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Our Human Condition – Trapped by the Familiar. It’s why Governmental or Economic Decisions are So Often Wrong when Environment is Involved.


The current kerfuffle over the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline that ships tar sands crude from Alberta to an export terminal on the coast of British Columbia is a sorry story.  It demonstrates that most leaders seem incapable of looking outside the box, never mind acting outside it.  Anthropocene times require out of the box thinking and action.  Canada, like the rest of the world, sits within the Anthropocene yet carries on as if we still inhabit the tranquil world of the Holocene.

Lots of Kinder-Morgan pipe waiting to go into the ground.  Photo © Chris Helgren/Reuters

The Anthropocene – Not your Grandfather’s Holocene

As anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I believe humanity is in the midst of a potentially existential environmental crisis – like many things environmental, it is a slowly moving crisis by human time scales, but also an inexorable one.  And it is a crisis almost entirely of our own doing.  Climate change holds center stage just now, but this crisis includes a number of aspects beyond climate change.  All of them need addressing, and the need for speed in this addressing gets steadily greater.  It’s a lot to demand of a naked ape whose entire history of civilized progress, from the earliest agriculture to our first tentative ventures out into space, has taken place in the benign paradise we named the Holocene.

Ah, the Holocene.  Those were the days, when one could deliberate, and re-deliberate, year after year, confident that the problem being deliberated about, while still present, was not going to get substantially worse.  Hell, sometimes, if one deliberated long enough, the problem went away all on its own.  Sea level has been essentially static for the last 8000 years.  Alpine glaciers reliably stored water for slow release into the headwaters of most of the major rivers of the planet.  Monsoons came predictably enough that a monsoon failure was a super big deal unlikely to happen several years in a row.  Local fisheries collapsed from being overfished, but there were always new fisheries around the next headland waiting to be used, and collapsed fisheries sometimes recovered.  There were good years and bad ones, sometimes times of real hardship, but the world was a dependable place that provided, by and large, dependable weather, adequate food, the other resources we needed, opportunities to prosper.

Over time we have removed much of the forests, striped most of the fishes out of the oceans, caused the extinction of large numbers of organisms, turned major tracts of land into monocultures of fertilizer-dependent crops, and scoured vast areas of seabed clean by dragging and re-dragging fishing gear across them.  We have redistributed organisms across the planet, sometimes to our own considerable inconvenience, and through imperfect health policies, have encouraged the evolution of pathogens immune to most of the remedies we can throw at them.

As well, we have made a mess from time to time, littering the world with left-over and waste items, some organic, many not.  For many years, the problem of littering was simply to move away, or move the litter away – ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ was a mantra that came into use 4000 years ago when people in India and Crete independently discovered how to use water to flush human wastes through drain systems and away.  It proved efficacious in most circumstances until our cities became so large that we needed mechanical and microbial ways of hastening decomposition before diluting in a river or the ocean.  Now with a population exceeding 7 billion, and with an out of control chemical industry inventing novel compounds at a pace that defied efforts to screen them for safety before release into the environment, this mantra frequently seems insufficient.

Today, our tendency to pollute is poisoning the soil, deoxygenating the coastal ocean, and altering the composition of the atmosphere in ways that are modifying our climate.  Some places are worse off than others, but there is now nowhere on this planet where evidence of us, in the form of our messes, does not exist.

We are Trapped in a Box

In the Anthropocene, all these problems become progressively worse as our population grows and our mean standards of living increase.  And our pollution of the atmosphere is causing climate to change at a pace that has seldom if ever been seen before, and certainly not in the couple of million years since our species first appeared on the planet.  Now that we have photographs of our planet from space that tell us, wordlessly, that it is finite and alone – the only place in the reachable universe that can support our species –, and now that we have a reasonably good understanding of the more obvious environmental and ecological consequences of most of the bad things we are doing, one might expect the ‘wise man’ (Homo sapiens), or at least the leaders of groups of such wise men, might recognize this environmental crisis as important, a problem to solve, even an existential problem requiring urgent solution.

Except Homo sapiens is clearly mis-named.  Because we do not readily think outside the box.  Our societies, whether relying on democratic, feudal, socialist or other governance, have histories rooted in the Holocene, when the planet provided a dependable environment in which to plan and execute our noble enterprises.  Most of us, once we become powerful enough in our own eyes to presume we can control nature, have treated nature as the set of places, creatures and things available for us to use.  Sort of like a giant supermarket, full of items to pick up and carry out, with no cash registers in sight.  (This supermarket even has places where we can dump our left-over, unwanted, or otherwise useless things, free of charge.  Quite a wonderful place really!)

Because the natural world has been dependable in providing us with goods and services, and because we have built economic systems which ignore the costs of using nature as we do, governance (both political and business) has evolved, under all political systems, to maximize short-term, and personal gains, minimize short-term and personal costs, and assume the environment will somehow take care of itself no matter what we do.  This approach to governance leads to a political process that seeks to find consensus (also known as reaching a compromise) among competing entities within society in which the short-term and personal interests of all sides are met to some degree – the so-called win-win solution.  Possible wins or losses by nature are irrelevant to the process.  Governance has also developed procedures which can be guaranteed to take a long time, simply because the longer you spend deliberating the more likely one side will walk away, making the solution politically painless for those who remain.  In societies in which the governance is achieved by a government built through a process of election of individuals to office of limited tenure, the tendency to think short-term is amplified.  Few leaders think long-term, well beyond the end of their own mandate in office, especially if the long-term benefit will become apparent only at the end, while costs will be more immediate.  In other words, because of the ways in which we have traditionally treated the natural world, and because of the nature of decision making in our societies, we have learned to ignore environmental damage whenever preventing that damage cuts into the personal and short-term benefits of leading actors in the society.

In the Anthropocene, the risks to our societies of continuing to make decisions in this way are likely to rise to the point when they can no longer be tolerated.  Unfortunately, with our gift for short-term thinking, and the slow pace at which environmental problems usually develop, we are slow to learn, and will likely have to experience a number of ‘intolerable’ environmental crises before we mend our ways.

Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline Twinning Project

All of which brings me back to Kinder-Morgan.  It was only a few years ago, that the twinning of the existing Trans-Mountain pipeline owned by the giant US company, Kinder-Morgan, was one of about four new pipeline proposals for shipping tar sands bitumen off to refineries or ports.  All were deemed ‘essential’ to the future well-being of the Alberta economy, and to prosperity across Canada, because projections were for tar sands production to grow substantially.  In a 2008 report on production, CAPP projected 2020 tar sands production to be 3.5 million barrels per day (MMBD), up from 1.2 MMBD in 2007.  Earlier predictions had been for 3 MMBD by 2015.  The rosy predictions created images in the mind of the Alberta landscape becoming covered by row upon row of barrels waiting to be shipped out; clearly, we needed lots of new pipelines to keep up with production.

CAPP forecast for tar sands production to 2030 as of June 2017.  Image © CBC News.

As things have turned out, future production estimates have been scaled back.  2015 came in under 2.4 MMBD, and CAPP is now predicting 3.1 MMBD by 2020 (and 3.67 MMBD by 2030).  The talk about three-fold increases seems to have dried up, although CAPP is still talking growth.  (Interestingly, the National Energy Board is more optimistic than CAPP, the industry spokesman!)

As well, industry spokespeople argued for the need for pipelines to ‘tidewater’, meaning anywhere except the US Gulf Coast, as a way of combating the differential value of Alberta crude compared to other North American or World sources.  By getting product to the east or west coast of Canada, the argument went, Alberta suppliers would be able to get their oil to market at a price nearly on par with the Brent crude benchmark.  In addition, following the 2013 rail accident, explosion and fire in downtown Lac Mégantic which claimed 47 lives, a new argument for more pipelines appeared; pipelines are safer than trains.  (Most people forget the Lac Mégantic accident had nothing to do with tar sands oil.)

Given all these arguments, anybody who questioned the necessity of all these new pipelines was dismissed as a head-in-the-clouds greenie who simply does not understand economics.  And yet, several knowledgeable people have questioned the necessity (and I have blogged about it here and here).  Among the doubters is David Hughes, an earth scientist who was for 32 years with the Canadian Geological Survey, and an authority on global and North American energy and sustainability issues (see an early comment here).  In May 2017, he authored a detailed assessment of Kinder-Morgan in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and Parkland Institute report, Will the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Tidewater Access Boost Prices and Save Canada’s Oil Industry?  This report is well worth a read.  In it, Hughes tackles each of the arguments in favor of new pipelines and finds them wanting.

National Energy Board’s anticipated growth in tar sands production, as constrained by the Alberta GHG emissions cap.  The reference, or average expected, case (black line) becomes constrained by the cap in 2025, the ‘high price’ trend in 2023.  Capping of production necessarily reduces future need for pipeline capacity.  Figure © CCPA/Parkland, based on NEB data.

Production estimates for the tar sands have been consistently optimistic, and Kinder-Morgan used estimates even higher than those used by the National Energy Board when articulating the need for the twinned pipeline.  The NEB predictions are higher than those from CAPP.  In 2016, NEB projected tar sands production would most likely reach 4.25 MMBD in 2030 and 4.8 MMBD by 2040, with the possibility of it reaching 5.3 MMBD if prices were unexpectedly high; Kinder-Morgan projected 5 MMBD by 2038.  Furthermore, the emissions cap introduced by Alberta, if obeyed, will prevent that degree of growth (assuming present-day emissions per barrel of product), and both the reference case and the high price possibility are constrained to 3.2 MMBD.  The emissions cap is hit in 2025 for the reference case.  With almost two million fewer barrels per day to move than Kinder-Morgan was predicting, the need for additional pipeline capacity no longer exists.

Hughes also demolishes the supposed price differential caused by the ‘landlocked’ status of Canada’s bitumen.  He shows convincingly, by graphing the historical trend in prices, that the differential that existed between West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude prices in 2012 and 2013 (when the Kinder-Morgan expansion was proposed) no longer exists and had not existed in years prior to 2011.  Fact is, the tidewater price at Houston is not significantly different to that at Vancouver or Halifax.

The differential in oil price that bringing tar sands product to ‘tidewater’ is supposed to correct – except there has only been a differential for a few years around 2012-13.
© CCPA/Parkland.

As for the argument that additional pipeline capacity was needed to reduce the risk of shipping oil by train, when the math is done, as Hughes reports, taking account of the effects of the Alberta cap on emissions on tar sands growth, there is surplus pipeline capacity even now.  New pipelines are not needed for this reason either.

The interesting thing about Hughes’ argument, and he has made it a number of times, is that it makes no mention of the need to reduce emissions and other forms of environmental damage (other than including the effects of Alberta’s (very weak) cap on emissions).  His arguments are based on the same economic and business cases that are used by proponents for every new pipeline being proposed.  And similar arguments have been made by others.  The business case is without merit.

If we add in a serious desire to improve environment and reduce the risk of climate change, the need for any additional pipeline capacity evaporates completely.  Canada’s current commitment under Paris (which we are not yet meeting) is woefully inadequate if climate change is to be kept under 2oC, and the existing Alberta cap on tar sands emissions barely constrains expansion.  Canada is going to have to do substantially more to reach its weak climate goals, and very much more to meet real goals for emissions reduction.  We can choose not to do this because we cannot afford the dent to our economy that winding down the tar sands would cause.  But that ensure we would be recognized permanently as a climate slacker, and would no doubt get some negative repercussions if we stuck our heels in.

I’m not going to belabor the environmental argument here; I’ve done so several times already and there are plenty of other sources of this information.  We are not going to be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to do our share to keep climate change below 20C if we also permit tar sands production to grow to the limit set by the Alberta cap.  This is not politics or economics, it is science.  The two goals are incompatible in this universe.  But, of course, our politicians are trying to treat this incompatibility like any other political problem.  And therein lies abject failure.

PM Justin Trudeau has staked his future on living up to Canada’s climate commitments (it would be a first for this country), and on sustaining Alberta’s fossil fuel economy.  He doesn’t seem to wonder if all those talented people employed in the tar sands might be able to do something useful that does not involve massive increases to our emissions.  Maybe he should read the recent Globe & Mail op-ed by Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and director of the Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  In his 13th April article he articulated a vision of Canada undertaking the infrastructure development to more fully integrate its electricity grid, both across Canada and between Canada and the US, so that we could export emissions-free electricity produced chiefly from our ample hydropower and other non-fossil sources, including nuclear, into the US energy supply thereby aiding their decarbonization while encouraging the continuation of our own progress in that field.  To what he wrote I would add building a massive expansion of wind and perhaps solar farms in Alberta to further this effort.

Premiers Notley of Alberta and Horgan of British Columbia are also trapped by not looking outside the box.  Notley introduced a tepid cap on tar sands production that will not likely kick in until 2025, but now faces stiff opposition on her right because she has gone too far down a climate change path.  Trudeau promised her a pipeline if she’d do the right thing on climate and now it looks like the pipeline may not happen.  In British Columbia, John Horgan leads a minority government that opposes increased oil shipments out of their ports, or pipelines across their iconic landscape; he is propped up by the Green Party who are even more belligerently opposed to pipelines.  The conventional political compromise ain’t going to happen.

Meanwhile, preventing the pols from thinking carefully and deeply (yes, they do, sometimes) is a cacophony from the business sector arguing that if Kinder-Morgan is not built the world as we know it will come to an end (a rough translation of their perspective on the hit to Canada’s reputation as a place to do business).  While I understand that countries must provide a dependable environment for investment, I seriously doubt that the failure to build a pipeline in British Columbia will stop economic sectors other than those engaged in fossil fuel digging, processing and shipping, from continuing to see Canada as a nation of laws and reliable governance.  Would Google really have second thoughts about investing in Canada if Kinder-Morgan goes down?  Really?  Might not some economic sectors take renewed interest in Canada as a land which values its environment sufficiently to leave the tar sands in the ground and build opportunity in other ways?  And Kinder-Morgan’s signs of cold feet are surely an indication that the business argument for the pipeline is not quite as wonderful for all concerned as they claimed when making the application to build.

So, what is the outcome from the meeting in Ottawa between Trudeau, Notley and Horgan last weekend?  A typically political solution.  They could not find a consensus, but Trudeau and Notley agreed they could use national and Alberta tax monies to seduce Kinder-Morgan to go ahead, even though the regulatory battles will continue.  This is not an intelligent plan.

Meanwhile Canadian government websites continue to put as shiny a lipstick as possible on Canada’s appallingly weak progress on the climate front, and Trudeau’s hard-working Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna has until now been assuring Canadians that we are ‘on track’ to achieve our climate goals, while avoiding niggling issues like the 66 Mt CO2 emissions gap that still exists between Canada’s 2030 target and the realistic 2030 projection of emissions.  It’s a gap for which Ms. McKenna has only waffle words.  Her words in a mid-March interview show that she fully understands what is happening; once more Canada will put false tar sands economics ahead of environment and fail to fulfill its UN commitments made in those heady days in Paris.  All because everyone is staying carefully inside the box – a box where big investments in dirty things you can dig up and sell are more important than an environment worth living in.

Let’s Talk about the Oceans

Just to ram that last point home, last week’s copy of Nature included two research articles, an overview, and an editorial all talking about the erratic behavior of the AMOC.  AMOC is not some wooly-coated, brown-eyed, cuddly creature that lives in the Himalayas; AMOC is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and while many people have never heard of it they should be paying attention.  The AMOC is slowing down.

Diagram of the AMOC prepared by Levke Caesar for the press release accompanying the Nature article.  Surface currents are in red, deep currents in blue, and the color bar scale refers to ocean color.  The cool area in the North Atlantic, site of the subpolar gyre that marks the region where surface water is falling to deeper layers, and variation in sea surface temperature at this region appears to be a useful proxy for the strength of AMOC.  Image © L. Caesar/PIK.

The AMOC transfers vast quantities of surface waters, first carried to the North Atlantic on the Gulf Stream, to the ocean depths and back towards the tropics.  It happens because the warm, salty Caribbean water cools as it moves north until it becomes dense enough, despite its saltiness, to drop below the North Atlantic water.  This vast waterfall within the ocean drives the Gulf Stream and the major ocean circulation system that ensures that oxygen gets carried down to the depths, and that heat is transferred from the tropics to the temperate zones.  Back in the 1950s marine scientists began to work out the giant oceanic circulatory currents, and their role in determining climate.  Greenland ice core data suggested these current systems sometimes changed radically and suddenly triggering climate changes.  The AMOC was relatively strong and stable during the Holocene, but in 2005, a report in Nature described an apparently weakened AMOC, raising the possibility that it might be becoming unstable.  Work since then has revealed that its strength fluctuates in complex ways.  The two research articles in last week’s Nature confirm that the AMOC is now about 15% weaker, especially in winter and spring, which slows the flow of surface water to the depths.

The two articles, one by Levke Caesar, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, and 4 colleagues from Europe and the USA, and one by David Thornalley, University College London and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and 11 colleagues from Europe and North America, use radically different approaches to confirm this marked slow-down.  The teams’ results differ in the estimated date of on-set, with Thornalley’s team suggesting this pattern began around 1850 and Caesar’s group pinning the change to the mid-20th century.  The discrepancy is as much a comment on the difficulty of doing global-scale oceanographic research as on the different approaches taken.  Thornalley used paleoclimate data over the past 1600 years, while Caesar used high-resolution global climate models and data on sea surface temperature to reveal patterns of change in surface temperatures in the North Atlantic since the late 1800s.  Both teams attribute the slow-down to human releases of greenhouse gases and resulting climate change.  The take-home message for me is that this is one more glimpse of the seriousness of the climate crisis.  The slow-down of AMOC, likely triggered by the copious new cold fresh water being introduced to the North Atlantic as Greenland’s glaciers melt, could have sudden and serious consequences for the climate of Europe or for the Northern Hemisphere.  We don’t know how serious, nor how soon, nor how rapid such climatic changes might be, but they could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

And yet, content in our boxes, not looking out, we continue to make decisions about pipelines as if it was routine politics as usual.  Sometime in a distant future, people are going to look at the money wasted in building unnecessary infrastructure to prop up a fossil fuel industry coming to its natural end, the other vast sums of money wasted protecting cities from rising seas, from catastrophic floods, or from unending droughts, and compare them to the dollars that could have been spent productively building the new, low-emissions, decarbonized economy of the 21st century.  And they will ask, “How stupid were they?  Why could they not recognize what had to be done?  Why did they not work to prevent this difficult, dangerous world in which we now live?”  Guess I’m in my optimistic phase today – thinking there will be people in the future with time to think about such things.

If you don’t think outside the box, you’ll never figure out how to move Canadians towards effective climate policy.  Cartoon © Brian Gable/Globe & Mail.