Keeping Our Cool

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Andrew Weaver. KEEPING OUR COOL: CANADA IN A WARMING WORLD. Viking Canada, Toronto, 2008.

reviewed by Ian Angus

Keeping Our Cool - CoverFew Canadians understand the science of climate change as well as University of Victoria professor Andrew Weaver. Not only is he chief editor of the highly-respected Journal of Climate, he was a lead author of the last three major reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and thus a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Keeping Our Cool is a clear and convincing book about what the greenhouse effect is, how it happens, and what the effects of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions will be. This is an excellent book to give anyone who wants to understand the science, and to everyone who has been confused by the denial lobby.

Scientists agree a global temperature increase of more than 2° C. over pre-industrial times (just 1.3° warmer than today!) will have disastrous consequences for all forms of life on the planet. Weaver’s book shows that we cannot prevent such an increase unless we keep the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million: it is now at 385 and rising fast. Global emissions have to be cut drastically and quickly, and the goal must be to reduce them to zero.

Weaver’s book isn’t all science — it also provides an insider’s account of the politics of climate change in Canada and internationally. He is particularly outraged by the Conservative government’s “major role in obstructing international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” and Prime Minister Harper’s “policy of inaction on the climate portfolio.” Weaver is rightly contemptuous of the Conservative argument that Canada should only act if other countries do, comparing it to a child who defends his misbehaviour on the grounds that “Bobby did it.”

When a government’s environmental policy is as bad as Canada’s, any politician who favors doing something — anything! — can look good by comparison. That may explain why, despite showing the urgent need for rapid, even drastic change, Weaver enthusiastically endorses a policy that is only slightly better than doing nothing — the carbon tax recently implemented by British Columbia’s Liberal government. This “visionary leadership,” he writes, “fills me with optimism.”

Weaver has been convinced by the arguments of B.C.-based carbon tax advocates Marc Jaccard and Nic Rivers. He has apparently not noticed that the most aggressive carbon tax plan proposed in their influential book Hot Air — a plan far more aggressive than the one B.C. has actually implemented — would only reduce Canadian emissions by 50% below the 2010 level in 2050, far less than the cuts that Weaver’s book shows are essential.

And even that inadequate reduction would only be achieved if the plan works exactly as promised. That’s not likely, as a recent report on Norway’s experience shows:

“In 1991, Norway became one of the first countries in the world to impose a stiff tax on harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, the country’s emissions should have dropped. Instead, they have risen by 15%.

“Although the tax forced Norway’s oil and gas sector to become among the greenest in the world, soaring energy prices led to a boom in offshore production, which in turn boosted overall emissions. So did drivers. Norwegians, who already pay nearly $10 a gallon, took the tax in stride, buying more cars and driving them more. And numerous industries won exemptions from the tax, carrying on unchanged.” (Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2008)

That paragraph appears to criticize individual drivers, but later the article reveals that two-thirds of Norwegians live in rural areas. With no public transport available, they had no choice but to tighten their belts and pay more at the pump. The reality of no alternatives for consumers, combined with big business using its lobbying power, meant that the free market fairy couldn’t deliver as promised. As Washington and Wall Street proved again this week, in the real world, relying on the free market fairy can be a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, the public debate in Canada on climate change has focused entirely on which market-based plan is best. No politician — and no one in the mainstream green movement — even suggests that using capitalist tools might not be the best way to solve a problem that was caused by the capitalism in the first place.

So it really isn’t surprising that Andrew Weaver hasn’t seen through the carbon-tax/cap-and-trade hype. Fortunately, policy proposals make up a very small part of Keeping Our Cool. The rest, focusing on science, makes very good reading. 

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  • Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver’s “Keeping Our Cool” provides an excellent and accessible introduction to climatic science. It also provides a great deal of useful information specific to Canada. As a result, if I had to recommend a single book to non-scientist Canadians seeking to understand the science of climate change, it would be this one. On the matter of what is to be done, the book is useful in a numerical sense but not particularly so in a policy sense. The discussion of economic instruments is superficial and the author basically assumes that a price of carbon plus new technology will address the problem.

    In general, Weaver’s book is a strong and useful introduction to climatic science. When it comes to the big questions about climate ethics, and the policy and technological measures that will permit the emergence of a low-carbon society, other authors have done better.


  • In fact, the Norway experience shows the limits of market-based regulation. But I disagree with your view that citizens are not to blame. Norway is a very wealthy country and the citizens that move to the country are the richest ones. They should be heavily penalized for making such a choice and some measures to keep cars off the cities are needed to invert this trend.