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Tar Baby Tunes, or Another Tale of How the Harper Government Parses the Truth about Canada and Climate Change

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Canada 6trh Report on CO2I had hoped to write about some interesting new science, but we had a couple of weeks of really cold weather, and then I came across Canada’s 2014 report to the UNFCCC, the Convention on Climate Change, and somebody e-mailed me about book burnings, and someone else sent me a link to a list of science projects shut down, and Ken Black wrote a good article on climate change for the local paper, and Neil Young arrived in town and I realized I had to wade once more into Canada’s abject performance on matters economic, environmental and climatic.  And so, I bring you Tar Baby Tunes.  (They ain’t musical, nor logical, nor very nice at all; my apologies to Uncle Remus.)  Those of you outside Canada can hum along, bemused by the ease with which a country can lose its way.  As for the cold weather (which came back again this week), I’m amused that all the weather folk on TV are giving tutorials on the Polar Vortex, considering I talked about it in December 2012, and the way in which warming of the Arctic was likely to lead to episodes of decidedly cold weather further south.

Do you remember what Canada’s Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, said at the time of the release of the first part of the IPCC 5th Assessment last September?  “Our government is playing a leadership role on climate change”.  Then, as Environment Canada released the latest figures“Our government is taking action to address climate change”.  And on her return from the Warsaw COP19 climate conference?  “Canadians should be proud to know that our leadership is being recognized on the world stage.  In fact, while I was in Warsaw, I heard from representatives from Mexico, China and Colombia, who all praise Canada for its environmental record.  They did this because they know we have taken significant actions to protect the Canadian environment.”  All sounds pretty positive, right?  Not quite in line with this country having received a whole string of ‘fossil of the year’ awards at climate conferences.

Aglukkuq by Fred Chartrand CP Montreal Gazette

Minister of Environment, Leona Aglukkuq, estimating how far from the truth she is straying when making claims about Canada’s GHG performance.  Photo © Fred Chartrand/CP Montreal Gazette

At the end of December, Mike DeSouza reported in the Montreal Gazette that Ms Aglukkaq had wandered a bit from the message that Environment Canada had proposed she deliver.  A briefing paper prepared back in September proposed that she state that the Harper government recognized scientific evidence that humans were “mostly responsible for climate change” and that it took this threat “seriously.”  She has never affirmed the first part of that message, although her assurances that the government is “taking action” and “playing a leadership role” could be construed by the gullible to mean that the government is taking the threat of climate change seriously.

Members of Canada’s national government stretch the truth on our climate performance when talking to the public; government documents submitted to international bodies follow suit.  Canada’s latest report to the UNFCCC, the Convention on Climate Change, is a good example.  Imaginatively titled “Canada’s Sixth National Report on Climate Change”, it begins, after one sentence on how pleased Canada is to provide this information, as follows:

“Canada recognizes the importance of climate change and, as an arctic nation, is particularly affected by its impacts.  To respond to this global challenge, Canada is implementing a comprehensive climate change plan, both domestically and internationally.  This plan is underpinned by a strong scientific foundation and includes action on, and investments in mitigation and adaptation, as well as international engagement through a number of multilateral fora.

“Since Canada’s 5th National Communication in 2010, progress has been made in implementing a sector-by-sector regulatory approach to address emissions.  These actions are precedent-setting: for the first time, Canada has national regulations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

It goes on in this vein for most of its 270 pages, a text full of half-truths, excuses, and lofty claims concerning the future, sitting uncomfortably beside tables and graphs that cannot hide the poor performance.  It is simply not legitimate to identify, as it does on page 003 (and in more detail later), Canada’s northern climate, low population density, and resource-intensive economy as reasons for its very high per capita emissions of CO2, when it is palpably obvious that the Harper government is not making any extraordinary efforts to bring emissions down.  If anything, its approach has been to do the minimum possible, to avoid discussion of the problem, to stonewall at international meetings, and to pat itself on the back when it “decides” to go along with stricter emissions standards set by others, but ones it cannot realistically avoid.  Most obvious here was former Environment Minister Peter Kent’s announcement last June that Canada would align its transportation-related emissions standards with the tough new standards for cars and trucks being brought in by the US beginning in 2017.  I mean, did any sentient person have any doubt that Canada would accept these changes, given the tight integration of the two automotive sectors?  This is not leadership by Canada on climate, this is the mouse moving in harmony with the elephant.


Canada seldom has the luxury of ignoring what the USA does; going along with their actions is NOT a sign of Canadian initiative in reducing GHG emissions.  Photo – hungerrumblings.

As for blaming our ‘fastest in the G8’ population growth or our rapidly growing resources sector for our failure to lower emissions very far, as the document implies in many places – our population growth is easily controlled since immigration plays such a big role, and we do not have to allow our weakly regulated energy sector to grow as rapidly as possible.  The document makes this government appear to be at the mercy of forces outside its control.  The truth of course is that the Harper government has no interest in reducing CO2 emissions, and every interest in ensuring that its friends in the energy sector will continue to prosper.

The report does include some interesting statistics.  Here are some examples:

  • In 2030, Canada’s emissions are projected to be 815 Mt CO2 eq, or 11% above 2005 levels, with current measures in place.
  • In 2012, Canada exported $119 billion and imported $54 billion worth of energy products; these are 26.2% of merchandise exports and 11.7% of imports.
  • Canada has 11.6% of the world’s proven oil reserves, 98% in the tar sands.
  • Crude oil production grew from 1.7 to 3.3 million barrels per day between 1990 and 2012; over 50% now comes from the tar sands.  Canada exports 72% of this production.
  • Canada is also a net exporter of natural gas and coal.

There is no doubt that the energy sector is a major part of Canada’s economy, and that its fossil fuel exports are a major generator of foreign exchange.  It is also true that growth in this sector has permitted the Canadian economy to perform relatively well while other advanced economies stumbled.  But this is supposed to be a report on how Canada is performing in curtailing CO2 emissions.  Permitting, let alone encouraging, the rapid expansion of activity in this sector, while taking negligible steps to bring down overall emissions, is no way to deal with climate concerns.  A government that truly wanted to build a strong economy that would sustain Canadian lifestyles into the future would look to manufacturing, high tech, and other parts of the knowledge economy, making far better use of the talent represented by all those well-educated Canadians that have been finding life difficult over the past few years.  A government interested in the well-being of Canadians would recognize that last year’s Alberta floods and the recent ice storms across eastern Canada are just the beginning of what climate change is bringing.  Their costs have been estimated at $6 billion and $250 million respectively, small change compared to the $119 billion worth of energy products exported in 2012, but still a significant drain on the economy, and a cost that can be legitimately laid partly at the feet of the energy producers.

Elsewhere, the report speaks glowingly of the government’s support of climate and environmental science.  On page 002 we get, Canada’s climate science is an integral part of the global effort to understand climate system behaviour, human influence on climate, and future climate change scenarios.  Canada’s science contributes to domestic climate change policies and decisions, and informs international bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Arctic Council, and the Global Methane Initiative.  In May 2013, the Government of Canada provided funds for arctic research through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Climate Change and Atmospheric Research initiative.  This program supports collaborative climate change and atmospheric research, and will provide funding of more than $32 million over 5 years to 7 university-based research networks”.

Wow!  I’m not sure why the report on Canada’s CO2 emissions needed to wade into government support for science, but if it was to wade in, should it not present a more complete perspective?  Such as the one broadcast on CBC’s The Firth Estate on 10th January which documents the progressive shutting down of science within the national public service, including the rebranding of Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization as the Museum of History, with an emphasis on the British history of Canada.  The shutting down of science gained most visibility in the attempt to close down the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique research facility in western Ontario, but it had commenced prior to that, and continues today.  Scientists for the Right to Know is a chilling timeline of curtailed, cancelled and closed science programs in Canada.  The Star recently reported on the closing of technical libraries in Fisheries & Oceans and Environment Canada installations across the country.  If only the evident energy used by the Harper government to eliminate environmental science in this country were used to eliminate CO2 emissions.

5th estate program

Fifth Estate program, Silence of the Labs first aired 10th January on CBC Television

What galls me is that Stephen Harper has made the Arctic a key part of his agenda, with annual visits to the region, and lots of talk about opening up the Arctic and bringing prosperity to Canada’s Arctic citizens.  One might expect him to have begun to understand what is happening up there, to appreciate that the rapid climate changes could be unleashing environmental alterations that we have not yet begun to imagine.  He is far too smart to not understand.  But he appears to believe that if he stays on message, and keeps his government on message, messy inconveniences like climate change can be ignored.

Baird & Kerry re Keystone XL

US Secretary of State John Kerry explaining what Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird just said – “The Canadian guy just told me to make the Keystone decision now or sooner.  Doesn’t seem to understand due process or environmental responsibility.”  Photo © Alex Wong/Getty Images

This week, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird was in Washington telling the Americans that it is high time they made a decision on Keystone XL (Harper has already been south of the border instructing Americans that Yes is the only acceptable answer).  Meanwhile Neil Young held the first concerts of his four-city tour in Toronto and Winnipeg, and the criticism from western governments and oil industry leaders grew to become almost as over-the-top as Neil’s comparison of the tar sands landscape to Hiroshima.  Rex Murphy was apoplectic on CBC, chastising Mr. Young for overstating his case, and defending Fort McMurray by stating that there are “hundreds and hundreds of other projects, in other parts of the world, equal or vastly larger in scope, which will not be handled with a fraction of the care, scruple and oversight that this one in Alberta will”.  (I notice Rex used the future tense – there has been little care, scruple or oversight until now.)  Fact is, there are dreadful examples of resource exploitation in many parts of the world, but that does not justify this one.  Canada can and should do a lot better than this, and the Harper government has been chief cheerleader to the ramping up of production, while making very little progress on the tough environmental regulations that it claims have been in development for years.

Neil Young

Neil Young on his Honour the Treaties tour.  Photo © Mark Blinch/CP

Time for a bit of science, to justify to myself that I am still a scientist.  On January 2nd, Nature published a report by Steven Sherwood of University of New South Wales and two French colleagues that evaluated the role of low level clouds (2-3 km above the surface) in determining ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’ (ECS).  ECS is a measure of the ultimate change in mean global temperature in response to an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, but ECS has varied among global climate models from about 1.5o to 5oC for a doubling of CO2 and efforts to gain more precision have made little progress.  Our ability to project future climate precisely is limited by this variability.

global temp projection SPM7 IPCC

ECS is responsible for much of the variability (width of pink or purple bands) in temperature projections such as this one (Fig SPM7, in IPCC WG1 Summary for Policymakers
released in September 2013).

Low level clouds reflect sunlight and so keep the climate cooler than if the clouds were to dissipate.  Convective mixing of the atmosphere dissipates clouds.  Sherwood and colleagues began by examining how warming alters the pattern and extent of convective mixing in the lower atmosphere in each of the 43 climate models routinely used in climate projections.  They found that differences among models in the details of how this process was modeled led to quite different degrees of responsiveness to warming, and could account for about half the spread in ECS.  They also found that observational studies of low level clouds in today’s atmosphere suggested that ECS values above 3oC and most likely around 4oC for a doubling of CO2 are correct.  If their results are upheld by future research, they have succeeded in cutting the range of estimates of ECS by about 50% (3o-5o vs 1.5o-5o), and at the same time showing that climate sensitivity is in the upper half of the range of projections used until now.

What does this mean for our climate?  Simply that as we project climate into the future, assuming a specified rise in CO2 concentrations, we should be expecting temperatures in the upper range of those formerly projected.  Put simply, the effect of CO2 in causing the planet to warm is on the high side of estimates made until now.  The climate story just got a little scarier.  So Neil Young, keep on speaking out, because it is high time that Canada (along with lots of other countries) adopts a responsible approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  We can do this by curtailing growth in the tar sands, while introducing real efforts to de-carbon other parts of our economy.  Ideally we should have a plan to phase out all coal, oil and gas exploitation as rapidly as we can manage.  Yes, that will make only a small dent on the global problem, but it will be our red-blooded Canadian mouse-sized dent.  If every wealthy country refuses to act until all other countries have acted, we proceed towards a future of frightening climate change that would make any comments of Neil Young’s tame understatement.

tar-sands-2-1000 Dodge Pembina

Wasteland or wonderland?  You be the judge.  Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute