Fossil fuel expansion as a crime against humanity

After 2010, which was one of the warmest years on record, 2011 has shown us astonishing patterns of extreme weather worldwide. It would take a long time to make the full list, but you know what I mean: tornadoes, floods, drought, record cold in some parts, record heat in others, hailstorms (Al Gore does a pretty good summary of the state of things here). A report for Al Jazeera tallied up the damages in the US alone at $27-28 billion, so far this year. They go on further to quote Swiss Re (global re-insurance company) that freak weather losses are about $130 billion per year now, compared to about $25 billion per year in the 1980s.

Can we pin this all on climate change? Some say yes, others are more cautious about how much we can cite human greenhouse gas emissions. But all agree that what we are seeing is consistent with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades. Would those tornadoes have been averted in the absence of too much carbon in the air, or would they have happened anyway but packing an extra punch due to a warmer planet? We can only speak in probabilities not black and white, but there is a high probability that the extremes we have been seeing are part of our new 21st century climate.

Lots of people are connecting these dots. Canada’s mainstream media is an exception that continue to report extreme weather events on one page and oil and gas developments in the business section, as if there is no connection whatsoever. Worse, during the second (or was it the third?) round of tornadoes, the Vancouver Province ran a story, “No Link Between Tornadoes and Climate Change” (which I think ran through the CanWest media empire). It was a puff article quoting one person who made such a comment with no counter-point, but what is interesting is that some editor felt it necessary to make that a banner headline.

I think this wall of denial is about to fall in the next few years, and with it we need to usher in a new era of climate action. Serious climate action, not the slow and gentle first steps we’ve witnessed to date in places like BC and California (whereas other juridictions have done nothing at all). That means shifting to zero fossil fuels in the energy system as soon as possible, aggressively making our society more energy efficient, and redeveloping our urban spaces into complete communities that are substantially more pedestrian and bike-friendly, and with major investments in public transit.

But I think we need to up the ante for those pursuing business as usual, the relentless expansion of oil and gas infrastructure that is causing these problems and guaranteeing that they will be worse in the future. Actions that lead to mass deaths and displacements, either directly due to a weather event or indirectly from impacts on land and livelihoods, beg for some accountability. I’m no international law-talking guy, but I believe that these things can only be called crimes against humanity.

Let’s say that again. Efforts to expand the oil and gas industry, like the Keystone XL and Enbridge pipelines, are crimes against humanity. Expanding the coal industry, like the proposal to export megatonnes of Washington state coal, is not just bad environmental policy, but a crime against humanity.

The Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group, including Swiss Re and other prominent grey-suited observers, calculate that weather disasters over the past 50 years have led to $1 trillion in losses and 800,000 fatalities. Those human and financial losses are only going to get worse. It is not polar bears and “future generations” we are talking about. It is the current impacts on people around the world who had nothing to do with the problem. It is about Canada’s First Nations, whose constitutional rights have literally been run over by those massive mining trucks that ply the Alberta tar sands.

I may be willing to give a grace period for actions take before 2000 or so, on the grounds that we did not know better (though we actually did). Nor would I punish regular folks (including me) who burn fossil fuels because of the structure of the world we live in and the lack of alternatives. This is about the dealers not the addicts; about the need for urgent change in response to the unfolding crisis.

It matters not whether such actions today are “legal” (almost all genocides were legal at the time) but they are deeply immoral and wrong. Major shareholders and senior executives in big fossil fuel industries – and the politicians that dote on them – need to understand that their profiteering off of destabilizing the climate will pay a price. That’s a little thing we call justice.



  1. “But all agree that what we are seeing is consistent with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades. ”

    Well of course, climate scientists have predicted just about everything. So no matter what actually transpires, it will be consistant with what they have predicted. Even a broken clock is correct at least once per day.

  2. “over the past 50 years have led to $1 trillion in losses and 800,000 fatalities. ”

    That’s it? Over the past 50 years the combined global GDP amounts to around $1.5 quadrillion dollars, a trillion is insignificant. And over the past 50 years over 1 billion people have died globally from all causes, once again 800,000 is an insignificant amount. About 63 million people will die globally this year alone. What is your point again?

  3. klem: the point is that climate-related disasters cause death and destruction. That has escalated in recent years, and will get worse. If we pass a tipping point, then we get runaway climate change, and it is game over for humanity and a wealth of other animals and plants.

    Where that tipping point is is a matter of probability, and is growing each day. Clearly, adding 200 ppm of CO2 from the tar sands to our existing 390 ppm, when we really need to be at 350, will make it a certainty. We hold that trigger in our collective hands.

    Put it this way: if there was even a 10% probability that someone you loved would die in the next year, would you not pull out all the stops to prevent that from happening?

  4. I totally agree with Marc Lee.

    Scientists though the acid in the ocean, was somewhere out in the deep. They have found acid in the ocean, right up to BC’s shores. The acid is eating the shells off the crustaceans. This is a damned good warning call. The seas, have pretty much absorbed, all of the pollution, it can absorb. Our oceans are dying.

    The Alberta dirty tar sands, are an abomination, on the face of Canada. They have deformed fish, in Athabasca Lake. The mighty Athabasca River has, heavy metals, mercury and cancer causing agents. The huge Athabasca watershed, is now contaminated. The caribou are dying off. A First Nations village people have high numbers of cancer. Even the rare cancer, of exposure to petroleum. Another flock of ducks died, from landing in the filthy sludge. The Boreal forests are now being affected, by the dirty tar.

    Pipeline burst have caused havoc. That damage can’t be cleaned up. So, all the underground water becomes contaminated too. Pipes have burst, into rivers, streams and on the soil. We dump toxic mine waste, into our lakes, that leaches into the eco system. Fracking is causing gas to leak, into the underground water, for hundreds of miles.

    Stupid politicians and their greed, are going to cause this planet, to become a polluted wasteland. I would love to force feed those idiot politicians, water from a stream nearby the tar sands. They seem to think, humans can drink gas and oil. What is happening right now is, Canada is giving water to the states and Mexico, their water has been contaminated. Canada keeps right on poisoning our watersheds. Clean drinking water, will be more valuable than gold, silver, oil and gas. Clean water, is just as dirty as the oil business. Read the Water War Crimes, and see, just how dirty it really is.

  5. This bickering about whether climate change is real is a distraction. People who come to argue that it’s not are working for the oil companies and if we get bogged down in those arguments, we’ll loose time and energy better spent in deciding what to do about it. We can sit here all day and type at each other, but that won’t fix anything.
    How do we retake control of our country? How do we stop the oil sands? Lets hear from people about that for a change.

  6. “People who come to argue that it’s not are working for the oil companies ..”

    Um, I have come to argue and I don’t work for the oil companies. The ‘working for the oil companies’ claim is sooo old now, it’s time to fabricate a whole new lame excuse don’t you think?

    Or perhaps its time to just give up and admit that AGW was a fraud and deny that you ever believed it.

    Climate change is dead, you lost.


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