And it was, in one sense, reasonable hope. Why wouldn’t the world act? I mean, we’d been warned for more than a decade by scientists that global warming was starting to overwhelm the planet’s systems. Surely all the world’s leaders would reach an agreement of some kind. I mean, that’s how movies end.
But anyone who was really paying attention knew it was going to end badly. Scientists and civil society had won the argument, but they were going to lose the fight. And that’s because the fight wasn’t about data or research. It wasn’t about the fact that the world was skidding off a cliff. No, the fight was about power, which is what fights are usually about. And we didn’t have much.
There were environmental groups, but there was no environmental movement, or not enough of one to make the world’s leaders think twice before blowing the meeting up. They literally agreed to nothing—there were no targets for carbon reduction, no penalties for not meeting the non-existing targets. One European newspaper op-ed likened it to the surrender at Munich.
And like Munich, it was a failure mostly because one side was prepared to fight and the other wasn’t. The fossil fuel industry held all the cards, and it played them well. Played us well. As a result, the world has gone on spewing carbon in ever-increasing quantities. As a result, we had the hottest year ever recorded in 2014, a record we’re going to break in 2015. As a result, we’re six years closer to the cliff. In fact, the planet’s already tumbling down the cliff.
That’s what it means when the deepest drought ever recorded in California turns into a hellish nightmare of forest fires. That’s what it means when people literally drop dead in the streets of India and Pakistan as record heat makes life impossible.
So now we head into the next great climate conference, this one set for Paris in December.
But this time we’ve got some advantages. The first is a real movement, led by people on the front lines of climate change. And the second is that we’re no longer counting on “world leaders” to get the job done. Yes, we need to push them to play their part. But we’re quite aware that the rest of us are going to have to do the heavy lifting.
Consider the last few years.
There’s hardly a fossil fuel project now that goes unopposed. First Nations people started the fight against the Keystone Pipeline, and then farmers and ranchers along its proposed route from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico joined in. In 2011, climate scientists and activists came along for what became the largest civil disobedience action in the U.S. in thirty years.
By the time 1,253 people had gone to jail, a done deal was coming undone, and when Obama announced that he would reject Keystone, the oil industry lost a major battle. Canadian activists managed to block a giant pipeline headed from the tar sands to the West Coast, and then big oil companies started pulling tens of billions of dollars out of expansion plans in Alberta’s oil patch.
The fight’s not over—and it won’t be as long as the Koch brothers remain the largest leaseholders in the tar sands—but the spirit of that battle soon spread. In fact, one chagrined fossil fuel executive gave a talk bemoaning the “Keystone-ization” of a thousand other battles.
At the moment, there’s hardly a pipeline in North America that’s not under siege. The industry was able to build Keystone South over the inspired protest of local activists, but other lines are stalled from the Midwest to New England.
In the Pacific Northwest, plans for new coal ports to ship the Powder River Basin to China are being steadily beaten back. Anti-fracking activists, having watched the wreckage as the new technology came to the Appalachians, have enacted a moratorium in New York—and in Scotland, Wales, France, Holland. In Australia, inspired campaigns seem to have beaten plans for what would have been the world’s largest coal mine, and in the process helped derail the prime minister, a climate-denying zealot named Tony Abbott. In Sompeta, in India, local farmers waged a successful five-year war to block a new coal-fired power plant (a success that cost the lives of three campaigners). In Borneo, a huge coal plant on the edge of a marvelously diverse reef was beaten back as well.
In May, when Obama opened up the Arctic to oil drilling, the outcry was so furious that Hillary Clinton, of all people, declared her opposition. “Kayaktivists” blocked Shell’s giant rig at every opportunity; the company was attacked so fiercely that the company suspended its Arctic plans. Obama has since rescinded his approval.
Meanwhile, not content with playing tough defense, the movement also went strongly on the offensive, mounting what’s turned into the biggest divestment campaign in history. We’ve argued that the math is clear: This industry has reserves five times larger than science says we can safely burn. And those numbers increasingly drive the establishment debate, as institutions like the Bank of England or the World Bank or Deutsche Bank start to talk forthrightly about “unburnable carbon” and stranded assets.
Everyone from Stanford to Oxford, from the Church of England to the Unitarians, from the giant California pension funds to the even gianter Norwegian sovereign wealth fund have begun to divest. Earlier this year, Peabody Coal officially told its shareholders that the campaign had become a “material risk” to its stock price and its access to new capital.
But activists aren’t the only ones doing their jobs. Engineers are too. Since the debacle at Copenhagen, the price of a solar panel had fallen 75 percent. In most of the world, they’re now the cheapest way of generating electricity. Think about that.
When India opens up new bids for big electric generating stations, the winners routinely are putting up solar arrays, not coal boilers. In Bangladesh, 50,000 to 60,000 panels are going up on remote rooftops each month; by 2021 the nation expects to be fully solarized.
And people like the Koch brothers and their utility friends are fighting back hard, using captured regulators in state after state to try and make it financially impossible for homeowners to profit from the sunlight falling on their shingles. But it’s a losing battle—even local chapters of the Tea Party have joined with environmentalists to demand that monopoly utilities give way to new technology.
There is, at this point, no question about the direction of the future. One Sunday last fall, 400,000 people streamed through the canyons of New York, demanding climate action. It was the biggest demonstration about anything in the United States for a while. And then, uptown, the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune announced they were selling the fossil fuel stocks in the portfolios of their charitable foundation. If John D. Rockefeller were alive today, they said, he’d be investing in green energy for reasons both moral and financial. That was the day I knew for sure that we’d reached the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age.
That doesn’t mean we’ve won the fight. If we’re going to win the fight, we have to go fast. This is a timed test, and we start out very far behind.
That’s why the movement is not so focused on Paris. Yes, the meeting is important. It’s where we’ll consolidate some of the gains of the last few years. But it won’t come close to getting us where we need to go. Given the size of the movement, we can’t go home empty-handed like last time. But the pledges the world’s leaders are bringing to France will still result in a world that warms 5 or 6 degrees Fahrenheit—a world that will still crack and break.
And so we’ll treat it not as an end, but as one milepost on this road. Already, we’re laying big plans for the spring, for global civil disobedience on the sites of the planet’s dozen or so “carbon bombs”—places like the tar sands that hold such huge deposits of carbon that they simply must be left underground.
With each passing day, we get a clearer measure of the enemy. In September, for instance, intrepid journalists at Inside Climate News published a massive exposé showing that Exxon had known all about global warming since the 1970s and, instead of working to become a huge solar and wind company, it had instead sunk millions into denying climate change. We’re under no illusions that the industry’s new attempts at greenwashing represent anything different; it just wants to keep its profits rolling a little longer.
But we’re getting closer to breaking their power, with the activists on one side, and the solar engineers on the other, in a classic pincers move. We waited a long time to get started—maybe too long—but the fight is well and truly on.
Bill McKibben is a writer, and founder of 350.org, the global climate campaign.