Tag Archives: anthropogenic

Climate change, fossil fuels and the end of the world as we know it

by Stan Hirst

All my life I have harboured the notion that things could and would get better. The concept was drilled into me from the outset. “Work hard at school”, they said. “Get good grades, go to university, get a good job”, they said. And so I did, and it worked! Sure, there were some bumps and potholes in the road as I went along, but that’s the way the world worked. The good would always outpace the bad in the end, we were told. “God helps those who help themselves” was an oft-quoted expression in my youth and cited, I thought, in the Good Book. Only recently I discovered that it was in fact invented by an 18th century political scientist.

I have not been alone in my perceptions. Human development has indeed been guided by the feeling that things could be, and probably will be, better. The world always seemed to be rich compared to its human population. There were new lands to conquer, new concepts to build on, new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of history, amongst which were a few of my predecessors, were spurred on by the belief that there was a better place somewhere else. Civilized institutions arose from the idea that restraints on individual selfishness would eventually produce a better world for everyone.

But it seems I’ve had it wrong all along. The world is not getting better, in fact it’s in real trouble.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been studying global climate for almost a quarter of a century, says that climate change is having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide emitted into the global atmosphere by vehicles, thermal power plants and industry. Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and many terrestrial and aquatic species are migrating toward the poles or even going extinct. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting and its decay is releasing methane that will cause further warming.

We good folks who have lead the good life on this Earth are about to get our come-uppance. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change” says the IPCC. The world’s oceans are rising at a rate that will soon threaten coastal communities. In some parts of the world the land on which coastal cities have been built is subsiding at rates greater than sea level rise.

Climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, erode food security and prolong existing poverty in poor countries and communities. Parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out, and political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa linked to conflicts over land, water or other resources are being reported. The IPCC have cited the risks of death or injury on a wide scale, impacts on public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations. I didn’t really need to read the IPCC reports to glean all this info, I could simply have perused the news and weather reports from any number of national and international newspapers.

Not scary enough? The IPCC states that, while the impacts of global warming may be moderated by factors like economic and technological change, disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. Moreover, the problem will grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

How will the fossil fuel industry react to this situation? Not well. A European brokerage company has estimated the loss of revenue which would result if the fossil fuel industry (mostly oil, gas and coal) were to take decisive action over the next two decades and essentially remove carboniferous fuels from the global energy system to be $US28 trillion. That’s 28 with 12 zeroes behind it. That’s also equivalent to one-third of the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Is the fossil fuel industry therefore likely to take up this challenge of moving away from carbon-based fuels? I would think the probability is about the same as me winning next year’s Boston Marathon.

The world’s population was just over 2 billion when I was a wee lad. Now its over 7 billion and will be over 8 billion by the time my grandkids are out there fighting for economic survival and admission to university. Nearly a billion people in the world, including many children the same age as my grandchildren, are always hungry and severely malnourished. With increasing droughts, water shortages and political conflagrations, what are the chances of them ever getting out of such a situation? Virtually nil.

Most of us elders grew up among the reverberations of the 1960s. At that time, there was a sense that the world could be a better place and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. We felt this way because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience told it that the line on the graph always pointed up.

But what happens now? We’re begun to feel that maybe there is no “long term”, nothing much positive to look forward to. Instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise, we have a perception that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, and prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water.

Edge.org, an online intellectual salon, annually assembles a group of contributors who represent the cutting edge of global culture and poses a question designed “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge”. In 2009 they posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” In response Brian Eno, artist, composer and recording producer, and old enough to qualify as an elder, offered the view that human society would fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on long timescales and require structures of social trust, would not cohere, there wouldn’t be enough time. Long term projects would be abandoned – the payoffs would be too remote. Global projects would be abandoned – there wouldn’t be enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce would be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility would be seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism will rule. Might will make right.

That reminds me, I must pen a few letters of apology to my grandkids before I leave.

[Originally posed on May 1, 2014]

All in it together willy- nilly

by Roger Sweeny

From a newsletter to parishioners of St. Francis-in-the-Wood Anglican Church, West Vancouver, B.C., June 2013


During Pentecost and now, as we ponder the Trinity, the message has been about opening our hearts to receive the Spirit of Truth, the unseen one who will walk with us, live in us, inspire us to become all we can be, to act not just for self but for others too, and to be ever respectful of all living things including Mother Earth.

A snatch of monologue from a 60-year old radio show, “Dragnet” comes to mind. That was the programme where they told us “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”  canmore-flooding1And then “Knock, knock.  Yes?  My name is Friday. I’m a cop. Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.

My Canadian College Dictionary defines a fact as ‘something that actually exists; a reality; a truth’.  The following are my thoughts on a looming reality we wish we hadn’t heard about. It can no longer be put behind us, and the more we try to ignore the facts, the more difficult it becomes to confront them. Call me an alarmist old grump if you like. Yes, guilty. Yet something compels me to speak out – to give a ‘heads up’ to what’s coming at us – because if I don’t I shall never forgive my inaction.

The fact is – I’m deeply concerned that Mum’s not well. I mean our Earth Mum – Gaia. Her lungs are congested, temperature elevated, her breathing laboured, she sweats a lot and is becoming very moody. It’s a case of Elder abuse.

To underscore my concerns, here in point form are a handful of facts that I have gleaned from quite a few well respected sources. Taken together they paint a sobering picture of what Mother Earth almost certainly has in store for our successors. They will not thank us.

ATMOSPHERIC CO2:co2_trend_mlo

Analysis of core samples from 600,000 years down in the Greenland ice cap shows that the concentration of the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm)up until the industrial age. Since then, and particularly since 1950, it has risen dramatically. It reached 400 ppm on 9 May 2013 at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii which measures global mean CO2 concentrations. A growing number of environmental scientists hold that a CO2 concentration greater than 350 ppm is incompatible with life on Earth, and that we must get it back below that level as soon as possible.


The consensus among climate scientists at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was that, in order to avoid a chain reaction of climate-related natural disasters, average future global (surface and ocean) temperature increases should be held to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.  In fact, that is about all they agreed on. 201101-201112The average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees over pre-industrial levels, and is projected to rise close to another full degree due to heat- trapping greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. A report issued by the World Bank last year confirmed the world is on track for a 4 degree C temperature increase by 2100. Even a 2 degree rise is viewed by world renowned ex- NASA scientist James Hansen as a recipe for long term disaster.

Some argue there has been a pause in surface warming since 1998. Not so. NASA confirms that the observed temperature data, corrected for periods of volcanic activity (which cools), occurrences of El Nino (which warms) and La Nina (which cools), variations in solar activity and natural weather variations clearly show that human-induced global warming has continued to increase in line with projections over the past 16 years.

ARCTIC ICE MELT:2012_8$largeimg202_Aug_2012_121200637

The volume of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 1979 was measured at about 17,000 cubic kilometres. Last summer it was about 3,000 cubic kilometres. At this rate of melting, the Arctic could be ice-free by summer 2015. The Greenland ice cap is currently losing volume at the rate of 100 cubic kilometres per year. The West Antarctic ice cap, which contains 2.2 million cubic kilometres of ice, is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.

Scientists calculate a 2 degree increase would melt enough ice to raise global ocean levels by between 7.5 and 9 metres.


U.S. environmentalist and author Bill McKibben lays out in his new filmDo the Math” what must be done to prevent a runaway environmental calamity.

  • To have an 80% chance of keeping the rise in global temperature below 2 degrees the world economy can release only 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050.
  • Known global reserves of coal, oil and natural gas contain 2795 gigatons of CO2.
  • At current rates of fuel production and growth, the 565 gigatons allowance could be used up in just 16 years (i.e. by 2028).

Simply put, fossil fuel reserves are five times as great as the world can afford to burn. To avoid calamity we must leave 80% of it in the ground.


So there are just a few facts, but the implications for Canada are huge. So is the incentive to push for a non- fossil fuel economy without delay. As Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund expressed it: “If we don’t act now, future generations will be toasted, roasted, grilled and fried. “  So what are we waiting for?  We are all in this together.

May this be the start of a wider discussion at St. Francis.

We’re doomed

The following post contains material of a depressing nature, and is unsuitable for readers under 65 years of age. Reader discretion is advised.

First point – the global climate is changing. Not many people dispute that any more. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Within the past century many significant climate changes have been measured and reported, including increases in the frequency of heat waves in the U.S., an increasing proportion of precipitation coming in the form of intense, flood-inducing events, an increase in tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, a huge decrease in the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice, and a big jump in the rate at which glaciers are melting.

The rates of change seem to be accelerating and most of the profound secondary changes are negative. Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first drew international attention to the impending climate disaster, testified way back in 1988 that Earth had entered a long-term warming trend. Today the effects of global warming on the extremes of the global water cycle – stronger droughts and forest fires on the one hand, and heavier rains and floods on the other – have become more evident in Australia, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

Second point – the causal factors of climate change are now very well known. Earth is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of greenhouse gases – water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide – which act as a thermal blanket. About half the incoming solar radiation passes through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface where some is absorbed and the remainder reflected back into the atmosphere. Substantial amounts of the energy absorbed are again radiated outward in the form of infrared heat. These contribute further to the warming of the atmosphere.

Third point – humanity has drastically changed global climatic dynamics by adding huge amounts of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere. Activities such as deforestation, land use changes and the burning of fossil fuels have increased atmospheric CO2 by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. Decomposition of wastes in landfills, burgeoning agriculture, especially rice cultivation, and huge populations of burping and manure-producing domestic livestock have boosted the amounts of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three since the industrial revolution. Methane is twenty times more active than CO2 in atmospheric heat retention.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is a good indicator of where we are now globally in respect of atmospheric change. Back in 1959 when the data collection programme was initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the CO2 level was measured at 316 parts per million (ppm) and the annual increase was less than 1 ppm. Today the level is over 392 ppm and the annual increases are 2.2 ppm and getting larger all the time.

James Hansen and his climate scientist colleagues concluded that we have either reached, or are very close to, a set of climate “tipping points”. That means that climatic changes are now at a point where the feedbacks from changes spur even larger and more rapid further changes. Hansen cites Arctic sea ice as a good example of this. Global warming has initiated faster sea ice melt and has exposed darker ocean surfaces that absorb more sunlight which leads to more melting of ice. As a result, and without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic could soon be ice-free in the summer. The western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming – once disintegration gets well under way it will become unstoppable.

Pause for reality check – not only is climatic change a reality, it is progressing at an accelerating rate, the negative consequence are getting greater, and the likelihood of us managing to slow or reverse the negative trends are getting smaller.

Fourth point – James Hansen and his fellow climate scientists looked at the atmospheric CO2 levels, then at the changes in climate which were occurring, and came up with the recommendation that a CO2 level of 350 ppm (last recorded back in 1987) was pretty much the upper allowable limit if massive climatic related adverse effects were to be avoided. The number 350 has a certain appealing ring to it, and has been widely adapted by environmental organizations such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org as a universal target for citizen and government action on carbon emissions. The protagonists are quite aware that the present global atmospheric CO2 level has already overshot that target by more than 40 ppm, but they argue, convincingly, that a reversal is absolutely essential to safeguard our long-term global future.

Fifth point – and now we’re at the crux of the problem. How on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, do we get anywhere close to reducing the rate at which atmospheric CO2 increases in future, never mind actually reversing the trend towards 350 ppm?

We think of Earth’s carbon reservoirs as being great fields of coal and petroleum compounds, which are more or less stable until we dig them up and burn them. But the globe’s biggest carbon reservoirs are in the atmosphere, the ocean, living ecosystems and soils, and are highly dynamic. They all exchange CO2 with the atmosphere, they both absorb it (oceans) and assimilate it (ecosystems), and they release it (oceans) or respire it (ecosystems). The critical point is that anthropogenic carbon emitted into the atmosphere is not destroyed but adds to the stockpile and is redistributed among the other carbon reservoirs. The turnover times range from years or decades (living plants) to millennia (the deep sea, soil). The bottom line is that any carbon released into the atmosphere is going to be around for a long, long time. Up to 1000 years in fact.

Sixth point – so how do we get from our present scene of 390 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere and impending climate doom to something closer to 350 ppm and a more stable climate scenario? Straight answer – we cannot. We simply don’t have that option.

Seventh point – the absolutely best case scenario for reduction of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere would be an immediate halt to all activities leading to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Park all motor vehicles, no more home heating, no coal-fired power plants, no burning of natural gas, no aircraft flying overhead, shoot and bury 90% of all domestic livestock. Just shut down all of human civilization. No more anthropogenic carbon emissions. Would this sacrifice bring the CO2 level down in a hurry?

Dr Susan Solomon and her colleagues at NOAA, with the help of their sophisticate computer models have addressed that very question. They ran a coupled climate–carbon cycle model which has components representing the dynamic ocean, the atmospheric energy–moisture interaction, and interactive sub-models of marine and terrestrial carbon cycles. The model reveals, sadly for us, that climate change is largely irreversible for 1000 years after all carbon emissions cease. The drop in radiative forcing of atmospheric CO2 (i.e. the extent to which CO2 causes atmospheric warming) is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the oceans. So atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. And the natural interactive processes between the atmosphere, ocean and ecosystems would carry on. Atmospheric CO2 concentration would eventually drop back to 350 ppm by about 2060 and then flatten out to near 300 ppm for the rest of the 1000 years.

Eighth point – I haven’t noticed any great urges on the part of ourselves to go and huddle in caves and gnaw on pine nuts and raw fish (no wood-burning allowed) to make this scenario work, so what is more likely?

Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 6.2 billion tonnes back in 1990 when global CO2 was near 355 ppm. The 2010 estimate is 8.5 billion tonnes. That’s a 38 % increase over the levels used to formulate the Kyoto Agreement. The annual growth rate of emissions derived from fossil fuels is now about 3.5%, an almost four-fold increase from the 0.9% per year for the 1990-1999 period. Carbon emissions from land-use change (i.e. mainly deforestation) in 2007 (in just that one year) were estimated at 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. The biggest increase in emissions has taken place in developing countries, largely in China and India, while developed countries have been growing slower. The largest regional shift has been that China passed the U.S. in 2006 to become the largest CO2 emitter, and India will soon overtake Russia to become the third largest emitter. Currently, more than half of the global emissions come from less developed countries. Developing countries with 80% of the world’s population still account for only 20% of the cumulative emissions since 1751. There is nowhere for these rates to go, other than up.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, they diplomatically tried to hedge their bets. So they churned out 40 different scenarios based on emissions scenarios for the decade 2000-2010 which encompassed the full range of uncertainties related to future carbon emissions, demographic, social and economic inputs and possible future technological developments. The model predictions were correspondingly wide, ranging from “best” to “worst” in terms of atmospheric CO2 levels and changes in the associated climatic driving forces. Now it has become apparent that the actual emissions growth rate for 2000-2007 has exceeded the highest forecasted growth rates for 2000-2010 in their emissions scenarios.

Ninth point – so the most likely future outcomes (by the end of the century) are those at the top end of the scale outputted by the computer models (diagram above). That is to say our grandchildren will be looking at CO2 levels above 900 ppm, mean global temperature rises of 5 or 6 degrees C over what they are today, and an average sea level rise above 0.5 metres. Plus all the storms, cyclones, droughts, floods, vanishing shorelines, water wars and famines that might creep in along the way.

The end – CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and future temperatures are just numbers, and pretty much the only things that computer models can output. We will have to estimate the extent of global human misery by ourselves.

Is there a cancer threat from the Oil Sands industry?

by Peggy Olive

Those of us who watched “Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands” on The Nature of Things at the end of January [1] are legitimately concerned by this question.  The Kelly and Schindler publication in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS [2] provided evidence that mining the Athabasca Oil Sands has increased the levels of carcinogens in the environment downstream of the industry, and it follows that more carcinogens in the environment could mean a higher risk of developing cancer for the exposed population.

Demonstrating that the Oil Sands have caused an increase in cancer incidence is another matter.  This is largely because cancer is so prevalent; one in three of us can expect to develop cancer over a lifetime and one in five may die from it.  According to the 2010 Canadian Cancer Statistics [3], the incidence rates for all cancers have not changed much across Canada in thirty years, and the current incidence of cancer in Alberta is somewhat lower than that in the Atlantic Provinces.  Rates of incidence for all cancers between 2004-2006 in the Northern Lights Regional Authority, which includes the small town of Fort Chippewyan downstream of the Oil Sands development, are lower or equal to the Alberta provincial average [4].  However, in 2009, The Alberta Health Services presented a comprehensive study of cancer incidence in the Fort Chipewyan residents between 1995 and 2006, concluding that there was an increase in cancer incidence (51 cases observed with 39 expected in about 1200 individuals); this included two cases of a very rare form of bile duct cancer [5].  With so few total cases, caution was correctly placed on the interpretation of this observation and whether the increase could be attributed to the Oil Sands chemicals alone.  Nonetheless, continued monitoring of this population was advised because of the unexpected cancer incidence.

What we really need are answers to more difficult questions: Can the current cancer risk be considered “acceptable”, as suggested by the 2010 Royal Society report on the Oil Sands [6], are all reasonable efforts being made to mitigate the risk, and will prompt regulatory action be taken when the risk is no longer considered acceptable (if it currently is)? These are not simple questions to answer because first we need to know:

  1. The chemical nature of the toxins from the tar sands industry (there are potentially dozens, each with its own distribution within the environment).  Unfortunately, it is not possible to know pre-industry levels of these chemicals, and the adequacy and credibility of results obtained by the industry-supported regional aquatic monitoring program (RAMP) have come under serious question [7].
  2. Which chemicals have been tested and classified as human carcinogens.   Ideally, any interactions between different chemicals that may affect cancer risk should also be known.
  3. The doses of carcinogens delivered to the population (including information on the concentration, duration of exposure, and route of exposure).   Ideally, biomonitoring of individuals (for example, in hair or urine) should also be performed where warranted by higher levels in the environment.
  4. Regulations concerning exposure limits for each carcinogen, and whether these limits have been approached or exceeded downstream of the Oil Sands industry
  5. The number of individuals exposed to the carcinogens in order to estimate the number of excess cancer cases that can be expected, and the significance one can place on this estimate
  6. What has been done, and what can be done, to mitigate the risks of developing cancer

Taking the position that no increase in cancer risk is acceptable fails to acknowledge the many risks to our health that we accept each day, including risks of developing cancer from lifestyle choices.  The government sets limits on the levels of known carcinogens in the environment, but these limits are often meant to be “as low as reasonably achievable” and therefore are typically greater than zero.  For ionizing radiation, perhaps the best understood carcinogen (and my own area of expertise), the current dose limit is 1 mSv per year for the general public.  Yet a single medical imaging procedure can deliver ten times that dose, and the natural background dose (which is highly variable from one place to another) averages three times higher [8,9].  To put these amounts into perspective, exposure to 1 mSv would be expected to produce five extra cancer deaths in 100,000 people [9].   It would be impossible to demonstrate a statistically-significant increase in cancer incidence by exposure of small numbers of  individuals to 1 or even 10 mSv per year, yet we are still able to estimate the probability for a large population provided we know the exposure.

It often comes back to risk versus benefit.  We all find it easier to accept risk when it is our choice to make, but First Nations and others who make their homes downstream of the Oil Sands may not have that option.  Both risks and benefits need to be shared fairly, and that is not often the case.

Dozens of toxic chemicals are emitted and distributed during the mining and processing of the Oil Sands.  Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, yet a 2006 report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness concluded that there was a negligible risk of cancer from exposure to inorganic arsenic in the Woods Buffalo region of Alberta that contains the Oil Sands [11].  Although the levels of arsenic used for those cancer risk estimates were provided by the Oil Sands industry, in independently-funded studies, arsenic levels were rising in that area but did not exceed the regulatory limit [2,12].  However, seven of twelve other toxic metals exceeded guidelines for the protection of aquatic life by 5 -300 fold [2].  Heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury, are considered ‘possible’ human carcinogens, a different designation that limits what can be said about the risk for developing cancer.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) include known human carcinogens that are found downstream of the Oil Sands.  Twenty-six out of twenty-eight measured PAHs showed, on average, a six fold increase in concentration downstream compared to upstream [13].  Canada Health and Welfare and the World Health Organization recommend drinking water levels for total PAHs of 0.2 mg/L, and for the most carcinogenic PAH, benzo(a)pyrene, the limit is set at 0.01 mg/L.  The estimated lifetime risk associated with the ingestion of drinking water containing 0.01 µg/L benzo[a]pyrene is considered “essentially negligible” by Health Canada, and 1 in 100,000 by the World Health Organization [14].   In a study conducted in 2007 by Timoney [15], concentrations of PAHs near the Oil Sands varied greatly, but at times exceed guidelines suggesting potential danger to exposed individuals.  Perhaps we should be asking, “How dangerous is the exposure to PAHs from the tar sands industry relative to smoking cigarettes or living in an urban environment?  How rapidly are levels increasing downstream of the Oil Sands?  What are the peak levels as well as average levels?”  Answering these questions requires a reliable environmental monitoring program which is currently lacking.

Simply demonstrating that the amount of any one carcinogen is lower than government mandated limits fails to acknowledge the possible interactions between different chemicals.   Co-exposure of fish to arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene can increase rates of genotoxicity eight to eighteen times above rates observed after exposure to either carcinogen alone [16].  Currently, there is little if any information on additive or multiplicative risks of cancer from exposure to several carcinogens, so the possibility is largely ignored in assigning ‘safe’ limits.

With known carcinogens being distributed over a large region of Alberta, reducing exposure and subsequent risk should be an industry priority.  In the 1970s, stack precipitators were instrumental in reducing airborne particulates, but subsequent industry expansion means that overall levels are now similar to those measured before precipitators were installed [2].  Levels will continue to rise in coming years if no efforts are made to further reduce emissions.  Tailings ponds should not leak as they do now [13], and they should be guarded against storm damage.  River water flow should be monitored so that it is adequate to dilute particulates, and climate change effects and usage effects on river flow should be taken into consideration for future expansion.  Technology should be developed to recover toxic heavy metals.

What is needed to make this happen is a world-class, government-sponsored environmental monitoring system that can keep pace with the oil sands developments, is transparent but informative to the public, and examines a full range of potential environmental effects.  Water testing should be as good if not better than the air quality measurements now provided by the Woods Buffalo Environmental Association, a multi-stakeholder group that publishes readouts on their web site from more than a dozen sites in the Oil Sands region [17].  Information on levels of carcinogens present in plants, animals and people living in the region are also needed.

A special review panel recently convened by the Alberta Government has already concluded that more stringent oversight of environmental contamination in the Athabasca Oil Sands is necessary [18].  Their full report is due in June 2011, but recognizing that the current monitoring program is flawed and doing something about it are two separate things.  Maximum toxic contaminant levels need to be set, and not just for water, but also for soil, sediment, plant and animal life.  There should be recognition that adhering to these levels may mean curtailing expansion at some future point.  The pressure to accomplish these goals must come from many directions, and should not rest exclusively on the inhabitants of Northern Alberta.

Coming back to the question, is there a cancer threat from the Oil Sands, the answer is yes, because the levels of known carcinogens in the regions downstream of the industry have increased.  Have these increases actually caused cancer?  Perhaps, but the available data do not support an unequivocal conclusion.  Cancer is too prevalent, and the number of exposed individuals is too small to be sure.  Does this mean that there is no reason for concern, at least at present?  Absolutely not.  Cancer can take many years to develop and levels of carcinogens from the industry continue to increase.  Until a reliable monitoring system is in place, we will have insufficient information to base estimates of cancer risk.

The Oil Sands industry has the opportunity and the responsibility to mitigate these risks, but we have a responsibility to understand these risks in relation to others we encounter in our daily lives.  Hall, in an earlier edition of his book [9] examined the chances of dying from a radiation-induced cancer in relation to the risk of dying from smoking cigarettes or driving a given number of highway miles.  I’ve used his analogy to compare PAH-induced cancer with these risks.  If drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L benzo(a)pyrene causes one additional fatal cancer in 100,000 people, this would be equivalent to the risk of dying from smoking 73 cigarettes or driving 178 miles.  This doesn’t sound too bad until we remember that we are also exposed to many carcinogens not only in drinking water but in the air we breathe and the food we eat.  One of those chemicals is arsenic.  The risk of dying from cancer by drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L arsenic (the government mandated limit) is equivalent to the risk of dying by smoking 1500 cigarettes or driving 3500 miles.  If you’re wondering why maximum allowable arsenic levels are so high, it’s partly because of the difficulties in estimating both exposure and risk from cancer caused by arsenic.  However, Health Canada also states that their regulation represents “the lowest level of arsenic in drinking water that can be technically achieved at reasonable cost” [19], which is even more reason for close monitoring of the carcinogens produced by the Oil Sands industry.


1.     Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands.  Documentary film aired Jan 27 and Feb 12, 2011 on CBC-TV. http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2011/tippingpoint/

  1. Kelly, EN, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Short JW, Radmanovich, R. Oil Sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 16178–16183 2010.
  2. Canadian Cancer Society’s Steering Committee: Canadian Cancer Statistics 2010, Toronto: Canadian Cancer Society, 2010. http://www.cancer.ca/canada-wide/about%20cancer/cancer%20statistics/~/media/CCS/Canada%20wide/Files%20List/English%20files%20heading/pdf%20not%20in%20publications%20section/Canadian20Cancer20Statistics2020102020English.ashx
  3. Alberta Health Services, Report on Cancer Statistics in Alberta, 2009. http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/poph/hi-poph-surv-cancer-cancer-in-alberta-2009.pdf
  4. Alberta Cancer Board, Report on the Incidence of Cancer in Fort Chipewyan, 1995-2006 http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/rls/ne-rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan-study.pdf
  5. Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry, December, 2010. http://www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/RSC%20report%20complete%20secured%209Mb.pdf
  6. Main, C.  2010 Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program Scientific Review http://www.ramp-alberta.org/UserFiles/File/RAMP%202010%20Scientific%20Peer%20Review%20Report.pdf
  7. The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection.  ICRP #103;  Wrixon, AD. New ICRP recommendations.  Journal of Radiological Protection, 28:161-168, 2008. http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/28/2/R02/pdf/jrp8_2_R02.pdf
  8. Hall EJ and Giaccia, AJ, Radiobiology for the Radiologist, Sixth Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2006.

10.  Smith AH, Lopipero PA, Bates MN, Steinmaus CM.  Arsenic epidemiology and drinking water standards.  Science 296: 214l5-6, 2002;  Kaiser J. Second Look at Arsenic Finds Higher Risk, Science 293, 2189, 2001; Arsenic in drinking water. National Academy Press, 2001 Update. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10194&page=203

11.  Report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness.  Assessment of the Potential Lifetime Cancer Risks Associated with Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic among Indigenous People living in the Wood Buffalo Region of Alberta, 2007.

12.  Timoney, KP and Lee P.  Does the Alberta Tar Sands industry polute?  The Scientific evidence.  The Open Conservation Biology Journal 3:65-81, 2009.

13.  Kelly EN, Short JW, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Ma M, Kwan AK,  and Fortin, BL.  Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries.  PNAS 106:22346-22351, 2009.

14.  Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Province of British Columbia. Ambient water quality criteria for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/pahs/index.html#TopOfPage

15.  Timoney, KP. A study of water and sediment quality as related to public heath issues, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.  A report conducted on behalf of the Nunee Heath Board Society, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. http://energy.probeinternational.org/system/files/timoney-fortchipwater-111107.pdf

16.  Maier A, Schumann BL, Chang X, Talaska G, Puga A. Arsenic co-exposure potentiates benzo(a)pyrene genotoxicity. Mutation Research, 517: 101-11, 2002.

17.  Wood Buffalo Environmental Association Website: http://wbea.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/

18.  Jones, J.  (Reuters) Water checks deficient at Canada Oil Sands: Report, March 10, 2011 http://solveclimate.com/news/20110310/water-checks-deficient-canada-oil-sands-report

19.  Health Canada Environmental and Workplace Health, Arsenic, Application of the Guideline. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/water-eau/arsenic/application-eng.php

An elder’s guide to climate scepticism

by Stan Hirst 

The other elders may drive me from the village with brooms and pitchforks when they read my confession. But the truth must out. I am, alas, a sceptic.

I am sceptical, as well as skeptical, that my beloved Earth is going to self-destruct on 31 December 2012. I think it’s more likely the Mayans ran out of wild fig bark on which they were drawing their calendars. I am sceptical that I am by nature diplomatic, charming and easygoing because Jupiter was hanging out with Venus in the Fourth House of the night sky right about the time I came into the world seventy-odd years ago. I am sceptical that the people responsible for the multi-billion dollar homeopathic remedy business have never learned to spell the words p-l-a-c-e-b-o and g-u-l-l-i-b-i-l-i-t-y. And all this scepticism flies in the teeth of the billions of people worldwide who buy into this stuff.

We sceptics are in good company. Albert Einstein was one.  In 1933 he famously stated that black holes do not and cannot exist. He couldn’t see one and couldn’t find the rationale for them in his famous equations. Today his successors have no such problems and not only think they have identified nearly 30 black hole candidates in the Milky Way galaxy but are now getting the proof that the holes behave in the relativistic way that Einstein’s theories predict.

But I’m concerned that we genuine sceptics are being given a bad name by all these so-called climate change and global warming sceptics out there.

We need to address a few issues to sort out these guys in the black hats. Firstly, what exactly is a sceptic? What is climate? And what is climate change and what does it entail?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sceptic as one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement. Michael Schermer, the entertaining editor of Skeptic magazine enlarges the concept thus:  “Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. All facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity”.

And what is ‘climate’ and how does it differ from ‘weather’?

Weather is the state of the atmosphere at any given moment to the extent that it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy. The way the concept is used in daily life refers to day-to-day temperature and precipitation activity. By contrast climate is the term for the average atmospheric conditions over longer periods of time. The difference between the two creates major confusion for many.  “How the heck can it be global warming when we’re having record snowfalls in eastern Canada?

Which leads us to the obvious next question – what is the evidence for climate change?

Lots of prestigious institutions keep honest meteorological data and report their findings. At the national level, Environment Canada reports that the national average temperature for 2010 was 3.0°C above normal, which makes it the warmest year on record since nationwide records began in 1948. The previous warmest year was 1998, 2.5°C above normal. Four Canadian climate regions (Arctic Tundra, Arctic Mountains and Fiords, North-eastern Forest and Atlantic Canada) experienced their warmest year on record in 2010, and for six other climate regions the year was amongst 10 warmest recorded.  Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan were the only parts of the country with close to normal temperatures. Environment Canada’s national temperature departures table shows that of the ten warmest years, four have occurred within the last decade, and 13 of the last 20 years are listed among the 20 warmest.

At the international level, the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia has global land and marine surface temperature data dating back to 1850. The Unit reports that the years 2003, 2005 and 2010 have been the warmest on record. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century. The World Meteorological Organization reports that the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has carefully summarized all the salient indicators of climate change occurring within the past century. These include:

  • heat waves – the frequency of heat waves in the U.S. has risen steadily since 1970, and the area within the U.S. experi­encing heat waves has increased;
  • average precipitation has increased since 1901 at an average rate of more than 6 percent per century in the U.S. and nearly 2 percent per century worldwide;
  • heavy precipitation – in recent years, a higher percentage of precipitation in the U.S. has come in the form of intense single-day events; eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990;
  • tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico has risen noticeably over the past 20 years; six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s; this increase is closely related to variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic;
  • Arctic sea ice – September 2007 had the lowest ice coverage of any year on record, followed by 2008 and 2009; the extent of Arctic sea ice in 2009 was 24 percent below the 1979 to 2000 historical average;
  • glaciers around the world have generally shrunk since the 1960s, and the rate at which glaciers are melting has accelerated over the last decade; overall, glaciers worldwide have lost more than 8000 km3 of water since 1960;
  • lakes in the northern U.S. are freezing later and thawing earlier than they did in the 1800s and early 1900s; the length of time that lakes stay frozen has decreased at an average rate of one to two days per decade;
  • snow cover over North America has generally decreased since 1972 (although there has been much year-to-year variability); snow covered an average of 8 million km2 of North America during the years 2000 to 2008, compared with 8.8 million km2 during the 1970s.

So we honest sceptics have no issue with the evidence for global warming. Its incontrovertible. Not even Sarah Palin could refudiate it.

What about the evidence for anthropogenic inputs to global climate change? In other words, to what extent are human activities, specifically the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, responsible for the global warming observed to date?

Total global green house gas emissions (expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents) are nearing 30 billion metric tonnes per year. As a result mean global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has gone from about 280 parts per million during pre-industrial times to more than 380 parts per million today. Earlier CO2 data were collected from ice-cores in eastern Antarctica and have been the subject of dispute by so-called climate sceptics, but the modern-day data come from state of the art instrumentation on Mauna Loa in Hawaii and are incontestable. From 1990 to 2008 the radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere increased by about 26 percent, the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations accounting for approximately 80 percent of this increase.

It turns out that atmospheric CO2 is not homogeneous. Some of it contains carbon-12, the rest carbon-13 (one more neutron per atom than carbon-12). Green plants prefer carbon-12 in their photosynthetic reactions. When fossil fuels, which are derived from ancient plants, are burned, the carbon-12 is release into the atmosphere. Over time the continuous carbon-12 emissions change the atmospheric proportion of carbon-13 to carbon-12, and this proportion can be measured in corals and sea sponges. So not only have background levels of CO2 increased over the past century, they are directly linked to fossil fuel burning. And we honest sceptics are still cool with the concept.

Next question – is the extra anthropogenically-derived CO2 responsible for the observed warming trend? The so-called ‘greenhouse’ effect of CO2 is well-known, and can easily be measured in a laboratory. But it has also been measured globally over the past 30 years by satellite-mounted infrared sensors and found to be significant. Moreover, the amounts of global atmospheric downward long wave radiation over land surfaces measured from 1973 to 2008 have been examined and found to be significant in contributing to the global greenhouse effect.

The U.S. Protection Agency’s summary includes some biological indicators of long-term climate change in the U.S.:

  • the average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states has increased by about two weeks since the beginning of the 20th century; a particularly large and steady increase having occurred over the last 30 years;  the observed changes reflect earlier spring warming as well as later arrival of fall frosts, and the length of the growing season has increased more rapidly in the west than in the east.
  • plant hardiness zones have shifted northward since 1990, reflecting higher winter temperatures in most parts of the country; large portions of several states have warmed by at least one hardiness zone;
  • leaf and bloom dates of lilacs and honeysuck­les in the lower 48 states are now a few days earlier than in 1900s;
  • bird wintering ranges have shifted northward by an average of 56 km since 1966, with a few species shifting by several hundred kilometres; many bird species have moved their wintering grounds farther from the coast, consistent with rising inland temperatures.

So there you have it. Take all the scientific evidence available and it would be difficult indeed not to concur with the 97 out of 100 climate experts who think that humans are indeed causing global warming.

So, if the evidence satisfies the honest sceptics amongst us, i.e. those who take the time to seek out and evaluate the evidence and try their level best to come to an honest and defensible conclusions, why then is there a substantial body of opinion which holds countervailing views, i.e. that there is no warming or climate change (its all just natural variation), or that there is change but we ain’t responsible (its Mother Nature’s fault)?

That would be the subject of future postings from the Elders. It opens up the opportunity for some innovative taxonomy of climate change personalities, but I’ll leave the naming to others!

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