Climate scientist Andrew Weaver is fond of (rightly) lambasting the media for generally poor coverage of climate science. For the coverage of his most recent report about the oil sands, though, he has only himself to blame. I had to spend two hours studying and engaging in a back and forth with his co-author Neil Swart to figure out the real facts behind Weaver’s own sensationalist and misleading public claims about his findings.
Let’s get one thing straight, first: Climate change is clearly occurring, and Andrew Weaver is a better climate scientist than I am. He’s also a lot more famous. However, Weaver keeps wading with his opinions into areas of communications, media and politics where, in my estimation, he’s consistently doing a bad job. This latest media storm he’s caused is a perfect example.
Here’s the headline from Weaver’s own February 21, 2012 article on Huffington post: “My New Study: Coal is 1500 Times Worse for the Environment than Oil Sands“. I probably don’t need to tell very many people how much international airplay this has gotten. ‘Gosh, if that’s true, the oil sands suddenly seem squeaky clean!’ Guess who’s loving and promoting that message?
Just a few problems with Weaver’s “science” and “facts” here.
The report he wrote with student Neil Swart, which Swart was kind enough to forward to me in its entirety along with supplemental analyses they’d done, actually only focuses on carbon emissions, not “environment” impacts — they admit that themselves right up front in the report. “It is important to recognize that our estimates do not include greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide and do not address other potentially deleterious environmental, health and social side effects of oil-sand production.” So that means, Weaver has included that word “environment” in his Huffington blog headline merely for sensationalist effect. Okay, maybe skewing the facts in the headline and then clarifying further down is sometimes understandable for a scrappy journalist trying to draw attention to some obscure, little local issue; but when you’re one of the world’s most prominent scientists writing about one of the most important scientific issues of our time?
Second, it turns out the only reason coal is “1500 times worse” in terms of emissions is because, well, there’s somewhere approaching 1500 times as much coal on the whole planet as there is oil in Canada’s oil sands. Again, Weaver and Swart admit this right in their commentary: Yes, coal produces slightly more carbon emissions than tar sands oil, but “Coal’s significance is due to the large tonnage available,” they write. During my exchange about it with Swart yesterday, he confirmed their number came from multiplying a slightly higher per-unit emissions rate from coal times the earth’s much vaster stores of coal: “The 1500 number would be a combination of these two things, the large tonnage being the dominant factor.”
As for those slightly higher per-unit carbon emissions from coal, even that number is dubious. The way Weaver and Swart calculated it, they subtract the carbon emissions generated by the coal being burned to help extract and process tar sands bitumen into usable oil. Weaver writes in his blog that they did that because the coal “shouldn’t be double-counted.” In this context, though, following this logic, we would then also have to say that a coal-fired electrical plant generates zero carbon emissions, because we “shoudn’t double-count” the coal.
And by the way Weaver frames his whole argument, in the end, he’s explaining that tar sands oil will increase global temperatures 0.36C — an amount he would normally be crying holy catastrophe about, but in this context he seems to be suggesting is so minimal compared to what all the coal in the world could do that we scarcely need to be concerned about it or about the tar sands.
I’m sure that’s not exactly what Weaver wants the public “takeaway” to be, and he does try to talk his way out of it, but by that point the damage is done.
Whether he’s shilling for the environmentally toxic BC Liberal party, or pumping nuclear energy, or claiming tar sands oil is ‘better for the environment’, this seems to be a persistent problem for Weaver. He’s just not very politically or media-savvy, and he often even undermines his own scientific credibility when he wades into battles in these arenas.
A message to Andrew Weaver, then: The next time you have something to say in public, get a good communications advisor and political strategist to help you. Out of respect for your climate science work, I’m sure many would do it pro-bono. So please, just do it; for the good of the planet.