Reprinted from The Guardian
Pisonia with acidification graph 2009, Judy Watson, acrylic and chinagraph pencil on canvas
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The official view: all eyes are on Paris, where negotiators will meet in December for a climate conference that will be described as "the most important diplomatic gathering ever" and "a last chance for humanity." Heads of state will jet in, tense closed-door meetings will be held, newspapers will report that negotiations are near a breaking point, and at the last minute some kind of agreement will emerge, hailed as "a start for serious action."
The actual story: what happens at Paris will be, at best, one small part of the climate story, one more skirmish in the long, hard-fought road to climate sanity. What comes before and after will count more. And to the extent Paris matters, its success will depend not on the character of our leaders but on how much a resurgent climate movement has softened up the fossil fuel industry, and how much pressure the politicians feel to deliver something.
The good news is, that pressure is growing. In fact, that relentless climate movement is starting to win big, unprecedented victories around the world, victories which are quickly reshaping the consensus view -- including among investors -- about how fast a clean energy future could come. It's a movement grounded in the streets and reaching for the photovoltaic rooftops, and its thinking can be easily summarized in a mantra: Fossil freeze. Solar thaw. Keep it in the ground.
Triumph is not certain -- in fact, as the steadily rising toll of floods and droughts and melting glaciers makes clear, major losses are guaranteed. But for the first time in the quarter-century since global warming became a major public issue, the advantage in this struggle has begun to tilt away from the Exxons and the BPs and towards the ragtag and spread-out fossil fuel resistance, which is led by indigenous people, young people, people breathing the impossible air in front-line communities. The fight won't wait for Paris -- the fight is on every day, and on every continent.
Consider, first, the fossil freeze
On 24 February, Barack Obama vetoed Congressional attempts to force the construction of the Keystone pipeline -- a proposed pipeline to transport oil from Alberta in Canada to refineries on the US gulf coast. Four years ago, a poll of DC energy insiders found that 91% thought Transcanada (the Canadian company that wants to build the pipeline) would quickly and easily acquire the permit for the pipeline; the company was so confident that they mowed the strip they were about to dig up across the center of the country. But that easily-explained arrogance (no infrastructure project like this had ever been stopped before) ran into a indefatigable band of Native Americans, farmers, and climate scientists and activists, who in record numbers went to jail, filed public comments, and generally refused to buckle. Already their pressure has forced the cancellation of $17bn in new Canadian tar sands projects, and another big project was shelved last month. The oil industry continues to press for Keystone, offering increasingly frantic promises of good behavior on carbon from Canada if only they're allowed to build this one last pipe. Those last-minute bargains could still save the day for the tar sands -- so far the president has merely rejected Congressional efforts to force his hand, not ruled on the permit itself. But if Obama says no later this winter, it will be a landmark moment.
And in any event, the bigger effect has been to embolden opponents of every kind of carbon-intensive new infrastructure. Tar sands pipelines across Canada are now hopelessly snarled by First Nations activists. Valiant local organizers in upstate New York forced the powerful governor, Andrew Cuomo, to ban fracking -- a ban that has now spread to Scotland and Wales, with much of England up in arms as well. You can't frack in France, and Tasmania just added its own moratorium. In the Algerian Sahara thousands are waging a relentless battle against the technology, and their arguments about wasting water are resonating loudly in California as well, where governor Jerry Brown is under intense pressure as his state's record drought deepens.
Oil and gas -- but also coal. Two years ago, on the west coast of the US, developers proposed building six giant coal ports. As America began cutting its use of coal, they planned on essentially shipping Wyoming's Powder river basin -- a huge coal deposit and site of the world's largest coal mine -- to China for easy combustion. So far, though, campaigners have forced cancellation of four of the ports, and the other two are on the ropes.
In Australia, which also boasts massive coal deposits, plans for the world's largest mine in the Galilee Valley are foundering after the ruling party suffered a massive defeat in Queensland polls, throwing government subsidies for the mine into question. The fight comes with huge international implications -- its Indian owners want to ship the coal back to the subcontinent where the new government has planned to double coal consumption. But fresh data shows the subcontinent with the world's dirtiest air, and one Indian in six dying of indoor and outdoor air pollution -- internal resistance to more coal is rising fast, just as in China.
In Sompeta, in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, for instance, a six-year campaign (which left two activists dead from police gunfire) has now blocked a huge thermal coal plant. The fossil fuel resistance, like the fossil fuel industry, is protean and sprawling -- and each win reverberates for decades to come, because that's how long pipelines and coal mines are built to last. Wins in 2015 shift the landscape in 2055. That's why, if politicians want to lead, they need to stop new fossil fuel development now. A piece of paper explaining what should happen 20 years from now is easier for them to sell, but atmospheric chemistry is unimpressed. Hilary Clinton, to name one example, says the right things about the dangers of climate change, but she's backed Keystone from the start -- a pointless combination.
With the help of feckless politicians the world around the industry still wins its share of fights too -- the rapid spread of fracking across the Dakotas and Texas has boosted Obama's US past the Saudis and Russians to become the world's largest oil and gas producer, for instance. Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail.
That's why the climate movement has left its usual defensive crouch and started playing offense too, trying to freeze the pipeline of capital that sustains the industry. The campaign to force institutions to sell their fossil fuel stocks -- which an Oxford study described as the fastest growing divestment campaign ever -- has rolled up significant victories. Universities from Stanford to Sydney have started offloading their shares. At first the industry feigned unconcern -- "someone else will buy the shares," their lobbyists said with a patronizing smile. Silly kids.
But the divestment movement never thought it could bankrupt BP in the short term. Instead: intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy. Campaigners had a story to tell, one based on compelling new math first compiled by London's Carbon Tracker Initiative. Their figures -- based on SEC filings, annual reports, and other official data -- showed that the fossil fuel industry had in its proven reserves four times as much carbon as scientists thought we could burn and still have a hope of keeping temperature rise below 2C. (Given that 1C of warming has melted the Arctic, 2C is a target for fools -- at this point, however, that's as reasonable a label for us as Homo sapiens.) Once you knew those numbers you could never think the same way about Shell again. The fossil fuel companies (and the countries -- think Kuwait -- that operate as fossil fuel companies) are rogues. If they carry out their announced business plans, they break the planet.
The math is so basic and easy that it's quickly carried the day. What in 2013 was the rallying cry of a few student campaigners has by 2015 become the conventional wisdom: there's a "carbon bubble," composed of the trillions of dollars of coal and oil and gas that simply must be left underground. Here's the president of World Bank speaking in Davos: "Use smart due diligence. Rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world. It's simple self-interest. Every company, investor and bank that screens new and existing investments for climate risk is simply being pragmatic." Those radicals at HSBC, in between sheltering taxes for the super-rich, ran the numbers: if the world actually tried to keep its 2C commitment, valuations of the fossil fuel industry would drop by half.
Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, did his best to explain the unwelcome news to the industry at a conference last October: the "vast majority" of the planet's carbon reserves "are unburnable," he said. When Shell's chief executive hit back last month, calling a rapid transition off fossil fuel "simply naive," it was Tory veteran and chair of parliament's energy committee Tim Yeo who told him off: "I do believe the problem of stranded assets is a real one now. Investors are starting to think by 2030 the world will be in such a panic about climate change that either by law or by price it will be very hard to burn fossil fuels on anything like the scale we are doing at the moment."