This Decision Will Unlock Emissions Endgame

Research continues to reinforce long-standing claims that tapping Canada’s tar sands will push global temperatures to scary heights

Canada's tar sands are among the most important fossil fuel deposits that need to be left alone if we want to tackle climate change, according to a recent paper in Nature. (Photo: dan_prat/iStock)
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Early in January, a team of researchers from University College London published a paper in the key scientific journal Nature. It took the most important fact about global warming—that the world’s fossil fuel companies have already located five times more carbon than scientists say we can burn without overheating the planet—and added a new layer of detail, exploring precisely which deposits should be left untouched. High on the list is Canada’s vast tar sands, which the authors said should be tapped for only a “negligible” amount of oil going forward if we are serious about dealing with climate change.

The paper came as vindication, as the long fight over the Keystone pipeline finally seems to be drawing to a close. The fight started with brave resistance from First Nations people in Alberta and ranchers in Nebraska, but it went global in 2011 when former NOAA climatologist James Hansen, the planet’s premier climate scientist, published a paper showing for the first time that a vast pool of carbon lay beneath the tar sands. Pump it all, he said, and it would be “game over” for the planet. Despite that warning, everyone thought Keystone was a done deal. In fact, a National Journal poll of “energy and environment insiders” in October 2011 found that 91 percent expected that TransCanada would receive its presidential permit in short order.

That the company hasn’t been awarded a permit is a triumph of organizing: Keystone has drawn more Americans into the streets than any environmental issue in a generation, produced more comments to the government than any infrastructure project in history, and spawned more arrests than just about any cause for many years.

If President Obama does the right thing, it will be the first time in history that a world leader has said, “Here's a big project I'm not going to approve because of the climate.” As the Nature article makes clear, this carbon deposit must remain substantially untapped if we’re to have a prayer of holding temperature increases to two degrees Celsius—the internationally recognized red line for climate. It’s not the only carbon pool we must leave alone. There are also the coalfields of Wyoming and Australia, the fracking zones of California and Poland, and the deep-sea deposits off Brazil and the Arctic. But Canada’s tar sands are a good place to start.

Author Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and founded In 2014 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the "alternative Nobel," in the Swedish Parliament.

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Lead Photo: dan_prat/iStock
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