"That's all happened when you raise the temperature of the earth one degree," says author Bill McKibben, "[t]he temperature will go up four degrees, maybe five, unless we get off coal and gas and oil very quickly." Additional temperature rises could compromise our safety and cause incalculable damage from a large number of billion-dollar disasters in coming years – if we don't address our emissions, insist upon an appropriate climate policy and curtail the rogue fossil fuel industry.
How are we in the US and Canada addressing these crises?
Not through the co-opted political system, but with heroic acts by the ordinary citizens of North America. People have been putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest in order to protect our future, to acknowledge climate change disasters and to protect access to basic necessities such as uncontaminated water, soil and food. We are seeing an exponentially growing number of nationwide rallies, protests and acts of civil disobedience just to protect these fundamental life support systems.
The threats are exacerbated by the looming death throes of an outdated and finite fossil fuel industry struggling to stay relevant in the 21st century, despite its current economic might. It's hard to reconcile the fact that the fossil fuel industry is struggling when their unprecedented profits make them the wealthiest of corporations in the history of mankind, even in this devastated global economy – but the times, they are-a-changing.
As we have evidently exhausted the easier-to-access "conventional" fuels, Big Oil is now resorting to "unconventional" sources, and the industry must rely on more and more extreme extraction measures to obtain fossil fuel resources. These extreme forms of extraction come with a dangerous cost, and often a high economic cost as well. In a New York Times article on the grim economics of the natural gas boom, even the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, stated, "We're making no money. It's all in the red." Texas billionaire oilman T Boone Pickens said, "shut her down", "quit drilling" and "we are stupid to drill these wells."
But they won't because the leases the companies have bought came, in most cases, with "use it or lose it" clauses that required them to start drilling, pay royalties or lose the leases.
Lost leases may be an economic concern to these mega-wealthy multinational corporations, but the loss of, and lethal threat to, our living systems that we depend upon for survival is of greater concern for the rest of us. These extreme extraction processes are the fossil fuel industry's last-ditch efforts to stretch their global financial dominance as far into the 21st century as they possibly can. To access oil beyond the shallow wells of the last century – which are now mostly exhausted – one process the industry has turned to is deep-water drilling, including opening up the extremely sensitive areas in the Arctic region. We have already had a taste of the devastating repercussions of this practice from BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another extreme resource extraction method is a strip-mining process known as tar sands oil extraction, which destroys entire ecosystems where they lie. Tar sands oil entails a wildly energy-intensive extraction process, uses millions of cubic metres of water and the resulting material must be mixed with a poisonous cocktail of chemicals.
Tar sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet in enormous lakes that require firing off special cannons to keep flocks of waterfowl from landing on it (risking near-certain death).
Threatened by the planned massive expansion of Canada's tar sands operation, which would be aided by the approval of either the Keystone XL or the Enbridge Energy pipelines, is the awe-inspiring magnificence of the Canadian boreal forest, which serves as our first defense against global warming as it sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem; and the Athabasca delta, the world's largest freshwater delta. In the United States, Utah has a proposed a 50-square-mile tar sands exploitation project of its own, which, according to Bloomberg, has just been approved "without first obtaining a pollution permit or monitoring ground water quality".
To mine coal more inexpensively, the industry has taken to simply blowing up entire mountains in a mind-boggling practice called mountain top removal. Over 500 mountains of the United States' oldest mountain range, the Appalachians, have been unceremoniously eviscerated by the practice; the number awaiting the go-ahead is almost impossible to discover. According to Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices:
"This information seems intentionally obscured, there's no one agency that can tell you how many pending permits or mine sites are slated for destruction."
This shocking extraction method bankrupts entire communities, puts miners out of work, leaves the residents with poisoned or buried water sources, homes of no value and hosts of illnesses.
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Then, there is the breakneck boom mentality of the natural gas industry, which has moved to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", wells – literally fracturing the earth and pumping it full of carcinogenic chemical poisons to release the gas. The process also releases quite a bit of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. In Colorado alone, where I attended an anti-fracking/pro-clean energy rally on 23 October, there are already 49,000 active natural gas wells, with thousands of new ones being permitted every year. (In 2011 alone, another 4,659 permits were approved in Colorado.) According to the Denver Post, oil and gas development reports say spills in Colorado reach surface or groundwater every five days.
The people and communities that live adjacent to these projects are experiencing the negative repercussions of this corporate profit over public safety energy rush. An extensive number of ranch, farm and home wells have gone bad – in some homes, they can even set fire to the "water" coming out of their faucets, and illnesses in both humans and animals are manifesting in every region. The simple fact with this rush is that the science has not caught up to the practice; and the safeguards have not had a chance to catch up with the science.
So, what is the rush?
These energy sources have been sequestered deep in the earth for millions of years, and they hold a higher value to society than just digging them up and combusting them in our homes and cars. We know how to collect and store energy in much less detrimental ways. Why are we not being protected? Both Canada and the US have a self-image that is creative and forward-thinking, yet we are being left in the dust by the rest of the world when it comes to energy's evolution. China and the EU have both surpassed us in renewable energy implementation, and according to the Abu Dhabi-based Clean Energy Business Council, even the largest oil-producing nations in the Middle East and North Africa have stated their intentions to move to renewable energy and saving more of their oil for export.
We know that regionally-created clean renewable energy is the path to true energy independence and energy security. We know America holds enough wind and solar potential to power our economy 100 times over. So how do we encourage the transition to an aggressive, decentralized clean regenerative energy policy? Tim Flannery, paleontologist and chief commissioner of the Australian Climate Commission, says that incentivizing this transformation is simple:
"What we're dealing with is essentially a pollution problem, and we've known how to fix pollution problems for the last 1,000 years, since King Edward the First: you tax the polluters, get the polluter to pay."
Then why are we not doing it?
There are a few reasons. In the US, part of the blame goes to the profoundly unethical US supreme court decision on Citizens United, which granted corporations the same rights as an individual in allowing them to donate an unlimited amount of money to finance campaigns and influence the outcome of our so-called free elections. The result of this ruling was to give an undue amount of influence to corporate polluters and, in particular, the fossil fuel industry, which is the wealthiest industry on the planet. In this year's election cycle alone, $6bn will have been given to campaigns, politicians and political action committees. So, the chances of a strong clean energy policy coming from Washington are extremely slim.
Then, there's the fact that we the people are all too trusting, simply buying what we are being sold. We've been inundated with incessant, well-funded advertising campaigns of misinformation and rebranding exercises. They are currently selling the public on the idea of tar sands with the more sanitized-sounding "oil sands", because they think it sounds less dirty (they've also taken to calling it "ethical oil"). Mountain top removal is sold as "clean coal", and natural gas is packaged as clean, natural and renewable. And we bought it.
But now, there are floods and drought. People are being hit by the impacts and their kids are getting sick. Now, our water is threatened, running short – or poisoned. Our survival is on the line. So we are getting informed. The sleeping giant is waking, still a bit groggy, but moving.
The Exxon-Mobils, Chevrons and Royal Dutch Shells of the world might have the big bucks, but when we get together, we the people have the big numbers! We will hold our politicians accountable. If necessary, as a last resort, more and more people will put their bodies on the line:
"While opposition from environmentalists and some native groups was always expected, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project has unexpectedly united British Columbians who normally are on opposite sides."
This is what I've experienced in Texas while resisting the Keystone pipeline, in West Virginia fighting mountain top removal and now, in Colorado, standing up against fracking. It's time to take on the fossil fuel industry directly, and people of all ethnicities, political ideologies and economic strata have realized: it's up to us to take a stand. Young and old are coming together and taking action in ways that have pushed them beyond their normal comfort zones to stand up for each other and for common sense. They are seeing the connection between these precarious environmental risks and the humanitarian dangers they bring.
Those who want to be safe from the tyranny of poison will always possess the moral authority and will stand on the right side of history. I am proud to be among them.