Nnimmo Bassey: Oil companies are destroying lives

Coming from a country where an equivalent of one Exxon Valdez volume of crude oil is spewed into our environment yearly, it is inescapably clear that the petroleum sector is a very polluting one. It is obvious that there cannot be this level of ecological impunity without human rights being considerably trampled on, said the 2012 Rafto Prize laureate Nnimmo Bassey in his keynote address at the Rafto Conference on 3 November.

Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian environmental activist and poet who has been elected chair of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) and Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA). For over two decades Bassey has worked for people’s right to life, health, food and water in a world affected by complex and threatening climate change and mass environmental destruction. For this long-term fight he has been awarded the 2012 Rafto Prize.

Addressing climate change

Climate impacts on Africa and other vulnerable regions are not matters of speculation. The impacts are real. Failing rains, failing crops, increased desertification and population displacements are some of the manifestations. These impacts are not letting up and will not diminish until something is done, said Bassey during his keynote address.  The activist stated that in today’s market economy profit comes before both climate and people. The state of today’s Nigeria is bleak as a result of over 50 years of oil exploitation. In some places the soil is polluted up to five meters in the ground, people have to live with new oil spills every day, and their life expectancy is 48 years. “In Nigeria people are born in pollution, live in pollution, die in pollution and are buried in pollution. Oil companies are destroying lives”, said Bassey

Moving away from fossil fuel

According to Bassey, Norway is a hypocrite when it comes to global warming. Mitigation is being done but there is no huge action happening. You pay poor countries to keep their forest so that you can keep producing oil. Norway is bribing communities that are dependent on the forest, said Nnimmo Bassey when he sat down in a panel debate at the end of the Rafto Conference. The panel consisted of the Minister of International Development Heikki Eidsvoll Holmås, the Head of Statoil’s Climate unit Hege Marie Norheim and Lecturer in International Law at the London School of Economics Stephen Humphreys moderated by TV2 journalist and news anchor Mah-Rukh Ali.

Heikki Eidsvoll Holmås agreed with Bassey that rich countries in the world need to be the ones to take action, and he also spoke warmly about the forest initiative and how it has supported the local communities in the Amazon jungle to take out the recourses they need, hence avoiding large commercial exploitation.

You value the forest as a carbon sink and not as wood. Saving forest will not prevent pollution in Norway. We need to move away from fossil fuel and look at other options, said Stephen Humphreys.

Hege Marie Norheim admits that Statoil is a part of the problem of today’s climate change, but also says that they are part of the future solution. “We acknowledge the situation and support action but we disagree on the solutions. We will use gas as a part of the solution to change the energy system. Gas flaring should be exploited instead of being set on fire, and can exchange the use of coal that will reduce emissions”.

The panel agreed that an increase in the price of carbon emissions is needed to make it less profitable to pollute. On the other hand, they disagreed on the future need for energy. While Statoil wants to keep, and increase, today’s production to meet tomorrows energy consumption, Holmås said that it is impossible to keep consummation at the levels we are reaching now.

Bassey made a plea to the audience to stay at a responsible level of energy consumption and to think ahead.

Moving towards climate justice

It is important that we note the fact that while the bulk of the polluting activities have occurred and continue to occur in rich industrialised world, the impacts are mostly felt in nations and regions contributing least to the problem. We note that 50 per cent of the carbon in the atmosphere has come from just the USA and the European countries whose populations add up to just 10 per cent of the world’s population, said Bassey. To attain climate justice, Bassey urges that those who created the climate problem in the first place must be the ones to mitigate it. He presents two ways to go about this:

“First, rich nations must reduce their rapacious consumption patterns and address the climate crisis with real solutions and not ones that have been seen to be false. Second, the rich nations have to support the poor nations who are being forced to adapt to a situation they did not create. One way of practically making that to happen is through the support for sustainable low-carbon development paths”, said Bassey.

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