[Dispatch] | The End-of-the-World’s Fair, by Rebecca Solnit | Harper's Magazine

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The End-of-the-World’s Fair


"If a wealthy country won’t contemplate tapering down a relatively new industry, then what are we to say to Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, whose economies rely hugely on fossil fuel?"

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

What do you say to the woman sitting atop the third biggest carbon bomb on earth? I began by admiring her shoes, chunky bright orange pumps. Then Rachel Notley, the recently elected premier of Alberta, and I sat down on a couple of beige banquettes in the Ikea-furnished upstairs of the media center at the climate conference. Notley’s aide, who set up the interview, presumably hoped I’d talk about her much-lauded climate plan for her province, but I wanted to talk about the Alberta tar sands. Notley, the fifty-one-year-old head of the Alberta New Democratic Party, won election in a surprise victory last spring. But having good energy policy for your own people while unloosing vast quantities of carbon on the rest of the earth is a bit like being a gun manufacturer who goes to a Quaker meeting.

The Alberta tar sands are the third-largest petroleum deposit on earth, and unlike, say, the Saudi hoard, they’re low-grade, filthy, sludgy semi-solid bitumen that takes a lot of water and fossil fuel just to extract and leaves vast quantities of toxic matter behind. If you’ve seen the pictures you know that central Alberta—the tar sands region is the size of New York State—looks like a festering sore in the middle of a belt of boreal forests and rivers. The widely accepted scientific assessment concludes that preventing worst-case-scenario climate changes means keeping 80 to 85 percent of all known reserves of fossil fuel in the ground for the foreseeable future. The climate conference is not negotiating a global climate budget—despite what scientists, activists, and vulnerable countries like Bolivia think—and it’s not addressing production as well as consumption. But when it comes to climate change, the really important thing about Alberta is that gigantic pile of bitumen.

So I asked Notley what about the fact that keeping the world to two degrees (centigrade) of warming pretty much requires keeping the tar sands in the ground. It was a pointedly naïve question, since politicians don’t generally offer to change course dramatically or halt a major industry. But here at the climate conference, with Amazonian tribal people in traditional feather headdresses, island-dwellers and sub-Saharan Africans all speaking bluntly about the death sentence that runaway climate change means for them, their places, and their futures, the question needs to be asked.

Notley replied, “I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. I think it’s a question of pace and I think it’s a question of the technology that goes into the extraction. So you know the fact of the matter is that the world is not going to be off nonrenewable energy. It just isn’t. So the question is whether our supply, which is very stable and very predictable not only in terms of its nature but in terms of its political and administrative context in which it lives, may well continue to be one of the suppliers.”

She added, “Can it be done responsibly? Can it be done in a sustainable way? We are a relatively wealthy and a very progressive jurisdiction and if anybody can be a progressive energy producer my belief is that it’s going to be Alberta.” Which is a completely standard thing for a politician in a petroleum state to say and is also completely insane. There isn’t really a responsible, sustainable way to release vast amounts of carbon to be pumped into the atmosphere. Notley wants the burning of the petroleum extracted in Alberta to be chalked up to someone else’s account, and she wants credit for plans to make the process more efficient—that is, to burn less oil to get this oil—and to cap emissions in Alberta at one hundred megatonnes per year, which allows for continued industry expansion.

The good news is that it’s not necessarily up to Notley. The tar sands are landlocked, and pipelines have been essential to their profitability. Shipping oil by rail is, from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, far more dangerous than doing so with pipelines—one such train incinerated forty-seven people in a fiery explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, and there’ve been many accidents since. From an industry perspective, it’s more costly. About ten to fifteen dollars more per barrel, according to Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International, an activist think tank on all things petroleum. This means that at the current price of oil, many of the tar sands projects have dropped below the break-even point. Blocking pipelines strangles the Alberta industry. And activists have done exactly that.

The defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline, after six years of tenacious fighting by climate activists in Canada and the United States, was a huge victory for the earth and huge blow for the Alberta industry. Notley called it “a kick in the teeth from the Government of the United States” and told me she is committed to building another pipeline. But she may not be able to. Keystone XL’s crucial northern segment is now dead. Many other pipelines and pipeline expansions have been held up by activists, notably by indigenous Canadians refusing to let pipelines cross their lands.

Being at the climate conference is being where all the points of view come together—and clash. Just across the warehouse-like room from Notley, I found Kretzmann, cheerful and brilliant in a chartreuse tie with bicycles on it, and he handed me Oil Change International’s new report. That handy document notes that “industry expansion plans are no longer inevitable. Public support for climate action, and therefore opposition to export pipelines for the tar sands, has publicly impacted the viability of expansion plans. Growing public opposition has put this high-carbon, high-cost sector in a position in which it could run out of pipeline export capacity once it reaches a production level of 2.5 mbpd [million barrels per day], a level likely to be reached as soon as 2017.”

What’s dismaying about Alberta is that it’s, as Notley notes, a wealthy province in a wealthy country in the global north. She didn’t note, though she could have, that major exploitation of the tar sands only dates back about twenty years. 1995 is not some deep desperate past to which the province can’t imaginably return. And if a wealthy country won’t contemplate tapering down a relatively new industry, then what are we to say to Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, whose economies rely hugely on fossil fuel? 

Climate change means that there is no status quo. Either we make dramatic changes in our greenhouse gas emissions or we accept dire changes in the impact on oceans, sea level, weather, agriculture, geopolitics, species extinction, economics, and human and nonhuman life generally. The situation in Alberta is an example of the lack of politicians’ will and imagination to make real change. It’s also a model of what may be the best hope for the future, that civil society will continue to lead the way. 

The climate conference is tens of thousands of people from civil society, government, and industry gathered in what I’ve come to think of as the End-of-the-World’s Fair, a vast, secured suburban cluster of convention buildings with exhibits, displays, meeting rooms, conferences, and cafes. The meetings are essentially editorial meetings; the editors are the 195 nations’ negotiating teams. The text is a document proposing how we manage the fate of the world. There are line-by-line fights, battles over the terms, which result in terms being placed in brackets and in brackets inside brackets.

Of course every sentence translates into what we will and won’t do, how we will do it, and how we will live (or die). It’s just text, but in the same sense that your trial verdict is just speech. This week Saudi Arabia sabotaged the language about human rights by insisting it be changed to the rights of ‘occupied peoples,’ a clear reference to Palestinians that the United States will balk at and then the whole thing will go down the tubes. And so it goes. 

Though only nation-states edit, they are pressed by citizens and climate activists on one side and financial interests on the other. Today, there’s a meeting of cities, regions, and states like California to address the way that sub-national powers can do some of the real work of shifting away from fossil fuel. Thursday activists held a demonstration to demand that the organizers “kick big polluters” such as fossil-fuel corporations out of the conference. Wednesday young activists demonstrated inside the security perimeter to support the Vulnerable Nations Forum’s demand for a commitment to 1.5 degrees of warming and zero emissions by 2050. The good news is Germany has joined 107 other countries to support the 1.5-degree standard, a remarkable change this week, and a remarkable victory. What may happen a week from today could be miraculous—or disastrous. No one yet knows.

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