Another soul-searching post from Alejandro Frid.
Confession time. This is going to be delicate, and might even ruffle some big feathers. Still, all of us need to talk about it. In fact, I want to trigger a wide conversation on the flaws and merits of what I did.
Back in March of this year I saw a posting for a job with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) seeking a ‘conservation biologist to provide expert advice in the design and implementation of a Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP) in northern British Columbia, Canada’. The job sounded cool and important. I was suited for it, knew northern British Columbia well, and loved the idea of working there.
But there was a catch. The job was focused on the local impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure while dissociating itself from the climate impacts of burning that fuel, and involved collaborating with the fossil fuel company. According to the posting, this was not a new thing for the Smithsonian:
Guided by the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, SCBI works with a selected group of oil and gas companies since 1996 to develop models designed to achieve conservation and sustainable development objectives while also protecting and conserving biodiversity, and maintaining vital ecosystem services that benefit both humans and wildlife.
Given that climate change already is diminishing global biodiversity and hampering the ecosystem services on which we all depend, the logic seemed inconsistent to me. But there was little time to ponder it. The application deadline had just passed and my soft-money position with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre was fizzling out. So I applied, hastily, figuring that I would deal with the issue later, if they ever got back to me.
Months went by without a word and I felt relieved, freed from choice. But all that changed with an email requesting a video interview as soon as possible. Using the legitimate excuse that I was out in an intense field course, I managed to stall the interview by a week, which gave me some time to consult friends, do some reading and CO2 calculations, and just wrap my mind and conscience around the whole thing. All this led to my letter to the Smithsonian, reproduced below in its entirety, sent the day before my scheduled interview.
7 May 2013
To Whom It May Concern:
I was pleased to find out last week that the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES) of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) shortlisted me for an interview regarding the position of conservation biologist in northern BC. I have great regard for SCBI, and at first I was delighted by the potential opportunities. In the last few days, however, I have reviewed the context of the position and have decided to withdraw my application. My reasons for doing so are based entirely on personal ethics. Let me explain.
According to the job description, the work would entail “research to study, understand, predict, and monitor the impact of infrastructure development projects on biodiversity and ecosystem services”. In this case the infrastructure, to be built by Apache Canada Ltd., is to serve the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and includes a plant, storage facility, marine-on loading facilities, and the 470 km Pacific Trails Pipeline. On the positive side, it is good that the very high scientific standards of SCBI will help reduce the local impacts of the LNG infrastructure project. On the negative side, a sole focus on local impacts implicitly turns a blind eye to the severe climate impacts associated with the project.
According to their website, The Pacific Trails Pipeline will have a capacity of up to 1 billion cubic feet per day. When burnt, that amount of gas would release 19 Mt of CO2 per year . Emissions generated during extraction, transport, processing, storing, and handling would be additional.
The impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services of releasing that much CO2 into the atmosphere would, in my opinion, trump the accomplishments of any project focused on local impacts of infrastructure. For instance, Rogelj et al. (Nature Climate Change 2013, 3:405-412) estimate that to avoid the climate disasters that will occur if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, annual carbon emissions must drop globally from 52 Gt emitted in 2012 to 41-47 Gt by 2020. Given that the Pacific Trails Pipeline would transport annually the equivalent of 0.04% of total global emissions generated in 2012, the development of that project or any other new fossil fuel infrastructure is the opposite of what should happen if we are to reduce the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on biodiversity and society.
I want to conclude by saying that I have great admiration and respect for SCBI. Having said that, I am stunned that SCBI is not taking a stronger stance against the climate and global impacts associated with new infrastructure for fossil fuel exports. While all sorts of arguments for socioeconomic and political compromises can be made, in the end it comes down to physics and chemistry, which know no compromise. The current concentration of atmospheric CO2 is 398 ppm and rising at an average rate of 2 ppm/year. While LNG is a less dirty fuel than bitumen or coal, it is still a fossil fuel that only contributes to the rise in CO2 emissions, taking us farther away from 350 ppm, the upper limit of ‘safe’ CO2 concentrations . Emissions have to go down, and building new infrastructure for fossil fuels is not going to make that happen.
So please accept the withdrawal of my application.
Alejandro Frid, PhD
A day after sending my letter, journalist Stephen Leahy reported that
“…methane leaks from the natural gas industry in the province of British Columbia are likely 7× greater than reported. This is a big increase, adding nearly 25% to BC’s carbon footprint: like adding 3 million cars“.
Two weeks later, Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Research Institute released their Unburnable Carbon report, which points to the economic foolishness of building new infrastructure for fossil fuels that would lock us deeper into a carbon economy. And the more I read the more I find peer-reviewed evidence that fossil fuel corporations have been key players of the climate change denial industry, and that barriers to large-scale use of renewable energies are ‘primarily social and political, not technological or economic‘. So I only stand firmer on my decision today.
I had sent my letter with no expectation of a substantive response. Accordingly, the reply was limited to ‘we appreciate your thoughts’ and ‘best of luck in your future endeavours’. Fair enough. The Smithsonian had signed on to a job interview for work that they had already committed to, not to an ethics debate. So it is up to the rest of us—and the Smithsonian is welcome to join anytime—to discuss this matter further.
What would you do in a similar situation?
Is the long-term conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services best served by working with the fossil fuel industry on local impacts or by boycotting industry collaborations that implicitly legitimise and endorse further growth of our carbon economy?
Should professional societies, like the Society for Conservation Biology, develop a formal position on these matters?
Over to you.Alejandro Frid firstname.lastname@example.org
 Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008:Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos Sci J, 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217