When I say ‘keep it in the ground’ you say ‘where?’
A new mapping project builds from the climate justice movement to show priority areas for keeping fossil fuels in the ground
In early May, tens of thousands of people resisted fossil fuel projects through coordinated actions on six continents. Under the banner “Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” this wave of resistance solidified “keep it in the ground” as the major demand of a global movement for climate justice. But as I watched these actions unfold — from Wales to the Philippines to Nigeria to New Zealand — I felt that our movement to keep it in the ground has under-emphasized an important question: where?
So far, the major research contribution to the ‘where’ question is an article by McGlade & Elkins (2015), who built an economic model to analyze the geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Their findings — which received more media coverage than any other climate research in 2015 — established that globally, over 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil reserves are “unburnable” before 2050. Based on projected regional energy prices, they suggest that governments keep it in the ground where the costs of fossil fuel production are highest.
But McGlade & Elkins’ approach partially misses the point. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they’re most expensive to extract makes no guarantees for climate justice. While their economic model maximizes ‘social welfare’ — the sum of consumer and producer surplus based on projected regional energy prices — it preserves a status quo in which marginalized people feel most of the externalized costs of resource extraction. Using this model to guide future fossil fuel developments could easily mean that Indigenous and other historically marginalized peoples continue to bear the burden as we burn that 20% of coal reserves that are still in the carbon budget.
Fortunately, climate justice movements have developed their own criteria for identifying priority areas to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But existing approaches draw on different social, political and ecological rationales, and the importance of a particular place — why here? — is too often overlooked.
Early climate justice activists sought to defend specific places where a community’s land, health or sovereignty were being directly threatened by fossil fuel developments. For example, indigenous peoples in the Amazon have resisted fossil fuel projects for decades because extraction threatens their lands and livelihoods. More recently, community bans on fracking in the U.S. have taken a similar approach, focusing on specific community-based harms like water pollution. This is the most fundamental rationale for keeping it in the ground in a specific place: resist fossil fuel developments where they directly threaten your own community.
A more systematic approach is to target fossil fuel reserves and projects with the greatest potential greenhouse gas emissions. Leading environmental organizations crunched the numbers in “Keep It In The Ground,” a 2016 report from the Sierra Club, 350.org and Greenpeace that identifies the coal, oil and natural gas developments that pose the greatest risk to the climate.
Still another approach has emerged through the movement to end fossil fuel leases on U.S. public lands. The rationale here is that the biggest fossil fuel companies are profiting from our shared natural resources while wrecking the climate and leaving a legacy of environmental disasters like oil spills and contaminated water. Rainforest Action Network’s report “Public Lands, Private Profits” gives the details, while activists have started disrupting public auctions through protest or by bidding for leases themselves.
Based on these approaches from the climate justice movement, a research team I work with at the University of Arizona recently created a new tool that puts the ‘where’ question front and center. Directed by Professor Tracey Osborne, the Climate Alliance Mapping Project (CAMP) is a website and digital story-map showing priority areas for keeping fossil fuels in the ground based on ecologically and culturally important places and the experiences of frontline communities. The initial CAMP map visualizes areas where fossil fuel reserves overlap with indigenous territories and protected natural areas in the Amazon Basin, and allows frontline communities to share their own experiences with fossil fuel extraction by adding stories to the map.
CAMP believes that digital story maps are a powerful tool for visualizing the many variables that make certain places priority areas for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. For example, the Amazon Basin’s vast tropical rainforest contains at least 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity and is critical to global climate stability. It is also home to 400 distinct Indigenous groups that depend on the land for their livelihoods and culture, and all of this is threatened by fossil fuel developments.
The Climate Alliance Maps aim to amplify individual and community experiences with fossil fuel extraction by layering these stories over the complex criteria that make somewhere an important place to keep it in the ground. While Indigenous territories and conservation areas may be relevant criteria in the Amazon, this rationale won’t work everywhere. Our team is building a similar map for North America that instead emphasizes public lands as priority areas. In other parts of the world different criteria might be more relevant.
Of course, identifying priority areas shouldn’t undervalue an ‘all of the above’ solution to keeping it in the ground. Known fossil fuel reserves already contain roughly 2,800 gigatonnes of CO2, at least three times the global carbon budget until 2050. In light of this deficit, calls to keep it in the ground anywhere are a necessary step in the right direction.
As we quickly approach the global carbon budget, researchers and activists need to identify priority areas for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. By asking ‘where’, we begin a conversation about the complex criteria that make some places particularly important. But as we layer on variables and information, we should remember to listen to those human and ecological communities on the front lines of our fossil fuel-based energy system. By keeping these stories front and center, we can ensure that justice questions continue to define the movement to keep it in the ground.