This has been a bad week for those of us who are terrified about the future of life on this planet.
Let’s begin by considering the historically massive, completely unseasonal, and still-out-of-control wildfire in northern Alberta which consumed most of a mid-sized city last week. Watching this calamity unfold was horrifying and heartbreaking. The post-apocalyptic scenes from a scorched Fort McMurray, the vivid footage of thousands fleeing down fire-lined highways, the emotional post-evacuation interviews of the disaster’s refugees reflecting on their incalculable losses – all of this amounts to a kind of national trauma, a tragedy which spurs deep feelings of sympathy and solidarity in the hearts of all who witness it.
However, the unity this disaster inspires is tenuous, and contingent upon certain subjects remaining undiscussed. In certain circles, it’s considered the height of poor taste to comment on the obvious connections this disaster has to runaway climate change, and hence to the tar sands extraction which drove Fort McMurray’s economy. Some say that “now is not the time” and that any discussion of climate issues is an attempt to make use this tragedy to advance a “political agenda“.
In my opinion, there’s no merit in these criticisms, and it is in fact urgent that we discuss the wildfire’s climate connection and work to immediately transition away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels, including the mining of tar sands in and around Fort McMurray. And while the connections between our changing climate and this hellstorm of a fire are actually a lot more nuanced than one might think, the simple fact is that the length of the wildfire season has increased by two and a half months, and the area consumed by fire annually has doubled. That these changes are directly related to increased global temperatures is not really in dispute.
Put simply, by continuing to dig up, export, and burn the tar sands, we are making future disasters like the one still unfolding more likely. Talking about it is therefore absolutely necessary, even morally imperative.
Of course, there should be no room in this discussion for the baseless victim-blaming exhibited by the people who have called the fire “karmic”. By all means, let’s call out the major oil companies, which have known about (and suppressed evidence of) the dangers of runaway climate change for several decades. These corporations have profited massively by creating the conditions for catastrophic climate change, and are eager to continue doing so. A truly karmic disaster would have rebounded on the true source of the problem, the powerful and wealthy interests who have driven and continue to drive fossil fuel extraction while knowing full well the damage it is doing; the residents of Fort McMurray are victims of their sociopathic greed, just as much as the victims of climate disaster elsewhere are.
And speaking of climate disasters elsewhere…
Rising sea levels in the south Pacific have submerged five of the Solomon Islands, with six others in urgent danger of disappearing. Islanders and scientists have for years been sounding the alarm, demanding that the world take immediate actions and set ambitious targets for emissions reductions to avoid the kind of major sea level rises that would endanger the very existence of dozens of nations. A study in Environmental Research Letters explicitly links the submerging of these islands to anthropogenic climate change. The rising sea levels are fracturing communities, increasing ethnic tensions, and particularly imperilling the lives of poor folks.
Global sea level rise is being partially driven by a shocking level of early-spring ice melt in Greenland this year. Greenland’s glaciers, which are the second-largest in the world, have been melting at a faster rate and in a higher volume than earlier climate-change models had predicted, leaving scientists increasingly concerned about the prospect of runaway sea level rise. And, amid ever-inflating projections of global temperature increases, experts are warning that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – “a sword of Damocles hanging over civilization” – could potentially collapse into the ocean far sooner than predicted. The ice sheet, which is larger than Mexico, has the potential to sent sea levels rapidly shooting up by nearly four metres.
Speaking of global temperature increases, records continue to be set in India (with the mercury nearing 50°C some days) as the second massive heat wave in two years ravages northeastern states. Last year’s heat wave killed over two thousand people; this year’s death toll is still in the low hundreds, but Indian government figures indicate that the drought and water shortages accompanying this year’s heat wave have the potential to negatively impact over three hundred million people’s access to food and water [CW – image of dying animal]. Again, it is the poor who are disproportionately affected by this climate-driven disaster.
Similarly, as sub-Saharan Africa endures its worst drought in decades, the poor and marginalized suffer the most. Many nations urgently require massive food aid or will in the near future. The drought currently afflicting the region is no temporary thing, either; a report released by the World Bank earlier this week [CW – image of dead or dying animals] indicates that water shortages will cause double-digit reductions in the GDPs of nations in Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia within the next thirty-five years.
This is the context – fires, floods, droughts, record-breaking temperatures and glacial melting, and the impact all of these are having on the world’s poorest and more marginalized people – in which we must view pipeline giant Enbridge’s recent request for a three-year extension on its permits to build its massive Northern Gateway mega-project.
As I detailed a few weeks back, Enbridge has been quietly laying the groundwork for the revival of this project, which up until recently was widely considered by opponents and defenders alike to be dead. There was, briefly, a flurry of indications that the project had major influence in the corridors of power. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley publicly admitted she’d changed her mind on the pipeline and openly lobbied the federal cabinet on the issue. B.C. Premier Christy Clark softened her previously hardline stance on the issue, and indicated she was receptive to a pipelines-for-hydro deal which would help to ease the construction of her own disastrous mega-project, the Site C Dam. And federal cabinet ministers began delicately walking back on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s seemingly unequivocal campaign promise to ban tanker traffic to the northern B.C. coast, a proposal which would many had viewed as the final nail in Northern Gateway’s coffin.
Even in the face of this high-level movement, however, pipeline opponents were dubious, given the tight timelines Enbridge is working under. If it does not begin construction of the pipeline by year’s end, its permits will expire, and it would have to begin the lengthy review process over again if it wished to proceed with the project. Many environmentalists saw the renewed advocacy of the project as a kind of bait-and-switch, advancing one intensely unpopular pipeline in order to make a somewhat less unpopular one, like Kinder Morgan, seem more acceptable by comparison.
Instead, it seems to have been a genuine effort at rehabilitating the project’s image and breathing new life into the process. At this point, it’s impossible to say what response Enbridge will get from the National Energy Board, although their relentless pro-industry bias will likely predispose them to give this proposal more serious consideration than it deserves. But what’s important here is that this proposal be seen for what it is – an effort to perpetuate the status quo despite the ever-growing mountain of evidence that the status quo has fucked us all over pretty badly.
If Enbridge gets its way, they will be facilitating the transportation of over half a million barrels of tar sands bitumen every day to the north Pacific coast for export. They will be facilitating the continued use of fossil fuels in the face of all the scientific evidence that we need to stop burning hydrocarbons as soon as possible. And they will be profiting from this.
Some say that it is disrespectful to talk about climate change while wildfires continue to ravage northern Alberta. But in my opinion, Enbridge’s attempt to proceed with Northern Gateway while those fires still burn is far more insulting. It indicates a profound indifference to the fate of all of humanity – even the fates of those who work to extract the tar sands from the earth. In the face of these calamities, it’s imperative that we reflect on their causes and take actions to prevent disasters like these from becoming more frequent and intense in the future. Enbridge’s actions aim to do exactly the opposite – to continue headlong on the course that’s brought us to our current vulnerably and fragile state, unheeding of the dangers ahead.