As the week-long talks in Panama wrapped up on Friday, the United States was praised for taking a few small steps forward but ultimately received censure for dragging its heels on a number of important issues, including long-term finance. As Josh wrote, the U.S. pushed back on every effort to introduce a discussion on where long-term finance for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries will come from this week.
Yet back here in DC, the atmosphere was much different. Certainly not in Congress, where politicians are busy bickering over a jobs bill, or in a White House depressed by its own re-election prospects in 2012. But out in the street in front of the aptly-named Ronald Reagan International trade building on Friday, climate activists were out in full force, making it known that the American people are unhappy with the state of US climate policy.
The rally took place during a hearing inside the building. The public hearing, hosted by the State Department, was to consider whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, also known as the Tar Sands pipeline. The pipeline, proposed by TransCanada, would stretch 1,700 miles from the tar sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, through the US heartland all the way to the U.S. Gulf Coast if built. The pipeline would pose several series environmental threats, and has been described as “essentially game over” for the climate by James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist. According to Tar Sands Action, an activist coalition opposing the pipeline, “the U.S. Pipeline Safety Administration has not yet conducted an in depth analysis of the safety of diluted bitumen (raw tar sands) pipeline, despite unique safety concerns posed by its more corrosive properties.” Furthermore, extraction and refinement of tar sands oil releases more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, and over its expected lifetime, could produce 1.15 billion more tons of emissions.
Worse still, the State Department approval process for the pipeline has been ridden with scandal. As Bill McKibben describes in this op-ed in The New York Times, the State Department recently released a batch of emails under the Freedom of Information Act that show a cozy relationship between State Department employees and TransCanada lobbyists. The State Department also released falsely-optimistic estimates for the pipeline’s emissions that were actually flat-out contradicted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Tar Sands issue feels like a purely domestic issue, or perhaps one that only involves the United States’ bilateral relationship with Canada. Yet the US’ seeming willingness to allow the pipeline to be built is already having an impact at the UNFCCC negotiations: last week, the US was awarded the (non)coveted “Fossil of the Day” award over the Keystone issue. As the award’s presenters noted, denying the pipeline permit is an opportunity for the US to demonstrate a serious commitment to climate action; conversely, allowing the pipeline to go forward would be one more slap in the face to those countries that actually approach the negotiations seriously.
Yet the rally is also a hopeful sign. We can only hope that as US negotiators return home, they will see the commitment that climate campaigners, and the American people, are bringing to these protests, and bring a renewed sense of urgency to the COP17 negotiations in Durban.
About the authorAlex Stark
Alex Stark joins the project from Washington DC, where she's focused on legislation addressing drivers of violent conflict around the world, including the effects of climate change. Tracking the US negotiators and getting the word out about action inside the UNFCCC combine her passions for activism, sustainable development, conflict prevention and US foreign policy.