Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stop the tar sands and save the planet

JUNE 5, 2012

Over the past few weeks, politicians and the mass media have been ranting about "Dutch disease" and Canada as a petro-state. But far more important is the question of whether or not the tar sands should be developed at all. It seems that no one in any position of authority in Canada wishes this issue to be opened up to a general, democratic debate.

Can the tar sands be developed without having a major impact on the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The science is quite clear on this matter. The burning of fossil fuels is increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is raising the earth's temperature and causing serious climate change.

Over the last 150 years, the level of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 393 ppm. In 1959, the first year that carbon dioxide was measured at the U.S. Weather Bureau station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, it stood at 316 ppm. If the tar sands were developed as projected by the oil industry, this alone could raise the level of carbon in the atmosphere by 120 ppm.
The oil extracted from the tar sands is a relatively "dirty." The greenhouse gases (GHG) released through the extraction and refining process is between 3.2 and 4.5 times greater than that of conventional oil. A study by Environment Canada in 2008 projected that the tar sands would be responsible for 95 per cent of the increase in Canada's industrial GHG emissions over the next ten years.

So what does this mean for us Canadians? James Hansen, who is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and one of the pioneers in research on global warming, recently set forth what we can expect (New York Times, May 9, 2012). If the tar sands are developed, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will most likely rise to over 500 ppm. This level would be "higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now." The polar ice sheets would disintegrate. Sea levels would rise significantly. Global temperatures would become intolerable. 

Hansen concludes that "civilization would be at risk." But even over the short term - the next 20 years - Hansen argues that we would see dramatic changes in climate in North America, including "semi-permanent drought" on the plains, extreme events with heavy flooding, the loss of irrigated farmland in California, and dramatic increases in the price of food. He says there must be a comprehensive plan right now to significantly reduce GHG emissions.

By now, most Canadians know that our country has done virtually nothing to try to reduce GHG emissions. Our governments have set guidelines and then ignored them. Saskatchewan has the highest percapita level of GHG emissions, followed by Alberta. Alberta, followed by Saskatchewan, has had the highest levels of increases in GHG emissions since 1990.

Over the past 10 years, Canadian researchers have developed alternate plans for greatly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. They would include a major shift to manufacturing jobs and most likely result in greater Canadian ownership and control of the economy.

The decisions our governments and the transnational corporations are making to develop the tar sands deeply affects all of us and future generations. Our children, and certainly our grandchildren, will be directly affected by the radical changes brought by increased GHG emissions and climate change. As Hansen concludes, if we continue with business as usual it is "game over for the climate."

Canadians must find a way to stop the tar sands project and shift to a green development program.

Warnock is a Regina author and political economist.

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