Mar 16, 2018
by Gary Pace M.D.
Today while passing the whale-watchers on the bluffs at Bodega Head, I contemplated the amazing feat thatBill Kortum and his rag-tag allies accomplished at this site over 50 years ago. PG&E had planned to build a huge nuclear reactor here, basically right on top of the San Andreas Fault. Though financing had been secured and the foundation for the reactor dug, this scrappy activist group stopped the construction in its tracks. Now instead of hosting a contaminated, defunct nuclear plant, the “Hole in the Head” is a lovely pond with stunning ocean views.
As I walked, I also digested the news about the trial in North Dakota of Michael Foster, a “valve-turner” who, as one thread of a mainly Native-led resistance movement, disrupted the Keystone XL pipeline. Long concerned about climate change and frustrated with the lack of progress in the political arena, in 2016 he closed a valve on the pipeline, which prompted authorities to briefly stop the flow of the dirty Tar Sands’ oil.
During the trial, Michael took responsibility for the deed invoking the “necessity defense” to explain-- essentially saying that the harm caused by the pipeline had forced him to take such drastic steps. James Hansen, climate scientist and former head of NASA, was lined up as an expert witness, but the judge refused to accept this defense strategy. Mr. Foster was convicted and sentenced last month to a year in prison, where he now sits.
How do these events in North Dakota relate to us here in Sonoma County? As a local physician, I was alarmed to read the prestigious medical journal The Lancet state that “... climate change is already affecting human health in serious ways, with harms ‘far worse than previously understood.’” They go on to catalog extensive evidence that human health is negatively impacted by the climate disruptions that we are currently seeing. The recent fires, while not caused by warming, were almost certainly worsened by it. Therefore from a public health perspective, until we can find a way to deal with the excess CO2 going into the atmosphere, fossil fuels should stop being extracted and refined, We concurrently need to rapidly shift to renewable energy sources if our children and grandchildren are to have any kind of a healthy future. The scientific community does not dispute these basic facts.
Yet, our leaders are clearly on a different track. The former CEO of Exxon is now the Secretary of State, the head of the EPA refutes climate science, and Mr. Trump boasts about pulling out of the Paris Accords. In California, Governor Brown touts himself as strongly protecting the environment, yet he supports the fracking for oil currently occurring in 10 California counties and offshore. Fracking contributes significantly to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Safety issues also surround fracking operations.
Public pressure may need to become a more robust part of the strategy for the massive societal transition that is needed. Thank you, Michael Foster, for taking a courageous stand against this seemingly insurmountable problem and for offering up a year of your life. We watch in befuddlement at the current Washington chaos filled with arguments about charges of collusion, perjury, and payouts to strippers, while this humble man working to protect future generations now sits in prison.
Every time I walk along the bluffs on the coast, I take a deep breath of the clear air and tip my hat to Bill Kortum for showing us that citizen action truly can make a difference. I wonder when this brand of audacity and commitment will emerge in our current situation.
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