This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
These days, even ostriches suffer from heat waves. More than 1,000 of them reportedly died from overheating on South African farms during a 2010 drought. As for American ostriches, the human variety anyway, at the moment it should be increasingly hard for them to avoid extreme-weather news. After all, whether you're in sweltering heat, staggering drought, a record fire season, or a massive flood zone, most of us are living through weird weather this year. And if you're one of the lucky few not in an extreme-weather district of the USA, you still won't have a problem running across hair-raising weather stories, ranging from the possible loss of one out of every ten species on this planet by century's end to the increasing inability of the oceans to soak up more atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Then, of course, there are those other headlines. Here's a typical one: "As Water Rises, Florida Officials Sit on Their Hands" (a former member of the just abolished Florida Energy and Climate Commission points out that, thanks to Republican governor Rick Scott and the legislature in the part of the country most vulnerable to rising sea levels, "there is no state entity addressing climate change and its impact"). And here's another: "Economy Keeps Global Warming on the Back Burner for 2012" (American climate-change "skeptics" are celebrating because "the tide of the debate -- at least politically -- has turned in their favor" and "political experts say that" concerns over global warming won't carry much weight in the 2012 election"). And then there are the polls indicating Americans are confused about the unanimity of the scientific consensus on climate change, surprisingly dismissive of global-warming dangers, worry less about it than they did a decade ago, and of major environmental issues, worry least about it.
It's true, of course, that no weird-weather incident you experience can definitively be tied to climate change and other factors are involved. Still, are we a nation of overheating ostriches? It's a reasonable enough conclusion, and in a sense, not so surprising. After all, how does anyone react upon discovering that his or her way of life is the crucial problem, that fossil fuels, which keep our civilization powered up and to which our existence is tethered, are playing havoc with the planet?
TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is a man deeply committed to transforming us from climate-change ostriches to climate-change eagles. Perhaps it's time, he suggests, for the environmental movement to get one heck of a lot blunter. Tom
Will North America Be the New Middle East?
It's Yes or No For a Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline -- and Obama Gets to Make the Call
By Bill McKibben
The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months. Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we've got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire. First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it's the Midwest that's flooding at historic levels.- Advertisement -
The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States. Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history. Jeff Masters, probably the world's most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.
Since we're the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here's his prognosis: "The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway."
There's another shift, too, and that's in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010. These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations. They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.
Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so -- for the moment anyway -- the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!
Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada's plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta. We set up a new website, tarsandsaction.org, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement's history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They'll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta's tar sands will only increase.- Advertisement -
Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline. It's wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week's Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)
There's an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta's tar sands are the continent's biggest carbon bomb. Indeed, they're the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia's slowly dwindling oilfields.
If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you'd run the atmosphere's concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we're currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature. It won't happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet's most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was "essentially game over" for the climate of this planet.
Halting that pipeline wouldn't solve all tar sands problems. The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least, would be a start. Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can't get in the way. The president alone decides if the pipeline is "in the national interest." There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration. Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department's "energy envoy" was already instructing Alberta's fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their "oil sands messaging," including "increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories." This is the government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.