• Going extinct
    February 18,2014

    The environmental movement may be in for a grave disappointment this year if President Obama approves construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. The State Department has laid the groundwork for Obama’s approval, after which environmentalists had better be ready to regroup and refocus.

    A story in the Sunday Rutland Herald described how some climate change activists believe that the protest movement opposing the pipeline has distracted attention from more important climate challenges, such as power plants spewing carbon into the air in the United States and abroad. At the same time, anti-pipeline activists say opposition to the pipeline has galvanized the attention of people all across the country, enlisting them in the climate change cause as never before.

    Bill McKibben, the author and activist who lives in Ripton, has been one of the leading pipeline critics. He has taken into account the warning by climate scientist James Hansen that development of the tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada, would be “game over” for the climate. The pipeline has been designed to transport tar sands oil down to refineries on the Gulf Coast, and so would enable the combustion of a vast reserve of dirty fossil fuel with dire consequences for the warming of the planet.

    The State Department had the responsibility of assessing the pipeline’s effects because it would cross the international border. Essentially, the department concluded that the pipeline would not contribute to the furtherance of climate change because whether or not the pipeline is built, the oil will get to market somewhere and, ultimately, will be burned. It is probably an accurate conclusion. Canada’s oil wealth is considerable, and the political leadership in Canada is not about to leave it untapped.

    Canada’s stance might be seen as self-interested — pursuing the national interest at the expense of the global interest. But the United States is doing the same thing. It is one of Obama’s great boasts that the United States is at a peak of production for both oil and natural gas.

    The climate activism that has focused on the pipeline has involved thousands of people from all walks of life. In Nebraska, farmers and native Americans have allied themselves with environmental activists to resist the pipeline. In Washington, D.C., McKibben was one of more than a thousand protesters at the White House who served time in jail in consequence of their demonstrations.

    If the pipeline is approved or not approved, we face the same dilemma. Whether we get our oil from Saudi Arabia, Canada or North Dakota, we are still burning fossil fuels rapidly enough to effect drastically destructive changes to our world. Author Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book “The Sixth Extinction,” reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by Al Gore, says that the rate of extinction underway because of climate change is comparable to the extinctions that occurred when an asteroid hit the earth and destroyed the dinosaurs. By the end of this century, 20 to 50 percent of all animal species may be extinct. Human civilization may have undergone a historic rupture.

    For a heroin addict, it doesn’t matter so much whether his heroin comes from Afghanistan, Mexico or Los Angeles. The point is to halt the consumption of heroin. To slow the effects of climate change, we have to stop burning fossil fuels. That means the vested interests that stand to make billions of dollars by exploiting the resources to which they have title must be opposed and alternative fuels must be developed.

    The pipeline has been but a skirmish in that struggle. The race is on to see whether new technologies can be developed fast enough so that fossil fuels can be replaced before the coming changes prove too dire. That means supporting sustainable energy sources, conserving energy and amplifying the research needed to pioneer new technologies that will halt the mass extinction that humankind has unleashed on its home planet.

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