Monday, July 11, 2011

Canada's Oil Sands and the Survival of Humanity

In light of ongoing US debate about whether to go ahead with the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would connect Alberta to the southern states, a number of articles have emerged flagging the climactic consequences of extracting oil from the tar sands. While these assertions are not at all new, recent articles have stressed warnings put forward by James Hansen, which suggest that if all the oil were to be extracted tomorrow, CO2 emissions would increase from 390 parts per million today to 600 parts per million, well above the scientifically recommended 350 parts per million.

600 parts per million is an amount equivalent to a time millions of years ago when life on Earth nearly died. Several people are therefore positioning Canada’s decision to exploit this resource as the defining moment that will determine whether humanity curbed its effect on the climate or whether, as Stern worries, it is "essentially game over".

In a recent post, I argued that Canada's enthusiastic extraction of oil is ultimately a signal of our country's unsustainability. But lately, authors are extending the consequences of Canada’s decision to the survival of the human species.

Unfortunately the people of Canada, while seemingly concerned about these sorts of issues, are not at all eager to initiate pressure on their governments to stop this infernal machine. As I’ve written before, Canada’s culture fundamentally lacks the leadership required to initiate social change. This lack of leadership is particularly pervasive in our government but it is also evident in Canadian citizens. I asked a Calgarian the other day about her thoughts on the climate change impacts of oil sands extraction and her answer was, “but that’s where the money is right now”.

The climate change story is getting oil; so old that while people know it's a problem, serious action to curb our impact has taken a back seat. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Alberta where many (not all) people are raking in thousands at the expense of future generations. Keeping our heads in the "oil" sand is not only going to compromise future Canadian generations but, as Stern notes, the future of humanity. We have the power as Canadians to show leadership. The question is: will we exercise that power and re-brand our position in the world as thought leaders in curbing climate change? I sure hope so!

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