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Owning Up: Taking Responsibility Before Durban, Climate Action Hotline 11.14.11

US Climate Action Network

Owning Up: Taking Responsibility Before Durban

November 14, 2011

As we paid tribute to our Armed Forces this week, the climate community celebrated an extraordinary victory for the health, safety and security of this country’s future; a future that America’s men and women in the military fight to protect every day, both at home and abroad. After years of impact and economic studies, protests, sit-ins, letters and politicking, the State Department delayed a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until 2013. This delay did more than re-schedule the decision until after next year’s presidential election; it has the potential to kill the project completely, complicating the agreements oil companies and suppliers currently share with TransCanada, Keystone’s owner and operator. In the face of overwhelming public opposition, the decision also challenged how Canadian oil-sands producers will ultimately transport their product the 1,700 miles from Canada to Texas’ Gulf Coast. President Obama responded, “I support the State Department’s announcement. The final decision should be guided by an open, transparent process that is informed by the best available science and the voices of the American people.” A priority for the Administration’s international climate team has been encouraging countries to take individual action and responsibility at home. Delaying and, ultimately, killing the Keystone XL pipeline could single-handedly be the most important policy to keep the US and Canada in line with their respective UNFCCC emission commitments. Don’t forget to check out USCAN’s tar sands page for up-to-date information and a collection of reactions on the latest developments.

One of the most crucial issues in the debate was the woefully lacking environmental impact statement that failed to account for the sensitive Sand Hills area of Nebraska, which includes a high concentration of special concern wetlands, the surrounding sensitive ecosystem, extensive areas of very shallow groundwater and the Ogallala aquifer’s susceptibility to oil spills and contamination. With a new study called for, the State Department, along with consultation with eight other agencies, will determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest, weighing environmental concerns and impacts on climate change, energy security, economic impacts and foreign policy.

Another powerful step to curb emissions happened this week when the Australian Parliament passed a sweeping measure to impose a price on carbon emissions, a step seen as one of the country’s biggest economic reforms in a decade. Australia accounts for a mere 1.5% of global emissions, however, it is the developed world’s highest emitter per capita due to the nation’s heavy reliance on coal to generate power. The new law is a major victory for Prime Minister Julia Gillard who, early on, staked her government’s future on the largest comprehensive carbon price scheme outside of Europe, despite deep hostility from opponents.

The carbon tax is central to the platform of the government’s fight against climate change and aims to halt the growth of the country’s growing greenhouse gas emissions from a resources-led boom and age-old reliance on coal-fired power stations. Climate advocates around the world also see this vote as giving new life to December’s UNFCCC global climate talks taking place in Durban, South Africa.

Decisions like Keystone XL and Australia’s carbon tax could not have come at a more critical time. This week, the journal of Health Affairs released a report on the cost of human suffering and loss of life caused by six US disasters related to climate change over the years 2000-2009. The report concluded that these catastrophes totaled an estimated $14B in healthcare costs. To put that into perspective, this year alone the US has experienced 14 weather disasters, putting the country on record to spend more on climate change-related disasters than ever before, according to Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground. Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author commented, “When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs. The healthcare costs never end up on the tab.”

In the report, scientists and economists from NRDC, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco examined the health costs for the following events from 2000 to 2009:

* U.S. ozone air pollution, 2000-2002, $6.5 billion;

* West Nile virus outbreak in Louisiana, 2002, $207 million;

* Southern California wildfires, 2003, $578 million;

* Florida hurricane season, 2004, $1.4 billion;

* California heat wave, 2006, $5.3 billion;

* Red River flooding in North Dakota, 2009, $20 million.

The authors note that climate-related events like those listed above are only the tip of the iceberg and are expected to worsen as the planet warms.

Kellyn Garrison, Southeast Regional Coordinator

Peter Bahouth, Executive Director
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“The mere fact that the State Department is slowing down and taking a look at the dirty Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is hugely encouraging. We commend President Obama for listening to the American people and putting the brakes on what would have been a disaster for millions of Americans who want clean air, clean water and good health for their families.”

–  Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club.