“Welcome to Fort McMurray. We have the energy,” reads the signs as one enters this northern deep-woods outpost at the center of the Alberta tar sands petroleum-extraction zone. The forests surrounding Fort McMurray are on fire, closing in on the vast tar sands operations. More than 90,000 people have been evacuated, most from Fort McMurray, but thousands more from the oil sands work camps, where what is considered the dirtiest oil on the planet is extracted from tarry sand dug from earth-scarring open-pit mines. Across the hemisphere, the oil giant Shell has begun cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil-drilling operations have leaked, spilling more than 2,000 barrels of oil into the water, 97 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week in its annual Greenhouse Gas Index that “human activity has increased the direct warming effect of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 50 percent above pre-industrial levels during the past 25 years.” The U.S. space agency NASA reported that April was the hottest April in recorded history, by a greater margin than ever. This continues a streak of month after month breaking each month’s temperature record.
The official response to catastrophic climate change is embodied in the Paris Agreement, the 31-page document agreed to by 175 countries so far. The agreement, reached last December in Paris and signed in April, was the culmination of years of negotiations that many criticized as being far from “FAB”: Fair, Ambitious or Binding. The agreement is overseen by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which is now holding a high-level meeting in Bonn, Germany, the first since the Paris Agreement was settled.
Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Greenpeace International, told us in Paris on the eve of the release of the final Paris Agreement, “There are so many loopholes in that draft text, you could fly Air Force One through it ... the bottom line is, I would say that the fingerprints of the fossil-fuel industry is in far too many places on this draft text.” He added, “Most of us in civil society never said, ‘The road to Paris,’ we always said, ‘The road through Paris.’”
And along that road, coordinated globally to precede the Bonn meeting, people are putting their bodies on the line, with blockades, sit-ins, banner-hangs and a whole constellation of confrontational actions, driven by the urgency of the climate crisis. Here is just a sample of some of the protests from the past two weeks, as summarized by the climate action nonprofit group 350.org:
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In the U.K., protesters shut down the country’s largest open-cast coal mine for a day. A similar protest halted coal shipments in Newcastle, Australia. In the U.S., people occupied train tracks overnight to stop “bomb trains,” oil-filled tanker cars that have exploded in the past, killing hundreds. In Germany, 3,500 people shut down a lignite mine and nearby power station for over 48 hours. In the Philippines, 10,000 marched against a proposed coal plant. Community members blocked traffic outside the gates of Brazil’s largest thermal coal plant. On land and water, people blockaded the Kinder Morgan tar sands facility in Vancouver, and in Turkey, 2,000 people marched to a large coal dump and surrounded it with a giant red line.
World-renowned linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky has just written a new book called “Who Rules the World?” He says that the two critical issues facing humanity are nuclear weapons and climate change, and that it is astounding how rarely these issues are addressed in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“When the Republicans on the Supreme Court just recently beat back a pretty moderate proposed Obama regulation on coal, that again is a message to the world, says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything,’” Chomsky told us last week. “The biggest, most powerful country in the world doesn’t care, so ‘you go ahead and do what you like.’ This is all literally saying, ‘Let’s race to the precipice.’”
There is hope in people taking action, though. In Professor Chomsky’s home state of Massachusetts, four teenage high-school students sued the state Department of Environmental Protection, claiming the state was breaking its own law mandating a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions of 80 percent by 2050 by not taking action quickly enough. This week, the state’s highest court agreed, and Massachusetts must now implement a plan to cut emissions.
There has long been a clarion call to save the planet for future generations. It becomes increasingly clear that it is the younger generation that will save us all.