Bill McKibben in 12/15 Sojourner magazine
THOSE OF US who work on global warming are well-defended against even moderate optimism. Every day brings another study showing how far we’ve pushed the planet’s physical systems. For instance, new research has emerged showing that even as the planet is setting remarkable temperature records, the meltwater pouring off Greenland has cooled a patch of the North Atlantic and perhaps begun to play havoc with the Gulf Stream. Simultaneously, new research showed that the soupy hot ocean everywhere else was triggering the third planet-wide bleaching of coral in the last 15 years. It is entirely possible we’ve set in motion forces that can’t be controlled.
That said, for the first time in the quarter-century history of global warming there’s room for at least some hope in the arena we can control: the desperate political and economic fight to slow the release of yet more carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not like we’re winning—but we’re not losing the way we used to. Something new is happening.
Consider where we were six years ago, as the Copenhagen conference, much ballyhooed and long anticipated, ground to its dreary conclusion: The world had decisively decided not to decide a thing. There was no treaty, no agreement, no targets, no timetables. In fact, the only real achievement of the whole debacle was to drive home to those who cared about the climate that a new approach was needed. Twenty years of expert panels and scientific reports and top-level negotiations had reached a consensus that the planet was dangerously overheating. And it had also reached a dead end.
There was a reason for that, or so some of us decided: The fossil fuel industry simply had too much power. The fact that they were the richest industry in the planet’s history was giving them total power. They’d lost the argument but won the fight.
And because the rest of us were still arguing, not fighting, there was no real pressure. World leaders could go home from Copenhagen without fearing any fallout from their failure. Barack Obama came back to D.C. where he watched mutely as the Senate punted on climate legislation, and then mostly ignored the issue for three years, not even bothering to talk about it during his re-election campaign.
A movement takes off
In that same period, though, a movement formed. It was led by frontline communities, the people with the most experience dealing with the fossil fuel industry, and it was soon joined by an ever-wider swath of people in every nation.
Consider the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance. It started with Indigenous communities living near the tar sands in Canada. And then it spread to a fairly small band of climate scientists and activists who understood the danger posed by opening this giant deposit of carbon. And then something interesting happened: It spread everywhere else. It became the largest environmental fight in a decade in the U.S., generating more arrests, more emails, more public testimony, more column inches than any battle in a generation. Better yet, it spread laterally. Energy executives began talking about the “Keystone-ization” of a thousand other projects on every continent.
Everywhere, without any central leadership or coordination, people were fighting and sometimes winning—against new coal ports and frack wells and lignite mines. New York won’t be fracked, and Australia’s Galilee Basin won’t be dug up for coal. The pell-mell expansion of the tar sands has ground to a halt.
Even the battles we thought we were losing we’ve started to win. Obama, sadly, let Shell drill for oil in the Arctic this summer, but the opposition of “kayaktivists” and others was so strong that Shell sounded very relieved when they announced in late fall that they hadn’t found any oil and were abandoning the effort. In fact, many sources told reporters that reputational damage was probably the main reason for their withdrawal—the writing on the wall came a few weeks earlier when Hillary Clinton, hard-pressed by campaigners, said the Arctic would be off limits should she win. Not long afterward, again after endless pressure, she finally came out against the Keystone pipeline she’d once endorsed. Getting elected required green voters more than it required fossil fuel greenbacks. All of which goes to say that the fossil fuel industry gets nothing for free any more—they’re harassed wherever they pull out their shovels.
Going on the offensive
They’re harassed whenever they go to the bank too. Not content with playing defense, activists went on the offensive in an effort to tangle the industry’s financial prospects. A divestment campaign that began in late 2012 with one small college in Maine selling off its $13 million endowment passed the $50 billion mark in the fall of 2014 when the Rockefeller family—heir to the original oil fortune—dumped its fossil fuel stocks. This fall that number passed $2.6 trillion.
By one count, one in 10 human beings now belongs to an organization that has begun to sell its fossil fuel holdings: Stanford, Oxford, the public university systems of California, Washington, and Hawaii, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians, the Episcopalians, the Church of England. Coal companies are complaining that they’re having a harder time raising new capital; by now the World Bank and Deutsche Bank and the Bank of England have endorsed the campaign’s basic idea, which is that the fossil fuel industry has five times more carbon in its reserves than the world can safely burn.
And while all this is happening—while the movement is doing its best to slow down and stall the fossil industry—something else is happening too. The engineers are doing their implacable best to bring down the price of renewable energy. It turns out their best is pretty good: Since Copenhagen, the cost of a solar panel has dropped 75 percent. We’re now at the point where the cheapest way to generate electricity is to point a panel at the sun.
Knowing that, I’m willing to say that Paris is not going to end like Copenhagen. There’s going to be an agreement of some kind. Or rather, less an agreement than a series of promises by individual countries. The Chinese have stopped insisting that they don’t need to do anything because they’re poor: They’ve begun to take fairly dramatic steps to change their energy system, embracing the carbon-cap system the U.S. Senate was too scared to even vote on. And Obama has started talking about climate change almost nonstop—and taking some real if modest steps. His plan to crack down on the emissions from coal-fired power plants makes genuine progress. He’s been much weaker on limiting supply, but the administration keeps hinting that a decision on the Keystone pipeline will come soon. Should he block that before Paris, then U.S. will go to the talks with real credibility.
The beginning of the end of fossil fuel
None of which is to say the battle is won. It would be truer to say that we’ve reached the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. The question now is how fast that end will go. If it drags out for decades—the goal explicitly set by the big oil companies, who argue that it is “unrealistic” to hope for anything else—then the planet will break. If we can make it happen at remarkable speed, then we have a chance. Not a chance of stopping global warming, but a chance of damping it down enough that our civilizations can survive.
Here’s an educated guess as to how the playing field will look coming out of Paris:
- There will be a series of promises from various countries to reduce carbon emissions. Those promises—if they’re kept—would be enough to limit global warming to something like 3 degrees Celsius (all figures of this sort are imprecise, with variables piled on top of variables, but they’re as good as we’re going to get).
- There will be a recognition that 3 degrees is too much—even at Copenhagen nations promised they’d limit the eventual temperature increase to two degrees—but there won’t be much idea how to ratchet down the various agreements any further.
- And there will be some financing available for poor countries hoping to leapfrog past coal to renewable energy, but it too won’t be nearly enough to get the job done.
The danger in that scenario is that the pressure for serious action will be relieved: that the world will decide to take a breather for a decade or so and concentrate on its various other troubles while our economic and political systems digest the promises made so far. In practice that would look like a modestly accelerated version of present trends, nothing too disruptive. More solar panels, fewer coal-fired power plants, a steady switch of investment capital toward green energy—but a continued, if eroding, dominance by the big oil companies. That would be a disaster; it would close the window kept barely ajar by these new pledges. We don’t have breathing room on climate change—we have to run ever faster.
Turn off oil, turn on the sun
Which is why I bet the movement will take Paris in stride. We’ll be grateful for the gains it locks in, but we’ll think of them mostly as a snapshot of where the balance of power lies right now. If 400,000 people in the streets of New York yields 3 degrees, what do we have to do to get to two degrees? And 1.5?
And we’ll keep taking the fight straight at the fossil fuel companies, less concerned than we once were with national governments. We have an ever surer sense of where the real power lies. We’re already laying plans, for instance, for a huge day of resistance come springtime, rallying on the dozen great “carbon bombs” scattered around the globe: the tar sands in Canada and Venezuela, the great coal deposits in Wyoming, Queensland, and Indonesia, the as-yet-untapped pools of oil in the Caspian and the Arctic and off the coast of Brazil. And at the same time we’ll be pushing for the rapid, disruptive spread of renewables in every corner. Bangladesh is on track to have solar power in every village by 2021; if they can do it there, we can do it everywhere. Even Florida.
Our mantra, always, will be faster. Faster. Turn off coal and gas and oil, turn on the sun and wind. Off and on.
And our real goal will be to keep changing the zeitgeist. Because that’s what’s really happened these last few years. Anger at the fossil fuel industry has grown; the sense of possibility for clean energy has grown. And above all what’s grown is the understanding that this crisis is tightly chained
to the question of what kind of world we want.
It’s no accident that the pope made climate change the entry into the sprawling radical critique that is Laudato Si’. Because in the end, as much as global warming represents an overpowering threat, it also represents a last-ditch opportunity.
It’s clear now what our current way of doing business means: It means the radical concentration of power and wealth in a few hands, derived from the radical concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. The opposite is the radical distribution of power—literal power in the form of electrons, but also political and economic power—to the rest of us, on every corner of this planet. If we can do it fast enough, it will be a planet worth having!