Last Thursday’s Battle of the Profs, hosted by the Economics Students Association, highlighted many of the tensions between environmental and economic points of view regarding pipeline projects, as well as the issue of climate change in general. On the pro-pipeline side of the debate, Professors Christopher Ragan and Christopher Green, both from the Department of Economics, were brought in to argue for the merits of expanding Canada’s pipeline system. On the anti-pipeline side, Professors Peter Brown and Greg Mikkelson from the School of Environment presented their arguments as to why pushing forward with pipeline construction would ultimately be detrimental in the effort to minimize the impacts of climate change. Debate moderator Professor Paul Dickinson first gave each participant four minutes to present their opening arguments, followed by two minute rebuttals, and finally, a Q&A session.
Professor Ragan was the first participant to take the microphone. He began by arguing that Canada needs to think about getting its oil to other markets than the US, given the US’s trend toward energy self-sufficiency, and that pipelines are one of the means to do so. He also added that the accidental leakage rate of oil is extremely small compared to the total amount transported, and that pipelines and the oil and gas industry represent a significant source of government revenue – money that could be reinvested into other sectors of society that need the funding. Finally, he asserted that putting all pipelines out of commission would reduce the economy’s potential output, which would have negative consequences for income and consumption in Canada.
Following Ragan, Professor Brown presented what he called the “seven deadly sins” of Canada’s climate policy, arguing that these sins could be applied to demonstrate how pipelines are fundamentally immoral. Among these sins was the Canadian government’s dishonesty over keeping Kyoto and Copenhagen commitments, and a general disrespectfulness towards the sources of our being (resulting from what he called a “growth über alles” ideology). Brown also placed particular emphasis on his last deadly sin, which he called a violation of the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). The indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels by the present generation, he argued, is essentially harming the welfare of the future generations who will bear the consequences of these actions.
Professor Green was next to offer his views, which were based heavily around the idea that we need a technology revolution, involving a massive refocusing of attention onto research and development, in order to create and improve carbon efficient technology. Explaining that the world was just as reliant on fossil fuels in 2012 as it was in 2000, and pointing out the minuscule improvement in renewable energy generation, Green primarily attributed our reliance on fossil fuels to our failure to make technological breakthroughs in carbon efficiency. He concluded that opposition to pipelines reflected a refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the energy use problem, and that the true push should be for new low-carbon technologies and not an end to pipelines.
The final participant to lay out their argument was Professor Greg Mikkelson, who employed a cost-benefit analysis to illustrate that pipelines cause more harm than good. He argued that the increases in greenhouse gas emissions, aided along by the creation of more pipelines, are already killing large amounts of people and non-human organisms through various means, all in order to reap trivial benefits now. In addition, he argued pipelines were forcing ecological hazards onto local communities, many of whom do not have the political power to stop their construction. Mikkelson also supported Brown’s view that economic growth should not be a priority, and that increasing the efficiency of a product (i.e. through pipeline transportation) only tends to increase its consumption.
As predicted at the outset by Professor Dickinson, the rebuttals and Q&A period quickly became a general debate on climate change, with pipelines only receiving partial attention. Whereas Ragan advocated tapping into people’s economic incentives as a way of reducing carbon emissions – through a carbon tax, for example – Brown firmly rejected the existing economic lens through which climate change is analyzed, and argued that sweeping structural and institutional changes are what is needed in order to properly stem the tide of climate change. Mikkelson, on the other hand, was more willing to put forward specific economic solutions to the problem, arguing that caps on fossil fuel extraction and giving workers democratic control over firms were two central ways in which future economic and climate change issues could be overcome. Lastly, Green emphasized his view of energy as a necessity in modern society, and that cutting off access to cheap energy without viable alternatives in place would lead to immediate and significant costs to human life, particularly in the developing world.
In summary, whereas Ragan and Green seemed to view pipelines as a necessary part of a smooth economic transition to a low-carbon world, Mikkelson and Brown were highly critical of mainstream-economists’ prioritization of growth, and stood opposed to new pipeline projects due to their contribution to climate change and its ensuing costs. Yet despite the large ideological gaps between the debaters, all were largely in agreement on the idea that current Canadian climate policies are inadequate in tackling global warming issues; and so, despite their disagreements over pipelines, perhaps there is still room for common ground between the two sides of the debate after all.