Some people who favour the construction of new bitumen sands pipelines have been deploying a particularly weak argument, which echoes a couple of the points that have long been made by people who don’t want to take adequate action to avoid catastrophic climate change. They point out that — in one way or another — any person calling for new pipeline projects to be stopped uses fossil fuels. At a recent Toronto climate change consultation, Adam Vaughan pointed out that a woman wearing plastic-framed glasses was therefore an oil user. In her recent segment on The Current and on Twitter, Martha Hall Findlay has made a similar ‘argument from hypocrisy’, implying that only people with a 100% post-fossil-fuel lifestyle can call for systemic change.
This argument is weak for a number of reasons, but most glaringly it’s because a post-fossil-fuel future isn’t something individuals can ever build through personal choice. The transportation, energy, and agricultural infrastructure around us isn’t something that can be changed without society-wide policy decisions including the use of market mechanisms like carbon pricing, regulations, and sheer governmental determination to leave enough fossil fuel in the ground to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The fact that we’re presently dependent on fossil fuels is in fact a reason why we need to stop building new infrastructure that perpetuates that dependence. In a Canada where we’re seriously planning to be part of a fair and effective global transition away from fossil fuel use, we simply can’t build projects like pipelines which will lock in global fossil fuel dependence for decades to come.
The weak argument from hypocrisy is sometimes paired with a superficially more convincing but still deeply problematic argument about demand. People like Findlay assert that the real problem with fossil fuels is the enduring demand, and that we should therefore focus our policy efforts on reducing demand. This is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, if they are sincere about their desire to reduce demand sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, that would undermine any need for the pipelines they are promoting, which would be built to support expanded production from Canada’s bitumen sands. Furthermore, in the face of a climate crisis which requires incredibly aggressive action to reduce emissions, it makes no sense to only pursue demand-side policies. We certainly should use everything from carbon taxes to building and appliance standards to reduce demand, but we should simultaneously avoid investment in new extraction and transport infrastructure which perpetuates fossil fuel dependence.
The entitled argument that people who live on top of fossil fuel reserves have the right to dig them up and sell them regardless of the consequences for others (and that fossil fuel users are entitled to whatever demand-side activities they have become used to) is seriously faulty from an ethical perspective. We don’t have the right to impose suffering on others around the world, future generations, and nature. Now that science has made so clear that greenhouse gas pollution is terribly threatening and harmful, those whose economic systems depend on them have a strong and immediate obligation to move to other sources of energy. That moral obligation is fundamentally at odds with building new bitumen sands pipelines, and the ethical argument that supports this position is dramatically more credible than the flimsy assertion that anybody who uses fossil fuels should somehow support new infrastructure as a consequence.