The hypocrisy argument for pipelines

2016-09-22

in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan September 22, 2016 at 7:22 pm
. September 23, 2016 at 5:01 pm

For understandable reasons, the unions whose workers build pipelines and drill wells also resist attempts to change. Consider the current drama over the Dakota Access oil pipeline. In September, even after pipeline security guards armed with pepper spray and guard dogs attacked Native Americans who were nonviolently defending grave sites from bulldozers, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on the Obama administration to allow construction to proceed. “Pipeline construction and maintenance,” Trumka said, “provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.” The head of the Building Trades Unions agreed: “Members have been relying on these excellent, family-supporting, middle-class jobs with family health care, pensions, and good wages.” Another union official put it most eloquently: “Let’s not turn away and overregulate or just say, ‘No, keep it in the ground.’ It shouldn’t be that simple.”

She’s right—it would be easier for everyone if it weren’t that simple. Union workers have truly relied on those jobs to build middle-class lives, and all of us burn the damned stuff, all day, every day. But the problem is, it is that simple. We have to “turn away.” We have to “keep it in the ground.” The numbers are the numbers. We literally cannot keep doing what we’re doing if we want to have a planet.

“Keeping it in the ground” does not mean stopping all production of fossil fuels instantly. “If you let current fields begin their natural decline,” says Kretzmann, “you’ll be using 50 percent less oil by 2033.” That gives us 17 years, as the wells we’ve already drilled slowly run dry, to replace all that oil with renewable energy.

But to convince the world’s leaders to obey the math—to stop any new mines or wells or pipelines from being built—we will need a movement like the one that blocked the Keystone pipeline and fracking in New York and Arctic drilling. And we will need to pass the “Keep It in the Ground Act,” legislation that would end new mining and drilling for fossil fuels on public land. It’s been called “unrealistic” or “naïve” by everyone from ExxonMobil to the interior secretary. But as the new math makes clear, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only realistic approach. What’s unrealistic is to imagine that we can somehow escape the inexorable calculus of climate change. As the OCI report puts it, “One of the most powerful climate policy levers is also the simplest: stop digging.” That is, after all, the first rule of holes, and we’re in the biggest one ever.

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