Saturday, March 9, 2013

Kerry, KeystoneXL, and the Courage Needed to Move Forward on Climate

Less than a year ago on the eve of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, then-Senator John Kerry gave a remarkable speech calling on the United States to display real leadership on clean energy and confront the reality of climate change. In Kerry's own words:
"We have made transformative changes before... We once burned wood, and then we transitioned to relying on oil and coal. We can make the leap to a mix of renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar. Now we need to set our sights on the next transformation. As the old saying from the 1970s goes, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age is not going to end because we run out of oil.” Truer words could not be spoken."
Kerry at the UN Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009
Now that Kerry is Secretary of State, he has a chance to accelerate this transformation. Kerry's State Department will make the final recommendation to approve or reject the KeystoneXL tar sands pipeline (ultimately though, President Obama will make the final call).  As Obama's second term begins, rejecting the pipeline is the first major action that he and Kerry can take to show that the US is truly committed to bold action on climate.

The KeystoneXL pipeline would allow for large-scale expansion of extraction of the Alberta tar sands, a region in Canada of former boreal forest that contains a thick, tar-like sand that can be transformed into oil.  As the video below shows, the mining of tar sands results in the complete razing of the forest environment, complete with toxic residue ponds and the release of many cancer-causing chemicals.  Tar sands development also threatens the safety and human rights of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, whose ancestral lands fall within the extraction area.  The Beaver Lake Cree have a legal right to hunt and fish on their land for perpetuity, but this right is threatened by further development.  The tribe is suing the government of Canada to stop further extraction, but prolonged legal battles mean that it will take several years before a ruling.

In addition to the local environmental impacts and human rights violations of the Beaver Lake Cree, the tar sands are a huge threat to the stability of our planet's climate.  The tar sands region is the second largest store of carbon on the planet, and tar sands oil is is up to 37% more carbon intensive than standard crude oil.  If built, the KeystoneXL pipeline would allow for more tar sands extraction (and thus dramatically greater carbon emissions).  Over the next 40 years, the pipeline alone would be responsible for 7 gigatons of carbon emissions.  Since we're already emitting over 30 gigtatons per year and need to stay below 565 gigatons to prevent catastrophic warming, building the KeystoneXL would move us further down a path of self-destruction.  As the old saying goes, "When you are in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging."

NASA climate scientist James Hansen is one of the most outspoken opponents of the pipeline, arguing that its additional transport capacity for extracted tar sands will lead to greater carbon emissions.  According to Hansen, "The total carbon in tar sands exceeds that in all oil burned in human history, and if the pipeline is built, ways will be found to extract more and more of it, burning fossil fuels during the extraction and destroying the local environment."

Hansen is one of eighteen prominent climate scientists who last year called on President Obama to reject the KeystoneXL pipeline.  Largely because of Hansen's activism, the pipeline has become a rallying cry for the climate activist community, with over 40,000 people attending the recent "Forward on Climate" rally in DC.  And even mainstream commentators are joining the movement to reject KeystoneXL, with TIME's Michael Grunwald declaring "if we’re in a war to stop global warming... then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta."

Over 40,000 people marched during the "Forward on Climate" rally February 17.
One would think John Kerry, an ardent climate hawk, would hold some sway with the State Department's own assessment of the pipeline.  Apparently not.  The State Department's environmental impact assessment released last week claims that the environmental and climate change impacts are manageable.  In a nutshell, the document assumes that the tar sands will inevitably be extracted, and so therefore the additional climate impact of the pipeline is negligible.

At first examination, it is surprising that Kerry's outspoken concern for climate change apparently carried little weight with the environmental impact state.  But maybe that's because the State Department didn't write the report!  Instead, they outsourced the document to a consultancy group called Environmental Resources Management, who was paid by TransCanada (the company building the pipeline) to write the statement.  With the authors having strong incentives to please their client, it is no surprise the outsourced document downplays the climate impacts of the pipeline.

I truly believe Kerry and Obama want to move the United States, and the world, forward on clean energy.  I believe that they want to confront the reality of climate change and deal with the climate crisis in an intelligent and sustained manner.  But with moneyed interest like TransCanada and the larger oil industry pushing for business as usual, an apathetic media, and a largely complacent public (a Fox News poll showed that 70% of Americans support the pipeline), they have limited ability to act.  It will take great courage on their part to reject the KeystoneXL pipeline.  And it will take great courage on the part of climate activists to push Obama and Kerry to do so, while continuing the work of convincing the public to join our cause and support bold action on climate and energy.

KeystoneXL is a symbol of the broader fight for climate justice, a fight that pits young people, the world's poor, communities facing extraction, and future generations against the status quo of the fossil fuel industry. The broader American public has yet to appreciate the injustice of climate change. If we are to move the country, we will need to up the ante and engage in continued civil disobedience to demonstrate moral urgency. But even more importantly, we will need to have the hard conversations with our friends, family, and colleagues about why it is so important to act boldly on climate and transform our entire energy system.

I'll close with more words from John Kerry, these from his first major address as Secretary of State to the University of Virginia.  To me, this sounds like a call to action to push him and President Obama to make the hard choice to reject KeystoneXL and move the country forward on climate.
We need to commit ourselves to doing the smart thing and the right thing and to truly take on this challenge, because if we don’t rise to meet it, then rising temperatures and rising sea levels will surely lead to rising costs down the road... If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generation – generations – are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy.

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