Tag: Athabasca oil sands

Will the last person to leave turn the lights out!

It’s really terribly easy  – we just have to leave the oil in the ground!

The current issue of The Economist has an article on page 43, under The Americas section, headed Cheap at the price.

It’s a review of the biggest oil auction this year.

A single bid for a vast field shows the weakness of Brazil’s state-led approach to developing its oil reserves

SIX years after discovering giant offshore“pré-sal” oil deposits, so called because they lie beneath a thick layer of salt under the ocean bed, Brazil has finally auctioned the rights to develop some of its deeply buried wealth. On October 21st the Libra field, off Rio de Janeiro’s coast (see map), was sold to a consortium led by Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil firm, and including France’s Total, Anglo-Dutch Shell and China’s state-owned CNOOC and CNPC. Libra’s estimated 8 billion-12 billion barrels of recoverable oil make it the biggest oil prospect in the world to be auctioned this year. Once it reaches peak production, sometime in the next decade, it should increase Brazil’s output from 2.1m to about 3.5m barrels per day.

Libra oil field

The article was critical of the way Brazil managed the auction resulting in just one consortium bidding, against the expectation there would be strong competition for the oil from possibly 40 companies despite the huge costs in extracting it from over 6,000 metres (nearly 20,000 feet) below sea-level.  The article didn’t even hint at the madness of even thinking it should be extracted but I guess that’s The Economist for you.

So with that in mind, let me turn to a recent essay from TomDispatch by world-renown climate-change activist Bill McKibben.  As regular readers will be aware Tom Engelhardt of the TomDispatch blog has given blanket permission for TD essays to be republished here on Learning from Dogs.

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Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?

Posted by Bill McKibben at 4:34pm, October 27, 2013.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century.  You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future.  And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert.  And that isn’t all.

From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in.  In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.”  Huzzah and olé!

And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice?  After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth?  Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.)  All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.

There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground — or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.

Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom

X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency 
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.

The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south.  The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.

In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.

These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).

But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline.  It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”

Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.

On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.

His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking.  Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane — another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment.  At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.

The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.

There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.

Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine.  These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.

At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.

If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically  reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.

But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben

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President Obama turned 52-years-old on August 4th this year. Michelle, his wife, will be 50-years-old next January, 17th.  Their children, Malia and Sasha, are aged 15 and 12 respectively.

Thus this family of four are all sufficiently young to be alive when the consequences of burning all this oil will be very painfully obvious, when all the power and money in the world will come to naught.

So it strikes me that young Malia and Sasha should be shown where Planet Earth’s master circuit-breaker is located.  Would be such a shame to leave the lights on when there’s no-one at home.

North America burning bright - an image from NASA.
North America burning bright – an image from NASA.

The Keystone XL protest event.

A guest post from Tom Engelhardt.

As regular followers of this blog know, Tom Engelhardt of Tom Dispatch fame has very kindly given permission for essays on Tom Dispatch to be republished on Learning from Dogs.  I try to be circumspect about which essays I do republish.

I’m away from my desk for the next two days which seemed like a great reason to republish this reflection from Tom on the Keystone XL protest event held in Washington D.C last February 17th.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Climate Change as History’s Deal-Breaker

Where Is Everybody?
Why It’s So Tough to Get Your Head Around Climate Change 
By Tom Engelhardt

Two Sundays ago, I traveled to the nation’s capital to attend what was billed as “the largest climate rally in history” and I haven’t been able to get the experience — or a question that haunted me — out of my mind.  Where was everybody?

First, though, the obvious weather irony: climate change didn’t exactly come out in support of that rally. In the midst of the warmest years and some of the warmest winters on record, the demonstration, which focused on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline — it will bring tar-sands oil, some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-richest energy available from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast — was the coldest I’ve ever attended. I thought I’d lose a few fingers and toes while listening to the hour-plus of speakers, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, who were theoretically warming the crowd up for its march around the (other) White House.

And I also experienced a moment of deep disappointment. When I arrived early at the spot in front of the Washington Monument on the National Mall where we were to assemble, my heart sank.  It looked like only a few thousand protestors were gathering for what had been billed as a monster event.  I had taken it for granted that I would be adding one small, aging body (and voice) to a vast crowd at a propitious moment to pressure Barack Obama to become the climate-change president he hasn’t been.  After all, he has a decision to make that’s his alone: whether or not to allow that pipeline to be built.  Nixing it would help keep a potentially significant contributor to climate change, those Albertan tar sands, in the ground.  In other words, I hoped to play my tiny part in preserving a half-decent future for this planet, my children, and my new grandson.

Sixty environmental and other organizations were backing the demonstration, including the Sierra Club with its hundreds of thousands of members.  Given what was potentially at stake, it never crossed my mind that the turnout wouldn’t be substantial.  In fact, on that frigid day, lots of demonstrators did turn up.  Evidently, they knew the dirty little secret of such events: that much talk would precede a modest amount of walking and inventive slogan shouting.  So they arrived — poured in actually — late, and in real numbers.

In the end, the organizers estimated attendance at somewhere in the 35,00050,000 range.  Media reports varied between the usual “thousands,” generically used to describe (or, if you’re in a conspiratorial frame of mind, minimize) any demonstration, and tens of thousands.  I have no way of estimating myself, but certainly the crowd was, in the end, sizeable, as well as young, enthusiastic, and loud.  It made itself heard passing the White House. Not that President Obama was there to hear anything.  He was then on a golf course in the Florida warmth teeing up with “a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas, and pipeline players.” That seemed to catch another kind of climate-change reality of our moment and strongly hinted at the strength of the forces any such movement is up against.  In the meantime, Keystone builder TransCanada was ominously completing the already green-lighted first half of the Texas-Oklahoma leg of its prospective future pipeline.

In the end, I felt genuine satisfaction at having been there, but given what was at stake, givenFrankenstorm Sandy, the devastating Midwestern drought and record southwestern fires of 2012, the Snowmageddon winter storm that had recently dropped 40 inches of the white stuff on Hamden, Connecticut, the blistering spring and summer of 2012, the fast-melting Arctic sea ice, and the fact that last year broke all heat records for the continental United States, given the build-up of billion-dollar weather disasters in recent years, and the growing emphasis on “extreme weather” events on the national TV news, shouldn’t hundreds of thousands have been there?  After all, I’ve been inantiwar demonstrations in which at least that many marched and in 1982, I found myself in my hometown in a crowd of a million demonstrating against the possibility of a world-ending nuclear war.  Is climate change a less important issue?

“There Is No Planet B”

While protesting that Sunday, I noted one slogan on a number of hand-made signs that struck me as the most pointed (and poignant) of the march: “There is no planet B.”  It seemed to sum up what was potentially at stake: a planet to live reasonably comfortably on.  You really can’t get much more basic than that, which is why hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, should have been out in the streets demanding that our leaders begin to attend to climate change before it’s quite literally too late.

After all, to my mind, climate change, global warming, extreme weather — call it what you will — is the obvious deal-breaker in human, if not planetary, history.  Everything but nuclear catastrophe pales by comparison, no matter the disaster: 9/11, 70,000 dead in Syria, failed wars, the grimmest of dictatorships, movements of hope that don’t deliver — all of that’s familiar history.  Those are the sorts of situations where you can try again, differently, or future generations can and maybe do far better.  All of it involves human beings who need to be dealt with or human structures that need to be changed.  While any of them may be the definition of “the worst of times,” they are also thedefinition of hope.

Nature and the weather are another matter (even if it’s humanity that, by burning of fossil fuels atincreasingly staggering rates, has created its own Frankenstein’s monster out of the natural world).  Climate change is clearly something new in our experience.  Even in its relatively early but visibly intensifying stages, it threatens to be the singular event in human history, because unlike every other disaster we can imagine (except a full-scale nuclear war or, as has happened in the planet’s past, a large meteorite or asteroid impact), it alone will alter the basis for life on this planet.

Raise the planet’s temperature by three to six degrees Celsius, as various well-respected scientific types and groups are now suggesting might happen by century’s end (and possibly throw in some more heat thanks to the melting of the permafrost in the north), and if you live in a city on a coastline, you’d better watch out.  And that only begins to suggest the problems humanity will face.

The world, at best, will be a distinctly poorer, less comfortable place for us (and from there the scenarios only get uglier).

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m no scientist.  I doubt I’d even be considered scientifically literate (though I try).  But the scientific consensus on the subject of climate change seems striking enough to me, and what’s happening around us is no less striking as a confirmation that our world is changing — and remarkably quickly at that.   Whether you read about melting glaciers, the melting Greenland ice shield, melting Arctic waters, melting permafrostacidifying oceans, intensifying storms, greater desertification, wilder wild fires, or so many other allied subjects, doesn’t it always seem that the rates of bad news are on the rise and the word “record” is usually lurking somewhere in the vicinity?

So I continue to wonder, given our situation on this planet, given our future and that of our children and grandchildren, where is everybody?

Can You Organize Against the Apocalypse?

Don’t for a second think that I have some magic answer to that question. Still, as it’s been on my mind, here’s an attempt to lay out at least some of the possible factors, micro to macro, that might have limited the size of that crowd two Sundays ago and perhaps might tend to limit the size of any climate-change crowd, as well as the mobilizing possibilities that lie in the disaster awaiting us.

Outreach: Yes, there were at least 60 groups involved, but how much outreach was there really?  Many people I know hadn’t heard a thing about the event.  And while climate change has been on the human agenda for a while now, a real movement to deal with what’s happening to us is in its absolute infancy.  There is so much outreach and so much education that still needs to be done.

The slowness of movements: It’s easy to forget how long it can take for movements of change to grow, for their messages to cohere, penetrate, and begin to make sense or seem meaningful to large numbers of people in terms of their everyday lives.  Despite its obvious long-term destructive power, for many reasons (see below) climate change might prove a particularly difficult issue to link to our everyday lives in ways that mobilize rather than demobilize us.  On a similarly difficult issue, the nuclear movement, it took literally decades to grow to that million-person march, and even early anti-Vietnam War protests were smaller than the recent Keystone demo.

Politics: Attitudes toward climate change have largely polarized along left-right lines, so that the issue seems politically ghettoized at the moment (though there was a time when Republicans of some stature were concerned about the subject).  To my mind, it’s part of the insanity of our moment that the preservation of our planet as we have known it, which should be the great conservative issue of our era, is now pure poison on the right.  Even American paleo-conservatives, who are willing to make common cause on American war policy with left anti-imperial types, won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.  When this begins to change, you’ll know something of significance is happening.

Enemies: Here’s a factor it’s easy to ignore, but no one should.  Giant energy companies and energy-connected right-wing billionaires have for years now been funneling staggering amounts of money into a network of right-wing think tanks and websites dedicated to creating doubts about climate change and promoting climate denial.  In the latest revelation about the well-financed climate-denial movement, the British Guardian reports that between 2002 and 2010, $120 million dollars was shuttled, “using a secretive funding route,” into “more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.” It all came from conservative billionaires (and not just the Koch brothers) who were guaranteed total anonymity. And it “helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.”  The funders of this “movement” and their minions should, of course, be disqualified on the spot.  They are almost all identified with and profit from the very fossil fuels that climate-change scientists say are heating up the planet.  But they — and a few outlier scientific types they’ve scrounged up — provide the “balance,” the “two sides,” that the mainstream media adores.  And they play upon the arcane nature of Science itself to intimidate the rest of us.

Science: When you have a bad boss, or your country is ruled by a dictator, or your bank cheats you, it’s within your everyday experience.  You have some body of personal knowledge to draw on to understand the situation.  You are personally offended.  But Science?  For most of us, the very word is intimidating.  It means what we didn’t understand in school and gave up understanding long ago.  To grasp climate change means teaching yourself Science with no professors in sight.  Filling the knowledge bank you don’t have on your own.  It’s daunting.  Oh yes, the Ice-Albedo feedback loop.  Sure thing.  If the boss, the bank, the dictator takes your home, you get it.  If Superstorm Sandy turns your home into rubble, what you get is an argument.  What you need is an education to know just what role “climate change” might have played in making that storm worse, or whether it played any role at all.  Similarly, you need an education to grasp the dangers of those tar sands from Canada.  It can be overwhelming.  Doubts are continually raised (see “enemies”), the natural variability of the weather makes climate change easier to dismiss, and sometimes, when Science takes the lead, it’s easier just to duck.

Nature: Science is bad enough; now, throw in Nature.  How many of us still live on farms?  How many of us still live in “the wilderness”?  Isn’t Nature what we catch on the Discovery Channel?  Isn’t it what we pay a lot of money to drop in on briefly and ogle while on vacation?  In our everyday lives, most of us are, in some way, no longer a part of this natural world of “ours” — not at least until drought strikes your region, or that “record wildfire” approaches your community, or that bear/coyote/skunk/puma stumbles into your (urban or suburban) neck of the woods.  Connecting with Nature, no less imagining the changing natural state of a planet going haywire (along with the likelihood of mass, climate-changed induced extinctions) is again not exactly an easy thing to do; it’s not what comes “naturally” to us.

Blame: Any movement needs a target.  But this isn’t the Arab Spring.  Climate change is not Hosni Mubarak.  This isn’t the Occupy moment.  Climate change is not simply “Wall Street” or the 1%.  It’s not simply the Obama administration, a polarized Congress filled with energy-company-supported climate ignorers and deniers, or the Chinese leadership that’s exploiting coal for all its worth, or the Canadian government that abandoned the Kyoto treaty and supports that tar-sands pipelineor the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put its money where its mouth is in American electoral politics when it comes to climate change.  Yes, the giant energy companies, which are making historic profits off our burning planet, couldn’t be worse news or more culpable.  The oil billionaires are a disaster, and so on.  Still, targets are almost too plentiful and confusing.  There are indeed villains, but so many of them!  And what, after all, about the rest of us who lend a hand in burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow?  What about our consumer way of life to which all of us are, to one degree or another, addicted, and which has been a model for the rest of the world.  Who then is the enemy?  What exactly is to be done?  In other words, there is anamorphousness to who’s aiding and abetting climate change that can make the targeting on which any movement thrives difficult.

The future:  In the environmental movement, there is some serious discussion about why it’s so hard for climate change to gain traction among the public (and in the media).  It’s sometimes said that the culprit is our brains, which weren’t set up, in an evolutionary sense, to deal with a problem that won’t deliver its full whammy for perhaps close to a century or more.  Actually, I wonder about this.  I would argue, based on the historical record, that our brains are well enough equipped to face distant futures and their problems.  In fact, I think it’s a reasonable proposition that if you can’t imagine the future, if you can’t imagine building something not just for yourself but for your children or the children of others and of future generations, then you probably can’t build a movement at all.  All movements, even those intent on preserving the past, are in some sense future-oriented.

The apocalypse: Here’s the thing, though.  It’s difficult to organize for or even against a future that you can’t imagine yourself and those children and future generations in.  The thought of world-ending events may simply close down our operative imaginations.  The end of the world may be popular in fiction, but in everyday life, I suspect, the apocalypse is the version of the future that it’s hardest to mobilize around.  If the prospect is that it’s already hopeless, that the suffering is going to be largely down the line, that we’re all going down anyway, and the planet will simply be destroyed, well, why bother?  Why not focus on what matters to you now and forget the rest?  This is wheredenial, the almost involuntary turning away from unpalatable futures that seem beyond our power or ability to alter, comes into play.  If the future is essentially over before it begins, then better to ignore it and go about your still palatable enough daily life.

Putting Your Money on Climate Change

Add all these factors (and others I’ve probably ignored) together and perhaps it’s a miracle that so many people turned out in Washington two weekends ago.  As we’ve already learned in this nuclear age of ours, it’s quite possible for a grid of exterminationism, a sense of hopelessness about the distant future, to descend upon us almost unnoticed.  That grid in no way stops you from thinking about your own life in the present, or even about the immediate future, about, say, getting married, having a child, making a living, but it’s crippling when it comes to mobilizing for a different future.

I’ve always believed that some of the vaunted organizing power and energy of the famed Sixties came from the fact that, in 1963, the superpowers achieved an agreement on the testing of nuclear weapons that sent them underground and more or less out of consciousness.  The last end-of-the-world films of that era appeared in 1964, just as bomb-shelter and civil defense programs were heading for the graveyard. By 1969, the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy had even eliminated “nuclear” from its own name.  Without necessarily being aware of it, many (especially among the young), I suspect, felt their energies liberated from a paralyzing sense of doom.  You no longer had to think about scenarios in which the two Cold War superpowers would destroy the planet.  It made almost anything seem possible. For a brief period before the Reagan presidency raised such fears again, you could look to the future with a sense of hope, which was exhilarating.

Can there be any doubt that, to steal a phrase from that era, the personal is indeed political?  On the other hand, the apocalypse, particularly an apocalypse that features Science and Nature in its starring roles, seems anything but personal or stoppable — unless you’re a farmer and a pipeline filled with a particularly nasty version of oil runs right through your nearest aquifer.  The real issue here is how to make climate change personal in a way that doesn’t simply cause us to shut down.

One of the cleverer approaches to climate change has been that of Bill McKibben, the man who organized 350.org.  In a determined fashion, he’s been breaking the overwhelming nature of climate change down into some of its component parts that can be grasped, focused on, and organized around.  Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and encouraging students to lobby to make their schools divest from big fossil fuel companies are examples of his approach.

More generally, climate change is, in fact, becoming more personal by the year.  In the “extreme weather,” which so regularly leads the TV news, its effects are coming closer to us all.  Increasing numbers of us know, in our hearts, that it’s the real deal.  And no, it doesn’t have to be the apocalypse either.  The planet itself, of course, will survive and, given a few hundred thousand or even a few million years, will recover and once again be a thriving place of some unknown sort.  As for humanity, we’re a clever enough species.  Sooner or later, we will undoubtedly figure out how to survive as well, but the questions are: How many of us?  On what terms?  In what kind of degraded state?  And what can we do soon to mitigate climate change’s worst future effects?

Perhaps a modern, post-religious version of seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous bet is what’s needed.  He argued that it was in the interest of those who remained in doubt about God to place a wager on His existence.  As he pointed out, with such a bet, if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.

Something somewhat analogous might be said of climate change.  Perhaps it’s time to put your wager on the reality of climate change, on its paramount importance to us and our children and our children’s children, and to bet as well that your efforts (and those of others) will in the end make enough of a difference.  Then, if you win, humanity wins everything; if you lose, well, there will be hell to pay.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Whoops!

Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.Aldous Huxley

Today’s post is a republishing of a recent essay on TomDispatch by Professor Michael Klare; professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.  Once again, I am indebted to Tom Engelhardt for such permission.

However, before Michael Klare’s post let me interject this.

Tens of thousands marched to the White House on February 17th, to protest about the Keystone XL pipeline.  Hundreds of thousands more across the globe are in support of the campaign to prevent the XL pipeline from ever being commissioned.

To my mind, political leaders are expected to show wisdom, patience and care in terms of how they respond to public opinion.

So was this really the smartest thing for President Obama to be doing at the same time as the protesters were massing outside the White House!  From the Huffington Post:

Obama Golfed With Oil Men As Climate Protesters Descended On White House

al_obama_021813

WASHINGTON — On the same weekend that 40,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington to protest construction of the Keystone Pipeline — to its critics, a monument to carbon-based folly — President Obama was golfing in Florida with a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas and pipeline players.

Read more of this story here.

On to the TomDispatch guest essay, always introduced by Tom.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Will the Keystone XL Pipeline Go Down?

Posted by Michael Klare at 4:54pm, February 10, 2013.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Don’t miss Bill Moyers’s interview with TD Managing Editor Nick Turse on this week’s “Moyers & Company,” which you can watch by clicking here.  (And I don’t mind adding that, in introducing Turse, Moyers calls TomDispatch “the indispensible website if you want the news powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.”)  The focus of the interview is his new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, which, miraculously enough, will be #35 on next week’s New York Times (extended) bestseller list — and well it should be.  If you want to know more about Turse’s work, check out Jonathan Schell’s powerful TomDispatch essay “How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?” Keep in mind that, for a donation of $100 to this website, you can still get a personalized, signed copy of the book.  Just check out the offer at our donation page.  Or if, like so many others, you are planning to buy the book at Amazon and you go there via any TomDispatch book link like this one, we get a small cut of whatever you purchase at no cost to you. Tom]

Think of it as a prospective irony: In a spirit of pure, blind partisanship, the drill-baby-drill folks in the Republican Party may have done themselves in.  After all, their obsession with the Benghazi incident led them to launch a preemptive strike against the president’s choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, for her statements on what happened when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were murdered there.  They sent her nomination down in flames.  In the process, it’s just possible that they took out something far dearer to them.  Though it didn’t get much attention during her disastrous nomination moment, we did learn that Rice and her husband had made significant investments in companies connected to the Canadian tar-sands industry and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring the resulting crude (and carbon-dirty) oil 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.  They reportedly had $300,000-$600,000 in stock in TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.  In addition, “about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel,” including Enbridge, a company which hopes to build another tar-sands pipeline.  Had she been secretary of state, she might have had one of the great conflicts of interest of our time (or a major divestment problem).

Congress seems desperate to see that pipeline built.  More than half the Senate — 44 Republicans, including key Rice opponent John McCain, and nine Democrats — signed a letter to that effect, but it matters little.  Because of the international border Keystone XL crosses, only two people stand between us and its construction, the secretary of state and President Obama, who alone will make the final decision on whether the project should proceed. The president’s second choice for secretary of state, who recently swept through the nomination process, is of course former Senator John Kerry, a “climate hawk” who has already said that he will be deeply involved in the State Department’s review of the pipeline.  (It’s worth noting that TransCanada, trying to cover all its bases, hired one of Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign staffers as a lobbyist, along with “heavyweights” from past Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential runs, and that Kerry does have to divest himself of holdings in two Canadian energy companies which have supported the pipeline.)

No one, of course, can know what the new secretary of state and the president will decide.  They are, however, already being pushed hard by a growing coalition of environmentally oriented groups, fearful of what it would mean to get all those tar sands out of the ground and (as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.  In addition, this coming Sunday, February 17th, an enormous “forward on climate” rally is to take place in Washington.  Originally organized by 350.org and TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben but now involving dozens of groups, it is expected to draw worried protestors (including this writer) from all over to demonstrate on the National Mall.  The goal is, in part, to push President Obama to make the necessary decision on the Keystone pipeline.  It’s remarkable that one man has the power to shoot this project down.  As another TomDispatch regular, Michael Klare, explains below, should he do so, the tar-sands industry might never recover.  That would lend a genuine hand to our over-heating planet, which means there has seldom been a situation where demonstrations to pressure a president were more in order. Tom

A Presidential Decision That Could Change the World 
The Strategic Importance of Keystone XL 
By Michael T. Klare

Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.  In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines.  It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet.  If that sounds overly dramatic, let me explain.

Sometimes, what starts out as a minor skirmish can wind up determining the outcome of a war — and that seems to be the case when it comes to the mounting battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. If given the go-ahead by President Obama, it will daily carry more than 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to those Gulf Coast refineries, providing a desperately needed boost to the Canadian energy industry. If Obama says no, the Canadians (and their American backers) will encounter possibly insuperable difficulties in exporting their heavy crude oil, discouraging further investment and putting the industry’s future in doubt.

The battle over Keystone XL was initially joined in the summer of 2011, when environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and 350.org, which he helped found, organized a series of non-violent anti-pipeline protests in front of theWhite House to highlight the links between tar sands production and the accelerating pace of climate change. At the same time, farmers and politicians in Nebraska, through which the pipeline is set to pass, expressed grave concern about its threat to that state’s crucial aquifers. After all, tar-sands crude is highly corrosive, and leaks are a notable risk.

In mid-January 2012, in response to those concerns, other worries about the pipeline, and perhaps a looming presidential campaign season, Obama postponed a decision on completing the controversial project.  (He, not Congress, has the final say, since it will cross an international boundary.)  Now, he must decide on a suggested new route that will, supposedly, take Keystone XL around those aquifers and so reduce the threat to Nebraska’s water supplies.

Ever since the president postponed the decision on whether to proceed, powerful forces in the energy industry and government have been mobilizing to press ever harder for its approval. Its supporters argue vociferously that the pipeline will bring jobs to America and enhance the nation’s “energy security” by lessening its reliance on Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Their true aim, however, is far simpler: to save the tar-sands industry (and many billions of dollars in U.S. investments) from possible disaster.

Just how critical the fight over Keystone has become in the eyes of the industry is suggested by a recent pro-pipeline editorial in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal:

“Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs.”

Opponents of Keystone XL, who are planning a mass demonstration at the White House on February 17th, have also come to view the pipeline battle in epic terms. “Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb,” McKibben wrote at TomDispatch. “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.” Halting Keystone would not by itself prevent those high concentrations, he argued, but would impede the production of tar sands, stop that “carbon bomb” from further heating the atmosphere, and create space for a transition to renewables. “Stopping Keystone will buy time,” he says, “and hopefully that time will be used for the planet to come to its senses around climate change.”

A Pipeline With Nowhere to Go?

Why has the fight over a pipeline, which, if completed, would provide only 4% of the U.S. petroleum supply, assumed such strategic significance? As in any major conflict, the answer lies in three factors: logistics, geography, and timing.

Start with logistics and consider the tar sands themselves or, as the industry and its supporters in government prefer to call them, “oil sands.” Neither tar nor oil, thesubstance in question is a sludge-like mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen (a degraded, carbon-rich form of petroleum). Alberta has a colossal supply of the stuff — at least a trillion barrels in known reserves, or the equivalent of all the conventional oil burned by humans since the onset of commercial drilling in 1859.  Even if you count only the reserves that are deemed extractible by existing technology, its tar sands reportedly are the equivalent of 170 billion barrels of conventional petroleum — more than the reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The availability of so much untapped energy in a country like Canada, which is private-enterprise-friendly and where the political dangers are few, has been a magnet for major international energy firms. Not surprisingly, many of them, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, have invested heavily in tar-sands operations.

Tar sands, however, bear little resemblance to the conventional oil fields which these companies have long exploited. They must be treated in various energy-intensive ways to be converted into a transportable liquid and then processed even further into usable products. Some tar sands can be strip-mined like coal and then “upgraded” through chemical processing into a synthetic crude oil — SCO, or “syncrude.” Alternatively, the bitumen can be pumped from the ground after the sands are exposed to steam, which liquefies the bitumen and allows its extraction with conventional oil pumps. The latter process, known as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), produces a heavy crude oil.  It must, in turn, be diluted with lighter crudes for transportation by pipeline to specialized refineries equipped to process such oil, most of which are located on the Gulf Coast.

Extracting and processing tar sands is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, far more so than most conventional oil drilling operations. Considerable energy is needed to dig the sludge out of the ground or heat the water into steam for underground injection; then, additional energy is needed for the various upgrading processes. The environmental risks involved are enormous (even leaving aside the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that the whole process will pump into the atmosphere). The massive quantities of water needed for SAGD and those upgrading processes, for example, become contaminated with toxic substances.  Once used, they cannot be returned to any water source that might end up in human drinking supplies — something environmentalists say is already occurring.  All of this and the expenses involved mean that the multibillion-dollar investments needed to launch a tar-sands operation can only pay off if the final product fetches a healthy price in the marketplace.

And that’s where geography enters the picture.  Alberta is theoretically capable of producing five to six million barrels of tar-sands oil per day.  In 2011, however, Canada itself consumed only 2.3 million barrels of oil per day, much of it supplied by conventional (and cheaper) oil from fields in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.  That number is not expected to rise appreciably in the foreseeable future. No less significant, Canada’s refining capacity for all kinds of oil is limited to 1.9 million barrels per day, and few of its refineries are equipped to process tar sands-style heavy crude. This leaves the producers with one strategic option: exporting the stuff.

And that’s where the problems really begin. Alberta is an interior province and so cannot export its crude by sea. Given the geography, this leaves only three export options: pipelines heading east across Canada to ports on the Atlantic, pipelines heading west across the Rockies to ports in British Columbia, or pipelines heading south to refineries in the United States.

Alberta’s preferred option is to send the preponderance of its tar-sands oil to its biggest natural market, the United States. At present, Canadian pipeline companies do operate a number of conduits that deliver some of this oil to the U.S., notably the original Keystone conduit extending from Hardisty, Alberta, to Illinois and then southward to Cushing, Oklahoma. But these lines can carry less than one million barrels of crude per day, and so will not permit the massive expansion of output the industry is planning for the next decade or so.

In other words, the only pipeline now under development that would significantly expand Albertan tar-sands exports is Keystone XL.  It is vitally important to the tar-sands producers because it offers the sole short-term — or possibly even long-term — option for the export and sale of the crude output now coming on line at dozens of projects being developed across northern Alberta.  Without it, these projects will languish and Albertan production will have to be sold at a deep discount — at, that is, a per-barrel price that could fall below production costs, making further investment in tar sands unattractive. In January, Canadian tar-sands oil was already selling for $30-$40 less than West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the standard U.S. blend.

The Pipelines That Weren’t

Like an army bottled up geographically and increasingly at the mercy of enemy forces, the tar-sands producers see the completion of Keystone XL as their sole realistic escape route to survival.  “Our biggest problem is that Alberta is landlocked,” the province’s finance minister Doug Horner said in January. “In fact, of the world’s major oil-producing jurisdictions, Alberta is the only one with no direct access to the ocean. And until we solve this problem… the [price] differential will remain large.”

Logistics, geography, and finally timing. A presidential stamp of approval on the building of Keystone XL will save the tar-sands industry, ensuring them enough return to justify their massive investments. It would also undoubtedly prompt additional investments in tar-sands projects and further production increases by an industry that assumed opposition to future pipelines had been weakened by this victory.

A presidential thumbs-down and resulting failure to build Keystone XL, however, could have lasting and severe consequences for tar-sands production. After all, no other export link is likely to be completed in the near-term. The other three most widely discussed options — the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, British Columbia, an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver, British Columbia, and a plan to use existing, conventional-oil conduits to carry tar-sands oil across Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire to Portland, Maine — already face intense opposition, with initial construction at best still years in the future.

The Northern Gateway project, proposed by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, would stretch from Bruderheim in northern Alberta to Kitimat, a port on Charlotte Sound and the Pacific.  If completed, it would allow the export of tar-sands oil to Asia, where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees a significant future market (even though few Asian refineries could now process the stuff).  But unlike oil-friendly Alberta, British Columbia has a strong pro-environmental bias and many senior provincial officials have expressed fierce opposition to the project. Moreover, under the country’s constitution, native peoples over whose land the pipeline would have to travel must be consulted on the project — and most tribal communities are adamantly opposed to its construction.

Another proposed conduit — an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver — presents the same set of obstacles and, like the Northern Gateway project, has aroused strong opposition in Vancouver.

This leaves the third option, a plan to pump tar-sands oil to Ontario and Quebec and then employ an existing pipeline now used for oil imports. It connects to a terminal in Casco Bay, near Portland, Maine, where the Albertan crude would begin the long trip by ship to those refineries on the Gulf Coast. Although no official action has yet been taken to allow the use of the U.S. conduit for this purpose, anti-pipeline protests have already erupted in Portland, including one on January 26th that attracted more than 1,400 people.

With no other pipelines in the offing, tar sands producers are increasing their reliance on deliveries by rail.  This is producing boom times for some long-haul freight carriiers, but will never prove sufficient to move the millions of barrels in added daily output expected from projects now coming on line.

The conclusion is obvious: without Keystone XL, the price of tar-sands oil will remain substantially lower than conventional oil (as well as unconventional oil extracted from shale formations in the United States), discouraging future investment and dimming the prospects for increased output.  In other words, as Bill McKibben hopes, much of it will stay in the ground.

Industry officials are painfully aware of their predicament.  In an Annual Information Form released at the end of 2011, Canadian Oil Sands Limited, owner of the largest share of Syncrude Canada (one of the leading producers of tar-sands oil) noted:

“A prolonged period of low crude oil prices could affect the value of our crude oil properties and the level of spending on growth projects and could result in curtailment of production… Any substantial and extended decline in the price of oil or an extended negative differential for SCO compared to either WTI or European Brent Crude would have an adverse effect on the revenues, profitability, and cash flow of Canadian Oil Sands and likely affect the ability of Canadian Oil Sands to pay dividends and repay its debt obligations.”

The stakes in this battle could not be higher.  If Keystone XL fails to win the president’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction.  If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected. In this way, a presidential decision will have an unexpectedly decisive and lasting impact on all our lives.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback.  A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

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The expression of being between a rock and a hard place comes to mind!

Tell President Obama: Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline

This is so important.

Regular readers will know that I wrote about the XL Pipeline on the 29th August setting out the arguments of those who know much more of the detail as to why the tar sands of Canada are just the worst possible way to continue the madness of using oil.  If you didn’t read that then it’s here, and please do so.

The rest of this Post is taken from the Credo Action website.  Please do participate. Sign the petition NOW.

Do something, please!

Tell President Obama: Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline

“Essentially game over” for the climate.

That’s what climate scientist James Hansen calls the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — which would carry oil out of Canada’s vast tar sands oil fields to Texas, where it will be refined, then burned across the globe, dealing a catastrophic blow to our chance of returning earth to a stable climate.

This project requires a presidential permit to start building — and it is President Obama’s decision alone to grant or deny that permit. He will make the decision as soon as September.

Tell President Obama: Stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Alberta tar sands are a carbon bomb. The 3rd largest oil field in the world, the difficult extraction and transportation of the tar sands oil ultimately produces up to three times the carbon emissions of traditional oil. (And extreme environmental devastation along the way.)1

The Keystone XL pipeline is the fuse to this bomb – a highway to swift consumption of this dirty, dangerous crude. As if that wasn’t enough, it poses a massive spill risk in the six states along the pipeline route, including over the Ogallala Aquifer which provides up to 30% of our nation’s agricultural water.

We. Must. Stop. This.

Tell President Obama: Stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Twenty leading climate scientists have just sent a letter to President Obama urging him to deny the permit.

And from August 20th to September 3rd, there will be a massive, historic, daily sit-in outside the White House where more than 1500 people, including CREDO staff, have already signed up to risk arrest in peaceful protest. (For more about the sit in, see below.)

The administration’s previous decisions on climate do not inspire confidence that they will deny the permit. Recently the administration has opened new areas to offshore drilling and coal mining, and late last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even said she was “inclined” to approve Keystone XL.

But President Obama still has the final word. He does not have to negotiate with Congress or industry. As his State Department reviews the permit, the decision — which could have a devastating impact on the livability of our nation, and our world — is entirely in his hands.

We’ve lost too many climate fights already. We need a massive, historic show of pressure to make sure we don’t lose this one. Please sign the petition and read below for other ways to get involved.

Tell President Obama: Stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

1. “Keystone XL Pipeline,” Friends of the Earth

————————————————————-

Because this fight is so important, leading climate activists including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and climate scientist James Hansen are organizing a historic, daily series of peaceful protests between August 20th and Sept. 3rd. The CEO’s and Directors of nearly 30 leading Environmental Organizations, including CREDO’s Michael Kieschnick and Laura Scher, are urging people to participate.

More than 1500 people from across the country, including CREDO staff, have already signed up to join the sit-in outside the White House and risk arrest.

Please read the invitation letter below for more information. If you would like to sign up to join the protest, and possibly be arrested, click here.

Dear Friends,

This will be a slightly longer letter than common for the internet age–it’s serious stuff.

The short version is we want you to consider doing something hard: coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will quite possibly get you arrested.

The full version goes like this:

As you know, the planet is steadily warming: 2010 was the warmest year on record, and we’ve seen the resulting chaos in almost every corner of the earth.

And as you also know, our democracy is increasingly controlled by special interests interested only in their short-term profit.

These two trends collide this summer in Washington, where the State Department and the White House have to decide whether to grant a certificate of ‘national interest’ to some of the biggest fossil fuel players on earth. These corporations want to build the so-called ‘Keystone XL Pipeline’ from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries.

To call this project a horror is serious understatement. The tar sands have wrecked huge parts of Alberta, disrupting ways of life in indigenous communities–First Nations communities in Canada, and tribes along the pipeline route in the U.S. have demanded the destruction cease. The pipeline crosses crucial areas like the Oglalla Aquifer where a spill would be disastrous–and though the pipeline companies insist they are using ‘state of the art’ technologies that should leak only once every 7 years, the precursor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year. These local impacts alone would be cause enough to block such a plan. But the Keystone Pipeline would also be a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place to which we are all indigenous.

As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, he added, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.” The Keystone pipeline is an essential part of the game. “Unless we get increased market access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary, told a Canadian newspaper last week.

Given all that, you’d suspect that there’s no way the Obama administration would ever permit this pipeline. But in the last few months the administration has signed pieces of paper opening much of Alaska to oil drilling, and permitting coal-mining on federal land in Wyoming that will produce as much CO2 as 300 powerplants operating at full bore.

And Secretary of State Clinton has already said she’s ‘inclined’ to recommend the pipeline go forward. Partly it’s because of the political commotion over high gas prices, though more tar sands oil would do nothing to change that picture. But it’s also because of intense pressure from industry. The US Chamber of Commerce–a bigger funder of political campaigns than the RNC and DNC combined–has demanded that the administration “move quickly to approve the Keystone XL pipeline,” which is not so surprising–they’ve also told the U.S. EPA that if the planet warms that will be okay because humans can ‘adapt their physiology’ to cope. The Koch Brothers, needless to say, are also backing the plan, and may reap huge profits from it.

So we’re pretty sure that without serious pressure the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington. A wonderful coalition of environmental groups has built a strong campaign across the continent–from Cree and Dene indigenous leaders to Nebraska farmers, they’ve spoken out strongly against the destruction of their land. We need to join them, and to say even if our own homes won’t be crossed by this pipeline, our joint home–the earth–will be wrecked by the carbon that pours down it.

And we need to say something else, too: it’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces. We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and beginning in mid August many of us will use them. We will, each day, march on the White House, risking arrest with our trespass. We will do it in dignified fashion, demonstrating that in this case we are the conservatives, and that our foes–who would change the composition of the atmosphere are dangerous radicals. Come dressed as if for a business meeting–this is, in fact, serious business.

And another sartorial tip–if you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young Senator who told us that with his election the ‘rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet start to heal.’ We don’t understand what combination of bureaucratic obstinacy and insider dealing has derailed those efforts, but we remember his request that his supporters continue on after the election to pressure his government for change. We’ll do what we can.

And one more thing: we don’t just want college kids to be the participants in this fight. They’ve led the way so far on climate change–10,000 came to DC for the Powershift gathering earlier this spring. They’ve marched this month in West Virginia to protest mountaintop removal; a young man named Tim DeChristopher faces sentencing this summer in Utah for his creative protest.

Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere to step up too, just as many of us did in earlier battles for civil rights or for peace. Most of us signing this letter are veterans of this work, and we think it’s past time for elders to behave like elders. One thing we don’t want is a smash up: if you can’t control your passions, this action is not for you.

This won’t be a one-shot day of action. We plan for it to continue for several weeks, till the administration understands we won’t go away. Not all of us can actually get arrested–half the signatories to this letter live in Canada, and might well find our entry into the U.S. barred. But we will be making plans for sympathy demonstrations outside Canadian consulates in the U.S., and U.S. consulates in Canada–the decision-makers need to know they’re being watched.

Twenty years of patiently explaining the climate crisis to our leaders hasn’t worked. Maybe moral witness will help. You have to start somewhere, and we choose here and now.

If you think you might want to be a part of this action, we need you to sign up here.

As plans solidify in the next few weeks we’ll be in touch with you to arrange nonviolence training; our colleagues at a variety of environmental and democracy campaigns will be coordinating the actual arrangements.

We know we’re asking a lot. You should think long and hard on it, and pray if you’re the praying type. But to us, it’s as much privilege as burden to get to join this fight in the most serious possible way. We hope you’ll join us.

Maude Barlow — Chair, Council of Canadians
Wendell Berry — Author and Farmer
Tom Goldtooth — Director, Indigenous Environmental Network
Danny Glover — Actor
James Hansen — Climate Scientist
Wes Jackson — Agronomist, President of the Land Insitute
Naomi Klein — Author and Journalist
Bill McKibben — Writer and Environmentalist
George Poitras — Mikisew Cree Indigenous First Nation
Gus Speth — Environmental Lawyer and Activist
David Suzuki — Scientist, Environmentalist and Broadcaster
Joseph B. Uehlein — Labor organizer and environmentalist

Anthropocene era gaining legs

We really may be on the verge of a new geological period.

Just a couple of weeks ago, on the 16th May, I wrote an article called The Anthropocene period.  It was based on both a BBC radio programme and a conference called “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?”

So imagine my surprise when I collected this week’s copy of The Economist from my mail-box last Saturday.  The cover page boldly illustrated a lead article within, as this picture shows.

US edition, May 28th

The leader is headlined, ‘Humans have changed the way the world works.  Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.’  The first two paragraphs of that leader explain,

THE Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each. To think that the workings of so vast an entity could be lastingly changed by a species that has been scampering across its surface for less than 1% of 1% of its history seems, on the face of it, absurd. But it is not. Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year. That sediment flow itself, meanwhile, is shrinking; almost 50,000 large dams have over the past half- century cut the flow by nearly a fifth. That is one reason why the Earth’s deltas, home to hundreds of millions of people, are eroding away faster than they can be replenished.

There’s also a video on The Economist website of an interview with Dr. Erle Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland.  That video link is here.

That Economist lead article concludes,

Recycling the planet

How frightened should people be about this? It would be odd not to be worried. The planet’s history contains many less stable and clement eras than the Holocene. Who is to say that human action might not tip the planet into new instability?

Some will want simply to put the clock back. But returning to the way things were is neither realistic nor morally tenable. A planet that could soon be supporting as many as 10 billion human beings has to work differently from the one that held 1 billion people, mostly peasants, 200 years ago. The challenge of the Anthropocene is to use human ingenuity to set things up so that the planet can accomplish its 21st-century task.

Increasing the planet’s resilience will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling. An example of the former could be geoengineering. Today the copious carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere is left for nature to pick up, which it cannot do fast enough. Although the technologies are still nascent, the idea that humans might help remove carbon from the skies as well as put it there is a reasonable Anthropocene expectation; it wouldn’t stop climate change any time soon, but it might shorten its lease, and reduce the changes in ocean chemistry that excess carbon brings about.

More often the answer will be fiddling—finding ways to apply human muscle with the grain of nature, rather than against it, and help it in its inbuilt tendency to recycle things. Human interference in the nitrogen cycle has made far more nitrogen available to plants and animals; it has done much less to help the planet deal with all that nitrogen when they have finished with it. Instead we suffer ever more coastal “dead zones” overrun by nitrogen-fed algal blooms. Quite small things, such as smarter farming and better sewage treatment, could help a lot.

For humans to be intimately involved in many interconnected processes at a planetary scale carries huge risks. But it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through. And one of the messages of the Anthropocene is that piecemeal actions can quickly add up to planetary change.

We are living in interesting times!

Finally, more of Dr. Ellis may be watched on the following YouTube video.