By Barbara Kessler
This past weekend, some 500 or more students protested in Washington D.C. against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is poised to carry a thick crude oil from the tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas if it wins approval from the Obama Administration.
About 300 of these students tied themselves to the White House fence and were arrested for blocking the walkway. They posted bond and were released.
This moment of civil disobedience seems small compared to the recent large, boisterous, and sometimes violent, uprisings in Ukraine and Venezuela.
Yet, it shares much with these protests around the world. When society fails to deliver hope for the future, young people grow restless.
We should listen to them.
In the US, these students are not facing the same hardships that confront their peers in Ukraine, where poverty and unemployment are driving people to the streets. But are we, in our comfortable, affluent and democratic US, inching in that direction? Unemployment remains high among many US sectors, and salaries and wealth are falling for the vast majority of Americans.
But let's look at just one aspect that's clouding the future, indeed, it is threatening to make salaries and bank accounts seem like the small stuff.
For 40 years, officials in the US have been saying we need to free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil and diversify our energy sources. This was to make the US more secure and keep the cost of living affordable.
We have made progress on both counts, though not nearly enough. Our economy continues to be fossil-fuel dependent and today many people believe that our fossil fuel habit doesn’t just imperil our geopolitical standing, it represents the potential erasure of our children's future.
Consider the tar sands oil the students were protesting. It takes so much more energy to wring useable fuel from these dirty, strip-mined fields that it begs the question of why we'd pursue this type of energy, instead of looking toward newer, cleaner ways of powering our vehicles and infrastructure.
Obviously, the oil industry still stands to profit from tar sands oil, which will pay for jobs in the mines and refineries and still earn a profit at the point of sale, most likely in fuel-strapped Asia where prices are headed up.
But at what cost? The margins for tar sands extraction are getting tighter, even before the unimaginably large environmental debt of this project is factored. Should the oil magnates have to pay for the rivers and forests they pollute, the toxic waste leaching from the lakes of waste or the cancer downstream, the profitability of tar sands oil would vanish like oil down a drain.
The big debt arrives, however, when the tar sands oil is sent out into the world, pumping a huge load of carbon emissions into the already burdened atmosphere. If just 35 percent of the Canadian tars sands are extracted and burned, it will create 361 Gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions – more than the US, a heavy carbon emitter, put into the air from 1850 to 2008, according to the World Resources Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT).
Young people see this dark horizon and how it threatens their future. But it's a story to which those entrenched oil interests have turned a blind eye. The evidence that they're not looking: None of the world's major oil companies are devoting much money to developing alternative fuels and energy sources. They're going full-speed ahead after the last reserves of oil, and even eyeing the arctic as climate change, ironically, opens this area to exploration.
Building the Keystone XL pipeline may not immediately be "game over" for the climate as the NASA climatologist Dr. James E. Hansen famously said. The earth has shown a wondrous resilience in coping by storing carbon in her oceans and forests as humans churn out more and more warming greenhouse gases. Perhaps electric cars, methane gas reductions, reforestation, coal plant closings and other bright spots on the horizon will push the tipping point a few years out.
But do we want to walk to the edge at all? Who's crazy here? The young people chaining themselves to the White House fence, or the established interests willing to dangle them over a boiling pot?
The responsible response must be to search our souls and ask if we are failing future generations by not scrambling to do everything we can to lower carbon emissions, and proactively building new energy scaffolding.
They say the best tree to plant is the one you planted 20 years ago, and the second best tree to have planted is the one you plant today. Let's apply that thinking here, to pipelines and fossil fuels. The time to switch from business as usual is now.
Young people the world over have been marching in the streets over a common complaint, the loss of opportunities. In the US, a small band of them has drawn their line in the sand over the Keystone XL pipeline. They're saying, please, help us rescue our future.
Let's listen to them.
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