Category Archives: Activism

Taking action against climate change

Why divest from fossil fuels?

Campaigns at universities especially can benefit from this document, prepared for the University of Toronto:

The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment: Update, by

Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer

Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes

Climate change and status quo bias

One perpetual question in climate politics is whether radical political change is necessary to achieve climatic stability, or whether the necessary energy transition can be achieved in a ‘stealthy’ technocratic way.

This question is linked to the general question about radical versus incremental change, which is in turn touched upon in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape:

“This bias relates to what has come to be known as ‘the endowment effect’: people demand more money in exchange for an object that has been given to them than they would spend to acquire the object in the first place. In psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s words, ‘a good is worth more when it is considered as something that could be lost or given up than when it is evaluated as a potential gain.’ This aversion to loss causes human beings to generally err on the side of maintaining the status quo. It is also an important impediment to conflict resolution through negotiation: for if each party values his opponent’s concessions as gains and his own as losses, each is bound to perceive his sacrifice as being greater.” (p. 75 – hardcover)

When it comes to political change, there are at least two rational reasons to favour the status quo. Firstly, through radical change we risk losing things that we currently possess and which have value. For instance, if we radically altered our political system to take into account the interests of future generations, it may stop serving some of the functions it serves effectively now. Secondly, there is the danger of unwanted side-effects accompanying change. In addition to losing old capabilities, we may take on new problems.

All told, I think our collective status quo bias is far too strong. We want to keep economic growth happening, maintain our lifestyles, and generally avoid large-scale political change. Unfortunately, by trying to keep our own lives as similar as possible to the past, we are condemning the Earth to a future unlike anything humanity has ever seen. If we are to tackle the problem of climate change, we need to find ways to effectively drive the transition away from fossil fuels. The psychological potency of loss – which Harris and Kahneman highlight – may be one mechanism for that. By highlighting everything that is put in jeopardy by climate change, it may be possible to drive people to reform their lifestyles and institutions in ways that limit its severity.

How the oil sands are like cancer

The Athabasca oil sands are like a tumour growing in a human body.

A tumour is very successful in a certain way. These cells divide rapidly and can keep growing forever as long as they are provided with food and oxygen. Ultimately, however, a tumour grows to the point where it starts to threaten the vital systems of its host organism. The tumour needs oxygen, but has no respect for the continued functioning of the lungs that pull it from the air or the heart that circulates it around the body. Similarly, if we emit enough greenhouse gas pollution we will threaten the vital systems of the planet – systems that human beings depend upon just as fully as they depend on their own lungs. Just as a tumour can depend on oxygen and food while remaining entirely ignorant about the conditions required for their continued availability, humanity can smash the parts of the world that we rely upon without realizing we’re doing it. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that we are improving our own situation, by carefully counting what is being gained (like nice houses and jet fuel) while ignoring what is being lost (stable sea levels, countless species, predictable weather).

As a tumour grows, the deranged cells inside of it need oxygen to stay alive. It tricks the body into growing blood vessels to feed it. Similarly, the oil sands require pipelines to get their product to market. Denying these pipelines is the most plausible way of constraining the growth of the oil sands, given that the federal government is doing everything possible to encourage their unlimited growth and provincial governments are similarly crazed with the promise of immediate profits and in denial about the risks of climate change.

Tumours are most easily and effectively dealt with early. The same is true for the oil sands. Right now, they have a strong shield of political protection because of how profitable it is to sell this oil (when you ignore the damage it does, as our economic calculations usually do). That political shield grows stronger with each new oil sands mine and each new pipeline. The more people whose financial future depends on continued oil sands output, the more challenging it will be politically for Canada to do the right thing and progressively shut the fossil fuel industry down.

When it comes to treating this tumour, Canada is still at the stage of delusional pretending. That won’t be true forever. At some point, we will have a government that isn’t determined to do everything possible to keep the tumour growing. At some point, we will also have a world in which powerful governments accept that climate change is an enormous problem and that sorting it out means moving beyond fossil fuels. Except in a suicidal scenario where we keep burning oil while the planet’s ecosystems visibly collapse all around us, there will come a day within our lifetimes when these oil sands facilities are progressively shut down and the world moves to forms of energy that are compatible with a stable climate.

That’s part of why victories right now count for so much. Delaying the Keystone XL pipeline has done a bit to slow the wild growth phase of the tumour. Blocking other pipelines, particularly the Northern Gateway pipeline, would further constrain that growth. Blocking these pipes is our best treatment option, until we get a government that is serious about producing a sharp reduction in Canada’s total climate pollution and develops and deploys an effective mechanism to make that happen.

Mountain Justice activism in West Virginia

More civil disobedience against coal:

Five people boarded an empty coal barge at the Quincy Docks operated by Kanawha River Terminals in Chelyan, W.Va. and locked themselves to the boat with a banner stating “Coal Leaves Cancer Stays”. The barge was immobilized for three hours, until police removed them by 1:00 pm.

Those arrested were Ricki Draper, 21, of Greensboro, NC; Nathan Joseph, 23, New Orleans, LA; Rebecca Loeb, 24, Maynard, MA; Catherine-Ann MacDougal, 23, Rock Creek, WV; and Jacob Mack-Boll, 20, Lancaster, PA.

Blocking coal trains in White Rock, BC

On May 5th, NASA climatologist James Hansen and others say they will be blocking BNSF coal trains from passing through White Rock, British Columbia. They say that they will be blocking coal trains only, allowing other freight and passenger trains to pass.

Hansen has posted a letter (PDF) about this on his website, addressed to Warren Buffett, the owner of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver is also participating.

Strategies for stopping Gateway #1: The Hecate Strait

As Gerald Butts explained in The Globe and Mail, one of the biggest environmental risks associated with the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is the stream of supertankers that would carry oil from Kitimat out to the Pacific: “At Kitimat, toxic diluted bitumen would be loaded onto supersized tankers. Each year, more than 200 would travel through narrow fjords and into some of the world’s most treacherous seas”.

These tankers would flow through the treacherous Hecate Strait – a dangerous maritime environment located far away from equipment that would be required in the event of a major spill. It’s also an area of considerable natural beauty and ecological importance.

It seems like a convincing case to be made that building the Northern Gateway pipeline creates an unacceptable marine oil spill risk – and that is just one of a great many arguments against the project.

Two tasks for 2012

The politics of climate change are pretty dismal right now. Canada is doing as little as it possibly can to combat the problem. The Obama administration in the United States is tied up doing other things, and regional initiatives like the Western Climate Initiative seem to be falling apart.

Given these challenging circumstances, it seems like a twofold strategy is justified for the year ahead.

First, it makes sense to work on rebuilding a political coalition calling for climate action. This is a complex undertaking that will involve everything from working to improve the electoral odds of parties and candidates who support climate action to raising the visibility of promising policy mechanisms like fee-and-dividend schemes.

Second, it makes sense to keep working to block projects that are triply-stupid, like the Keystone XL pipeline. When we build infrastructure that keeps us locked into a fossil fuel based economy, we are being wasteful in three connected ways. We are building infrastructure that will need to be scrapped when the world finally gets serious about stopping dangerous anthropogenic climate change. We are increasing the level of damage that climate change will do, both in terms of money and in terms of human suffering. Finally, we are forcing ourselves to build more appropriate energy infrastructure more quickly later.

By blocking inappropriate projects, we can avoid that triple waste. We can also show the world that there are at least some people in countries like Canada who are interested in protecting human lives more than in reaping oil profits.

It will probably be another difficult year, full of disappointments, but that is why it is necessary to keep applying ourselves to the problem with energy, creativity, and integrity.

Blocking the Northern Gateway pipeline

With the Keystone XL pipeline at least temporarily blocked, the next target for those hoping to limit the climatic damage done by Canada’s oil sands should probably be the Northern Gateway pipeline. This pipeline is intended to run from Alberta to Kitimat, in British Columbia, and allow the export of synthetic crude from the oil sands to Asia.

Many people have argued that blocking Keystone XL would have no tangible effect, because all the oil that would have flowed through it to the US would just end up going to Asia instead. This analysis is dubious on its face – it is surely an expensive proposition to ship oil sands products across the Pacific, and cutting off any market is likely to reduce the total level of oil sands exploitation. The argument becomes even more untenable if pipelines for export to Asia can be blocked as well.

A big part of the effort to block the Northern Gateway pipeline is being made by First Nations communities with territory that would be crossed by the pipe.

Surrounding the White House

Right now, protestors opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline are surrounding the White House, in Washington DC:

For more information, see: Tar Sands Action.

See also:

[Update: 8:45pm] My friend Rebeka, who was actually at the event today, tells me that the ring of people around the White House was even larger than I thought:

The organizers estimate that 12,000 people participated, based on this sampling methodology. Comparable numbers have been reported in the media.