Climatologists or Activists?

Among the slew of pro- and anti-Keystone rhetoric we heard last week was a letter sent to President Obama by a group touted as objective professors of science, claiming that the Keystone XL pipeline was clearly a threat to the global climate. As Americans, we’ve created a culture that reveres scientists who are objective and forthcoming; according to one Gallup poll 70 percent of us rate our medical doctors among the most honest and ethical. But upon digging into the backgrounds of these claimed “prominent climatologists” we find that they are hardly neutral observers hoping to inject an impartial opinion into the debate.

In their role as passionate climate change scientists, many of these experts not only disagree with President Obama’s “all of the above” strategy, they take it in quite the opposite direction with what is essentially a “none of the above” strategy — rejecting all hydrocarbons and nuclear energy, leaving windmills, solar and geothermal energy to meet our growing energy needs. Take for instance:

  • Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution who insists that the only path forward is the “‘rapid and mass deployment’ of zero-carbon power.”
  • John Harte of the University of California states in a pro-Obama election article that we can replace “all our current and future energy demands with wind and solar energy.”
  • Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University produced a refuted report hypothesizing that climate change would create 6.7 million Mexican “climate refugees.”
  • As a founder of both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and chair of the World Wildlife Fund, George M. Woodwell’s label of the oil sands as the “antithesis” of a desired energy source can hardly be taken at face value.
  • And who could forget James Hansen, whose NASA colleagues wrote to agency Administrator Charles Bolden to explain that his position was too “extreme” and “inappropriate” for NASA to advocate.

The group has requested that President Obama use his “climate convictions” to reject the Keystone XL, in order to “restrain the rise in the planet’s temperature.”  Yet the logic of their request doesn’t add up. In its supplemental environmental impact statement, the State Department concluded that Keystone XL would not result in a “substantive contribution to the U.S. or global emissions.” Canadian oil sands crude would simply replace other heavy crudes with similar properties currently being refined on the Gulf Coast – it wouldn’t increase emissions.  Quite the opposite actually.  Since pipeline transportation requires less fuel than tanker traffic, TransCanada Pipelines  states that Keystone XL could reduce GHG emissions by as much as 19 million tons. If these climatologists were truly objective scientists, they would have considered these facts as part of their analysis.

What they are really asking is for our country to forgo a secure energy source, jobs and much needed revenue that the pipeline would bring, while turning the decision regarding an essential piece of energy infrastructure into a vehicle for a broad policy debate on oil sands and climate change.

A climatologist in his own right, Neil Swart of the University of Victoria concludes that, “By themselves the oil sands will not cause a climate catastrophe.” For what it’s worth, his findings were published in a respected research journal – not a personally-written letter. Now that’s something for President Obama to consider.


  1. Keith Stewart says:

    You are being deceptive. The Swart article you cite states:

    “The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oil-sand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint…. If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to nongreenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels.”

    • karenc says:

      Thank you for your comment. The citation you give is a policy opinion on Keystone XL. The quote we referred to was a fact regarding the impact of Keystone XL and emissions. The fact remains that in terms of the Keystone XL, the project itself and oil sands development in general “will not cause a climate catastrophe.” Further, the oil sands will be developed whether the Keystone XL is approved or not. So rather than actually addressing climate change, opposition to Keystone XL has become a “symbol” as Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has repeatedly stated. OSFC supports policy decisions based on facts, rather than policies based on “symbolic” gestures.

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