Nature's mass protests against climate change

Stopping the tar sands pipeline would be a tremendous victory, but it won't be easy.

ORGANIZERS ARE saying this weekend's national march against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be the largest climate change protest in history. It might be the biggest human protest--but nature has organized some much bigger demonstrations against climate change in recent years.

Columnist: Danny Katch

Danny Katch Danny Katch is a New York City based writer, activist and wiseass. He is the author of America's Got Democracy! The Making of the World's Longest Running Reality Show and has contributed to other long-titled books such as Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America and 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History.

Tens of thousands of people gathering at the National Mall is impressive, but it doesn't compare to the 300 trillion gallons of rainwater that Hurricane Sandy mobilized to the Eastern Seaboard. Nature's protests aren't just bigger than ours--they're more militant and uncompromising. The enormous wildfires, floods and droughts that are now a yearly occurrence are both far more destructive than the wildest Black Bloc marches--and far less vulnerable to police repression.

The only thing scarier than the increasing regularity of these once-rare calamities is how little impact this seems to have made on the people who run this country. Just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the press enthusiastically reported a new prediction by the International Energy Agency that the U.S. is on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's leading oil producer within five years.

The New York Times described the report as "good news for the United States," but "more sobering for the planet, in terms of climate change."

A satellite image of Hurricane Sandy (NASA)

Can something really be good for one and bad for the other? This seems to be taking the whole "American exceptionalism" thing a little too far. I'm pretty sure that we're not going to be safe from a worldwide climate apocalypse--no matter how high we build that border fence.

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THE U.S. is greatly expanding energy production because high oil prices and technical innovations are motivating and enabling companies to extract fossil fuels from previously impractical locations like the bottom of the ocean and shale bedrock more than a mile underground. Another new source of energy is the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, the starting point of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

NASA scientist James Hansen explained last year why construction of the Keystone would be "game over for the planet":

Canada's tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when the sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet's species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

This is a pretty compelling argument against tar sands for everyone except diehard fans of Waterworld. And, of course, the fossil fuel industry. Here's a quote from an Oil and Gas Journal editorial, featured in an excellent piece by Michael Klare:

Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs.

You have to love the description of our desire to prevent our own annihilation as a kind of Age of Aquarius "energy utopia." This attempt to smear environmentalists as stoned hippies dancing around a maypole is pathetically outdated at a time when everybody except Oil and Gas Journal is freaking out about the obvious impact of rising temperatures.

Many people have a hard time understanding why even oil executives would continue to pursue their mad project given that they and their children also reside on planet Earth. But this is based on the assumption that they have a choice--that they are not mere servants of capital itself. In Capital, Karl Marx quoted an early trade union leader on the system's mad drive for profit:

Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 percent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 percent certain will produce eagerness; 50 percent, positive audacity; 100 percent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 percent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.

Capitalist society is run not by capitalists but by capital, which is like an all-powerful malevolent force in a sci-fi movie, preying on the greed and vanity of certain humans to make them do its bidding.

You might think of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. I prefer "the Great Evil" in the fantastically silly Fifth Element. You can tell someone has been taken over by the Great Evil because a dark brown ooze starts to run down his forehead. Over the top? Maybe, but tell me you can't picture the ooze coming out of TransCanada CEO Russ Girling as he nervously lobbies for his pipeline to be approved so that his company's massive tar sands investment doesn't go belly up.

Defeating the Keystone XL would be a massive victory for humanity over capital. But it's not going to be easy. If you compare Barack Obama the Candidate in 2008 to Barack Obama the President in 2013, it's clear that the dark ooze of capital has penetrated the White House.

This weekend's protest will be a great step forward, but we can't rest until we've built a people's movement that's even stronger than a hurricane.