Why I am going to Washington

As far as we understand the Earth, it seems clear that human beings are placing too much strain on the systems that we depend upon. As we burn fossil fuels, we disrupt the climate system in frightening ways that will not be fully evident for decades. In so doing, we impose a terrible risk on the generations that will follow us. We also disrespect and imperil so many of the things about the Earth that are precious and unique – from the glaciers and ice sheets to the coral reefs and forests of all varieties.

I am going to Washington to help draw attention to the gap between our understanding of the world and the assumptions that underlie our behaviour. We know that continuing to burn fossil fuels puts humanity in peril, and yet we cannot imagine how to behave otherwise. We do not fully appreciate the extent of our freedom and the impact of our choices. We have the freedom to choose a high-carbon future or a low-carbon one, and the choice we make seems highly likely to impact the lives of a huge number of people worldwide, over a long span of time.

Uncoordinated personal actions will not solve this problem. Climate change cannot be solved by individuals changing their own lifestyles. No person can change the energy basis of human society, nor can any group of people. It will take the coordinating and, yes, coercive power of governments to achieve these changes. I am going to Washington to help drive that kind of change.

Looking at the state of things, following disappointments in North American climate policy and international climate negotiations, it is impossible to be terribly optimistic. Past injustices over the course of human history have been terrible and the source of vast suffering. Yet – with the exception of mass thermonuclear war – nothing so far has threatened the future existence of the human species. As best I can judge, the way we are behaving now carries exactly that risk. Dealing with climate change therefore has special moral importance and urgency. At the same time, the political systems in North America seem to have completely failed to understand the extent of the problem. So far, no adequate solutions with the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations have been implemented.

The reason I do not completely despair is because it seems entirely possible to solve the physical problems we face. We can use less energy and get what we use from safer sources. The challenge is overcoming the political barriers to achieving that outcome.

And so I am going to Washington, to try to move the political debate a bit toward sanity in responding to the risks we perceive and empathy in considering the interests of those who will suffer from climate change. We do not need to impose catastrophic or runaway climate change upon them, and we have a duty not to do so.

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  2. .

    Northern Gateway pipeline fully booked

    CBC News Posted: Aug 24, 2011 12:24 PM ET Last Updated: Aug 24, 2011 12:24 PM ET

    Calgary-based oil pipeline operator Enbridge said Wednesday it has lined up enough shippers to fill its proposed Northern Gateway pipelines project that would ship oilsands crude to the west coast for transport to Asian markets.

    Enbridge did not identify which Asian and Canadian companies have committed to use the $5.5-billion facility, but Chinese refining giant Sinopec has said it is on board with the project.

    Companies have fully subscribed to long-term service on both a 525,000-barrel per day line carrying crude from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., as well as a smaller line that would bring imported condensates inland.

  3. .

    There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb. Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.

    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. It won’t happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was “essentially game over” [PDF] for the climate of this planet.

    Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar-sands problems. The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer, and that, at least, would be a start. Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way. The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.” There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration. Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department’s “energy envoy” was already instructing Alberta’s fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their “oil sands messaging,” including “increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.” This is the government version of Murdoch-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.

  4. .

    Let’s say no to the pipeline that threatens U.S. heartland

    Updated 12:14 p.m., Monday, September 12, 2011

    SUNDANCE, Utah – Few landscapes anywhere evoke the majesty of our country and the can-do spirit of our people like the sweeping great plains that form the nation’s broad girth.

    Watered by some of our most storied rivers – the Missouri, Yellowstone, Arkansas and the Platte – millions of acres of rich black soils yield a bounty of wheat, corn and soy that has made this great region the breadbasket of America and granary to the world.

    And yet today, these lands and all they support are threatened by Big Oil and its plan to run a pipeline straight through the vast plains of the American heartland.

    The Keystone XL pipeline would transport the dirtiest oil on the planet from the Canadian province of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries, wedding our nation’s energy future to the destructive ways of the past.

    It would promote one of the most damaging industrial practices ever deployed, the strip mining and drilling of Canada’s boreal forest, to coax low-grade crude oil from tar sands.

  5. .

    Punching Back at Big Oil

    When you challenge Big Oil in Houston, you can bet the industry is going to punch back. So when I wrote in the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that we should say no to the Keystone XL pipeline, I wasn’t surprised when the project’s chief executive weighed in with a different view.

    The corporate rejoinder, written by Alex Pourbaix, president for energy and oil pipelines for the TransCanada Corp., purported to cite “errors” in my oped. Let’s set the record straight, point by point.

    First, the Keystone XL, as proposed, would run from Canada across the width of our country to Texas oil refineries and ports. It would carry diluted bitumen, a kind of crude oil, produced from the Alberta tar sands. On those points, we all agree.

    I say this is a bad idea. It would put farmers, ranchers and croplands at risk across much of the Great Plains. It would feed our costly addiction to oil. And it would wed our future to the destructive production of tar sands crude.

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