We vilified the fossil fuel industry but governments are still building pipelines. What now?

“We need to refuse to support it, not by retreating off-grid, but through blockades, boycotts, strikes, divestment”
Photo: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons
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Each new climate report is bleaker and more blunt than the last, but governments continue to do the opposite of what scientists tell us is required to avoid mass extinction. The climate movement needs a new strategy.

Last year, I wrote a Master’s dissertation titled “Towards a Fossil Fuel Non-Cooperation Campaign.” I interviewed oil workers, environmental consultants, and other people in the space that I call “fossil-adjacent” – people who work, at least some of the time, to support fossil fuel activities – in an attempt to understand if the climate divestment campaign could be effectively broadened into a more diverse network of boycotts, divestment, and labour actions. I also searched for lessons in historical social movements like India’s campaign for independence (from which the “non-cooperation” term comes) and South Africa’s campaign against apartheid.

I envisioned a coordinated campaign to accelerate the stigmatization of the fossil fuel industry that divestment has so effectively seeded, thus making the continued development of new fossil fuel infrastructure impossible. Initiatives like Clean Creatives — the movement among advertising and public relations professionals to refuse to work for fossil fuel clients — are proving that the model is both feasible and effective.

Within days, Canada approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil megaproject and Minister Seamus O'Regan had the gall to claim it would "offset carbon-intensive oil & gas developments and help us on our path to net-zero."

But as I wrapped up the project in August, the IPCC had just published the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report. It was, as these reports always are, rather dire in its findings. It called for rapid emissions reductions and an end to the burning of fossil fuels. And yet, as we can now say they always do, governments responded with compelling statements about the severity of the climate crisis and the importance of tackling it, coupled with actions that serve only to worsen it.

Immediately after the report’s release, the US government called on OPEC to ramp up oil production. Jonathan Wilkinson, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change at the time, responded to the report by saying — with a straight face — that the Trans Mountain Expansion Project was needed to achieve Canada’s climate goals.

When the IPCC released the third part of its Sixth Assessment Report last month, I experienced déjà vu. The report is a stunning indictment of world leaders and their failure to make even the slightest progress towards mitigating climate change over the last forty years. World leaders responded to it exactly the same way they did last August. Within days, Canada approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil megaproject and Minister Seamus O'Regan had the gall to claim it would “offset carbon-intensive oil & gas developments and help us on our path to net-zero.” Australia approved its Scarborough LNG project. And the US begged oil companies to ramp up domestic production.

I started my project with a relatively narrow expansion of the climate divestment movement in mind, hoping to make a case for the feasibility of a labour-based movement to further stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and move the needle on ending fossil fuel expansion. But as I tried to write the conclusion to my paper, I was confronted by the brazen disregard for life exhibited by Global North climate policy and rhetoric, something that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore with every new, increasingly dire, scientific report and each new climate-induced disaster around the world.

It left me thinking that a singular focus on the fossil fuel industry itself is not sufficient.

The divestment movement has pursued a subtle mechanism of action, explained succinctly by Bill McKibben in 2012: “moral outrage just might…spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel.” Its advocates and organizers believed that, by stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, we could ultimately push our governments to bring an end to new fossil fuel development. It has seen tremendous success and has transformed public discourse. But fossil fuel expansion is proving remarkably immune to shifting public opinion because the power structures that enable and incentivize the industry’s actions remain largely invisible and untouched.

The modern era is one of fossil-fueled globalization and capitalism; we can’t disentangle our structures of governance from the energy source that enabled their rise just by vilifying fossil fuel companies.

Climate change is a human rights issue — for the billions of people around the world emitting less than one-tenth what a typical Canadian emits annually, and also for the hundreds who died in B.C.’s heatwave last year, the many thousands impacted by flooding and fires, and the millions of Canadians whose futures are being erased. All but the smallest portion of humanity faces tremendous suffering from climate change.

We are victims of a repressive global regime that either prioritizes the wealth of a select few over the wellbeing of the entire Earth system or lacks the imagination to believe that anything other than fossil-fueled capitalism is possible. Most likely, the reality is some combination of the two, but the response should be the same: by participating in this regime, we lend it legitimacy and perpetuate its rule. We need to refuse to support it, not by retreating off-grid, but by visibly and collectively withdrawing our consent through blockades, boycotts, strikes, divestment, and more. Through the kind of non-cooperation campaign that has overcome repressive regimes throughout the 20th century.

If you’re feeling desperate and disappointed, you’re not alone. Much of the world is feeling that way. As are many climate campaigners, who thought that having a former Greenpeace activist (once arrested for protesting Canada’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto agreement) in the cabinet might finally turn things in the right direction.

But we’ve felt this disappointment enough times now that we should know better. The world won’t change until we change it and the lessons about how we can do that lay in the great struggles against oppression of history. As UN Secretary General António Guterres put it, “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.” If we don’t challenge the powerful interests that are driving us off this cliff, global warming will make the world ungovernable for us.

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