Last week, far out in the Arctic Ocean, the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise approached a Russian oil-drilling platform and launched a nonviolent protest, with several protesters scaling the side of the platform. They wanted to draw attention to a dangerous precedent being set. The platform, the Prirazlomnaya, owned by Russian gas giant Gazprom, is the first to begin oil production in the dangerous, ice-filled waters of the Arctic. The Russian government responded swiftly and with force, deploying special-forces soldiers, their faces masked by balaclavas, threatening the peaceful Greenpeace activists with automatic weapons, destroying their inflatable boats by slashing them, arresting 30 and towing the Greenpeace ship to the northern Russian port of Murmansk. At last report, the protesters faced a potential charge of piracy.
This protest is remarkable for its sheer audacity. But it is by no means the sole protest lately against runaway fossil-fuel extraction and consumption. People are speaking up around the globe, demanding action to combat global warming. In North America, a broad coalition has been growing to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, as well as to stop the exploitation of Alberta's tar sands, which the pipeline is designed to carry.
On Sept. 21, the last full day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere this year, thousands of people "drew the line" on Keystone XL at protest gatherings around the continent. In Nebraska, they actually built a barn on the route of the proposed pipeline, which locals fear will spill oil onto the fragile sandhills ecosystem and pollute the vital Ogallala Aquifer. On the same day, the International Women's Earth and Climate Summit met in Suffern, N.Y. It was a gathering of women from around the world, all renowned in their own way for fighting for urgent action on climate change. Among them was Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of the Cree indigenous nation, from northern Alberta. She described the impact of tar-sands extraction on her people:
"The tar sands cover over 141,000 square kilometers, about the size of England and Wales combined, or the size of Florida. The mines are larger than many large cities. This region we call the northern lungs of the planet, the boreal deciduous forest, and it's being deforested for the mining. We suffered what might be the worst oil spill ever in Canada, with 4.5 million liters of oil spilled, which destroyed ancestral lands. We call what is happening cultural and environmental genocide."
The Keystone XL pipeline requires U.S. government approval, as it will cross the northern border from Canada on its way to the Gulf Coast. The approval process has been delayed, due to massive protests. After more than 1,250 people were arrested in front of the White House in 2011, in what was the largest act of civil disobedience in the U.S. in 30 years, President Barack Obama said he would delay the decision. Since then, Friends of the Earth (FOE) has exposed a clear conflict of interest with the group hired by the U.S. State Department to conduct an environmental-impact study of Keystone XL. FOE found that Environmental Resources Management, a London-based consulting firm, covered up its business ties to TransCanada, the fossil-fuel corporation that will own Keystone XL. Likewise, another watchdog group, Oil Change International, just reported that "Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative in charge of negotiating a variety of secretive 'free trade' agreements, is apparently siding with Big Oil in demanding that Europe weaken its climate laws." Oil Change's Steve Kretzmann explains, "Unless Europe weakens its climate laws, U.S. diesel exports, which will contain tar sands, will be less competitive."
Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman also was at the women's summit. She spoke about how the Canadian government, under conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has silenced scientists in a desperate bid to stifle criticism of Keystone XL. She told me: "Last week in Canada, we had hundreds of scientists hit the streets in their lab coats protesting the federal government because they can't speak. They are being muzzled. To the extent that the eminent, journal Nature, last year, published an editorial saying it is time for Canada to set its scientists free." James Hansen, the former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote on Keystone XL, "If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate."
The climate casualties are mounting, from the thousand-year flood that devastated entire towns in Colorado, to northern India, where floods and landslides from one storm last June killed more than 5,700 people. The hope lies in the global grass-roots movement that is growing, demanding serious action to halt climate change before it is too late.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.