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Trevor Hancock: Facts matter in discussing fossil fuels

In an article first published in the Financial Post and republished here two weeks ago, Gwyn Morgan — “a director of five global corporations, including the founding CEO of Encana Corp.
Oilsands plant at Fort McMurray, Alta. Last week, Gwyn Morgan, an energy-industry executive, presented a “list of little-known facts” about climate change. Today, retired University of Victoria professor Trevor Hancock calls Morgan's facts “mathematically unsound, scientifically illiterate, distorted or misleading.:"

In an article first published in the Financial Post and republished here two weeks ago, Gwyn Morgan — “a director of five global corporations, including the founding CEO of Encana Corp.” — put forth a “list of little-known facts” about climate change.

His article elicited a flurry of supportive and dismissive letters. What none of them really did was to take a hard look at these supposed “facts,” which often turn out to be mathematically unsound, scientifically illiterate, distorted or misleading. If this is representative of the quality of thinking and the level of mathematical and scientific literacy among the directors of global corporations, no wonder we are in such trouble.

But while tempting to ignore his article, it cannot go unanswered. It is in its way a classic example of the misleading propaganda that the fossil-fuel industry puts forth in its attempt to minimize the significance of climate change at the expense of the long-term well-being of humanity and the natural systems upon which we depend.

Citing a 2018 report from the U.S. National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration, one of Morgan’s first “facts” is that “the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now one molecule per 2,500 molecules, compared with one molecule per 3,000 molecules 50 years ago. That’s an average growth rate of just 10 molecules per year.”

I have no idea from where he gets “10 molecules per year.” I suspect he is subtracting 2,500 from 3,000 and then dividing 500 by 50 years, which is mathematically incorrect. Bear with me: There is some math involved, but it’s important to understand attempts like this to pull the wool over our eyes.

If the baseline is 3,000 molecules, and 50 years ago I had one molecule, then today, with one molecule per 2,500 molecules, I would have 1.2 molecules of CO2 per 3,000 molecules, an increase of 0.2 molecules per 3,000 molecules over 50 years, or 0.004 molecules per 3,000 molecules per year, far below the 50 molecules he suggests — which might make it seem even less important.

But he fails to point out that the increase from 1 to 1.2 molecules per 3,000 is a 20 per cent increase in the proportion of CO2 over the past 50 years. In fact, it is more than that. The NOAA report he refers to notes that the CO2 level in December 1969 was 324 parts per million and in December 2018, almost 50 years later, it was 409 ppm. This is an increase of 85 ppm of CO2 over the past 50 years (much less than Morgan’s 500), which is a 26 per cent increase.

To put this in context — which Morgan does not — at a global average of 405 ppm in 2017, “carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years,” according to the NOAA’s website. Moreover, “the annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.” That is why we have global overheating and rapid climate change, with all the harm that results, including harm to human health.

Furthermore, “10 molecules per year” is a nonsensical statement without reference to a volume or a denominator. Ten molecules per year globally? In a millilitre? Per million molecules? I can only assume that “just 10 molecules per year” is an attempt to downplay the importance of parts per million of CO2 and to make the scientific concerns seem silly in everyday terms — after all, who cares about “just 10 molecules per year”?

Now all this may seem a bit abstract, but it is vitally important, because public discussion needs to be informed, not misinformed, if we are to make good decisions. If the media are going to continue to publish this sort of article they should come with a warning: “Caution — this article may be mathematically and scientifically illiterate and a misrepresentation and distortion of the facts and thus may be hazardous to your health and that of your descendants.”

Next week, I will discuss other problems with Morgan’s article.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.