Category Archives: Climate science

Posts relating to climate science

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

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.

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.

Stabilizing emissions doesn’t solve the problem

This article demonstrates a common mistake in thinking about climate change: Recession rebound didn’t hurt environment – Report shows greenhouse gases stable in 2010.

Keeping emissions stable harms the environment very badly. The climate change problem is the accumulation of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere. Humanity continues to add tens of billions of tonnes of that pollution to the air annually.

Our climate problems will be solved when that pollution is nearly cut to zero – just levelling off the amount of pollution per year is just the start of a very difficult journey.