Canada’s Path to Global Ecocide

Scraping Bottom: Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions. Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic

By Ron Hart

The 1.3 billion acres that make up Canada’s boreal forests represent one of the world’s largest intact forest and wetland systems. At present, Canada’s tar sands is the world’s largest industrial ecocide covering over 600 square kilometers. Production of oil from our tar sands releases two to three times more pollution into the atmosphere than conventional oil production. Fossil fuel companies have in their reserves enough carbon to put 2,795 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. They fully intend to exploit these reserves.

Business as usual

If we put more that 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature will rise by one degree. If the fossil fuel companies fully exploit their existing reserves, the math is unassailable; the result will be the end of civilization as we know it. As economist Naomi Klein put it, the fossil fuel companies business model “is to declare war on life on Earth.”

So far global temperatures have risen 0.8 degrees Celsius over the last 200 years, with two-thirds of the rise coming since 1980. However new research by Anton Vaks of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences,  suggests that if temperature rises beyond to 1.5 Celsius mark it could trigger the melting of vast areas of permafrost—some 24 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s land mass. This in turn will trigger the release of 1,000 gigatons of methane and carbon into the atmosphere. In other words, this melting will unleash global ecocide.

At present, world governments are committed to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. If we continue business as usual, we are almost certain to overshoot this target.  Clearly we are courting disaster if we don’t reset our goal to 1.5 degrees.

Meanwhile, back in the tar sands

The Harper government is heavily invested in promoting the development of the Canadian tar sands, a $1.7 trillion resource. It is aggressively promoting the Keystone XL pipeline to send Alberta bitumen to the United States; regardless of American uptake, it has served notice it intends to develop aggressively tar sands oil. The world’s most respected climate scientist James Hansen warns, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

A game plan

What is a sensible response?

David Suzuki writes, “Canada must slow down tar sands development, clean up the environmental problems, implement a national carbon tax, improve the regulatory and monitoring regime, and make sure that Canadians are reaping their fair share of the revenues. We must also start taking clean energy seriously. Rather than subsidizing the tar sands and all the fossil fuel industry through massive tax breaks, we should be investing in energy technologies that will benefit our health, economy, and climate.”

Ultimately, we need to keep most of the carbon in our tar sands stored in the ground, unused.

We also need an International Ecocide Act under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to hold individual politicians and those individuals with principal responsibility hiding behind corporate structures, accountable for acts of ecocide.

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