Vancouver, Northwest key in fight against climate change, environmentalist says

Nationally known activist Bill McKibben speaks to audience of about 400 at Clark College

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Northwest and Vancouver could emerge as key tipping points in the global fight against climate change, nationally known environmental activist and author Bill McKibben told a capacity crowd at Clark College on Wednesday night.

As controversy swirls around plans for new fossil fuel terminals, the region has an opportunity, McKibben said to an audience of about 400 people in Gaiser Hall. Given the geography of the resources, the proposed facilities and the markets they'd connect to, stopping them in the Northwest would mean stopping them entirely, he said. Doing that would mark a victory in a much larger effort to reduce or reverse the catastrophic effects of climate change, he said.

"This area has emerged as this great choke point," McKibben said. "If it doesn't happen here … it doesn't happen anywhere" — at least not on the same scale, he added.

Vancouver has become a focal point in its own right in the fight over fossil fuels and climate change. McKibben's visit only raises the profile of the issue locally. On July 27, demonstrators plan to stage a protest by land and water on the Columbia River in a show against fossil fuels.

The debate has largely centered around plans to ship coal through the Northwest by train and barge on its way to energy-hungry markets in Asia. Three proposed terminals remain on the table, including a large facility in Longview. Much of the coal would pass through the Columbia River Gorge and Vancouver on its way to market.

More recently, a proposed crude oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver has added a new dimension to the controversy. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build a facility that would handle as much as 380,000 barrels of oil per day, shipped by train. McKibben visited the site of the proposed terminal earlier Wednesday during a tour organized by Oregon-based advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper.

McKibben's talk didn't spend a lot of time on the specifics of those proposals. But staging an event in Vancouver, in an area that will see some of the most direct impact from new export facilities, was no accident.

Among those in the audience Wednesday was Port of Vancouver Commissioner Brian Wolfe. Before McKibben began his presentation, Wolfe said what he heard could affect his position on the issue as the port weighs a possible lease agreement with Tesoro and Savage.

"I care about the climate," Wolfe said. "I care about the environment."

At the same time, Wolfe said he's elected to lead a port that's invested millions of dollars in infrastructure designed to steer jobs and commerce to the region.

"Don't I have a moral obligation to the citizens and the taxpayers to get a return on that investment?" Wolfe said. "I have to reconcile those two moral positions."

McKibben, founder of the global advocacy group 350.org, displayed dozens of pictures showing demonstrations around the world during his presentation. Each somehow incorporated the number 350, which refers to 350 parts per million — the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere scientists consider safe. Earlier this year, scientists reportedly measured that number past 400 parts per million.

McKibben cited melting Arctic ice, acidifying oceans, severe droughts and other disasters as consequences of climate change already evident. Those effects would likely become more amplified if the trend continues unabated, he said.

McKibben pointed to Germany as an example of a major country that has embraced solar power and other clean energy sources to move away from fossil fuels. The same could happen here, but political will has often blocked the way, he said.

In the evolving climate movement, McKibben dismissed the notion that he and others on the front lines are "radical." All they want is a planet that works like the one they grew up with, he said. But there's undeniable urgency, he said.

"I can't promise you that we're going to win," McKibben said. "I can promise you that there's going to be a fight here and everywhere else. A peaceful fight, but a determined fight."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com