Why is Joe Oliver okay with 2°C of warming?

Even though Canada has an abundance of clean energy resources and the potential to find the innovative capacity to take advantage of them, the staples mentality informs the federal government’s policy and politics.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash.

This morning La Presse published a stunning statement by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. He stated, “I think that people aren’t as worried as they were before about 2°C of warming” (my translation). 


To recap, 2°C is the absolute upper limit that climate scientists suggest the world can reach before we introduce the danger of runaway climate change because of feedback effects such as the releases of natural carbon sinks. If we go beyond 2°C we might not be able to turn climate change around.

This is why the Copenhagen Accord, which Canada signed onto and used to justify its rejection of Kyoto, recognized, “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius”.

So Oliver has basically announced that Canada doesn’t care about its latest international obligation, and he suggests we shouldn’t worry about climate change.

During the interview, Oliver quoted the International Energy Agency (IEA) to justify his position for a continuation of unmanaged growth of the bitumen sands. He quotes the IEA a lot, so let’s take a closer look at what they have to say.

In 2010 the IEA World Energy Outlook did an in-depth analysis of the oil sands and projected how much of this resource the world economy would demand. The graph above compares projected demand (in million barrels per day) with the latest data on oil sands expansion plans.

The key here is that the IEA produces a number of scenarios. The 450 scenario is consistent with 2°C of warming, as Canada agreed to in the Copenhagen accord in order to avoid climate catastrophe. Note that we already have enough oil sands capacity in operation and under construction in the low-carbon scenario. 

The largest demand for the bitumen sands results in 6°C of warming. When Joe Oliver quotes the IEA, he is quoting a climate catastrophe scenario and ignoring the 2°C scenario. 

A number of other studies have shown that oil sands development is inconsistent with a global economy taking action on climate change. For instance, see a recent study by researchers from MIT and Harvard.

Canada’s oil sands are actually a hydrocarbon resource that is quite vulnerable to changes in global economic trajectories. If the world takes action against climate change, and reduces its demand for oil, the unconventional stuff (i.e. oil sands) is likely to be the first left in the ground since it is both more expensive and more carbon intensive. While the IEA scenario certainly suggests that the world will take a long time to wean itself off of oil, it also shows that the oil sands are really vulnerable to a global economy taking climate action.

This vulnerability only becomes a problem the extent to which the government continues to follow strategies that pigeon-hole the Canadian economy into the bitumen resource staple product, leading to a “staple trap”. Oliver is perhaps the most representative of the “staples mentality” – the belief that natural resources (and the bitumen resource in particular) are the only viable pathway for the Canadian economy.

The implication of this mentality today is that it also leads to a carbon trap, because the large-scale exploitation of the bitumen sands requires a global economy heading towards climate catastrophe.

Even though Canada has an abundance of clean energy resources and the potential to find the innovative capacity to take advantage of them, the staples mentality informs the federal government’s policy and politics. 

Oliver just can’t seem to escape this mental trap. His blinding dedication to a resource-based economy makes him neglect the international scientific consensus on climate change as he tells us just not to worry about the environmental destruction waiting for future generations. 

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