07/10/2013 05:02 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Will the Lac-Megantic Tragedy Spur Change?

A concerned resident waits July 7, 2013 near an aid station set up after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in a wall of fire. Now scores of people -- perhaps as many as 80 -- are missing. Rescuers cautiously entered the charred debris Sunday, more than 24 hours after the spectacular crash that saw flames shoot into the sky and burn into the night. The accident and resulting huge fireball forced 2,000 people from their homes. Witnesses reported up to six explosions after the train derailed at about 1:20 am (0520 GMT Saturday) in Lac-Megantic. Officially, as of late Saturday, only one person was killed and one wounded. AFP PHOTO / François Laplante-Delagrave (Photo credit should read François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Then last week, tragedy struck again when a train hauling crude exploded in the small town of Lac-Megantic.

Proponents of tar sands pipelines took this tragedy as an opportunity to sell the public on the safety benefits of pipelines. Hypocrisy that this is the same industry that cries foul when we connect climate change and extreme weather aside, they're just missing the point.

The tragedy in Lac-Megantic does not stand alone, but is simply another in a long list of man-made catastrophes caused by a rogue industry bent on pulling all the oil, and profits, from the ground they can. They are the result of political and economic forces that have shackled our communities to the tyranny of oil, coal and gas.

In 2009, the world watched as a deep sea oil rig exploded off the Gulf Coast. In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline burst into the Kalamazoo River, and the Upper Big Branch mine disaster killed 29 miners. In 2011, a pipeline spill in Alberta dumped 4.5 million liters of oil into the community of Little Buffalo.

This is just a tiny sampling of what's happened in the past 4 years, but through it all the common denominator in this equation is fossil fuels. As we dig for deeper for more unconventional fossil fuels we are loading the dice for disaster.

In Canada, plans to extract and export fossil fuels are booming: From the heart of the tar sands to new coal mines, export facilities and fracked gas terminals on both coasts, we are laying a minefield for our own feet to cross. Faced with a crossroads choice, government and industry have set their sights on a path that would see fossil fuels moving over land and water from coast to coast to coast.

Fossil fuels will inevitably equal disaster. It might be a health disaster from tailings leaching into fresh water in Northern Alberta or from communities breathing coal dust around new export facilities and mines. It might be in the form of extreme weather, like the floods that have soaked Calgary and Toronto this summer as climate change is exacerbated by the relentless extraction of fossil fuels.

It could be the inevitable spills from pipelines like Line 9 or the Keystone XL, or from a tanker in Burrard Inlet if Kinder Morgan is allowed to expand their Trans-Mountain line. It might also be economic disaster when pension funds and public institutions invested in the fossil fuel industry see the impact of unburnable carbon plummet stock values.

Or, we could choose another path. Humanity has often learned its greatest lessons out of tragedy and disaster, and now we can choose to end the age of fossil fuels. Of course this will not happen overnight and it will not be easy, it will require us to commit our hearts, minds and resources to solving this problem, but the rewards are many.

More than simply avoiding disaster and mitigating a worsening climate crisis, we will be creating jobs and opportunities for more resilient communities and cities. Renewable energy outpaces fossil fuels for job creation from investment at a rate of three to five times. Public transit, building retrofits and adaptation bring that number event higher.

Nelson Mandela once said that everything seems impossible until it's done, and there are plenty of voices claiming that a clean energy fueled Canada is impossible. It's true that energy revolution that takes us off fossil fuels is one of the most difficult challenges we seem to face, but it is possible. In summer that has been marked by disasters like Lac Megantic and the devastation of major flooding in Ontario and Alberta, it is necessary.

Lac-Megantic Aerial Views