08/19/2011 05:13 EDT | Updated 10/19/2011 05:12 EDT

Tone Deaf on the Oil Sands


With all the tact of a clown at a funeral, Canada's elites are swinging into action to defend the tar sands. At exactly the moment in history when we should be switching to alternatives to fossil fuels, and quickly, the Canadian government, which in my opinion works hand in glove with the oil industry, is doubling down on the worst of them -- the tar sands.

This campaign pushing dirty fuels wavers between messages. There's the almost environmental one: "We're going to stand by and watch the industry very hard," even though they are also firing the watchers. There's the security one: "Yes it's dirty, but you are addicted to it, and we'll do our best to keep it that way." And there's even a twisted play to ethics: "At least we're nicer than those other bastards." (Sorry Mom, not my word).

Underneath all those messages, though, is a total refusal to take any responsibility for the fact that burning fossil fuels is actively undermining our life support systems, and that exploiting the tar sands is just going to make things worse. The Canadian government walked away from Canada's international climate commitments, a move endorsed entirely by the members of Alberta government -- Canada's Texas -- and talks a big game while doing nothing to rein in exploding tar sands emissions.

Meanwhile, climate-related natural disasters mount around the globe, flooding great swaths of some countries, starving millions through drought, and endangering more through more frequent and more powerful storms and tornadoes.

The Canadian reputation as "nice guys" who once led the world in sending peacekeepers into conflict zones to reduce harm is taking a massive beating as the government does the bidding of those who would profit from frying the planet rather than doing the bidding of those who could create new green jobs by tapping into Canada's massive potential for renewable energy.

As a result, tar sands boosters find themselves fighting on multiple fronts against those who have more of a conscience. Just "sign the bloody order" on Keystone they say. (Again Mom, their words, not mine). Or, steamroll the significant opposition to the proposed tar sands Gateway pipeline across B.C. by unilaterally declaring it to be in the "national interest." Or, lobby the heck out of the Europeans to not pass a decent low carbon fuel standard. Or, lobby Canadian provinces who may not be as enthusiastic about the tar sands.

And, it's only set to get worse. The tar sands industry, like the Once-ler in The Lorax, is figgering on biggering and biggering and biggering. Not just double, and not just triple, but to quadruple in size to six million barrels a day, which would devastate Northern Alberta while releasing ever greater amounts of carbon into an atmosphere that already can't take it.

Being tone deaf, how do you think the Canadian elites will react to ever greater opposition due to ever greater tar sands damage? Right now they choose to rationalize it to themselves -- those opposed are misinformed, or haven't considered the trade-offs properly, or should really care more about evil coal, or of course, are just a bunch of... [insert insulting label here].

But, I suspect just as George W. Bush could not keep "reality-based" politics away from his door indefinitely, so it will go with the tar sands. At some point soon it will simply be indefensible to keep approving major projects that release ever greater amounts of carbon into the air as if that has no consequences. At some point soon I suspect the Canadian people will no longer put up with being seen as the abusive relatives that nobody else wants to invite over for supper.

The good news/sad news part of this is that it doesn't have to be this way. Canada really does have huge renewable energy potential in wind, solar, geothermal, and efficiency (by virtue of being so inefficient). This is good news, obviously, as there are viable alternatives to the tar sands. It's sad, though, since the tar lobby just doesn't want to go there, despite the scientific imperative to do so. Despite the imperative to do so on behalf of our kids.

So for now, they lobby their little hearts out, pushing dirty oil to anyone who will listen. Our job is to continue to hold up a mirror to their actions, to appeal to their better selves. After all, they are still Canadians, and deep down, Canadians do still want to do the right thing.