Tar sands action: Open letter to the Prime Minister of Canada from a mother and extremist

| October 5, 2011
Katharine Cukier

Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper,

I am writing to you because I want to thank you for clarifying some things for me. According to you, I am an extremist. I think it would be amusing and even useful for you to understand the heart and mind of an extremist like me. Indeed, I suspect the country you have been entrusted to govern is full of them... I mean us.

I was arrested last week for participating in a civil disobedience action in Ottawa. We were protesting your government's indifference to the dangers of climate change. This indifference is communicated clearly by your determination to expand the use of bitumen, the tar sands, a high emission, unconventional, fossil fuel.

To begin the clarification of my new identity, I guess I would say that I am an extremist first and foremost because I am a mother. My children are the centre of my world -- I suspect it is the one thing you and I have in common, other than our need for clean water, air and soil. You, too, know intimately that powerful parental love; it feels like an ache and a blessing at the same time. Like all maternal mammals, any threat to the habitat rouses my protective instincts.

And because I am a human being, I use my brain to understand those threats. Not only do I worry about my children and their future being impacted by global warming; I am forced to consider how my children's children will be affected by runaway climate change driven by our unabated and expanding use of fossil fuels. In 50 years, unlike you and me, our children, or at least our grandchildren, will feel powerless to do anything to protect their kids from the instability and economic consequences of a fragile if not collapsing environment.

I am an extremist, Mr. Prime Minister, because I have paid close attention to the science of climate change. The graphs prepared by climatologists fill me with far more emotion than those prepared for you by Syncrude. I suspect your reason is impaired in its capacity for sound judgment when you see graphs showing ever-increasing profit margins and GDP increases to be squeezed out of the Tar Sands. But because I am an extremist, unlike you, I have looked to those ideologically suspect fields of physics, geography and biology to further my understanding of the mechanisms and consequences of climate change.

Because I am an extremist, I have studied the data showing steadily rising curves of CO2, global temperature increase and accelerating ice sheet collapse. For you, I must be completely off my rocker to publicly admit that science, rather than commerce, has guided me in understanding the evidence of increasing extremes of climate. Twenty million people displaced last year by catastrophic floods in Pakistan. More floods affecting thousands in Australia and in the Mississippi basin, hundreds in Quebec and Manitoba. These are unusual climate events that have been linked to global warming and the impact of heat on the hydrological cycle. Droughts in the Horn of Africa, forest fires in Texas, Russia and Australia and shrinking icecaps and ice sheets are more examples of the changes shaking our planet in only the last two years. And of course, these and many, many other climate impacts of varying intensity have 99 per cent of scientists unanimously persuaded that human caused climate change must be addressed forcefully now, not later. But for you and your government, I guess they can't be trusted any more than I can.

Along with virtually the entire community of scientists, another of my extremist ideological mentors is the economist Lord Nicholas Stern, commissioned by the British government to examine the economics of climate change. His conclusions in 2007 rendered in the sacred code of GDP persuaded many governments and corporations to turn their attention to the dangers of climate change. Tragically, the financial crash of 2008 buried their concerns in the rubble of bank failure. Indeed, if you would actually rip off the plastic seal and read his report, you would see that he warned very clearly that *the planet was too big to fail* -- that not only in his words is climate change "the greatest market failure of all time," but that the costs of mitigating climate change will be substantially less if we invest in them today. He concurs with environmental experts; we must commit to a serious reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels and massive investment in renewable energy. Following his report's publication, Lord Stern revealed that some of his conclusions were too optimistic. He agrees with that outspoken NASA physicist, James Hansen. We must stabilize CO2 at 350ppm if we are to avoid runaway climate change. We are already at 387 ppm CO2 and will reach at least 400ppm within 20-40 years at the rate we are increasing emissions. That could mean 2 or more degrees of temperature increase by the end of the century. Mr Prime Minister, the point is that Tar Sands expansion will make those estimates a certainty as they will weaken and slow down all economic and political incentive to promote efficiency and to ultimately transition to renewable energy.

That is what we extremists were trying to tell you last week, Mr. Prime Minister. Expansion of your Tar Sands is now being given active incentive with your support of a massive network of pipeline infrastructure through North America. I am not alone in feeling both a deep sense of betrayal and despair to think that this will exponentially increase our dependence on fossil fuels for another century or two. Suddenly, there is no longer the spectre of peak oil to help focus our commitment to renewables and sustainability. Around the world there is nearly half a continent worth of bitumen out there to turn into billions of dollars and billions of metric tons of CO2. To hell with sustainability. Hell, indeed.

The extremists, the scientists and Lord Stern are trying to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that to put off addressing this explosive problem now so that our children's generation must confront it at a later, more critical stage, is not only irresponsible, it is genocidal.

Large groups of the less privileged peoples of our world, particularly those in the global South, will face far greater climate change catastrophe than we in the privileged North -- that is minus our First Nations communities both in the warming Arctic and downstream from the tar sands. Their suffering has already begun with polluted waters, diminished food supplies and cancer clusters in their population that you have tried to conceal. That was a big part of our message yesterday. One to which you seem cruelly indifferent.

I guess, Prime Minister, that is more evidence of my extremism. I actually care about what happens to my kids, but also to the kids of the Africans, Asians and First Nations peoples on our planet. Africans, Asians and First Nations peoples are among the most vulnerable because of geography and fragile water supplies, and because of the nature of their hunting or agriculture based economies. As Lord Stern has made clear, they will be the first and most drastically affected, even though it is we, the largely white, wealthy part of the world that are responsible for 80 per cent of the Green House Gases circulating in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

And finally, Mr. Prime Minister, because I am an extremist, a mom and a school teacher who cares about the future of our young people, I, like 75 per cent of Canada's eligible voters did not vote for you. Those who did vote, voted for parties that, among other things, have all begun to take climate change seriously. Mr. Prime Minister, I have paid close attention to the lessons of the 20th and 21st centuries. I have learned that leaders blinded by ideology or misguided by greed, either their own or that of their corporate backers and bankers, must be confronted non-violently with a courageous, determined population. The majority of Canadians are ashamed that our country is now intimately associated with indifference to the greatest threat humanity has ever faced: Climate Change. That indifference is embodied by you, Mr. Prime Minister.

Sir, I beg you on behalf of your beautiful children and mine, prove the extremists are wrong.

Katharine Cukier is a wife to one, a mother of two and a teacher past and present of hundreds of high school students. She enjoys gardening, jogging and teaching literature to young people. Prior to her arrest on Monday, Sept. 26, 2011, she had had four parking tickets over the last 30 years.



Really great letter, good for you. I was there but did not go over the fence, wish I would have. Maybe next time,,,,,,,,,,

Love, Absolutely LOVE this piece, Katherine!  You took the words right out of my head & heart - & those of SO many average, everyday Canadian "extremists"!   I've shared it widely!  It was perfect!

Open letter to all the "extremists" protesting against the oil sands in Canada.

Do you drive a car? Do you use any plastic products? 

Personally, I'm sick of the oil sands bashing. We live in an economically driven society. Supply----Demand.

Stop driving cars & stop using products that are derivative of petroleum and companies will stop mining it. It's that simple; or is it?

Transportation is the largest use of petroleum on the planet. Moving people and shipping objects around the globe takes a LOT of energy. Currently, the entire system is designed around combustion engine powered vehicles. Large and small.

What sustainable solution do you propose to do away with that system? How do you propose to pay for it? What do you propose we do with all the existing, polluting machines? 

Moving away from burning fossil fuels is a necessity. Coal, oil, etc. We need to stop. This has to be a process however; it's NOT a light switch. There needs to be a plan. Sustainability is the goal. Everyone agrees with this. How do we get from here to there is where all the arguing is. Once that gets solved...we can start that journey.  Try pouring all your efforts into solving that piece.

As for oil sands production itself...it is no more ecologically damaging than any other strip mine. Do you petition and protest against the MASSIVE nickel mines in Sudbury? Go on google maps and look at the size of those things. Do you even know what the environmental impact of mining and processing nickel is? Have you even thought about it? Ever? What about sulfur?  Bottom line is mining is a dirty job. Every mineral resource is mined. Many are strip mined. These operations disrupt large areas of wildnerness and leave massive empty holes on the planet. Most leave behind unusable space for people and wildlife forever. At least the oilsands have reclaimation projects in use. There are a couple parks here that used to be active oil sands production. You would never know walking through the trails.


This is a coal mine in Germany. You know what they (and us) use coal primary for? Generating electricity. Look at that pit...no, that's not damaging to the enviroment at all...no, no, no. Do you know how much CO2 is produced from coal burning compared to oil? On a global scale? Have you been protesting against coal use? Fact is, less than 1% of the world's energy generation is from (truly) renewable sources.

Sustainability is the goal. However, it shouldn't be limited to resource mining and energy production. Sustainability should be the goal for everthing. How we do business. How we run governments. How we educate our children and how we provide healthcare. Yet we're not actively persuing that goals in any of these areas. Do those areas not make an impact on our children's lives? 

So instead of simply protesting to STOP something...and fighting to END this plan...and using so much of your energy to PUSH BACK...why don't you try coming up with the solution? Why don't you provide an alternative? A REAL ONE.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with manufacturing a product that 99% of the people on the planet want and need. (if you drive a car, you're one of them!) It makes for a more solid economy and that leads to a better life for Canada's population.  There are tens of thousands of people employed in the oil sands. They work hard to make a better life for their families.

You STILL drive a car. Let's put things into perpective.

This is a complicated mess of interactions and dependencies. You're arguments are focused on a single item. Unfortunately, like old xmas lights, if you unplug one the whole thing stops working. 

For the record, I'm against the pipeline for two reason. 1. It takes a lot of jobs outside of Canada. 2. Any environmental risks associated with product loss during transportation (pipe breaking) would be much higher than shipping the processed materials by truck. That, in my opinion, is an unnecessary risk.


@seanmcr6 --

You're trying to make an argument of moral equivalence.

This fails for a couple of reasons.  (Leaving aside the whole "we can't get China, India, or the US to stop burning coal, but we can stop making things worse ourselves" real-scope-of-Canadian-responsibility issue, or the ancient recognition that two wrongs don't make a right.)

One is that oil sands production is unusually damaging for a fossil carbon industry, because they're burning a great deal of natural gas to melt the bitumen to make oil out of it; the carbon load on the atmosphere is unusually high per barrel-of-oil equivalent.  That's all that matters on the scale of global concern; are you putting more CO2 in the atmosphere?  And the answer is, yes, you are; by backing the Tar Sands you're backing a fossil carbon technology that's especially and unusually bad considered as a fossil carbon energy technology.  (Also, one which is probably not profitable, even at current oil prices, without Canadian federal government direct and indirect subsidies.)

Another is that there's this "drive a car and use plastics" line in there; individuals can't stop doing that.  Even if you're a bike-riding, transit-taking central city dweller, the transportation infrastructure is, as you note, dependent on fossil carbon energy.  Making that change is the job of our government, in its role as good stewards of the future prosperity of Canada.  The protest is that the current Harper Government is failing, abjectly and deliberately, at this important role.

This is especially pernicious because there's absolutely no technical reason to prefer fossil carbon for new development.  (Which is what that the pipeline project is; a commitment to long term, future dependence on fossil carbon energy.)  Solar is more than good enough at current costs, and its cost curve is heading down.  Nuclear is more than good enough.  Alkaline fuel cells, that react anhydrous ammonia -- NH3, no carbon and all, about half the energy density of gasoline, and something that has been industrially synthesized from air and water already -- sufficient to power a car for regular highway driving were first demonstrated in 1968.  (Yes, that's right; the year after Canada's Centennial.)

Since we have got to keep synthesizing ammonia -- a critical fertilizer in agriculture -- we might as well use it as an energy storage mechanism.  It's even pretty easy to handle; arguably safer and easier than gasoline.

Or, well, there's a lot of other alternatives.  There really isn't a technical problem. It's all political and a little economic, but almost purely political.

The point is that there is absolutely no doubt global warming is happening; there's absolutely no doubt that fossil carbon burning is the domminant reason it's happening; there's absolutely no doubt that it's going to make everybody in Canada worse off than they might otherwise be.  (The climate regime we're headed at makes food security, which is absolutely dependent on consistent weather, extremely doubtful.  And it doesn't matter how much money you have if there's no food, and we're certainly headed at a climate where drought in North America the same year the monsoon is very late or fails is much more likely to happen than it was in 1900.)

There is absolutely no doubt that it will cost us much less if we do something about it now, rather than later; it's like a roof leak.  The sooner you fix it, the less it costs you.

Mr. Harper feels that the best, most forward-thinking, most responsible thing he can do in this circumstance as Prime Minister of Canada is to commit himself, his government, and this country to making things much, much worse for everybody.

(Instead of, say, imposing a moratorium on any new fossil carbon extraction, spending lots of money on converting the transportation infrastructure off fossil carbon, and setting up Canadian industry to be a world leader in that area with immense export opportunity.  The way to really make money is to get out in front when the economic environment changes; Canada is rich and advanced and in a really good position to go for that, given the leadership and vision we don't have in Ottawa.)

That's a real failure of duty, and it's worth protesting.




There are lots of concrete things that can be done.  Most begin with government: a small but steadily increasing carbon tax, which will gradually cover the externality that has made fossil fuels seem like such a bargain; a similar steady improvement in building codes to require housing and commercial buildings to achieve higher standards of efficiency in heating and lighthing; a parallel escalation in standards for vehicle efficiency; a quick end to subsidies for fossil fuels (and compensating support for alternative, low-carbon sources of energy).  Personal action (investment in efficiency, changes in transportation use and other aspects of life) makes a difference, but it can't come to much without shifts in the large-scale social and commericial infrastructure we depend on.  Germany is well on its way to lowering carbon emissions-- we are rich enough to do the same, and get ahead of the curve instead of just trying to avoid the problem (there's a lot of work to do here, and only vested interests have good-well, selfish- reasons to oppose doing that work).

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