Letter to the Editor

Another “balanced” editorial from The StarPhoenix, August 28 (which I re-published in full, in contravention of copyright, just because these editorials tend to disappear into the ether):

Whether a direct connection can ever be made among the flooding in southern Alberta, the burning of California and a hypothetical oil-tanker train stretching between Winnipeg and Houston, one thing that is clear is that both sides who characterized the energy-or-environment debate as a zerosum war have lost.

Scientists have warned for years that unusually devastating environmental events, such as the catastrophic storm that inundated Alberta’s south, including its largest city, and forest fires such as the one consuming one of America’s most beautiful and treasured national parks would become more frequent as the climate warms due to human activities.

According to leaks of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expected next month, scientists are now 95 per cent certain that the increase in greenhouse gases emitted by humans have been the principal reason the planet is warming. As the Washington Post pointed out in an editorial Monday, this level of confidence is generally considered high enough to justify drawing conclusions and amending public policy.

It’s not only scientists who are convinced. According to a study released this week by Canadian pollster Nik Nanos, 78 per cent of Americans consider the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to be important.

But even more of them have even greater concerns about energy security. That has meant that, while programs to push alternative energy sources have met with some success, the demand for North American oil – including from Alberta’s oilsands – has grown so fast that, without the Keystone pipeline to pump it south, rail companies have had to add enough capacity that, counting only the addition since 2011, if all the extra tanker cars were strung together it “would create a train of petroleum products stretching from Winnipeg in the north to Houston in the south.” Nanos says in his report.

This means every day there are 1,284 more rail cars on the tracks compared to just two years ago. It is partly to meet this demand that TORQ Transloading is building a $100-million hub near Kerrobert.

This additional rail capacity is neither a victory for the environmentalists who hoped to shut down the oilsands by opposing pipelines, nor the oil companies and their government backers.

When it comes to energy and the environment, no side in the debate has been willing to compromise. The Canadian government has characterized environmental groups and opposition politicians as traitors, environmentalists have pulled out all stops to prevent pipeline development, antinukes have opposed new plants, windmills have been considered health hazards and local and regional governments have pitted their own self-interests against their neighbours.

As Mr. Nanos points out, the partisan nature of the discussion has all but stalled any real action. Meanwhile, the market has driven up demand.

What is needed, Mr. Nanos writes, is a co-ordinated North American effort to draft a cohesive energy-carbon strategy that takes into account emissions and reduces them over time.

This is the position Canada should be selling in Washington, rather than Keystone or bust.

Alas, this is the tack since taken by our prime minister.

My response to the editorial:

When calling for a “cohesive” emissions-reduction strategy, the editorial “Co-operation better strategy” (Aug. 28) makes a few assumptions about the climate debate which do not bear under scrutiny.

It is to be expected that the self-selected, self-interested scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will claim a 95% confidence on the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on the climate. However, their claim would carry more weight if average global temperatures weren’t currently below the 5% confidence level of climate models cited by previous IPCC reports.

Global temperatures simply have not been increasing since they peaked in 1998, even though the IPCC confidently predicted otherwise. This ought to convince policy makers to at least hold off on making key decisions based on IPCC recommendations for the time being.

Further, even though the editorial admits that one cannot connect specific events with climate change, spurious connections are nonetheless provided with the recent flooding in Alberta and the Yosemite wildfires.

Yet, in June, the StarPhoenix published a list of no less than 22 major floods in southern Alberta in the past 115 years, many of which occurred prior to recent global warming trends. Similarly, the Yosemite wildfires have raged on despite the fact that the continental United States has just experienced its mildest summer in more than a century. Climate change has far less to do with the impact of these events than, respectively, the urbanization of flood plains and increased fire loads due to fire-fighting practices in national parks.

While I appreciate the call for a more reasonable approach to policy development, it would be wise to stop cherry-picking anecdotes and making uninformed assumptions about climate science to suit one’s own agenda.

My letter was published in the Labour Day weekend paper, August 31, more or less as delivered.

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