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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.