A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline

If you want to construct a simple, suitable-for-casual-conversation argument in favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline, you probably already know everything you need. The ideas are easy to grasp, and the people who want you to construct such arguments have a lot money to get their message out. Here are the pieces:

  • The oil sands are just sitting up there in Canada. BP says: “The province of Alberta contains recoverable oil sands reserves of approximately 170 billion barrels, the third largest reserves in the world.”
  • Giving our oil money to Canada makes a lot more sense than giving it to Saudi Arabia or Iran or Venezuela. For a lot of reasons: Of all the people in the world, Canadians are the ones most likely to send that dollar right back to us by buying something we make or coming here on vacation. They’re also probably not going to use the money to fund terrorism or anti-American propaganda. And we don’t have to worry much about them shutting the oil off to manipulate us or punish us politically.
  • Building the pipeline would employ a lot of people. Paul Ryan’s budget claims (page 48) “20,000 direct jobs and 118,000 indirect jobs.” But the construction-job figure appears to be inflated by a factor of about 10, and the “indirect jobs” are just wild guess.

Probably you know that the case against the pipeline has something to do with global warming, but unless you’ve gone out of your way to study the issue, the pieces of that argument don’t come quickly to mind and aren’t as easy to assemble. It’s not actually a difficult argument, it just doesn’t have as much money behind it, so you don’t have it constantly in front of you.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Global warming is real. It’s not “controversial” or “disputed” in any genuine scientific sense. People who profit from selling fossil fuels have spent a lot of money to buy political controversy and to dispute the scientific results in the media, but that’s different from there being any real scientific controversy about whether the planet is getting hotter, whether greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing it, or whether burning fossil fuels puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Our solar system already gives us a clear example of a runaway greenhouse effect: Venus, which otherwise is the planet that most resembles Earth. The atmosphere of Venus is 96% carbon dioxide, and its surface temperature is over 800 degrees Fahrenheit — even hotter than the hottest parts of Mercury, which is much closer to the Sun. Nobody’s saying that lead is going to start boiling here on Earth, but the greenhouse effect is not some speculation out of science fiction. It’s happening on the next planet over.

There’s a time lag between putting more carbon in the atmosphere and the Earth getting hotter. It’s not like the thermostat on your furnace. (It’s more like putting on a sweater that you can’t take off.) So we can’t wait until apocalyptic things start happening and then say, “Damn. I guess we better do something about this.” If tomorrow, we stopped burning fossil fuels completely — not that anybody expects that to happen — the planet would keep getting hotter for the next several decades.

Estimating how much carbon results in how many degrees warmer how fast is where the science gets iffier. (This is where there is honest debate and more research is needed. Of course, the fossil-fuel people and their minions want to cut off this research, so they can keep exploiting the uncertainty.) In general, though, this graphic sums the best guesses we have:

So, for example, carbon already released (say, by that driving vacation you took ten years ago) is going to increase the global temperature by 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. A carbon budget that would keep further warming down to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) beyond that is already starting to look impossible.

And this is the mainline scenario, not the worst case. Short of Venus, it’s hard to know what the worst case is, because we could at some point set off some feedback loop we currently know nothing about. At some point, for example, the methane frozen into the Siberian permafrost starts to evaporate into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, so after that the hotter it gets the hotter it gets.

If we don’t want to have an ecological catastrophe, a lot of fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. Nobody wants to hear this, and people who hear it have a way of forgetting. But take another look at that graphic: Just burning the gas, oil, and coal that corporations already list on their books will take us to a point about 12 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than we are now. That’s about the difference between Chicago and Atlanta, or Atlanta and Baghdad. The entire state of Florida would need a serious seawall, and hurricanes would hit New York or Boston every few years. I’m not sure what happens to the cornfields of Iowa or the vineyards of California, but I bet it’s not pretty.

The drill-baby-drill scenario, where we find every last hydrocarbon on the planet and burn it, is much, much worse.

If you’re going to leave any oil in the ground, the Canadian oil sands are a good choice. While not as bad as coal for generating energy in general, oil sand is a carbon-intensive way to produce liquid fuels like gasoline. There’s some debate about how much worse than ordinary crude oil it is, with estimates running from 12% worse to 22% worse. Another way to look at that: If carbon is the limiting factor on how much gasoline the world can have, producing five gallons of gas from oil sands might prevent us from producing six gallons from crude oil somewhere else.

Also, the sands are in the early stages of development; leaving them in the ground is a much easier decision now that it will be after we’ve spent a bunch of money to build a pipeline and install other infrastructure. And they’re in a rich country. (Imagine telling a poor country that its people will have to starve rather than develop known energy resources.)

What’s Plan B? Pipeline advocates want to take that argument off the table by saying that the oil sands are going to be developed anyway. At its worst, this is a defeatist the-planet-is-already-hosed-so-we-might-as-well-live-it-up-now argument.

But even ignoring that, the argument is disingenuous. The point of building the pipeline is that it makes developing the oil sands more economical. No energy deposit gets completely exploited — there’s always some oil at the bottom of the well that is recoverable, but only at a higher price. So building the pipeline clearly changes how much of the oil sand will be exploited.

And finally, the economic projections are based on a world that has no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, which is another way of saying that we’re acting as if changing the climate had no cost.

But if the Canadian oil sands are going to be burned in their entirety (or close to it), what is going to be left in the ground? And if the answer is nothing, then what’s the plan for mitigating the damage? What’s the plan for relocating all the Bangladeshis when that country is underwater? How high does the seawall around Florida have to be? What’s the food-supply plan when Iowa turns into a desert and the ocean is too acidic to support fish?

Pipeline advocates would have you believe that the opponents are being impractical, that even if you believe in climate change (i.e., if you believe in science), this is not the place to take a stand.

So: where is the place to take a stand? And will it still be above sea level when we get there?

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  • Mark  On March 18, 2013 at 11:49 am

    While I respect your post and opinion, I take issue with a few things.

    First, the “about section” of your blog specifies that you take information from “reliable” sources and you always linke to it. I respect that, however, I would point out that your use of Media Matters and HuffPo (which also has numerous articles on the “fact” that vaccines cause autism) necessarily negate your original premise of objectivity. When you use information from sources that are decidely liberal like MM and HuffPo you are essentially taking up their banner and running with it. In your “about section” you malign the center at GMU for being funded by the Koch brothers (implying that, because of their position, you cannot trust that they would fund objectivly), however you then depend on and get information from, what is effectivly the SAME EXACT thing on the left’s side. You can’t have it both ways. I understand that being liberal your natural tendency is to have a confirmation bias, but if you truly want to be considered objective, I’d stay away from OVERTLY liberal media/information lest you decide to write a biography of George Bush using only information from Keith Olbermann.

    Second, you imply that there is no scientific debate about global warming and then cite Venus as an example of a run away greenhouse effect. To be fair you correctly state that it is unlikely that Earth will ever get to the same place as Venus, but then you state that the climate deniers deny greenhouse effect is real. This is an oversimplification. The climate deniers do no doubt that the greenhouse effect is realy, they doubt the contribution of man AND whether or not the warming is part of a natural cycle. This is significantly different from what you stated about “global warming”. It’s more nuanced and subject to less of a scientific consensus than you imply. A scientist may believe in global warming, but may differ in what is causing it. To gloss over this nuance reduces the crediblity of your post and you miss an oppertunity to explore this facet of the debate in a manner that would shed light on the intricacies of this science.

    Your blog is a good start, I for one have become fascinated by the way the media seeks to deceive the public. The left will always cite from “Think Tanks” that support their position (like the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, the Tax Policy Center, etc.) and the Right will do the same (The heritage foundation, CATO institute, etc..). Since each of these think tanks have produced “facts” the pundits can wrap themselves in this and spew them to the public. However, you blog correctly recognizes this. It is important that people like you do not fall victim to the manipulation. In this case it would be constructive never to quote anything from MediaMatters or Huffpo while supporting your arguments (because I guarentee that you’d have a FIT if someone quoted from Fox News to support something they blogged about).

    Regards and keep up the good work,

    • weeklysift  On March 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      I explained my link philosophy a long time ago in Confessions of a Blogger. My links are just the start of a path back to an authoritative source, not a claim that whatever is on the linked site is authoritative.

      The HuffPost link is them reprinting Reuters, and the 12% and 22% estimates are sourced, not just claims made by Reuters on their own authority. Ditto for Media Matters — they’re collecting something sourced elsewhere — NBC itself made the correction to its report. The links are to good packaging of the information, which does come from reliable sources, if you chase it back.

      If someone on the Right cited Fox News, I’d be skeptical, but I’d click through the links and see whether they made their numbers up or not.

      On global warming, the various stages of climate denial is something I’ve discussed before. The scientific consensus is solid until you get to what I described as “iffy” — predicting the exact speed and extent of the warming. The appearance of controversy about whether climate change is man-made has largely been manufactured by oil money. The scientists actually doing research in the area — and not on grants that ultimately come from Exxon — are close to unanimous.

      • Mark  On March 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm

        That’s exactly my point. It’s just like the game of telephone, each additional filter changes the message. HuffPo and MM add a little bit of their spin. I’d like to believe that people look into things, but you and I know that’s wishful thinking. If MM and HuffPo were simply reciting facts then it would not take any noticable amount of additional effort to go to their sources and use them. In return you would gain a significiant amount of crediablity. But meh, it’s your blog, not up to me.

        Good luck,

      • weeklysift  On March 18, 2013 at 7:44 pm

        What I’m relying on the HuffPost link for are two numbers. You can chase them through quite easily; they don’t change. There’s no telephone game. Ditto for the MM: If you look at what I’m claiming when I link, it’s not hard to follow it through.

    • Zach Scott  On March 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Hi Mark,

      I also cringed a little bit at the Venus comparison, if only because I could imagine the reaction that it would provoke among those who aren’t aware of the consensus on global warming. Having had a fair bit of experience discussing the issue with people via the internet, I know how difficult it can be to write a succinct paragraph that gets the message across clearly that among scientists, there is no “debate” about the causes of climate change. There are so many seemingly reasonable claims made by skeptics – sunspots are causing it, the climate is simply following a natural cycle, global warming would actually be good for people, etc – that it’s effectively impossible to write a paragraph that proactively rebuts them all. I often point people to the wonderful resource http://www.skepticalscience.com, which discusses each of these arguments in depth with a heavy emphasis on the consensus of climate scientists.

      You write “A scientist may believe in global warming, but may differ in what is causing it”, but that mischaracterizes the debate among climate scientists. The debate, as the author of the post mentions, focuses on the amount of projected increase in temperatures and the degree of impact on earth’s systems, including human civilization (it must be noted that over the last 20+ years the projections of climate scientists have almost always UNDERestimated the amount of warming). The debate over what is “causing it” has long since been settled – there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that rising global temperatures are driven by rising levels of carbon dioxide (or CO2 equivalents) in the atmosphere. Those that dispute this are very much on the scientific fringe and their papers are unable to make it through the peer review process for journals.

      I don’t know want to put words in your mouth, but this is traditionally the point where skeptics like to argue that scientists are somehow systematically censoring the views of those that have supposedly found evidence that global warming is NOT caused by humans. Such an idea is absurd for several reasons, but chiefly for the fact that it suggests a global conspiracy among scientists to suppress the truth, including the numerous equivalents to the National Academy of Science across the world who have indicated their consensus on the fact that global warming is driven by human activity, as well as the IPCC. Additionally, one can easily imagine that if a scientist actually DID somehow disprove the notion of human-caused global warming, that scientist would instantaneously be fabulously famous and universally lauded for preventing governments from needlessly taking measures to mitigate climate change.

      Anyway, I do respect your comments and opinions, and you seem to be a very reasonable guy. Check out http://www.skepticalscience.com if you have a chance. Best,


      • Mark  On April 23, 2013 at 1:01 am

        Hi Zach,
        I don’t mean to mis-characterize my belief in the Global warming or rehash it. My main point to Mr. Muder is that if he seeks to maintain objectivity, as his “about” section suggests, then it behooves him to avoid sourcing his articles with data filtered by organizations that are NOT objective. That was all.

        However, your comment did bring up and interesting point, and one that is even more relevant given the recent dustup over an economics paper. Your presupposition that one would easily imagine a scientist disproving global warming being hailed as a hero. I would point out that this is demonstrably false. There are numerous examples of people finding fault with the data used by climate scientists (incorrect averaging, faulty formulas, etc…) but these are easily brushed away by a media that decidedly has an agenda to push, a media like HuffPo and MM. Even WITH these errors, nobody in said media questions the facts of the papers, or their conclusions. Now, fast forward to this month, an economics paper pushing an agenda at odds with said media’s agenda is found to have a statistical error. However, instead of treating it the way global warming errors are treated, because the paper goes against the agenda of the media, the entire conclusion of the paper is considered to be false. Imagine if that occurred with global warming mistakes.

        Unfortunately, my initial assessment of Mr. Muder appears to be incorrect. He is not objective as he claims. Instead of treating the paper as he would one that conforms to his political beliefs, he proceeds to jump on the bandwagon and use the error to attack the conclusion of the paper because “the [idea that recessions cause deficits/debts] is well known” and thus the paper’s conclusions would not be groundbreaking. To be fair, the he agrees that the paper’s conclusions and the critique of the paper’s conclusions come to the same point in the end, but he continues to use the mistake to destroy the paper.

        The parallels between the econ paper and global warming are fairly strong. Both have had statistical errors. Both are a complex science. Both have the same general conclusion (econ:debts are ultimately bad) (global warming: the planet is getting hotter because of increased C02). But the way Mr. Muder TREATS both of them betrays his lack of objectivity. The disagreement with the econ paper is how fast debt affects growth (gradual vs. cliff) as is the disagreement with global warming – how fast C02 affects global warming (eg. how fast the climate will change, water levels rise, droughts occur, etc…). Mr. Muder treats the error in view of the disagreement in the econ paper as detrimental to the very substance of the paper, while he overlooks the exact same thing in the global warming papers.

        THIS is what my purpose of talking to Mr. Muder was. The use of biased sources ultimately leads to the corruption of even the most objective of us. Mr. Muder should come out clean and admit that his blog has a liberal bent to it because holding oneself out to be objective when one is not betrays your readers. I had hoped that a mathematician of Mr. Muder’s caliber would have been able to avoid this, however, it seems that the old stereotype of a liberal academic holds true even in the hard sciences (haha, of course it does, my Physics Thesis adviser was a rabid liberal, but he was from Europe).


        P.S. just to clarify my own opinion of global warming simply is: I don’t care if it’s true or false, what actually matters is treating the planet in a sustainable way. Don’t pollute not because it warms the planet, but because we shouldn’t pollute.

      • Mark  On April 23, 2013 at 1:10 am

        As an aside, and one worth point out was that with the Econ paper, the grad student was actually able to get the data. But in the climate sciences, it’s difficult as all get out to get the raw data. Add to that the “climategate” emails (no, I’m not talking about the “trick” controversy). What bothered me about that is that the emails showed a concerted effort to blackball people who disagreed with their conclusions and prevent them from getting the raw data. THAT to me is not science, that is an abuse of your funding and of your scientific ethics. Mr. Muder sees fraud in the econ paper, but refuses to apply the same standards to the intentional blackballing of people who want the raw climate data.

      • Kimc  On April 24, 2013 at 10:55 pm

        Mark — this is not a rhetorical or snide question, I really want to hear what you have to say on this: Why would anyone want to claim there is global warming if there isn’t?

      • weeklysift  On April 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

        You’re comparing one non-peer-reviewed paper to the consensus of an entire branch of science. Carping about the details of this model or that computer simulation does not rise to the level of disproving climate change. What typically happens is that someone finds a minor error, easily fixed, in one paper and then proclaims that global warming is a hoax — ignoring dozens of other papers with similar results. Unsurprisingly, these people are not treated as heroes.

  • Aaron  On March 20, 2013 at 2:21 am

    “There’s a time lag between putting more carbon in the atmosphere and the Earth getting hotter…… If tomorrow, we stopped burning fossil fuels completely – not that anybody expects that to happen — the planet would keep getting hotter for the next several decades.”

    Thank you for mentioning this. The warming we are currently experiencing is the result of green house gas emissions from years ago. This might be the most under-reported aspect of the climate change crisis and will likely be a huge obstacle to addressing it via legislation and regulation. Could you imagine the right’s reaction if we were to take drastic action for several years and a whole decade followed without significant improvement in global temperatures (which is exactly what would happen)?

    • klem  On March 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      “Could you imagine the right’s reaction if we were to take drastic action for several years and a whole decade followed without significant improvement in global temperatures (which is exactly what would happen)?”

      That’s exactly what IS happening.

      Could you imagine the left’s reaction if we took no action for several years and a whole decade followed WITH significant improvement in global temperatures? The left would go insane with denial.

      • Zach Scott  On March 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm


        The second part of your comment doesn’t make any sense. There’s a lag – roughly 40 years – between the cause (added GHGs ) and effect (rising temperatures) in climate systems. This means that the warming that the GHG emissions from the mid-1970s are just now making their full impact on today’s warming temperatures. Since we continued to emit GHGs at an increasing rate since the 1970s, that bodes very poorly for the next several decades. There’s a lot more information about this here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climate-Change-The-40-Year-Delay-Between-Cause-and-Effect.html

        So your first comment – “that’s exactly what IS happening” is partly correct. We haven’t seen significant improvement in global temperatures. And in fact, they have and will continue to rise, inexorably, for several more decades, because today’s rising temperatures are caused by the GHGs we emitted in the 1970s. (It’s partly incorrect because “we” haven’t taken anything close to “drastic” action.)

        The scenario in the second part of your comment – “Could you imagine the left’s reaction if we took no action for several years and a whole decade followed WITH significant improvement in global temperatures? The left would go insane with denial” is exceedingly unlikely. The link between rising GHGs and increasing temperatures is widely acknowledged.

  • klem  On March 23, 2013 at 8:35 am

    You people don’t understand that Canada is a foreign country in name only. The people there are our grandparents, parents, sister, brothers, aunts and uncles. They have fought in almost every war we have fought in, shoulder to shoulder. They have the same education, culture, the same economy, even thousand of towns have the same names, they are the same as us. If we cancel a pipeline from Canada, we might as well be canceling a pipeline from Minnesota. It’s meaningless, its only symbolic.

    And I don’t think Canadians care that much if their pipeline is cancelled, they’ll find a way around it just like we would. You people are making a mountain out of a molehill. Lol!

    Wake up and get a life.

  • Kimc  On March 30, 2013 at 2:25 am

    When people talk about the temperature going up three or four degrees, it doesn’t sound that bad if you are thinking in terms of a day 3 or 4 degrees hotter. A better way to think about it is as if the Earth has a fever of 3 or 4 degrees above normal. That would be like you or me having a fever of 101.6 or 102.6, and gives a better feeling of how drastically off kilter it is. At 6 degrees above normal, you’re dead.

    • klem  On April 2, 2013 at 8:09 am

      Actually if you look at the recent past global temperature record, the earth has already warmed about 12C just since the end of the last glaciation. That’s not long ago. We’re still here, we’re not dead.

      look here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EPICA_temperature_plot.svg


      • Kimc  On April 24, 2013 at 10:59 pm

        to continue the fever analogy, at the time of the last glaciation, the earth was significantly below “normal” temperature. so it doesn’t change what I said.

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  • By Limits | The Weekly Sift on March 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

    […] The case against the pipeline involves one key point that people don’t want to hear: If we’re not going to totally wreck the climate, we have to leave some fossil fuels in the ground. The Canadian oil sands would seem to be the perfect candidate. And if not, then what is our plan? I flesh that argument out in “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline“. […]

  • By The Worth of Ice | The Weekly Sift on May 19, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    […] Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider it without tying it to approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Grist’s Ben Adler […]

  • By Partisans | The Weekly Sift on March 9, 2015 at 8:09 am

    […] position on the pipeline hasn’t changed since I wrote “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline” two years ago: We can’t burn all the fossil fuels without doing catastrophic damage to […]

  • By Homage to Virtue | The Weekly Sift on June 1, 2015 at 9:52 am

    […] point of activism like protesting the Keystone Pipeline and pushing public institutions to divest from fossil fuel stocks is to accelerate the shift. He […]

  • By Products of Fear | The Weekly Sift on November 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    […] stand by pretty much everything I wrote in “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline“. The big thing I learned in researching that article was that if we’re going to avoid […]

  • By With Some Exceptions | The Weekly Sift on November 7, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    […] fuel use, and insures that we’ll be using fossil fuels that much longer. A lot of the issues I discussed three years ago in regard to the Keystone XL Pipeline apply here: Eventually, we’re going to have to decide to leave some fossil fuels in the […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on February 13, 2017 at 7:29 am

    […] When President Trump restarted the Keystone XL Pipeline project (stopped by President Obama in 2015), my first thought was “I should explain why this is a bad idea.” My second thought was “Didn’t I already do that already?” Sure enough, in 2013 I had written “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline“. […]

  • […] Pipelines. Trump has put the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines back on the agenda. I’ve covered DAPL piecemeal (and probably inadequately) in the weekly summaries, but I wrote an article about Keystone in 2013: “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline“. […]

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