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James Hansen and Aaron Sanger

Using the market to tackle the climate crisis

By James Hansen and Aaron Sanger
September 17, 2009

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IT HAS become clear that the full changes America needs will not be solved by simply swapping White House tenants. In fact, this has been emphasized by the new tenant himself: we can’t stand on the sidelines and expect to realize the full change we need. And the change we most urgently need is the one that government is least able to tackle alone: the climate crisis. The US government has so far produced only a counterfeit proposal for responding to climate change. As fossil fuels’ day in the sun approaches dusk, the main sources driving continued greenhouse gas emissions are growing hungrier.

Witness the rise of Canada’s Tar Sands oil developments. The Tar Sands represent the end of easy oil. This is the hard stuff: oil mixed deep into a sandy soil. The process of extracting it, refining it, and shipping it adds up to an oil dirtier, more polluting, and more harmful to our climate than all the oil that has gotten us into this mess. Global-warming emissions from Tar Sands oil production are three to five times greater than from conventional crude production.

To squeeze just one barrel of oily sludge from four tons of Albertan soil in Canada, industry must destroy Boreal forests, drain wetlands, and consume natural gas that could otherwise generate electricity or heat homes. Then, because the sludge is permeated by toxic heavy metals, more natural gas must be used to give the sludge a hot bath. The result: three barrels of drinking water destroyed for every barrel of sludge washed, and lakes of toxic waste so large they can be seen from outer space.

In short, the Tar Sands represent the swapping of nature for Tolkein’s Mordor.

The US government hasn’t yet grasped the magnitude of the impending disaster. Recently, a permit to construct a pipeline carrying Tar Sands oil into the United States was granted by the State Department in order to satisfy the local appeal of 3,000 temporary jobs in Minnesota.

By an older standard of “national interest,’’ this makes perfect sense: jobs are to be encouraged. But in light of climate change’s clear and present danger, and the potent opportunities afforded by clean energy and employment-intensive infrastructure upgrades, this Tar Sands pipeline decision feels more like a decision to reinvest in typewriters at the dawn of the computer age.

The American people may well be ahead of their government in grasping the national interest as it stands in 2009. So as we continue to lean on our government, prodding it to take real action for a clean energy economy, and to reach a strong climate-protection agreement with world leaders this winter in Copenhagen, it’s time for us to reach for other tools in the toolshed.

The market is one such tool. The Tar Sands and their increasing use as a transportation fuel present a brand risk that large corporations cannot afford. Many of America’s favorite products - certainly transportation fuel, but also soft drinks, clothes, and food -have dirtier carbon footprints because of Tar Sands. And smart American companies are no longer in the business of dirtier carbon footprints.

There are rumblings in corporate America that companies must find a way to divest themselves of the Tar Sands problem. Don’t be surprised if they outhustle our elected officials: More than 10 years ago, when ForestEthics and others began pressuring large corporate buyers of wood and paper products to avoid those that come from the destruction of endangered forests, the tools to do so hardly existed. But the market demands of leading US companies drove the creation of the systems and tools to get the job done.

It’s but one example of change. And there’s so much more to be done to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity for transformative change. The power of change is in our hands. We just have to use the right tools.

James Hansen is a climatologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Aaron Sanger is Senior US Energy Campaigner for ForestEthics.

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