"The battle has been joined," Bill McKibben told an audience Saturday in Omaha.
An environmentalist and author from Vermont, McKibben has become the country's leading speaker calling for climate-change activism. About 500 people came out Saturday night to hear him speak as part of a month-long tour "Do the Math" to rally the country to join in a fight against fossil fuels. www.350.org
McKibben was certainly right in arguing that the battle has been joined. While groups such as McKibben's 350.org draw the line that major petroleum and fossil-fuel companies are on a pathway to wreck the globe, another group of fighters on the other side of the trenches is now demanding that we can't afford renewable fuels or renewable energy. The American Petroleum Institute and its allies said this past week they are determined to get rid of the Renewable Fuels Standard. Comrades in arms such as the Heartland Institute now have launched a campaign against renewable energy standards in the 36 or so states that have them, arguing that wind power, for instance, is too expensive and we don't need it.
Thus, battle lines are formed. In the middle, I would argue, is rural America, especially farmers. The dynamics for agriculture are complex. Further, the country won't find a pathway to address climate change until American farmers are on board with that pathway.
McKibben told the crowd in Omaha he was especially looking forward to visiting Nebraska because of the ongoing battle in the state to stop the TransCanada XXL pipeline from moving Canadian tar sands oil through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala aquifer. As he said, "Some of our greatest fighters are in Nebraska."
The pipeline battle is a piece of the overall larger picture on fighting unchecked climate change.
The TransCanada fight effectively brought Nebraskans into the climate fight. As Nebraska's top TransCanada fighter, Jane Kleeb put it at the meeting, she wasn't active in the climate fight until the pipeline battle began. "I knew about climate change issues, but it didn't mean anything to me."
Boiling down McKibben's argument for broader climate activism, it comes down to this argument: Nations around the world, including major greenhouse-gas emitters U.S. and China, have all agreed people on the planet won't be able to tolerate the effects of a 2 C (3.6 F) temperature change. But we're on a trajectory to blow past that level now, moving to a 3-5 C rise, or 6-8 F. We would effectively hit a 2 C temperature rise emitting 565 billion tons of carbon, which we are on path to reach in about 15 years. Fossil fuel companies, however, have 2,795 billion tons of reserves they seek to tap in oil, coal and natural gas.
"They are going to get burned. That's the point of having their reserves. That's how they make their money," McKibben said. "It is going to get burned unless we can somehow figure out how to keep that from happening."
Calling the fossil-fuel industry a "rogue force" McKbben argued, "If they carry out their business plans, the planet tanks."
Effectively, corporate America and its rallying cry around "sustainability" doesn't work if everyone champions more fossil fuels over a wholesale conversion to more renewable energy.
Looking for leverage in the fight, McKibben is going after investors. He is calling on Americans to demand that institutional investors --- college foundations, pension funds and the like --- divest in fossil fuel companies. If enough major institutions globally divest from major petroleum companies it will exact change. His precedent is in the 1980s and early 90s college students and others around the world demanded their schools divest from any investments in South Africa, which remained under apartheid. It took time, but the lack of investment in businesses operating in South Africa helped force the social change in South Africa.
Going further, McKibben advocated more social disobedience in terms of protests and a willingness of those who believe in the fight to be arrested for the cause.
In noting the impact of climate change, McKibben touched on the current drought, of which the entire state of Nebraska is now in. It was pointed out that as the climate change, crop production will simply have to move. But McKibben noted that crop production is where it is because that's where the soil and water are. "You can't just move the farms. There is no soil there." Moreover, globally every 1 C increase in temperatures will cut yield 10%.
But the battle line for agriculture isn't so easy to draw. In highlighting the drilling and mining for fossil fuels, McKibben put a spotlight on hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The U.S. has deep reserves which are now getting tapped at an accelerated rate. Fracking has changed the paradigm for America's fertilizer industry. As DTN reported over this fall, fracking and the prospects of long-term, low-costing natural gas have spurred several major announcements worth several billion dollars to build new fertilizer plants in states such as Iowa and North Dakota, as well as in Canada. Other companies are trying to refurbish mothballed facilities as well. Fracking is creating a potential fertilizer renaissance. http://dld.bz/…
Thus, agriculture and farmers remain caught in the middle of the climate fight. The effects of climate change can devastate crop production in a state or region due to drought or floods in any given year. State officials can sue the U.S. Corps of Engineers for not holding back water in the dams one year while the next year petition the president to declare a crisis because waters are too shallow for barge traffic.
Yet, agriculture is an energy-intensive enterprise and commercial farmers need low-cost fertilizer and fuel inputs to drive their production. Nobody is turning down major investments to boost domestic fertilizer. Few states outside of the Northeast have pushed to outlaw fracking.
McKibben is correct. Battle lines over climate change are certainly forming.
Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
© Copyright 2012 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.