Relentless climate movements have shifted the advantage towards fossil fuel resistance for the first time in 25 years. But triumph is not certain – we must not rest till the industry is forced to keep the carbon in the ground.
So says Bill McKibben in the third piece in the Guardian’s major series on climate change.
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”.
One more skirmish in the long road to climate sanity
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 summarised 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.
Arrogant pipeliners defeated by indefatigable native people, farmers, climate scientists and activists
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 centre 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 behaviour 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 organisers 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.
Campaigners force cancellation of 4 ports
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.
US now world’s largest oil and gas producer
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 patronising smile. Silly kids.
Four times as much carbon in fossil industry as safe burning would allow
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 naïve,” 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.”
Sea change as confidence in old order collapses
Forget sea level rise for a moment – this is a sea change, happening in real time before our eyes, as the confidence in an old order starts to collapse. Last September the members of the Rockefeller family – the first family of fossil fuels – announced that they were divesting their philanthropies from coal, oil, and gas for reasons “both moral and economic”. As the head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund put it, “We are quite convinced that if John D Rockefeller were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.” This is the rough equivalent of the Pope appearing at his Vatican window in saffron robes to tell the crowd below he’s now a Hare Krishna, or Richard Dawkins showing up at Lourdes in a bathing suit.
The fossil fuel industry – facing a serious challenge for the first time in its 300-year run – has tried to pretend it’s not happening. They’re just a year or two removed from record profits, and they keep producing internal forecasts showing that the world will stick with fossil fuels for decades to come (forecasts that caused Shell and BP, among others, to dump their tiny renewables divisions and double down on hydrocarbons). Here’s Exxon, for instance, arguing that divestment campaigners are fools because the company’s “estimates suggest that wind, solar, and geothermal will make up no more than 4% of the global energy supply by 2040.” Shell was blunter still: “We do not believe that any of our proven reserves will become stranded.”
Increasingly they’ve fallen back on public relations, with some companies funding a PR guru named Rick Berman, who once worked for the tobacco industry and who promised at a secretly videotaped industry meeting to wage “endless war” against environmentalists. But their great offensive has been a damp squib, consisting mostly of lecturing greens that we can’t “turn off fossil fuels overnight”. A highlight, produced by Berman in the lead-up to Global Divestment Day, was a minute-long cartoon about a boy whose girlfriend was a barrel of oil till his enviro friends convinced him to break up with her – at which point he could no longer use his cellphone, or eat food, or do much of anything else. (It features my floating disembodied head as a leering demon).
No one thinks, of course, that we will get off fossil fuel overnight; there’s a couple of hundred years worth of infrastructure guaranteeing it will take a while. And of course the industry argument, if true, is a good one. Even facing catastrophic global warming, we’re not going to stop using energy. In the face of that brute fact, a fossil freeze might seem like so much posturing.
Which is where the solar thaw comes in. Because the fossil fuel industry faces a closing pincers. Month by month, activists hold up its expansion and damage its reputation. And month by month engineers undercut its rationale. The price of solar panels has dropped 75% in the past six years, and now the “soft costs” of putting them on your roof is falling just as fast – Deutschebank estimates they’ll be 40% less expensive in the next two years.
Fastest gains to be made where energy is needed most
Exxon thinks, in their Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 report, that wind and sun will supply 4% of the world’s power in 2040? The Danes got 40% of their juice from wind turbines last year, and sadly for the fossil fuel industry Denmark has no monopoly on wind. There were days last summer when the Germans got 80% of their electricity from solar panels – and Germany, on average, gets as much sunshine as Alaska. The fastest gains will be made where energy is needed most, across the sun-rich tropics. I saw the first solar panel ever installed in Bangladesh, a single panel atop a village schoolhouse roof that went up sometime in the late 1990s. By now Bangladesh has 15m solar arrays, and 60,000 new homes a month come on line: the nation plans to be entirely solarised by 2020. When the Indian state of Aandhra Pradesh put out a tender offer for new power last October, the winning bid came from a big solar farm – at two cents a kilowatt hour less than the cost of importing coal.
The erosion is happening at both ends of the technological scale: Indian peasants are powering their cellphones with the extra power generated by the solar panels that runs the cellphone towers themselves. And Apple is building giant data centres in California, Denmark, and Ireland that run entirely on renewables. Investors see where the growth will come: Tesla, which produced 2,500 cars a month last year, now carries half the valuation of General Motors, which produced 300 times as many. As the electric car fleet expands, the demand for oil will start to dwindle, and there will be an ever-larger number of four-wheeled batteries to rejigger the grid.
None of the problems the fossil fuel players keep predicting for renewables seem decisive. Yes, the sun goes down at night, but that tends to be when the wind kicks up. We’re learning to store peak power in all kinds of ways: a California auction for new power supply was won by a company that uses extra solar energy to freeze ice, which then melts during the day to supply power. The smart meters now coming on line around the world allow utilities to juggle demand, turning off your water heater when its not needed. Wise companies have either seen the future or learned their lesson: E.ON, Germany’s biggest utility, announced last year that it will now focus on wind and sun. “We are the first to resolutely draw the conclusion from the change of the energy world,” chief executive Johannes Teyssen told reporters in Dusseldorf. “We’re convinced that energy companies will have to focus on one of the two energy worlds if they want to be successful.”
This is about the freedom to choose
Most utility executives aren’t so far-seeing, of course – in the US, for instance, many are coping with the threat posed by solar power by trying to make it prohibitively expensive for customers to put panels on their rooftops, a strategy embraced by the Koch Brothers. But the pushback is coming not just from enviros but from Tea Party conservatives – a “Green Tea” coalition has had success even in Deep South bastions like Georgia. As national Tea Party founding member Debbie Dooley puts it: “This is about the freedom to choose and create your own electricity.”
Polls show that even people who doubt the climate is changing instinctively understand the pleasure of controlling their own energy destiny. Even large elements of the labour movement are coming to understand the appeal of renewable energy, where jobs are growing far faster than in the economy as a whole (and where the profits don’t end up funding your bitterest enemies, like the Koch Brothers).
The best news, of course, is that the new renewables make the most sense in the developing world, where whole nations are poised to leapfrog past coal just as they went straight to mobile phones. They’ll need money to make that happen – which is why the most crucial decisions at Paris may be about providing financing for poor nations – but they’ve got the crucial ingredient: sunshine.
Physics the most mysterious contestant
And so the race is fully, finally on. There are three teams. Team one, in the green: that’s the climate justice activists and the solar engineers, working together, scrappy but gaining. Team two, in the red as the price of oil drops: that’s the fossil fuel industry. It has a big lead, but a big gut too; it’s tiring fast. And the third? That’s physics, the most mysterious of the contestants, and arguably the most important. So far physics has meant that a single degree of global warming was enough to melt most Arctic ice. Last year the California heatwave lifted 63tn gallons of groundwater from the drought-stricken state, allowing its main mountain range to jump half an inch skyward. The heavy groundwater was depressing the Earth’s crust so when it evaporated in the drought, the land rebounded upwards. The world’s sea levels are now rising inexorably, turning every storm and high tide into peril. It’s happening faster and scarier than we thought a quarter-century ago when I wrote the first book for a general audience about all this.
Had we acted a quarter century ago, physics would be working on our side by now. We could have acted from a sense of justice, since global warming’s inherent unfairness – that those who contributed the least suffer the most – has been obvious from the start. Or we could have acted, you know, rationally: every economist, left, right and centre, has said for a generation that it makes no sense to let the fossil fuel companies pour their carbon out for free, and that the economic mess we’re creating far outweighs the cost of preventing it.
But this fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice or reason. We won the argument, but that didn’t matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power. The richest industry in human history wants to keep on their current path for a few more years, even if it means dragging the whole planet over a cliff. (Never forget for a moment that this industry, having watched the Arctic melt, immediately set out to drill the newly open waters for more oil.) Their power lies in money and the political favour it can buy; our power lies in movement-building, and the political fear it can instill. They know they’re in a tough spot so they’re spending like crazy (the Koch Brothers, party of two, just announced plans to dump $900m on the next US election, which is more than the Republicans or the Democrats will spend). We’ve therefore got to organise like crazy.
And if we do we have a chance. The Copenhagen climate summit was a fiasco, but not because the science wasn’t clear – in 2009, too, the world had just come off a record hot year. Copenhagen was a fiasco because environmentalists were hopeful that our leaders would do the right thing. Not this time – we’ll push as hard as we possibly can, and if we do then good things will happen before Paris, after Paris, and for years to come. Our task is brutally hard and painfully simple: keep the carbon in the ground.
By Bill McKibben. Source: The Guardian