Echoes of Peter Arnett’s famous quote attributed to an anonymous US major that, ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ resound in recent pronouncements by the Premiere of Alberta and the Prime Minister of Canada. The Premiere asserts her province can prosper under a scenario that would see global temperature rise limited to 1.5 degrees, while the Prime Minister visages pipelines helping to transition Canada to a low-carbon future.
Unbeknownst, apparently, to the Premiere and Canada’s Environment Minister, who endorsed a call at the Paris Climate talks from small island nations to hold global warming to no more than 1.5-degrees, the 1.5-degree ship has sailed.
It is wishful thinking at best and crass political hyperbole at worst to suggest fossil fuels can coexist in a 1.5-degree universe. James Hansen, et al. debunked that myth in a 2005 paper, Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications, which affirmed greenhouse gas forcing of 85 ± 0.15 watts/m3 bakes at least 0.6°C into the climate system on account of the thermal inertia of the oceans. Between the time emissions cease and the temperature catches up a lag of about 37.5 years ensues. Eleven years’ worth of emissions since the paper was published added additional heat to the climate system so now the lag is closer to 0.7°C and when you count the +1.22±0.14 temperature anomaly recorded by NOAA in March, 2016 we are already just shy of 2°C. And making matters worse a team of Lawrence Livermore scientists says the rate of accumulation of heat is ramping up. Man-made heat put in to the oceans has doubled since 1997 and the oceans have accumulated as much heat the past 18 years as they did in the prior 133 years, says, Peter Gleckler, the lead author of the study. “The amount of energy being trapped in Earth’s climate system as a whole is accelerating.”
As Hansen points out thermal inertia “is of critical importance to policy- and decision-makers who seek to mitigate the effects of undesirable anthropogenic climate change. The effect of the inertia is to delay Earth’s response to climate forcings, i.e., changes of the planet’s energy balance that tend to alter global temperature. This delay provides an opportunity to reduce the magnitude of anthropogenic climate change before it is fully realized, if appropriate action is taken. On the other hand, if we wait for more overwhelming empirical evidence of climate change, the inertia implies that still greater climate change will be in store, which may be difficult or impossible to avoid.”
As witnessed the past two decades, appropriate climate action has been anything but appropriate. Over the past 37.5 years we have almost doubled CO2 emissions rather than reducing them. And top of the 2 degrees we have set up for ourselves with thermal inertia and warming, Ramanathan and Feng estimate another 0.9 degrees is waiting in the form hidden deferred warming from aerosols that will be ‘unmasked’ when fossil air pollution or fossil energy production stops, plus another 1.0°C that will accumulate in the least time it will to take stabilize emissions.
All told we are therefore looking at close to 4 degrees; unless and until a portion of the thermal inertia of the oceans is channeled to our benefit.
A team from Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University showed how this is accomplished over 40 years ago. They estimated if we build over 20000 OTEC plants (each about the size of the nearly 7000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico) deployed in the tropics, we could generate 5000 GWe of power and reduce surface water temperature by 1C each decade. These plants would kill two birds with one stone: generating power and stopping global warming.
The current thinking is closer to 14,000 GWe can be produced with 250,000 100MW plants.
At a minimum the heat moved by these plants would be sequestered for about 250 years at which time it is recycled to the deep to produce additional power.
There is zero scientific evidence for the Prime Minister’s assertion new oil pipelines to spur oil sands development are compatible with a low-carbon future and even more troubling there is mounting evidence that quality rather than quantity is the issue with the oil sands. In a world where low cost producers are locked in a fight to the death for market share a marginal producer like Canada is vulnerable and this vulnerability is exacerbated by intransigence.
A twin track approach of milking old resources to build a low-carbon future looks to be increasingly unsustainable and undermines Canada’s chance of participating in the necessary, looming, energy revolution. What’s more there is no historical precedent. Inexorably provincial and federal shares of gross oil revenues have declined from a high of 41.2% in 1978 to less than 2% currently.
“Canada is back and ready to play its part in combating climate change and this includes helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world adapt,” the Prime Minister said in a statement shortly after coming into office.
With out a plan for effectively addressing climate change the billions of dollars the Prime Minister and others around the world have promised to throw at the problem might as well be set alight.
Ross Belot posed the essential question in article, The fight to kill Keystone XL was a huge waste of time, “Do politicians like Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley truly think that promoting pipelines now wins them the political capital they’ll need to implement aggressive green policies later? That dumping money on white elephants is a small price to pay for that capital? Or is it the other way around — are our leaders using the Keystone example as a smokescreen for continued fossil fuel exploitation?
Or — and this may be the worst-case scenario — do they really believe what they’re saying?
It is a troubling thought for many Canadian voters to contemplate.
Photo Credit: Doug Hay via Flickr