by Bill McKibben and L.D. Gussin
A lot of people in our country earn their living in the clean economy — 2.7 million, according to a recent Brookings Institution study. They are working in wind, solar and bio-fuel; in smart power grids; in green materials, buildings and products; in green residential, commercial and industrial services; in electric vehicles; and in other promising areas. Others are providing related legal and financial services and scientific research. A great many of you work in manufacturing.
We want to tell you about a political action that we are planning for the end of the summer. It is against a proposed pipeline that would bring oil from the Alberta, Canada tar sands into the country for processing.
What we are planning is civil disobedience, the broadest in the history of climate activism. We believe you in the clean economy will be motivated professionally and morally to support and even join us.
Before talking about the tar sands, or about the civil disobedience itself (at the White House, daily from August 20th through September 3rd), we want to touch on the opponent common to the clean economy and those of us focused specifically on the fight to contain and reverse climate change. We also want to touch on our common purpose.
Our common opponent is, of course, fossil energy interests. Led by the likes of the Koch brothers, and oil and coal companies, it fights the clean economy in every theater: on efficiency (think of the stonewalled “Cash for Caulkers” bill, proposed by John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins), on renewables, on offshore wind, on empowering the EPA, on… well, look, or have your policy people look, and there they’ll be.
In 2010, their big win was the annihilation of President Obama’s energy legislation. This bill, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, if you recall, had been a sign of hope to the clean economy for two reasons.
First, it proposed to put a price on CO2 emissions. This would have changed a game the clean economy plays in but can’t win, because the dice are loaded. The social costs of coal and oil are not part of the product costs. We pay a hidden bill for CO2 emissions in military costs and health care costs, among other budget areas, but the direct products — gas at the pump, electricity from coal — remain relatively affordable.
The “clean” in clean economy is what has to play with fair dice. A cleaner product or service costs more to develop, and until volume deployment cuts costs, it costs more to buy. Yet fossil interests relentlessly oppose pricing CO2.
Secondly, the 2009 energy bill also would have provided, if not national standards, at least greater support for efficiency and renewables. Fossil energy interests, which simply want to sell as much oil and coal as they can, as fast as they can, wherever they can, led the successful fight to kill these proposals, too.
It is so far a glum story to present, and one that has touched the clean economy through layoffs, lowered forecasts, and reduced investments (with venture funding down nearly 50 percent from 2010). Just ask any trade group to contrast where their sector is versus where it could be.
Yet there are signs of hope and common purpose, and of the Tar Sands action being a catalyst. A number of large, politically adept industries that work in the clean economy should see it in their self interest to oppose the Tar Sands pipeline.
The specifics of the Alberta tar sands issue are that, later this year, President Obama will decide whether to grant a permit for a pipeline running from them to Texas refineries. These tar sands hold the world’s second biggest pool of CO2 after Saudi Arabia.
The oil they contain is far harder to extract than the Saudi oil, with the result that CO2 costs per barrel of oil are three times higher. If we tap substantially into the tar sands, says the noted NASA climatologist Jim Hansen, “it’s essentially game over for the climate.”
The fossil energy-financed lobbying on this issue is, of course, enormous. The same political forces that have been pinning down industry trade associations and citizen advocacy groups in state, regional and national battles around efficiency, renewables and CO2 pricing are going for a big win on this pipeline.
Once the big investments are made and the junk has its market, well, fait accompli. The price at the pump is kept low, for another half-decade, anyway, and then forget about investments in electric cars, or in infrastructure to power transportation with renewable energy.
Who, at a business level, should want to fight this? We think, first, that the power utility industry should, and this is very important. Until recently, it saw its interests aligned with fossil energy, but its strategy has been shifting, and it knows a move in transportation from fossil fuel to clean electricity would increase its business 50 percent.
We also think high tech industries will want to fight. From providing sensors to semiconductors to data networks to social networks, they are full tilt in the clean economy and very often shaping the innovations. Yet they expect fact-driven business environments, which enable planning. And developing the tar sands without accounting for CO2 is about idiocy and influence, not, surely, about facts.
Put all this together, add the many clean energy-specific industries like wind, solar and energy storage, and you have the global clean economy, potentially the biggest business ever. But fossil energy interests see their fight clearly. Support by the clean economy for the Tar Sands Action will show that it sees this fight clearly, as well.
There is, finally, a moral case to be made, and the one we think suits people in the clean economy has a special twist. You have the education to take climate change seriously, to meet it with worry, a call for action, even fear. But you also know, better than most, that we are fighting against time. We have at most a few decades to achieve a re-industrial program, of a size never before attempted. We don’t know if time lost now can be made up.
Please join us or support us at the White House. Find out how at TarSandsAction.org
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on the environment, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and founder of 350.org. L.D. Gussin, a writer and strategist, recently spent seventeen months at a venture-funded stealth cleantech startup.
Below are old comments from the earlier Facebook commenting system:
We will be in D.C. as part of the protest against the Tar Sands pipeline on Sept 1 & 2. It is part of my answer to the expected future questions of my grandkids when they wonder why we so damaged the world they have to live in. If we stop this pipeline, then perhaps, their world will be a little bit more liveable.
I will be there too – same reason – 8 grandchildren. But I still question spreading it over two weeks. Why not a BIG protest on one day? I admit to being very ignorant in such matters and will gladly listen to more experienced people as to why a two week response. But sounds to me like Chinese water torture versus a circus tent peg mallet. I remember a comedy routine extolling the latter: “It’ll teach the dumbest dog to play dead”. We’re dealing with some pretty dumb dogs.
See you there, Terry, Sept 1.
Financial self interest is an awful reason to support or participate in civil disobedience. You can’t be motivated by personal gain and still claim your goal is what is good for society as a whole. It’s bad tactically too, exposing the movement to accusations of hypocrisy.
In the political system we have in the USA, it’s okay for individuals and corporations to gain financial advantage by advocating for particular public policies. It’s even okay to bribe (donate to) politicians. However, using civil disobedience for personal gain is morally bankrupt, can’t be defended legally, and is likely to be counterproductive politically.
You’re correct but better prepare for riots anyway!
Ray, it’s not clear what point you are trying to make. I support the same goals as McKibben and Gussin, but disagree with part of the rationale in their call to action.
Chambers Brothers: Time… Time… time…
chrislocktherock (signed in using Yahoo)
The tar sands in Alberta require a lot of water to extract the bitumen. This water comes from the Athabasca River, which has a source in the Columbia Icefield. Ironic that the tar sands may run out of a water source because of the melting glaciers. Burning fossil fuels is removing the very source of water required to create those fossil fuels.
Further on the Columbia Icefield that I visited last month. The snow coach tour may only have a decade left of service because the lateral moraine on which they travel to get to the glacier is collapsing. I walked to the toe of the glacier from the parking lot. The toe is now off limits because of the high rate of melting, so I jumped the fence and took my chances walking on the rapidly melting Athabasca glacier.
Upstream of the tar sands the Athabasca River is beautiful and pristine, while downstream of the tar sands the native peoples have high rates of cancer and the fish have disappeared.
mtmariner101 (signed in using Yahoo)
The US protest is laudable. The US should get off oil as soon as possible but, until then, we should not get oil from Canada…stick with tried ‘n true traditional sources…you know which countries they are. But you must know Canada will sell that oil to someone. Canada will not waste all that investment, environmental degradation, and effort! You have heard about that other pipeline, right? The one that is planned to run to the west coast, through the rainforest that is home to the extremely rare white coated black bear, to service the relentless demand for oil from China and could also be used to ship tar sand oil to the west coast of the US. Intense opposition is expected to come from the indigenous peoples whose land will be endangered but it is an excellent example of how the oil companies will not rest until they profit for every last sticky glob of oil they can find.
chrislocktherock (signed in using Yahoo)
I applaud your efforts and wish I could join you. At that time, I will be exploring as a tourist the region of British Columbia (my home province) where the new northern gateway pipeline is proposed and the oil tanker traffic will travel. Have a look at the August 2011 National Geographic. I am not happy that I live in a Petro-State, I am not happy with my Prime Minister (I didn’t vote for him last May). We might have a provincial election in BC later this year that could determine the outcome of this proposed pipeline.
For those of us who cannot make it to DC, I would like to see suggestions for political action.
Me to. Leif
Sounds like a plan!