Paris Texas

imagesThis 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.

Comments (21)

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  1. Ian says:

    “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.”

    First can we get what James Hansen actually said right please, because if he said that he would be demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge of chemistry. As he’s a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University that doesn’t seem very likely.

    He said nothing about tar sands being dirty of containing filth or anything about that filth being pumped into our atmosphere. That would be silly, because oil basically is filth. He said that climate change is already a serious issue, given that all the world’s known conventional reserves of fossil fuels are almost certain to be burnt. If we add new, unconventional sources of fossil fuels then it will be impossible to prevent catastrophic global warming. In addition, it’s very energy intensive extracting this oil so a lot of fossil fuel has to be burnt (and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere) just to extract and process the oil (in action to the carbon dioxide released when the oil produced is burnt).

    He didn’t say anything about it containing carbon; that would also be silly because all oil contains carbon. It’s a hydrocarbon. It’s made of hydrogen and carbon. A low carbon oil would be what – hydrogen?

    I’d much rather see us depending on renewable sources of energy. But, as a country that produces rather a lot of oil for our size, and expends quite a lot of energy extracting that oil from a difficult location (North Sea oil was considered unconventional in it’s time, just as tar sands oil is considered unconventional now); isn’t it rather hypocritical of us to complain about Canada wanting to exploit their oil reserves? Unless we plan to stop extracting oil, we might be wiser to leave them to make their own decision.

    1. Ian says:

      Unless we’re just trying to limit their oil production in an attempt to drive the price of oil back up?

  2. kate says:

    the greens are not advocates of the oil industry or economic dependence on it anywhere in the world. so its not hypocritical for maggie chapman to be against the pipeline & in solidarity with huge public north american campaigns, based on human health issues as well as environmental and land rights issues.

    its true scotland has one foot in renewables – progressively – and one in fossil fuels – more reactionary. this is bound up with the SNP’s paradoxes and the excessive public trust and progressive image it has been given for fairly small reforms.

  3. Richard says:

    “contain so much carbon, that they simply cannot be burnt.”

    Maggie Chapman may have a point with this article. Who knows? Not I, for sure, as such utter guff in the second paragraph put me off completely and I gave up.

    Note to Maggie – if you want to persuade people to your cause, research your arguments properly first and know what the hell you’re talking about.

    1. Mathew says:

      I can’t see any ‘guff’ in the second paragraph Richard. Maybe it’s you that should do some research. Here’s three sites you might start with;,,

      1. Ian says:

        Richard’s right – the author’s misunderstanding of chemistry undermines any point being made here. “Contains so much carbon, that they simply cannot be burnt” is utter nonsense; oil is a hydrocarbon. It burns. Pure carbon would burn (coal and charcoal are pretty much carbon). If the tar sands were 100% carbon they would burn beautifully.

        The “filth” that she refers to the tar sands containing is oil. It’s an argument that appliers to all oil, not just the stuff in tar sands.

        Where she says “there are 2 things you need to know about the tar sands” she means; “there’s one thing I know about the tar sands and I’m going to prefix it with some utter rubbish which will make anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry doubt my knowledge and understanding of everything else”. An edit is in order.

        1. Mathew says:

          There’s no misunderstanding of chemistry in the article. When the writer says that the tar sands ‘simply cannot be burnt’ she doesn’t mean this literally – she means that there would be disastrous consequences. And she uses the word ‘filth’ accurately as you would know if you saw photographs of the landscape that has been mined. To describe all oil as ‘filth’ is also perfectly accurate given it’s polluting and planet warming properties.

        2. Not sure what caused your hysteria nor your inability to comprehend the article you are reading Ian.

          1. Ian says:

            Dear Editor,

            I had no problem comprehending the article, except for the 2nd paragraph which makes no sense to anyone with any knowledge of chemistry. Unfortunately that undermines the argument somewhat.

            It’s hard to claim you’ve built a convincing argument by writing:

            “Pseudoscience nonsense which is easily debunked… …the extraction of the tar sands, therefore, must be stopped”

            I don’t disagree that it should be stopped, but the 2nd paragraph fails to supply a meaningful argument for it.

            Perhaps you could edit it?

          2. Ian says:

            I teach science for a living; if a 12 year old wrote it in a chemistry essay I’d mark it wrong.

    2. John Monro says:

      I don’t understand the criticism of this article. Certainly, using words like “filth” and “genocide” liven up the rhetoric. However, Maggie Chapman is right; oil sands are filth. So are coal mines, oil wells and fracking – they may enrich people’s pockets with shiny gold, but it all starts out as filth. And what’s the common denominator of coal/oil/gas? Carbon. There’s no hydrocarbon in coal. It burning the carbon in these fossil fuels, pre-history’s fossilised CO2 sequestration, that is causing CO2 emissions and global warming. The hydrogen part of oil or gas merely produces harmless water. Maggie is right here as well.

      Where I would take issue in this somewhat breathless article is that it is the protesters and and activists that have precipitated this change in the oil industry. Possibly in the case of the pipeline, this might be true, but in the Arctic, this is doubtful. I think the sheer technical challenges and present low oil prices would be much more powerful forces. Generally speaking, the fossil fuel industry’s financial clout and expensive lobbying has ensured sympathetic governments around the world are not going to constrain their activity, and politicians, bought off or frightened off, will continue to display the same cognitive dissonance that allows them to proclaim concern for global warming whilst positively encouraging oil and gas exploration and usage.

      I spoke to an oil industry player recently about global warming, he laughed, he said (though he’d probably deny this if asked) that keeping oil, coal or gas in the ground on the basis of environmental activism or global warming concern is a totally pious hope; if it’s there and there’s a profit to be made extracting it, it will be extracted. Thereby he’s plotted humanity’s course to its own destruction. Is Maggie going to be proved right, or my oil industry player?

  4. bill fraser says:

    Surly this proves beyond any doubt that fossil fuels are a no-no.Across the globe it has shown there is no way this sort of pollution should be entertained .People now demand more say in what the multi billion giants proposals for excavating parts of their land for profit.

  5. Jan Cowan says:

    The main point, surely, is that at long last there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

  6. J Galt says:

    Is this not more to do with the oil price collapse – cooked up a year ago on Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia?

    Designed to destabilise Russia it has backfired spectacularly on the USA, completely undermining high cost oil extraction such the US fracking and Canadian Tar Sands booms – indeed this was probably the Saudi’s real reason for taking part. Many of the firms in the US heavily committed to fracking are teetering on the brink of default.

    1. Gary Marshall says:

      It’s truly about market share & protecting vested interests in favour of the status quo. 3 million barrels a day from the oil sands goes to the USA. Due to a lack of pipelines… the USA buys those barrels at a big discount. That is something worth defending through a quasi eco campaign. Rally against coal 50% of the worlds electricity uses the dirtiest of fuels.

  7. Iain MacGhilleAndrais says:

    A depressing gem of misreporting and hyperbole by the European loony left on environmental and aboriginal affairs on a continent you have little understanding or empathy for. As we in Canada get more world-wise so do the British get more insular, and their ignorance of matters in their former Empire gets more depressing as the time since it existed lengthens. That Canada is home to nearly as many Scots as Scotland itself counts for little – it’s all ‘America’. We Scots here aren’t a set of ignorant colonials still wrecking our countryside and bumping off the aboriginals. Our new federal government looks from the getgo to have a balanced view of what we need to do to support our peoples and their living space. Let’s give them a chance rather than damning us as some sort of ‘Old West’ cowboys.

    Citing Shell, the great Louisiana delta environmental destroyer, as a thoughtful environmentally sensitive corporation is a joke!

  8. Connal says:

    Friends of the Earth Scotland will be taking 100 people from Edinburgh to join thousands of other activists in Paris at the culmination of the climate talks.
    Find out more

  9. John Craig says:

    Despite all the hot air expelled into the atmosphere about global warming and the two degree “end of the world ” figure being bandied about, nothing is diverting the human race from it’s destiny.
    2,400 coal burning power stations to come on-stream to meet rising demand for electricity, many of them in India and China, but a surprising number will seemingly be built within the EU.
    As a spokesman for Indian government said ” 400 million people in India, live without electricity, why should they go without ? ”
    I personally can see no way out of this problem other than a sudden mass extinction of the human race. The “Three W’s” of War, Want and Waste may well see an end to human existence, but at what cost to the planet and it’s other inhabitants along the way. The Tar Sands of Alberta may lie un-disturbed for some time yet, but go they will as oil runs out. There is quite simply no way that a planet with 7 billion human inhabitants can afford the energy expenditure that will give them all what they need. As with our economy, we have lived beyond our means for decades now as a race. Have your conferences and rallies (make sure you fly to them), but the game is over.

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