Anyone who follows the energy beat knows that the latest chant from the environmental absolutist world is “No new fossil fuel infrastructure” (NNFFI). The slogan has been attributed by most sources to Bill McKibben of 350.org. Around here you hear it all the time from opponents of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project or the Coastal Gas Link (CGL) natural gas pipeline. The benefit of the NNFFI chant is that it is really easy to remember and repeat. The problem is that this simplistic refrain makes absolutely no environmental sense. As I will show in this blog post, environmentalist absolutists going bananas will only put our shared environment at increased risk while hurting our chances to effectively fight climate change.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term BANANA is an acronym for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything” (or “Anyone”). It was a term first coined in the urban development world and is akin to NIMBY (not in my backyard) and CAVEperson (Citizens against virtually everything). A Banana is an advocate that takes an absolutist view of the world. “Not here! Not there! Not anywhere!” is one of their traditional refrains.
You will also note that I am not calling these people “environmental activists“. The reason for this is that there exist in the environmental field pragmatic activists, like myself, who are fighting to make the world a better place and I don’t want to confuse those people with the Bill McKibben’s of this world. Environmental absolutists believe we live in a black-and-white world where their view is the correct one and any dissenting or alternative view is “climate denial“. Want an example:
Let’s be honest, anyone who can argue that making a case for reducing global emissions is “climate denial” can be safely called an environmental absolutist.
The challenge for the absolutist is that we live in a complex world where governments have to make tough decisions and compromises. In the real world we can’t simply “turn off the taps” if we want to keep our society functioning. Instead, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels because, at this moment in time, we do not have alternatives for fossil fuels for most or our transportation needs. Were we to actually turn off the taps the results would be disastrous. The benefit of being an environmental absolutist, however, is you don’t have to do all that complicated thinking. Compromises are made by “sell-outs” and “deniers“. Sure these absolutists rely on fossil fuels for their daily lives but their hearts are pure so none of their personal use matters. Purity of heart cancels all hypocrisy.
Environmental absolutists also really don’t appear to care about the human costs of their campaigns. Look at how they sneer at the real problem of energy poverty in the developing world.
Well contrary to Dr. Mann’s claim, energy poverty is currently a bigger problem in the developing world than climate change. Governments of the region recognize this reality and are working to do something about it. Don’t trust me? Then ask the World Health Organization.
According to the World Health Organization climate change could cause 250,000 additional deaths/year between 2030-2050. Yet the same organization reports that 7 million premature deaths annually are linked to air pollution; 4.3 million of that total are due to indoor air pollution and 3.8 million people a year die “prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking.” Those 3.8 million people are dying from energy poverty. They live a life where they don’t have access to the energy necessary to avoid having to use indoor fires to cook meals and keep warm.
Countries like China and India are taking energy poverty seriously and are building the infrastructure necessary to reduce the scourge that is killing millions of their citizens. Unfortunately for the world, the environmental absolutists are making it harder for these countries to protect their populace. They demand 100% renewable systems when the research shows those systems are much more expensive and still not practical.
China is desperately trying to clean up its outdoor air quality by converting power plants from coal to natural gas. Except as I describe in a previous post, China doesn’t have the natural gas it needs to burn in those plants so it is relying on coal-to-gas which generates far more GHG emissions per Gj than importing Canadian LNG would do. As for the absolutist argument that we are “locking-in” emissions by building natural gas infrastructure in BC. What do they think China is doing when it spend billions on coal-to-gas facilities? If the world is going to get locked-in on a facility, wouldn’t it be better that we lock-in the one that generates 40% less GHG emissions per Gj generated?
The NNFFI chant is also being made about the TMX project. Except, as I have pointed out, if the TMX fails the result will be increased risk to our communities and our shared environment. It will likely put the Southern Resident Killer Whales at increase risk, it will definitely put the Salish Sea at increased risk and it will absolutely put our province at increased risk. The alternative to TMX is not the west coast “turning off its taps“, the alternative is much more oil-by-rail. Well from a GHG perspective oil-by-rail means more emissions from the same barrel of oil. From a fisheries protection perspective, it means more rail trains running along down our river valleys and every rail train is a disaster waiting to happen. Mosier should be a wake-up call to the environmental absolutists in our midst. Next time the oil spill may not get caught before it hits the Columbia River. As for human risks, virtually every month more rail cars full of explosive Bakken crude are flowing to the Puget Sound and in Canada the oil-by-rail boom is only starting. Anyone who thinks that stopping the TMX will somehow stop the flow of Alberta oil to the coast is simply ignoring the daily news.
I’ve been asked about a useful analogy for the absolutist view about natural gas pipelines and the best I can come up with is your family car. Imagine you live in a community without transit and need to commute daily to your job. The community is planning to upgrade transit in your area but has not started the work. Would you stop maintaining your car based on the NNFFI refrain? After all, transit will eventually be available to get you to work and to go to the grocery store. Projects like Coastal Gas Link and the TMX are the equivalent to getting new tires and fixing your brakes. Would you refuse to buy new brake pads (new infrastructure) because you knew transit will eventually arrive? Of course you wouldn’t. Until you absolutely knew that you could do without your car, you would make the regular investments necessary to keep it safe and ensure that it was available to get you to work and feed your children.
We aren’t anywhere near close to getting ourselves, let alone the Chinese or India, off fossil fuels. So suggesting we don’t invest in necessary infrastructure to make the world safer and cleaner is simply ridiculous.
Ultimately the challenge we face is that mitigating climate change is a wicked problem
Climate change is an issue that presents great scientific and economic complexity, some very deep uncertainties, profound ethical issues, and even lack of agreement on what the problem is,” said Toman. “Economists will generally think about the trade-offs involved. Ecologists will talk about the idea that we’re driving towards the edge of a cliff. I think both views are right. The question is, how do you reconcile these two – if you can?
Climate change is real and is a battle worth fighting. But we won’t fight it with simplistic slogans and even more simplistic thinking. Environmental absolutists screaming “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” are not helping us fight climate change, they are making the fight harder. They degrade the consensus necessary to build the coalitions needed to get things done. They kill any goodwill the other side might once have had to compromise and they lower the quality of the policy discussions. Climate change is a wicked problem that involves real trade-offs that will cost real people their lives. Environmental absolutists with their black-and-white thinking and their simplistic slogans aren’t helping us deal with this problem. Instead by going bananas they are hurting our chances to fight climate change while simultaneously putting our shared ecosystems at greater risk.