Arctic Ice, Oil Sands Protests, and Canadian Climate Change Policy

Last month saw two events of interest on the climate change front.

One is the protest on September 26 in Ottawa by activists opposing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to be built from Alberta to Louisiana in order to take oil from the Alberta oil sands/ tar sands (the label indicating your position on the subject) down to the U.S.

The other is the news that the summer ice in the Arctic reached its lowest level on record—probably the lowest for 8000 years—, pushing the 2007 record into second place. The 2007 minimum was regarded as a freak low; looks like it has become the ’new normal’. The rate of change has accelerated, with predictions for ice-free summers in the Arctic now set at around 2040 (whereas even in the last IPCC report, released in 2007, the anticipated date was more like 2080). It was also reported that ice shelves off the Canadian land mass are also breaking up at unprecedented speed.

In the Canadian media, the former event gained a good deal of attention. Most reports focused on the protests themselves, the numbers of people arrested, and so on. A little attention was given to the local environmental issues in Alberta – the problems of water quality and pollution, and the question of the breach of native Canadians’ treaty rights. But there was basically nothing connecting the pipeline to debates about climate change.

The latter event, by contrast, gained no coverage at all. Outside Canada, in countries where political and media elites have come to accept the reality of climate change, it has been covered fairly extensively, even in press often sceptical of climate change, such as the UK’s Daily Telegraph (formerly owned by Conrad Black). But in the Canadian press, it went unreported.

Could it be that these are connected? That the on-going denial of climate change amongst much of Canada’s elite means that they have to depict protest against the oil pipeline in particular ways? Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, reportedly said of the protestors’ arguments, “Canada has excess capacity and (the) U.S. has excess demand … Exaggerated rhetoric of the end of the planet does not pass muster.” Steven Harper simply said that “[w]e are the only country in the world that is a growing supplier of energy and that is a secure and democratic country”.

These are particularly telling statements. The oil sands can either be a simple question of economics – supply and demand – or they can be a question of the “end of the planet”. But it is clear from what both Oliver and Harper say that the increase in U.S. demand is simply naturalised, taken for granted. Similarly, the growth in Canadian oil production is unquestioned. Of course what the protestors are saying is precisely that these increases have to be stopped and reversed.

But in this, the protestors are in rather good company. Almost all climate scientists agree with them. Most governments of the world agree with them. Many transnational businesses, even some of those in the oil business, agree with them. Indeed even the Canadian government officially claims that it wants to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2050.

Of course we have to believe the government’s statements about its goals; and on climate change, successive Canadian governments (not just Harper’s – Chrétien’s and Martin’s were more or less as bad) have a very poor track record in this respect. But when they can’t even join the dots in tracing the connections between the oil sands and future emissions trajectories, this demonstrates they are not serious. Perhaps that’s why neither political nor media elites want to acknowledge the on-going evidence of the severity and pace of climate change.

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