Smelling Carbon

WHEN REALLY SMART PEOPLE encourage me to read something, I do. 

Charlie Fischer is one of the cleverest people I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside. He’s a chemical engineer turned corporate leader turned healthcare advocate. As CEO at two of the large energy companies where we both worked— TransCanada Pipelines and Nexen Inc.—Charlie was a guy we all looked up to (that he was 6’3” helped).

Charlie recommended I read Smelling Landa book advocating the merits of hydrogen as an energy solution. Hydrogen wasn’t on Charlies list of things to do, so that roused my curiousity. And doubly so, since energy guru David Scott’s book, published in 2008, predated the ‘climate change’ meetings in Paris. 

IMG_0702A  lot of nifty ideas on renewables and CO2 have crossed my desk in the last decade. I was a provincial government minister responsible for these files for a time. As I thumbed through the pages of Smelling Land, I realized it was less a book about hydrogen and more of a useful primer on the evolution of energy systems. And very beyond polarity!


David Scott uses a powerful narrative that tells a lot about current polarized thinking.

A true story:

In 1707, a cabin boy in the Royal Navy  went to the Admiral on a foggy night to say, “Sir, I smell land.” Advice from a cabin boy to an officer was neither expected or welcomed, so when the boy came round the second time to issue the warning — the ship risked striking land — the boy was hanged.

Meantime: the ship ran aground, and sank.

The cabin boy was correct. He sensed things the Admiral didn’t and lives were saved to tell the story. He blew the whistle and it got him killed.

And it’s the same with beyond polarity (except nobody dies — hopefully).

If you have an ability to sniff out the polarities, to recognize that people are being lured into opposing sides, you likely know there are risks by saying so. How do you avoid the cabin boy’s dilemma?


In 2008, it was understood carbon was a problem. Ten years later we have a polarized world of Climate Apocalypse vs. Climate Deniers. 

How did the issue become so polarized in a decade? 

Why do highly motivated, well-intentioned people believe personal sacrifice is the only way to make the world a better place?

Good intentions alone can be dangerous. They bring self-satisfaction that can anaesthetize thinking and sideline rationality.”  — DAVID SCOTT, author of ‘Smelling Land’


It may seem obvious, but Scott reminds the reader, “words shape action.”

Charlie Fischer believes this simple truth can inform better patient-focused healthcare in our province.

If we can’t describe a problem, Charlie reasons, we are unlikely to solve it. Flipping things over: if we can’t describe an opportunity, we are unlikely to capture it. And despite best intents, it might twist it into a problem.


“Familiar words, carelessly used,” Scott writes, “can confound clear thinking.”

Exhibit #1: In the late 1970s, fossil fuels were thought to have had their day. The rallying cry: We’re running out of energy!

The response: Trudeau (the elder) imposed the National Energy Program and a price cap on Alberta energy. In the United States, legislators passed a Fuels Use Act making it illegal to use natural gas for electricity generation. Coal was used instead. Uh-huh–coal.

Exhibit #2: Nuclear power is too dangerous!

Chernobyl! Fukushima! Canada is reluctant to advance nuclear power generation (regardless of being at the forefront with CANDU, a generation ago) Meantime: remote communities in our country burn diesel that costs a fortune to ship there; a clean, small-scale nuclear plant could generate more than enough power.

Elsewhere: France has embraced nuclear power. In France, nukes are not even an issue.

Exhibit #3: Renewables are virtuous! 

In 2008, Scott questioned the indiscriminate passion for renewables. The boosterism. Whales are a renewable energy source! Certainly there are places and times when renewable energy sources make sense. Scott isn’t anti-renewable, he’s just pro-rational.

“The truth, of course, is that any renewable source will come with environmental intrusion, especially if it makes an important contribution to our [energy] needs. Only the little guys, harvesting minuscule [energy], won’t. But when they grow up, watch out!” — DAVID SCOTT, author of  ‘Smelling Land’


If it’s culture that shapes our response to technical changes, Scott has some advice.

Mainstream media needs to get educated on science and engineering literacy. Avoid the low-hanging hysteria.

Media reports, Scott says, determines the public’s understanding and therefore its perception of things. And public perception shapes what legislators can legislate.

In 2008, Scott foresaw how challenging it would be for governments to legislate carbon taxes and carbon-reduction incentives. He encouraged politicians to focus on energy infrastructure; to avoid picking technology winners & losers.

You’re told we can’t have it both ways (a tell-tale sign of polarized thinking). Perhaps it’s closer to the truth that people just enjoy the argument culture, and media is just obliging.

Angela Merkel nailed it.

Climate change “is a fact,” the German chancellor said recently. However, there are people who believe in climate change more as a faith  — with no room for compromise — a religion of absolutes. I’m not one of them.

Together, we need to figure out how to move beyond culture vs. commerce in climate change. 


Donna Kennedy-Glans, June 2018


2 thoughts on “Smelling Carbon

  1. A good blog!

    To me, a key sentence is “Why do highly motivated, well-intentioned people believe personal sacrifice is the only way to make the world a better place?”

    That is, I think most people are ready to accept analysis and action unless it affects them personally, and then many of them will find ways to challenge and even to reject the original hypothesis. For example, I suggest people are okay with AGW and CC until they’ve confronted by a carbon tax.

    Looking back over the decades, we gradually grew to accept the need to take action on CFCs and HFCs, and probably because the impact on us wasn’t high. We accepted the need to recycle; again, because the impact was low (e.g. a deposit on bottles meant that we had to adjust what we threw out and we got used to visiting the local bottle depot, but no biggie) and we could see the results; i.e. less garbage lying around.

    We grudgingly got used to the sharply-rising cost of cigarettes and restrictions on where we could smoke; again, I suggest, because the impacts were tangible and positive.

    But action on CC seems to have galvanized many people. It’s hard to see the impact of CC on our world. Anyway, who cares about low-lying Pacific islands? And, most of all, we don’t like the impact on us. Few of use like the idea of higher gas prices. We don’t like being told we should buy a smaller car, drive less, or consider public transit. Ditto, higher NG prices… especially when we need to heat our homes.

    It affect us measurably, and the natural instinct is to question either the science behind CC and/or the efficacy of actions to reduce GHG emissions. We question the need for Canada to take strong action… we’re a small, cold-climate country and one that’s heavily dependant on O&G for jobs and revenue… and it’s really India and China’s problem to take action on, amirite?

    And when companies, certain media and certain political parties speak out against the need to take action and challenge the science, many of us like what we hear.

    Total polarization.

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