By James E. Hansen
7 September 2011 – From Cimate Story Tellers: Tar Sands Action organised a civil disobedience sit-in at The White House to oppose construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that began on August 20, culminating in a big rally on 3 September.
On August 29 I joined 60 religious leaders and other fellow protestors. I was arrested that day. But before I was handcuffed, I addressed fellow activists who had gathered outside The White House with these words
Let us return for a moment to the election night in 2008. As I sat in our farmhouse in Pennsylvania, watching Barack Obama’s victory speech, I turned my head aside so my wife would not see the tears in my eyes I suspect that millions cried. It was a great day for America.
We had great hopes for Barack Obama — perhaps our dreams were unrealistic — he is only human. But it is appropriate, it is right, in a period honouring Martin Luther King, to recall the hopes and dreams of that evening.
We had a dream — that the new President would understand the intergenerational injustice of human-made climate change — that he would recognize our duty to be caretakers of creation, of the land, of the life on our planet — and that he would give these matters the priority that our young people deserve.
We had a dream — that the President would understand the commonality of solutions for energy security, national security and climate stability — and that he would exercise hands-on leadership, taking the matter to the public, avoiding backroom crippling deals with special interests.
We had a dream — that the President would stand as firm as Abraham Lincoln when he faced the great moral issue of slavery — and, like Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, he would speak with the public, enlisting their support and reassuring them.
Perhaps our dreams were unrealistic. It is not easy to find an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. But we will not give up. There can be no law or regulation that stops us from acting on our dreams.
Tar sands and unconventional fossil fuels
In a previous post “Silence Is Deadly” I wrote: “The environmental impacts of tar sands development include: irreversible effects on biodiversity and the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife, particularly bird and caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities.”
Now, I’ll illustrate the emissions scenario from potential burning of tar sands oil and other unconventional fossil fuels as contrasted with conventional fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal).
Figure 1 helps make clear why the tar sands and other unconventional fossil fuels ought not to be developed and burned.
The purple bars show the total emissions to date from the conventional fossil fuels. These past emissions, plus a smaller contribution from net deforestation, are the cause of the carbon dioxide increase from 280 to 391 parts per million – where we are today.
I wrote before, “Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric carbon dioxide well above 400 parts per million which is unsafe for life on earth.”
The blue bar is 50 per cent of known UFF resources. Supporters of UFF development argue that only 15 per cent of the tar sands resource is economically extractable, thus we may exaggerate their threat.
On the contrary, Figure 1 is a conservative estimate of potential emissions from tar sands because: the economically extractable amount grows with technology development and oil price; the total tar sands resource is larger than the known resource, possibly much larger; extraction of tar sands oil uses conventional oil and gas, which will show up as additions to the purple bars in Figure 1; development of tar sands will destroy overlying forest and prairie ecology, emitting biospheric carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
We show in The Case For Young People https://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110505_CaseForYoungPeople.pdf that it is probably feasible to avoid dangerous climate tipping points, but only if conventional fossil fuel emissions are phased down rapidly and UFFs are left in the ground.
If governments allow infrastructure for UFFs to be developed, either they don’t “get it” or they simply don’t care about the future of young people.
Preserving creation for future generations is a moral issue as monumental as ending slavery in the 19th century or fighting Nazism in the 20th century.
Citizen’s arrest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
George Bush confessed our addiction to oil. Taking tar sands oil amounts to borrowing a dirty needle from a neighbour addict.
Fortunately, Congress adopted and Bush approved the Energy Independence and Security Act 2007, which was intended to prevent US agencies from buying alternative fuels that generate more pollution in their life cycle than conventional fuel from customary petroleum sources.
Tar sands oil not only exceeds conventional petroleum, but the energy used in mining, processing, and transporting tar sands oil makes it slightly worse – in terms of carbon dioxide produced per unit energy – than coal.
Who would drive a car powered by coal!?
This raises a question: if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, can we make a citizen’s arrest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for violating the Energy Independence and Security Act?
If they were put in the back of a hot paddy wagon in DC and held for at least several hours with their hands tied behind their backs, maybe they would have a chance to think over this matter more clearly.
Dr. James E. Hansen is director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Dr Hansen is best known for his research in the field of climatology. In 1988, Hansen’s testimony before the US Senate was featured on the front page of the New York Times and helped raise broad awareness of global warming. In recent years, Hansen has become an activist for action to mitigate the effects of climate change, which on several occasions has led to his arrest. In 2009 his book, “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity” was published.