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I spent my elementary school years as a "landed immigrant," living in the Leaside section of Toronto; my father, a journalist, was covering Canada for Business Week magazine. It was the late 1960s, and it was a pretty idyllic neighbourhood: We played marbles on the school playground, tobogganed on the (in my memory) massive hill at the entrance to Serena Gundy Park, gathered after supper for massive games of British Bulldog. I remember still the ache in my throat when my parents told us in fifth grade it was time to move back home to the States.

My first memory of those early weeks back in the Boston suburbs? Almost getting run over. In those days in Toronto, a kid could stop traffic at any point in a residential block – you just stuck out your arm, and it created an instant crosswalk. This, it turned out, didn't work in the United States.

And for me, that simple gesture served as a useful metaphor for my idea of Canada for many years thereafter. Canada was more neighbourly and less individualistic than America; people took care of each other rather than simply pursuing their own interests. It helped me understand, say, the country's health-care system or its foreign policy. I was aware that Canada had troubles, from a province that wanted out, to bad bouts of political corruption. But considering the turns that politics was taking in America, it still seemed to me different in some powerful, and powerfully attractive, way.

Now, I'm less sure. From a distance, it's starting to look like the tar sands of Alberta, and the wealth they represent, are starting to do real damage to the country's character. Recently, for instance, a Globe and Mail blogger published a piece insisting that climatologist James Hansen and I were wrong about the new Keystone XL pipeline, that it wouldn't dramatically raise carbon levels in the atmosphere, and that it was "the norm" for environmentalists to exaggerate the harm of these projects. In fact, there's almost no way to exaggerate the trouble continued exploitation of the tar sands will cause.

Because I've spent my life as an environmentalist (I wrote the first book for a general audience on climate change, The End of Nature, in 1989), I have no illusions about those tar sands. You don't need an airplane to see the devastation across the boreal forest – Google Earth will do. Indigenous groups have explained over and over that the tar sands are damaging traditional ways of life, not to mention life and health. Most of all, of course, they represent perhaps the single greatest carbon bomb on the planet. If you could figure out a way to burn all that oil tomorrow, the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration would rise from 390 parts per million to almost 600 ppm; that, as The Globe blogger insisted, it will happen more slowly than that, is hardly comforting. Keystone XL is one more way to make it quicker and easier to pour that carbon into the air. In fact, Ronald Liepert, Alberta's Energy Minister, has pledged to "sell every drop of oil Canada can produce." As the planet's foremost climate scientist, James Hansen, put it in 2009:

"The carbon emissions from tar shale and tar sands would initiate a continual unfolding of climate disasters over the course of this century. We would be miserable stewards of creation. We would rob our own children and grandchildren."

Put simply: Just as the planet's physical stability depends on Brazil's guarding its rain forest, so it depends on Canada's keeping that carbon in the ground. Put even more simply: The carbon in the tar sands can wreck the future. Start burning them on a grand scale, says Dr. Hansen, and it's "essentially game over" for the climate.

Instead of grappling with this truth – instead of saying, "it's a shame we can't develop that oil, but that's the way it is" – it feels, again from a distance, as if too many Canadians have embarked on a series of evasions all too familiar to me from American politics. There are, of course, some outright climate deniers, but Canadian science education is at a high enough level that they have hard going. (Also, there's the melting Arctic, biggest proof of the changes we've wrought.)

What's more dismaying are the rationalizers: the conservative columnists insisting this is "ethical oil," as if wrecking the climate could ever be ethical, or the "realists" pointing out that it's mostly Americans who will actually be burning the stuff. Yes, we're the junkies, but that doesn't make meth dealing a morally decent occupation. "I can predict confidently that at some point China" will take any oil Canada doesn't want, Mr. Liepert said. Good business, but kind of gross.

Pile on that some outright cynicism: Transcanada Pipeline, for instance, hired as its American lobbyist a man who had happened to serve as Hilary Clinton's deputy national campaign director. (Since Ms. Clinton, as Secretary of State, will make the crucial decisions on the next pipeline heading south from the tar sands, it's pretty obvious why he was qualified for the job.)

Worst, really, is the sense that too many Canadians have simply decided to close their eyes to what's going on; they have a vague sense it's wrong, but not enough to let it become, say, a major election issue.

That's why we've called for massive demonstrations at summer's end outside the White House, urging President Barack Obama to block the pipeline. And it's why many eminent Canadians – Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein, George Poitras, David Suzuki – have joined the call, and promised sympathy demonstrations in Ottawa and elsewhere across Canada.

That isn't the Canada I remember, where people thought beyond their own immediate interest in matters as small as crossing the street. Restoring one Yank's illusions is not, of course, a good reason for changing national policy: The good reasons have to do with atmospheric physics and chemistry. But it is clear that the tar sands are the temptation that will define the Canadian soul for the rest of the planet, and maybe for the rest of time.

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.