From a scientific perspective, the basic story is beyond dispute: The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to climb sharply because of human activity. The various ways in which a carbon dioxide molecule can jiggle and dance ultimately makes it better at trapping solar energy than a molecule of nitrogen or oxygen, which is what most of the air is made of. Where scientists are still feeling their way forward is in understanding exactly how the extra heat we’re loading into the global climate system will change the planet and how fast. But even that technically difficult question is peanuts compared with the still knottier problem of what to do about it.
Mr. Gore’s comment that “there is only dirty oil and dirtier oil” rejects the premise that Canadian oil is more ethical and thus should be preferable because it comes from a democratic and U.S.-friendly jurisdiction. Those who agree with him say that, in the context of a world market, Canadian oil is no better. Those who disagree argue that – measured against the rest of global fossil-fuel production – Canadian oil is not meaningfully worse.
It’s human nature to leave hard problems to someone else. This gives the online exchange over Mr. Gore and Keystone extra poignancy. Whatever the outcome, we know that the conversations we’re having now about the costs and benefits of developing the oil sands will one day be read by those who are at the receiving end of the choices we make.
The intrepid souls who launched the age of oil from a tiny corner of rural Pennsylvania in the 1850s could not have have fully imagined what positive consequences in the form of individual mobility and global enterprise their actions enabled. In the post-carbon age to come – whenever it comes – which decisions will prove best and which voices from 2013 will still ring true?