News  Cycling to save the Arctic

Arctic situation has reached a “tipping point,” say organizers

While illustrious road-racing cyclists zoomed around Mont-Royal in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, a rather different cycling event was taking place elsewhere in the city on Sunday.

Around 100 environment-conscious cyclists rode around the streets of Montreal as part of the ‘Ice Ride,’ a Critical Mass-style collective bike ride organized by Greenpeace Montreal.

The protest remained a good-natured and humourous affair, and was described by Anne-Sarah, a student who dressed as Santa Claus for the occasion, as “festive and inclusive.” Cyclists stopped at gas stations, where protesters disguised as polar bears posed with gas pumps. The ride ended at Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier Park, where the protesters convened for a potluck.

The event was part of Greenpeace’s year-old Save the Arctic campaign, which aims to fight against oil companies’ plan to use the melting of Arctic sea ice to drill for more oil. Greenpeace declared September 15 as an international day of action when activists across six continents got on their bikes and cycled in defense of the Arctic.

In a speech addressing the rally, Save the Arctic campaign leader Patrick Bonin explained that this protest was timed to coincide with the annual moment in late summer when the ice sheet retreats to its smallest size. Bonin also described the Arctic situation as having reached a “tipping point” due to climate change.

The protest marks a year since the record-breaking low of September 2012. According to the Greenpeace press release, “The 2012 sea ice extent value was a record 48.5% below the long term average recorded between 1979 and 2000. Data shows that the rate of melting has increased significantly in recent years.”

These facts, which have sparked concerns that the Arctic is deteriorating faster than previously thought, do not seem to deter the oil industry. On the contrary, some companies see the retreating ice caps as an opportunity to drill below the sea for Arctic oil reserves.

Shell is foremost among those firms, and received particular attention during Sunday’s protest. The rally stopped off at two Shell gas stations, posed for photos, and delivered what Bonin described as a “special message”: polar bear roars.

The Canadian government was also targeted by the ecologists. In his speech to the rally before the ride, Bonin said that the Harper government “has not been fighting against climate change, but instead has been facilitating it by encouraging big oil companies to drill there.”

Greenpeace Montreal’s media and public relations officer Diego Creimer held a similar opinions as Borin.

“We have a Minister of Natural resources that last year went to Europe saying that tar sands can be green and that we can produce green oil. Yet tar sands are the number one polluter in Canada and its biggest contributor to climate change,” he told The Daily.

“This is a government that pulled out of Kyoto. This government is not listening to science, it is listening to a business plan,” he added.

When asked what in particular he hoped Ice Ride would achieve, Creimer, aware that the struggle in the Arctic could take “several years or even decades,” said that the Montreal protest was just one part of a world-wide struggle.

“This Ice Ride is just one more element of a longer struggle to create political pressure and momentum to bring on board more countries to support our actions,” said Creimer.

Rather than leading a grassroots protest, Greenpeace’s strategy is to make their voice heard at the highest levels of government. “It is through international conventions and a system of compromises on reducing CO2 that you will stop climate change,” said Creimer.

To that end, Greenpeace attempts to target politicians’ sensitivity to popular demand. “The way we do this is by having pictures taken [of Ice Ride protests] from all around the world, and these will be put in a photo album and shown to UN representatives,” continued Creimer.

This approach is in line with Greenpeace’s recent successes in the Save the Arctic campaign. Their petition has collected four million signatures, as well as “100,000 people sending letters and making phone calls to Prime Minister Harper to tell him ‘No Arctic drilling,’” according to their press release.

When asked what he thought of McGill’s holdings in several major oil companies, Creimer said that universities have a key role to play in shaping the future progress of society and, being at the forefront of the thinking process of developed countries, should carefully evaluate what they define as progress.

“Our progress in developed countries means also the tragedies for people in other areas of the world. Oil progress generates profit and some level of wealth in first world countries, but is sinking under the water some small countries and some islands in the Pacific,” said Creimer.

“So we should ask universities in rich countries, and I think it is our intellectual obligation to give a fair answer, to what progress is. If we are creating engineers and researchers, [… then universities] should concentrate their efforts, after asking that question, on improving the lives of people all around the world and not just a few.”