Getting to Post-Carbon Our future depends on buried carbon, so here's how to keep it in the ground. scroll down arrow

YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall

Leave the Oil in the Ground

YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall

YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall

Physics can impose a bracing clarity on the normally murky world of politics. It can make things simple. Not easy, but simple. Most of the time, public policy is a series of trade-offs: higher taxes or fewer services, more regulation or more freedom of action. We attempt to balance our preferences: for having a beer after work, and for sober drivers. We meet somewhere in the middle, compromise, trade off. We tend to think we’re doing it right when everyone’s a little unhappy.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, the founder of 350.org, and the winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award.

But when it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not one group’s preferences against another’s. It’s not — at bottom — industry versus environmentalists or Republicans against Democrats. It’s people against physics, which means that compromise and trade­off don’t work. Lobbying physics is useless; it just keeps on doing what it does.

So here are the numbers: We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground. If we don’t — if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them — we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments. It’s not “we should do this,” or “we’d be wise to do this.” Instead it’s simpler: “We have to do this.”

And we can do this. Five years ago, “keeping it in the ground” was a new idea. When environmentalists talked about climate policy, it was almost always in terms of reducing demand. On the individual level: Change your light bulb. On the government level: Put a price on carbon. These are excellent ideas, and they’re making slow but steady progress (more slowly in the United States than elsewhere, but that’s par for the course). Given enough time, they’d bring down carbon emissions gradually but powerfully.

Time, however, is precisely what we don’t have. We pushed through the 400 parts per million level of CO2 in the atmosphere last spring; 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, smashing the record set in … 2014. So we have to attack this problem from both ends, going after supply as well as demand. We have to leave fossil fuel in the ground.

These divestments are hurting companies directly — coal giant Peabody formally told shareholders in 2014 that the campaign was affecting its stock price.

Most of that coal and oil and gas — most of that money — is concentrated in a few huge underground pools of carbon. There’s oil in the Arctic, and in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela, and in the Caspian Sea; there’s coal in Western Australia, Indonesia, China, and in the Powder River Basin; there’s gas to be fracked in Eastern Europe. Call these the “carbon bombs.” If they go off — if they’re dug up and burnt — they’ll wreck the planet. Of course, you could also call them “money pits.” Lots of money — that coal and gas and oil may be worth $20 trillion. Maybe more.

Because of that, there are people who say that the task is simply impossible — that there’s no way the oil barons and coal kings will leave those sums underground. And they surely won’t do it voluntarily. Take the Koch brothers, for instance: They’re among the largest leaseholders in Canada’s tar sands and plan nearly $900 million in political spending during 2016, more than the Republicans or the Democrats. Because they won’t be among the richest men on Earth anymore if that oil stays beneath the ground.

But in fact it’s not a hopeless task. We’ve begun to turn the tide, and in remarkably short order.

If you understand the logic of the Keep It in the Ground campaign, for instance, then you understand the logic of the Keystone pipeline fight. Pundits said it was “just one pipeline,” but efforts to block it meant that the expansion of Canada’s tar sands suddenly, sharply slowed. Investors, unsure that there would ever be affordable ways to bring more of that oil to market, pulled tens of billions of dollars off the table, even before the price of oil began to fall. So far, only about 3 percent of the oil in those tar sands has been extracted; the bomb is still sitting there, and if we block pipelines, then we cut the fuse.

And the same tactics are working elsewhere, too. In Australia, there was unrelenting pressure from indigenous groups and climate scientists to block what would have been the world’s largest coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Valley. Activists tied up plans long enough that other campaigners were able to pressure banks around the world to withdraw financing for the giant mine. By spring 2015, most of the world’s major financial institutions had vowed not to provide loans for the big dig, and by summer the mining company was closing down offices and laying off its planning staff.

“Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. ”
— Richard Heinberg

From the Editors: Life After Oil

  • Stephen Miller

    Miller

  • Doug Pibel

    Pibel

  • Tracy Dunn

    Dunn

We’ve all spent time stuck on a freeway — a six-lane parking lot with concrete and exhaust fumes extending to the horizon. If we’re concerned about climate change, those are moments that can push us into despair. Don’t these people know?

We often forget we’re right there on the freeway with them.

Cover of YES! Issue 76

Now several generations into a fossil-fueled way of life that’s forgotten the difference between necessity and convenience, we’ve bought the line that the American way of life is not negotiable.

But that’s never been true. As climate activist Bill McKibben reminds us, when our way of life runs up against physics, there’s no negotiation — but it’s physics, not America, that’s calling the shots. If we want to leave behind a habitable world, we have only one choice: Leave the carbon in the ground.

How do we do that? We can move to 100 percent renewable energy within 40 years, says Post Carbon Institute researcher Richard Heinberg. We can retrofit our suburbs in ways that minimize sprawl and connect them to vibrant cities. Though our economy now runs entirely on fossil fuels, it’s worth remembering that it hasn’t always been that way. We shifted to this economy, and we can shift to a new one. As editor Yessenia Funes discovered in researching her article, the transition to renewables could provide the kind of economy that finally can address poverty and inequality.

We spent a lot of time imagining the world after oil — and discovered that many of the changes headed our way could improve our lives. And apparently that’s not a secret, because everywhere we looked, people were living more regionally already. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus in California explains how giving up airplane travel has not only cut his carbon footprint but kept him closer to home and focused on his community — and paradoxically enriched his relationship with his parents living in the distant Midwest.

Once we’ve left fossil fuels behind, it becomes possible to bring the planet and all its species back into balance, where Earth’s natural systems can replenish themselves. That will be the beginning of a new era of recovery, and poet, philosopher, and environmentalist Derrick Jensen describes what that could look like in poignant detail. He calls it “the time after.”

It starts simply enough, by getting off the freeway.




Return to the story

Money, in fact, is a key part of the Keep It in the Ground strategy. In fall 2012, students, faith leaders, and other activists launched a fossil-fuel divestment campaign in the United States, supported by 350.org (an organization I co-founded), that soon spread Down Under and to Europe. The argument was simple: If Exxon and Chevron and BP and Shell plan to dig up and burn more carbon than the planet can handle, they’re not normal companies. If their business plan would break the planet, then we need to break ties with them.

At first, the institutions that joined in were small. Tiny Unity College in Maine was first, selling the fossil fuel stock in its $13 million portfolio. But the campaign accelerated quickly because the math was so clear, the physics so irrefutable. By now colleges from Stanford to Oxford, from Sydney to Edinburgh, have joined in, pointing out that it makes no sense to educate young people and then break the planet they’ll inhabit. Ditto doctors associations on several continents, which argue that you can’t pretend to be interested in public health if you invest in companies destroying it. Ditto the United Church of Christ and the Unitarians and the Church of England and the Episcopalians, who insist that care for creation is incompatible with such destruction.

These divestments are hurting companies directly — coal giant Peabody formally told shareholders in 2014 that the campaign was affecting its stock price and making it hard to raise capital. But even more, they’ve driven the necessity of keeping carbon underground from the fringes into the heart of the world’s establishment. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund started divesting its fossil fuel stocks, while Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have started down the same road. A month after the Rockefeller announcement, the governor of the Bank of England told a conference that “the vast majority” of carbon reserves are “unburnable,” warning of massive “stranded assets.” Trying to get out from under this “carbon bubble” is one reason why huge funds are now beginning to divest. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for instance, lost $5 billion before it saw the light and started selling its stock.

But the fight remains damnably hard, because politicians are so used to doing the bidding of the oil companies. In fact, just days after the theoretically landmark Paris climate accord, the Obama administration and Congress gave the oil industry a much sought-after gift: ending the 40-year ban on crude oil exports. We’re making progress (it was something of a breakthrough, for instance, when cautious Hillary Clinton came out against Arctic oil) but not fast enough.

Which is why, this spring, the climate movement will be rallying on the sites of as many of those carbon bombs as possible, in massive peaceful resistance designed to slow extraction of fossil fuels, but even more to shine a light on these massive, remote deposits. The leaders, as always, will be the frontline communities that live nearby. Some of the rest of us will make the trek to these locations; others will rally at embassies and banks to bring the same point home. Because once we’ve marked them on the planet’s mental map as mortal dangers, our odds of winning go up.

If you’re still skeptical, consider what happened in the Amazon after the world’s scientists, in the 1980s, identified the rainforest as absolutely necessary to the planet’s survival. Much to the surprise of many, the government of Brazil moved to slow deforestation. Its efforts haven’t been perfectly successful, but they’ve kept those trees above the ground, just the way we need to keep that oil below it.

And we’ve got a couple of advantages in this fight the Brazilians didn’t. For one, they were a poor country. Many of the big carbon bombs lie in richer nations like Canada, the United States, and Australia; we can afford to let them be.

YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall

YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall

More importantly, it’s beginning to look like we don’t need to win this fight forever. That’s because alternatives to fossil fuel are becoming cheaper with every passing day. The price of a solar panel has fallen more than 70 percent in the last six years. That’s a mortal threat to the hydrocarbon tycoons. They know that they have to get new infrastructure in place in the next few years. If they can build those pipelines and mines, then for the next 40 or 50 years they’ll be able to get carbon out cheaply enough to compete (and to wreck the planet). If they can’t — if we can hold them off for just a few more years — then we’ll have made the transition to clean energy irreversible.

I don’t know if we’re going to win this fight in time. The flood of scientific data about the damage that’s already been done unnerves me. But I do know we’re now fighting on every front. And the most important one is the simplest: We can, and we must, and we will keep that coal and gas and oil underground.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, the founder of 350.org, and the winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award.

100% Renewable EnergyAs with anything hard, first we start with the easy stuff

If our transition to renewable energy is successful, we will achieve savings in the ongoing energy expenditures needed for economic production. We will be rewarded with a quality of life that is acceptable — and, perhaps, preferable to our current one (even though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back from its current unsustainable level). We will have a much more stable climate than would otherwise be the case. And we will see greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production activities. But the transition will entail costs — not just money and regulation, but also changes in our behavior and expectations. It will probably take at least three or four decades, and will fundamentally change the way we live.

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of 12 award-winning books, including six on the subject of fossil fuel depletion. He has written for Nature, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications, and has delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences around the world.

Nobody knows how to accomplish the transition in detail, because this has never been done before. Most previous energy transitions were driven by opportunity, not policy. And they were usually additive, with new energy resources piling onto old ones (we still use firewood, even though we’ve added coal, hydro, oil, natural gas, and nuclear to the mix).

Since the renewable energy revolution will require trading our currently dominant energy sources (fossil fuels) for alternative ones (mostly wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass) that have different characteristics, there are likely to be some hefty challenges along the way.

Therefore, it makes sense to start with the low-hanging fruit and with a plan in place, then revise our plan frequently as we gain practical experience. Several organizations have already formulated plans for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. David Fridley, staff scientist of the energy analysis program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and I have been working for the past few months to analyze and assess those plans and have a book in the works titled Our Renewable Future. Here’s a very short summary, tailored mostly to the United States, of what we’ve found.

Level 1 The "Easy" Stuff

Nearly everyone agrees that the easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal out of existence. Distributed generation and storage (rooftop solar panels with home- or business-scale battery packs) will help. Replacing natural gas will be harder, because gas-fired “peaking” plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid (see Level Two).

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Community Cooperatives Model

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Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the United States. What about the rest of the energy we depend on? Since solar and wind produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can. For example, we could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps, replacing natural gas- or oil-fueled furnaces. We could also begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves for electric stoves.

Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption, and personal automobiles account for most of that. We could reduce oil consumption substantially if we all drove electric cars (replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will take time and money, but will eventually result in energy and financial savings). Promoting walking, bicycling, and public transit will take much less time and investment.

Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency (this will again take time and investment, but will offer still more opportunities for savings). Building codes should be strengthened to require net-zero-energy or near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.

The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacture of fertilizers, food processing, and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic local foods. While we’re at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it — as is being done, for example, in the Marin Carbon Project.

If we got a good start in all these areas, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in 10 to 20 years.

Level 2 The Harder Stuff

Solar and wind technologies have a drawback: They provide energy intermittently. When they become dominant in our overall energy mix, we will have to accommodate that intermittency in various ways. We’ll need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul to get the electricity sector close to 100 percent renewables (replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We’ll also need to start timing our energy usage to coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy. That in itself will present both technological and behavioral hurdles.

YES! infographic: World Per Capita Primary Energy Consumption

After we switch to electric cars, the rest of the transport sector will require longer-term and sometimes more expensive substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for their manufacture and decommissioning) by increasing the density of our cities and suburbs and reorienting them to public transit, bicycling, and walking. We could electrify all motorized human transport by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail lines. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but it would be better to minimize trucking by expanding freight rail. Transport by ship could employ sails to increase fuel efficiency (this is already being done on a tiny scale by the MS Beluga Skysails, a commercial container cargo ship partially powered by a 1,700-square-foot, computer-controlled kite), but relocalization or deglobalization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy to reduce the need for shipping.

Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but there are exceptions — and some of these will offer significant challenges. Many raw materials for manufacturing processes either are fossil fuels (feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemical-based materials) or require fossil fuels for mining or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil-fuel-based industrial materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.

If we did all these things, while also building far, far more solar panels and wind turbines, we could achieve roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.

Iowa’s “Community Wind” Leads the Nation

Photo by Christopher Jones

Click to read: Iowa is the national leader in the percentage of electricity generated from wind. Nationwide, about 4 percent of electricity is generated from wind — a fraction of what Iowa generates.

Level 3 The Really Hard Stuff

Doing away with the last 20 percent of our current fossil-fuel consumption is going to take still more time, research, and investment — as well as much more behavioral adaptation.

Just one example: We currently use enormous amounts of concrete for all kinds of construction. The crucial ingredient in concrete is cement. Cement-making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen — but that will entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.

While with Level One we began a shift in food systems by promoting local organic food, driving carbon emissions down further will require finishing that job by making all food production organic, and requiring all agriculture to build topsoil rather than deplete it. Eliminating all fossil fuels in food systems will also entail a substantial redesign of those systems to minimize processing, packaging, and transport.

The communications sector — which uses mining and high-heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers, and more — presents some really knotty problems. The only good long-term solution in this sector is to make devices that are built to last a very long time and then to repair them and fully recycle and remanufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via the kinds of low-tech, asynchronous networks now being pioneered in poor nations, using relatively little power. An example might be the AirJaldi networks in India, which provide Internet access to about 20,000 remote users in six states, using mostly solar power.

Back in the transport sector: We’ve already made shipping more efficient with sails, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly substitutes (fuel cells or biofuels). One way or another, global trade will have to shrink.

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An Electric Bicycle Commute

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There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode. Planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility, as are dirigibles filled with (non-renewable) helium, any of which could help us maintain vestiges of air travel. Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is possible, but will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.

Great attention will have to be given to the interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining, and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links in supply chains will be hard to substitute, and chains can be brittle: A problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain.

The good news is that if we do all these things, we can get beyond zero carbon emissions; that is, with sequestration of carbon in soils and forests, we could actually reduce atmospheric carbon with each passing year.

Doing Our Level Best

This plan features “levels”; the more obvious word choice would have been “stages.” The latter implies a sequence — starting with Stage One, ending with Stage Three — yet accomplishing the energy transition quickly will require accelerating research and development to address many Level Two and Three issues at the same time we’re moving rapidly forward on Level One tasks. For planning purposes, it’s useful to know what can be done relatively quickly and cheaply, and what will take long, expensive, sustained effort.

How much energy will be available to us at the end of the transition? It’s hard to say, as there are many variables, including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology without fossil fuels to back them up and to power their manufacture, at least in the early stages. This “how much” question reflects the understandable concern to maintain current levels of comfort and convenience as we switch energy sources. But in this regard, it is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind.

According to the Global Footprint Network’s Living Planet Report 2014, the amount of productive land and sea available to each person on Earth in order to live in a way that’s ecologically sustainable is 1.7 global hectares. The current per capita ecological footprint in the United States is 6.8 global hectares. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. The clear answer is: only temporarily, if at all. So why bother trying? We should aim for a sustainable level of energy and material consumption, which on average is significantly lower than at present.

The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local; it will probably be a conserver economy rather than a consumer economy. It will also likely feature far less economic inequality.

One way or another, the energy transition will represent an enormous societal shift. During past shifts, there were winners and losers. In the current instance, if we don’t pay great attention to equity issues, it is entirely possible that only the rich will have access to renewable energy, and therefore, ultimately, to any substantial amounts of energy at all.

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Perennial Grains

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The collective weight of these challenges and opportunities suggests that a truly all-renewable economy may be very different from the American economy we know today. The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local; it will probably be a conserver economy rather than a consumer economy. It will also likely feature far less economic inequality. Economic growth may reverse itself as per capita consumption shrinks; if we are to avert a financial crash and perhaps a revolution as well, we may need a different economic organizing principle. In her recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein asks whether capitalism can be preserved in the era of climate change. While it probably can (capitalism needs profit more than growth), that may not be a good idea because, in the absence of overall growth, profits for some will have to come at a cost to everyone else.

This short article only addresses the energy transition in the United States; other nations will face different challenges and opportunities. Poor nations will have to find ways to provide all their energy from renewable sources while advancing in terms of the U.N. Human Development Index. Nations especially vulnerable to sea level rise may have other immediate priorities to deal with. And nations with low populations but very large solar or wind resources may find themselves in an advantageous position if they are able to obtain foreign investment capital without too many strings attached.

The most important thing to understand about the energy transition is that it’s not optional. Delay would be fatal. It’s time to make a plan — however sketchy, however challenging — and run with it, revising it as we go.

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of 12 award-winning books, including six on the subject of fossil fuel depletion. He has written for Nature, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications, and has delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences around the world.

A Unified West CoastCan 54 million people and the world’s fifth largest economy challenge the political might of Big Oil?

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

Rex Parris, the three-term Republican mayor of Lancaster, California, is no squishy liberal. “I believe when you walk out the door of your home, you should be safe. I think capitalism is the best economic system we have available, and the United States should have the strongest military in the world.”

Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who contributes to YES! Magazine, The Nation, Telesur, The Progressive, Raw Story, and The Washington Post. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City and author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press). Follow him at @arunindy.

But when it comes to climate change, Parris calls it “the greatest threat facing the human race since the beginning of time.” He’s a rarity in a party in which nearly all presidential candidates in the 2016 race denied the existence of man-made climate change or the need to halt fossil-fuel production.

Parris has broken ranks with the denialists by signing a “no new fossil fuels infrastructure” pledge. Prior to the Paris climate summit in December, a dozen mayors from Santa Barbara, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and more than 20 other elected officials endorsed a prohibition on exporting oil, coal, and natural gas through the region. The pledge is inspired by a resolution passed by the city of Portland, Oregon, in November that relies on local powers over public safety, health, and land zoning to obstruct the siting of fossil fuel export terminals.

A coalition of environmental, labor, faith-based, and indigenous communities backed that resolution and a second one aimed at preventing oil trains from passing through Portland. Daphne Wysham, a coordinator with the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, says that after the resolutions passed, she initiated the pledge to help spread the anti-fossil-fuel movement along the West Coast.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales championed the resolutions alongside City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. The measures are designed not to encroach on federal powers to regulate interstate commerce, which prevents states and cities from banning the transport of fossil fuels outright. Hales says once they are translated into land use code, “if a company wants to open a new terminal for exporting oil or compressed natural gas or propane or, even worse, coal, the answer is going to be, ‘No, that’s not a permitted use in industrial and commercial zones in Portland.’”

It’s one sign of how the West Coast is leading the fight against global warming even as many countries lag behind. The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington and the premier of British Columbia launched the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) toward that end in 2008. Recently the PCC released an Action Plan on Climate and Energy to green the region’s economy by prioritizing solar and wind power, low-carbon transportation, and energy efficiency. With 54 million people and $3 trillion in gross domestic product, effectively the fifth-largest economy in the world, the Pacific Coast has the might to reshape the U.S. economy.

First Nations and environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest have spun a web of resistance by delaying oil refining equipment headed to Alberta tar sands, occupying lands slated for pipelines, locking down rail lines carrying coal trains, and skirmishing on the water with drill rigs headed for the Arctic.

The anti-fossil-fuel movement comes at a crucial time. Despite the historic Paris accord on climate change signed by 196 nations, some nations are still on a hydrocarbon binge. Canada is allowing for a 43 percent rise in tar sands production, India said it would double coal production, and the U.S. Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on the export of domestic fossil fuels, which is expected to boost mining and fracking over time.

Oil and gas companies have been eyeing the West Coast as the gateway to Asia, with plans to lace the region with more than two dozen natural-gas pipelines, oil terminals, and coal depots. Cities reliant on heavy industry or desperate for jobs, like Washington’s Tacoma and Kalama, are green-lighting projects like methanol plants, and Coos Bay, Oregon, is banking on employment from a natural-gas pipeline snaking 230 miles through the Cascade Mountains.

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In Alaska Schools, It’s Fish for Lunch

Click to read through the different ways we're already living regionally.

Joseph Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, who studies U.S. politics and social movements, says, “The fossil fuel industry has enormous resources. They have staying power.” He says energy companies promise struggling cities that “[they’ll] make money quickly. People are willing to buy it because they feel vulnerable.”

If all else fails, many predict, the oil industry will try to bulldoze opponents. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by oil giants like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, is notorious for rejecting climate change science while pushing pro-oil policies at the state level. Now that Asian markets are open to U.S. energy production, Hales says he is “very concerned about ALEC throwing money around to influence cities” as well. In California, a tidal wave of oil lobbying and money — $10.7 million in three months alone — sank Governor Jerry Brown’s bill to halve oil consumption in vehicles by 2030. Around the same time, Washington state’s plan for a carbon tax was likewise shredded by a buzzsaw of oil-funded opposition.

But First Nations and environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest have spun a web of resistance by delaying oil refining equipment headed to Alberta tar sands, occupying lands slated for pipelines, locking down rail lines carrying coal trains, and skirmishing on the water with drill rigs headed for the Arctic.

Climate change:
the greatest threat facing the human race since the beginning of time.
—Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster, California

Patient organizing can thwart the energy industry at the local level. Richmond, California, is home to a Chevron refinery that exploded in 2012, sending more than 15,000 people to hospitals for respiratory ailments. The current mayor, Tom Butt, and three allies swept to victory in 2014 despite being outspent 20-to-1 by Chevron. Mayor Butt, who signed the “no new fossil fuels infrastructure” pledge along with predecessor Gayle McLaughlin, says Chevron has “a long history of controlling the city council.”

Because the energy industry can successfully pit jobs against climate justice, Hales says, the West Coast must go beyond the “thou shalt not” pledge.

Cities and states are taking action, sometimes reluctantly. Under threat of lawsuits from environmentalists, San Diego passed a plan for 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Parris claims Lancaster will be the first “net-zero city in the world.” Butt says Richmond is shifting consumers to electricity that is 56 percent renewable, and less than 20 percent of residences are opting out. Hales says cities could combine purchasing power to convince manufacturers to develop electric trucks for municipal services, transforming the overall car market.

PCC partners envision turning Interstate 5, which connects Baja California to British Columbia, into a “West Coast Green Highway” through alternative fuels and 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California’s roadways by 2025. Utilities serving PCC states and Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho are studying how to integrate their power grids so sun-powered electrons from California or wind-powered ones from Wyoming can zip to states dependent on coal-fired electricity. The PCC is also pushing for a high-speed rail network, with work underway on the $68 billion section between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Although important, these plans are first steps. Physics does not care about our promises and pledges. Many scientists say the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid disaster, but elected officials say they have little power to directly affect the private sector. Plans rely on market mechanisms involving taxation or zoning to encourage low-carbon solutions. Proposals include cap and trade for carbon pollution, backed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and a fee on carbon in Oregon that would be returned to households and businesses. California’s cap-and-trade program went into effect in 2012, but critics slam it for rewarding polluters by providing free emission allowances to utilities that they can sell. Distributing carbon taxes is a mixed bag as well because it deprives local governments of funding for new jobs, aid to hard-hit communities, and adaptation of industry needed in a post-carbon future.

Wysham advocates measures such as requiring energy companies to purchase “climate-risk bonds,” which would factor in all the social costs of greenhouse gases. Making polluters pay upfront for the damage they create would render fossil fuels uneconomical.

It’s the type of bold move the West Coast needs on the road to a low-carbon future. Governors, legislators, and mayors will have to wrest the steering wheel from energy companies to prevent heading into the worst-case climate change scenarios.

Lowndes says the crucial missing element is “a broad campaign and direct action that can draw reformists and radicals into a coalition that can win the public to its side.” One model, he says, is the anti-nuclear-power campaign of the 1970s, which “stopped 150 plants that were set to go online.” If people power can be combined with elected power, then it could finally be lights out for the fossil-fuel era.

Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who contributes to YES! Magazine, The Nation, Telesur, The Progressive, Raw Story, and The Washington Post. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City and author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press). Follow him at @arunindy.

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