When it comes to tackling climate change and the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Canadian Franke James doesn’t mince words — or pictures. As both an artist and author, she has combined her right-brain talents with her left-brain determination to raise awareness about the impact that burning fossil fuels has on our planet.
I was first captivated by her work when I read her book, Bothered By My Green Conscience, in which she graphically recounts her adventures selling her SUV and fighting City Hall bureaucracy for the right to build a green driveway. Lately, I’ve been inspired by the posters Franke designed and put up around Washington, D.C., where I live. The posters highlight why the Keystone XL pipeline is such a bad idea.
I caught up with Franke following an appearance she made at the National Press Club in D.C. to talk about her current effort to pressure Canadian leaders as well as those in America to stop the pipeline in its tracks.
Franke, you have undergraduate and graduate degrees in Fine Arts. How did you go from studying painting and drawing to becoming an activist?
Studying Fine Arts taught me how to express ideas. For me, being a creative artist and activist just go hand in hand. It’s all about communicating ideas. I do that by taking actions in my own life and then writing them up as true-life visual stories. Like selling our only car (a gas-guzzling SUV), and the shocked and funny reactions of friends and family to that outrageous decision. Or building a green driveway – but first having to battle City Hall bureaucracy. I think many people can relate to me as just an ordinary person who is putting her green ideas into action, challenging the way society does things in the process.
The other really exciting aspect to being an artist today is that it’s no longer confined to a gallery space. Of course, I can paint a picture and hang it on the wall – or I can take that same artwork and push it out there into the noisy world of everyday life. By putting my art on billboards and bus shelters, mobile phones and t-shirts, Twitter and websites, many more people will encounter it in their daily lives than if it hung in a gallery. As an activist that’s hugely exciting because it amplifies the message and helps it spread — right around the world.
What is it about climate change generally, and the Keystone pipeline in particular, that has motivated you to become so active?
The thing that motivates me to take action is that I can see the writing on the wall. I think our children and grandchildren will be furious and think we were crazy not to have taken action when we had the opportunity. They will judge us very harshly and ask how we could have been so stupid, so selfish and so mean. We are really failing the next generation so badly.
Climate change is the big elephant in the room but most countries (including my country, Canada) are pretending it’s not there. There is a glimmer of hope in the USA… I was very pleased to see that on November 1st, President Obama issued an Executive Order to prepare for the Impacts of Climate Change. Wow! You won’t see that kind of leadership from Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He has firmly stated his goal of developing the Alberta tar sands so that Canada becomes “an energy superpower.” Damn the impact on the planet from using the sky as a sewer!
But think back a generation. Companies are no longer allowed to pollute our lakes and rivers – why are companies allowed to pollute our air today? And for free, too! We need to put a price on carbon to bring some sanity to fighting climate change and reversing carbon pollution. Carbon pollution is being dumped into the sky. Consequently, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is just a hairbreadth away from 400ppm (parts per million). Scientists are warning that catastrophic climate change will be triggered if we hit 450ppm.
But there is no sign of our emissions stopping. Our world leaders are loafing. Will they take action before we’re all toast?
International scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have come out clearly and stated that the human activity of burning fossil fuels is to blame for our warming planet. In their latest report, they’ve actually set a carbon budget and said that governments will have to leave valuable fossil fuels in the ground in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. That is really bad news for my country, Canada, because we’ve put all our eggs in one basket.
We are officially a petro-state, with oil reserves that could make us the Saudi Arabia of North America. Canada is developing the dirtiest fuel on earth, the Alberta Tar Sands, despite the scientific evidence that fossil fuels are frying the planet.
What do you say to the many people who worry about canceling the Keystone project because they believe it will cost the economy jobs and we’ll lose a lot of energy?
Yes, I’ve heard people argue that the Keystone is a jobs creator – but that is a pipe dream fueled by Big Oil misinformation. President Obama clearly stated that the Keystone would only result in 2,000 jobs –- while the pipeline is being built. (NRDC confirmed the same jobs number.) But after it’s built, there could be many, many more jobs — cleaning up the oil spills. The spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan has already cost $1 billion and they are not finished yet!
And the real truth is you can’t bring the fish and the birds back to life.
Plus, you cannot escape the fact that the Alberta Tar Sands amount to environmental racism. Two articles highlight the tragedy of oils sands mining: Mother who left her Peace River region home behind could ‘smell the bitumen.’ A new federally funded study on the tar sands has confirmed that pollution has now contaminated lakes as far as 90 km away from the massive mining project. On my “Canada is the Dirty Old Man” poster, I have three easy-to-remember statistics about the tar sands and Canada’s promise to match the U.S. emission’s target:
- Producing tar sands oil is up to 350% dirtier than conventional oil.
- Canada has a record of broken climate promises (Kyoto and Copenhagen). Will Washington be next?
- Pipeline spills are 100% guaranteed.
We’ve seen the devastating consequences of tar sands spills in Kalamazoo and Arkansas. If the Keystone pipeline gets built we will only see more of that type of calamity. It is so obvious what we should be doing to transition to a clean energy economy but we’re being held back by Big Oil – they don’t want us to get energy from the sun and the wind because they know that would make us largely energy independent. The Keystone pipeline is taking us in the absolutely wrong direction. It will ensure that we will need to feed that pipeline for 50 years. And it will trigger massive expansion of the Alberta Tar Sands, which will only bring us closer to climate catastrophe and doom our planet.
Moms Clean Air Force rallies mothers to get behind public policies that among other things, would reduce carbon pollution at power plants. Do you have any suggestions or words of support for moms who sometimes feel this is a losing battle?
Don’t stop! Realize that your actions are making the fossil fuel industry nervous. They would love for you to shut up. But don’t do it.
- Keep speaking up – you will inspire others to do the same.
- Keep writing letters to the editor.
- Keep phoning and meeting with your elected representatives.
- Keep challenging your reps to be accountable by posting what they say online.
- Keep creating, signing and circulating petitions.
- Keep organizing boycotts – we exercise power through our purchases.
- Keep voting for clean energy leaders – and corralling others to vote for them too.
- Keep sharing news on social media sites to raise awareness and inspire others to take action, too.
All of these actions amplify our voices. Believe in yourself — You are putting pressure on lawmakers to change. Remember the old expression that we need to lead our leaders in the right direction! That is what we are doing by speaking up and telling them loudly and clearly what we want.