Tag Archives: energy

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]

Oil, the Environment, and the Future of Canada: A Meeting Report

by Peggy Olive

SSILast fall I moved from Vancouver to Salt Spring Island. From our house at the south end of the island, I can see the distant high-rises of the towns south of Vancouver, yet I’m living in another world now. Deer pass through the front yard, eagles and ravens circle, and the silence is wonderful. After four years volunteering with the Suzuki Elders in various capacities, I knew I would miss my Suzuki Elder friends who had shared my deep concerns for the direction we are heading and the problems that lie in store for us. But Salt Spring islanders are environmentally savvy and open to new ideas, and I soon joined the Salt Spring Forum, a speaker’s series that has hosted world-renowned environmentalists including David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, Lester Brown, and George Monbiot.

Last weekend (March 8-9, 2014), Dr. Michael Byers, a UBC political science professor and organizer of the Forum, brought ten graduate students from his seminar course to present their papers at a conference entitled “Oil, the Environment, and the Future of Canada.” This is the second year he has done so, and he plans to make this a yearly event.

Mainlanders and Salt Spring Islanders, including interested high school students and Forum members, made up the audience of about 75, and half of the time was dedicated to questions and discussion. The high quality of the presentations and enthusiastic discussions left the audience feeling uplifted by the talent, insights, and passion of these young people.

As the Conference title suggests, topics were wide-ranging and included:

  • a discussion of the problems in navigating arctic waters (don’t count on any oil spills being cleaned up, and the northwest passage may yet end up being designated “international waters”),
  • whether Canada has a national energy policy (yes, but it’s not called that, and it’s more of a plan to sell off our oil and gas as quickly as possible with little regard to environmental consequences),
  • whether there is a national security risk associated with allowing foreign acquisitions of Canadian natural resources (yes, current actions could compromise Canada’s legislative and judicial sovereignty). This problem was illustrated with regard to the FIPA trade agreement with China: Chinese investors would be able to sue the Canadian government if they feel the investor’s profit is being compromised, and minority ownership is sufficient for this purpose. Also, under FIPA, investors are subject to Canadian laws, but only those in place at the time of agreement. At the moment, Canada has no legal framework for assessing the risk of a security threat by resource acquisition.
  • whether there is a public relations problem with respect to the oil sands (yes: the government has the resources to mount an ad campaign that is largely divorced from science and meant to sell the political position that the oil sands industries provide jobs and economic benefits). The position of environmental groups is more legitimate, being rooted in scientific fact. However, getting the message out to the uninformed public is difficult. Social media were considered important in this regard.
  •  What decisions are carrying Canada towards being a petro state, and is oil wealth compatible with democracy? The radicalization of environmentalists (those with opposing opinions) and the disregard for environmental contamination (inadequate monitoring) were given as evidence of a problem. Energy represents less than 6% of Canada’s GDP questioning whether energy should be taking centre stage. Norway was compared as another “western” petro state, but unlike Canada, Norway demands much higher royalties, has state-owned oil companies (70% of the Alberta oil sands is foreign-owned), has proportional representation, and has more consultation with their indigenous people.
  • How to say no to big oil? Indigenous rights, with respect to obtaining free, prior, informed consent, were argued to best support environmental activists and the public in defeating pipeline proposals (using the example of the defeat of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 70’s). Civil disobedience may need to be employed.

[Originally posted on March 17, 2014]

Ecological intelligence – a scarce resource

by Stan Hirst



We elders value the environment in which we live, and so we take a deep interest in anything that threatens the quality of that environment. For the past while we’ve been expressing concern about plans and proposals to run oil pipelines across the landscape and to build massive tanker terminals on the west coast to supply oil supertankers which will then chug up and down B.C.’s narrow coastal channels with their bituminous loads. Now we find ourselves faced by yet more proposals to haul yet more piles of thermal coal down to the coast for loading into yet more freighters to carry the stuff to yet more power plants in China for combustion to add, yes, yet more greenhouse gases to the planet’s already overloaded atmosphere.

We understand the underlying motivations of the people who propose, plan and implement all these grand schemes. Canadians don’t get to actually use any of the oil, gas and coal being extracted, hauled and shipped, so the reasons for the frenetic interest in these activities are more elementary – employment and revenue from exports. National statistics indicate that the energy sector provides 4% of Canada’s total employment and that income from energy extraction and export is currently 3.5% of average national income. These are not huge proportions in the national sense, but obviously represent a significant number of jobs and piles of loot for some. We look at the other side of the coin and express our concern with statistics and forecasts related to things like habitats for fish and wildlife, clean water and marine coastlines not befouled with oil slicks or worse.

Our reasons for concern at carbon extraction and combustion relate in the first instance to the very real possibility of local impacts from spills, contamination at the like. At the global level we see even greater threats to global climate and to planetary ecosystems from the additional carbon dioxide and methane which will be added to Earth’s atmosphere. Those impacts will affect virtually every person on the planet in some way, and the negative effects will be handed on to succeeding generations.

The really perplexing question now arises when we consider the motivations and decision-making modes of those driving the proposals to extract bitumen and coal and to ship it out for combustion. These folks look a lot like us. They live on this planet right here next to us. They seem to value environmental quality just as much as we do. They too have children and grandchildren who they want to see live happy and productive lives. Why then are they so happy to sidestep the obvious implications of negative global impacts and focus instead on the materialistic – jobs and money?

The difference between the two groups – the environmentally concerned and the environmentally unconcerned – seems to be a sensitivity to global ecological issues and to the vast web of connections and intersections between human activity and nature’s systems. Daniel Goleman, author and journalist, has termed this sensitivity ecological intelligence. Ecological refers to an understanding of living organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence connotes the capacity to learn from experience and deal effectively with the shared environment.

In primitive societies this shared environment was essentially local – a valley, a stretch of shoreline or a path of forest used as habitat by fish and wildlife essential to local humans as food sources. Today, the global dominance of industry and commerce has brought the impacts of our lifestyles to virtually every corner of the planet. Current human use and consumption of the natural world far exceeds Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. At the same time, modern society has lost touch with the sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. Our daily routines carry on completely disconnected from the adverse impacts on the world around us. As Goleman expresses it – our collec­tive mind harbours blind spots that disconnect our everyday ac­tivities from the crises those activities cause in natural systems. An all-encompassing sensibility would be the only way to appreciate the interconnections between human actions and their direct and indirect impacts on the planet and on our own well-being and social systems.

A contemporary expression of ecological intelligence would be a naturalist’s ability to categorize and recognize patterns in the natural world – ecological, geological and climatic. Humans have done this for centuries. The global extent of human-induced change now requires that ecological intelligence be extended to the planetary level. Other levels of human intelligence, e.g. social and emotional, enable us to take other people’s perspectives, assimilate these and feel genuine empathy. Ecological intelligence extends this capac­ity to all natural systems.

The sheer efficiency and widespread prevalence of modern technologies have severely blunted the survival skills of billions of individuals on the planet. Modern economies require and encourage specialized expertise, which in turn depends on other specialists for tasks in another field. However, while many of us excel in a narrow specialized field, we all depend on the skills of experts – farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics – to make life work for us. We no longer have the abilities, the attunement to the natural world, nor the custom of passing on of local wisdom to new generations that traditionally allowed native peoples to find ways of living in harmony with their patch of the planet.

When it comes to seeing nature, differences in perception have huge consequences. Images of polar bears stranded on ice drifts or vanishing glaciers offer powerful symbols of the perils we face from global warming. Inconvenient truths of the trouble our planet is in are everywhere, but our collective ability to perceive them has been rendered ineffective. Our attention has been drawn, somewhat reluctantly, to symptoms like the slow rising of global sea levels or the pesticide-induced demise of our all-important bee populations, but how many other keys and subtle insights into natural disruption are we missing? We have no sensors for this sort of thing Goleman reminds us, nor is our otherwise impressive neural system designed to warn us of the ways that our activities are having on our planetary niche. We clearly have to acquire new sensitivities to a growing range of threats and learn what to do about them. In other words, we need urgently to sharpen our ecological intelligence.

Ecological intelligence should allow us to comprehend complex systems as well as the interrelations between the natural and man-made worlds, but developing it requires a vast store of knowledge. Too much for any one individual. Intelligence has traditionally been a characteristic of the individual, but now the ecological abilities we need in order to sur­vive must necessarily be collective. The challenges we face are too diverse, frequently too subtle or too complex to be understood and addressed by an individual. Problem recognition and solution now require intense efforts by a diverse range of experts, entrepreneurs, activists; in short, by all of us. As a group we need to learn what dangers we face, what their causes are, and how to render them harmless. On the other hand we need to see new opportunities. Above all, we need the collective determination to do all this.

Large organizations already make good use of distributed intelligence. Goleman cites the examples of hospitals where technicians, nurses, administrators and specialist physicians coordinate their skills to provide appropriate care to patients. A similar example is that of a modern commercial enterprise in which sales, marketing, finance, and strategic plan­ning each represent unique expertise yet op­erate as a whole to provide coordinated, shared understanding and implementation.

The shared nature of ecological intelligence makes it synergis­tic with social intelligence, which gives us the capacity to coordi­nate and harmonize our efforts. The art of working together effectively has to encompass abil­ities like empathy and perspective taking, candour and coopera­tion, to create person-to-person links that let information gain added value as it moves up. Collaboration and the exchange of in­formation are vital to amassing the essential ecological insights and necessary databases that will allow us to act for the greater good.

The pros and cons of nuclear power versus coal

by Peggy Olive

In an ideal world, inexpensive, reliable, and safe sources of green energy would abound, and we could avoid using energy derived from either nuclear fission or coal burning. But we’re not there yet, and with climate change already affecting life on our planet, most of us believe that we need to move quickly to using clean energy sources to limit the rise in global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

In a talk on energy and climate entitled, “Innovating to Zero”, Microsoft’s Bill Gates gives a compelling argument for why we need nuclear power in an age of increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 [1]. Using a simple equation, he argues that CO2 is a product of the number of people on the planet, the services delivered per person, the energy needed per service, and the amount of CO2 produced by each unit of energy. The first two are heading up and are unlikely to be stopped. The cost of energy is decreasing, but not enough. So that leaves the fourth factor. We must use energy that does not produce greenhouse gases, but we need reliable energy – energy that’s available when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Gates believes that nuclear power offers this promise and should be part of the mix, especially if improved (safer) technology is employed. Energy conservation should be a viable way to transition from dirty to clean energy, but increases in services delivered per person along with a growing population would quickly eat up conservation savings.

Like coal power, nuclear power is economical and does not fluctuate as much as wind or solar power. Unlike coal, it is considered clean in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the power plant itself, although uranium mining and processing are not without risks and environmental impact. But the public is overly fearful of nuclear power, seeing it as an accident waiting to happen and, when it does, likely to adversely affect millions. Of equal concern, radioactive wastes from power plants accumulate and represent a threat by terrorists willing to handle the material, but this has not yet occurred. Accidents at nuclear power plants have the potential to be dangerous to the local population and environment as we’ve recently appreciated with the Fukushima disaster, and once long-lived radioactive elements like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are released, they can contaminate the surrounding land for decades. A case in point, the a 30 km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl remains empty of people twenty-five years after that disaster.

Fortunately, nuclear power plant “accidents” that spread deadly isotopes are rare, and the planet has suffered only two (avoidable) serious events that rank at the top of the International Nuclear Event Scale. As serious as these events were, there were few immediate deaths. At Chernobyl, the nuclear core of a poorly designed and operated reactor exploded and was cast outside the facility. Thirty-two radiation workers died shortly after radiation exposure at Chernobyl. At Fukushima Daiichi, in spite of IAEA concerns, an older reactor was operating without adequate safety precautions to ensure reactor coolant in the event of an earthquake and tsunami. No one has died from acute radiation poisoning at Fukushima. Other than thyroid cancers (which are mitigated by potassium iodide tablets and easily treated) increases in the incidence of other types of cancer have not been conclusively linked to radiation from the Chernobyl accident [2]. Cardis and colleagues [3] estimated that “of all the cancer cases expected to occur in Europe between 1986 and 2065, around 0.01% may be related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident”. Although a tiny percentage, this still represents a large number of excess cancer cases, more than 5000 to date. However, air pollution is estimated to end life prematurely in at least 17,000 US citizens per year [4] and up to 850,000 globally [5]. A 2002 analysis by the International Energy Association concluded that nuclear power ranked much lower than coal in terms of impact on biodiversity, accidents, and health risks, and only ranked higher on risk perception [6].

When seen in comparison to the risks of deriving energy from burning coal, the evidence that deriving energy from nuclear power is dangerous remains relatively weak. It is the perceived threat that is strong, and this threat recently caused Germany to close eight of their nuclear power plants and to begin to phase out the remaining nine by 2022. Although the intent is to generate energy cleanly, almost half of the energy in Germany currently comes from coal, and it is difficult to believe that this percentage will not rise in the next few decades, thus contributing further to global warming.

Coal-derived power, in addition to being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and acid rain, is hardly safe. Thousands of coal miners die in accidents each year, and the public is susceptible to lung and heart effects from air-borne pollutants. In 2000, the Ontario Medical Association declared air pollution “a public health crisis” [7] and coal-fired power plants as the single largest industrial contributors to this crisis, producing carbon dioxide, fine particulates, and cancerous heavy metals including mercury. In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association estimated that air pollution costs the province more than six hundred million dollars per year in health care costs, as well as causing the premature deaths of thousands of Ontarians each year [8]. Although of little health consequence, it is worth noting that burning coal produces fly ash that concentrates natural radioactive isotopes in excess of levels produced by nuclear power plants under normal operating conditions [9]. Disposal of toxic coal combustion wastes, orders of magnitude larger in volume than nuclear wastes, has also come under scrutiny [10].

We constantly accept risks in our lives without giving it much thought. A person who smokes twenty cigarettes a day over their lifetime would shorten their life, on average, by six years. A person currently living 50 km from Fukushima who is exposed to an extra 3 mSv per year over their lifetime (the average background exposure is now greater than 3 mSv per year thanks to medical imaging) would shorten their life by 15 days [11]. What cannot be easily evaluated, and is therefore ignored in these risk assessments, is the psychological trauma to evacuees and to those who fear the consequences of minimal radiation exposure because they do not comprehend the risks. Wild animals, ignorant of continuing radioactive decay, are now thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone [12].

Economic arguments favour the use of coal over nuclear power when waste management and decommissioning are taken into account. Nuclear plants are very expensive to build (and dismantle) although estimated capital costs for advanced coal plants with carbon control and sequestration appear to be on par with costs to build nuclear power plants [13]. The cost to run and maintain coal plants can be higher than nuclear power plants, in part because of the transportation costs of coal. A major concern with both nuclear and coal power plants is that once the plants are built, they are likely to be around for a long time because the infrastructure is so costly to develop. Public pressure will be needed to ensure that these plants are closed as soon as clean energy sources become available.

In summary, although recent events at Fukushima warn us that safety standards and compliance must be improved, nuclear power plants operating normally produce less greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, less global environmental damage, and fewer health issues than coal-burning power plants. Neither represents a safe, sustainable, energy choice, but given a choice between these two, nuclear power comes out on top. According to Walter Keyes, a proponent of nuclear power who has worked as an energy consultant for the Saskatchewan and Federal governments, “If climate change really is the serious global issue that most scientists believe it is, there is a very limited amount of time to fix the problem and we should not be wasting valuable time debating which non GHG (green house gas) generation source is the best – we need them all, desperately!” [14].


1. Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero! TED talks, February, 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

2. UN Summary of the Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, IAEA, 2006. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf

3. Cardis E, Krewski D, Boniol M, Drozdovitch V, Darby SC, Gilbert ES, et al. 2006. Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident Inter. J Cancer 119, 1224–1235 (2006).

4. US Environmental Protection Agency, Power plant, mercury and air toxics standards, March, 2011. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/pdfs/overviewfactsheet.pdf

5. World Health Organization. Estimated deaths and DALYs linked to environmental risk factors. http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/countryprofilesebd.xls

6. International Energy Agency, Environmental and health impacts of electricity generation, June 2002 (Table 9.9) http://www.ieahydro.org/reports/ST3-020613b.pdf

7. Canadian Medical Association, June 27, 2000. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/201/300/cdn_medical_association/cmaj/cmaj_today/2000/06_27.htm

8. Ontario Medical Association Illness Costs of Air Pollution (ICAP) – Regional Data for 2005. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/d2005IllnessCostsOfAirPollution.pdf

9. McBride JP, Moore RE, Witherspoon JP, Blanco, RE. Radiological impact of airborne effluents of coal and nuclear plants. Science, 202: 1045-1050, 1978.

10. Dellantonio A, Fitz WJ, Repmann F, Wenzel WW. Disposal of coal combustion residues in terrestrial systems: contamination and risk management. J Environ Qual. 39:761-75, 2010

11. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Instruction concerning risks from occupational radiation exposure. Regulatory Guide 8.29, Feb. 1996. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/reg-guides/occupational-health/rg/8-29/08-029.pdf

12. Hinton TG, Alexakhim R, Balonov, M., Gentner N, Hendry J, Prister B, Strand P, Woodhead D. Radiation-induced effects on plants and animals: Finds of the United Nations Chernobyl Forum. Health Physics 93: 427-440, 2007.

13. US Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration, Levelized cost of new generation resources in the annual energy outlook 2011. http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html

14. Howell, G and Keyes W, Green (renewable) energy versus nuclear energy. Part five of an eight part written debate regarding nuclear power generation. Mile Zero News and Banner Post, March 17, 2010. http://www.computare.org/Support%20documents/Guests/MZN%20Nuclear%20Debate/5%20of%208%20Green%20Energy%20Howell-Keyes.pdf