Back in 1982, when the "nuclear freeze" movement swept the nation in response to Reagan-era saber-rattling, a simple truth was articulated that put a new perspective on the environmental movement: nuclear war would be the ultimate environmental disaster. Suddenly, people whose focus was primarily on environmental issues became acutely aware that the nuclear arms race was their issue too, not just the concern of traditional pacifists. Today, the Occupy movement is sweeping the nation and the world, focused primarily on economic inequality. Perhaps it is time to re-state the paradigm of three decades ago in a modern context: run-away climate change would be the ultimate economic justice disaster.
The poor and disempowered of the world would suffer most — are already suffering the most — from global warming. One need only look at the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and at choices made by moneyed interests on how to rebuild that city (what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism"). But the evidence is pervasive: low-lying areas such as impoverished Bangladesh and politically powerless island nations are already in imminent peril from rising seas and more dangerous storm surges; the Inuit way of life is on the brink of being devastated by ecosystem changes wrought by the disproportionate warming of Arctic regions; and the global south, Africa in particular, will suffer most from a hot climate rendered nearly unbearable and from desertification and agricultural havoc wrought by changing weather patterns.
The poor nearly everywhere have the least access to medical care — of heightened significance as tropical diseases and disease vectors migrate into historically temperate zones. And over the long term, as coastlines change and vast low-lying regions of every continent become forever uninhabitable, climate-induced human migration will most affect the poorest and least powerful, on a global scale.
Which brings us to the Alberta Tar Sands. This is the world's dirtiest and most environmentally malign source of hydrocarbons, and its life-cycle, from mining to burning, produces greater climate-warming gasses per BTU than any other source of petroleum. Construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, to bring this fuel south from Canada across the Great Plains to refineries on the Gulf Coast, would involve a capital investment that will make huge expansion of Tar Sands mining virtually unstoppable. It has even been said that this one project will likely be the death knell for any remaining hope the world has of heading off irreversible, run-away global warming.
This past fall, bowing to public pressure ranging from spirited White House protests and civil disobedience to the larger Occupy movement, President Obama announced a year's delay in deciding on the pipeline, pending study of alternate routes. This was of course only a temporary reprieve, generated at least partly by election-year politics. But for a variety of reasons, financial, political and otherwise, temporary delays often have a way of becoming permanent. At the very least, it allowed an additional year for the opposition to organize. However, the extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, passed by Congress at year's end, contained a requirement, forced through by Republican brinkmanship, requiring Obama to make a decision on the pipeline within only two months — by the end of February.
To his credit, the President has made an early decision that finally shows some backbone when dealing with corporate pressure: he has announced that any pipeline approval is now off the table for 2012. The petroleum industry, and banks that have invested in the Tar Sands monstrosity, have been lobbying hard, and are as mad as junkyard dogs.
This issue will not be going away. If Obama is reelected, he must be lobbied equally hard by those who understand the insanity of such a pipeline. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be a bad idea to contact the President and thank him for his recent decision: phone the White House at (202) 456-1414 or -1111, e-mail Obama at whitehouse.gov or write him at The White House, Washington DC 20500. This is a victory, but it is only a very tentative and temporary one at this point.