After that paranoid, delusional babble in the Koch-sponsored Rose Garden last week, it has been truly impressive and relieving to witness the diversity and depth of support for the Paris Accord, and for strong climate action across the board. As many have observed, Trump has united and energized the global climate movement like never before.
Incredibly, but not surprisingly, we are told that climate science was not a factor in Trump’s decision. While this is obviously dismaying, it’s also quite revealing. For decades, climate policy fights have often boiled down to dueling spreadsheets and powerpoints. Now, in an accidental moment of clarity, Trump has confirmed what an increasingly large section of the climate movement has been saying for a while now: don’t bring a spreadsheet to a knife fight.
These people in Washington now do not want to talk about carbon budgets, stranded assets, the percentage of fracked gas that is leaking, the economic viability of carbon-sucking unicorns, or a million other aspects of climate policy. Which is good, because few of us want to have those debates with them either. Don’t get me wrong, our people power will still be data-driven. We will model transparent, data-driven energy and climate policy, and we will make sure our power builds on that – rather than skipping the facts overall, as is the current fashion.
The question for us – as climate and democracy and justice advocates – is not primarily which policy path leads to how many degrees of warming using what assumptions under whose scenarios. The critical question right now is this: How do we build more political power, and how do we win? Less PowerPoint. More power.
It’s time, in short, to fight. There is no way to solve climate without confronting – and defeating – the fossil fuel industry. We are in a battle with oil, gas, and coal, and we’re going to have to win. There is no way to solve climate without having this battle, and the faster we can win, the faster we can get on with the important work of managing the decline of the industry, while taking care of communities and workers and even investors in the transition.
But wait you say, can’t we just destroy demand for fossil fuels and watch the industry’s power dwindle? Some humility is in order here. Remember that Nick Stern called the climate crisis the “greatest market failure ever.” Leaving this to the market seems like a poor idea at this stage of the game, especially as the industry uses its (increasing) political power to distort that market with subsidies and to create the perception that their product is the only viable technology for decades and decades more.
Yes, in fact, demand destruction is an increasingly real factor as renewables and electric vehicles achieve economies of scale globally. But until we win the political battles, until we establish that any further expansion of the fossil fuel industry is in fact climate denial, until we elect leaders who are not bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, the pace of change will remain much too slow.
There is history here that is important. The oil industry, which knew full well by the 1970s that its product was causing global CO2 to rise, was and in some cases still is the major financial support behind an international effort to discredit climate science, sow debate, and reap confusion and inaction. The Pruitt / Trump / Bannon game plan is clearly more of the same. We’re not facing a few bad actors. We’re seeing the next phase of a decades-long strategy to protect the business model of fossil fuel extraction for profit from the existential threat that the truth about climate science poses.
The conflict is inevitable. But, as the challengers, we can, to some extent, choose the terrain of engagement. Supply-side campaigns that target new, planned fossil fuel infrastructure offer terrain that is very favorable. As a general rule, supply-side campaigns build our political power by engaging new allies and building resistance from the ground up.
Campaigns to stop fossil fuel infrastructure and expansion have been punching far above their weight. Since Keystone XL was initially rejected on climate grounds, dozens of projects have been hindered, delayed, or stopped. More importantly though, the political and financial narrative around these projects has changed. Approval is no longer a given. We have achieved a drum beat of small but important wins that attracts supporters, sends ripples through markets, and eventually begins to demonstrate to politicians (like Virginia’s Tom Perriello) that there is a constituency for supply-side climate action that can enable them to stand up against the fossil fuel industry. We are engaging the industry where we are strongest – in places where people are defending their land, their lives, and their families. These campaigns pierce the aura of invincibility around the fossil fuel industry, and that is critically important to enable hope and empower action.
This strategy has worked for coal plants. It has worked to stop new or expanded oil train offloading terminals in North America. It has worked (and still is) against the Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Energy East, and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain tar sands pipelines – contributing significantly to the flight of capital investment from the tar sands of Alberta. (OCI will release a new analysis on this trend within the next week.) It has worked to gain local and state-level fracking bans. It worked to pressure the Obama Administration to cancel Arctic lease sales for oil drilling and to impose a moratorium on coal leasing on federal land.
And yet still, many leaders who talk a big game on climate are conflicted at best over new fossil fuel supply projects, particularly in their districts. Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, for example, happily adds his name to the #WeAreStillIn petition for Paris, but is in favor of new gas pipelines and offshore drilling that are incompatible with the Paris goals.
In the wake of Trump’s Paris pullout, what is climate leadership? Is our bar simply better than Trump? Are we only asking for belief in climate science without the courage to confront the industry? Or will we demand new leaders who are not beholden to the fossil fuel industry, and who understand that for energy policy to align with climate science, we must stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and begin to manage its decline as soon as possible?
With our growing team at Oil Change International and ClimateTruth.org, and our sister c4 organizations, we will force the question and pick up the pace. This is the fight of our lives, and it is very, very much on.