Just the Facts: But Which Ones?

Madelaine Drohan considers the facts behind the Keystone debate, those being used by Stephen Harper and the less cheery ones regarding climate change.
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September 27, 2013
Madelaine Drohan
Canada correspondent for The Economist, Author of The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Resource Economies, and contributor to The Economist Intelligence Unit

When Stephen Harper made his now familiar pitch on the Keystone XL pipeline to a business audience in New York this week, he said the logic behind building the pipeline was simply overwhelming. It would create about 40,000 jobs in the U.S. and would be in everybody’s interest. The president had assured him that his decision would be based on facts, said Mr. Harper, “And I think the facts are clear”.

But the International Panel on Climate Change laid a different set of facts on the table Friday and they are equally clear. If the greenhouse gas emissions which are largely caused by fossil fuel use are not reduced to zero by mid-century, global temperatures will rise above the limit the politicians themselves agreed was tolerable, according to this group of scientists set up in 1988 to advise governments on policy. Even their best-case scenario included rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and warmer temperatures bringing with them more extreme weather.

So the question is: Which facts do you want to use?

As politicians with relatively short-term time horizons, Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama are drawn to the short-term economic impacts of building the pipeline. With both the U.S. and Canadian economies still growing sluggishly, the opportunity to back any job-creating measure is difficult for a politician to ignore. Mr. Obama is under considerable pressure from the Republicans to give his approval (although environmentalists have mounted a strong counter-campaign). Mr. Harper has his Alberta base to consider. And both are being lobbied ceaselessly by the energy, pipeline, and related companies who have the most to gain if the presidential permit is secured.

It’s much harder to get politicians – and the public for that matter – to focus on the longer-term consequences of continuing to use fossil fuels, which is largely what the IPCC report requires. While it documents changes that are already occurring – sea levels are already rising faster than expected, the oceans are warming and becoming more acid, and the last three decades are warmer than any other decade since 1850 – the worst outcomes will occur long after the president and prime minister have exited the political stage.

Public pressure could force them to lift their gaze. But unlike 2007, when the public was seized with the startling findings of the previous IPCC report and politicians were gearing up for what looked like a credible global climate change agreement in Copenhagen, this report seems less novel if more damning and the continuing fallout from global financial crisis has forced politicians to make economic concerns a priority. As well, there is no shortage of well-funded climate change deniers ready, willing, and able to muddy the waters. Unpalatable as they are, those are also facts.  

The long-awaited presidential decision on Keystone XL will be a small but telling addition in what is a much broader debate about climate change. Mr. Harper has already nailed his colours to the mast, pushing for more and faster resource development while dragging his feet on a credible climate change plan. Following his lead, companies are investing in projects and infrastructure that will lock Canada into more fossil fuel production for decades to come. This path does not lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Obama’s position is less clear. He has linked Keystone approval to Canada’s climate change performance, an indication he is taking the longer term into consideration. But does he have the ability to follow through? It is foolhardy to guess which way his decision will go. It all depends on which set of facts he intends to use.