While the nations of the world were putting the final touches on the historic Paris accord on climate change, I stood below the Eiffel tower gripping a 100 meter long banner with a simple, salient message, “It’s Up to Us to Leave It in the Ground.” The second “It” on the football field-sized banner refers to a polarizing substance not mentioned once in the agreement. That substance is fossil fuels, and despite the dozens of articles circulating on the Internet that claim the Paris deal signals an end to the fossil fuel era, no reference to “petroleum”, “oil”, “coal”, “natural gas” or “fossil fuels” appears anywhere within the 31 page document signed on Saturday, Dec. 12. Renewable energy is mentioned just once, in the preamble.
Throughout the two weeks leading up to the agreement, a large group of committed young activists fought to have an expiration date on the use of fossil fuels included in the agreement. They painted zeros around their eyes to signify the need for a commitment to zero fossil fuels by 2050. This is what scientists estimate is needed to achieve a 1.5 degree target for temperature increase.
While the group’s actions at the talks resonated, as it so often happens, the physical reality did not meet the political reality. The fossil fuel industry was not only present throughout the talks, but also some companies had helped to fund COP21, such as European companies Engie, Suez and EDF. The influence showed in the negotiations, and experts believe the non-binding targets selected by countries will lead to a rise in temperatures between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius.
It does not do nearly enough to deter climate disaster or to protect human rights.
For instance the agreement mobilized a small fraction of the climate finance needed to help developing nations shift off of fossil fuels and protect against climate disaster. The text even left it open for wealthier nations to use much maligned carbon offset programs. One such proposal, known as REDD, has come under heavy criticism by representatives from the Indigenous Environmental Network because it allows corporations to offsets their pollution in exchange for “protecting” forested land that native peoples are already stewarding.
Hanging over the entire agreement is the influence of the U.S. Congress, which is so drunk on the influence of fossil fuels that many representatives deny the dangers of human caused climate change entirely. Since Congress must approve all federal funding, the U.S. negotiators opposed all UN-mandated climate finance for developing nations.
It is up to us to overcome this political reality. We must build robust, progressive coalitions that oust politicians who oppose climate action along with the greater social and racial justice movements. We must overcome the power of the fossil fuel industry by overturning Citizens United and instituting publicly financed elections. We need to fight against voter suppression of youth and people of color and outlaw politically motivated gerrymandering.
But fixing our political system alone will not solve the problem. The fossil fuel industry and the banks that finance them are hell-bent on extracting every last bit of fossil fuel profit from the earth. That is why nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is essential to turning the tide and bringing about the end of the fossil fuel era.
Recent victories in blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline and drilling in the Arctic show what we can accomplish with a strong commitment to escalating nonviolent tactics. This May, a global campaign called Break Free will take this kind of action to another level as communities around the world engage in nonviolent direct action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The campaign recognizes that if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change we need to prevent 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves from being burned.
Lastly, we cannot stop fossil fuels alone. We must implement community-based solutions that create jobs, conserve energy and build a new, fairer economy. This spring the organization I work with, Earth Guardians, is partnering with IDEAS and other grassroots nonprofits to release a Climate Leaders Handbook. The guide will demonstrate ways to participate in carbon farming, energy efficiency, renewable energy and other climate fighting tactics, which increase local resilience.
With so many tools available to resolve this crisis, we don’t have to do everything, but it’s essential that we all do something. Whether it’s political reform, community solutions or nonviolent direct action, it’s time for everyone to choose a tactic. We are running out of time and it’s clear the United Nations isn’t going to fix this. It’s up to us.
Russell Mendell is a Colorado environmental activist currently in Paris.