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Confused by the tar sands climate threat? Take a look.

Update: My chart below has been widely reposted already. NRDC included it their lobbying package sent to every US Senator and Representative before the incredibly close vote on March 8th to once again deny the Keystone XL permit. Other groups have reposted it including Forest Ethics, Tar Sands Action, Oil Change International and

Update 2: It has been pointed out to me that a circle labelled “recoverable now” in my original chart is really an estimate for “will become economic.” I’ve changed the chart and text below to reflect this.

In an ancient fable, people in the dark describe the different parts of an elephant they happen to be touching: tusk, tail, ear, trunk, belly, leg. When they compare notes they discover deep disagreements.

Navigating modern day climate claims surrounding the Alberta tar sands feels a lot like trying to make sense of those ancient notes.

Not only do the tar sands have many components but each has vague and sometimes overlapping nicknames: reserves, oil-in-place, recoverable, proven, viable, future. Add to that a blender of techno-speak and metaphor such as 200 ppm, 160 GtC, 50 per cent of estimated resource, “carbon bomb”, 0.36°C, “at our significance level” and 85 tC ‘equal share’.

All this confusion makes it hard for Canadians to address our own elephant in the room: how much climate pollution from the tar sands is compatible with a safe and stable climate system.

To make sense of the jumble of climate impact estimates and terminology I created this graphic to try to bring them all together. It’s my attempt to draw that elephant in a familiar landscape.

Carbon bomb? This new graphic lets you decide.

Here’s a quick tour.

Two small brown circles on top show the cumulative climate pollution from all the fossil fuels ever burned in Canada. Canada is the 9th largest of 185 nations in all time total cumulative climate pollution. All the climate pollution from all the coal ever burned in Canada is the smaller of the two brown circles.

The larger red circles show the relative amount of climate pollution that would be released if each of the different slices of the tar sands is excavated and burned. To give a sense of scale, potential tar sands emissions are compared with past fossil fuel emissions.

Here is a description of each, starting from smallest and working outwards…

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