Diffusing a carbon bomb: tapping Canadian tar sands would hit Africa’s poor hardest

Diffusing a carbon bomb: tapping Canadian tar sands would hit Africa’s poor hardest

An oil pipeline to Canada's untapped Tar Sands deposits would create short-term construction jobs, but its effects on the climate could permanently destroy jobs elsewhere. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rickz/2113212191/">rickz (Flickr)</a>
An oil pipeline to Canada's untapped Tar Sands deposits would create short-term construction jobs, but its effects on the climate could permanently destroy jobs elsewhere. Photo: rickz (Flickr)

Earth to Big Oil: On a global scale, The Keystone XL pipeline would probably kill more jobs than it creates.

Proponents of the proposed pipeline from Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico claim that its construction would create jobs. But while the long-term employment prospects are debatable at best, the resulting long-term economic devastation is far more certain.

The recent decision by the Obama administration to deny a permit for the construction of the pipeline has received much press and been touted as a victory for environmentalists. But as climate activist Bill McKibben and his organization point out, stopping the extraction of the tar sands would be a victory for those far removed from the American environmental movement as well.

McKibben said in an interview with Green Prophet that “Any place that is already living close to the margins is in the greatest danger” when facing climate change.

This means the world’s poorest, already suffering from food shortages and decreased agricultural production, would be hardest hit by this carbon bomb. And scientific consensus backs up McKibben’s view.

Country Ranks, Estimated Percentage of Agricultural Productivity Loss by 2080: Potential Carbon Emissions from Canadian Oil Sands. Photo: <a href="http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1425525">Center for Global Development</a>
Country Ranks, Estimated Percentage of Agricultural Productivity Loss by 2080: Potential Carbon Emissions from Canadian Oil Sands. Photo: Center for Global Development

David Wheeler, senior fellow emeritus of the Center for Global Development, compiled a recent study specifically tying the exploitation of the Canadian oil sands to increased agricultural losses.

Wheeler concluded that “full exploitation of Canada’s oil sands deposit would impose significant agricultural productivity losses on over 3 billion people in the developing world, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.” He calculates that “combustion of the Alberta deposit would increase the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 99 ppm, or 21.3 percent of the increase already projected to occur by 2100.”

Or, as reputed climate scientist Jim Hansen of NASA put it, tapping the tar sands would be “essentially game over for the climate."

Wheeler's findings show a "game over" scenario in poor rural regions, in particular, predicting agricultural productivity losses of up to nearly 13 percent in Africa and 9 percent in Asia. Wheeler, who also created a ‘Climate Vulnerability Index’ by country, sums up his findings powerfully and succinctly, stating "Put simply, the potential destructive power in Canada’s oil sands exceeds anything modern civilization has witnessed to date."

“This new report puts into stark relief exactly what ‘game over’ looks like: Millions upon millions of starving people across the planet," says 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn.

On the ground, countries projected by Wheeler to see further damaging impacts are already struggling with agricultural losses. Another 350.org co-founder, Phil Aroneanu, told Global Envision that “we have a plethora of anecdotal and story-based thoughts from our organizers around the world” of agricultural devastation and food shortages linked to changing climate patterns.

Drought-stricken countries in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and Sudan, among others, provide some of the most poignant images of climate-related suffering. An Oxfam International report points out that 85 percent of Ethiopians depend directly on agriculture. And as a local farmer told Oxfam, “The rain doesn’t come on time anymore. After we plant, the rain stops just as our crops start to grow. And it begins to rain after the crops have already been ruined.”

And with the projections from scientists like Hansen and Wheeler, Africa’s farmers and communities appear unlikely to recover soon.

While McKibben writes that “Blocking one pipeline was never going to stop global warming,” and Obama’s denial of the Keystone permit may well not kill the project in the long run, the scientific and anecdotal evidence is clear: Vulnerable populations are suffering at the hands of carbon kings already, and tapping the tar sands will exacerbate their problems.

So the Keystone proposal may or may not be dead. But the political discourse around potential job-killing has mostly left out an important aspect: the killing of crops and livelihoods elsewhere in the world.

McKibben has said that extracting Canada’s tar sands would mean lighting the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” For now, at least, that fuse remains unlit.

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