Dirty Promises: The Climate Talks Need to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

There’s a key question lingering over the climate talks currently in the final hours here in Bonn, Germany this week: how do we close the gap between the commitments countries are putting on the table and the actions that science and justice demand?

It’s a question that’s always haunted the international climate process. Walking around the pavilion spaces of COP23, one sees display after display highlighting the ways the world is moving forward on climate. Over at the Indian pavilion they’re touting a Solar Alliance designed to scale up renewable energy (as well as offering free yoga classes, a favorite of Prime Minister Modi). Down the hallway at the German pavilion, they serve climate-neutral coffee alongside talks about green finance and grid reliability. Then there’s the special “We Are Still In” pavilion inhabited by US organizations, elected officials, businesses and others who have spent the last two weeks highlighting all the ways the country is moving forward despite Trump.

But does it all add up? The answer so far is: no. When the Paris Agreement was created in 2015 it set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. But when scientists added up all the pledges that countries made as part of the agreement, they still had the world on a 3°C temperature rise. That’s enough warming to destroy all the coral reefs left on the planet, not to mention fueling even more extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Jose (those storms were juiced up on about 1°C of warming, imagine them at 3°C).

The problem is that despite all the happy talk countries are offering on renewables, they’re still not doing the hard work of getting off of fossil fuels. Walking around the climate talks is like attending an anti-smoking convention where people proudly show off their nicorette patch and then go suck down a pack or two cigarettes during the break.

Pacific Climate Warriors joined activists from across Europe at a protest at Germany’s largest coal mines the weekend before
Pacific Climate Warriors joined activists from across Europe at a protest at Germany’s largest coal mines the weekend before the COP23 Climate Talks

Take Germany. On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a nice speech here at the talks about her commitment to climate action. But it was undercut by the reality that just 50 kilometers away, at Germany’s largest open-pit coal mines, giant diggers were ripping yet more carbon out of the ground. Unless Germany can phase out coal as soon as possible, there is zero chance it will meet its pledge to cut GHG emissions 40% by 2020, but Merkel stayed mum on the topic.

Or look across the sea at Canada. Yesterday the Canadian Government partnered with the UK to announce an initiative to “Power Past” coal with a long list of other countries. It’s an exciting development, but the challenge is that very few of the countries who joined the club actually burn much coal. In Canada, it provides just 10% of the country’s electricity. Phasing it out will be a good move, but coal isn’t Canada’s main challenge, it’s tar sands, the dirtiest fuel on the planet, and Canada is developing enough of it to rocket the world past 1.5°C. Despite his green rhetoric, Prime Minister Trudeau just approved the new Kinder Morgan pipeline and is letting the industry try and open more enormous tar sands mines. He’s like a cocaine dealer lecturing opium producers on the need to stop doing drugs--maybe it’s time to start with the man in the mirror.

Then there’s California Governor Jerry Brown, who came into the talks over the weekend as a Climate Messiah, spreading a message of hope and sunshine from California’s distant shores. The only problem is that along with all its solar panels, California is still the 3rd largest oil producing state in the United States. When Indigenous and frontline community members interrupted Brown’s speech at the “We Are Still In” pavilion on Saturday asking him to help keep that oil in the ground, he barked, “Why don’t we put you in the ground.” That’s a terrible thing to say to Indigenous activist, and the sort of stubborn unwillingness to address the supply side of the climate problem will pave the way to 3°C and beyond.

When I asked Brown a follow up question at a panel a few days later, he was a bit more reasonable, saying, “We do need to phase out fossil fuels. That’s the goal, we just can’t do it tomorrow.” Of course not, but that’s not the ask, it’s to stop new production immediately, close down dangerous facilities like the leaking gas storage facilities at Aliso Canyon, and lay out a plan for a managed decline of fossil fuel production in California that protects workers, communities and our planet. Making those announcements is something the Governor could have done yesterday. It’s high time he sit down with groups form the most impacted communities in California and work out a plan to address this challenge.

As for the rest of us, our work coming out of this year’s climate talks is clear: we need to turn rhetoric into action, promises into deliverables, talk into walk. That’s why 350.org is launching our new Fossil Free campaign, a unified global effort to stop all new fossil fuel projects, end dirty finance, and get our cities, states and regions to commit to a fast and just transition to 100% renewable energy for all.

“Ende Gelande” protestors look over Germany’s largest open pit coal mine as police guard the diggers.
“Ende Gelande” protestors look over Germany’s largest open pit coal mine as police guard the diggers.

Over the coming months, we’re going to be working around the world to secure commitments from our elected officials and institutional decision makers to deliver on this fossil free world. We’ll be giving them a clear deadline: next September’s Global Climate Action Summit in California, where “non-state actors,” meaning everyone who isn’t a national government, have already been invited to deliver a climate pledge. We’ll be making it very clear what those pledges need to be: commitments to a fossil free world.

If we can come into the summit with thousands of those pledges from across the planet it could be the push we need to tilt over the tipping point between the fossil fueled pass and a clean energy future.

Bill McKibben recently wrote in the Guardian that, “Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.” When global warming is sprinting away from us at the pace of Usain Bolt, we’re going to need more than baby steps to catch up. Taking fossil fuels off the table is one of the giant leaps forward that could put us back in the running.

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