Tag: media

Weaver and the Tarsands: What the media missed.

It appears that Canada (or the part I follow) is all a twitter about an interesting analysis ($$$) by prominent climate scientist Andrew Weaver and his colleague Neil Swart that counts up all fossil fuel reserves, then converts them into global temperature increases based solely on their combustion CO2 emissions potential. It turns out that oilsand reserves are dwarfed by the available coal and natural gas reserves and overall tarsands contribution to temperature increase is modest.

If the entire Alberta oil-sand resource (that is, oil-in-place) were to be used, the associated carbon dioxide emissions would induce a global mean temperature change of roughly 0.36 °C (0.24–0.50 °C)  However, considering only the economically viable reserve of 170 billion barrels reduces this potential for warming by about tenfold (to 0.02–0.05 °C), and if only the reserve currently under active development were combusted, the warming would be almost undetectable at our significance level.

The Canadian media has chosen to play up just the fact that on a global scale, the project will result in a small increase in global temperature, so the oilsands are okay to exploit.

Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat – CBC

Other articles pretty much say the same thing,  Prof. Weaver’s quoted comments don’t help either:

“The conventional and unconventional oil is not the problem with global warming,”  “The problem is coal and unconventional natural gas.” “One might argue that the best strategy one might take is to use our oil reserves wisely, but at the same time use them in a way that weans us of our dependence on coal and natural gas”

Weaver’s comments to the media posit this as an either-or, coal and natural gas = bad, oil = okay. Knowing him to be a very intelligent person, I suspect this is some selective quoting. Also, oil is primarily used to fuel transportation, coal and natural gas are used for electricity generation, so I am curious as to what Prof. Weaver is suggesting here as far as using oil reserves to wean us off coal use? Would the plan be to use all the money that we get from exploiting the tarsands to develop an electricity infrastructure that puts efficiency, reduced electricity use, 100% renewables first? I wish! I don’t see that happening. Alberta is currently powered mostly by coal, and if the Federal government is serious in its stated goal to phase new coal out (which is fantastic), then Alberta would switch to natural gas to fuel its tarsands exploitation, and that would not be okay either! Also, these infrastructures are all linked. A lot of BC’s natural gas and proposed big damaging dams like Site C are designed to fuel the tarsands. A province and by extension, country that makes most of its money by taking the resources it was provided for free, and selling them at great profit is not likely to want to transition away from that.

It was interesting that a few weeks back, Mark Jaccard, yet another prominent BC climate scientist (we are blessed) looked at the same issue and came to the following conclusion.

Canadian tarsands must contract as part of a global effort to prevent a 4 degree increase in temperatures and catastrophic climate change.

Vancouver Sun – January 26, 2012

So, is this Jaccard vs. Weaver?

Not really.

Is the Swart and Weaver message that simple? Are they actually saying that it is okay to exploit away because it makes no difference?

The media should start by reading the byline:

The claimed economic benefits of exploiting the vast Alberta oil-sand deposits need to be weighed against the need to limit global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

That’s how the paper starts. It then calculates global warming potentials based on reserves, current production, total “in place” (present, but not always exploitable) and shows that coal and natural gas are by far the greatest potential contributors. This is of course simply because we have much greater reserves of coal and natural gas, so their global warming potential is going to be huge. The paper makes no mention of rate of use, or whether it is humanly possible to use all that coal and natural gas, and what kind of population growth, and per-capita consumption that would entail.

Here’s a very important calculation from the paper that will be lost in the details. To limit temperature rise to 2 °C or less, the allowed, cumulative per person future carbon consumption is 85 tons of carbon. The per-capita carbon potential of the tarsands alone to US and Canada is 65 tons of carbon. So, by itself, the proven reserves (10% of what’s there) of the tarsands can eat up 75% of our allowed carbon budget, not so small, is it.

Here’s what Swart and Weaver have to say about trajectory:

The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oilsand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint

Here’s the last paragraph from the paper, another big trajectory argument.

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

Absolutely, 100% agreed, but this is not what the media message is at all, interesting.

So Swart and Weaver point out that we need to avoid commitments to new infrastructure promoting fossil fuel dependence, and that building projects like Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway signal a serious commitment to using the entire tarsands. The message in the paper is much more nuanced, and more measured than what’s in the media, not surprising.

I have long since come to the conclusion that this is not about counting of individual carbon atoms and their non-measurable global warming contributions, of course any single project will not tip us over one way or the other. It is about trajectory. To use two smoking analogies, the argument against smoking is not that the next cigarette will kill you, it is that smoking will kill many people in a population over a lifetime. More aptly in this case, the argument is that  Grand River Enterprises, a small Canadian cigarette concern, doesn’t contribute as much to smoking deaths as does Imperial Tobacco, so it is somehow different and okay.

Every major fossil fuel commitment we make is a commitment we do not make to reducing consumption, or increasing renewable use. Every foreign policy/domestic policy decision we take to keep our dollar high to get maximum revenue from the tarsands to shareholders (not the population) is a commitment to not building renewable infrastructure, or spending money on energy efficiency. So, trajectories count, and that is the underlying message from Swart and Weaver.

To finish it off, here’s the PhD Comics Science News Cycle, which is very apropos.

PS: Is Weaver and the Tarsands a good band name?


Joe Romm of climate progress responds to the paper here, thanks @softgrasswalker

And from comments, looks like Prof Weaver was on the CBC this morning, reprising his usual climate hawk self, will listen when they put the audio up.

Here’s Prof. Weaver in the Huffington Post commenting on the study. More about this when I don’t have work to do.


Swart, Neil C., and Andrew J. Weaver. “The Alberta oil sands and climate.” Nature Clim. Change advance online publication (February 19, 2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1421.

Transfer cheats or transfer windows? BC Transit and transfers

The BC Transit CEO is claiming that an additional $600,000 is being seen in revenue without increasing ridership due to a crackdown on “cheating”

“It’s pretty amazing — the level of fare evasion that was going on out there,” said Manuel Achadinha, president and chief executive of B.C. Transit.


Pretty incendiary. BC Transit’s financials from the September 13th Victoria Regional Transit Commission meeting reveal a small increase in ridership, and an increase in revenue (over plan) from passengers and advertising of $685K, YTD.

When BC Transit in Victoria changed its transfer system recently, it did three things:

  1. Reduced its transfer window from 90 to 60 minutes, a 33% reduction. Now, I don’t know how much this is being enforced. I use a monthly pass, but anecdotal observation of bus transfer lengths indicates that it is enforced with varying levels of strictness (people watching is fun on the bus!).
  2. Made transfers one way, so people running short errands can no longer use a transfer on the return.
  3. Did away with the “letter of the day” system, and prevented people from banking transfers from previous days and times.

Now, the only cheats are the ones who gamed the letter of the day, not the ones who were using the transfer for short errands, who now pay double what they paid, or those stopping en-route to home and running a small errand in their 90 minute time window, now 60 minutes.

It’s obviously easy to parade cases of cheating, creating beautiful anecdata.

“I actually had a guy who had a glass case who had everything [all the transfers] alphabetical”

Right, the power of ONE! While a numerical estimate of $200,000 was provided for the cheating, it’s hard to tell what this was based on. It is disturbing that the Times Colonist didn’t bother questioning BC Transit on the methodology used, or the provenance of the numbers. It seems as likely to me that a shortening of the transfer window, and banning two way travel with a transfer could have increased the revenue per passenger from $1.47 to $1.52, a 3.4% increase. But that goes against BC Transit’s story.

I am sympathetic of BC Transit’s need to raise more revenue without bothering the car driving and property owning public with property tax increases. As a monthly pass buyer and property tax payer, I contribute in many ways! I suspect they noticed the reuse of transfers and saw it as an opportunity to raise revenue by tacking on unrelated transfer restrictions. We should be exploring more mobility tied solutions such as linking the carbon tax with transit funding, as these University of Victoria students are advocating. This is on the head of BC’s provincial government, which believes more in the optics of having a carbon tax in place and wowing environmentalists worldwide, rather than designing a system that works well.  Car drivers, think of it as paying a modest (really modest) toll to get people off the road so you can drive in peace! I would do it!

Photo courtesy Stephen Rees Flickr Photostream used under a Creative Commons Licence. Do read his blog as well, he always has insight to add to BC’s transit options.

Green Scolding and Media Victim Blaming

Dracula Lurks in Your Set-Top Box – NYTimes.com

Most Americans are guilty of a similar if less costly squandering of
energy when it comes to their cable or satellite TV boxes. A new study
released on Tuesday by the National Resources Defense Council shows that
set-top boxes in the United States consume nearly as much energy when
not in use as when they are on, costing a cumulative $2 billion a year.

Dear media, let’s break down the choices consumers have with regards to set top boxes:

  1. Not get one, and hence lose access to encrypted channels, digital cable, etc, which are now de rigueur
  2. Get one, and unplug it every time, which means reaching behind (as you kindly mention), unplugging, and waiting for restart, etc. My Telus box usually takes a couple of minutes at least to reinitialize, and behaves a bit weirdly for another minute afterwards. So how many people will do this?
  3. Be scolded by you for not being environmentally friendly.

Now, let’s see what would happen in a real, and properly regulated market.

  1. There would be little connection between the set top box and the content. You would get a box, or use your computer, and just put in a card from your cable company for decryption. While cablecards kinda exist, the reason you haven’t heard of them is because cable companies want you captured by their expensive hardware. separate the two, box manufacturers are free to sell you fancy boxes like this one that can manage all your media, have a friendly interface, cost less, look cool, and consume less energy, and can use all these as marketing points.
  2. There would be sensible regulation on ALL electric devices to include standby mode, with automatic sleep mode. So, if something is not in use, it shuts off in 15 minutes. Seems difficult? Computers do this all the time, routinely. A set top box is just an underpowered computer.

So, let’s not blame the consumer here, shall we? If anyone is guilty, it is media and telecommunication oligopolies that don’t let us actually have free choice, while simultaneously claiming that any regulation is anti-  free market.

Fluent English – Racism in Mainstream Reporting

From Canada’s paper of record…

Speaking fluent English, he described the gruelling 42-day high-seas journey and talked of the deteriorating living conditions in his homeland. He also described his dismay at arriving in Canada only to be branded a potential terrorist and jailed for nearly three months.

Ah, the old “compliment”, “you speak such good English”, code for “I am so culturally and racially ignorant that the act of any non-white non Anglo-Saxon speaking English surprises and amazes me, and I am clueless enough to think of this statement as a compliment”. If the statement is made by a lay-person, I view it as an opportunity to educate. This represents the culmination of a long journey growing up in privileged middle class India and slowly accepting myself as a person of colour (different and yet to be written blog post). But, for a reporter specifically assigned to write about immigration and refugee claims, this is inexcusable, especially because the language of his testimony has no relevance to his story. It’s almost as if the reporter thinks that this person would be more deserving of Canadian sympathy if she lets us know that he speaks “fluent English” just like us!

The rest of the story is not too bad, it uses neutral language to chronicle the story of a heroic person’s struggle to first help the people around him, then finally make a risky journey across the world in search of a better life.

But wait, there’s more! The headline writer seems to have his or her own agenda as well (not captured in the website article, but see the Page One headline (captured on cellphone camera!):

Not bad, ” Tamil Migrant Sought Relief from Homeland Threats” – neutral, descriptive and to the point.

Now see the headline for the continuation:

Wow, “Militant Claims No Ties to Tamil Tigers”. Hello, what happened? When did migrant become militant, when did his statement become a “claim”, and what relevance do the Tamil Tigers have to this man’s refugee status? Is every Tamil a Tiger? (true story, playing pickup at the gym the other day, this guy asked me what my ethnicity was, then called me a Tiger, then got very defensive when I yelled at him!).

A writer’s bias becomes very evident in the choice of words used to frame statements. I always look for “said”, “asserted”, “claimed” as short forms for “we are reporting this statement, but here’s what we really think”.

This is not the first time headlines have made me scratch my head. This happens especially often in the world of science, as this blog post very ably documents. I once got into a brief email discussion with a reporter at the Raleigh News and Observer who was writing articles about undocumented workers. She would use “undocumented immigrant” (Good), “illegal immigrant” (Bad) and occasionally, “illegal alien” (Alien??) interchangeably. However, the headline would always contain the very pejorative one word “Illegals”. I asked her about it and her one line dismissal was that “she did not write the headlines”, which is a nice and casual shirking of responsibility! Since most people only see headlines anyway, the words stick. So, Tamil = Tiger, immigrant = illegal, etc.

It made me a little sad to see the story of good things (he survived and will have his refugee claim heard) happening to a good man reduced to a disgusting innuendo filled headline. For more on the Tamil refugee story, see this article. The Canadian government is using secret evidence to decide who gets to go free and who is detained. While some of the people on board this ship could possibly be linked to violence, secret trials and innuendo do not help anyone involved. The Canadian government should know this, given that its dealings with immigrants using the security certificate program have been criticized before. I understand and fully sympathize with the Canadian government’s position that this is a complex situation and each person needs to be dealt with carefully on a case by case basis, but secrecy is not necessary here.