Canada's storm-prone center of fossil-fuel production readily accepts the theory that the climate is changing, but highly educated Albertans stop far short of accepting the full global warming gospel even when their anonymity is guaranteed. Only about one in three Alberta earth scientists and engineers believe the culprit behind climate change has been identified, a new poll of the professions reported.
The expert jury is sharply divided, with 26% attributing global warming to human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, and 27% blaming other causes, such as volcanoes, sunspots, earth crust movements and natural evolution of the planet.
A 99% majority of the science-based professions in Alberta believes the climate is changing. But 45% blame both human and natural influences, and 68% disagree with the popular statement that "the debate on the scientific causes of recent climate change is settled."
The divisions showed up in a canvass of more than 51,000 specialists licensed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA).
"We're not surprised at all," APEGGA Executive Director Neil Windsor said. "There is no clear consensus of scientists that we know of."
The only agreement among professionals is "we should do everything we can" to understand climate, adapt structures such as buildings and bridges to change and reduce human contributions to harmful trends, Windsor said.
The survey received 1,077 replies, or a sample rated as an accurate portrait of the occupational groups' views to within three percentage points, APEGGA said. Alberta Environment helped design the poll and will give the results to the provincial government, association spokesman Philip Mulder said. APEGGA is planning an "environmental summit" with other concerned agencies on Alberta climate change causes, effects and adaptations.
No date is set yet for the event. "We would prefer to have it sooner than later," Mulder said.
"These sessions can be structured so that they result in...a concerted action plan to be directed at policymakers," APEGGA's environment committee said in a report to association members.
Potential actions include devising Alberta climate change forecasts, encouraging greenhouse-gas cleanups like industrial waste carbon disposal, and developing adaptation programs such as water conservation and energy efficiency, the committee said.
Only one-third of engineers and earth scientists polled by APEGGA rated the provincial government's current climate change action plan as adequate. About two-thirds of the professionals said the government should take on a leading role in developing renewable or sustainable energy sources and promoting energy efficiency among consumers. About half urged the province to make Alberta a world capital of capturing and storing industrial greenhouse-gas waste.
Engineers and earth scientists mostly feel free to speak out about climate change and take it into account in their work. About two-thirds of the professionals say they feel no peer pressure to take particular stances on global warming, and 70% report that they have enough independence to take the issue into account in their professional roles.
But willingness to spend money on long-range climate change adaptations is still rare among employers of the science-based occupations, the survey results indicated. In the poll of APEGGA's membership, "66% state that corporate decision-making is governed by short-term cost considerations rather than long-term investment."
Only 31% of Alberta engineers and earth scientists say the organizations they serve regard them as valuable technical advisers on climate change. Just 26% of the professionals believe they can influence corporate decisions. But the professions are working on enhancing the status of climate change expertise, along with adaptation projects that create jobs and even honors regardless of views on who or what is to blame for global warming.
Alberta harbors some world-class expertise in the field. Senior staff of the Alberta Geological Survey include a resident expert on carbon capture and storage, Stefan Bachu, who ranked high in the scientific group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
Bachu led the team that wrote the book on collecting and disposing of industrial waste greenhouse gas for the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change. Bachu also illustrates the difference, suggested by the Alberta survey results, between environmental evangelists drumming up political commitments to green policies and the science-based professions responsible for implementing them. One is rooted in belief and faith. The other worries about knowledge and answers that work.
After dedicating 15 years to underground storage of greenhouse gases, Bachu still refuses to promise disposal systems will work forever. "I cannot guarantee it," the expert said in describing the state of the art of injecting carbon-dioxide into kilometer-deep porous rock formations. "I haven't been there. I didn't check with a flashlight. We believe it should stay there."
His professional caution was not just about physical phenomena that cannot be fully understood until they are tried. His attitude highlighted a legal and political stumbling block faced by a favorite strategy for reducing waste-gas emissions. While plenty of technology is available, there remains a big unanswered question, Bachu said. Who is responsible for making repairs, cleaning up damages and compensating victims if waste-gas storage sites spring leaks?
"Industry is not willing to take an undefined, undetermined and unlimited liability of putting carbon dioxide in the ground," Bachu said.
A legal structure has to be enacted for greenhouse gas storage, he said. He pointed to templates currently under international study, such as making industry build and maintain disposal sites in trade for government taking over liability for accidents.
His description of the obstacle against acting on environmental good intentions was confirmed in a progress report by an Alberta group of 15 companies working on plans for an "integrated carbon-dioxide network," known as ICO2N for short (see NGI, Feb. 5).
"There are several regulatory items that require attention before any CCS (carbon capture and storage) operations can proceed," the document said. "These include defining CCS regulations on such items as the ownership of underground pore space and the issue of long-term liability for storage," the ICO2N group insisted.
In a common twist of fate in Alberta, CCS knowledge has grown out of the fossil-fuel industry that global warming gospel is determined to change. The province's confidence in the technology grew out of nearly two decades of successes with about 50 disposal wells for "acid gas," a nasty byproduct of tapping natural gas contaminated with hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide. The oldest site has operated safely near the Edmonton suburb of Spruce Grove since 1990.
Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report
may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any
form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.