Thursday, September 1, 2011

Climate Confusion

"Non, je ne verrai pas la déplorable fête

Où s’enivre, en espoir d’un brilliant avenir,

Ce people condamné, que rien, hélas! n’arrête

Sur la pente du gouffre."

"No, I will not look upon this dreadful celebration

Where, drunk with hope of a brilliant future,

Nothing, alas, will stop this doomed people

From their plunge into destruction."

Cassandra, in Berlioz's Les Troyens

I have been deeply moved these past few weeks to see hundreds of people willing to face arrest at the White House in a massive act of civil disobedience. If you don't know—and you very well may not—they have been protesting the proposed construction of a massive pipeline, known appropriately as Keystone XL, that would link the Canadian tar sands directly with refineries in Texas.

Among those arrested are Bill McKibben, who has been speaking out with increasing urgency on the threat of climate change, and NASA's leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen. In Hansen's words, approval of the pipeline will mean that it is "essentially game over" for the climate. Extracting oil from the tar sands produces three times as much greenhouse gas as simply burning it. The pipeline will run through America's heartland, and has the potential to produce an ecological disaster all by itself, including possible contamination of the Ogalalla Aquifer. In short, it is a truly horrible idea, and it appears beyond belief that a Democratic president who claims to be an environmentalist is poised to approve it.

Or so those who oppose the pipeline have been claiming. Every time the issue comes up, strong countering voices chime in to point out that Canada will develop the tar sands regardless of whether Keystone XL is built. In fact, it is already doing so, devastating native American habitat and primal forests in the process. If we don't build the pipeline, the argument goes, the Canadians will just build one to their own West Coast and export the oil to Asia. In the process, President Obama will have sacrificed thousands of potential American jobs and sabotaged our efforts to achieve energy independence.

In other words, this fuse is going to be lit, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The game is already over. The tar sands are going to be developed, for the simple reason that the worldwide demand for oil is rising at the same time the supply is falling, or at least not growing fast enough to keep up.

This is not encouraging news, but it gives reason to wonder if Hansen's choice of words might have been unfortunate. If this is indeed "game over for the climate," and if it is bound to happen no matter what America does, then it will be difficult to mobilize people for any future efforts to stop climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. As readers of this blog know, this is something that I care passionately about, and I'm not willing to accept defeat. I fully expect future generations to hold all of us now alive responsible for the devastation they are likely to face. In fact, I expect my children and grandchildren (if I have them) to be mad as heck about our failure to solve this crisis, or even to face it honestly. The urgency I feel on their behalf is hard to overstate.

At the same time, I honestly wonder whether there is anything we can do. People simply aren't turning away from fossil fuel and embracing alternative energy at the rate that will be necessary to avert disaster. There may simply not be enough alternative energy for them to embrace. How about living without air conditioning when the temperatures here in Texas have been in the triple digits every day for the last three months? How about giving up fresh fruits and vegetables for most of the year? Abandoning air travel? These are decisions that people will have to be consciously willing to make, and people just don't make decisions like that. It's against human nature.

So we're doomed. Doomed, at the very least, to an ongoing series of futile protests like the ones now going on in Washington. Even if we win this battle, we'll probably lose the war. Does that mean we should give up, and guarantee that our ultimate defeat will be even worse than it might have been? Game over? Cassandra, I feel your pain.

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