Category Archives: Objections

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

Options for energy storage

One challenge with renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power is that the power output from such facilities is intermittent. One way to address the problem is to store power from times when it is being produced in excess for use at times when the quantity demanded is high.

This article describes a number of such energy storage options, including ‘Green Power Islands’ along with systems based on pumping water, compressing air, and storing heat in molten salt.


Objection: problems with Kyoto

Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.

This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto

To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.

The challenge of climate change

If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.

In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:

  • (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
  • (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
  • (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.

Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.

Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:

  • build the wrong thing (at great expense),
  • suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
  • and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).

There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.

Objection: China is worse

People look at the oil sands and say: “Yes, Canada is profiting off the destruction of the whole world, but we are a small part of the problem. China is doing so much worse, building new coal-fired power plants every week. Why should we deprive ourselves, when others will produce ruin for us all anyhow?”

There are many problems with this analysis. For one thing, China is pursuing its current model of development because it seems to have worked for countries like Canada, the United States, and Japan. If the richest and most technologically able countries get serious about a zero-carbon energy system, and they show that it can be done, countries that are developing rapidly now will have a new model to at least consider. Given the many disadvantages of fossil fuels, from air pollution to dependence on exports from volatile regions, a development strategy that is both credible and focused on renewables could have a lot of appeal in places like China, India, and Brazil.

Secondly, there is a suicide pact mentality that accompanies the decision to keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution recklessly because others are doing so. It is true that if just Canada abstains, and suffers lost resource revenues because of it, climate change will probably proceed to about the same extent as it would if Canada just kept cashing in on oil and gas. But the behaviour of other states is not independent of our behaviour, and other people care about the reasons for our actions. If Canada said: “We are going to leave fossil fuels underground, for the good of all humanity. We urge you to do the same.” it would at least advance the international discussion and focus attention on the key question of what proportion of all the world’s fossil fuels we choose to burn.

Thirdly, Canada’s impact is not trivial. When politicians boast about how the oil sands are a reserve as large as those of Saudi Arabia it should make us worried. Burning massive reserves of fossil fuel produces massive amounts of greenhouse gas pollution, even if you do manage to avoid causing too much local air and water pollution in the process of digging those fuels up. Canada’s giant fossil fuel reserves are a threat to the whole world, insofar as they are capable of making climate change that much more dangerous.

Canada cannot avert disaster on its own. Nobody can. But universal disaster is nonetheless an outcome we must avoid, and achieving that requires overcoming a status quo system that remains determined to burn all the world’s coal, oil, and gas and only then start thinking seriously about what energy sources will replace them. We need to do better than that, and one way to contribute to that effort is to refuse to use the bad behaviour of others as an excuse to continue to behave badly ourselves.

Questioning climate models

Faced with the world as it exists today, every thinking person must experience some degree of mental tension when it comes to climate change. To some degree or another, everyone accepts or rejects the idea that climate change is dangerous and accepts or rejects the idea that we should do something about it. For educated people who pay attention to science, it is no longer plausible to argue that the climate is not changing or that human beings are not causing it. About the last recourse for somebody who thinks climate change is real and caused by people – but who also thinks we should do nothing about it – is raising doubts about how serious climate change will really be. These doubts are often expressed in the form of doubts about climate models.

On the face of it, climate models are a genuine source of uncertainty. What they are attempting to do – project how the climate system will respond to various natural changes and human behaviours across the span of decades – is very challenging. As a result, you might think that we should have a low level of confidence in their projections.

There are several responses to this:

1) Climate sensitivity

The most basic facts of climate change are that greenhouse gases keep energy from the sun trapped within the Earth system, and that trapped energy manifests itself as warming. There is a relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent) and the amount of warming that occurs (measured in degrees Celsius).

The magnitude of that relationship can be determined in a way that doesn’t depend on climate models. We can look back through ice core and sediment samples – along with other pieces of geological evidence of the history of the climate – and examine the relationship between carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature. On the basis of those examinations, we have determined that when you double the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, you raise the temperature of the planet by about 3°C. This estimate has remained constant from the work of the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

We also know that burning coal, oil, and gas inevitably produces carbon dioxide. Look at the chemical equations for combustion; carbon dioxide is always a product of the reaction. As such, we know that whenever we burn a tonne of coal, a barrel of oil, or a cubic metre of gas it produces a predictable amount of carbon dioxide that gets added to the atmosphere.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere contained about 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. Now, it is over 390 ppm. If humanity keeps burning fossil fuels at the same increasing rate as now, that number will be around 1,000 ppm in 2100. It goes without saying that behaving in this way would warm the planet substantially. Indeed, it would create climatic conditions of a kind never experienced during the 10,000 years during which there have been human civilizations.

Even without looking at models, we have good reason to be worried.

2) Managing risk

Climate models cannot answer all of our questions. They cannot yet tell us exactly how quickly a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would produce a 3°C rise in temperature. Nor can they tell us with certainty which regions will warm most or fastest, or what all the changes in weather patterns will be.

That being said, climate models and the projections that are produced using them give us ample cause for concern. It is going to be challenging enough to manage a world with an estimated 9 billion people in 2050, even without large-scale disruptions in climate.

Also, it is worth remembering that the transition away from fossil fuels isn’t optional. All that can be varied is the timing. Either we can wait until we have burned most of the planet’s fossil fuels before we become serious about alternative forms of energy or we can start that transition early. What we know about climate science argues strongly for the more active approach. The same is true for the many co-benefits that accompany the rapid intentional abandonment of fossil fuels: from reducing air pollution to reducing dependence on countries that export fossil fuels.

Joseph Romm has coined the term ‘climate change delayer‘ to describe someone who accepts that climate change is a real problem but who doesn’t want to do anything about it. Increasingly, these may be the most dangerous people out there. They are still taken seriously by the general public, and they remain politically influential. At the same time, the policies they advocate are incredibly risky for humanity. Insofar as skepticism about the accuracy of climate models helps climate change delayers, it is a problem that needs to be responded to. That response takes two forms: the improvement of our climate modeling capacity, and the explanation of why the knowledge we already have is sufficient to justify action.

The post above is meant to be a modest contribution to the latter effort.

The Inuit on drilling in the Arctic

This seems like the Prisoner’s Dilemma in effect:

The Inuit Premier of Greenland is passionate in defending the need to develop his country’s oil and gas potential – a stance that puts him at odds with Canadian Inuit groups, which have tried to block offshore drilling near their communities. Kuupik Kleist was one of the speakers at a two-day summit of Inuit leaders who met this week to discuss resource development. Mr. Kleist said Wednesday that there will be oil and gas extraction in and around Greenland and the Inuit want to dictate its terms.

Here is what he said in response to questions from reporters; the questions have been edited and the answers trimmed.

Many Inuit and environmentalists in Nunavut argue that any oil and gas exploration could damage a fragile ecosystem. How do you respond to those concerns?

We have a co-operation with the Canadian government on the issue of protection of the environment [as it relates to] the oil industry. And we have that co-operation because of the Canadian experience, which we don’t have . . . both within the mineral sector and within the oil industry for years. And what we’re looking at is to gain from the experiences, not only from Canada but also from Norway, for instance, which is regarded as an upscale developer of technology. I have had a dialogue with the Minister for the Environment in Canada who was, in the outset, very concerned about the exploratory drillings off the Greenland west coast. What happened during our dialogue was that now Canadian employees are on the drilling sites off the west coast of Greenland to learn about security.

If you can’t stop other people from doing the wrong thing, you might as well do it yourself, even if the results are going to be harmful to you in the long term.

‘Ethical oil’

Ezra Levant has introduced a powerful new soundbite into Canadian politics – the idea that fuels derived from the oil sands are ‘ethical oil’ because the people who profit from them are less objectionable than the government of Venezuela or the regimes of the Middle East.

As I mentioned in a letter to Canada’s new environment minister, there is some validity to this argument. I would rather the profits from the fuel I use go to the government of Alberta than to the House of Saud. That being said, the idea that fuels from the oil sands are ‘ethical’ when taken all in all is simply indefensible. Indeed, that idea seems to be reflective of a problematic perspective on the environment that has become very widespread: the tendency to accept the fact that something is better than its alternatives in a single narrow way as an overall endorsement of that thing. Increasingly – and especially when used by government and businesses – the words ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ simply mean ‘better than the worst thing in the world’.

Another defence of ‘ethical oil’ runs along similar lines. Advocates argue that producing it is only a little bit worse than producing conventional oil, from an environmental perspective. I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is true or not. Even if it is true, however, exploiting the oil sands remains horribly dangerous for humanity. This is because the amount of climate change the planet experiences depends fundamentally on the total quantity of fossil fuels we burn, and what quantity we choose to leave unused and underground. Burning up the oil sands isn’t something humanity is doing as an alternative to burning conventional oil. Rather, it is something we are doing in addition to burning conventional oil. That means oil sands exploitation inescapably increases the total quantity of greenhouse gas pollution humanity will produce and, by extension, just how dangerously we will alter the climate.

The world’s scientists and politicians have basically agreed that if we warm the planet to more than 2°C above where it was prior to the Industrial Revolution, we will be endangering humanity. Avoiding that level of increase will be very hard. If we were to just keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution at the same rate as we are today, we would almost certainly cross the 2°C threshold well before 2100, with more warming afterward. If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to dramatically reduce global pollution by choosing to leave more and more fossil fuels underground. Exploiting the oil sands is the very opposite of the strategy we need to follow.

When we burn fossil fuels, we knowingly and intentionally impose harm on future generations. Sufficiently severe climate change would threaten the ability of nations to hold together, drown important cities, destabilize agriculture, and cause enormous suffering. All of those outcomes are made much more likely through the exploitation of the oil sands, as well as the more general exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves. Because of that, the oil sands do not produce ‘ethical oil’. Rather than digging up those fuels and extending North America’s fossil fuel addiction, we should leave them buried and invest our knowledge, abilities, and resources in the development and deployment of truly ethical energy sources like wind, solar power, and geothermal energy.

Climate change and doubt

Often, when I raise the issue of climate change with strangers, they jump immediately to the matter of doubt – any and every reason we might have for doubting that climate change is a real and serious problem. They point to the uncertainties associated with computer models, and to past instances where problems do not seem to have been as bad as we once feared they could be.

Critical thinking is a good and necessary thing. At the same time, I don’t think focusing on the doubts is the appropriate response to what we now know about the climate. The world’s scientists have reached a consensus that human activities warm the planet. Most importantly, there is a lot of agreement and evidence that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere warms the planet by about 3°C, and that warming of more than 2°C is dangerous. We also know that there is more than enough coal, oil, and gas on Earth to double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere several times. As a consequence, we know that burning all the world’s fossil fuels would be dangerous.

To me, this collection of beliefs seems like it ought to motivate considerable action to move to alternative forms of energy. It’s like a group of doctors telling a patient that they probably have cancer. It would be unwise for the patient to delay taking any action until they could be 100% sure of the diagnosis – especially if the patient would only be satisfied with an extreme form of proof. After all, the only way to know for sure that you have a potentially fatal illness is to wait until it kills you. Similarly, the only way to prove for certain that climate change threatens human civilization is to let it continue unchecked until that outcome is achieved.

We should certainly maintain a realistic sense of what we know about the climate, what is uncertain, and what remains deeply mysterious. At the same time, we should not put off action just because we don’t know absolutely everything. That is especially true given the nature of the choice confronting us. We would need to stop using fossil fuels anyhow, since they would run out if we didn’t stop using them voluntarily. Furthermore, we know that fossil fuel production and use causes all sorts of harm to human health and welfare. By moving to a zero-carbon global economy, we will reduce the amount of risk climate change creates for humanity. At the same time, we will shift the energy basis of society to a renewable one that can be relied upon forever, and which does not involve the same toxic emissions and other forms of ecosystem destruction linked to fossil fuels.

Multiple lines of evidence

People sometimes assert that the theory that humans are warming the climate is based entirely on the knowledge that we are emitting large amounts of CO2 and the observation of thermometers that show the planet to be warming. If that were the case, we could not be as confident as we are that humans are affecting the climate in dangerous ways. After all, there wouldn’t necessarily be a causal link between the gases and the warming, which could be caused by something else.

In reality, however, we have other lines of evidence that flesh out and support the theory of dangerous human-induced global warming. A recent post on Joseph Romm’s blog demonstrates eight of these with simple graphics. Because of istopic ratios, it is possible to identify fossil fuels as the source of most of the new carbon in the air and in corals. Also, the pattern of temperature changes observed is consistent with the theory that greenhouse gases we emit block outgoing infrared radiation and warm the planet. Evidence for this includes how the upper atmosphere is cooling while the tropopause rises.

Understanding the causes and significance of all these pieces of evidence requires quite a lot of scientific explanation. Without going to all that length, however, it is possible to express an important point. Scientists haven’t just cobbled together a few observations with a theory and declared that humanity is warming the planet dangerously. Rather, it is a conclusion that has been reached on the basis of extensive investigation and cross-checking. Contrast that approach with that of some climate change deniers who simply assert an alternative cause for warming (or deny that warming is even happening) and then tell everybody not to worry and to keep burning fossil fuels without a care.

Burning oil is brilliant

One important point which I think it made in David Mitchell’s entertaining commentary on climate change is that it is usually inappropriate for environmentalists to object to harmful activities in and of themselves, rather than on account of the harm they cause to people and the natural environment:

I want to see a global warming expert acknowledge that burning oil, and the various machines we’ve invented that burn oil, is brilliant and it’s a real pisser we can’t do it anymore. But we can’t, because of facts.

Doing things like flying helicopters and blasting off into space are glamorous and exciting. While there is a tiny subset of people who aspire to minimalism and simplicity for their own sake, that crowd will probably never be large enough to drive climate policy forward in time to avert real catastrophe.