Scientists Say We Can't Develop Tar Sands and Fight Climate Change at the Same Time

“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
Albert Einstein

More than 100 Canadian and American scientists have come together with an argument that a moratorium on the development of Canada’s tar sands is necessary until a plan to reduce carbon pollution, protect biodiversity and human health, and respect treaty rights has been implemented. They recognize that no one scientist works in a field of research that comprises the expertise that spans all of climate change. But by coming together and discussing the issue, they were able to come to the following conclusion:

Based on evidence raised across our many disciplines, we offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects. No new oil sands or related infrastructure projects should proceed unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights.

The list includes Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, Members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, recipients of the Order of Canada, and one Nobel Prize winner. They offer ten reasons based on scientific understanding to back up their strong statement: Continue reading

Appreciating Mother Nature

Today is a holiday in Canada. Victoria Day celebrates Queen Victoria, England’s longest-reigning monarch—at least until this September when Queen Elizabeth II will surpass that record.

But for many Canadians like me, it also marks the weekend we open the cottage. This entry I’m reposting below has been a popular one before because it describes how my experiences there really help to enhance my appreciation for nature and solidify the importance of why we have to try to preserve it. I hope you enjoy it, I think its message is becoming increasingly important:

This summer I’m spending as much time as I can with my family at our cottage. It’s a little piece of heaven in Muskoka on Mary Lake. I’d like to say that Muskoka is a hidden gem but it’s not all that much of a secret. In fact, many celebrities have millionaire cottages on lakes throughout the region. “Look, there’s Goldie Hawn’s place! And that one over there belongs to Cindy Crawford. Shania Twain owns a place on Such-And-Such lake. Even Kenny G has one close by.”

Other than March Break and a week between Christmas and New Year’s, I generally work every week of the year except for the summer when I save up my holiday time so we can get to the lake as much as possible. We manage to make it most weekends because it’s only about an hour away from the hospital so even when I’m on call it means I just get up a little earlier that morning and drive right there.

But it’s the week-long breaks I most look forward to. I seem to get so much more sleep up there, and I recharge my batteries at the cottage better than any other method I’ve discovered, all by simply breathing in the fresh lake air. And we get to do so many outdoor activities that are tougher to do back home. Things like biking, hiking, kayaking, sailing, and swimming. So I get much more exercise than my busy weeks working as a cardiologist allow.

One morning when I was kayaking this week—I tend to go out around 8 a.m. when the lake is particularly placid—I started to imagine what it would be like if Muskoka sat on top of a large deposit of bitumen instead of the Canadian Shield as it does in reality. If this part of the world was like northern Alberta, I imagine companies would try to buy up the land so they could start to develop it and ultimately export the products of their efforts to China and the U.S. My little piece of heaven would get destroyed in the name of the economy. Continue reading

Northern Gateway Pipeline Approved (Boo!)

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”

At long last, the Canadian government made its decision known last week on the Northern Gateway pipeline. Surprise, surprise: it’s approved, once 209 conditions are met. Assuming that happens—because let’s face it, Enbridge will do whatever it takes to make it happen—the $7-billion, 1,172-kilometre pipeline will bring products from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat, British Columbia (B.C.) to then be shipped overseas.

And it’s not a trivial amount: about 500,000 barrels a day of the diluted bitumen (or dilbit) derived from the tar sands will arrive at Kitimat, ultimately to be shipped mostly to Asia. Prime Minister Harper wants Canada on the map as a global petroleum superpower, and Northern Gateway (and Keystone XL) are the means by which he plans to achieve his goal.

Obviously some people are happy about this approval. Many living in Alberta are for sure. (Why shouldn’t we help Canada’s richest province become even richer?) And many will argue that pipelines are safer than rail. But in this case it’s not actually the pipeline that has people upset so much as it is the shipping once the pipeline ends. The narrow channels pose significant risk to the cargo ships trying to negotiate them. If any of the molasses-like dilbit spills, it runs the risk of harming some of the most beautiful wilderness in Canada. Continue reading

"Turbines Kill Birds!" Guess What: So Do the Tar Sands

Whenever I speak about climate change, I find most of the audience is on board with the general messages I give. If there’s any disagreement, it’s not usually the skeptic/denier kind, but rather concerns raised about the proposed solutions. Like hurting the economy for the sake of the environment.

One that comes up on occasion is that wind energy is harmful to flying animals. It’s well established that some bats and birds are indeed killed by rotating turbine blades, but they’re also killed by moving vehicles and tall buildings, so is it a valid concern? I’ve always felt that as long as we do our best to minimize putting up turbines along major migratory routes, the harm to such animals would be acceptable. (Similar to the harm house cats do to the avian and rodent populations around their own homes.)

In contrast to the harm caused by wind turbines, I’ve always had concerns about the harm to wildlife and ecosystems created by the development of Alberta’s tar sands. Turns out it’s not all that trivial. A new report co-published by both the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine spells out the risks our Athabaska tar sands development poses to migrating birds.

The facts are beyond anything I would have ever imagined. Continue reading