The Keystone XL Pipeline and Facing Down Species Death

Keystone XL Protest

Why Obama’s Keystone XL Decision Will Be One of the Most Brutal of His Administration

Sunday saw thousands of protestors descend on Washington to rally against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—group organizers have called it the largest climate protest in US history.

The Keystone pipeline is a proposed system to run oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada through the United States, all the way down to the Gulf Coast. It will refresh US energy demands from North American resources—for a while, as we continue to look for the last remaining planetary oil reserves.

Opposition against the construction of the pipeline has been tremendous. Critics of the Keystone XL pipeline, like Bill McKibben, are casting this as an environmental ethics issue—even saying that its construction may be the death blow beyond which climate change will be irreversible  While Obama originally delayed on the pipeline as part of his re-election campaign in 2011, he’s now facing down his final decision—and pundits from both sides of the fight seem sure that he will act in their favor. Which way he goes is anybody’s guess.

From the planetary level, of course, this is an environmental ethics issue. As James Hansen wrote in the New York Times in May, the science of what will occur if we—or somebody else—exploits the Canadian tar sands is clear:

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.

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Global Warming Deniers

Arguing about the reality of climate change is moot. It is, simply, scientific fact. (See the chart of studies conducted on climate change at the right, via desmogblog.)

But there’s a political issue in the room that the protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline aren’t addressing: China. Though environmentalists often protest American imperialism and the push for a “New American Century” engineered by people like Zbiginew Brzezinski—an approach that even Brzezinski now admits has failed—they fall prey to the same nationalistic bias. They assume that America is the world, that Obama is everybody’s daddy, and that America’s actions will make or break the global fight for the climate. They have yet to assess the complexity of the international stage.

The onus of responsibility here rests not only with Obama, but with Steven Harper. Despite protest by environmental groups and Canada’s indigenous people—and yes, in direct response to Obama trying to slow down the Keystone decision in 2011—Harper is threatening to sell the oil to China. Which, geopolitically speaking, means he’s holding a gun to the future of American sovereignty. (Cue the South Park “Blame Canada” song.)

It’s no secret to anybody paying attention that the 21st century will be dominated by economic cold war between China and the West, and that China will likely win (though China’s dependence on foreign markets, i.e. the West, will likely keep both economic systems locked in interdependence). Which may mean that the decision Obama faces is to burn Canada’s resources for the US—a United States already somewhat dedicated to using its resources to create clean energy solutions, and which may yet achieve a new economic ascendency from a potential clean tech bubble—or to allow Harper to sell to China, and throw the game completely—and have the oil tapped and burned anyway.

This is, as I see it, the crucial political issue at stake. “Energy independence” from the Middle East, the major point that the Republicans have harped on as the reason to construct the pipeline and exploit other North American oil resources—i.e. “Drill, Baby, Drill”—is probably minor in comparison.

This leaves us back in our central predicament: utilizing our existing natural resources to develop renewable energy systems, and winning the race against our own resource depletion by, paradoxically and potentially fatally, depleting our own resources. Which may mean that, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, Obama’s path may be to “combine Keystone with other environmental moves to show that progress in cutting greenhouse gases will continue even as the pipeline is built.”

No easy answers. And there’s another issue to consider: even if Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline with the best intentions in mind, and plans to use the oil to ramp the US towards renewable energy and the implementation of other environmental efforts, there’s no guarantee that his successor will continue his plan. Such are American politics: longterm vision for the country often proves impossible because of the presidential turnover rate. (Consider the space program, which languished in bureaucratic red tape after the momentum put in place by Kennedy and Johnson wound down.)

Despite the geopolitics, the climate clock ticks. Time to start making decisions for the good of the whole—not nations, and not corporations.

Image via Think Progress.

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Monsanto vs. the World
Monsanto vs. the World