Wednesday 8 May 2013

A letter to Minister Oliver from climate scientist and energy experts

On May 7th 2013, I was among twelve Canadian climate scientists and energy experts who sent a letter addressed to Natural Resources Minister the Hon. Joe Oliver.

As professionals who have devoted our careers to understanding the climate and energy systems, we are concerned that the Minister’s advocacy in support of new pipelines and expanded fossil fuel production is inconsistent with the imperative of addressing the climate change threat. We are going to have to wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels. Thus our choices about fossil fuel infrastructure carry significant consequences for today’s and future generations.
Readings of atmospheric CO2 are approaching a new milestone of 400 ppm — a reminder of the rapidly shrinking amount of “space” remaining before we risk committing ourselves to increasingly unmanageable and costly levels of climatic change.

Here is the text of the letter:

The Honourable Joe Oliver, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Natural Resources
Parliament Hill
Sir William Logan Building, 21st Floor
580 Booth Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0E4
May 7, 2013

Dear Minister Oliver,

As climate scientists, economists and policy experts who have devoted our careers to understanding the climate and energy systems, we share your view that “climate change is a very serious issue.”

But some of your recent comments give us significant cause for concern. In short, we are not convinced that your advocacy in support of new pipelines and expanded fossil fuel production takes climate change into account in a meaningful way.

Avoiding dangerous climate change will require significantly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and making a transition to cleaner energy.

The infrastructure we build today will shape future choices about energy. If we invest in expanding fossil fuel production, we risk locking ourselves in to a high carbon pathway that increases greenhouse gas emissions for years and decades to come.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) “450 scenario” looks at the implications of policy choices designed to give the world a fair chance of avoiding 2˚C of global warming. In that scenario, world oil demand is projected to peak this decade and fall to 10 per cent below current levels over the coming decades. The IEA concludes that, absent significant deployment of carbon capture and storage, over two-thirds of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves cannot be commercialized. Other experts have reached similar conclusions.
We are at a critical moment. In the words of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, “each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks.” The longer we delay the transition to low-carbon economy, the more drastic, disruptive and costly that transition will be. The implication is clear: the responsibility for preventing dangerous climate change rests with today's policymakers.
The IEA also warns of the consequences of our current path. If governments do little to address emissions, energy demand will continue to grow rapidly and will continue to be met mostly with fossil fuels — a scenario that the Agency estimates could likely lead to 3.6˚C of global warming.
Yet it is this very dangerous pathway  — not the “450 scenario” linked to avoiding 2˚C of global warming — that you seem to be advocating when promoting Canadian fossil fuel development at home and abroad.
If we truly wish to have a “serious debate” about climate change and energy in this country, as you have rightly called for, we must start by acknowledging that our choices about fossil fuel infrastructure carry significant consequences for today’s and future generations.
We urge you to make the greenhouse gas impacts of new fossil fuel infrastructure a central consideration in your government’s decision-making and advocacy activities concerning Canada’s natural resources.
We would be very happy to provide you with a full briefing on recent scientific findings on climate change and energy development.
Thank you for your consideration of these important matters.

J.P. Bruce, OC, FRSC

James Byrne
Professor, Geography
University of Lethbridge

Simon Donner
Assistant Professor, Geography
University of British Columbia

J.R. Drummond, FRSC
Professor, Physics and Atmospheric Science
Dalhousie University

Mark Jaccard, FRSC
Professor, Resource and Environmental Management
Simon Fraser University

David Keith
Professor, Applied Physics, Public Policy
Harvard University

Damon Matthews
Associate Professor, Geography, Planning and Environment
Concordia University

Gordon McBean, CM, FRSC
Professor, Centre for Environment and Sustainability
Western University

David Sauchyn
Professor, Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative
University of Regina

John Smol, FRSC
Professor, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change
Queen’s University

John M.R. Stone
Adjunct Research Professor, Geography and Environment
Carleton University

Kirsten Zickfeld
Assistant Professor, Geography
Simon Fraser University


  1. good on you all! (and especially David Keith since I would not have expected him to sign)

    on the other hand, I watched the video of our Joe speaking at CSIS in Washington and following his answer to a question put by Climate First in which he lamely attempted to trash Jim Hansen there was (what seemed to me) one ironic clap and laughter, so having him on the side of Keystone XL may be to our advantage in the end - he makes anything he is associated with a joke

    be well, David Wilson (Toronto).

  2. Critical problems require radical solutions. The power of dissent is effective to the extent of the size and influence of it. Thousands of voices of small time plebs like me are reasonably effective, but a few voices from those with influence can greatly enhance that dissent.
    Look who Oliver attacks: Jim Hansen, Al Gore, the IPCC and those with the most prestige and standing. Then again he is worried about agitators if the clamp down on ENGOs is anything to go by.

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  4. Science has made possible the complex technologies that are used to profit from the sale of various fossil fuel energy sources. The Alberta tar sands contain large deposits of a fossil fuel resource called bitumen. Bitumen is a carbon-intensive resource because of the technologies currently involved with the extraction, transportation, refinement, and end-use of the energy source. Due to the high carbon intensity of the resource, it contributes more to the greenhouse effect.
    Mr. Oliver is promoting the continued use of advanced technologies to develop this harmful energy source. At the same time, he is implying scientists are not in agreement concerning the general effects of a rapidly warmer Earth. He chooses to believe that the complexity involved with science means that consensus has not yet been reached concerning the warming trajectory we are on. He is hedging his bets and to a great extent, the current and next generation’s future, that the scientific community is misguided and that the sale of energy derived from bitumen is worthwhile. Most of all, Mr. Oliver is trying to dissociate the oil sand’s carbon emissions from the greenhouse effect. The general magnitude that spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will have on the environment only seems fictional because of the sheer variety of amenities that are at stake.
    We are reaching increasingly risky levels of carbon in the atmosphere, of which have not been experienced since millions of years before the dawn of mankind. The path we are on is a long-term increase in temperatures of 3.6oC. The window for 2oC not being exceeded is closing fast. Global emissions would need to peak next year and decline by about 3% per year to have a 50% chance of not exceeding 2oC. As well, recent evidence suggests that the likely effects of anything more than a 2oC warming are “extremely dangerous.” The path that expansion of the tar sands leads us on is closer to 4oC than 2oC. The global economic consequences of this degree of warming have been estimated to be in the range of $12 trillion by century’s end.
    When Mr. Oliver claims that the science involved with studying the climate is complex, he is correct that we do not yet know what the precise human toll, and economic costs, will be of a 1 meter rise of the oceans in my lifetime, a quarter reduction in the biodiversity of all species living on land by 2050, nor many other changes already occurring to agriculture and weather patterns. How many lives will be lost when coastal land is submerged because of rising oceans? What is the economic cost if the beautiful B.C. outdoors becomes a remnant of its former self because of forest fires and the ability of invasive plant, frog and insect species to thrive in a B.C. that is climatically different?
    These difficult-to-imagine questions cannot be answered precisely unless they come to fruition as scientists warn. Supporters of the expansion of the tar sands, like Mr. Oliver and the federal government, are ready to downplay the significance of the tar sand’s contribution to scientifically supported temperature increase expectations. Meanwhile as leaders, they leave Canadians unready for what climate change will ultimately mean both socially and economically.
    Science has been responsible for the development of nuclear energy that is used both as an electricity source and historically, as a destructive weapon. Similarly, science is responsible for both the predictions of what a 4 o C warmer world will resemble and the inventive technologies that enable the release of carbon pollution into the atmospheric commons. The threat of devastation from the firing of a nuclear weapon still looms, but pulling the trigger on committing to the release of carbon stored in the world’s second largest fossil fuel source, is more certain and potentially just as destructive. Pretending the carbon emissions associated with bitumen are not of major concern is akin to claiming the U.S. did not expect dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to change people’s lives for generations to come.

  5. Friends, (I say 'friends' though I do not know you; for what are I hope obvious reasons.)

    I read your recent letters with Mark Jaccard with interest and applause (here: and here: ). Clearly you all understand the profound crisis facing not just Canada but the planet; however, with great respect, I do not believe this kind of effort is enough to bring about the changes we all know are necessary.

    This morning I am thinking of the example of Tim DeChristopher. I watched a film of his story over the weekend, 'Bidder 70' (available here; - they were quite quick in sending me a copy - or if you give me a mailing address I will send one, I do not really think he will object to this small breach of copyright).

    Look at what he accomplished with the sacrifice of two years of his life. Not a small sacrifice. Not a small accomplishment.

    What actions might be undertaken in Canada at this scale and this level of creativity? I do not have your kind of position or authority; and indeed, looking down the barrels of this particular shotgun for as long as I have has largely unnerved me so I am ... about half-crazy (as you can see from my writings here: ); but I still do believe there is time to stop the madness if enough like Tim with imagination and savvy commitment, will step up and act.

    If you are willing to consider this question (or even if you are not but have any thought at all on what I have said here) then I would gladly think about it with you; and will appreciate any reply.

  6. We've been reading letters like this for forty years. Not to diminish the good works of those who have tried to instill concern for humanity in the corporations and their agents, but we have failed. It is now becoming clear that we have triggered a catastrophic permafrost methane release by melting the Arctic ice pack. As the weather goes increasingly mad, harvests will dwindle and the carrying capacity of the Earth will diminish. Economic, medical, social and physical infrastructures will be torn apart. Nations will dissolve into anarchy. Billions will die from starvation, resource wars and pestilence. And should mankind ever emerge from the chaos, perhaps they will recognize that creating powerful but soulless entities in the name of profit was not such a good idea. But I doubt it.