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Canada's reckless carbon habit Add to ...

Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future, Edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon with Nick Garrison, Random House, 230 pages, $34.95

Here's the situation, and it's a dangerous one:

In the past 150 years, the human tribe willingly became eager slaves to oil and got teenage-drunk on the fumes. But carbon is now the insidious master of our house and garden. Man-made volcanoes of CO{-2} have wrecked the climate thermostat, dried up water supplies, killed forests, shrunk glaciers and made farmers as insecure as artists.

And that's just the beginning of the oil hangover. Can Canada remain strong and free without ice, journalist Ed Struzik asks in his mind-boggling exposé ( The Big Thaw ) of the Arctic meltdown.

Yet oil, the elixir of growth and Viagra for the species, has left Canadians fat, lazy and flummoxed. We can't imagine a world, as writer Ronald Wright puts it, without "speed, mobility, headlong economic growth and an array of dazzling consumer goods." Oil removes the toil.

And now Canada has become the No. 1 oil dealer for the United States. (Our U.S. consulates pimp for the oil sands like 19th-century Saudi slavers.) For once, we no longer sit on the proverbial fence. As earnest bitumen salesmen, we brazenly pollute the atmosphere with no real plan or strategy. In short, Canada, a bona fide carbon hedonist, has become a dysfunctional and paralyzed geography. I don't think the world really needs more of us any more.

And that's why the brief collection of essays in Carbon Shift really matters. Edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon, an intellectual straight shooter, the book offers six distinct point of views about Canada's troublesome twins: climate change and peak oil and their central role in Canada's discordant future. Homer-Dixon clearly sets the scene. He correctly argues that cheap oil has undermined our economic models, and business as usual is no longer an option: "The greatest threat to our future may be not that our fossil fuel economy will disappear - but that it will endure."

David Keith, a highly regarded scientist at the University of Calgary, then argues that carbon abundance is the real challenge, not oil scarcity. Canadians now "throw away forty times more carbon dioxide than we do garbage," and if the stuff were offensively smelly, we would clean it up. But inertia rules carbon policy and "the most measurable impact of the international negotiations has been the carbon dioxide emissions from participants' air miles."

Given that climate protection is a global public good, Keith advocates for responsible government action. Like Mark Jaccard, an acerbic West Coast economist, he also believes that rational markets and technology may, if we are lucky, save the day.

David Hughes, perhaps Canada's foremost peak oil expert and a coal specialist, has little faith in markets. He prefers hard-core reserve data. He fears that the grim reality of high-priced dirty oil from the oil sands could abruptly remove the word civil from civilization. Hughes maintains that Canadians now live in a sort of energy "Extremistan," where volatility and disruption are the norm.

The important concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI), the foundation of modern capitalism, tells it all.

Nearly 50 years ago, one barrel of oil produced 100 more barrels and lots of surplus capital for global banks. But today, industry spends more cash to capture less and less energy. The mines in the oil sands net six barrels for every barrel of oil invested while the steam plants capture just three. You don't have a civilization left when your EROI hits one. And "the worse a fuel's EROI, the larger its carbon footprint," Hughes says.

Given the reality that cheap, accessible oil is gone (and natural gas and coal aren't far behind), Hughes prudently advocates for conservation. He also doesn't think that the United States, a 10-per-cent oil-sands addict, will ever achieve "its goal of energy independence as long as it relies on oil."

Mark Jaccard, a dismal economist with a sense of humour, begs to differ. Like another dismal economist, Erich Zimmerman, Jaccard believes that resources are "neutral stuff," just there for the taking. (Zimmerman actually believed that culture was just a blunt spearhead that humans plunged into dear mother nature.). Nor does he think that EROI matters a whit. Though Jaccard didn't convince this reader of the elasticity of oil markets, he remains one of the staunchest supporters of real carbon pricing.

Jeffrey Simpson, a Globe and Mail columnist who gets the importance of the carbon shift, spells out Canada's dismal record of ineffectiveness. A largely bipartisan effort has repeatedly embraced "the doomed trio of climate change policies": huge government subsidies, exhortations and voluntarism. Simpson concludes that Canada has become such a Mr. Hyde-like carbon thug, that only good American climate-change policy will shake up the doomed Canadian Dr. Jekyll. In other words, ordinary Canadians should be cheering California's low carbon fuel standard and President Barack Obama's renewable investments. Oh Canada!

William Marsden, a Montreal journalist, offers a brief polemic on the carbon-rich oil sands, the tail wagging the proverbial dog. He denounces the CO{-2} clouds and the environmental carelessness as well as the blatant fiscal mess. We are not saving our oil wealth and the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have chastised our arrogance: "Canadians could see the day when Norwegians are making more money out of our oil sands than we are, and exporting inflation to us in return." This is regress, not progress.

In addition to the one by Hughes, the best essay in the collection probably belongs to Jeff Rubin, who just quit as chief strategist of CIBC World Markets. Rubin, who has his own book coming out soon [to be reviewed soon in Books: ed.] is one smart suit. He reminds us that oil consumption is rising in Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia, thanks to crazy subsidies. He suggests that many oil producers will soon cannibalize their exports to desalinate water or placate citizens in authoritarian petrol states. North American motorists, like the car industry, may be an endangered species. Be warned.

So Canada has become both a narcissistic oil hero and a dark carbon villain. We can't find the brakes because ugly bitumen has seduced the driver. Every day that we "deny, delay and dissemble" about carbon, our children will suffer. We are guilty of massive risk-taking and generational theft. But information still remains a stronger currency than oil, even in a bitumen confederation. Together with his contributors, Homer-Dixon, a courageous and rare public voice, has done a fine job of exposing Canada's big oily gamble.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a Calgary-based business journalist and author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. He is an advisory board member to the Canadian Association for Peak Oil.

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