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A Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline May Make North America the New Middle East

Unless we can convince Obama to say no to the tar sands pipeline, we're going to be igniting a massive carbon bomb.

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The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months.  Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire.  First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s flooding at historic levels.

The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States.  Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history.  Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.

Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”

There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010.  These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations.  They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.

Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so -- for the moment anyway -- the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!

Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta.  We set up a new website, tarsandsaction.org, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.

Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline.  It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)

There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.  Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.