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 liliputian 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 the Carmichael 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 Year, Plan­et Earth.

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