Fossil fuel expansion as a crime against humanity

After at 2010 that was one of the warmest years on record, 2011 has shown us astonishing patterns of extreme weather worldwide. It would take a long time to make the full list, but you know what I mean: tornadoes, floods, drought, record cold in some parts, record heat in others, hailstorms (Al Gore does a pretty good summary of the state of things here). A report for Al Jazeera tallied up the damages in the US alone at $27-28 billion, so far this year. They go on further to quote Swiss Re (global re-insurance company) that freak weather losses are about $130 billion per year now, compared to about $25 billion per year in the 1980s.

Can we pin this all on climate change? Some say yes, others are more cautious about how much we can cite human greenhouse gas emissions. But all agree that what we are seeing is consistent with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades. Would those tornadoes have been averted in the absence of too much carbon in the air, or would they have happened anyway but packing an extra punch due to a warmer planet? We can only speak in probabilities not black and white, but there is a high probability that the extremes we have been seeing are part of our new 21st century climate.

Lots of people are connecting these dots. Canada’s mainstream media is an exception that continue to report extreme weather events on one page and oil and gas developments in the business section, as if there is no connection whatsoever. Worse, during the second (or was it the third?) round of tornadoes, the Vancouver Province ran a story, “No Link Between Tornadoes and Climate Change” (which I think ran through the CanWest media empire). It was a puff article quoting one person who made such a comment with no counter-point, but what is interesting is that some editor felt it necessary to make that a banner headline.

I think this wall of denial is about to fall in the next few years, and with it we need to usher in a new era of climate action. Serious climate action, not the slow and gentle first steps we’ve witnessed to date in places like BC and California (whereas other juridictions have done nothing at all). That means shifting to zero fossil fuels in the energy system as soon as possible, aggressively making our society more energy efficient, and redeveloping our urban spaces into complete communities that are substantially more pedestrian and bike-friendly, and with major investments in public transit.

But I think we need to up the ante for those pursuing business as usual, the relentless expansion of oil and gas infrastructure that is causing these problems and guaranteeing that they will be worse in the future. Actions that lead to mass deaths and displacements, either directly due to a weather event or indirectly from impacts on land and livelihoods, beg for some accountability. I’m no international law-talking guy, but I believe that these things can only be called crimes against humanity.

Let’s say that again. Efforts to expand the oil and gas industry, like the Keystone XL and Enbridge pipelines, are crimes against humanity. Expanding the coal industry, like the proposal to export megatonnes of Washington state coal, is not just bad environmental policy, but a crime against humanity.

The Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group, including Swiss Re and other prominent grey-suited observers, calculate that weather disasters over the past 50 years have led to $1 trillion in losses and 800,000 fatalities. Those human and financial losses are only going to get worse. It is not polar bears and “future generations” we are talking about. It is the current impacts on people around the world who had nothing to do with the problem. It is about Canada’s First Nations, whose constitutional rights have literally been run over by those massive mining trucks that ply the Alberta tar sands.

I may be willing to give a grace period for actions take before 2000 or so, on the grounds that we did not know better (though we actually did). Nor would I punish regular folks (including me) who burn fossil fuels because of the structure of the world we live in and the lack of alternatives. This is about the dealers not the addicts; about the need for urgent change in response to the unfolding crisis.

It matters not whether such actions today are “legal” (almost all genocides were legal at the time) but they are deeply immoral and wrong. Major shareholders and senior executives in big fossil fuel industries – and the politicians that dote on them – need to understand that their profiteering off of destabilizing the climate will pay a price. That’s a little thing we call justice.




  • great post Marc, and I agree fully. Until we somehow stem the extreme profits off fossil fuels, there will be little incentive to change. Under this system of corporatism, (democracy is dead when it comes to climate change) it is profits that walk the talk. And I do agree very very much that blaming the addicts is not the way forward. And to me that is what taxing the addicts has done all along.

    Alternatives- we need to get the alternatives into a mass production infrastructure similar to oil. If you have a long hard look at oil, without the infrastructure in place, how efficient are fossil fuels? (and that is without the environmental costs). And I am referring to the very structural infrastructure. We have a whole pile of sunk costs into the fossil fuel, knowledge base, research. production and processing that if we had such similar in alternative energy, I am sure per unit cost for a joule of energy would not be far off that of fossil fuel. So you throw in the externalities, and one is a zone of irrationality.

    That profit case needs to be made- strip fossil fuel right to the very core, and its costs seem much lower per joule, but that is faulty accounting. So in this world of corporatism, we need to talk profits and change.

    Alternatively one moves out of this profit world, but that is not a realistic option and a much more difficult lengthy fight. That is not to say alternative systems can not be argued.


  • You could go even further and argue that the energy industry is just an essential part of global capitalism which inately requires continuous growth. Such growth, of course, is mathematically impossible. Just imagine the resources necessary for, say, 3% global GDP growth per year with a population which might hit 10+ billion in the next few decades, and the fact that in theory, at least, huge percentages of this larger global population will wish to have the same living standards as those enjoyed by the developed nations. Following this logic, then, global capitalism itself, and those who define our global existence (transnational corporations, military, governments) are equally as guilty of crimes against humanity.

    Therefore, I have to fundamentally disagree with one point made by Paul (although in principle he is correct in the simpler solution) in that the answer lies not in massive production of alternatives, but in radically changing the way our society/ies function, and by decentralising all production of just about everything to the local community level – the exact opposite of global capitalism. In radically simplifying (read reducing) our consumption, and in providing for our needs locally, we can make the world more equal AND combat climate change and biosphere degradation at the same time. This would require that all (or most at least) energy be produced and managed at the local level – say each small community of up to a couple of hundred residents. Same for water supply and waste disposal – which would immediately get rid of the incredibly expensive and wasteful infrastructure which currently controls most water supplies and sewage amongst other things.

    Put differently, the answer is a zero or negative growth economy/zero profit based on local cooperation, production and exchange. This is the only feasible way to surmount the crisis caused by global capitalism. And it is about as easy to realise as making the deniers of climate change realise the errors of their ways.

  • The Ontario’s NDP plan to reduce taxes on fuel for cars and home heating is a step in the the wrong direction.

    I’m not convinced of the environmental benefits of local production. There are significant efficiencies to be gained from the economies of scale and locating in the ideal geography that centralized production allows. The damage from transportation is a concern, but the damage from a electric powered freight train can be fairly light.

    Looking at the environmental damage from one big plant may look bad, but one area with heavy environment damage still isn’t as bad as ten areas with moderate environmental damage.

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