We Need To Talk About Energy Policy – And Climate Change

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The media wars — mainstream media, social media, blogs, and others — continue to heat up over energy policy and climate change, and Canada is in the heart of the battle.

Canada is a prosperous nation, where many people have the luxury to worry about societal issues instead of about where their next meal (or kilowatt) is going to come from. We’re also a major energy supplier, with huge oil and gas resources and world-leading technology to produce them.

Only a few other nations — the United States, Norway and Australia come to mind — are in similar situations. And none of them have to deal with all the Canadian issues, such as a variety of First Nations interests, industry activity that is largely onshore and in sight of residents, and strongly diverging provincial / regional views around production and transportation.

Moral foundations theory suggests that people’s attitudes and convictions around important issues — like energy and climate — are shaped primarily by emotions and gut reaction. It’s difficult to supersede these with rational discussion and analysis. That said, if energy professionals try to fight fire with fire — peddling panic and fear with little regard for science, fact and context — we are destined to lose the battles for people’s minds.Our professional ethics and scientific attitudes prevent us from engaging at this level.

Canada Research chair in Health Law and Policy Timothy Caulfield sees a similar situation around health care issues. He said “not responding publicly … can have a negative effect on public beliefs and actions. The silence leaves inaccuracies unchecked. … A fact-filled rebuttal that corrects specific inaccuracies can make a difference.”

As Dr. Caulfield suggests, we need strong, informed, reasonable, persistent voices to step up in the discussions around energy and climate policy.  We must hope that when more people start to understand the immense costs and damage to society that climate panic and associated actions will bring, attitudes will begin to shift and more reasoned voices will be sought.  I believe energy professionals are uniquely qualified to provide those voices.

Look at what the average Canadian sees every day:

  • Climate change alarm and panic from around the world.  People with little or no education in the physical sciences telling us to “listen to the science”;
  • Demands that we immediately and dramatically cut fossil fuel production in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — with no idea of how to replace the energy produced;
  • Questions about the honesty and integrity of oil and gas industry operators – and anybody working for or associated with them;
  • Unsophisticated, poorly-researched “reports” from anti-industry groups telling us of the various environmental disasters about to happen because of hydraulic fracturing, pipelines, fossil fuel combustion, and just about anything else Canadian industry does.

While we used to be able to count on mainstream media journalists to provide balanced, impartial reporting around such key issues, many now fail to uphold this responsibility. Instead, we see anti-industry press releases reproduced verbatim, and journalists bringing climate panic mindsets to their writing.  Many stories in formerly reliable sources start from the premise that we are in the midst of a climate crisis, and that anybody that can’t see that is a “denier” or “denialist.” There is no room left for discussion, and none will be entertained.  We must “act” or disaster will befall us all — although there are no realistic ideas of what those “actions” should be.

Such stories can be compelling for those whose world views are already coloured by a visceral dislike of capitalism, industry and “Big Oil.” Some political leaders in Canada play to this crowd, repeating unfounded ideas (“natural gas has the same climate impact as coal”, “fossil fuels are heavily subsidized”) promoted by anti-industry groups.

So how do energy professionals help to bring balance to the discussion?

Firstly, I believe we must be reasonable, rational and professional. Many Canadians recognize alarmist tactics as dishonest and incendiary — and we do not want to be painted with that brush. We must stick to the facts, acknowledge uncertainties, and avoid insulting or derogatory language — even in our social media posts. Climate change is not a plot or conspiracy — it’s a legitimate field of study that needs careful scientific examination and discussion.  Dissing it or dismissing it is not credible.

Monica Gattinger, Chair of Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa, backs this point by arguing that we need to build a narrative to unify the country around energy and climate policy. It must be grounded in credible action and robust performance indicators – which we can achieve in promoting, for example, shipping clean Canadian LNG to displace high-emissions coal-fired power in Asia.

Secondly, we must speak to what we know, acknowledging our own limits. I tell people that I believe a lot of really excellent science is being done around climate modeling and forecasting. I’ve read some of the scientific papers and many somewhat politicized documents such as IPCC Summary for Policymakers, which distill modeling results into general statements. None of these support the doomsday scenarios foisted upon us by Extinction Rebellion and the like.

Thirdly, as people that plan and build things in the physical world, energy professionals understand the many challenges around actually creating new infrastructure and energy supplies. It took the City of Calgary 20 years to build a ring road, so how can we expect to remake the country’s energy supply infrastructure in any less time?  We need to get that practical, sensible message across to our friends, relatives, and to the media.

In the final analysis, let’s make it clear that as scientists and energy professionals, we are not arguing with the good science being done by physicists and climatologists who analyze and model climate. We are not denying that climate changes, and that the rate and scope of change is likely influenced by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. But we do call out the colourful fantasies of climate disasters threatening humanity and “the planet” in the near future — because they are not supported by science.  We know that people need hydrocarbon energy to survive, and that it will take decades to develop alternative energy technologies to significantly reduce demand for oil and gas.

So tell your family and friends. Write letters to the editor, and volunteer to speak where people are listening.  Perhaps the most impactful message we can communicate to our friends is: “Impeding oil and gas development and transportation, before we have alternative energy technologies in place, will generate more energy poverty, human suffering, and misery than climate change ever could.”

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