2015: The Year the Carbon Beast Blinked

For all of us working to stop global warming, 2015 will be looked back upon as the year we pushed Big Oil and King Coal hard enough that they at last took their first, inevitably fatal steps backwards. They have loomed large — mythologically large — as teflon-shielded, weaponised giants. Petroleum vampires towering over our capital cities, their teeth deep in the neck of our governments, feasting on blood and money. Mighty coal gorillas beating their chests atop mountains they’d decapitated, throwing boulders down upon the villages below. Governments bowed down before them and did their bidding. They smirked and threw fistfuls of gold at the feet of our cultural and scientific institutes and ordered them to sing their praises. And for three decades, they seemed unassailable; impervious to the forces of democracy and the lilliputian non-violent armies that dared oppose them.

Personally, I see four major events in 2015 challenged that story.

The Fall of the Arctic Shelliath: The question of whether we as a species would allow oil companies to exploit the melting of Arctic sea-ice to extract more of the oil that was causing the melting of Arctic sea-ice has been called humanity’s stupid test. In 2012 I wrote:

The defining battle of our time is whether we can draw a line in the ice, and keep the oil industry out of the Arctic. Why? Because it’s winnable. Because it’s a stage where the lines are stark and black and white. Because Polar Bear cubs clinging for dear life to shrinking ice floes provide an easy fable with mass appeal that speaks to the threat of human children clinging to a shrinking rock as the waters rise around them. And because the forces that are battling climate change need a high-visibility battleground where we can take this giant down.

Well, this was the year we won. Shell has abandoned the Arctic for the “foreseeable future” and the future, as a result, is foreseeably less dystopian. Thanks, Obama. No, seriously: Thanks, Obama. Millions of Greenpeace members may have formed the chorus of battlecry on this one, but Obama was the one who drew back his slingshot and felled the giant. The next battle is with Russia, but the beast has been back-footed, and we won a piece of high ground, visible to all.

The Tarring and Feathering of the Tar Sands: The world’s most carbon-expensive oil, squeezed from the earth like an oily sponge by machines with tires the size of houses choking the air with fumes and poisoning the lands and waters Canada. Activists who have been there call it Mordor. And Sauron’s plan was to tear the forests down, squeeze the black gold from the earth and build a pipeline to send it to Texas. Bill McKibben and 350.org led a charge against the Keystone XL pipeline that so inspired the Fellowship of the eco-wise that even Sierra Club decided to cast off its policy of stopping short of civil disobedience. Derailing the Keystone XL pipeline was a victory for the planet, for democracy, and another sign of the dark lord’s weakening. Orcs could be seen fleeing in panic down M street in Washington.

The Court that roared: A tiny activist group (I’m serious, TINY — the entire staff wouldn’t fill an executive washroom at Shell’s headquarters) called Urgenda gathered 900 plaintiffs and took the Dutch government to court over the gap between its ambitions to reduce CO2 and its actions. Arguing the fundamental principle that the State has a legal obligation to protect its citizens, the plaintiffs persuaded the court that it was insufficient to acknowledge the profound danger of climate change and then take half-measures to address it. It was a landmark case, and while it’s under appeal (what, the government DOESN’T exist to protect its people?) it was a shot heard by governments around the world. Because a government with a legal obligation to address climate change is a government with a legal liability — potentially a cripplingly expensive one — if they fail. The entire case exposes a deep truth: the influence of corporate champions of economic growth at all costs in driving compromise on issues of survival. A tiny NGO in a tiny country brought the thundering voice of the law to this question: and that voice said the first obligation of governments is to protect people, not profits.

We didn’t always have Paris: Finally, a unanimous agreement to take action on climate change. We can rightly say it’s very little and very late — that it’s not binding in it commitments, that entrepreneurs and businesses have done far more to dig us out of the climate hole than governments have yet even promised to do. But here’s truth: the importance of the agreement signed in Paris wasn’t what was agreed, it was the fact that they agreed to something. The task that’s been set is the end of the fossil fuel economy by 2050. It’s an agreement to forge a new era of human history built on the energy sources that have powered the Earth for millennia. The last hold outs have joined the resistance, a once unassailable wall has been breached, and the credit goes to every voice of every voter, scientist, policy maker, and activist on the planet who has added drop upon drop since Copenhagen to what may have been the slowest tsunami of political pressure ever.

Between the retreat of funding for what would have been the world’s largest coal mine in Australia, divestment victories around the world, the late-2014 US EPA ruling on mountaintop removal, and energy policy decisions in China, there is arguably more evidence to add to this list. But the sum result is what matters: the dinosaurs of the age of coal and oil have seen the asteroid. Their days are finally, officially, numbered.

A time will come when we’ll need to remind ourselves of what it felt like to be a climate activist or concerned citizen or a voice of reason when Petroleosaurus Rex ruled the Earth: how abundant the reasons for despair, how gossamer thin the threads of hope, how weak and wan the light at the end of the tunnel. Those days are now behind us: it’s a new year and a new era. The standoff is done. The task now is to hasten the beast’s retreat, and take heart in breaking from the long deadlocked standoff to experience the joy of beginning to run. Happy New Era, Planet Earth.

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