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Keeping Canada's tar sands treasure buried

195 countries, including Canada, have formally agreed that we need to limit the Earth's temperature rise over pre-industrial levels to two degrees. It's uncontroversial. Because going much beyond a two degree increase would be "incompatible with an organized global community" in the words of one of the U.K.'s top climate scientists. And if you’re not sure what that would look like, imagine the movie Mad Max but replace Mel Gibson’s character with a pile of hot dirt.

To have a decent chance of staying below two degrees, the world can only burn around a thousand more gigatonnes of CO2. But current fossil fuel reserves in the ground are about 3000 gigatonnes. If we burn all that it would be beyond Mad Max. It would be like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when those guys' faces melt off, but realistic and not suddenly like Wallace & Gromit attempting horror.

Companies are spending billions searching for more fossil fuel reserves, and we literally can't burn the stuff we've already found. And I don't mean literally in a "literally zillions" kind of way. We cannot physically do it and hope for a Mentally Sound Max future.

A new study this month in Nature made headlines by restating these numbers, but it went further to say specifically which reserves make the most sense to leave unburned. For Canada it means leaving 71 per cent of natural gas, 97 per cent of coal, and 99 per cent of oil sands in the ground.

And like a patient being told they have six months to live, we can expect the Canadian oil and gas sector to react with denial, and then to publicly challenge the credibility of the doctor, and then pay another doctor to give a better diagnosis. You know, the things terminally ill patients normally do. The metaphor works.   

Fossil fuel companies will do everything in their power to get their reserves above ground, because their stock prices depend on it. If everyone agreed with the conclusions of this Nature paper, the value of fossil fuel companies would crash.

So by investing in their stocks, you're effectively placing a bet on how long they can fool people. And while companies have fooled us into buying a lot of stupid crap, from Snuggies to two-person Snuggies to camouflage Snuggies, a lot more is at stake this time than just our dignity. 

This video originally appeared on The Toronto Star.

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