Reading Andrew Weaver's Nature article to the end

Photo: PasKualo/Flickr

The Conservatives are brandishing a new weapon in their fight to exploit the Alberta oil sands, pulling a figure from a recent article published in the science journal Nature, written by climate scientist Andrew Weaver. "The oil sands will raise temperatures by only 0.03°C," announced Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver triumphantly in question period on February 28, quoting from Weaver's article.

Oliver is putting to shame those of us who are concerned about climate change. After all, hadn't we expected more damning evidence? With such a minuscule effect on global temperatures, argue the Conservatives, there is no reason to hold back oil sands production.

To thousands of voters it will be a convincing argument. It is, however, yet another case built on a misrepresentation of the facts. The government is betting on public ignorance, confident in its ability to convince the public using information pulled out of context.

According to the report, 0.03° C would be the rise in global temperatures should we burn the 170 billion barrels of the "economically viable proven reserves" of Alberta bitumen. These are the reserves that can be extracted and processed given current market conditions and technologies. However, the actual amount of bitumen in the ground is 1.8 trillion barrels. These are what is referred to as the "oil-in-place" reserves -- oil that exists, and which could be available for extraction given the right conditions. And with new technologies being funded, developed, and tested every day, the industry and our government are showing every intention of extracting these greater reserves.

According to the report, burning these 1.8 trillion barrels would lead to a warming of 0.36°C. Again, this may sound like an unexpectedly small amount, but not when you consider how little we can afford any temperature rise at all.

Climate scientists agree that we must hold global temperatures to a maximum rise of 2°C -- compared to pre-industrial times -- in order avoid a tipping point into potential catastrophic climate change. Global temperatures have already risen 0.8°C since pre-industrial times, leaving us with 1.2°C of "wiggle room." If the oil sands are fully exploited (something to which our government is committed), they alone would contribute to one-third of the remaining allowable temperature increase.

This is the part of Weaver's article that the Conservatives have neglected to highlight. By hiding the facts and by taking information out of context, the Conservatives are, in effect, lying to the public.

The Nature article concludes that, "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."

The Conservatives are pleased as punch with the Nature article, but only because they're counting on us not reading it to the end.

Correy Baldwin is a writer, editor, and poet living in Montreal. He is a regular contributor to Uppercase magazine, and has recently been published in This.

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