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The Fact-free Opposition to Keystone XL

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Contrary to opponents of Keystone XL, the pipeline would have virtually no effect on global warming, and the world is not experiencing more frequent and extreme climate-related events.

Now that the State Department has reported the obvious — that the Keystone XL pipeline would have virtually no effect on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or on global temperatures — the opponents of the project are bringing the heat. But in the realm of energy and environmental policy, Pavlov’s dogs are many, loyal, and deeply religious, and unlike Sherlock Holmes’s four-legged friend in Silver Blaze, they decidedly are not silent.

One such immediate reaction was offered by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, who informs us modestly that “the future survival and wellbeing of humanity” is at stake. His specific arguments in summary are as follows:

•    “The world is on a trajectory to raise the mean global temperature by at least 3 degrees C by the end of the century.”
•    “The world is experiencing a rapidly rising frequency of extreme climate-related events such as heat waves.”
•    “The Keystone pipeline is crucial to the global carbon budget,” that is, an effort to limit the use of fossil fuels to an amount   that would yield a global temperature increase of no more than 2 °C.

Where to begin? With respect to the world trajectory of “at least 3 degrees C,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report (AR5) summarizes the data as follows. The total increase between the 1850-1900 average and the 2003-2012 period (in short, approximately a century) was 0.78 °C. For the period 1951-2012, the increase has been 0.12 °C per decade, or about 1.2 °C per century. Data for 1880-2012 published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are displayed in the following chart.

Zycher Keystone XL - Global Mean Temp Graph

There is little dispute that temperatures began to rise (almost by definition) at the end of the Little Ice Age in the early to mid-19th century. The data show some cooling in the late 1880s through about 1910, perhaps due in part to the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the massive release of dust and various aerosols. Temperatures then increased through about 1940, fell until approximately 1975-1980, increased through 1998 (a strong El Niño year), and have displayed no trend over the last 15 or so years. The more-recent atmospheric data from the satellite record are shown in the following chart, from the University of Alabama. (Note that 1999 was a strong La Niña year.) No trend is obvious since about 2001.

Zycher Keystone XL - Temp of Lower Atmosphere Graph

So: The basis for Sachs’s assertion of a trajectory of “at least 3 degrees C by the end of the century” remains entirely obscure. The earth has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age, and the degree to which that long-term trend is driven by GHG emissions is an issue hotly(!) debated in the scientific journals. Notwithstanding Sachs’s assertions about the “overwhelming scientific consensus” — note that scientific truth is not majoritarian — the issue of the climate sensitivity of the atmosphere to increasing GHG concentrations is nowhere near resolution.

Total world emissions of carbon dioxide in 2013 were about 36 billion metric tons; in this extreme case, Keystone XL would add about 0.4 percent.

With respect to “extreme climate-related events”: I summarize the evidence here, but in brief,  tornado, hurricane, and cyclone activity are at historically low levels, wildfires are in a long-term decline except in government forests, there is no trend in sea-levels related to increases in GHG concentrations, the record of the Arctic ice cover is ambiguous, there is no drought trend since 1895, and the same is true for flooding over the last 85-127 years. In the most recent IPCC assessment report, the worst of the potential extreme events is the possible disappearance of the summer arctic ice, an outcome that IPCC now views only as “likely” with “medium confidence.” 

In short: Sachs’s assertion about extreme events ignores both the evidence and the IPCC analysis. With respect to Sachs’s argument that the nonapproval of Keystone is crucial in terms of limiting future temperature increases to 2 °C: If built, Keystone XL will transport 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Canadian crude oil, the total GHG emissions from which would be 147-159 million metric tons per year on a “lifecycle” basis. Suppose in the extreme case that this Canadian oil would not replace any other crude oil, so that the net additional emissions would be the full 147-159 million metric tons per year. Total world emissions of carbon dioxide in 2013 were about 36 billion metric tons; in this extreme case, Keystone XL would add about 0.4 percent. As world GHG emissions — and atmospheric GHG concentrations — increase over time, the Keystone XL contribution would be smaller proportionately and its warming effect even more trivial because of the logarithmic relation between GHG concentrations and the effects of GHG emissions. (An increase in GHG emissions of 0.4 percent would raise global temperatures in 2100 by something on the order of one ten-thousandth of a degree.) Accordingly, Sachs’s argument that Keystone XL is “crucial” in terms of limiting temperature increases to 2°C is preposterous, particularly in a world in which GHG emissions are rising steadily as a result of industrialization in Asia and elsewhere.

Tornado, hurricane, and cyclone activity are at historically low levels, wildfires are in a long-term decline except in government forests, and there is no trend in sea-levels related to increases in GHG concentrations.

Sachs gives the game away when he argues that “The State Department doesn’t even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world,” that is, “that the pipeline discussion really needs to be about the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels.” And so there we have it: His opposition to Keystone has nothing to do with GHG or climate effects. Instead, it is part of the broad view on the environmental left that there is just something not salutary about conventional energy, and that therefore “we must… [make] considerable investments for several decades to come… [in such] low-carbon alternatives [as] nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power.” By “we,” Sachs presumably means government and its subsidy machine, an indication of his real view of the uneconomic nature of “renewable” energy. For a discussion of why renewable energy cannot compete, see this and this.

Sachs concludes his missive with an outpouring of emotion against the “greed, cynicism, and shortsightedness” of Washington and Ottawa, due to the reality that “there is money to be made NOW [emphasis in the original], the future be damned.” And there is “incompetence” and “gilded interests” that must be “face[d] down.” Can a grassy knoll be far behind?

The issue of the climate sensitivity of the atmosphere to increasing GHG concentrations is nowhere near resolution.

In a similar vein, Robert Redford — “actor, director, and environmental activist” — argues against Keystone XL by referring to purported findings in the State Department report differing rather sharply from those actually presented there. Redford: “The State Department report makes it clear that [Keystone XL would raise] the dangers of climate change.” Really? Where? That is precisely what the State Department report does not conclude — the Canadian oil will be produced regardless of whether Keystone XL is built — and that is why Sachs and the environmental left are so critical of it. And for Redford, it is downhill from there. “It’s about big profits for Big Oil.” The Canadian oil would “be refined on the Gulf and shipped overseas… [putting] our farmers and ranchers at needless risk.” (?) And he offers the usual genuflection for “cleaner, safer, renewable sources of power and fuel.” Is this the best that an “environmental activist” or one of his staffers can do?

Benjamin Zycher is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Zycher also writes "The Efficiency of a Carbon Tax: Broadly Accepted and Broadly Wrong,""The Climate Change Climate Keeps Changing, but the Carbon Tax Is Eternal,”“The Unbearable Lightness of the Climate Change Industrial Complex," and “The 'Science' of Global Warming.”
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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