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Nature editorial recommends climate actions for Obama

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The editorial in the Thursday 31 January 2013 issue of Nature offers scientifically informed advice to the Obama administration on how it might best advance the climate agenda that President Obama articulated in his Inaugural Address.  As such this editorial must be seen as at minimum straddling the border between science and politics.  The editorial identifies three decisions that are likely to be made in the near term, decisions that do not require congressional action before they can be implemented.  It recommends that Obama move forward with two new regulations for power plants that would be administered by EPA.  The first, already sketched out by EPA, would impose new emissions standards on new power plants that would effectively prevent any further conventional coal-fired power plants from being built in the US.  The second would impose new emissions limits on existing plants that would force coal-fired plants to clean up or shut down.  By taking these two actions, the editorial reasons, the Obama team will gain credibility with pro-climate-action constituents, and while the power industry will “cry foul”, they will go along, because they are already shifting from coal to natural gas for economic (and perhaps environmental) reasons.

The editorial also recommends that the Obama administration “should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve” the Keystone XL pipeline.  This pipeline is slated to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Texas, but has been stalled by environmental questions, chiefly around the risk of a spill atop the sensitive Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska – one of the world’s largest.  The rationale here is that this action will gain Obama credibility with the American right and with industry.  The editorial states that cancelling Keystone XL will not shut down the Canadian tar sands industry, that tar sands oil is not much dirtier than some other oil or coal, and that, in any event, the serious air- and water-quality impacts of exploiting the tar sands lie in Canada, not really part of Obama’s jurisdiction.  Needless to say, many environmentalists in Canada and elsewhere are disappointed to see this latter advice in a prestigious science journal.

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Laying an oil pipeline.  Photo © Zuma Press

However, the issue is more about the politics than the science, and I think we need to be clear on the politics.  The possibility of a pipeline leak (and they DO occur) needs to be taken into account, but the possibility that the pipeline will assist in permitting the rapid expansion of the tar sands development program is also important.  I believe this is the most important factor recommending that the pipeline be opposed, and for the following reason:

Canada is a prosperous, developed country with a per capita GHG emissions rate that is the third highest in the world.  Canada failed to live up to its modest Kyoto promises and subsequently withdrew from that climate treaty.  Canada’s federal government has not implemented any significant actions to reduce its GHG emissions, has made only modest commitments on this issue, and is not going to be able to achieve the very modest commitments it has made for 2020 without some bold new initiatives, even though its public statements maintain the fiction that it is “on track”.  Canada’s tar sands industry has been at least until recently committed to a rapid tripling of production, and needs new pipeline capacity, or new processing capacity in Alberta, to achieve this expansion.  Canada’s federal government has been aggressively simplifying or cancelling environmental regulations that might impede this rapid ramp-up over the past several years, and is committed to having the industry grow as rapidly as possible.  Canada’s chance to make changes that would reduce its GHG emissions to a degree commensurate with the world limiting global warming to 2oC this century becomes essentially impossible if tar sands output triples as planned.  Since Canada does not appear to be motivated to improve its own poor GHG emissions record, it seems politically justifiable to seek other ways to postpone or stop the ramp-up of tar sands mining, in order to prevent Canada’s poor environmental record from deteriorating even further.

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The Syncrude Canada development in the Athabasca tar sands. Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute

Nature’s argument that Canadian tar sands oil is not much dirtier than some other oil or coal is specious – we cannot argue against stopping one form of pollution because there are others out there that should also be stopped.  Just as we cannot argue that because Canada’s GHG emissions are a trivial part of total emissions, Canadians do not have to reduce them – they are per capita the third largest.  The statement that cancelling Keystone XL will not shut down the Canadian tar sands industry is unfortunately correct, but it will delay, and delay is better than nothing.  The Pembina Institute recently provided a detailed argument for opposing Keystone, and the National Resources Defence Council and have released a short video on the topic.  The Sierra Club has, for the first time in its history, committed to participate in an act of civil disobedience (likely on February 17th in Washington), because it judges the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline to be critically important.  Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest.  Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism.”

I personally would much prefer to have the Canadian federal government take up the challenge of reducing GHG emissions, act responsibly to bring Canada’s performance into line with the best-performing industrial countries, and begin a dialog with the Canadian people on the real need to change the nature of our economy in order to build an environmentally sustainable future.  Then we could join other leading nations and maybe, just maybe, move the global community in the direction of a good future.  Mr. Harper has shown little interest in taking this path yet, and so, politics being politics, it becomes necessary to look for other ways to achieve the same goal.  First Keystone XL, and then Northern Gateway.

2 thoughts on “Nature editorial recommends climate actions for Obama”

  1. Pingback: Keystone XL Heats Up – Its not Just Another Pipeline | Peter Sale Books

  2. Pingback: A Short Tale of Two Leaders, a Pipeline, and a Climate | Peter Sale Books

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