When world-renowned climate scientist Andrew Weaver (sic) and his colleague, Neil Swart, weighed in last February on the carbon threat posed by Alberta’s oil sands, their conclusions set off a storm of protest — and revealed a moral dilemma at the centre of the response to global warming.
Weaver and Swart’s research, which appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Climate Change, was straightforward enough: burn every single barrel of bitumen buried in northern Alberta — itself, a virtually impossible task — and you’d raise average global temperatures by 0.36 degrees Celsius. (Bump that figure to 0.42 degrees, if you include the carbon impact of extracting, upgrading and transporting that bitumen.)
Burning all of the world’s estimated coal reserves, the paper concluded, would result in 40 times more warming: nearly 15 degrees Celsius, drastically exceeding the two degree threshold deemed safe by scientists and political leaders. “Canada’s oil sands: not so dirty after all,” read one prominent news headline. “Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat,” read another.
The report had political influence as well. Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver used it to attack his government’s critics, telling Parliament that Weaver’s figures proved, “the NDP’s opposition to the oil sands is increasingly ideological and unbalanced.”
”Freaking criminal,” is how one environmental insider described the report’s aftermath. Outraged, Nobel Prize-winning climate economist Mark Jaccard accused Weaver and Swart of propagating the message that, “stopping tar sands will not prevent climate change.”
It was a basic logical fallacy, Jaccard charged, to assume that “since an individual component on its own is not a problem, then it isn’t part of a problem that exists when all components are added together.”