This year’s most significant event in climate politics involved just five words: “transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

That phrase — a late addition to the agreement signed at this year’s United Nations climate negotiations (COP28) — defines the vital effort that every country in the world is now called upon to contribute towards.

And it also offers us a useful theme for looking back on 2023 in climate change. What did this year show us about how difficult the transition away from the fossil fuel era will be? With 2023 becoming the new hottest year on record, how is our world itself transitioning as the climate warms? How are the political forces resentful of the transition from fossil fuels reacting? And how did democratic movements organize to accelerate the transition to a post-carbon world?

A massive transition

Perhaps the most pressing question about the transition away from fossil fuels is whether it will be fast enough. The UN hailed the COP28 agreement as signalling the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era, but the fact that it was the first in the three-decade history of the UN climate negotiation process to use the term “fossil fuels” is a testament to how slowly these things work (and why scientists, activists, and voices from vulnerable nations wanted stronger language).

The global effort to transition away from fossil fuels is supposed to be in service of a vital goal: preventing global average temperature rise of more than 1.5 C compared to pre-industrial times, a still dangerous level of warming, but one that would spare millions from severe hardship and insecurity.

The problem is this: a mere seven years of emissions at current rates is enough to put even just a 50-50 chance of meeting that goal out of reach. By one estimate, “60% of the fossil fuels within already operating or under-construction extraction sites cannot be burned.” Even if we were to eliminate coal, the worst fossil fuel, just the oil and gas in active fields is enough to commit us to greater than 1.5 C of warming. There is no justification for continued fossil fuel exploration and development.

And yet, as revealed in the United Nations Environment Programme’s annual Emissions Gap report, governments around the world plan to produce an amount of fossil fuels more than double what is consistent with the 1.5 C target — and 69 per cent more than is consistent with a 2 C target. Canada ranks second in a list of the 20 worst “planet wreckers” in terms of planned new oil and gas production between now and mid-century.

Current climate policies are only strong enough to limit average warming to 3 C compared to pre-industrial times — more than twice the warming we have experienced so far.

Transitioning away from a safe world

And that ought to be terrifying, given how difficult it was to keep up with the pace of climate anomalies and smashed records in 2023 as our climate continued its full-speed transition away from the one that allowed agriculture and human civilization to take root.

The heat was the most obvious and widely felt experience of this changing world. Temperature records were broken all over the world as the earth’s northern hemisphere experienced its hottest “meteorological summer” (that is, June through August) on record. And then September 2023 surpassed the previous record high for the month’s average temperature by a sudden, enormous margin.

But there was flooding, too. In July, massive deluges hit India, Japan, China, Turkey and the United States. In September came another wave of flooding, the worst occurring in Libya, where thousands died, went missing, or were displaced in a country already struggling to meet the needs of forced migrants. Towards the end of the year, the Horn of Africa saw catastrophic rains, which finally brought to an end to a deadly and historic drought, a cruel irony for the poor communities who had just endured the hardships of five consecutive failed rainy seasons.

And there was also fire. In Canada this summer, wildfires raged east and west. The total area burned — larger than the size of Greece — grew to more than double the previous record and about six times the annual average. Two hundred thousand people came under evacuation orders, including more than half the population of the Northwest Territories following orders to clear out from Yellowknife. So much forest burned that greenhouse gas emissions from the fires far exceeded the annual emissions from Canada’s economy.

Climate policies in Canada

In a year of heat and floods and fire, the Liberal government did manage to unveil some new additions to its suite of climate policies.

In August came the Clean Electricity Regulations in draft form (with the final version expected in 2024) aimed at making Canada’s electric grid net-zero by 2035. In early December came further draft regulations proposing to cap emissions from oil and gas production at 35-38 per cent below 2019 levels by 2030 and to reduce methane emissions by 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030. A few days later, the Electric Vehicle Availability Standard regulations were published, requiring that a rising percentage of new light-duty vehicles sold in Canada be zero emissions, before reaching 100 per cent by 2035.

But the Liberals’ central climate policy pillar, carbon pricing, underwent sustained political attack throughout 2023. First came the fallout from the (controversial) assessment from the Parliamentary Budget Office finding that by 2030-2031 most households would experience a net financial loss in those jurisdiction where the federal government imposes a carbon tax.

Then, in October, the Liberal government exempted home heating oil from federal carbon pricing, largely as a concession to communities in Atlantic Canada. A minor firestorm erupted as the fairness of the decision came under question; the NDP supported a Conservative (non-binding) motion to cancel the carbon tax on natural gas as well. Analysts speculated about the long-term prospects for the tax, politicians on the right blamed it for inflation, and polling showed much confusion among Canadians about how the tax works and its impacts.

All of this helped fuel the federal Conservatives’ “axe the tax” campaign, a promise to eliminate carbon pricing if elected and replace it with nothing.

Fossilizing the transition

It was a reminder that, as crucial as it is that the world rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, there are forces defiantly bent on preventing any such shift.

In 2023, right-wing Canadian political pundits super-spread climate change disinformation by boosting exposure for discredited, fringe climate change deniers and misdirecting blame for the country’s unprecedented wildfires away from climate change and towards (presumably superhuman firebender) arsonists.

Meanwhile, according to a February report by Influence Map, a climate and sustainability think tank, the Canadian oil and gas industry has gone all in on greenwashing, using language about working towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 while actively opposing emissions regulations and advocating for fossil fuel expansion. The 2023 edition of the annual Banking on Climate Chaos report found that three of the top ten commercial and investment banks leading the world in financing fossil fuel expansion in 2022 were Canadian, with RBC ranking as the world’s worst.

These forces benefit from a strain of conspiracism in which every serious political effort to address environmental crises gets hallucinated into a sinister plot to control us (see 2023’s hottest conspiracy theory about “15-minute cities”).

None of this, unfortunately, is unusual.

What has been unusual is the brazen callousness of political opposition from Alberta premier Danielle Smith, who deserves special condemnation.

She has spent the months since her election imposing an abrupt moratorium on new renewable energy projects in Alberta, spreading misinformation about the unreliability of battery technologies in renewable energy storage (while also exaggerating the promise of carbon capture technologies), financing scare ads across Canada about the federal clean energy mandate, and threatening to wield every political instrument available to her to resist the federal policies that would require Alberta to do its part to stop the world from burning.

Smith capped off the the warmest year on record, one marked by climate chaos at home and abroad, by insinuating herself into the UN climate negotiations to promote Alberta’s unproven carbon capture technologies (which mainly help to greenwash the fossil fuel industry) and engage in some political theatre showing her willingness to defy the feds, thoroughly embarrassing Alberta on the world stage in the process.

This year, Smith bent over backwards to prove how obsequiously she will serve the province’s fossil fuel sector, how reliably she will speak and govern as though there is no higher political purpose in Alberta than protecting and preserving the life of an industry whose continued existence now poses an existential threat. At one point, she, alongside Alberta’s minister of environment, went so far as to use the term “treachery” to describe federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeaut’s effort at COP28 to include language in a global agreement about phasing out unabated fossil fuels. For her, Alberta’s interests are so completely merged with those of the fossil fuel industry that doing what the science informs us is necessary to preserve a habitable climate is tantamount to betrayal.

Fights to accelerate the transition

After what felt like a long year, it’s worth reminding ourselves that 2023 started with a major standoff between police and thousands of protestors, the culmination of a long campaign attempting to prevent coal mining in Germany with direct action.

Democratic political struggles of this sort are more necessary than ever to accelerate the transition to a post-carbon world. Fortunately, 2023 featured several examples of how to engage in them.

For instance, climate litigation continued to grow. Major cases included the young Pacific Islanders who, through the prime minister of Vanuatu, succeeded in convincing the United Nations to pass a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice to advise countries on their legal obligations in addressing climate change.

The case that is likely to draw the most attention going forward is the state of California vs. Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute. California seeks damages for the industry’s history of deceiving the public about the causes and severity of climate change. A campaign is underway in British Columbia attempting to convince local governments there to do something similar in Canada.

Meanwhile, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative gained further prominence at COP28 after Colombia became the biggest country so far to endorse it.

An Oxfam report reminded us how important it will be to create policies that address the responsibility of the richest 1 per cent in driving climate destruction, given that their emissions are equivalent to those of the poorest two-thirds of humanity.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives offered a blueprint for how communities, activists, and movements could fight for the climate without waiting for governments.

And at COP28, climate justice activists gathered in solidarity with Palestinians to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, explained the reason:

Why is it our people from all around the world — Black, white, Brown, Jew, Muslim, Christian — are taking to the streets? It’s because we have seen the masks that have slipped. We have seen how the Palestinians are not even viewed as human beings. And in the faces of the Palestinians, for Black, Brown and Indigenous people, we see our past, our present and our future, of lives deemed less valuable than others, of an arc of 500 years of colonialism and racialized capitalism, of sacrificed people and of sacrificed land, of the powerful profiting from oppression, but then saying they don’t have any money for climate finance, but billions for bombs and bullets against the people.

The struggle to transition away from fossil fuels is part of a much longer struggle for justice against forces of oppression that deem power, expansion, and profit more valuable than human life and rights.

The coming year will hopefully see these and other efforts to accelerate the transition to a post-carbon world win major victories.