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Keystone XL: Line in the sand?

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There is a lot of confusion these days over just what the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is all about. Why would 35,000 people journey to Washington to chant slogans in the freezing cold? I know a bit about being out in the cold, both literally and metaphorically. Neither is pleasant. So there must be something more to this than meets the eye, right? After all, isn't North America already crisscrossed with thousands of miles of pipeline transporting oil and natural gas? None of those pipelines sparked international attention during their construction. Having been at the climate forefront for more than two decades, I see the development of this issue all too clearly.

Never before has the environmental movement been required to change governments to get action. Since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, governments have grudgingly accepted responsibility to act in protection of public health and the environment. Never rapidly -- and always based on science -- governments eventually acted on toxic chemicals, acid rain, car emissions and dozens of other issues. They all followed the same pattern: researchers raised the alarm, victims called for action, government accepted the science and regulated and industry went along (after first resisting, of course). It's the history of rational government -- some would argue more rational than the history of economic or social policy riddled with theoretical and ideological experiments.

The World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere was held in Toronto in June of 1988 (nearly 25 years ago). There, for first time, the world's leading scientists and politicians gathered to discuss global warming and how to confront mounting greenhouse gas emissions. Out of this conference came the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and negotiations that led to the U.N. Convention on Climate Change and ultimately the Kyoto Protocol. The scientific evidence -- too much to cite here -- was overwhelmingly persuasive. There was simply too much at stake to ignore global warming any longer. Suffice it to say that the mountain of evidence from back in 1988 has grown bigger and bigger and bigger.

Yet, unlike all the other environmental issues -- none of which comes close to the magnitude of catastrophic climate change -- Canada and the United States have not only failed to take meaningful action, they've continue to subsidize, promote and protect the fossil fuel industry. I'm sure you've (repeatedly) seen the TV commercials. Government and industry are connected at the hip come hell or high water (which is coming, by the way). This explains a lot about the opposition to the Keystone XL, but it goes even further.

Action plan 1.0

I came to Ottawa in July 1998 -- six months after the Kyoto Protocol. It was the product of five years of painstaking negotiation among nearly 200 countries and was the first legally binding environmental treaty. It was a modest first step with two objectives: reduce emissions from developed countries (that polluted the atmosphere for 200 years while getting rich) and put in place a system to help emerging countries avoid following the same dirty development path. Noble objectives -- both logical and fair.

In response to Kyoto, Canada launched the "National Process on Climate Change" -- a process which saw over 400 representatives from industry, government, academia and other stakeholders (including environmental organizations) spend two years developing a plan with hundreds of good recommendations. I remember it well as I was a participant. Meanwhile, a disgruntled junior Reform Member of Parliament became the head of a right-wing "citizens" group and soon starting writing to supporters that the Kyoto Protocol was a sinister "socialist plot to drain the wealth from developed countries."

South of the border George W. Bush won the presidency (by the narrowest of margins) and to undermine action on climate change created the prototype faux policy he called "Blue Skies." In 18 years, he said, the United States would begin to reduce emissions. Bush even refused to update fuel economy regulations from the 1980s! Instead, he responded to Kyoto in Orwellian fashion by hiring an oil company executive to rewrite unfavorable environmental reports (rewrite history).

By 2005, Canada (following accepted scientific and regulatory protocol) commenced developing climate change regulations, after all it had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Soon came a plan to attain its agreed-upon emission targets and a time table. It must have been a good plan because I remember I was NOT happy -- somewhat satisfied but definitely not happy. Throughout those early years the oil industry and government of Alberta did all it could to undermine action on climate change. Alberta was the worse of the two, always demanding special treatment and threatening constitutional legal action. When the federal government announced it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol the Alberta government withdrew from the "national process."

Blues Skies are gone (and soon the icecap)

That aforementioned disgruntled Reform MP, now a Conservative, became Prime Minister in 2006 at the head of a minority government. The first thing he did was cancel the climate action plan and disregard the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act that a majority of MPs voted for. So much for democracy. Harper replaced real climate action with a disinformation campaign designed to confuse and deceive Canadians, all the while allowing Big Oil to expand their Tar Sands operations (and emissions) at an unprecedented rate.

Only a couple of decades ago, Liberals, Conservatives, NDP'ers, Democrats and Republicans alike all had (to varying degrees) accepted science as the basis of good government policy. There are environmental heroes from all parties. Where have they gone?

Despite their pro-fossil fuel stance, both Canada and the United States sensibly adopted a policy of avoiding a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature -- a point where most scientists believe climate change will be beyond our control.

Today the situation is truly dire. To avoid the 2°C tipping point our emissions must come down MUCH more rapidly than 25 years ago. To be honest, if either country today was taking the situation (and science) seriously we'd be tackling climate change with the same vigor we took on the Second World War. Aren't the stakes as great?

Sometimes governments have to do what's right or what's good for the country despite public opinion, and reluctance to act without public support is understandable. Today, however, there is no reason to hesitate because of public opinion, which has consistently (and overwhelmingly) been in support of taking action on climate change on both sides of the border (with Canadian numbers particularly strong). So why isn't Canada taking climate change seriously? Is it just to protect the Tar Sands -- which only constitute a part of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions (albeit the one growing fastest)?

There are only two options available: slow the growth of the Tar Sands (and their emissions) or force the fossil fuel industry to offset its greenhouse gas emissions with some form of cap-and-trade system. Neither option, despite the right-wing hysteria, would have a significant negative impact on the Canadian economy. It's important to remember that despite all the propaganda, the Tar Sands represent only 3 per cent of Canada's GDP. The only obstacle to truly combatting climate change is the fossil fuel industry's refusal to take responsibility. The reason is the same in the United States; the power of the oil and coal companies to influence Congress is well known and every bill to control emissions has too been killed by massive lobbying and disinformation by the fossil fuel industry.


We've just experienced 10 of the hottest years on record and some of the most intense (and expensive) storms ever witnessed. Yet both Canada and the United States are still putting short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of protecting present and future generation from climatic catastrophe. Worse is the fact they're doing it in full knowledge (or with willful blindness) of the science and over the objections the majority of their citizens.

Into this situation came the Keystone XL pipeline -- the first pipeline designed to ship oil through, not into, the United States. It's connected on one end to the dirty Tar Sands and Texas on the other, and will exploit one of the dirtiest sources of energy on the planet. It's the reason Canada killed its climate plan and is no longer an environmental good guy.

Is there a better place to draw the line? Is there a better place to say the future starts here and now?

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