Category Archives: Climate change

Climate change and status quo bias

One perpetual question in climate politics is whether radical political change is necessary to achieve climatic stability, or whether the necessary energy transition can be achieved in a ‘stealthy’ technocratic way.

This question is linked to the general question about radical versus incremental change, which is in turn touched upon in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape:

“This bias relates to what has come to be known as ‘the endowment effect’: people demand more money in exchange for an object that has been given to them than they would spend to acquire the object in the first place. In psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s words, ‘a good is worth more when it is considered as something that could be lost or given up than when it is evaluated as a potential gain.’ This aversion to loss causes human beings to generally err on the side of maintaining the status quo. It is also an important impediment to conflict resolution through negotiation: for if each party values his opponent’s concessions as gains and his own as losses, each is bound to perceive his sacrifice as being greater.” (p. 75 – hardcover)

When it comes to political change, there are at least two rational reasons to favour the status quo. Firstly, through radical change we risk losing things that we currently possess and which have value. For instance, if we radically altered our political system to take into account the interests of future generations, it may stop serving some of the functions it serves effectively now. Secondly, there is the danger of unwanted side-effects accompanying change. In addition to losing old capabilities, we may take on new problems.

All told, I think our collective status quo bias is far too strong. We want to keep economic growth happening, maintain our lifestyles, and generally avoid large-scale political change. Unfortunately, by trying to keep our own lives as similar as possible to the past, we are condemning the Earth to a future unlike anything humanity has ever seen. If we are to tackle the problem of climate change, we need to find ways to effectively drive the transition away from fossil fuels. The psychological potency of loss – which Harris and Kahneman highlight – may be one mechanism for that. By highlighting everything that is put in jeopardy by climate change, it may be possible to drive people to reform their lifestyles and institutions in ways that limit its severity.

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.

Intensity-based targets for the oil sands are inadequate

There has been a bit of talk in the media about adopting federal intensity-based greenhouse gas pollution standards for the oil sands:

“The federal government is using Alberta’s greenhouse-gas emissions target – criticized as too accommodating to industry – as the launching point for a national oil and gas carbon policy, even as the province itself looks to toughen those standards.

Alberta today requires large energy companies to achieve a 12-per-cent reduction in emissions, on a per-barrel ‘intensity’ basis that allows overall emissions to still climb dramatically.

That 12-per-cent standard “is part of the conversation, for sure” as the federal government seeks to write its rules, Environment Minister Peter Kent said in an interview Friday.”

The idea is to drive firms to reduce how much greenhouse gas pollution they produce in the course of producing each barrel of synthetic crude oil – not to restrict how much pollution they produce in total. Under an intensity-based plan, total emissions can continue to grow, particularly given how our measuring system ignores the biggest source of pollution associated with the oil sands.

Intensity-based targets ignore the main source of pollution associated with the oil sands: the actual barrels of synthetic crude that the oil sands industry exists to produce. Inescapably, when those barrels are burned, the carbon they contain will be added to the already-dangerously-large stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We need a plan to wind down the oil sands as a whole as part of a fair global transition to a carbon neutral economy. We certainly don’t need a regulatory regime that permits continued growth in oil sands output.

Peak oil is unlikely to solve the climate crisis

An interesting report released by Leonardo Maugeri (PDF) at Harvard’s Belfer Center argues that the world still has huge amounts of unconventional oil and that recent concerns about ‘peak oil’ are ill-founded:

“My field-by-field analysis suggests that worldwide, an additional unrestricted supply of slightly less than 50 mbd is under development or will be developed by 2020. Eleven countries show a potential outflow of new production of about 40.5 mbd, or about 80 percent of the total. After adjusting the world’s additional unrestricted production for taking into account risk-factors, the additional adjusted supply comes to 28.6 mbd , or 22.5 mbd for the first eleven countries – as shown in Figure 3 (more extensive data are shown in Table 3, Section 4).

These numbers carry at least two important messages:

* They represent the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s.

* They point to a tectonic shift in the oil geography and geopolitics, by making the Western Hemisphere the fastest growing oil-producing region in the world, with the United States and Canada combined outpacing any other country.

This suggests that the hopes of some environmentalists that there might not be enough oil available to cause catastrophic or runaway climate change may not be realized. Of course, even if oil were scarce, there is a lot of planet-altering gas and coal left in the world.

Maugeri concludes that in the medium term, substantially more oil production is possible:

“In any case, the single most important issue that emerges from my analysis is that, from a purely physical and technical point of view, oil supply and capacity are not in any danger. On the contrary, they could significantly exceed world consumption needs and even lead to a phase of oil overproduction if oil demand does not exceed a compounded rate of growth of 1.6 percent each year to 2020.”

He identifies Iraq, the United States, and Canada as the countries most capable of increasing their oil output during that timespan.

Maugeri also highlights the long investment lag-times and asymmetries that exist in the fossil fuel sector:

“The industry tends to increase investment gradually as the price of crude oil increases, but once the new investments are started, they are very difficult to stop, even when consumption and crude oil prices suddenly collapse. In other words, the industry behaves like an elephant running: it starts very slowly, but once it gets going, no one can stop it.

In fact, as an oil company gradually spends its budget, the investment assumes a life of its own, and it becomes unprofitable to block the spending, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent. The need to obtain an economic return on capital already invested takes priority over almost any other consideration, unless there are dramatic changes in the market situation.

To complicate matters, contractual commitments are made by the oil companies with the countries owning the deposits, which often make it difficult to block or reduce the spending. Indeed, these commitments demand heavy economic penalties or even revocation of the concessions granted by the host government if, by pre-established dates, the agreed number of wells and the needed infrastructure are not realized, and initial production is not achieved.”

Once companies make the gigantic investments necessary to access these unconventional oil reserves, it is unreasonable to think that they will be willing to stop exploiting them in the future, or that politicians will be willing to force them to accept such losses. Arguably, the only way to stop an unconventional fossil fuel bonanza that wrecks the climate is to keep it from ever starting.

George Monbiot has also written a column about Maugeri’s report.

NRTEE report on climate policy

The National Round Table on Energy and the Environment has released a new report on Canada’s climate change policy:

Reality Check: The State of Climate Progress in Canada

In their summary of the report, they explain:

Despite making progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Canada is not on track to achieve the federal government’s 2020 reduction target of 17% below 2005 levels. Canada will not achieve its 2020 GHG emission reductions target unless significant new, additional measures are taken. More will have to be done. No other conclusion is possible.

Reality Check: The State of Climate Progress in Canada was undertaken last year at the request of the federal Minister of the Environment to inform the government’s regulatory approach to reducing emissions. NRT’s research is based on original modelling using Environment Canada’s data as a principal source, as well as extensive consultations with the provinces and territories, academic and public policy experts.

The report serves as a reality check on the state of climate progress in Canada today. It reinforces some key truths about climate policy in Canada: that a national target needs a concerted national policy behind it, that policy uncertainty still exists and stifles progress, that the country has yet to implement effective policies to address some large sources of emissions, and that all this means progress has been and will remain difficult and uneven across the country.

It is worth noting that NRTEE will be eliminated if the budget implementation act (C-38) becomes law. The bill is currently under consideration by Parliament.

The oil sands can’t be sustainable

Disturbingly often, Canadian politicians describe how they intend to develop the oil sands “sustainably”.

Whenever they do this, they demonstrate that they don’t especially care if they are expressing themselves in a sensible way or describing a cogent idea. It’s just a rhetorical way to try and respond to the concerns of environmentalists without actually questioning the logic of developing fossil fuels.

Climate scientist Gavin A. Schmidt expressed the fundamental issue very clearly:

“If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.”

The long-term processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere take much longer than a single human lifetime to operate. That means that a big chunk of the CO2 generated when we burn fuels from the oil sands sticks around in the atmosphere for a longer span of time than most politicians ever even consider. There is already a dangerous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, so no activity that adds more can be said to be ‘sustainable’. We need to be using the world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure as a way to build a post-fossil-fuel world, rather than simply persisting in the heedless production of hydrocarbons.

British journalist George Monbiot expresses this well in his criticism of Ed Davey’s proposed energy bill:

“Davey’s “transitional” technologies, gas and coal (which are transitional in the sense that chocolate fudge cake is a transition to a low calorie diet), will knacker his supposed long-term goals many years before the “short term” comes to an end.”

Asking how the oil sands can be developed ‘sustainably’ is like a person who is already overwhelmed with debt asking how many more credit-card-funded shopping sprees will be ‘sustainable’. Fossil fuel use is the problem we need to overcome, not a pathway to overcoming it. So, when politicians talk about sustainable oil sands development, they are talking nonsense.

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.