I’m back from a short sabbatical, grateful for some time outside of my daily work and home life, feeling all big picture. But as I settle back into work, I feel like I’m seated in a Theatre of the Absurd play. My news feeds are pulling up astonishing things.
Exhibit one: the North Pole at the moment is a one-foot-deep aquamarine lake. After reaching record low ice cover and thickness at the end of summer 2012, an ice-free arctic in the summer is coming sooner rather than later. All of that blue water absorbing solar radiation instead of ice reflecting it back to space will compound global warming. And as it melts it releases the greenhouse gas, methane, which will further increase warming in one of those bad feedback loops scientists have been warming about for decades. A new study puts the cost of this methane leakage at $60 trillion, a number hard to fathom but close to the world’s GDP in a single year.
Exhibit two: extreme weather is doing some major damage. It’s going to take a while for final numbers to come in, but damages from the Calgary and region floods are estimated in the $3-5 billion range. In Toronto, total damages of $1 billion or more seem plausible. It is important to note that some damages are covered by private insurance, but there are the uninsured too, and even for those with insurance, there are deductibles, caps and fine print. Private insurance notably does not cover replacement of public infrastructure, either. Insurance coverage can be less than 20% of total damages from a natural disaster. In central Europe, flooding caused about $16 billion in total damages back in May, amid a very wet spring. Flooding is a big theme this year, but extreme heat is also a problem: the “heat dome” recently burning up eastern North America, and drought conditions across the plains. All of a sudden, air conditioning is a human right.
Exhibit three: extreme energy development is making a mess. The train derailment, explosion and spill at Lac Megantic is obviously top of mind. Pipeline spills have also been much in the news (even as pipeline companies aspire for new capacity via Keystone XL, Northern Gateway (through northern BC) and Trans Mountain (to Vancouver)). But breaking news includes spills as a result of new extreme tar sands processing, with “unstoppable” leaks from in situ extraction that injects steam below the surface to heat and pump out the bitumen.
The combined impact of damages due to both climate change and from the fossil fuel industry writ large were tallied last year at an impressive $1.2 trillion per year, worldwide, or 1.6% of world GDP. This number will only grow due to “baked in” temperature increase from emissions over the past couple decades.
The injustice is in who wins and who loses from these developments. Those who lose their lives, or homes, or towns are not the same folks who benefit from fossil fuel industries (although Fort MacMurray, ground zero for the tar sands, also experienced flooding last month). You and I benefit from fossil fuels, it is true, but I’m talking about the $1 trillion in profits going to the Big 5 oil companies between 2001 and 2011. These are odious profits – gains made at the expense of others because their business model is to externalize as many costs as possible. Spills are just a cost of doing business, and sticking taxpayers or ecosystems with as much of the cost as they can get away with is only rational for your typical sociopathic corporation. There are workers who benefit as well from the high wages paid by the industry, although in places like Fort MacMurray these must tempered against higher costs of living, being away from home and family for weeks at a time, living in bunkhouses near toxic fumes. Most of those workers would rather be back home doing meaningful work if was available.
Alas, the political response to this news from our Canadian leaders has been to double down on fossil fuels. BC, lauded just yesterday for its carbon tax, has turned its back on climate action. Instead, the province is seeking to become a fossil fuel export platform of epic proportions. While attention has been focussed on the inevitable spill impacts of Alberta tar sands pipelines and tanker traffic being proposed by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, BC’s front line also includes efforts to massively expand coal ports to facilitate US coal to Asian markets. As well, multiple liquified natural gas plants are under consideration, each of which will be an energy hog, with new pipelines to fracking operations in BC’s northeast. And they will make it impossible for BC to meet its legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets.
But one has to think that all of this damage, from climate change and business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry, portends political change. Perhaps not this year, but our collective denial of the costs of our fossil fuel addiction has to come crashing down at some point. Or not. Such is our choice right now: is humanity a plankton bloom, here for a good time not a long time, or can we stitch it together to become something more long-lasting on this planet. Life on planet earth will go on, but what will become of the great human drama that has unfolded over the past hundred thousand years? It’s our collective choice to make, so time to roll up our sleeves and build a social movement that will push our political class to action.