The Internets are all abuzz with a new study published by Nature Climate Change (a sister publication of the prestigious science journal, Nature) about the potential climate impacts of Alberta’s oil reserves.


The study, undertaken by Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria – a former lead author with the IPCC and probably Canada’s most prominent climate scientist – and his student, Neil Swart, crunched the numbers on future greenhouse gas emissions from various fuel sources. The researchers arrived at some sums that surprised them, particularly regarding the climate impact of Alberta’s oil sands, which have lately been characterized by NASA’s James Hansen and other opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline as a “carbon bomb” whose full development would spell “game over” for the biosphere.


Weaver and Swart found that even if every drop of sludgy bitumen beneath Alberta’s boreal forest were mined, upgraded, piped and pumped, it would only add at most 0.6 degrees F to global warming. Since even the most ambitious scenarios for the growth of Alberta’s oil industry would see just a fraction of that total mined over the next 20 years, the study concluded that the actual impact of the oil sands is more likely to be less than 0.1 degree F. The real carbon bombs, they found, were coal and unconventional natural gas (the stuff “fracked” out of solid rock in places like the Marcellus Shale deposit in Pennsylvania and upstate New York).


“Our overarching conclusion,” Weaver wrote in a clarification at the Huffington Post, “is that as a society, we will live or die by our future consumption of coal.”


On the face of it, this discovery would seem to indicate that the environmental movement’s current Public Enemy No. 1, the Keystone pipeline (which would deliver 700,000 barrels per day of Albertan oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast of the United States), is a minor target in the wrong battle.


Of course, there’s much more to this debate beneath the surface of things. “It would be a huge mistake,” Weaver argued, “to interpret our results as some kind of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the tar sands.” When he announced his findings to the press, Weaver emphasized the deeper issue: “I have always said that the tar sands are a symptom of a very big problem. The problem is dependence on fossil fuels.”


Let’s repeat that: The problem is dependence on fossil fuels. I couldn’t agree more, and I’d argue further that the only sustainable long-term solution is one in which fossil fuels are wholly supplanted by renewable energy. And so the question becomes not Should we use Alberta’s oil? but How do we build a green energy economy in the fastest possible way?


Note that I’m not talking about reducing emissions. If you focus on reducing emissions, you can all too quickly vanish down a labyrinthine wormhole of carbon trading and nonbinding international treaties and everything else that has delayed action on climate change for the last 20 years. Better to focus on greening the grid, whose chief byproduct just happens to be reducing emissions.


This isn’t just a rhetorical game. How you frame an argument – or a protest or a policy initiative – determines quite a lot about how it’s received, where and how it’s discussed. Talk about carbon bombs, and you set scientists to work figuring out how big the blast would be; talk about coal as a horribly destructive way to make electricity, and just maybe you might be able to introduce carbon-free generating methods into the discussion.


Climate policy is, to my mind, best understood as a proxy for energy policy. The real motivating power in most jurisdictions is not in whatever middling climate bureaucracy has been established there (which, unless you are in Europe, barely deserves the faint praise of being called “middling”). No, the rubber meets the road in the energy departments and natural resource ministries.


Which brings me to another very interesting idea that has emerged from the halls of academia on Canada’s west coast: University of British Columbia professor George Hoberg’s riff on “The Three Logics of Climate Politics.” Here’s Hoberg’s overview of the trio in brief:


One is the climate skeptic, convinced either that climate science is exaggerated or that the costs of action outweigh the benefits. Another is the climate policy analyst who accepts the climate science and evaluates policies designed to meet climate targets based on their cost-effectiveness. The third is the climate advocate, who is convinced there is a climate crisis and focuses on which political strategies are best suited to decarbonizing the energy system.

In the case of Keystone and carbon bombs, what we’re witnessing is, in part, a debate between climate analysts and climate advocates. Analysts like Weaver and Swart run models and crunch numbers and arrive at the logical conclusion that Alberta’s tar sands, though environmentally problematic on several fronts, do not represent a climate crisis in and of themselves, especially compared to the ongoing catastrophe of coal (which, they found, could add nearly 30 degrees F to global mean temperatures – that is not a typo – if we burned all the world’s known reserves of it).


Advocates, meanwhile, see a huge political opportunity in the Keystone debate. Time’s Bryan Walsh summarizes their strategy:


Greens have seized on the pipeline not because the construction of Keystone itself would be so disastrous, or even that the oil sands as a whole are decisive for the global climate, but because the project is a clear symbol that can be overtly opposed. It helps as well that the decision on Keystone XL fell to President Obama, who might actually listen to his environmental base — unlike the conservative-dominated Congress. And the public always tends to be suspicious of newer development, which might make it easier to lead a campaign against oil sands than coal, which we’ve lived with for more than a century.

Another voice on the advocate side is David Roberts at Grist, who’s his usual cogent self in his explanation of the logic behind the Keystone protest. I’ll quote him at a bit of length:


From the perspective of policy analysis, Keystone is a marginal issue. Very Serious People agree that Canada’s dirty oil is going to get burned eventually. There are other, larger sources of carbon, and more economically sensible ways to curtail them. There activists go again, making a big fuss and a bunch of exaggerated claims about something that, measured by tons of carbon reduction, is small beans relative to climate change.


Thing is, no one argues that blocking Keystone XL is a substitute for, or even a substantial step toward, coherent climate policy. The only solution that can really be said to be commensurate with the problem is some kind of global deal on carbon pricing and energy innovation. That’s not on the table. Nor is any kind of comprehensive national solution. Even if they were, we’ve already seen that “pricing carbon” doesn’t exactly get people into the streets. To find the stories/conflicts that get people fired up, activists have to come closer to home, to individual pipelines or coal plants or corporate groups like the Chamber of Commerce. The goal of activism is not primarily to craft policy but to shift the balance of power, to open a space for policymakers and their wonks to work.


I can see the logic of this approach, as far as it goes. And I think Hoberg’s done a fine job summing up the differences in thinking between analysts and advocates. Except for one thing: I think he left out a fourth category of climate logic, the one that’s closest to my take on it. For now, I’ll employ a bit of gentle self-mockery and call us The Renewable Energy Geeks.


Note David Roberts’ use of the term commensurate in his post. We usually take this to mean “equivalent in size or scale." This leads to the perception in some circles that only a global treaty of Kyoto scale could possibly tackle the climate problem. But after I read Roberts I went digging for my OED to get the exact wording for another definition of commensurate: “corresponding in nature . . . belonging to the same category.”


This is the big thing for us Renewable Energy Geeks, or for this one, at least: neither climate analysis nor climate advocacy belongs to the same category as an oil pipeline. Climate policy generally falls under the auspices of environmental regulation regimes, where it’s treated (or ignored) like any other kind of pollution; an oil pipeline is energy infrastructure. You’d have to move to another building in most capital cities to even begin talking about solutions to the climate crisis, and energy policy is where the big decisions are actually made on that subject. And to get from talk of tar sands carbon bombs to talk of the green economy, you’d likely have to switch the subject further, from cars and their gas tanks to all the other energy we use every day.

Which brings me to the Renewable Energy Geek’s key point: renewable energy in most of its market-readiest forms is not a replacement for transport fuel; it’s an alternative form of electricity generation. It does not supplant oil; it supplants coal. And coal, as Swart and Weaver have just demonstrated, is a much, much bigger problem for the planet than unconventional oil reserves are.


This is not an argument for Keystone (or the even dodgier Northern Gateway pipeline proposal to route oil sands bitumen through the Great Bear Rainforest to China). It’s merely a suggestion to climate advocates and analysts alike that neither of their approaches confronts the fossil-fuel regime most directly at its most vulnerable spot. You’ll hear some spirited defenses of the automobile far beyond the corporate offices of Alberta’s oil industry, but if the price tags were similar, almost anyone not currently employed in the coal industry or running for Congress as a Republican would pick a solar panel over a coal plant.


What’s more, by even the most evangelical green advocate’s accounting, we’ll need oil in substantial quantities for at least another generation, whereas renewables are ready right now to take the place of coal on the grid. Fight oil pipelines, and in effect you’re fighting to slow down the expansion of hydrocarbon hegemony. Take on coal, and you’re fighting much more directly for a clean-powered world.


To partake of Renewable Energy Geekery in 140-character bursts, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.


MNN tease photos via Shutterstock

The trouble with 'carbon bombs'
A new study shows Alberta's oil sands are nowhere near the climate terror that coal is. Which is a kind of relief, because we have a market-ready substitute for