By Carl Sack - Socialist Action, July 8, 2016
Humanity is faced with a worsening climate catastrophe. In June, levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere topped 400 parts per million at the South Pole, a concentration not seen on this planet in the last four million years. Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which is registering 407 ppm carbon dioxide as of this writing, say that the concentration there is now probably permanently above 400.
The significance of this milestone is massive. NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen has written that 350 parts per million is the upper limit of Earth’s carbon dioxide concentration, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” Carbon dioxide concentrations were last at 350 ppm around 1985.
Human-induced climate change is already wreaking havoc. May 2016 marked the 13th consecutive hottest month on record in global average temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The permanent drought and major wildfires in the western U.S., the huge Horse River Fire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray in far northern Alberta, Canada (ironically the epicenter of Canada’s tar sands oil boom), the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, the killer heat wave in India, and many more unfolding disasters are all attributable to a warming world.
Yet, the world’s capitalist rulers are actively pouring gasoline onto the climate fire. U.S. politicians from President Barack Obama on down have cheered on the expansion of fracking for oil and natural gas, which has only slowed slightly in the face of a historic fossil fuel glut. Fracking continues to be exempted from most federal environmental regulations, despite its routinely poisoning of local air and water supplies, causing earthquakes, and releasing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas over 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span.
Last December, with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, Congress quietly lifted the country’s 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports, allowing fracking for oil in the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Montana to go full speed ahead even when domestic demand can’t keep up. In June, the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee reiterated that party’s support for fracking, rejecting a proposal to call for a national moratorium on it.
In Canada, the federal government continues to actively promote the development of tar sands. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest energy source on the planet. Mixed in with soil, it takes huge amounts of energy to extract and refine, and has resulted in massive deforestation and pollution in the boreal forest region of Alberta. James Hansen has called the full development of the tar sands “game over for the climate.”
Laws limiting fossil-fuel production at the source are necessary to combat climate change, yet the agenda of Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals alike seems to be just the opposite. In their calculus, short-term profits for U.S. and Canadian fossil fuel companies trump the future livability of the planet. Likewise, the representatives of the global capitalist class utterly failed to implement meaningful limits on greenhouse gas emissions through the most recent international climate accord, the Paris Agreement, signed last December.
In a June 30 article in the journal Nature, several climate scientists warn that all of the non-binding pledges for greenhouse gas reductions made by countries as part of the agreement, if fully implemented, would result in a disastrous global temperature increase of 2.6-3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. The agreement aspires to hold global temperatures to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” a number which would still mean famine and displacement for millions.
There is hope in the climate justice movement, which continues to build its power to stop fossil fuels even in the face of long odds. Activists are fighting back against the expansion of pipelines used to carry oil and gas from the point of production to refineries and export terminals—and in some cases they are winning.
Although plenty of oil and gas are getting to market, pipelines represent a choke point for future production. The 2016 Crude Oil Forecast from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which represents Canada’s tar sands industry, concludes that “Canada’s oil supply will soon greatly exceed its current pipeline capacity.” Denying the fossil fuel industry this capacity is a symbolic blow against the industry and shows that it is vulnerable to movement pressure.
Much of the growing pipeline resistance has also been driven by more local concerns. If a line bursts, it can devastate farmland, ecosystems, and waterways. This nightmare visited Michigan in 2010, when an Enbridge Energy pipeline ruptured and spilled 1.1 million gallons of heavy tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River, the largest inland oil spill in the U.S. to date. Tar sands oil is heavy and thick and pumped at high pressure, putting a large amount of stress on the pipes. Along natural gas pipelines, compressor stations release large amounts of methane, along with toxins such as benzene, toluene, sulfuric oxide, and formaldehyde.
The most famous pipeline battle to date was over the Keystone XL line, which would have cut across the central U.S., bringing 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil from northern Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. In the face of a national groundswell of opposition, the Obama administration denied the pipeline’s permit to cross the Canadian border, killing the project. Now activists are fighting to keep Keystone’s successors at bay.