February 2014

Why The President Should Say “No” to Keystone

The following is taken from a letter sent to President Barack Obama by ICCI founder and Executive Director Pam Pearson, urging the President to deny approval to the Keystone pipeline:

I founded and lead a group focused on climate change in cryosphere regions, such as the Himalayas and the Arctic.  We include as staff and advisors dozens of former climate negotiators and renowned cryosphere scientists.  As a 20-year veteran Foreign Service officer with my “home” in the OES Bureau at the State Department, I well understand the international EIA process on Keystone just completed at State. Despite that opinion, I would urge you to deny approval because of the need to slow oil sands exploitation, as well as the historic need for a U.S. signal making clear the seriousness of the climate threat faced by the human community, and our need for an equally serious response.

The main State argument revolves around its judgment that Canada will develop the oil sands regardless, and that alternative means of transport carry greater risks and environmental costs. That argument is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes 1) no benefit from slowing down exploitation, and 2) that Canadian and global intentions regarding the oil sands will remain fixed, such that total extraction will eventually take place.

From my background in climate policy, I cannot convey in a brief letter the current state of alarm among cryosphere scientists, expressed especially by IPCC authors at the Cryosphere Day that ICCI held on the margins of the Warsaw climate conference.  They believe we already may have passed certain thresholds in the Arctic, Antarctic and Himalayas that commit us to a very different climate system, one quite literally not seen in human, or even hominid, existence.  The Arctic and Antarctic are like giant vessels not easily turned, nor turned back once certain processes get started.  Since these regions are changing so very rapidly, there are benefits simply to slowing the pace of oil sands carbon emissions; as well as black carbon emissions, which occur to a large degree in the sands mining process, and very close to the Arctic.

Will denying Keystone entirely stop oil sands exploitation?  Of course not – but it will certainly slow it down.  Only so much oil can be moved by other means; and pipelines to the east and west face similar opposition within other Canadian provinces to that within the U.S. This provides some breathing space for the Arctic, and for a global political process to fully appreciate the threat we are facing and act accordingly.  We are reaching a point where even energy investors are speaking of a “carbon bubble” that will burst when it becomes clear that fossil fuels must remain in the ground.

We need to make exploitation of this source of carbon pollution harder, not easier. Using the excuse that it will happen anyway avoids that responsibility.

Finally, with the Paris 2015 agreement deadline coming up fast, even a symbolic “no” to such an intrinsically environmentally damaging, carbon-intensive source of oil would give the United States a new international authority to negotiate the kind of climate agreement that responds to the threat.  Secretary Kerry’s recent speech in Indonesia made an enormously compelling case for action, but reflects the kind of rhetoric used by many leaders in the 20+ years since the Rio Convention: rhetoric not yet reflected in political action.  Denial of Keystone would give that rhetoric real teeth, and the United States new legitimacy in the Paris negotiation process….

Some American leader in the 21st century needs to be the first to say “no” to fossil fuels. I hope that leader will be you.  In my work, I run into many people around the world trying to make a personal difference to climate change: installing solar panels, driving less – even knowing that such individual steps will really have no appreciable impact on the course of the planet’s climate system.

History has placed you in a position for your “personal difference” to make a far greater impact. I urge you to use it – and use it also as a springboard giving the United States far greater authority to spur concerted global action by the rest of the world community.


By Amy Imdieke, Global Outreach Director, and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI.
Published Apr. 21, 2014      Updated Apr. 21, 2014 6:49 pm