In Washington, the epic effort to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from the US to Canada is reaching a crescendo.

Global efforts to achieve a fair, sufficient and legally binding deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions were all but dashed at the 15th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in November 2009 and have not recovered.  And hope — though nonetheless springing eternal — is not high that the situation can be redeemed at COP 17 to be held at the end of the year in Durban.

In the absence of any effective international mechanism, it is up to national governments (as Julia Gillard is doing with Australia’s carbon tax) to take unilateral action in the hope and anticipation that others will do likewise.  But what the national and international politics of climate change have in common is that ultimately both have so far proven to be determined by political economy; the short-term fiscal priorities of vested economic interests have prevailed against the more diffuse active political constituency demanding action on emissions reduction.

In this context, specific political battles over industrial pinch-points — key developments that will determine vital path dependencies — will prove decisive.  If enough of these critical engagements can be won, then it will increase the probability that the necessary level of emissions reductions can still be achieved in time to avoid runaway climate change.

In Britain, for example, significant victories were won on aviation emissions when the expansion of Heathrow Airport was blocked, and on coal, when the enlargement of the Kingsnorth power station was abandoned.  In both instances, intense pressure was applied by a broad civil society movement to achieve the change.  And in each case the result is embedded in wider regulatory and infrastructural change meaning that — and assuming no backsliding — greenhouse gas emissions from aviation and coal will be effectively restrained in Britain.  But the nature of the decisive battles will differ in each country.  In Brazil and Indonesia, for instance, the key is to reduce deforestation as fast as possible.  In Australia, it is the coal mining industry that scientific reason and political economy dictate must be confronted.

It is a crucial contest of this kind that is now unfolding around the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  The plan is for the conduit to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta more than 2500 kilometres, to US refining facilities at the Gulf of Mexico.  As a commodity, tar sands are notoriously foul: highly environmentally destructive at point of extraction and producing much higher levels of emissions than “conventional” oil supplies.  In the defining words of the fight to prevent the construction of Keystone XL, Professor James Hansen has outlined the impact of tar sands on the climate:

“Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilise climate. Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.”

The urgency of Hansen’s assessment explain why he and more than a thousand others (including a range of notables such as actress Daryl Hannah and public intellectual Naomi Klein, as well as unionists, First Nations peoples and ordinary NIMBYs who don’t want a dirty great pipe running through their backyards) have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience outside the White House.  With other approvals for the most part in place, it is effectively down to Barack Obama to decide whether the Keystone XL pipeline will be constructed.

Meanwhile, the pipeline company — TransCanada — is busy doing a tiresome line in empty twaddle about environmentally responsibility of the kind that typifies corporate communications strategies in the fossil fuel PR world.  TransCanada’s “Climate Change Strategy” makes no mention of “tar sands” or “oil” at all, while the company’s “Protecting the Environment” policy boasts, among other things, that the company “conducts its business activities in compliance with all applicable environmental legislation and regulations to protect the environment”.

It is a perverse state of affairs when citizens are forced to acts of civil disobedience as the only means left to try to obtain commonsense climate policy, while fossil fuel companies expect laudation for merely promising to obey the law.  But such is the state of things.  The struggle to prevent the construction of the Keystone pipeline is the new normal of international climate change politics.

*David Ritter’s blog appears weekly in Global Policy

Peter Fray

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