Thousands of people are mobilizing for what could be the biggest climate march in the U.S. in years in New York City on Sunday. It’s one of many protests across the globe over the next few days with a simple demand: President Joe Biden and other world leaders must phase out fossil fuels.
You have to respect the uncompromising clarity of the March to End Fossil Fuels message: Stop approving new fossil fuel projects, phase out drilling on public lands, declare a climate emergency and provide a just transition to renewable energy.
Because you’re not seeing such a clear vision from the men and women with the power to do something about the climate crisis, only weak-kneed language and half measures.
In the run-up to the COP 28 United Nations climate summit in November in Dubai, nations are talking instead about phasing out “unabated” fossil fuel emissions. This would allow countries to keep burning oil, gas and coal as long as they also use some kind of carbon capture or removal technology to offset its effects on the atmosphere.
This kind of double-speak is revealing, because it shows how many politicians are unwilling to buck powerful fossil fuel interests. Like oil and gas companies, they want to suggest we can have it both ways and fight the climate crisis without dismantling the fossil fuel based-system that is causing it. But that sets a dangerously low bar. If we don’t at least aim for the end of fossil fuels, where do you think we’ll actually end up a generation from now?
By contrast the young people spearheading the climate protests are quite clear about what actions are required to ensure a livable planet for future generations. In addition to marches and rallies on Sunday, they are also staging a global, youth-led strike on Friday, actions that are timed to take place in advance of a U.N. Climate Ambition Summit in New York on Sept. 20.
World leaders should take their cues from these young activists. They have the most at stake and are explicit about the need to abandon the fossil fuels that are polluting the air and overheating the planet. They are tired of broken promises, incrementalism and spineless politicians who won’t stand up to their fossil fuel industry backers.
Activists are right to call out Biden for climate hypocrisy. He has broken his campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,” by approving ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. Earlier this year he signed legislation to fast-track the Mountain Valley pipeline to move methane gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia. He hasn’t declared a climate emergency, while claiming he has “practically” done so already.
That’s disheartening to Keanu Arpels-Josiah, 18, a high school senior and organizer with Fridays for Future NYC who spent hours phone banking for Biden in 2020 and will be marching in Manhattan on Sunday. “We’re the generation that got him elected to take action on the climate crisis; we didn’t elect someone to continue fossil fuel expansion,” he said.
Biden has certainly made progress, notably by signing the first major U.S. climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. Globally, there has been encouraging growth in renewable energy, booming demand for electric vehicles. Nations have made meaningful climate pledges under the Paris agreement, but avoiding catastrophic warming still depends on actually delivering those pollution cuts, and going further and faster.
But there aren’t many other hopeful signs to point to, while the bad news piles up. Greenhouse gas emissions reached another all-time high in 2022. This summer was the hottest ever recorded. The U.S. has already experienced a record number of billion-dollar disasters this year — and it’s only September.
And there are good reasons for skepticism about how much will actually be done at COP 28. It’s being hosted by Sultan Al Jaber, the head of the country’s national oil company, which is such an obvious conflict that it’s like an arms dealer brokering peace talks.
Some will say that activists’ demands are unreasonable or that their focus on eliminating the fossil fuels causing climate change is naive. The world economy, after all, is still overwhelmingly powered by oil, gas and other fossil fuels and it may be impossible to replace 100% of them with pollution-free alternatives, at least in the near term.
But this push for the end of the era of fossil fuels is a principled stand that has helped this important grassroots movement focus and gain traction recently. Youth climate activists scored a landmark victory last month in Montana, winning a case in which the judge found there is a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment” and climate.
When we see people marching through the streets of Manhattan, we should all listen and join them in demanding a world without fossil fuels.
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