A fighting chance?

By Bryan Walker 08/10/2011

Bill McKibben has a striking article this week in Yale e360 in which he explains why the protest against the pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the US may be the start of ’something big and desperate’. The desperate part is easy to understand. Three converging factors contribute to it, political, meteorological and geological.

Politically the US administration has failed to secure carbon legislation, or even to show much resolve to do so, with the result that there isn’t going to be a price on carbon in America, and hence not in most of the world, any time soon. The hope that surrounded Obama’s election in that respect has evaporated.

That hope was perhaps always excessive – but then, the man himself had done all that he could to encourage it. On the night he clinched the nomination he said that during his presidency ’the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.’ Waiting for a messiah, we managed to convince ourselves we might have found one.

Meanwhile the climate is changing.

Sometime in the last few years it became utterly clear we’d left the Holocene behind, bound for some new, chaotic place in which humans had fundamentally altered the planet.

2010 was the warmest year for which we have records; Arctic sea ice is now at its lowest recorded level, while Canada’s Arctic ice shelves have shrunk by half in just the last six years. And what all this has shown is that the planet is coming unglued, at least the planet on which civilization developed. We’ve seen flooding and drought on a scale never witnessed before, from the Indus to the Mississippi, from Texas to the North China Plain. By the end of last year, the world’s biggest insurance company, Munich Re, was declaring that the unprecedented run of catastrophes ’cannot be explained without global warming.’

McKibben’s third factor, the geological, is equally disturbing. As oil prices have risen the oil companies are finding it economic to go after shale gas, shale oil, and ’the granddaddy of them all, the tars sands megaproject in northern Alberta’.

They have a pool of oil – and hence of carbon – about the same size as the one we’ve largely burned in Saudi Arabia. If we torch most of it, then it’s ’essentially game over for the climate,’ in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

Against these factors the environmental battle to keep the carbon in the ground is elemental — ’easy to understand, worth going to jail for’. The hope is that the Keystone XL pipeline protest might buy some time. It’s a desperate battle to keep things from getting worse. If delay can be achieved then maybe during that time we will come to our senses about global warming.

Keystone XL is such a huge deal because the president can actually stop it himself, without consulting our inane Congress. That’s why we’ll be surrounding the White House on Nov. 6, circling it with people simply holding signs with quotes from his campaign. Like, ’it’s time to end the tyranny of oil.’ It sure is, and if Obama for once actually lives up to his words, just maybe it will signal something new about him. My guess is we’re not going to change meteorology or geology, which leaves us with politics.

In the course of a Guardian interview with Leo Hickman this week McKibben expands on the theme that this is a real battle

The thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that this is a fight. The idea that held for years that we could all talk rationally to politicians about this and that they would do the right thing is now over. What we failed to count on was while we talked to them rationally in one ear with science and economics the oil industry was doubling in the other ear the threats to keep anyone from doing anything.

And the fossil-fuel industry is powerful and pouring resources into delaying action on climate change:

In a fair fight, we would have won this battle long ago because the science is clear and most people have a sincere desire to build a different kind of world that will work best for their kids. But the battle is not being fought on science, but on money. There is an enormous interest within the fossil-fuel industry to prevent change for even a few more years while they wrack up records profits.

The environmental movement can’t possibly match that kind of money.

’Until we find a different currency to work in, we’re always going to lose. We’re never going to have enough money to compete with these guys head on. That’s why we’re experimenting with lots of different currencies. There’s a lot of spirit, creativity and energy in these global days of action.’

McKibben admits to learning on the job as an activist, but in my eyes he’s making a good fist of it. The fact that he’s a writer by profession is no drawback. As we watch the dreary procession of politicians denying, prevaricating, delaying, looking the other way, it’s not surprising that the population at large is hardly aware of the dangers threatening. Meanwhile the enthusiastic search for unconventional oil and gas proceeds apace, with the possible prospect of a long extension of fossil fuel exploitation and use. Here in New Zealand the government and Solid Energy and others speak of how we mustn’t miss the opportunity to draw wealth from such resources. I’ve commented before on how normal this is all taken to be.

What is left but active protest? McKibben speaks for those who are trying to build a movement of sufficient size and urgency to thrust the science to the fore. Hickman in the interview asked if it needed an Arab Spring-type uprising of outcry and revolution, driven through social networking, and McKibben replied that that might well be part of what is required. It’s hard to believe that such a movement can be built in the face of the powerful forces which have so far been able to neutralise the message from science. But all honour to those who are trying. It’s unquestionably a battle worth fighting.