Keystone XL victory gives hope for the environmental movement

This piece appeared on the Ubyssey’s website today, and a shortened version will appear in this Thursday’s print edition.

Being an environmentalist isn’t easy.

When we survey this changing planet, we experience sweltering temperatures, suffer turbulent seas and witness melting ice caps. The processes we’ve begun are unprecedented; the Earth we’ve been accustomed to has already been fundamentally altered in irreversible ways.

When we review the leading scientific literature, we notice how little time we have—how dire our situation has become—and we struggle to hope in the face of this mounting despair.

When we open our newspapers we see—despite all our efforts—that we’re pouring more c02 into the atmosphere than ever before, we see that temperatures are reaching new peaks, that storms and wildfires are ravaging our communities, and that climate change is causing draught, famine, disease, creating untold misery for the most innocent and most vulnerable.

When we turn to our political elite, we’re met with unsatisfying accords, vacuous plans, pledges, press conferences and decrees. After decades of fruitlessly pleading for real leadership, we’ve come to realize, in the words of the great American philosopher John Dewey, that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” That business is oil, coal, and natural gas.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. And yet, thus far, our response has been nothing but an abject failure.

Being an environmentalist isn’t easy.

However, I’ve never been more proud to be one, I’ve never had more hope, and I’ve never been more confident in our ability to author a greater, greener future.

The reason for my optimism is last week’s victory by Bill McKibben and thousands of other activists (including prominent Canadians, like Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow) in forcing President Barack Obama to suspend the Keystone XL pipeline for an independent review, which most analysis think will kill the project. Keystone XL was slated to transport dirty tar sands oil through a 3,456 km pipe from Alberta, through the Midwest, and down to Texas. NASA’s chief climatologist James Hansen said this would effectively mean “game over” for our climate.

Everything seemed a-go; TransCanada had already moved million dollars of pipe across the border, and they even began to seize land by eminent domain. But, in the words of Bill McKibben, this “done deal came spectacularly undone.”

Their victory teaches us an amazing lesson in how to best push for political change: people power. Day after day, these brave activists encircled the White House. One day they were 12,000 shoulder-to-shoulder, another day 1,254 of them were arrested in a massive act of civil disobedience.

UBC needs to learn from this moment. We are world-renown for our sustainable operations and innovative research in the field, but we could do more to political mobilize our students and faculty. We must be both academics and activists; it is our duty to make efforts to understand the science, and the politics. The science is clear, it informs our urgency and forecasts our future. The politics are messier, but our experiences have shown us that the solution lies not in waiting for our leaders to act, but in forcing their hand.

It’s particularly important we learn this lesson now, because the next climate battle is likely to be in our backyard. Canada’s finance minister, Jim Flaherty, told Bloomberg that this “may mean that we move quickly to ensure that we can export our oil to Asia through British Columbia.” According to the Globe and Mail, this could mean expanding the Enbridge pipeline, or building another.

This global battle has very local manifestations. In working for the UBC Terry Project, I have spoken to leading student activists, and countless faculty both from the arts and the sciences. The prevailing message is clear: when the fight comes to BC, we will do everything in our power to push back.

That’s why, in the wake of this environmental victory and in preparation for the next, UBC is incredibly fortunate to host Bill McKibben on Wednesday (12:30PM, Chan Centre, tickets free). He will talk about the Keystone pipeline, the role of our country and our community in this global movement, and share stories from his efforts to foster grassroots activism in the struggle for climate justice. Some of these stories will be hopeful, some not, but one thing is certain: we have a stronger and more focused movement than ever before, and I would like you to be a part of it.

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Gordon Katic (@gordonkatic) has been student coordinator for the Terry Project for over two years, and in that time started BARtalk, and the Terry Project on CiTR 101.9FM. A former Ubyssey columnist, and now a student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, Gordon is trying to use journalism to tell important stories about global issues.