With a nod to Dickens, are these the best of times or the worst of times in the battle to prevent climate chaos? There’s plenty of evidence both ways, starting with the potential game changer that humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions may have peaked, at least in the all-important energy sector. And who can doubt that revolutionary changes are afoot when even Saudi Arabia declares that it will wean its economy from oil over the next 20 years? The kingdom is establishing a $2 trillion sovereign-investment fund, much of which seems destined to finance solar energy. Meanwhile, however, global temperatures are increasing at record speed, threatening a gargantuan sea-level rise within the lifetimes of children born today and causing normally reticent scientists to employ words like “alarming,” “emergency,” and even “insane.”
Welcome to the post-Paris era of climate change. Now, everything depends on how quickly activists, investors, and the rest of global civil society can turn the lofty rhetoric of last December’s Paris Agreement into concrete actions that will, as the activists demand regarding fossil fuels, “Keep It in the Ground.” Governments pledged in Paris to limit the global-temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees” Celsius and to “pursue” a target of 1.5°C—an astonishing diplomatic breakthrough that heartened the representatives of low-lying and other particularly vulnerable countries. But the “national plans” submitted for cutting emissions fell far short of these goals. Thus, the challenge now is to push governments to bring their actual policies—in energy, agriculture, forestry, and more—into line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature limits.
This will provoke titanic political struggles, as it requires choosing not to burn most of the planet’s remaining oil, coal, and natural gas. Such a choice amounts to heresy for many entrenched interests—the Koch brothers and ExxonMobils of the world, but also oil workers in Louisiana and coal miners in China. But other economic interests—centered around solar, wind, energy efficiency, and other climate-friendly technologies—are challenging the status quo, and they too have money and popular support. The question now is whether these ascendant clean-energy interests will prevail over their fossil-fuel rivals—and prevail soon enough to avert climate catastrophe. The news from Saudi Arabia gives cause for hope.
Civil-society pressure has already moved “Keep It in the Ground” from the margins of mainstream discourse to the contested center. And global elites are responding, though there’s still a long way to go. The Obama administration has announced a three-year moratorium on new coal mining on public lands and a five-year ban on oil drilling off the Atlantic coast. Activists are now pushing the administration to rule out drilling in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico as well. “We’ve come so far,” Anna Aurilio, director of the Washington office of the NGO Environment America, told The Nation. “The president has gone from ‘all of the above’ to ‘keep some of it in the ground.’ Now we have to convince him to keep all of it in the ground.”