Byron Williston rejects the standard arguments that Canada’s oil is ethical, and urges us to change current energy policy.
If we believe the federal government, as well as websites like ethicaloil.org, we might reasonably conclude that Canada’s oil is ethical.
Indeed, we are told that the moral case for Canada’s oil is so obvious—Stephen Harper recently called the proposed Keystone XL pipeline a “no-brainer“—that opponents of the tar sands are now labeled ‘eco-extremists.’ In fact, such opponents have a very strong moral case, one resting on the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change and on the threats the latter poses to human health and security.
Three claims are typically advanced to show that our oil is ethical. But since they employ conspicuously lousy arguments, these claims should be dismissed and the energy policy built on them—which will lock us into a global carbon economy for the foreseeable future—should be abandoned.
The first claim is that Canada is alone among the world’s petro-giants in being a genuine democracy and that the goodness of our form of government somehow legitimates whatever products we sell. Of course we would dismiss this sort of argument outright if we were talking about, say, land mines or chemical weapons rather than oil. What this reveals is that the democracy-promotion claim is a red herring. What matters ethically is whether or not the product in question produces more harms than benefits.
Unfortunately, the long-term perpetuation of the carbon economy is very likely to cause severe harms to members of future generations. Nor will these harms be confined to the developing world, though it will bear the lion’s share of them. For example, the carbon emissions path we are currently on—the one the ethical oil folks want to keep us on—is likely to lead to a 70% increase in hazardous ozone days in Canada, a 70%-120% increase in the nation’s burned forest areas, and 3-8 times more heat-wave days in many of our cities. These effects—and there are too many others to catalogue here—will lead to sharp increases in morbidity and mortality in the Canadian population.
Moreover, there is no evidence that these harms will be outweighed by whatever ‘benefits’ increased warming may bring. For example, high northern latitude countries like Canada may see a boost in agricultural output as temperatures rise. And there will undoubtedly be a drop in the number of deaths related to cold temperatures. Even so, projections now show that if the temperature continues to rise, (a) agricultural output will ultimately decline dramatically, even in Canada; and (b) the number of heat-related deaths will begin to outstrip lives saved from cold-related deaths.
The second claim is that the tar sands will create thousands of jobs, which the eco-extremists want to destroy. As above, we would not give this argument the time of day if these jobs supported the production and export of land mines or chemical weapons. But there is a further problem with the claim. It is a false dichotomy: you’re either for jobs or against them. When a sector of the economy is forced to abandon one way of doing business, alternatives invariably fill the vacuum, especially if governments subsidize the research and development of those alternatives. As a recent report by the Suzuki Foundation pointed out, there is every reason to believe that a greener economy will provide just as many jobs as the petro-economy currently does. Federal and provincial governments ignored the report’s recommendations.
The third claim is both the most persistent and the most pernicious. Here there is grudging agreement that the oil economy is less than perfect, but that Canadians should not worry about this because our contribution to the flow of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is very small (just 2%). Moreover, if we were to cease production of oil we would put ourselves at a comparative economic disadvantage.
We could not ask for a better illustration of the tragedy of the commons. The atmospheric commons is being ruined precisely because every national player, regardless of the size of its GHG flow, is adopting this narrow stance. It is crucial for us to recognize the profound irrationality underlying this apparently rational position.
According to our best science, the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to limit 21st-century temperature rise to 2 degrees above the pre-industrial baseline. To achieve this, however, global emissions must first peak and thereafter be reduced incrementally every year. The longer we take to peak, the faster we must reduce. So, for example, if we peak in 2015, we must reduce at 3.6% per year thereafter, but if we wait until 2020 we must reduce at a whopping 6% per year (and an unthinkable 12% for a peak of 2025). These targets, even the earliest one, cannot be met unless everyone is on board.
In other words, minimizing future harms from climate change is going to require an unprecedented level of international co-operation on the task of de-carbonizing the global economy, but current Canadian policy directly contradicts this goal. Evidently we want the world to be hooked on oil for as long as we can make the stuff last. Think of this from the standpoint of members of future generations. If we do not change course immediately, they will almost certainly despise us for negligently ushering into existence a world of profound social chaos, where full civilizational collapse is a looming possibility. If that sounds implausible, consult Jared Diamond’s Collapse or Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. These writers make it clear that such collapses—many of which have been the product of anthropogenic environmental stresses—can occur even when a civilization is, like ours, at the acme of its technological sophistication and material wealth.
When not scrambling just to survive, the inhabitants of this imagined future world will—quite rightly—condemn us as moral criminals. If that is not how we want ourselves described by them, then we need to change our current energy policy and reject the bogus ethical oil rhetoric that supports it.
Byron Williston, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Wilfred Laurier University. His latest book is Environmental Ethics for Canadians.