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One of Canada's leading climate scientists found himself with a more nuanced result than he might have expected when a casual conversation led him to look into the direct climate impact that would result from burning all the oil in the country's oil sands reserves.
In the end, Dr. Andrew Weaver's paper in a forthcoming issue of Nature pointed to the complexity of climate research and the overwhelming obligation to follow the results of scientific enquiry wherever they lead, especially when those results run counter to conventional wisdom.
Weaver's simple but startling conclusion was not only that the oil sands must be one of several points for concern on the road to a low-carbon energy future. His research also suggested that they are far less important than other sources of energy-related greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Over the last couple of years, climate researchers as prestigious as NASA's Dr. James Hansen have cited the oil sands as one of the carbon bombs that could push atmospheric warming beyond the point of no return. The lead author for Chapter 12 of the IPCC's fifth assessment report and a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, Weaver has been one of Canada's leading contributors to the wider body of knowledge behind that assertion, and he's been no advocate for oil sands development. (He still isn't.)
But in a February 21 feature interview on CBC's morning news show, The Current, Weaver said he'd always been a bit unsettled by some low-carbon advocates' laser focus on oil sands emissions. When he and colleague Neil Swart ran the numbers, they concluded that:
• Developing all of Canada's proven oil sands reserves would lead to a 0.03°C increase in average global temperatures. Developing all known resources would translate into a 0.36°C increase.
• Natural gas would represent a 0.16°C increase from the world's conventional reserves, 3.18°C from conventional and unconventional resources.
• Coal would produce a 0.92°C increase from proven global reserves, 14.79°C from the total known resource base.
The response was predictable. The Globe and Mail headlined the story as a PR boost for the oil sands. And in his interview with the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti (audio begins at 02:15), Weaver said he'd already received some pointed questions about the funding behind the research. In fact, he said this particular paper was unfunded: he and Swart produced it as a side project, out of genuine intellectual curiosity.
Weaver's analysis excluded the GHG impact of extracting and transporting oil sands oil, and he told Tremonti that health and water quality issues provide ample reason to question oil sands development. He also stressed the underlying problem that is bigger than any of the symptoms: humanity's continuing, dangerous dependence on fossil fuels, whatever the source.
But there are two major takeaways from this story:
• Although the tar sands loom very large in Canada's emissions future, some sources of GHGs matter even more than others. Weaver's findings don't negate the importance of the oil sands-on the contrary, they reinforce the need for every country to cut carbon emissions in any way it can. But the global context underscores the scope of a challenge of which the oil sands are just one part.
• The only path to a viable set of low-carbon energy solutions is to follow the scientific evidence, even when the reality of climate change itself is not the only "inconvenient truth" coming out of the research.
It might have made for a simpler narrative if Weaver's numbers had reinforced the oil sands' standing as the most important "climate bomb". But at any moment when the narrative conflicts with the science, it's the narrative that has to adapt. That's the principle that distinguishes legitimate climate science from charlatanism, and it's the only underlying value that can be the basis for public confidence and trust.