Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Climate change activism DOES work, even against a colossus

Anyone who feels as strongly about some issues in the globalised world as I do, would feel buoyed by reading the article by Alex Altman, titled “The Thin Green Line”, in a recent edition of TIME magazine (February 15, 2016, p. 38-41). It is a tale of hard-won success on the part of tough environmental activists against the fossil fuel industry in the north-west of America — tough, because it requires the willingness and energy to resist every attempt by coal mining and tar/oil-sands companies to continue with what has become unacceptable industrial practices in the eyes of environmentalists the world over.

With the ongoing emphasis on coal for electricity in this country, as well as the maniacal drive to frack for shale gas in the beautiful Karoo, this is what South African activists – and potential ones – should learn from the experience of their North-American counterparts: even, or perhaps especially, when your opponent is a Goliath, never give up in your fight against them if it is for a cause as important as the future of all living things on the planet, including our children’s children, and their children’s children.

And what a David/Goliath struggle (a metaphor used by Altman too) it has been! Those people who have driven along US Highway 12 in the northern part of the Rockies would know how spectacularly beautiful the surrounding landscape is. It is along this route in the state of Idaho that giant energy companies have tried to transport “oversize industrial equipment” to mining areas in Canada and the US, and where they have met with fierce resistance from local activists, sometimes to the point of the latter forming human barriers, night and day, in the road to stop convoys on their way to the tar sands mining operations in Alberta, Canada, and succeeding. Altman sums up this state of affairs as follows (p. 39):

“Since 2010, coal, oil and gas companies have been hoping to turn the northwest Pacific coast into a new portal for energy exports to Asia. Nearly 30 major fossil-fuel infrastructure projects – including coal and oil export terminals, propane pipelines, liquefied natural gas plants and petrochemical refineries – have been proposed in Oregon and Washington. Industry groups promise billions in capital investment and thousands of new jobs in struggling corners of the region. On the other side, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and have marshalled an unlikely army of faith groups, Indian tribes, concerned physicians, conservative ranchers, not-in-my-backyard farmers, local crusaders and politicians from both parties. And so far, the environmentalists have won.”

It is no understatement to claim, as Altman does (p. 39), that these activists “are battling energy companies to shape America’s climate future”. In typical capitalist fashion, all that these companies can offer, are jobs and more jobs for workers (the 99%) that would slave away at enriching the companies and their shareholders (the 1%), while adding nail after nail in the coffin of the natural climate (and other eco-) systems that are indispensable for life on Earth to continue. Short-term profits versus long-term sustainability: it’s a no-brainer.

Small wonder that environmental activists have dubbed Highway 12 the “Thin Green Line” given the economic might of big oil and coal, it is perilously thin, but very significantly it is “green”, a colour symbolic of the meaning of the natural eco-systems on which all living beings depend – yes, including the very fat cats who are trying to create an export window for satisfying the energy needs of the voracious Asian giant of China.

Altman reminds readers that the perhaps unlikely strength of the Thin Green Line represents the fact that anti-fossil fuel activists, who initially concentrated their efforts on the sites where fuel extraction takes place, have effectively moved the struggle to areas where processing and export occur. No doubt these climate-warriors’ morale has been boosted by President Barack Obama’s rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that was supposed to link oil fields in the north with refineries further south. And it gives one hope that, as fossil fuel prices fall, the sheer cost and trouble of extracting these carbon resources from ground or sea will undermine its economic viability.

To be sure, coal is still the main source of energy in the US. According to Altman, a whopping 40% of energy comes from coal, although things are changing, as can be gathered from the fact that not long ago (in 2005), this figure stood at 50%. Obama’s climate legislation will probably lower it further; this is why, Altman points out, around 2010 the energy industry decided that its future expansion depended on its capacity to provide in the fossil fuel needs of Asia, where there is a colossal demand for coal, and where carbon-emission regulations are not nearly as stringent as in the US.

And this is where the green activists come in – their efforts are concentrated, among other things, on preventing coal from getting to the bulk ships that would transport it to the east. This is not all they are doing, though. As Altman observes (p. 40), “Activists use different tactics, from demonstrations to public-records requests to lawsuits that trap the projects in bureaucratic thickets”. Take note, South Africans – a multi-pronged approach like this one is called for where completely unconscionable fossil-fuel projects crop up in this country, like the Karoo shale gas extraction attempt.

For example, in Longview, Washington (the Evergreen State), activists filed a records request regarding a proposed $650 million project for a coal export facility in the small industrial town (Altman, p. 40-41). When they got it, it became evident that the executives of the company set to build the facility, Millennium Bulk Terminals, had lied about the true extent of the operation to quell environmental concerns. Instead of the approximately 5 million tonnes of coal exports per year that they were supposed to be aiming for, it turned out to be about 60 million instead. As a result the process of granting Millennium the right to proceed has lasted for four years, and there is no guarantee that it will get it.

Sometimes climate activists even hang from bridges in their numbers to stop an icebreaker from getting to Alaska and no guesses what its purpose is up there. With the world already reeling under the increasing manifestations of anthropogenic global warming (last year was the hottest year on record, and January 2016 has just set a new month record for high temperatures), the fossil fuel hidden under the northern icecap is in the firing line of oil companies for adding yet more carbon to the atmosphere.

And sometimes politicians have learned hard lessons from the fight against fossil fuel companies, like Portland mayor Charlie Hales. Initially Hales celebrated the news of a $500 million installation for propane exports from the town, but was forced to terminate the project in the face of resolute resistance from environmental activists, who labelled him “Fossil Fuel Charlie”. Such was the sheer magnitude of the public “revulsion” at the idea of their town becoming a major source of fossil fuel exports that he had no alternative. Hales even decided against running for re-election, deciding instead to throw his weight behind the environmental movement by urging other mayors on the west coast to block fossil fuel exports too (Altman, p. 41). And why not? Even if there will be future setbacks, Altman remarks pointedly that (p. 41):

“And so, at the moment, the Thin Green Line holds. To those manning the outposts, nothing less than human existence is on the line. If the energy industry can hook Asian markets on cheap American coal, ‘then we’re done, climate-wise’, says KC Golden, a senior policy adviser at Climate Solutions in Seattle. ‘That, not to put it too frankly, is how the world ends’.”

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    • Rory Short

      Excellent work by the actvists.