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Don’t be satisfied with a pledge to end fossil fuels

Climate activist Bill McKibben on how to make sense of COP28: “Let’s make that concession hurt.”

Protesters carrying circular signs and a banner that all read “End fossil fuels.”
Protests are banned in the UAE, where public forms of dissent are seen as a threat to national security. Climate activists showed up anyway.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Paige Vega is the climate editor of Vox. She has written and edited at the intersection of climate change, community and conservation for outlets including High Country News, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and Capital B News among others.

For nearly three decades, the United Nations convening of the parties on climate change, known as COP, has failed to do much about the climate crisis. Since the first global climate summit in 1995, countries have continued to emit harmful greenhouse gases that are heating the planet to increasingly dangerous levels. But this year, for the first time since its inaugural conference in Berlin, diplomats from nearly 200 countries approved a global agreement that explicitly calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

That sounds great — but will anything change because of it?

After decades of inaction, global leaders have collectively acknowledged that the development of fossil fuels is the primary driver of the climate crisis, but it’s still just talk. The bigger question is how — or whether — countries will now begin pulling back. As Vox’s Umair Irfan has reported, the accord doesn’t establish a timeline, benchmarks, or investment goals. The agreement doesn’t change the fact that most countries that pledged net-zero emissions by the middle of the century are still relying on technology fixes like carbon capture, which don’t work at scale, to balance out emissions from burning fossil fuels.

There’s a lot of room for interpretation around how the agreement will be put into action from nation to nation, especially as the world’s biggest polluters — the United States among them — remain reluctant to adopt an outright moratorium on extracting fossil fuels. The agreement also keeps room for countries to rely on “bridge fuels” such as oil and gas as they transition to renewable energy.

Vox spoke with Bill McKibben, author, climate activist, and co-founder of the international climate action campaign, about how a brief clause in a 21-page document could be wielded by the climate movement to wean the world off of fossil fuels for good.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Paige Vega

Before we get into how the agreement falls short, I’d love to hear your reaction to the news. As this year’s summit kicked off in early December in Dubai, the fossil fuel industry’s presence could be seen everywhere at the conference complex. The conference was hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, and the UAE elected Sultan al-Jaber, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, to lead the summit. Did you imagine that an agreement like this would emerge from COP28?

Bill McKibben

I hoped so. I don’t think it’s a great outcome, but it’s not a disaster. There was such good organizing and pressure on the United Arab Emirates and by extension the oil industry.

The UAE overplayed their hand, allowing the head of an oil company to host this thing and allowing him then to proclaim that there is no science behind a phaseout. That called the legitimacy of the entire summit into deep question. It very much serves the purposes of the industry to have this endless parade of ineffective climate summits going on forever. There just comes a point where the charade is too much. I think we reached that point this year.

Sultan al-Jaber, the UAE oil chief executive and leader of COP28 climate talks, and his delegation were forced to make some concessions in order to try to rescue it. The fact that they agreed to even include the transition from fossil fuels is a victory.

More than anything, it gives activists a strong talking point to use as leverage in order to try and win all the fights that lie ahead.

Paige Vega

For readers watching the headlines today, this would seem like a pretty big deal: 200 countries finally agreed to begin a transition away from fossil fuels. It’s taken decades to get here, but the agreement falls short. What are we to make of this?

Bill McKibben

First of all, 200 countries didn’t really agree to do it. I mean, a lot of nations agreed to sign off on a sort of vague statement about transitioning away from fossil fuel. Anyone who believes that that will quickly translate into countries changing national policy or oil companies behaving differently will be disappointed.

Paige Vega

The agreement leaves a lot up for interpretation and also allows countries the crutch of transition fuels like “natural” gas — which, we both probably agree, is a misnomer. Is it even fair to say that this is a step forward?

Bill McKibben

Well, if we were truly taking seriously the climate threat, we wouldn’t be using language like “transition away.” We’d be calling for immediate and deep cuts in our production and consumption of fossil fuel. If we were behaving like a rational civilization, that’s what we would do. But we’re obviously not a rational civilization.

We understand that you can’t immediately go cold turkey and get rid of fossil fuels tomorrow. That’s why you said “transition away from,” but there’s no possible interpretation of the phrase “transition away from” that includes expanding fossil fuels.

This is like someone saying that they’re going to go on a diet and lose weight. No one expects you to stop eating or to shed whatever weight you want to shed tomorrow. But no one would take you seriously if you said that a major part of your diet going forward is going to include a 40-year supply of Sara Lee cheesecake.

Paige Vega

So, the agreement is three steps to the side, a stumble to the back, and then an itty-bitty step forward; this is starting to remind me of that time I tried to learn the rumba for my wedding. Is there anything to be optimistic about here?

Bill McKibben

Well, the good news is that COP isn’t the game; it’s just the scoreboard. The UN climate summit is where we add up how much pressure people successfully built up in the last year.

What we got from COP28 was clarity about where we are. The status quo is clearly trying to transition away from fossil fuels as slowly as possible, even though science tells us we need to move as fast as possible. This year’s extraordinary heat meant that there was enough pressure to produce something — in this case, an agreement to begin a transition around the world. That doesn’t mean countries are going to live up to it. It’s going to take extraordinary pressure to hold them to their word here.

Paige Vega

Democratic countries could face serious backlash if they fail to deliver on this. Could you talk about what added leverage you think this agreement gives to climate activists?

Bill McKibben

In effect, Joe Biden just promised to transition away from fossil fuels. The Department of Energy is still using 2014 data to make decisions around which projects to grant a permit to — that’s a lifetime ago in energy policy. Since 2014, the price of renewable energy has dropped 90 percent and the temperature of the planet has gone up. It’s time for the US to work with accurate information that will give political leaders the leverage to squash projects that not only contribute to the climate crisis but don’t make sense from an economic or political perspective.

The Biden administration has a legitimate claim that they’ve done more than any previous administration in expanding clean energy, thanks in part to the Inflation Reduction Act. His presidency could also claim to do more than any other to stop the expansion of fossil fuels. Whether he does that is another question.

It’s a great opportunity for Biden. He made a huge mistake in greenlighting the Willow project in the Arctic. I think they realize that was a big mistake — practically in climate terms, but politically too. Stopping the expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals is a way to correct the course. Just one of these proposed complexes — the CP2 LNG terminal, for example — is associated with 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska. These decisions are super consequential. This should be an easy one for the Biden administration. When you export LNG, you drive up the price for Americans. Halting these projects would actually be their own little inflation-reduction acts.

Paige Vega

The stakes around these battles are more obvious than ever and now climate activists have this added leverage to hold countries accountable to their promises. Have we entered a new era of climate activism?

Bill McKibben

I don’t know if we have or not, and we’ll see how much of the movement we can muster around this. But at least we’re inching closer to reality. 2023 was the hottest year in 125,000 years. We’re not behaving as if our world is on fire — it is — but finally we’re acknowledging that we can smell a little smoke somewhere.

I mean, look, the compromised nature of this whole process is underlined by the fact that COP28 is the first time in 28 years that we managed to mention the obvious cause of the problem that we’re dealing with. That’s pathetic, obviously.

But one must look for tools that we can use, and COP28 gave us one there because of great organizing from people around the world.

Paige Vega

What advice might you offer to fellow climate activists? Where does the movement go from here?

Bill McKibben

The fight to stop the buildout of LNG export terminals in the Gulf is a good example of how the climate fight will take shape next. There are local activists and extraordinary leaders in Louisiana and Texas at the front lines of these battles. Now, the Biden administration has said it wants to transition away from fossil fuels — and, thanks to COP28, they’ve signed a solemn declaration to this effect. Therefore, they have no choice but to stop granting export licenses for LNG terminals. In order to grant those licenses, they need to decide that they are in the public interest. They’ve gone on the record to say that transitioning away from fossil fuels is in the public interest. So, it’s time for that policy to change. That will be the biggest test.

To really win these fights, it takes a coalition between local and national activists. It’s hard to win a national fight from a local base and so we need to draw in national efforts to elevate these concerns and make them more concrete. Together, these coalitions become a truly powerful force.

What happened in Dubai by itself is not important. But if it becomes the lever by which we halt further development of fossil fuels, that’s something. Today, we’ve got one more arrow in the quiver. And our job is to make use of it. If we thought someone was going to go to Dubai and solve the problem for us, it’s not going to happen because the oil industry is incredibly strong and in a lot of ways controls these processes. But this one sentence is a concession. Let’s make that concession hurt.

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