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Rick J. Smith

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A Line in the Oil Sands

Posted: 09/29/11 10:02 AM ET

If you stroll by Parliament Hill today, or turn on the news, you're likely to see a large group of people protesting the tar sands. Some of these people are also likely to get arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. This follows a similar protest last month in Washington, D.C., where more than 1,200 people were arrested in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

While Environmental Defence does not engage in, or promote, civil disobedience, I think it's important to give our perspective on the context in which these activities are taking place.

The media has tired of global warming stories of late, despite the fact that last year saw both the hottest year on record and the highest amount of global warming pollution in history. And the stories are indeed still there if we care to hear them, with extreme weather events taking place around the world. For example, Valerie Amos, the top UN relief official in the midst of the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa recently said: "Everything I've heard has said that we used to have drought every 10 years, then it became every five years and now it's every two years."

The acts of civil disobedience have been called for by author Bill McKibben, NASA scientist James Hansen and David Suzuki. These people have tired of the warnings of climate scientists going unheeded as ever more fossil fuel projects get approved instead of decision-makers making the necessary and rapid transition to clean, renewable energy.

In Canada, the flashpoint for the protests is the tar sands. The tar sands represent the largest pool of carbon on the continent, one that both the oil companies and the Alberta and Canadian governments appear intent on digging up and putting into an atmosphere that can't take anymore if we humans are to prosper.

At its core, the tar sands issue is a very simple one: A big belligerent industry is refusing to pay for the cleanup of its own pollution. And the industry's enablers in government are siding with this vested interest over the public interest. If the tar sands companies were smart, they'd stop digging in their heels. Stop denying the inevitable. In a world being warmed by their pollution, with entire island states about to wink out of existence, the pollution from the tar sands is only going to loom larger and larger on the horizon. And the public's anger at the lack of progress in reversing this shameful state of affairs is only going to deepen. Other countries are starting to figure things out. Why can't we?

So, over the coming days, look to see who is being called a "radical" and whether the label is being applied to the right party. In the face of the scientific evidence, it is in fact "radical" to propose burning more fossil fuels instead of pursuing the abundant renewable energy projects available to us. Remember that our children will be the ultimate arbiters of this debate, both writing the history books and living with the consequences of our actions. Even today, it's not hard to see how they will judge things.

Environmental Defence will continue to work through legal means to make our contribution to replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, with as much urgency as we can bring to bear.