image courtesy of 350.org
Today marks the culmination of a week that witnessed tremendous progress in the ever-active campaign against climate change. The United States government is no doubt responsible for many unjust actions and inactions over history — both in distant years and recent years. And yet, there are always signs of hope. And, interestingly enough, three signs of hope from this week came from the three formal branches of the government. Let’s recap…
1. Legislative Branch: a new bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground
It started on Wednesday when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced the Keep it in the Ground Act — an effective piece of legislation that would:
- block all future leases and end non-producing leases for coal, oil, gas, oil shale and tar sands on all federally owned lands
- block all future leases and end non-producing leases for offshore drilling in the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico
- prohibit all offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans
The bill is being introduced under the premise that, in order to limit further warming of the atmosphere to 2°C (35.6ºF), some 80% of proven global fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned.
2. Judicial Branch: a subpoena issued to ExxonMobil by New York’s Attorney General
Also on Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil. The Attorney General has suspicions that the oil giant withheld and lied to investors (and the public) about 40-years worth of research on the fossil fuel industry’s role in contributing to climate change. Of course, Vice President Ken Cohen admitted yesterday that, “ExxonMobil recognizes that climate risks are real and responsible actions are warranted.” But how long has Exxon had this research-based viewpoint? Why are we just now hearing about it?
Demands for official investigations into ExxonMobil have been gaining traction for weeks. Sen. Bernie Sanders himself wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch that Exxon “knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse.” More than 40 environmental and social justice groups separately demanded an investigation, charging that ExxonMobil’s actions draw a remarkable parallel to the lies of the tobacco industry, although spur damages “potentially much greater in scale…particularly in the poorest communities of our nation and our planet.”
3. Executive Branch: President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline
Finally, just hours ago President Obama went where no head of state has ever gone before; never has a world leader rejected a major fossil fuel project because of its climate impacts. And yet, after years of friction between political lobbyists and grassroots activists, Obama took a stand today in rejecting TransCanada’s notorious Keystone XL pipeline.
The 875-mile pipeline would have transported an incredible 830,000 barrels per day to be burned in the United States. The oil would have come from the tar sands of Canada’s boreal forests. Extracting such dirty, thick crude oil is energy-intensive and produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide emissions. And take note — that’s just in the extraction. After extraction, the burning all that oil would have produced a tremendous amount of CO2 emissions. Additionally, if the pipeline leaks (as pipelines have been known to do in recent history) the oil is corrosive and difficult to clean up. It could pollute groundwater and ruin local’s drinking water supply.
The GOP, ever in the pocket of Big Oil lobbyists, has justified the construction of the pipeline in claiming that it would supply hundreds of thousands of jobs to the American people. In reality, the Keystone XL pipeline would have created only 50 long-term American jobs.
The Struggle Ahead
Huge wins, though, each of these governmental developments are, the fight against climate change and Big Oil is far from won. The Keep it in the Ground Act introduced by Sanders and Merkley faces steep opposition before being passed. Merkley has admitted, “up here on Capitol Hill, too many votes are locked up by the Koch brothers. They really have a firm grip on the US Senate.” The probe into ExxonMobil by New York’s Attorney General is likely to be lengthy, and the punishment will probably fall short of what is truly deserved. The Keystone XL pipeline has been formally rejected once and for all, but TransCanada has other ideas of how to transport and sell their oil. The U.S. State Department foresees three reasonable alternatives to the pipeline: rail, tankers, and a combination of rail and existing pipeline. Each of these alternatives have an expected environmental impact greater than that of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
These stories draw a modern day parallel to Big Tobacco’s mid-twentieth century charade — the charade in which high-budget advertising and governmental lobbying convinced millions of Americans nationwide that smoking cigarettes had no adverse effects on one’s health.
Of course, the truth came out eventually and the public today has a very different opinion of habitual smoking than it did a half century ago. But the damage has been done — more than 16 million people currently have at least one disease from smoking, and more than 20 million Americans have died due to of smoking since 1964.
The truth on climate change is out, but it is not yet widely accepted. And if it takes another 50 years for the majority of the public to change their opinion, then it could be too late. Average atmospheric CO2 since the dawn of human civilization is 275 ppm. Target atmospheric CO2 is 350 ppm. Current atmospheric CO2 is at 400 ppm. The planet hasn’t seen CO2 levels of 400 ppm in four billion years. If these levels are any higher in 50 years, then billions of lives will be affected.
Oil Tobacco know of the dangers of burning fossil fuels smoking even while they continued to advertise and lobby for it? Whether they knew or chose to remain willfully ignorant, Big Tobacco’s irresponsibility and negligence has ruined tens of millions of lives. Big Oil’s irresponsibility and negligence could ruing billions.
Though the parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Oil are remarkable, the difference is crucial. You can choose not to smoke. You can’t choose to not live on this planet.
The Case for Optimism
But let’s come full circle and end on a more positive note. The American people witnessed three huge wins this week. And though these wins were delivered by various arms of the government, none would have happened if not for the monumental pressure from growing climate action activist movement in our country and across the world.
- The public elected progressive politicians like Sanders and Merkley, and activists produced the data on which the Senators’ new bill is founded.
- New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued his formal inquiry into Exxon only after weeks of growing demand by the public and grassroots uprisings.
- And Obama, four years to the day after 350.org activists surrounded the White House to demand the rejection of Keystone XL, finally secured his presidential legacy on climate change by rejecting the pipeline via executive power.
There’s a clear pattern behind each of these three wins, and if you haven’t noticed it already then I’ll point it out for you: the people have power. You have power. You matter. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.