“We are all here for one reason: to end fossil fuels around the planet,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told a cheering crowd on Sunday. Some 75,000 were gathered for the New York March to End Fossil Fuels on Sunday, where Ocasio-Cortez urged on, “We must be too big and too radical to ignore.”
As world leaders are in New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly and the Climate Ambition Summit, protesters hit the streets. Members of Extinction Rebellion, a climate group dedicated to disruptive civil disobedience, staged demonstrations at the Museum of Modern Art to highlight a board member’s links to fossil fuel projects. Nearly 150 activists were arrested for blockading the Federal Reserve in New York to call for financial institutions to stop funding companies that extract coal and oil and gas. Protesters also camped outside of Bank of America to criticize the $280 billion in loans it has given to oil companies since 2016.
These demonstrations are the biggest climate protests in years. But they are also bolder, more singular in focus, and have narrowed their attack on the fossil fuel industry in particular. Fossil fuels — and the companies that have profited mightily from extracting them — have long been the central villains in the climate crisis, but over the past decade or so, the movement’s message has been more diffuse. Consider the 2014 People’s Climate March, which didn’t focus specifically on ending fossil fuels but rather on broad global action and spreading awareness of global warming’s potentially devastating impacts. Today’s activists are angry. They want to name and shame.
“Many people don’t actually connect the dots between fossil fuels and the climate emergency,” Jean Su, a co-organizer of the climate march and energy justice attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The purpose of the march was to make that message crystal clear.”
In the spirit of making the movement’s aims even clearer, what exactly do protesters mean when they call for an end to fossil fuels?
What protesters want, explained
Protesters have demanded that President Joe Biden, the United Nations, and corporations stop federal approvals for fossil fuel projects, phase out drilling on public land, and halt dirty energy investments abroad.
Activists are trying to push vested financial and political interests into reining in fossil fuel production, the primary cause of climate change. Environmental groups have traditionally relied on a mix of pressing for change from the outside and reforming financial and government bodies from within, and protests are just a slice of the organizing that goes on to enact climate policy. This week’s slate of events in New York — the protests, blockades, and demonstrations — are a show of the force that plans on pressing from the outside and a reminder that the clock is running.
The demands from Sunday’s march include asking Biden to phase out oil and gas drilling on public lands, reject permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, and halt oil and gas exports. Many of these demands are hard to deliver on, not only for political reasons but also because government leasing practices would probably require Congress to change.
The underlying moral argument here is that the world needs to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure and begin to phase out coal, oil, and gas before the end of this decade to prevent the worst-case scenarios of global warming. Plus, gains in technology in recent years have made the transition away from extractive energy and toward renewable energy far more accessible.
There are a lot of complications in getting there, but many politicians and business leaders still don’t want to concede the basic point that it’s the energy industry that’s driving greenhouse emissions that are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Even during global climate conferences, the US and other oil-reliant countries have, as recently as last year, blocked language urging a phase-out of fossil fuels.
The climate movement has also evolved on this. Since 2014, there have been almost-annual climate marches, and in that time the aim has shifted from simply trying to raise awareness about the climate crisis to demanding that the world stop burning and developing new fossil fuels.
Longtime organizer and climate journalist Bill McKibben says fossil fuels have always been a key focus of the movement, remembering when activists demanded President Obama “keep fossil fuels in the ground.” But he does think there’s a change in who’s taking notice.
“The notion is working its way up the food chain,” McKibben told Vox, pointing out that more US politicians are naming and shaming fossil fuel companies. That recently included California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lawsuit against oil companies for climate deception, significant from the state that is the largest oil and gas consumer in the country.
But Biden is taking less notice of fossil fuels than activists would like. While his administration has passed a historic climate law, as Su explains, Biden himself “needs to also stop his expansion of fossil fuels.”
Another example of Biden favoring the jobs-creation component of climate action is his announcement on Wednesday that his administration is moving ahead with a Civilian Conservation Corps, a green jobs program modeled after the original New Deal. The clean energy economy may score political points, but it means little for climate change if the fossil fuel industry continues to expand. Indeed, oil and gas are expanding, despite the US’s commitments on climate change. The US set a new record for petroleum exports this year and is the biggest natural gas exporter in the world. Oil companies are charting out big new expansions on public lands, including ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska.
You see this tension even in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Biden said his administration “has treated this crisis as an existential threat,” pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act’s “largest investment ever anywhere in the history of the world to combat the climate crisis and help move the global economy toward a clean energy future.”
The law could get the US most of the way toward its goal of slashing climate pollution in half by 2030 from peak 2005 emissions, but its implementation will matter as much as whether those cuts are as large as promised. And while $369 billion is a lot of money, it still comes up short of the downpayment needed to handle climate change’s impacts. Compare the seemingly large sum to what governments put into the fossil fuels industry just last year: Fossil fuel subsidies grew to a new record level worldwide, at $7 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Activists recognize the US won’t end its production or consumption of oil in a single day. But they’re staking out a position that phasing out our dependency needs to get underway aggressively, and every domestic policy — from the implementation of the IRA to Biden’s interpretation of his executive powers — should reflect the ultimate goal.
Are the protests having an effect?
With an eye on Democratic turnout in 2024 as well as his legacy, Biden has responded to criticism from climate activists, even if he hasn’t gone as far as they would like. Last week, the administration announced that it was canceling the remaining leases in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge while protecting new swaths of the National Petroleum Reserve, both important Arctic regions valued for their ecosystems.
Biden’s policies are also not the only measure of the climate movement’s success. In the last few years, climate activists have increasingly gone after targets that are less obvious than oil companies. Some groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have gone after the rich individuals and institutions that enable fossil fuels by popping up at art museums and sports events.
“Everyone has different perspectives of who to target, and it’s all part of a tapestry of naming governments and corporations that haven’t been held accountable to the public,” Su said.
Lately, protesters have targeted the financial sector for its role in funding the expansion of oil and gas development. Private companies and central banks are still aligned around fossil fuels, which puts them at odds with their own climate commitments. But the increasing criticism has led banks and the energy industry to make scores of new net-zero commitments and pledges to fight climate change. How much these commitments translate into concrete action is debatable, as the corporate world chases quarterly profits instead of delivering on promises made in press releases.
Activists are sticking around to remind these industries that they are watching closely. This influence sometimes translates into change within the industry, such as the rise of shareholder resolutions pushing climate priorities at annual oil company meetings.
Biden’s comments to the UN General Assembly do hint at activists’ strength. He singled out fossil fuels a cause of the record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, and flooding throughout the world. “Taken together,” the president said, “these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof our world.”