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Canada’s Leading Climate Scientist Is Concerned About Canada’s Obsession with Pipelines

We interviewed climate scientist and autohor Andrew Weaver to discuss Canada's billion dollar pipelines, the gift and curse of being known as Canada's top climate scientist, and the time Ezra Levant called him a bully.

by Remi L. Roy
Jun 20 2014, 3:00pm

Photo via Andrew Weaver.
In an odd age when climate scientists deal with more beef than 90s gangster rappers, Dr. Andrew Weaver is a polarizing character. Beloved by many in left-leaning political circles and scientific communities, Canada’s leading climate change expert often finds himself under fire from social conservatives. Not one to pull a punch, he has learned to duck and weave the shots thrown his way from varying factions of the right-wing establishment and its mainstream media outlets.

Weaver is an academic with abounding accolades. He is the lead author of four of five UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific assessments, the author of two books on the topic, Canada Research Chair in climate modeling at the University of Victoria and deputy leader of the Green Party of British Columbia. Yet, even in his new role as politician, Weaver continues to be a man with nearly as many foes as friends.

He was recently lambasted by Ethical Oil blowhard Ezra Levant and is entangled in a defamation lawsuit with the National Post. The case against the Post centres on the claim he never suggested two break-ins at his UVIC office in 2009 were part of a plan to hack into IPCC email at the University of East Anglia in England. Though he couldn’t discuss the particulars of the case, I caught up with Weaver, who was on route to Hamilton to receive an honorary doctorate from McMaster, to discuss his critics, pipelines, politics, and the weight of wearing the country’s climate change crown.

VICE: Most of the pipeline chatter of late has surrounded Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, but your focus has been on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain project. How troubling is it that approval of the proposal would see an increase from 60 to over 400 oil tankers yearly departing from Vancouver harbour?
Dr. Andrew Weaver
: Vancouver is trying to brand itself as the world’s greenest city, the most sustainable city in the world by 2020. The proposal, as well as a proposal for increased coal exports through Fraser Surrey Docks, is turning it into the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporter. You can’t have it both ways. What’s deeply troubling about the Kinder Morgan proposal is they plan to ship diluted bitumen. If diluted bitumen comes into contact with heavy sediments, it sinks, and we know there is no shortage of that in Fraser River. Also, there are tidal fronts there, the estuary front—it would be an unmitigated disaster if there were to be an oil spill in one of the most beautiful places in Canada.

You’re the only MLA in British Columbia with intervenor status in the National Energy Board’s hearings on Trans Mountain. What exactly does that role entail?
As an intervenor I’m allowed to ask questions, and my team and I put together about 500 questions that we put to Kinder Morgan… that allows us to put in a final submission to the National Energy Board with respect to whether or not this is in the interest of British Columbians. We analyzed thousands of pages and it’s very clear that Kinder Morgan does not understand what would happen—there’s no scientific understanding of what would happen—in the case of a diluted bitumen oil spill in the coastal waters. There’s a lot of work to be done before we can even contemplate this.

Canadian National Railway reported recently that revenue from petroleum and chemicals rose 23 percent. Do you fear the anti-pipeline movement could be bolstering the push to move and export oil by rail?
There’s no question that that’s the case. Under the common carrier obligation rail companies essentially cannot say no if they’re being asked to ship oil by rail. The problem with that is we all know oil by rail is far less safe than pipeline. But why are we shipping diluted bitumen? Nobody wants diluted bitumen. Refined products are far less damaging—upgrading and piping synthetic crude is a far safer than piping diluted bitumen. Shipping gasoline is safer than shipping diluted bitumen. And jobs and economic benefits are in Canada if we were to upgrade in Alberta and ship refined products.

You testified at a hearing in your lawsuit against the National Post that the fossil fuel industry’s nefarious campaign to undermine climate science was to blame for the IPCC hacking. Are similar campaigns still underway?
I wouldn’t blame the fossil fuel industry, per se. Libertarians, individuals who are wealthy, there’s a diversity of groups… yes it is happening still but I think to a lesser extent. I’ve had lobbyists come to see me before. Lobbying is alive and well in Canada, and vested interests lobby for their interest. It is always going on.

Sun Media’s resident instigator Ezra Levant called you a bully claiming “he loves to use oil and gas himself, jetting around the world, using fossil fuels for his very important life, while telling the rest of us not to.” How do you react to that criticism?
I think that when most people look at what he’s writing, they think it’s outlandish. The reality is if he’d actually ever spoken to me. What I would say is that I’ve never said we need to ban fossil fuels. We have a big problem—the problem of climate change, global warming I call it—and the reality is we know what’s causing it, the combustion of fossil fuels. What we should be doing is thinking about ways forward, not ignoring the problem. How do you do that? You internalize externalities; you introduce market measures like carbon pricing; you start to eliminate subsidies for an area [the oil industry] that doesn’t need it; you start to diversify your economy into tomorrow’s economy. I’m not saying we can’t drive cars—I’m in a car right now, it’s a little tiny Fiat. It doesn’t mean we can’t drive cars, it means we should be trying to move towards driving cars that are not as polluting.

Is it at times as much a gift as a curse being considered Canada’s leading climate change expert?
Yes and no. If there’s an issue that you don’t like and there’s a person who you believe is associated with that issue, if you try to take out the person or attack the person, you can hope that the issue goes with it. It’s a sad testament of our times when science is the inconvenience and, rather than deal with the science, you attack the individual. But I don’t think about that stuff. I just do what I believe passionately in and I don’t worry about what people think about me, in terms of whether I’m an expert or not in the subject. I just do my thing.

You were the first Green Party member elected to a legislative assembly in Canadian history and took that title running on a platform of climate change. Were you surprised to win Oak Bay-Gordon Head, which was considered a Liberal stronghold before your victory?
It had been Liberal for 17 years and it was a sitting cabinet minister in that riding. People want change and they want to have something to vote for, they want you to provide a vision. And I provided a vision—we provided a vision as a party—to actually build tomorrow’s economy on renewable energy. I ran on a campaign of hope, offering solutions and viable options. It [the race] wasn’t close, so I was overwhelmed.

Now that you’re in a position of political power, how do intend on continuing to push the environmental agenda forward in the BC legislature?
You try to make the point that it’s not about the economy or environment or social programs. They are inherently coupled. So what you do is talk about the economic opportunity associated with the environment. I don’t just say no to coal. I say no to coal and yes to container transport. I don’t just say no without providing an alternate. The way to do it, and it continues to be successful, is focusing on solutions. Tomorrow’s economy does think about the environment. 

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