by Ken Mullen
The current news cycle, political rhetoric, and social media biases paint a picture of Canada, and the world, as a disconnected, precarious place. The whole climate change debate has become highly polarized, and given the overwhelming bias of social and mainstream media on the topic, I have found myself frequently taking a very opposing position in a futile attempt to bring balance to the discussion. People and governments are dug in on an issue that likely has more subtleties and backstories attaching to it than virtually any other current human story (most of which are conveniently ignored). Every government is reacting to the social pressures of decarbonizing energy by saying the right things, although a substantial minority are acting in complete contradiction to those commitments. Others are drawing uneconomic, and physically impossible, lines in the sand in support of science which is very likely directionally correct, but also likely highly oversimplified (and possibly wrong).
But it really doesn’t have to be that way.
Anyone with a thermometer can appreciate that the world is warming. Despite some very real concerns regarding the degree of contribution to this heating, there appears little doubt that carbon is part of the reason why. That contribution is currently treated as essentially 100% in the eyes of climate alarmists, ENGOs, and the United Nations. I suspect that this is not even remotely correct, but whether carbon’s impact is 5%, 50% or 95% is not the point. Assuming it is a contributor at all is enough to warrant consideration of alternatives to reduce that contribution. What appears to be lost in the resulting conversation, and completely ignored by the ardent supporters of immediate decarbonization, are the benefits of additional carbon (it does, after all, promote greening of the planet), and more importantly the massive human costs of a radical approach to its elimination. This is particularly so given the as-yet unappreciated human and environmental costs of the renewable alternatives, as well as their absolute inability to replace carbon sources in all but the most ideal of circumstances.
It is well beyond time to have a more rational conversation about energy. I am a resident in a geography that has prided itself on the delivery of safe and plentiful carbon, effectively since its inception. Can it do so more efficiently (i.e. reduce its energy demands), or directly reduce it’s carbon output? Absolutely. And based on social and environmental pressures, it is doing so at an incredible pace. Would it have done so absent that pressure? I doubt it. However, ostracizing the carbon producers for supplying the very thing that its customers so willingly consume, seems illogical. Penalizing oil and gas producers (or even coal producers, Heaven forbid) while enabling unnecessarily large cars, homes, and technology footprints to proliferate is completely disingenuous. Flying thousands of people every few months (or is it weeks?) to proselytize on the next level of commitments and penalties to support decarbonization and “energy shift” is ridiculous. While it likely gives the attendees a rush of contribution value, it also is completely unproductive, especially when all that is discussed are the goals of carbon reduction using well-recognized, and wholly inadequate, renewables tools, instead of having a practical discussion of how to balance the energy shift over a period that will not economically or socially displace billions of people, or bankrupt treasuries across the globe. The UN’s increasingly high-pitched climate doom-speak will undoubtedly result in some progress towards their goals, but may just as likely cause countries, and individuals, to simply throw in the towel (or as is currently the case, make hollow commitments). No country can be expected to excessively penalize its people in favour of global objectives, particularly when the relative level of sacrifice (of current life quality, or future potential) does not align with what others are perceived to be giving up.
Dreaming aside, respected energy and social minds realize that the decarbonization goal will not be achieved through “keeping it in the ground” (rare earth metals essential to renewables apparently excluded). Instead, the use of progressively lower-carbon energy, coupled with increased technology focus on extracting and using these sources under a lower carbon umbrella, is the practical answer in the near term (decades). Using domestic sources of energy rather than importing equivalent energy (hello Canada!) is an obvious way to achieve an immediate reduction, and reconsidering taboo energy sources like nuclear (it is not 1970 people, it is 2019) are practical ways to move toward reduced carbon fuels. Incentivizing carbon release reduction at source, or sequestration of those releases, is far less costly than the current renewables path, with far fewer technological limitations, and without the potential for deleterious unintended consequences from uncontrolled renewables conversion.
As humans, particularly in this age of rapid change and advancement, we are conditioned to look for immediate, and final, solutions. It is the narcissistic nature of being at the top of the evolutionary chain (particularly in a world progressively moving away from organized religion or belief in “higher” power). We believe we can solve anything, ignoring the fact that we weren’t even able to predict the onset of the current issue we are facing. By yelling louder, and ignoring the potential negative impacts of our “cure,” we forge ahead, confident that we have it figured out this time. Progress seldom works that way. Real progress takes time, and thought, and multiple strategy corrections as we go along. The scale of the energy challenge is likely one of, if not the largest, humans have ever faced. The damage we could do to our fellow inhabitants of this planet by embarking on our current path is being completely ignored. Despite the wailing and expectations for a simple fix, let’s just focus on getting it right (or at least more right) in stages.
Instead of assuming that the switch between carbon and no carbon is a simple, binary choice, let’s focus on a kinder and more realistic progression toward a lower-carbon future. Instead of panicking based on questionable science, let’s accept that introduction (some would say discovery) of a sustainable, defensible energy will take time.
The world we inhabit has handled much tougher challenges than our carbon footprint, and we would be advised to look more critically at the binary choice being foisted upon us by do-good governments, ENGOs and the UN before we create unintended consequences that far exceed even their dire predictions. Poverty around the world has never been lower, gender equality in education and socially never higher, childhood mortality is the lowest it has ever been. Food production is meeting our needs despite predictions it wouldn’t. Population growth is flattening, against prior dire UN predictions. The world is fettered with myriad challenges no doubt, but it is a far better and more resilient place than any of us generally appreciate, and many of those problems are actually comparatively manageable. The greatest voices of climate change come from those places who are both least impacted by its occurrence, as well as those best situated to manage its possible impacts. Having won the geographic lottery by where we were born, we have no right to cancel the tickets to progress for the rest of the world because we think we know better.
Ken Mullen is an analyst with Roundtable Capital Partners Inc.