Monthly Archives: April 2011
In the wake of failure in Cancun and the much deeper problem that humanity is no longer living within the ecological capacity of the planet, might it be time for nature to have its own legal advocates?
Psychology has become a fashionable tool in the climate world to try and understand the levels of climate denial exhibited most vocally by the rowdy cohort of climate naysayers. With the conclusion of climate talks in Cancun, a more relevant question seems to be whether our climate negotiators suffer from an even worse form of denial – one that accepts the climate science but knowingly signs agreements that do nothing to stop our rush towards runaway climate change.
That certainly seems to be the conclusion if you followed the UN climate negotiations in the first two weeks of December. For 11 days, there were no shortage of powerful speeches by all countries, warning starkly that nature would not compromise and that entire peoples were at risk from inaction. Yet on the final night of negotiations, the same figures were leading standing ovations and gushing with praise for an agreement that includes no new commitments for emission reductions and no new financing for adapting to climate change. As the the Bolivian government, the sole dissenter, noted this was a very “hollow and false victory.”
Climate change is not the core problem
This jarring disconnect between knowledge and actions looms even larger when you consider that UN climate negotiators are only talking about the very limited goal of reducing emissions of carbon in the atmosphere. They are ignoring the big picture that climate change is only one of many interrelated and converging crises (including soaring extinction rates, and the depletion of freshwater, fish stocks, forests and arable land). These issues are all symptoms of the same problem – contemporary human civilization is living well beyond the ecological capacity of the planet that is our home.
The reason why few are willing to look at the big picture is that admitting to this collision course between humanity and nature opens up a conversation that most of the world’s governments and corporations are desperate to avoid. They prefer to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, because it narrows the response to debating emission reduction techniques, instead of on transforming the economic, legal and political systems that encourage and legitimize environmental destruction.
This is not surprising. When we can’t even agree to adequately limit levels of a few gases in the atmosphere, fundamental “system change” seems beyond the scope of any negotiation. Yet it is also clear, in round after round of UN climate talks, that our current international mechanisms for tackling these unprecedented global crises are failing us. Those on the brunt end of climate change can do little but plea for the largest polluting nations to do more, while we slip ever faster towards climate chaos.
Challenging BP over violation of rights of nature
However a little reported event, a few days before the Cancun summit, may point us to a way forward that could start tackling one of the root causes of climate change. On 26 November 2010, a group of prominent international environmental and social activists and indigenous people’s leaders filed a lawsuit with the Constitution Court in Quito, Ecuador. This is based on the provisions in the new Ecuadorian constitution that, for the first time in history, recognize that Nature (or Pachamama) has inherent legal rights which any person may enforce before a court of law. The lawsuit was filed against British Petroleum (BP) and relates, not to oil spills in Ecuador, but to the harm to natural ecosystems caused by the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Plaintiff Diana Murcia explained the motives for the case, saying that, “Nature is the only subject that has been absent from the legal discussions surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and one of our goals is to introduce Nature in the international debate as a rights-bearing entity.”
Up to now, the various legal suits taken up against BP are largely for personal injury and economic damages, and for breaches of specific environmental laws such as the US Clean Water Act. The Ecuadorian lawsuit, by contrast, would be the first to look in its totality at the impact of the oil spill on the marine environment and surrounding ecosystems. The lawsuit states that no financial sum will compensate for the environmental damage, and instead directs its demands towards ensuring that such a disaster will never happen again. Specifically it calls on BP to make public all internal documents related to the run-up and response to the disaster, to prepare effective contingency plans that will prevent future damages to the environment, to end deep sea oil drilling, and to invest in non-destructive energy solutions that leave oil in the ground.
The plaintiffs are arguing that the case should be heard in Ecuador based on the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows particularly heinous crimes that offend humanity’s conscience such as genocide, to be prosecuted anywhere, irrespective of where the act occurs.
Overcoming the environmental void in international and national law
This unprecedented case illuminates the inadequacies of current international and national regulatory systems. Our legal systems do not afford effective protection to Nature, because nature has been confused with property, which by definition cannot have rights and which is available to be traded and exploited just as slaves were. Legal cases concerning the environment are, like the case of BP, usually only for breaches of certain environmental regulations or for the economic costs; not for the damage caused to the environment itself on which we, and all life depends. Unless that changes, environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will continue.
However the Ecuador case can perhaps be seen as the first salvo in a growing upsurge of support for new mechanisms and instruments to stop environmental destruction. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales convened a World People’s Climate Conference on 22 April 2010 that proclaimed a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, that they have since taken for discussion at the UN and enacted into national legislation. Bolivia also launched an international campaign for an International Climate Justice Tribunal, which would hold countries and companies accountable for climate change. In November, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the first major U.S. city to ban natural gas drilling while elevating community decision-making and the rights of nature over corporate ‘rights.’
Introducing nature rights and climate tribunals won’t end environmental abuses, as human rights legislation has not forever ended human rights abuses. However it does enable us to begin to use our legal systems to balance destructive human initiatives against the need to maintain the health of planetary ecosystems. It would also provide a mechanism to help force our political leaders to devise policies to keep us within Nature’s non-negotiable limits. It could start to close the widening chasm between what needs to be done to stop climate change and environmental devastation and the complete ineffectiveness of our current political response. It’s time as Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has said “to embrace our kinship with all the beings of the Earth community and to recognize, respect and defend the rights of all.” Our collective survival depends on us defending the rights of the planet that is our home.
First point – the global climate is changing. Not many people dispute that any more. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Within the past century many significant climate changes have been measured and reported, including increases in the frequency of heat waves in the U.S., an increasing proportion of precipitation coming in the form of intense, flood-inducing events, an increase in tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, a huge decrease in the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice, and a big jump in the rate at which glaciers are melting.
The rates of change seem to be accelerating and most of the profound secondary changes are negative. Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first drew international attention to the impending climate disaster, testified way back in 1988 that Earth had entered a long-term warming trend. Today the effects of global warming on the extremes of the global water cycle – stronger droughts and forest fires on the one hand, and heavier rains and floods on the other – have become more evident in Australia, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.
Second point – the causal factors of climate change are now very well known. Earth is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of greenhouse gases – water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide – which act as a thermal blanket. About half the incoming solar radiation passes through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface where some is absorbed and the remainder reflected back into the atmosphere. Substantial amounts of the energy absorbed are again radiated outward in the form of infrared heat. These contribute further to the warming of the atmosphere.
Third point – humanity has drastically changed global climatic dynamics by adding huge amounts of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere. Activities such as deforestation, land use changes and the burning of fossil fuels have increased atmospheric CO2 by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. Decomposition of wastes in landfills, burgeoning agriculture, especially rice cultivation, and huge populations of burping and manure-producing domestic livestock have boosted the amounts of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three since the industrial revolution. Methane is twenty times more active than CO2 in atmospheric heat retention.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is a good indicator of where we are now globally in respect of atmospheric change. Back in 1959 when the data collection programme was initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the CO2 level was measured at 316 parts per million (ppm) and the annual increase was less than 1 ppm. Today the level is over 392 ppm and the annual increases are 2.2 ppm and getting larger all the time.
James Hansen and his climate scientist colleagues concluded that we have either reached, or are very close to, a set of climate “tipping points”. That means that climatic changes are now at a point where the feedbacks from changes spur even larger and more rapid further changes. Hansen cites Arctic sea ice as a good example of this. Global warming has initiated faster sea ice melt and has exposed darker ocean surfaces that absorb more sunlight which leads to more melting of ice. As a result, and without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic could soon be ice-free in the summer. The western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming – once disintegration gets well under way it will become unstoppable.
Pause for reality check – not only is climatic change a reality, it is progressing at an accelerating rate, the negative consequence are getting greater, and the likelihood of us managing to slow or reverse the negative trends are getting smaller.
Fourth point – James Hansen and his fellow climate scientists looked at the atmospheric CO2 levels, then at the changes in climate which were occurring, and came up with the recommendation that a CO2 level of 350 ppm (last recorded back in 1987) was pretty much the upper allowable limit if massive climatic related adverse effects were to be avoided. The number 350 has a certain appealing ring to it, and has been widely adapted by environmental organizations such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org as a universal target for citizen and government action on carbon emissions. The protagonists are quite aware that the present global atmospheric CO2 level has already overshot that target by more than 40 ppm, but they argue, convincingly, that a reversal is absolutely essential to safeguard our long-term global future.
Fifth point – and now we’re at the crux of the problem. How on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, do we get anywhere close to reducing the rate at which atmospheric CO2 increases in future, never mind actually reversing the trend towards 350 ppm?
We think of Earth’s carbon reservoirs as being great fields of coal and petroleum compounds, which are more or less stable until we dig them up and burn them. But the globe’s biggest carbon reservoirs are in the atmosphere, the ocean, living ecosystems and soils, and are highly dynamic. They all exchange CO2 with the atmosphere, they both absorb it (oceans) and assimilate it (ecosystems), and they release it (oceans) or respire it (ecosystems). The critical point is that anthropogenic carbon emitted into the atmosphere is not destroyed but adds to the stockpile and is redistributed among the other carbon reservoirs. The turnover times range from years or decades (living plants) to millennia (the deep sea, soil). The bottom line is that any carbon released into the atmosphere is going to be around for a long, long time. Up to 1000 years in fact.
Sixth point – so how do we get from our present scene of 390 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere and impending climate doom to something closer to 350 ppm and a more stable climate scenario? Straight answer – we cannot. We simply don’t have that option.
Seventh point – the absolutely best case scenario for reduction of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere would be an immediate halt to all activities leading to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Park all motor vehicles, no more home heating, no coal-fired power plants, no burning of natural gas, no aircraft flying overhead, shoot and bury 90% of all domestic livestock. Just shut down all of human civilization. No more anthropogenic carbon emissions. Would this sacrifice bring the CO2 level down in a hurry?
Dr Susan Solomon and her colleagues at NOAA, with the help of their sophisticate computer models have addressed that very question. They ran a coupled climate–carbon cycle model which has components representing the dynamic ocean, the atmospheric energy–moisture interaction, and interactive sub-models of marine and terrestrial carbon cycles. The model reveals, sadly for us, that climate change is largely irreversible for 1000 years after all carbon emissions cease. The drop in radiative forcing of atmospheric CO2 (i.e. the extent to which CO2 causes atmospheric warming) is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the oceans. So atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. And the natural interactive processes between the atmosphere, ocean and ecosystems would carry on. Atmospheric CO2 concentration would eventually drop back to 350 ppm by about 2060 and then flatten out to near 300 ppm for the rest of the 1000 years.
Eighth point – I haven’t noticed any great urges on the part of ourselves to go and huddle in caves and gnaw on pine nuts and raw fish (no wood-burning allowed) to make this scenario work, so what is more likely?
Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 6.2 billion tonnes back in 1990 when global CO2 was near 355 ppm. The 2010 estimate is 8.5 billion tonnes. That’s a 38 % increase over the levels used to formulate the Kyoto Agreement. The annual growth rate of emissions derived from fossil fuels is now about 3.5%, an almost four-fold increase from the 0.9% per year for the 1990-1999 period. Carbon emissions from land-use change (i.e. mainly deforestation) in 2007 (in just that one year) were estimated at 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. The biggest increase in emissions has taken place in developing countries, largely in China and India, while developed countries have been growing slower. The largest regional shift has been that China passed the U.S. in 2006 to become the largest CO2 emitter, and India will soon overtake Russia to become the third largest emitter. Currently, more than half of the global emissions come from less developed countries. Developing countries with 80% of the world’s population still account for only 20% of the cumulative emissions since 1751. There is nowhere for these rates to go, other than up.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, they diplomatically tried to hedge their bets. So they churned out 40 different scenarios based on emissions scenarios for the decade 2000-2010 which encompassed the full range of uncertainties related to future carbon emissions, demographic, social and economic inputs and possible future technological developments. The model predictions were correspondingly wide, ranging from “best” to “worst” in terms of atmospheric CO2 levels and changes in the associated climatic driving forces. Now it has become apparent that the actual emissions growth rate for 2000-2007 has exceeded the highest forecasted growth rates for 2000-2010 in their emissions scenarios.
Ninth point – so the most likely future outcomes (by the end of the century) are those at the top end of the scale outputted by the computer models (diagram above). That is to say our grandchildren will be looking at CO2 levels above 900 ppm, mean global temperature rises of 5 or 6 degrees C over what they are today, and an average sea level rise above 0.5 metres. Plus all the storms, cyclones, droughts, floods, vanishing shorelines, water wars and famines that might creep in along the way.
The end – CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and future temperatures are just numbers, and pretty much the only things that computer models can output. We will have to estimate the extent of global human misery by ourselves.
We call ourselves Homo sapiens – Wise Man. Yet I see very little wisdom in today’s world.
Wisdom requires the successful learning of life lessons – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – that originate in the multidimensional reality that each of us perceives and experiences uniquely. It also conveys compassion and responsibility; compassion for the welfare of all living things, and responsibility for nurturing the various environments that the self resides in.
Logic demands that all informational sources, documented and experimental, written word or eBook, provide the facts and tools necessary to allow us to understand the mechanics of physical reality. We are told that scientific knowledge must be accumulated in a strictly objective manner; the observer must be isolated from that which is being observed. Generally speaking, emotional responses to the observed object and its current experience, by the observer, are suppressed as much as possible. We use mechanical instrumentation to build a wall between ourselves and that which is being studied. In short, we try and turn ourselves into biological computers, analyzing information and developing probabilistic theories to explain the universe around us and the many forms of energy that are expressed in a myriad of ways.
Experience, on the other hand, is easy. It is automatically accumulated from our first breath to our last. It is simply a lifelong record of our interactions with the outside world. Our brains split those interactions into positive and negative poles, with intermediary gradations based on the percentage of the interactions that are assigned to each pole. Those that help us to physically and emotionally survive, to “feel good”, are deemed positive; those that are destructive to our wellbeing and “hurt” us in some way are deemed negative. We learn from these interactions so that we spend our energies actively seeking out positive experiences and trying to avoid negative experiences.
But does knowledge plus experience equal wisdom? Not necessarily. A third component is required, a much more nebulous concept, arbitrarily called worldview expansion. It is this component that, when combined with the other two, allows us to understand the path we have trodden in the world, the joys and sorrows that have painted our lives, and provides the tools we need to create a happier, more fulfilling future for ourselves and our loved ones.
Human beings have a highly developed sense of self-identification, or ego. Ego seeks personal fulfillment at the physical level. This fulfillment includes the acquisition of goods and services, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, recognition by others, and the ability to control events and outcomes for personal gain. This last factor is called power, and the more power a person has, the more influence that person has on the other ego components. Logically, then, everyone seeks power.
However, ego is a very selfish master. Its primary focus is to expend energy on the creation of circumstances that benefit the individual. We refer to this major part of our being as “I”. “I need this”; “I want that”. To this end, the world’s power structures have developed. Individuals expend much energy striving to attain status, wealth, and power; power over others; power over the Earth. There is a need to control; to shape in one’s own image; to not be forgotten. And thus the world’s institutions have evolved to allow power to be used by a few for control over global financial, religious, political, educational, and scientific affairs. These mental structures allow a few individuals to greatly influence the daily wellbeing of many. If these few individuals had been democratically chosen by the world’s people to serve as beacons into the future, where wisdom, compassion, and a global viewpoint are prerequisites, the world would be a very different place. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Instead, the power that these people have wrested for themselves corrupts the ego, bringing greed, cruelty, selfishness, destruction, pain, and inequity to the earth and everything in it. A hierarchical class system develops where the rich and powerful control the resources required by all the earth’s people for survival and fulfillment. In this way, the many serious problems facing humankind today have their sources in the egos of those who have sought and attained power for themselves.
To create a compassionate, sustainable future, we must rewrite our definition of success and reprioritize the expenditure of our energies. Let us start at the very beginning. Though not politically correct, the source of many of the world’s problems can be simply defined: overpopulation. There are just too many people on the Earth competing for limited global resources. It is no coincidence that those with wealth and power have fewer children than those who are poor with virtually no power, because there is a greater chance of childhood death among the poor than among the rich, who have access to more nutritious food, improved availability of good health care, and a cleaner environment. Therefore, the first step in creating a better world is to redistribute and allocate global wealth to ensure that all people on the planet have access to adequate housing, clean water, a good education, proper health care, sufficient land to grow food, and job opportunities that allow for creative self-expression and self-respect.
From the moment of birth until adulthood and independence, a child is monitored by both parents and medical professionals to identify individual strengths and creative abilities as well as potential mental, emotional, and physical problems. The educational curriculum is a combination of home and school-based learning. Parents teach interpersonal and practical skills, the importance of responsibility, and strive to provide a loving and supportive environment in which the child’s potential interests, talents, and abilities can develop and be expressed. The parents work with educational and personal growth professionals to observe and record these unfolding natural inclinations, and to develop a unique educational and self-development program for the child. As the child ages, the program is modified to accommodate the changing focus and interests of the child. As the child ages and becomes better equipped to make personal decisions, and to express mental, emotional, and personal goals and desires, discussions increasingly are shaped by the child’s own input. It is always adjusted to ensure that it provides the most opportunity for the child to further develop the innate talents and abilities that the curriculum is structured to educe. The parental love is expressed through the desire to see the child become the best that he/she can be; they experience the joy of helping another person to try and achieve his/her full potential by providing the environment to do so. Concurrently, communication channels are sent out into the business world to identify career paths that will allow the child to earn a living through the expression of his/her talents, abilities, interests, and other skill sets in a self-fulfilling manner. If the person enjoys what he/she is doing, he/she will be more productive and take less time off from work. In addition, the overall work environment becomes nurturing and cooperative rather than distrustful and competitive.
To create a world of harmony and sustainability, we must become attuned to the beautiful and unique life energies of all the other life forms on the planet. Other expressions of life energy must be respected and appreciated for their individual contribution to the global mosaic in which we all live. Animals and plants, earth, air, and sea, become our shared responsibility. The same love and nurturing that we show to our children must be extended to the natural world and all its creatures.
The global economic system must change. Current trends demonstrate that fewer people control an ever-increasing percentage of the planet’s wealth, and the power that goes with it. As businesses evolve from small, family-owned businesses to international conglomerates that eat up the small businesses, there is a corresponding decrease in the “human touch” that smaller businesses once provided. The conglomerates are amoral, lack compassion, and are exhausting the world’s natural resources at an ever-increasing rate. They have no interest in the individual except as a potential source of revenue. Their corporate vision statement could be: Maximum profits at the minimum cost in the least time. As can be demonstrated repeatedly around the world, they are greedy, crave power, and are soulless. When a resource company identifies a source of natural resources, especially in a third world country, they move in, temporarily elevate the local economy, strip the community of its resources, pollute the environment, and leave. The local economy becomes depressed and the inhabitants are much worse off than before because they have gotten used to a higher standard of living and the land is no longer clean and fertile enough to grow food.
Mining and oil companies are the worst offenders. Their pollution legacy can last for generations. Because these large corporations often pay large amounts of money to governments for the right to extract their resources, and because many large conglomerates now have financial resources that are larger than the entire GDP of some countries, the governmental representatives become puppets to their corporate masters. Greed, corruption, violence, and hypocrisy become rampant, and national and international laws become two-tiered, one set of laws for the rich and powerful and one set for the ordinary citizen. The global institutions that have been established to promote equity, justice, and international cooperation have themselves become corrupted because of money. The IMF, World Bank, and United Nations are all controlled by the small cadre of the world’s richest and most powerful people. They are despicable hypocrites; while promoting causes such as eradication of hunger, disease, ignorance, and poverty, their economic strategies are structured such that these problems are exacerbated by these economic policies, making people poorer and less self-sufficient, using procedures that promote the very problems that they claim to be addressing. Increasingly, it is charitable organizations and other NGO’s that have had to try and address these issues using money gleaned from average working people who still retain some sense of compassion for the plight of others. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
The Baby Boomer generation was born into a moment in history where the old social, political, and economic institutions that have served humanity for thousands of years no longer work. The frequency and intensity of global crises are increasing. There is a widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Violent and chaotic energies are becoming increasingly rampant. A growing number of the science community is becoming convinced that humanity is on a path to self-destruction. It is time for Homo Sapiens to show wisdom.
The mythical firebird called the phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, immortality and renewal. It is also strongly associated with peace. Its powers of healing and regeneration bring comfort and an end to suffering. In the 21st century, the phoenix has reached the end of its life and is about to burst into flame. Old institutions are dying and new ones are springing up all around the world. The old, gargantuan top-down power structures no longer serve the needs of the people, and smaller, more versatile power structures are springing up to replace them. These new institutions are localized within communities, created and guided by groups of individuals who share a common vision. As their influence on society grows over time, a new relationship with the earth and its creatures, as well as with each other, will replace the old ways.
Balance, compassion, generosity, sensitivity, creativity, equality, and a more spiritual perspective will allow human beings to live in harmony with those other life forms that share the planet with us in a loving, compassionate, respectful, supportive, sustainable manner. First, though, we must learn to constructively channel the ego energies into creative self-expressions that benefit others as well as ourselves. We must learn humility and be thankful for the lives that we have been given. To love another means to joyously and selflessly give of your own energies to provide whatever support and encouragement you can to the spiritual growth and fulfillment of the other. We are individuals and therefore each of us has unique gifts to give to the world. We must accept and heal ourselves in order to find inner peace and fulfillment through helping others on their journeys of self-discovery. By helping others, we help ourselves. We must accept our animal origins for it allows us to no longer feel apart from nature, but to rejoice in our communion with the natural world around us and all the plants and animals that are part of it. The earth deserves our respect; she is our Mother and from her all life has sprung. It is when we reach this harmony with ourselves, each other, and with all the other lives, big and small, who share this planet with us, that we will achieve true equality between the beautifully diverse expressions of consciousness who call this world home.
Those of us who watched “Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands” on The Nature of Things at the end of January  are legitimately concerned by this question. The Kelly and Schindler publication in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS  provided evidence that mining the Athabasca Oil Sands has increased the levels of carcinogens in the environment downstream of the industry, and it follows that more carcinogens in the environment could mean a higher risk of developing cancer for the exposed population.
Demonstrating that the Oil Sands have caused an increase in cancer incidence is another matter. This is largely because cancer is so prevalent; one in three of us can expect to develop cancer over a lifetime and one in five may die from it. According to the 2010 Canadian Cancer Statistics , the incidence rates for all cancers have not changed much across Canada in thirty years, and the current incidence of cancer in Alberta is somewhat lower than that in the Atlantic Provinces. Rates of incidence for all cancers between 2004-2006 in the Northern Lights Regional Authority, which includes the small town of Fort Chippewyan downstream of the Oil Sands development, are lower or equal to the Alberta provincial average . However, in 2009, The Alberta Health Services presented a comprehensive study of cancer incidence in the Fort Chipewyan residents between 1995 and 2006, concluding that there was an increase in cancer incidence (51 cases observed with 39 expected in about 1200 individuals); this included two cases of a very rare form of bile duct cancer . With so few total cases, caution was correctly placed on the interpretation of this observation and whether the increase could be attributed to the Oil Sands chemicals alone. Nonetheless, continued monitoring of this population was advised because of the unexpected cancer incidence.
What we really need are answers to more difficult questions: Can the current cancer risk be considered “acceptable”, as suggested by the 2010 Royal Society report on the Oil Sands , are all reasonable efforts being made to mitigate the risk, and will prompt regulatory action be taken when the risk is no longer considered acceptable (if it currently is)? These are not simple questions to answer because first we need to know:
- The chemical nature of the toxins from the tar sands industry (there are potentially dozens, each with its own distribution within the environment). Unfortunately, it is not possible to know pre-industry levels of these chemicals, and the adequacy and credibility of results obtained by the industry-supported regional aquatic monitoring program (RAMP) have come under serious question .
- Which chemicals have been tested and classified as human carcinogens. Ideally, any interactions between different chemicals that may affect cancer risk should also be known.
- The doses of carcinogens delivered to the population (including information on the concentration, duration of exposure, and route of exposure). Ideally, biomonitoring of individuals (for example, in hair or urine) should also be performed where warranted by higher levels in the environment.
- Regulations concerning exposure limits for each carcinogen, and whether these limits have been approached or exceeded downstream of the Oil Sands industry
- The number of individuals exposed to the carcinogens in order to estimate the number of excess cancer cases that can be expected, and the significance one can place on this estimate
- What has been done, and what can be done, to mitigate the risks of developing cancer
Taking the position that no increase in cancer risk is acceptable fails to acknowledge the many risks to our health that we accept each day, including risks of developing cancer from lifestyle choices. The government sets limits on the levels of known carcinogens in the environment, but these limits are often meant to be “as low as reasonably achievable” and therefore are typically greater than zero. For ionizing radiation, perhaps the best understood carcinogen (and my own area of expertise), the current dose limit is 1 mSv per year for the general public. Yet a single medical imaging procedure can deliver ten times that dose, and the natural background dose (which is highly variable from one place to another) averages three times higher [8,9]. To put these amounts into perspective, exposure to 1 mSv would be expected to produce five extra cancer deaths in 100,000 people . It would be impossible to demonstrate a statistically-significant increase in cancer incidence by exposure of small numbers of individuals to 1 or even 10 mSv per year, yet we are still able to estimate the probability for a large population provided we know the exposure.
It often comes back to risk versus benefit. We all find it easier to accept risk when it is our choice to make, but First Nations and others who make their homes downstream of the Oil Sands may not have that option. Both risks and benefits need to be shared fairly, and that is not often the case.
Dozens of toxic chemicals are emitted and distributed during the mining and processing of the Oil Sands. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, yet a 2006 report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness concluded that there was a negligible risk of cancer from exposure to inorganic arsenic in the Woods Buffalo region of Alberta that contains the Oil Sands . Although the levels of arsenic used for those cancer risk estimates were provided by the Oil Sands industry, in independently-funded studies, arsenic levels were rising in that area but did not exceed the regulatory limit [2,12]. However, seven of twelve other toxic metals exceeded guidelines for the protection of aquatic life by 5 -300 fold . Heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury, are considered ‘possible’ human carcinogens, a different designation that limits what can be said about the risk for developing cancer.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) include known human carcinogens that are found downstream of the Oil Sands. Twenty-six out of twenty-eight measured PAHs showed, on average, a six fold increase in concentration downstream compared to upstream . Canada Health and Welfare and the World Health Organization recommend drinking water levels for total PAHs of 0.2 mg/L, and for the most carcinogenic PAH, benzo(a)pyrene, the limit is set at 0.01 mg/L. The estimated lifetime risk associated with the ingestion of drinking water containing 0.01 µg/L benzo[a]pyrene is considered “essentially negligible” by Health Canada, and 1 in 100,000 by the World Health Organization . In a study conducted in 2007 by Timoney , concentrations of PAHs near the Oil Sands varied greatly, but at times exceed guidelines suggesting potential danger to exposed individuals. Perhaps we should be asking, “How dangerous is the exposure to PAHs from the tar sands industry relative to smoking cigarettes or living in an urban environment? How rapidly are levels increasing downstream of the Oil Sands? What are the peak levels as well as average levels?” Answering these questions requires a reliable environmental monitoring program which is currently lacking.
Simply demonstrating that the amount of any one carcinogen is lower than government mandated limits fails to acknowledge the possible interactions between different chemicals. Co-exposure of fish to arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene can increase rates of genotoxicity eight to eighteen times above rates observed after exposure to either carcinogen alone . Currently, there is little if any information on additive or multiplicative risks of cancer from exposure to several carcinogens, so the possibility is largely ignored in assigning ‘safe’ limits.
With known carcinogens being distributed over a large region of Alberta, reducing exposure and subsequent risk should be an industry priority. In the 1970s, stack precipitators were instrumental in reducing airborne particulates, but subsequent industry expansion means that overall levels are now similar to those measured before precipitators were installed . Levels will continue to rise in coming years if no efforts are made to further reduce emissions. Tailings ponds should not leak as they do now , and they should be guarded against storm damage. River water flow should be monitored so that it is adequate to dilute particulates, and climate change effects and usage effects on river flow should be taken into consideration for future expansion. Technology should be developed to recover toxic heavy metals.
What is needed to make this happen is a world-class, government-sponsored environmental monitoring system that can keep pace with the oil sands developments, is transparent but informative to the public, and examines a full range of potential environmental effects. Water testing should be as good if not better than the air quality measurements now provided by the Woods Buffalo Environmental Association, a multi-stakeholder group that publishes readouts on their web site from more than a dozen sites in the Oil Sands region . Information on levels of carcinogens present in plants, animals and people living in the region are also needed.
A special review panel recently convened by the Alberta Government has already concluded that more stringent oversight of environmental contamination in the Athabasca Oil Sands is necessary . Their full report is due in June 2011, but recognizing that the current monitoring program is flawed and doing something about it are two separate things. Maximum toxic contaminant levels need to be set, and not just for water, but also for soil, sediment, plant and animal life. There should be recognition that adhering to these levels may mean curtailing expansion at some future point. The pressure to accomplish these goals must come from many directions, and should not rest exclusively on the inhabitants of Northern Alberta.
Coming back to the question, is there a cancer threat from the Oil Sands, the answer is yes, because the levels of known carcinogens in the regions downstream of the industry have increased. Have these increases actually caused cancer? Perhaps, but the available data do not support an unequivocal conclusion. Cancer is too prevalent, and the number of exposed individuals is too small to be sure. Does this mean that there is no reason for concern, at least at present? Absolutely not. Cancer can take many years to develop and levels of carcinogens from the industry continue to increase. Until a reliable monitoring system is in place, we will have insufficient information to base estimates of cancer risk.
The Oil Sands industry has the opportunity and the responsibility to mitigate these risks, but we have a responsibility to understand these risks in relation to others we encounter in our daily lives. Hall, in an earlier edition of his book  examined the chances of dying from a radiation-induced cancer in relation to the risk of dying from smoking cigarettes or driving a given number of highway miles. I’ve used his analogy to compare PAH-induced cancer with these risks. If drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L benzo(a)pyrene causes one additional fatal cancer in 100,000 people, this would be equivalent to the risk of dying from smoking 73 cigarettes or driving 178 miles. This doesn’t sound too bad until we remember that we are also exposed to many carcinogens not only in drinking water but in the air we breathe and the food we eat. One of those chemicals is arsenic. The risk of dying from cancer by drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L arsenic (the government mandated limit) is equivalent to the risk of dying by smoking 1500 cigarettes or driving 3500 miles. If you’re wondering why maximum allowable arsenic levels are so high, it’s partly because of the difficulties in estimating both exposure and risk from cancer caused by arsenic. However, Health Canada also states that their regulation represents “the lowest level of arsenic in drinking water that can be technically achieved at reasonable cost” , which is even more reason for close monitoring of the carcinogens produced by the Oil Sands industry.
1. Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands. Documentary film aired Jan 27 and Feb 12, 2011 on CBC-TV. http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2011/tippingpoint/
- Kelly, EN, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Short JW, Radmanovich, R. Oil Sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 16178–16183 2010.
- Canadian Cancer Society’s Steering Committee: Canadian Cancer Statistics 2010, Toronto: Canadian Cancer Society, 2010. http://www.cancer.ca/canada-wide/about%20cancer/cancer%20statistics/~/media/CCS/Canada%20wide/Files%20List/English%20files%20heading/pdf%20not%20in%20publications%20section/Canadian20Cancer20Statistics2020102020English.ashx
- Alberta Health Services, Report on Cancer Statistics in Alberta, 2009. http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/poph/hi-poph-surv-cancer-cancer-in-alberta-2009.pdf
- Alberta Cancer Board, Report on the Incidence of Cancer in Fort Chipewyan, 1995-2006 http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/rls/ne-rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan-study.pdf
- Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry, December, 2010. http://www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/RSC%20report%20complete%20secured%209Mb.pdf
- Main, C. 2010 Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program Scientific Review http://www.ramp-alberta.org/UserFiles/File/RAMP%202010%20Scientific%20Peer%20Review%20Report.pdf
- The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. ICRP #103; Wrixon, AD. New ICRP recommendations. Journal of Radiological Protection, 28:161-168, 2008. http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/28/2/R02/pdf/jrp8_2_R02.pdf
- Hall EJ and Giaccia, AJ, Radiobiology for the Radiologist, Sixth Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2006.
10. Smith AH, Lopipero PA, Bates MN, Steinmaus CM. Arsenic epidemiology and drinking water standards. Science 296: 214l5-6, 2002; Kaiser J. Second Look at Arsenic Finds Higher Risk, Science 293, 2189, 2001; Arsenic in drinking water. National Academy Press, 2001 Update. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10194&page=203
11. Report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness. Assessment of the Potential Lifetime Cancer Risks Associated with Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic among Indigenous People living in the Wood Buffalo Region of Alberta, 2007.
12. Timoney, KP and Lee P. Does the Alberta Tar Sands industry polute? The Scientific evidence. The Open Conservation Biology Journal 3:65-81, 2009.
13. Kelly EN, Short JW, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Ma M, Kwan AK, and Fortin, BL. Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. PNAS 106:22346-22351, 2009.
14. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Province of British Columbia. Ambient water quality criteria for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/pahs/index.html#TopOfPage
15. Timoney, KP. A study of water and sediment quality as related to public heath issues, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. A report conducted on behalf of the Nunee Heath Board Society, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. http://energy.probeinternational.org/system/files/timoney-fortchipwater-111107.pdf
16. Maier A, Schumann BL, Chang X, Talaska G, Puga A. Arsenic co-exposure potentiates benzo(a)pyrene genotoxicity. Mutation Research, 517: 101-11, 2002.
17. Wood Buffalo Environmental Association Website: http://wbea.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/
18. Jones, J. (Reuters) Water checks deficient at Canada Oil Sands: Report, March 10, 2011 http://solveclimate.com/news/20110310/water-checks-deficient-canada-oil-sands-report
19. Health Canada Environmental and Workplace Health, Arsenic, Application of the Guideline. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/water-eau/arsenic/application-eng.php