.

In a book I wrote in 2011, I described four possible futures that might be brought about by our efforts, or not, to deal with the global environmental crisis.  What I have just described is the Mad Max world I called Belvedere, because of the luxurious but superficial lives of the better-off minority in their defended enclaves.  It’s the future I least wanted to see.  It’s the future that would arise if we allowed our basest instincts to prevail.  Unfortunately, it now seems to be to be the world we are blindly drifting towards.

It is time to demand of our political leaders that they actually lead.  Time to demand that they tell us the truth.  A 3o or a 4oC world will not be impossible to live in.  But the overall quality of life in that world will be far better if nations plan for it and implement actions to minimize its consequences.  The path we seem now to be on is one of selfish looking out for me that will make that world politically, socially, culturally far more dystopian than it needs to be.

A close up of a desert

Description automatically generated

Movies are full of dystopian images of possible futures, many including such climate impacts as blighted desert lands.  Image © Mad Max: Fury Road/Warner Bros.

Categories: Arctic, Biodiversity Loss, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Climate Change Update: Where we are in early 2020

Yes, we have a climate emergency; Alberta and the rest of Canada both need to listen up.


@JKenney, Premier of Alberta, tweeted out this cartoon by Vance Rodewalt last January, while saying that the rest of Canada needs to understand that a hurting Alberta is bad for the *entire* country.

Poor Alberta and Saskatchewan

We’ve been hearing a lot in Canada about western alienation.  Apparently, citizens living in Alberta and perhaps Saskatchewan are feeling neglected by the rest of us, during their economic downturn.  We who don’t live in either of those provinces are accused, en masse, of insensitivity, even of downright hostility to their plight.  Some of them are threatening to secede, although its unclear whether Alberta would somehow join the USA, or become an independent land, a sort of North American Paraguay.  They’d not be permitted to join the United Nations list of 32 LLDCs – landlocked developing countries – too developed for that, but they might form some sort of alliance with Switzerland and Austria.

The alienation appears to stem from the lack of willingness of the rest of Canada to let them build pipelines to any port they deem worthy of their attention, or even to just lend a sympathetic ear in their time of need.  It’s true that a number of pipelines proposed in recent years have failed to materialize.  There’s the Keystone XL that would have increased the capacity to ship crude oil from Alberta to the mid-west USA refineries, and that still might happen someday, although nobody is holding their breath.  There’s the Northern Gateway that would have delivered diluted bitumen to the Pacific coast of British Columbia, at a new terminal to be developed at Kitimat, over 100 km upstream through torturous fiords from Hecate Strait and the Pacific Ocean.  That one was cancelled by the federal government in 2016, given numerous environmental concerns, including the sheer brilliance of planning for a major oil terminal that far from the real coast.  There’s the Energy East that would cobble together existing and build some new pipelines to carry Alberta crude or diluted bitumen to refineries and ports in New Brunswick.  That one was killed in 2017 by TransCanada Pipelines when it realized that opposition to this plan was too strong to warrant the cost and effort to have it approved by government.  Then there was the now forgotten Arctic Gateway that would run north from Alberta through the Mackenzie Valley to the Arctic Ocean.  And finally, there is the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, well actually to Burnaby.  This proposal is for twinning an existing line thereby tripling its capacity to ship diluted bitumen.  Funny how twinning = tripling, but that’s pipeline math and as an environmental scientist I just have to accept it.  This one is still inching forward and will likely get built.  Of course, its original owners, US corporation Kinder-Morgan saw the looming lack of profitability and sold the existing line to the Federal Government of Canada.  That’s right Alberta, the Federal Government paid $5 billion to buy the existing line and has committed to paying billions more for the expansion.  How’s that for the rest of Canada not offering you help? (And if you think I’m just being a selfish easterner, take a look at what economics reporter, David Parkinson, wrote in the Globe & Mail on 8th November.)

The fossil fuel industry, notably CAPP, and Alberta, claim that a lack of capacity to deliver product to market is limiting the value of Canadian oil and gas.  So, there is an economic argument that one or more of these pipelines is needed, and a long time has passed with notable lack of success in approving and building them.  I’ll return to this point later, because the economic case is less straightforward than it might appear.

And Then There is the Global Climate Emergency

There is also the global climate emergency.  Alberta seems to brush that one aside pretty quickly, but let’s briefly recap our perilous situation.  On November 5th, a warning to the world was delivered by way of a ‘viewpoint’ article in the journal BioScience.  The five listed authors of the article were joined by 11,224 fellow scientists who signed onto the statement, affirming their agreement with its content.  I was among those 11,000 plus, I’m proud to say, and I have scanned the list of signatories.  Many of us are graduate students, but most are established scientists in a broad range of fields, at all stages from recent PhDs to hoary old emeritus professors like me.  We come from 153 countries, and the list is peppered with the names of recognized leaders in the environmental and climate sciences.  The article is not behind a paywall, so it really is accessible to anyone who wants to read it.  It is also not the first time the global science community has done this.  The lead author, Bill Ripple of the Forest Ecosystems and Society department at Oregon State University, produced what was called the second warning by the science community in 2017. The Union of Concerned Scientists had published what was called the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in July 1992.  Needless to say, scientists have been speaking out on this topic for a long time.  The extent of our concern has spread greatly over the last decade.

This month’s warning was released on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference held in Geneva in 1979.  Scientists there agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act.  We’ve been stressing the urgency ever since and it is numbing my mind.

Figure 1 from the global scientists’ warning, which tracks changes in “global human activities”.

This latest warning comes with two figures.  Figures that are numbingly reminiscent of ones I’ve seen numerous times before as groups of scientists attempt to put into pictures the broad range of causes and effects that contribute to our existential crisis.  The first figure this time documents human activities of concern.  Each panel displays an indicator, with a line representing the change in that indicator over time.  Eleven of the indicators pictured have clear positive trends over the decades measured – that is, they are getting worse.  Of the other four, the drop in female fertility and in the loss of Brazilian forests are good news – fewer children per women must ultimately slow population growth and reduce demands on the planet, and less forest being lost means better retention of the important carbon sequestering services forests provide.  The remaining two non-positive trends are just bad news – the price on carbon has actually been falling when we need it to rise if we are to curtail our emissions of CO2, and the level of fossil fuel subsidies, which had been falling sharply is back where it started.  We are paying the corporations to bring fossil fuel to market when we should be paying them to go out of business!  Overall, this first image is not a sign of a system under control; more like a train going rapidly off the rails.

The second figure is similarly unsettling.  This figure includes panels displaying trends in 14 climatic responses over time.  Every one of these, whether increasing (nine do this) or decreasing (the other five), shows a dramatically worsening trend over the decades examined.  There are no encouraging reversals of trends in recent years, something we might have expected if climate policies by governments were starting to have an effect.  Instead we see CO2, CH4, and N2O all increasing in the atmosphere, surface temperature and ocean heat content also both increasing, Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice mass, and glacial thickness all falling, ocean pH falling as the ocean acidifies, sea level rising, and area burned, number of extreme weather events and annual costs due to weather-related damage all increasing.  Again, not a sign of a system under control.

Figure 2 from the Global scientists’ warning, which tracks climatic responses to our activities.

This time around, having summarized the situation described by these two figures, the authors provide some explicit recommendations for action, and they put these under six headings: Energy, Short-lived Pollutants, Nature, Food, Economy, and Population.  Putting things bluntly, it is not going to be sufficient for the world to gradually, more-or-less, as the economy allows, wean itself off the use of fossil fuels for energy, we also have to rapidly curtail our emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and HCFs (Hydrofluorocarbons – the chemicals we adopted when we phased out use of CFCs because CFCs were gobbling up ozone).  We have to treat all of these emissions-related goals as urgent because otherwise we will fail to bring warming to a halt and will find ourselves in a very uncomfortable world.

Nor is it just energy sources and short-lived atmospheric pollutants we must address.  Under the heading Nature, the authors plea for protection and restoration of Earth’s ecosystems, arguing that these can do much to sequester carbon and cycle nutrients.  In fact, up to one third of reductions in emissions needed by 2030 could be achieved by restoring and protecting healthy ecosystems.  They also recommend a transformation of the human food supply, shifting the world towards a more plant-based diet, and a transformation of the economy away from an emphasis on “GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality”.  Finally, and I am very happy to see this being included more and more often, we have to confront the seriousness of the growth of the human population, and work to encourage choices that slow and eventually reverse human population trends.  The sheer scope of these recommendations accurately reflects the extent of the transition we have to make.  We’ve been warned before.  We have to do this.

For those of you in Canada, as winter approaches, just imagine India in a plus 4oC world.  Large expanses of that subcontinent will be unsafe for humans outside of air-conditioned spaces.  Unsafe means unlivable, too hot for the human organism to survive.  Can I put it any plainer (and it’s not just India that will reach such conditions in the world to which we are currently headed)?

Back to Alienation

I recently heard a clip from CBC’s The National for 7th November, of Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan, speaking about the need for the Federal Government to do more for the west.  In it, with reference to the carbon tax, he spoke confidently of being able to find some ‘opportunities for give and take and for a new direction’ with Justin Trudeau, confident that with good will, agreements that would be mutually satisfactory would be reached.  Later in the interview, responding to a question about whether as a Premier he had a responsibility to tamp down the alienation, he talked about it being incumbent on Premiers and the Prime Minister  “to work together to try and find common ground, not to legislate… for climate policies that you [the federal government or CBC?] feel are ideologically correct, like a federally imposed carbon tax imposed on Provinces across this country…” 

I realized as I listened that Premier Scott Moe just does not understand that conventional politics do not apply when dealing with the climate emergency.  The science says we need to curtail emissions to keep the world from overheating.  Canadians agree we need to do our part.  Therefore, it is incumbent on us to reduce carbon emissions and every part of Canada must be part of this process.  There is no room for give and take on this.  Until now, Saskatchewan has not put in place its own mechanisms to price carbon and curtail emissions.  The Federal carbon tax exists as a fall-back case for those Provinces which failed to put their own carbon policies in place.  It only gets imposed on those Provinces that are dragging their feet.  But Premier Moe wants a year’s reprieve because his province has failed to act.  Why?

Still, Scott Moe comes off sounding a whole lot more reasonable than his Alberta colleague, Premier Jason Kenny.  At least Moe sounds like he wants to keep the country intact.  On 10th November, Jason Kenny gave a speech at the Manning Centre in Red Deer, Alberta.  He claimed that “Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us.”  He then went on to describe a series of measures that would expand Alberta’s autonomy within Canada.  He described it as a fair deal for Alberta that would “get Ottawa out of the way so that we can do what we do best—what Alberta has always done: grow our economy, create jobs, get back to work, and generate an oversized contribution to Canada’s wealth”.  Gee, thanks.  I did not know Alberta has taken on this ‘older brother’ role for the rest of the country!

Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator Ð Friday October 25, 2019

MackKay captures Jason Kenney’s new push to be the most alienated one of all.  Cartoon © Graeme MacKay, Hamilton Spectator.

According to the Globe & Mail, Kenny also referred to Justin Trudeau’s government having been “actively hostile” towards his province’s energy industry and claimed he has seen fear in the eyes of Albertans. He said the resulting decline in the province’s oil and gas sector, compounded by Ottawa’s indifference to his province’s pain has led to a spike in suicides. “This literally, for many people, is a life or death question.”  I’ve not seen a transcript but it’s possible we may have a nascent Trump in our midst – oh, the damage those tar sands fumes can do to one’s brain.

Getting back to reality, the lack of ways of getting tar sands bitumen to market is as much a failure of the industry to properly plan for and execute construction projects as it is of governmental red tape and environmentalist obstruction.  If you know that your drilling efforts are going to yield large quantities of toxic, explosive stuff that you will want to ship off to markets elsewhere, would it not be prudent to put in sufficient effort to build the transport system before it is needed?  Would it not have been even more prudent, given the nastiness of this product, to build more refinery capacity right in Alberta.  After all, surely as leaders within Canada, Albertans would be keen to move beyond a primitive ‘dig and ship’ mentality towards development of a mature industry with high value refined products? 

And, just by the way, are we really so sure that the lower prices for tar sands diluted bitumen are really because of a pipeline bottleneck.  There are well-placed sources that point to other factors, including the difficulty and cost of refining this lower-quality product (their words not mine).  I’ve blogged about these issues several times, most recently last January, and don’t need to repeat myself.

Canada cannot afford to continue expanding the mining and export of Alberta’s bitumen.  That is incompatible with an effective response to the global climate emergency, because it is impossible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent required and leave this polluting industry free to continue and to grow.  (I say this on the assumption that an emissions-free process for exploiting bitumen is not about to be discovered – that could be a game-changer.)  Canada, as a middle-sized country, cannot afford to be seen as ignoring the major global emergency of our age.  We are way behind where we should be, and have got to up our game, not make further concessions to an industry that is the major cause of our high level of emissions.

The oil sector, and the Province of Alberta have been assuming all along that either climate change does not matter, or that the rest of Canada will make adjustments to curtail our overall national emissions.  It has been inconceivable to them that this industry should plan for an orderly shutdown long before reserves of exploitable bitumen run out.  Sorry, just because we have resources in this country does not mean that we are obliged to dig them up and export them!  If Jason Kenny really wants a new deal for Alberta, he should start with an economically sound plan for how to phase out the tar sands industry and replace it with modern, knowledge-intensive, forward-looking industries capable of providing rewarding, carbon-free employment for the talented people of Alberta.  He’d discover the rest of Canada would love to help him in that process.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Yes, we have a climate emergency; Alberta and the rest of Canada both need to listen up.