Wednesday, January 09, 20132012 was a landmark year for those of us fighting for a clean energy future. As Big Oil and governments almost everywhere ignored climate change in favour of business as usual, the power of the people pushed back. Mother Nature reminded us all that warmer temperatures have very real consequences, opposition to all things tar sands reached fever pitch, and Aboriginal people across the continent used their political power to fight back harder than ever.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR
“A lifetime of Exxon ads haven’t prepared us for the reality that Exxon is a first-class villain, any more than a lifetime of looking at the Marlboro Man prepared us to understand lung cancer. In fact, our first task is to turn the fossil fuel industry into the equivalent of the tobacco industry, making people understand that it plays a destructive role in society.”
~ Bill McKibben
Big Dirt #1: Climate Change Hits Home Hard
For most of us, 2012 was hot, the hottest year on record. In the United States, 2012 was a watershed climate change year, smashing the 1998 average temperature record of 54.32 degrees F by more than one degree. This is not particularly new, as seven of the top 10 warmest years in the lower 48 states have occurred in the past 15 years, but 2012 remains terrifyingly remarkable. Environment Canada picked the unusually high temperatures that plagued the Great White North in 2012 as the top climate-related news story. It’s unclear where 2012 will rank on the average annual temperature, but the stretch from January to November is the fourth-warmest on record since 1948. Hotter is the new normal.
Unless you’ve been visiting the moon for the last 11 months, you’ll know that the exceptionally warm weather has been accompanied by, even caused, some of the most extreme (and expensive) weather events ever. Tropical storms, wildfires, and devastating drought caused tens of billions of dollars of damage in the U.S. alone. Most notably for those of who live in North America, Hurricane Sandy was an unwelcome guest to the Eastern Seaboard, affecting states from Florida to Maine and devastating coastal New York and New Jersey.
The upside (if you can call it that) of this destruction is that climate change and the science that predicts it became front page news again after years of neglect by politicians and the mainstream news. Once New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got a good look at the destruction meted out on the Big Apple by Sandy a week before the presidential election, he immediately endorsed President Barak Obama as the candidate most willing to finally deal with climate change. Obama, thus nudged, broke his campaign silence on the issue, and said that, "Climate change is a threat to our children's future, and we owe it to them to do something about it."
Although little was accomplished at the UN climate talks a few weeks later, and Canada confirmed that it’s one of the world’s greatest laggards on the climate change file, the spectre of global warming is back on the political agenda in the United States. Look for Obama’s stated commitment to “do something about” climate change, the energy projects (like the Keystone XL pipeline) that will test his resolve, and the growing movement for a clean energy future to make headlines in 2013.
Big Dirt #2: Tar Sands Opposition Reaches Fever Pitch
Despite the increasingly visible, and severe, impacts of climate change all around us in 2012, Big Oil refused to get with the program and begin planning for a post-oil future. Comments from two oil executives in particular highlight the oil industry’s recalcitrance. In a presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson insisted that we should plan to adapt to the impacts of climate change rather than eliminate the use of fossil fuels.
“We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this,” Tillerson said. “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around – we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don't – the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”
Richard Kinder, CEO of Kinder Morgan, which hopes to twin its Transmountain Pipeline to take tar sands oil to the West Coast, is of a singular mind. “I think that for any of our lifetimes, fossil fuels are going to be the primary source of energy in this world,” Kinder told Forbes Magazine. “When you talk the shale plays, we have at least 100 years of supply. I’m a huge believer in the genius of mankind, and I think we’ll continue to find new ways to utilize, explore for and produce more and more fossil fuels.”
If such misguided technocratic optimism was all that defined 2012, well, it might just be a year to forget for those of us who care about the future of the planet. But while Big Oil fights tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, 2012 saw opposition to the tar sands and its pipelines grow faster than ever. People from across the political spectrum – from Republican politicians in Nebraska to landowners in East Texas – began to stand up to the megaproject fantasies of Big Oil. What began years ago as a hodgepodge collection of dissidents has matured into a fully-fledged movement to end our addiction to oil and develop a clean energy economy that won’t ravage the future.
The battle over the future of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline dominated headlines early in 2012. Opposition was fierce, and after a game-changing protest at the White House, where hundreds of people were arrested, President Obama rejected the federal permit required to begin construction, a shocking development for a linchpin tar sands project that was regarded as fait accompli. But the heart of the “No Keystone” movement was Nebraska, where the proposed pipeline route went right over the Ogallala Aquifer. Conservative politicians, ranchers, landowners, environmentalists and other citizens rallied together to prevent the federal government from issuing the necessary permits. When the route was changed, and Nebraska’s state government tried to ram the pipeline through with a new piece of legislation, local landowners filed a lawsuit, challenging the constitutionally of the bill. On Jan. 2, 2013, U.S. district court judge in Nebraska ruled in favor of the landowners.
In East Texas, where TransCanada was given the go ahead to build Keystone XL’s southern leg, local landowners joined protestors in an unprecedented alliance against the project, people Bill McKibben called, “American exemplars—the latest incarnation of John Muir, Rachel Carson, John Lewis or Fannie Lou Hamer. They’re playing defense with verve and creativity—blocking ugly and destructive projects that wreck landscapes and lives.” For more than two months, people stood in front of bulldozers, camped in trees, staged hunger strikes, and locked themselves to gates and heavy equipment to prevent the right-of-way from being cleared, and the pipeline being built. The latest chapter took place in a Texas courtroom, where Judge Jack Sinz issued a temporary restraining order against TransCanada, halting pipeline construction on Michael Bishop’s Nacogdoches County property because Bishop “has been defrauded and denied his constitutional rights.”
According to an excellent piece in the Globe and Mail, the growing defiance in Texas is a sign of things to come across the continent, where new tar sands pipelines are being proposed from British Columbia to Vermont. In B.C., across which Enbridge hopes to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Kinder Mountain looks to twin its Transmountain pipeline, thousands of people turned out for an unprecedented wave of Defend Our Coast protests across the province, opposing tar sands pipelines and tanker traffic off the West Coast.
Meanwhile, cities and towns across Ontario, Quebec and Vermont have joined environmentalists to voice their concern, even oppose, the reversal of pipelines that would take tar sands crude to the East Coast. Big Oil plans to reverse a series of pipelines so tar sands bitumen can be transported through Eastern Canada and Vermont to Portland, Maine, where it would be shipped overseas. The Portland-Montreal Pipeline is a very old oil pipeline that will put communities at risk in New England and Eastern Canada, and it, too, faces stiff opposition.
The latest, and perhaps the most pointed, response is 350.org’s “Go Fossil Free” campaign. Kicked off by Bill McKibben’s 2012 “Do the Math” Tour, Go Fossil Free identifies the fossil fuel industry as a “first-class villain” that needs to be stopped. “A lifetime of Exxon ads haven’t prepared us for the reality that Exxon is a first-class villain, any more than a lifetime of looking at the Marlboro Man prepared us to understand lung cancer,” writes McKibben. “In fact, our first task is to turn the fossil fuel industry into the equivalent of the tobacco industry, making people understand that it plays a destructive role in society.”
The response has been both overwhelming and inspiring. To date, 192 campaigns have been launched in Canada and the United States to encourage, shame and cajole universities, churches, municipalities and other institutions to divest themselves of fossil-fuel stocks, and the mainstream media, including the New York Times, has given the movement front-page coverage. Two schools, Unity College and Hampshire College, have already divested their endowments from fossil fuels, and several others have begun processes to do likewise. Mayors in both Seattle, Washington and Burlington, Vermont have done likewise. Churches are kicking Big Oil from the temple. As Time magazine wrote, ““University presidents who don’t fall in line should get used to hearing protests outside their offices. Just like their forerunners in the apartheid battles of the 1980s, these climate activists won’t stop until they win.”
Historians will look back at 2012 as a watershed year. The end of Big Oil is, if not nigh, then on the long horizon. All the hard work of thousands of people over the last decade is paying off. The power of the people, strategically focused, is growing. There is no going back.
Big Dirt #3: Aboriginal People Fight Back
Perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year is the prominence of opposition from Aboriginal opposition to all things tar sands. In the U.S., many Native American tribes have come out swinging against the Keystone XL pipeline. Thirty-seven tribes in Oklahoma voiced their concern about the impact of KXL on cultural and historical sites, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe put both presidential candidates on notice that they wanted nothing to do it, and passed a resolution opposing it. The pipeline is a “snake that is spitting black venom into our water,” said Tom Poor Bear, Oglala Lakota vice president and a long-time supporter of the American Indian Movement. “It has to be stopped at our treaty lands.”
In Canada, First Nations people are coming out of the woodwork all over the country to oppose tar sands expansion, pipelines, and the radical undermining of their constitutional rights through the Harper government’s unilateral rewriting of federal environmental legislation and the Indian Act. The Idle No More Movement has risen to national prominence, and Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence continues a hunger strike to protest Bill C-45, which weakens native land rights and environmental safeguards.
In early December, a procession of more than 300 First Nation chiefs, leaders, elders, women, youth and community members tried to force their way in to the House of Commons chamber. Like First Nations people across the country, they were outraged with the federal government’s lack of respect for meaningful aboriginal consultation over resource development and recent changes to environmental legislation, which could have far-reaching impacts on Canada’s aboriginal people. The Mikisew Cree and Frog Lake First Nation, both from Alberta, are now challenging the changes in court.
"We put Canada on notice today that we are a Sovereign Nation and that we won't be intimated by them ‘cause we know who we are and the Rights we have as Indigenous Peoples,” said Okimaw (Chief) Wallace Fox, who led the procession. Fox is the chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, whose traditional territory includes Ottawa, ON and Parliament Hill. “We are disgusted by this governments lack of respect shown to us today when trying to enter into the House. We were pushed and shoved by security and told we weren't welcome there. When a pipe is present in which it was today, no force is intended or appropriate. We are asserting our voices as Indigenous Peoples."
The Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation has launched a constitutional challenge of Shell’s plans to expand its Kearl Mine, which threatens to add to the growing cumulative effects of industrial development on the AFCN’s traditional territory. In B.C., First Nations are lining up to oppose Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and the twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain pipeline. The Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of six first nations, has banned Enbridge from their territories. 130 First Nations also signed the “Save the Fraser Declaration,” banning pipelines and oil tanker traffic in British Columbia. And the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has committed unconditional support to opponents of both pipelines and other energy projects.
2012 made it abundantly clear that First Nations will play a prominent role in the future of tar sands development in Canada, because aboriginal groups hold veto power over resource development. In his new book, Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada's Road to Resources, Bill Gallagher reviewed First Nations’ legal victories since the 1980s and concludes, "The native legal winning streak now simply has to be fundamentally and constructively addressed, both nationally and regionally."
Stay tuned. 2013 could be another banner year for the movement that will define our future.