This week, it was announced that Shell had pulled out of a multi-billion dollar project in Canada’s tar sands. The infrastructure to take one of the filthiest fossil fuels to the market didn’t exist, they said. This sounds like a technical reason for a contract to be dissolved. In fact, it’s much more than that. In fact, the lack of infrastructure is the result of years of work by the environmental movement across the North American continent. In fact, this is a remarkable victory for the environmental and indigenous movements of America and the world.
There are, you see, two things you need to know about the tar sands. The first is that they are so dirty, and contain so much carbon, that they simply cannot be burnt. According to former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, they contain in them enough filth that, were it pumped into the atmosphere, our very civilisation would be at risk.
The second is that tar sands exist in large part on the lands of First Nation Canadian communities, who in the last few hundred years have suffered an extraordinary genocide. Many of the projects are in direct conflict with the rights given to them in historic treatise.
The extraction and processing of this toxic sludge has meant vast swathes of boreal forest have been flattened, traditional hunting grounds have been destroyed, the food sources upon which people have survived for centuries have been wiped out and huge quantities of water have been poisoned. Among First Nation communities, the rates of various usually rare cancers have soared.
The extraction of the tar sands, therefore, must be stopped. And over the last few years, a plucky alliance has been built to make the necessary happen. They understood that the industry would require vast infrastructure to transport the oil they boil from the sludge they scrape out of Alberta’s forest to the great population centres of the world. And so they agreed that they simply would not allow it to be build. Millions wrote letters and signed petitions to demand that Obama refuse permission to the building of the pipeline, Keystone XL, designed to carry this oil to cities in the USA. Thousands marched. And hundreds put their bodies on the line, including many from those same First Nation communities whose historic experience of the Canadian police makes such an ordeal all the more terrifying for many of them.
Perhaps most famously, indigenous Americans and cattle ranchers on the Great Plains refused to allow pipe-lines to carve up the land they used to battle over. They formed “the Cowboy Indian Alliance” against the pipe-line, and blockaded with their bodies the route it was supposed to snake down.
Now, it looks like they are going to win. Despite huge pressure from the oil industry, Obama and Canada’s new Prime Minister look set to reject the pipeline. It looks like people across the continent with little resource other than the solidarity built on a common concern have managed to defeat the biggest corporations in human history. The struggle over tar sands extraction continues, but the right side has the wind in its sails.
Over roughly the same period, Shell had decided that they were going to drill deep in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Greenpeace made a simple choice: no, they wouldn’t. Sometimes, you need to draw a line and insist that it isn’t crossed. The Arctic is one of those lines. Greenpeace and their thousands of supporters looked Shell in the eye and promised the oil giant that it would be defeated.
The campaign ran for years. It involved swimmers braving freezing waters to block boats and climbers occupying rigs to stop their drilling. It mobilised a fleet of kayakers against vast industrial ships and it forced companies like Lego to end decades old sponsorship deals. It saw activists scale skyscrpers and spend weeks in Russian prison cells. It mobilised millions behind it, and, ultimately, it won. Shell announced only a few weeks ago that it would withdraw from the Arctic.
In December, the leaders of the governments of the world will gather in Paris to discuss what to do about climate change. Already, the fossil fuel industry has its lines carefully prepared, from “clean coal” and “carbon capture and storage” to “but gas is the lowest carbon fossil fuel”. The conference will almost certainly end up a marketplace of big energy companies trying desperately to sell various scenarios in which they can still make a fortune by auctioning off our future. Most of the campaign groups working on this already agree that the resolutions of the conference are more likely to be spin than the genuine solutions we need to this vast problem.
In that context, it’s easy to get depressed. But the truth is that, more than for a long time, we should all be filled with hope. The movement to push big funds to stop investing in fossil fuels we can’t extract has built extraordinary power across the world. At was students at Glasgow who first won divestment in the UK, and now the dominoes are falling, with four major wins for the divestment movement in the UK this month alone.
At the same time, communities are standing up across the world to stop filthy fuels from being extracted under their feet. From the tar sands of Athebasca to the shale gas of Central Scotland, people are coming together to demand the fossil fuels that big businesses are trying to scrape from the bottom of the barrel are left in the ground not pumped into the atmosphere. From the Cowboy Indian Alliance to our own Hands Across the Forth, these movements are stronger than ever. And they are only going to grow.
At the same time, renewable technology is reaching the point that it’s cheaper than fossil fuels, meaning that across the world, those without energy are installing solar panels rather than diesel generators.
All of this gives me hope for our climate: not hope that the leaders of governments will solve this problem, but hope that enough people in the world will stand up and demand that we don’t wreck the future for the sake of the profit margins of the richest companies in human history; hope that we will stop this absurd drive to suck carbon from the rocks on which we stand and pump it into the air we breath; hope that we won’t continue to destroy the future. The Paris summit will be bleak, but look past our strutting bought-and-paid for politicians and you see that millions of people are winning the fight for the future.