Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Media Coverage of a New Climate Study Misrepresents the Impact of the Oil Sands

As reviewed in a February 20th article by Joe Romm, there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the findings of the new study entitled “The Alberta oil sands and climate” by climatologists Neil C. Swart and Andrew Weaver.

The study has spawned some fantastic confabulations including ridiculous headlines like:
These headlines are a complete bastardization of Swart & Weaver's research. Weaver clearly makes the point in the above video that he is opposed to the tar sands. A similar point is made in a page belonging to Swart. A commentary by Swart and Weaver clearly makes the case against the tar sands by opening with the following statement: "Developing the Alberta oil-sands will lead to carbon emissions that in turn result in global warming."

Weaver provided this website and this video, ”in case the tar sands piece that Neil [Swart] and I published yesterday gets spun as a ‘tars sands is good’ story”:

The study may be somewhat confusing and have some glaring oversights like omitting to include the extra emissions from tar sands extraction in its calculations, but it in no way supports the exploitation of the tar sands.

The final paragraph of the study boldly refutes the absurd headlines pulled from the ether by the press:

"If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels."

It is widely accepted that 2C (3.6F) is the upper safe limit of global warming, the pipeline would help to push that number beyond acceptable limits. This means it is beyond adaptation and will prove devastating to most ecosystems.

The IEA offered the following warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy.” Even if we only hit 3C, or roughly 550 ppm CO2, it will be calamitous and cause widespread flooding.

A new study of Greenland concludes a“collapse of the ice-sheet was found to occur between 400 and 560 ppm” of CO2.

According to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain, once we get beyond 4°C [7F] we will have reached a tipping point where there is a high probability of an even higher temperature equilibrium.

NASA’s James Hansen himself says of the new paper: “The argument that the currently known amount of carbon in the tar sands pit is small compared to the total fossil fuels burned in two centuries is fallacious and misleading — every single source, even Saudi Arabia, is small compared to the total. If we once get hooked on tar sands and set up infrastructure, the numbers will grow as mining capabilities increase. Tar sands are particularly egregious, because you get relatively less energy per unit carbon emitted and there is associated environmental damage in the mining.”

The study makes that point in a fairly straightforward way: "To have a 66% chance of limiting warming to less than the 2 °C limit put forth in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, one carbon– climate modelling study estimated that total future global carbon emissions should be limited to less than 5.9×1017 g C (ref. 9). If this amount were to be distributed equally among the current global population, the resulting allowable per capita cumulative carbon footprint would be 85 tonnes of carbon."

Even a modest exploitation of the tar sands would blow out any chance of the US and Canada contributing our share to the 2C target.

As Romm says in the article: "Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands ...represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear."

As Bill McKibben puts it: Today’s study is akin to saying: “True, smoking six packs a day is going to kill you. But if you want to make certain you die, smoke a hundred packs a day. And if you really want to make sure you die tomorrow, lie down in front of a train.”

Emissions from burning the oil in the tar sands is at least 0.04 C of warming, which is about 10% of the total additional warming we can risk to avert catastrophe. Weaver and Swart separately do a calculation on their website that indicate those extra emissions would add some 17 percent to the emissions.

David Biello of Scientific American writes "Ending our fossil fuel addiction is the only way to truly combat climate change."

As the study says, to combat climate change we ought to be “avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels” which would certainly include the tar sands and the Keystone XL.

© 2012, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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