Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Alberta Tar Sands and Global Security

Here's a great example of how our newsmedia is failing us all. This Globe & Mail article discusses the release of the latest report from the IEA (International Energy Agency). In this report, the IEA references that China will be driving an ever-increaseing demand for oil, despite the rise of alternative energy. As part of the continuing thirst for more oil, the IEA concludes that Canada is sitting pretty, as the tar sands will have an increasingly prominent role in oil production.

Some numbers here: current production in the tar sands is estimated at 1.3 million barrels a day; by 2035, the IEA estimates production will have increased to 4.5 million barrels a day, thus "making an important contribution to the world's energy security".

Nowhere does the Globe & Mail indicate how the world will be a more secure place when carbon emissions from this amount of dirty oil are pumped into our atmosphere. Nowhere in the article is there a reference regarding the anticipated rise in global temperatures as a result of increased emissions from global industrial processes. Nowhere is there a discussion about why it is important to keep warming below 2 degrees C, and how pumping more carbon into our atmosphere will ensure that we blow through this temperature threshold beyond which uncontrollable feedback loops are likely to kick in, increasing the warming no matter what we do. Nowhere does this article discuss what a massive threat to global security the Alberta Tar Sands actually poses to the world. Instead, the Globe & Mail, like most major media, continues to look at economic and industrial growth through a lens which leads them to conclude that there will be increased prosperity.

Well folks, that's not the way it's going to play out. We know that future scenario isn't going to occur because of chemistry and physics. Our understand of science informs us that if we keep pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we can expect an increasingly warm planet. As the global climate changes, it will become more difficult for people to access food and water. As we also understand human nature, we can certainly expect thirsty and starving people to look elsewhere for their basic needs, rather than to settle in to die quietly of hunger and dehydration. Therefore, we can expect that there will be more climate refugees, and more conflict over ever-diminishing resources. While science drives this scenario, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand how all of this will come together to create some significant, potentially overwhelming challenges, to global and national security.

Yet the media, and our world leaders (such as the IEA) refuse to see that the writing is on the wall. They refuse to believe in science, or if they do, they refuse to acknowledge their belief. If the IEA thinks that the Tar Sands are going to contribute to world energy security, they are living in their own fantasy land. Just because they're keeping good company there doesn't make it any less of a fantasy world.

The media must wake up and begin reporting the complete story. When confronted with statements from biased sources, statements which really don't make any sense, principled media must confront those statements and those sources. Otherwise, they're not doing their job. The Globe & Mail should have challenged this statement about energy security. No discussion about increasing fossil fuel production can responsibly take place in isolation of a discussion on how production will lead to increasingly severe climate change. And no responsible discussion can avoid dealing with the threats to our national security which climate change poses. The media has to start making these connections. As long as they fail to do so, our decision-makers will continue to get away with their fantasy-world remarks, dragging the rest of us along with them into a future which will be totally unprepared for.

I felt I had to write a Letter to the Editor of the Globe & Mail, to point some of this out to Globe readers. I've saved my direct chastisement of the media for another time, and I've co-opted my values to a degree by referring to the "tar sands" as the "oil sands" (a term invented relatively recently by the oil industry and used by friendly media proxies, such as the Globe, at every opportunity, even though "tar" is scientifically closer to what is produced through the bitumen mining process that takes place in Alberta. However, I'm also a firm believer that we need to confront and convert potential allies on their own terms. When in Rome...).

Here's my letter:


Re: China ’s thirst to keep oil prices booming (November 9, 2010)

The International Energy Agency (IEA), in their latest World Energy Outlook report, says that Canada ’s oil sands will make an important contribution to global energy security. Apparently, this important security contribution will be achieved by increasing production from current levels of 1.3 million barrels a day to an estimated 4.2 million barrels a day by the year 2035. What is unclear from the article, however, is how increasing production in the oil sands is going to lead to a more positive security outcome.

The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, in conjunction with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, recently published “Degrees of Change”, an interactive chart which looks at what Canadians can expect in an increasingly warmer world. The chart indicates that, at 2 degrees Celsius of additional warming, we can expect “increasing demands on peacekeeping, and diplomatic resources from conflicts over water and food scarcity in parts of the world”. Canada will not be immune from the impacts of climate change.

The emerging consensus from the scientific community highlights the need to keep warming below 2 degrees C, or else we risk triggering positive feedback loops such as the release of methane through melting permafrost. The importance of keeping warming in check at the 2 degrees C has also been highlighted by Gwynne Dyer in his 2008 best-seller, “Climate Wars”, which discusses in part how our militaries are preparing for a warmer world. Climate change will increasingly pose a risk to global security.

Yet, if extraction of fossil fuels from the oil sands is to continue as predicted by the IEA, we can pretty much forget about holding the line on warming at 2 degrees C. As the world’s climate continues to change, increased extraction in the oil sands needs to be considered a risk to global security, and not a contribution.


The Mound of Sound said...

Actually the IEA report warns that the global demand for oil through 2035 ensures that we don't have a hope in hell of meeting our 2 degree celsius objective. Grist.com has a good review of that report.

What I find especially troubling, Steve, is how we keep isolating the greenhouse gas/AGW issue rather than deal with it in the context of the host of associated issues including desertification, deforestation, species extinction, resource depletion and exhaustion, air/soil/water contamination, overpopulation,
climate migration, sea level rise, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and other global security threats.

Isolating these problems leads to finger pointing and the pursuit of conflicting national objectives in what is truly a global threat requiring global action.

There is a universality that forms the common thread running through all of these threats and we have to view them as inter-related and global in their dimension as well as their solution.

We simply can't solve the core problem with 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics. Yet we steadfastly refuse to budge.

Good luck.

Vanessa said...

Not to mention that with increasing natural gas scarcity, they simply won't have the fuel they need to extract the 'oil' from the tar sands.

GAB said...

MOS, I agree we need a holistic approach that deals with all these dangers at once but how it can be achieved when people are so dumb and lazy that they can't stay focused enough to learn about one issue at a time.

The ignorance on these issues is so vast even when there are dozens of movies out there flogging the issue. I'd be surprised if %25 of supposedly educated people know what Peak oil is yet.

I fear the only answer is a big virulent plague

Anonymous said...

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