Category Archives: Ethics

Two things Canada’s oil industry needs to understand

First — any expectation that ‘business as usual’ in the sense of rapid growth in production will return is ill-founded. Most importantly, this is because an effective global transition to low-carbon energy requires countries like Canada to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure as well as to develop serious plans to phase out fossil fuel production that already exists. Combined with volatile fossil fuel prices, the very high per-barrel cost of production in the bitumen sands, and the heavy environmental impact there is no reason to expect a return to the rapid growth projections which were once do dominant in Canada.

Second — the fact that any political jurisdiction happens to own coal, oil, and gas doesn’t grant a right to exploit these resources regardless of the impact on others. Based on what we have learned about the harm caused by climate change, it’s ethically and politically imperative that the arbitrary use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon pollution comes to an end.

By all means we should be providing support to individuals and communities that want to transition away from the fossil fuel industry. What we need to collectively reject is the idea that any jurisdiction has the right to impose climate change on the rest of the world and future generations. People deserve support in transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence, but there is every reason for Canada as a whole to reject new fossil fuel export infrastructure, particularly bitumen sands pipelines and coal ports.

Why divest from fossil fuels?

Campaigns at universities especially can benefit from this document, prepared for the University of Toronto:

The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment: Update, by

Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer

Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes

Dauvergne on consumption

“On many measures, policies, actions, and technologies to shape consumption appear to be “improving” environmental management. But too often the measures are close-up snapshots that cut out a much bigger, more complex, global picture of crisis. One common set of measures zooms in on consumer use of a product. Here, it is easy to and progress: simply compare the energy needs of a refrigerator or microwave or TV from the 1970s with a 2010 model. Another common set of measures zeros in on national consumption patterns. Here it is harder to and positive trends. Still, many exist—from higher recycling rates to more green buildings—for those who are looking for signs that capitalist economies are capable of shifting toward some form of sustainability.

Yet all of these measures need to be put into the context of a rising global population and rising per capita consumption in a globalized capitalist economy, a system that creates incentives — indeed, makes it imperative — for states and companies to “externalize externalities” beyond the borders of those who are actually doing most of the consuming. The challenge for environmentalists and policymakers is therefore about much more than influencing “consumers” — much of what is happening globally is beyond their control. Rather, it is about transforming a global system that is driving unsustainable production, much of which is increasingly masking itself as sustainable consumption. Fundamentally, this means that any move toward sustainable consumption will require much better full cost accounting and more equitable distribution of income: locally, nationally, and globally.”

Dauvergne, Peter. “The Problem of Consumption.” Global Environmental Politics, Volume 10, Number 2, May 2010, pp. 1-10 (Article)

Gardiner on our interests and obligations

“The dominant reason for acting on climate change is not that it would make us better off. It is that not acting involves taking advantage of the poor, the future, and nature. We can hope that refraining from such exploitation is good (or at least not too bad) for us, especially in terms of current lifestyles and those to which we aspire. But such hope is and should not be our primary ground for acting. After all, morally speaking, we must act in any case. If it turns out that we can do so and still do well ourselves, then this is to be welcomes as a fortunate empirical fact, and no more. Given this, incessant hand-wringing about whether, how, and to what extent we might benefit from action is at best a side issue, and at worse just another vehicle for procrastination and moral corruption.”

Gardiner, Stephen. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. p.68 (hardcover)

Climate change and democratic legitimacy

The ordinary understanding of the legitimacy of democratic governments is that their authority derives from a popular mandate; the government can legitimately impose laws on citizens because those citizens have the ability to replace the government if they choose.

The argument that popular consent makes the decisions of democratic governments legitimate is based on the assumption that the people impacted by those decisions are the citizens who are alive and voting.

Because greenhouse gas pollution endures for so long in the atmosphere, people for tens of thousands of years will be affected by the choices we make now. In particular, how much fossil fuel we collectively choose to burn during the next few decades will have a huge impact on the kind of world many future generations inhabit. We have a choice between passing on a world that largely resembles the one we inherited or passing on one that is radically transformed, largely in ways that are deeply harmful to the life prospects of future generations of human beings.

In this way, citizens and governments have entered into a conspiracy against future generations. Governments do not meaningfully restrict the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, they positively encourage it. This policy is popular because it facilitates many things that people value: from inexpensive domestic and foreign travel to cheap and uninterrupted electricity, air conditioning, winter heating, consumer goods, and all the conveniences and pleasures that exist in our energy-intensive lives. In order to maintain those lifestyles, we choose to burn vast quantities of fossil fuels.

The consequence is that many people with no political voice are made to suffer. This in turn undermines the moral legitimacy of the arrangement. The consent of the governed is a point in favour of democratic governments, but they must also be held accountable for the consequences of their actions on defenceless members of future generations who will suffer from the pollution we produce but who have no political voice.

What we are doing now is effectively treating members of future generations as our slaves, or at least as people whose interests do not matter at all. When democratic governments choose to treat people in that way, they lose the ability to convincingly argue that their behaviour is ethical. The question for individuals then becomes: “What should I do personally, living in this unjust society?”

Canada should phase-out fossil fuel exports

There are a few scientific facts about the world that are vital and increasingly well understood. Foremost among them is the reality that human beings have already put a dangerous amount of greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the world as a whole continues to demonstrate a ferocious appetite for fossil fuels. Burning those fuels will inevitably contribute still more to climate change, turning a dangerous situation into a potentially catastrophic one.

In order to avert the worst-case outcomes, humanity as a whole needs to work toward keeping most of the planet’s remaining fossil fuels underground, while achieving a global transition to a low- and ultimately zero-carbon economy.

In a world where states, companies, and individuals behaved rationally, we would already be working aggressively to phase-out fossil fuels. As it is, nothing like the necessary level of effort is being made. In an ideal world, Canada would be finding itself with fewer and fewer willing buyers of coal, oil, and gas; as it is, we should choose to restrain production and exports unilaterally.

Right now, Canada is helping to feed the fossil fuel addiction of the United States. Under the current Conservative government, we also aspire to help feed the addictions of China and others. If the world is to avoid catastrophe, those addictions must be curbed. By voluntarily reducing our exports of fossil fuels, Canada can play a disproportionate role in driving that necessary transition.

Canada may not have much population or total wealth when compared to giant states like China and the United States, but we do have vast reserves of coal, oil, and gas. When we export those fuels, we help keep the world on an economic development pathway that is tightly linked to fossil fuel use, and in which well over 2ËšC of climate change will eventually occur.

Catastrophic global climate change would serve the interests of nobody, but states are not thinking ahead and responding appropriately to the dangers we face. Within that context, Canada has the choice between continuing to be an enabler of unethical and destructive fossil fuel use or voluntarily restricting fossil fuel production and export. Hopefully, Canada will eventually find itself in a situation where nobody wants to buy these dangerous fuels, and where the world as a whole recognizes the value of keeping them underground. In order to help drive the emergence of such a world, the best thing Canada can do is to stop fueling the fossil fuel addictions of other countries, while also working to decarbonize our domestic economy.

Why ‘ethical oil’ may be an own goal

Don’t tell him, but I think Ezra Levant’s whole ‘ethical oil’ concept might be a psychological own goal for the people trying to promote the unrestricted growth of Canada’s oil sands.

The intent of the campaign is to draw attention to ethical abuses connected to oil from sources outside Canada. For instance, the lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia. For people who are already convinced that Canadian oil is A-OK, the contrast between the appeal of buying oil from ‘good’ Canadian companies rather than ‘bad’ foreign companies or governments seems stark.

The reason why I think the slogan may be self-defeating is that by trying to draw attention away from arguments that Canadian oil is itself unethical, it reinforces the point that the choices we make about energy are ethical choices, not mere consumer choices. If you have come to accept buying fossil fuel as a perfectly ordinary part of life, with no more thought accorded to it than to buying a pack of gum or a bus token, seeing a blaring campaign about how Canada’s oil is ethical while oil from elsewhere is not may bring to mind the very arguments that the campaign is seeking to discredit.

Plenty of people are aware of how problematic our society’s dependence on oil is. They are also aware of the dubious business dealings and environmental damage associated with all oil companies, including those in Canada’s oil sands. Oil companies are bad neighbours. When operating normally, they produce air and water pollution that saturates the world with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals. When something goes wrong, they cause catastrophic accidents that end human lives and spoil large areas of nature. Their operations and product are also inescapably linked with climate change. They profit while the people downstream and downwind suffer.

Reminding people that oil is an ethical issue may end up encouraging those with a balanced view to make less use of it and search more energetically for alternatives. To put it briefly, the oil industry loses when oil gets discussed as an ethical matter; for them, it is much better when people see oil amorally as an essential enabler for things they value doing like driving cars and flying in airplanes.

One side note about ‘ethical oil’ – one of their standard photo ops is to get a couple of women to wear black body-covering garments in the style of a burqa in front of environmental protests. The people being photographed often have a sign suggesting that OPEC is pleased by environmental protests, since they restrict hydrocarbon development in North America and keep the continent dependent on imports. On one level, these protests seem like fair comment on the oppressive government policies in some major oil-producing states. At the same time, it seems possible that the intention behind the protest is to take advantage of xenophobic or anti-Muslim sentiment. Appealing to the moral sentiment that women should not be subjugated by their governments is one thing, but using Islamophobia to try to discredit your opponents is much less morally upright.

Government interference in the Northern Gateway pipeline review process

Both the public statements and the actions of Canada’s federal government have served to undermine the independence and integrity of the ongoing review of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Neither government ministers nor the prime minister have been shy about asserting that the pipeline is to be built regardless of the concerns of local residents and aboriginal groups and regardless of how it would put their climate change targets even further out of reach.

The implementation bill for the latest federal budget would also give cabinet the authority to overrule the National Energy Board and build the pipeline regardless of what they decide.

In the short term, these government actions may seem to improve the odds that the pipeline will be built. One significant consideration, however, is how the courts will respond to this bullying. In the event that aboriginal opposition to the pipeline is ignored by the government, it seems virtually certain that First Nations groups will go to the court to seek an order to block construction. The more the government undermines the legitimacy of the environmental assessment process, the more likely it is that judges will rule that the government has behaved improperly and the higher the odds the pipeline will be blocked by judicial means.

How the oil sands are like cancer

The Athabasca oil sands are like a tumour growing in a human body.

A tumour is very successful in a certain way. These cells divide rapidly and can keep growing forever as long as they are provided with food and oxygen. Ultimately, however, a tumour grows to the point where it starts to threaten the vital systems of its host organism. The tumour needs oxygen, but has no respect for the continued functioning of the lungs that pull it from the air or the heart that circulates it around the body. Similarly, if we emit enough greenhouse gas pollution we will threaten the vital systems of the planet – systems that human beings depend upon just as fully as they depend on their own lungs. Just as a tumour can depend on oxygen and food while remaining entirely ignorant about the conditions required for their continued availability, humanity can smash the parts of the world that we rely upon without realizing we’re doing it. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that we are improving our own situation, by carefully counting what is being gained (like nice houses and jet fuel) while ignoring what is being lost (stable sea levels, countless species, predictable weather).

As a tumour grows, the deranged cells inside of it need oxygen to stay alive. It tricks the body into growing blood vessels to feed it. Similarly, the oil sands require pipelines to get their product to market. Denying these pipelines is the most plausible way of constraining the growth of the oil sands, given that the federal government is doing everything possible to encourage their unlimited growth and provincial governments are similarly crazed with the promise of immediate profits and in denial about the risks of climate change.

Tumours are most easily and effectively dealt with early. The same is true for the oil sands. Right now, they have a strong shield of political protection because of how profitable it is to sell this oil (when you ignore the damage it does, as our economic calculations usually do). That political shield grows stronger with each new oil sands mine and each new pipeline. The more people whose financial future depends on continued oil sands output, the more challenging it will be politically for Canada to do the right thing and progressively shut the fossil fuel industry down.

When it comes to treating this tumour, Canada is still at the stage of delusional pretending. That won’t be true forever. At some point, we will have a government that isn’t determined to do everything possible to keep the tumour growing. At some point, we will also have a world in which powerful governments accept that climate change is an enormous problem and that sorting it out means moving beyond fossil fuels. Except in a suicidal scenario where we keep burning oil while the planet’s ecosystems visibly collapse all around us, there will come a day within our lifetimes when these oil sands facilities are progressively shut down and the world moves to forms of energy that are compatible with a stable climate.

That’s part of why victories right now count for so much. Delaying the Keystone XL pipeline has done a bit to slow the wild growth phase of the tumour. Blocking other pipelines, particularly the Northern Gateway pipeline, would further constrain that growth. Blocking these pipes is our best treatment option, until we get a government that is serious about producing a sharp reduction in Canada’s total climate pollution and develops and deploys an effective mechanism to make that happen.

Pushing tar sands exports

Greenpeace has released a new report on how Canada’s government has been trying to support oil sands exports to the United States and Europe: Dirty Diplomacy: The Canadian Government’s Global Push to Sell the Tar Sands.

Arguably, Canada’s government should not be out there advocating for such a destructive industry. If the European Union and the United States do not want to buy the fuel from the oil sands, that is probably a good thing for the world.