We need to talk about Sandy

This afternoon I had my own battle with the elements. Although it was a comic, not tragic, affair, my personal travails nevertheless bear relation to Sandy – the vicious ‘superstorm’ that has recently assaulted north eastern US normality. I had cycled about six miles from central Bristol out to Keynsham, a suburb on the road to Bath, in rain that was both ice-cold and, I’m convinced, tailor-made to the exact specification of my journey – first drop as I left the house, blue sky appearing on arrival. Worse, I had made the devastating error of choosing to cycle a significant portion of the trip along a riverside path. I may has well have been in the river, and on more than one occasion very nearly was.

First world problems eh? Except, the thread that ties me to Sandy is a first world problem – our near-total inability to comprehend and act faithfully upon the practical imperatives supplied to us by climate science. Predictions worsen every year, often beyond previous worst case scenarios, in line with increasing emissions and entrenched political inertia. When was the last time you heard climate change debated in earnest? Alongside our other great priorities – Kate’s boobs, economic growth, obligatory idiot associated with football – it hasn’t had much of a look in since late 2009 and the Copenhagen debacle. You certainly wouldn’t have come across it during six full hours of US presidential debate; it wasn’t mentioned once, despite extended ‘discussions’ of coal and off-shore drilling.

Might this be about to change? Who knows, but this week I’ve at least found myself asking that question again.

First, a group of activists under the banner No Dash For Gas scaled 300ft of gas-fired power station cooling tower in West Burton (watch the fantastic short film here), and remain there six days later, forcing the continued shutdown of one of the UK’s newest fossil fuel power stations. One hundred tonnes of CO2 an hour are saved through this action alone. Of course, the group don’t plan to avert catastrophic climate change through chimney hugging (to appropriate a well worn phrase), but instead wish to point out that continuing to allow gas-fired power stations to be built is a bullet proof tactic for violating our own ‘legally binding’ emissions targets, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 (as well as increasing energy bills). For a government that infamously claimed it would be the greenest ever, this is a glaring contradiction. Instead, No Dash For Gas advocates ‘properly supported investment in renewables [that] could generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, restructure our relationship with energy production through decentralisation and community control, radically cut emissions of carbon dioxide and in the medium to long term, significantly lower energy bills.’

Activists atop West Burton power station last week

Gas is not like it was, either. Those North Sea wells that kept Maggie burning are on their last legs. Gas – often thought of as the cleanest fossil fuel – has got really, really nasty. Which is why I turned up covered in mud in Keynsham this morning. I had come to spend a couple of hours flyering an unassuming suburb, bringing its unassuming inhabitants some bad news: that the Department for Energy & Climate Change (DECC) had sold UK Methane, owned by Australian company Eden Energy, a license to begin exploratory drilling for methane in coal beds in the area. A close relation of its more famous sibling ‘fracking‘, coal bed methane (CBM) extraction involves pumping water (to which methane gas is attached under pressure) out of coal beds, up to the surface. In some cases this won’t be enough and further ‘stimulation’ will be required, often in the form of fracking, in which a toxic mix of chemicals is pumped into the ground at high pressure to force the gas out. Even if this isn’t used in addition, CBM pumps water five times as salty as brine, and laden with toxic contaminants, to the surface, endangering water tables and agriculture.

CBM and fracking are infant industries in the UK, with local opposition springing up wherever sites are developed. This is fossil fuel dependency come home – no more is the burden of extraction (and, predominantly, emissions too) borne solely by the foreigner. This new domestic threat may just form the basis of a functional marriage between the environmental movement, and that great character of middle England, the NIMBY. However, with George Osborne securing his place as the world’s last living dinosaur by announcing tax breaks for shale gas extraction (and making us all more endangered as a species as a result), it might be down to those communities affected alone to stem the flow. I hope not. DECC has sold licenses to explore up and down the country: the fight is a big one.

 If you really want to see the manifest madness of a global economic system still hooked on fossil fuels, you need look no further than North America, home of fracking (a story movingly told in 2011 film ‘Gasland‘) and, of course, the Canadian tar sands. The tar sands simply have to be seen to be believed. An area of pristine forest the size of the UK will be cleared to access a carbon deposit that makes up 15% of known global ‘reserves’. Burn all this, and there’s no going back. Period. Problem is, that’s just what we are trying to do. Worse still, this carbon comes in the form of, well, sand. In fact, the whole process is really one of converting arctic (no less) natural gas into liquid fuel, by using it to heat and clean the tar sands, producing usable petroleum. Beyond the truly frightening climate change implications of the tar sands, we are also witnessing probably the greatest act of geographically confined ecological vandalism of all time, complete with vast toxic lakes of effluent and spiraling cancer rates amongst sidelined First Nations, their water turned to poison.

Some of the Alberta tar sands, Canada

The tar sands matter because they could quite literally be the end of the world as we know it. And they matter because they form perhaps the last opportunity for the US to halt in its tracks as guarantor of ecological chaos and instead begin at least to try and limit the damage and injustice that will be done as things stand. The US imports more oil from Canada than any other country in the world. This is tar sands oil, and if the US invests its ‘future’ in continued reliance on it, you and I both have good reason to be hopeless. The battle over Keystone XL, the pipeline that would run tar sands the length of the US for years to come, is thus very much a fight for, not over, the future. 

President Obama decided to kick the item off the electoral agenda by delaying a decision on Keystone XL until after next week’s presidential race (though building of the southern section has begun in Texas, with horrifying brutality used against those opposing it). By doing so he continued a three year trend of refusing to talk, at least, as if climate change existed. With Sandy, and it’s deadeningly sad trail of destruction, there is yet a chance this might change. It has often been quietly said, by myself amongst others, that it will take a major weather event (as the Americans would no doubt call it) to shake enough of the US public out of their climate slumber to take on the corporations and, perhaps, win. Quietly, because the next suggestion is that it would be good that this happened sooner rather than later. Of course, it probably did happen, in New Orleans, but, y’know, whatever.

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, one US politician who been bringing climate change back into public debate

It seems that Obama’s response to Sandy may have swung the election in his favour. With Michael Bloomberg launching an attack on Mitt Romney’s climate change credentials – as much as you can launch an attack on something that doesn’t exist – climate change is suddenly a talking point in the US mainstream, at least for now. Apparently, as much as 70% of the US public now considers itself convinced that climate change is man-made, and dangerous (round of applause please). It might be wishful thinking – the sort you indulge in while robotically stuffing letterboxes in Keynsham – but perhaps, if he does win, Obama might be helped by an American public indebted to the world to repay a debt of his own, to Sandy. In short, he might be helped to get off his arse, and give us a chance.


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