Tar Sands Protest Spotlights Looming Eco-Catastrophe

Tar Sands Protest Spotlights Looming Eco-Catastrophe

Image CC licensed by Flickr user tarsandsaction

What have you done lately about climate change?

In the last two weeks, about 700 Americans -- with more to come -- have been arrested in front of the White House, calling on President Obama to block the construction of the $7 billion, 1700-mile Keystone pipeline project that will bring Canadian tar sands oil to the largest refineries in the United States.

They include Bill McKibben, the writer, activist and founder of 350.org, who led the protests; James Hansen, NASA's leading climate scientist; Gus Speth, who lead the Council on Environmental Quality under President Carter and went on to become dean of the Yale School of Forestry; Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford; actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder; and my friend and rabbi, Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.

Standing behind them are the nation's leading environmental groups -- Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Funds, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation and others. In a letter to Obama, they described the Keystone pipeline ruling as “perhaps the biggest climate test you face between now and the election.”

"There is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House,” the groups said.

There are strong arguments for and against the pipeline, which we'll get to in a moment, but first, a few words about McKibben and the protestors. I went to the White House to talk with them because I share their belief that climate change is not just another issue, but the defining issue of our time. To be sure, it's not an issue that mobilizes people, at least not yet, for a number of reasons: You can't see carbon dioxide pollution, climate science is complex (but clear in its basics), global warming is a slow moving threat and the troubled U.S. economy has crowded virtually every other concern off stage since the summer of 2008.

But ... greenhouse gas emissions are rising steadily, as are atmospheric concentrations of CO2. That means we are edging closer to catastrophe every day.

Bill McKibben

That's why hundreds of people stepped up to get arrest while many of us enjoyed the last couple of weeks of summer.

Said Speth: "It's time to step outside the system, and do some things we haven't done before."

On the Climate Progress blog, Peter Anderson, a Wisconsin recycling consultant, wrote:

For me -- like for most of us -- the precipitate that galvanized my newfound resolve in the face of a corporate choke hold on Congress was the simple, elemental, drive to protect my children: my three girls, now grown up, and my 14 year old boy who is still a child. Theirs is the generation that, in place of an inheritance, will be left to inhabit an overheated world that my cohort is callously leaving behind as, in a blissful state of denial, we party the night away.

Thomas Staley, a 69-year-old Harvard-educated artist, traveled by bus from Guilford, Maine to join the protests. He told me:

I've been waiting for this for 15 years, The science has been clear. I trust what the science is telling us ... If 2,000 people in a very dignified manner are willing to violate the law and get arrested, people are going to pay attention. It's a beginning.

Bhavani Jaroff, a longtime vegetarian Long Island mother of three who runs a website called iEatGreen, said:

You have to be living in a bubble if you think climate change is not going to affect us. I'm here to remind (President Obama) that he had a climate change agenda.

Yes, he did. Back in 2008, after he won a round of Democratic primaries, candidate Obama declared:

that I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.

Uh, no.

Rabbi Fred Dobb under arrest

It made me proud when I learned that Fred Dobb, a lifelong environmentalist and a member of the leadership of Religious Witness for the Earth, had decided to join the protest. He writes about the experience on his blog and told me by email:

I felt called to participate because climate change is the defining moral issue of our time. This pipeline is a bad idea, not just for the boreal forest and the communities and habitats en route, but for the further reliance on fossil fuels it would ensure. The proper religious term for our current oil- and coal-based energy economy is 'profane' -- and people of faith must help lead the way toward that which is renewable, sustainable, holy.

Is the Keystone Pipeline the perfect issue on which to draw a line when it comes to climate change? Not really. For one thing, it's going to be politically hard to Obama to stop the pipeline, although he has the power to do so. The U.S. State Department just gave it a qualified OK, after assessing its environmental impact. Supporters like Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., say building the pipeline will produce many thousands of jobs and keep gasoline prices down. He told The Times:

It’s good for the U.S. economy, U.S. jobs and U.S. energy security. If you ask Americans, would you choose Canada over the Middle East, they’d say yes.

Pipeline advocates say stopping the pipeline won't prevent Americans from burning oil. We'll just import our oil from elsewhere, the argument goes.

But stopping the pipeline will certainly make it harder to export the tar sands oil, McKibben told me when we sat down for a brief interview. Alberta is a remote place, and the other possible pipeline route, to the Pacific Ocean where oil would be shipped to Asia, is tied up in litigation.

"Without Keystone XL, oil sands face a choke point" is the headline over an excellent story in The Globe and Mail of Canada in which Alberta's energy minister, is quoted as saying: “If there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long we’re going to be landlocked in bitumen."

Stopping the pipeline "may not keep the oil there forever," McKibben told me. "Give them 10 years and they may find a way to get it out. But give us 10 years and the world may finally come to its senses and do something about the climate."

We can only hope.

And, while not all of us can protest, every one of us can act in ways big and small to respond to the climate crisis. As Fred Dobb, looking ahead to the Jewish new year and time of repentance, writes:

Where we have over-consumed, let us scale back. Where we have ignored the cries of Creation, let us now heed them. Where we have failed to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’ – including our impoverished global neighbors who live near sea level with no defense against rising oceans and increased storms – let us re-align our actions with this excellent biblical advice. Where we have chewed through the planet’s resources and absorptive capacity with no regard for the future, let us now take seriously our responsibility to be stewards of Creation l’dor vador, from generation to generation. Only by seriously starting our sustainability efforts will we inscribe others into the Book of Life – and only then will be deserve to be written into that good book ourselves.


Image CC licensed by Flickr user tarsandsaction.