Fossils in focus
Gently swaying trees made for a strange backdrop as West Kelowna’s fire chief took the podium in New York during the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit. “It was like fighting 100 years of fire all in one night,” relayed Jason Brolund in dress uniform and medals, silhouetted in front of a high-definition screen evoking the Garden of Eden.
“Some people made it to the lake, their only option to survive in the water.” The fire chief went on to describe truly heroic efforts by firefighters and the astonishing ferocity of the firestorm. “Climate change became very real for West Kelowna on August 16th.”
Brolund was invited to the UN by Justin Trudeau and Steven Guilbeault along with Halifax assistant fire chief Sherry Dean, who also told her stories first-hand. “First responders on the front lines understand that ambitious collective action to tackle climate change is now a matter of survival,” Trudeau said at the event.
And I think it’s worth highlighting that scene in New York, not only because the firefighters deserve the attention but also because our government organized something we should encourage them to do a lot more often, more systematically, and across Canada (maybe with less incongruous stagecraft).
Climate change is coming home for more and more Canadians but it’s still a pretty abstract thing for most of us, most of the time. And the public has even less of a grasp on the scope and specifics of the actions needed. While climate advocates rightly list the many failures and inadequacies of the feds, it is also true they are operating against nearly blanket obstructionism from the premiers and a Conservative Opposition ardently opposed to any restrictions on fossil fuels with a leader delivering increasingly clever and seductive messaging on climate action.
Perhaps most importantly, voters remain unclear about the real-world steps needed and the rationale behind government policies. Six in 10 Canadians either think we can expand fossil fuels and reach net zero, or aren’t sure. Heat pumps remain mysterious. Electrification and batteries, dubious. About half of Canadians aren’t sure whether solar panels emit more greenhouse gases than they end up saving.
We’ve got very vocal premiers dissing clean energy, rampant online misinformation conflating freedom with fossil fuels and far-too-few counterbalancing efforts to build a public mandate for action.
At the UN event, Fire Chief Brolund tallied at least $20 million spent in 36 hours on just that one fire this summer and estimated triple that figure in insurance losses. “What could we have accomplished if we used that same amount of money proactively?” he asked.
“We’re spending the money on the wrong end of the problem.”
We are, tragically, far too advanced in the climate crisis to avoid huge sums responding to crises and adapting to impacts. But that only makes it all the more urgent to focus on the right end of the problem.
And fossil fuels got a whole new level of focus at the UN Climate Ambition Summit. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has succeeded at keeping its products off the agenda. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has its target right there in the title. The Montreal ozone treaty’s formal title is awkward but unambiguous — the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The Paris Agreement, by contrast, never mentions oil, gas, coal or the f-words even once.
As you probably know, the week kicked off with a global “March to End Fossil Fuels.” Rallying in New York, an estimated 75,000 people heard speakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez underline the new, tighter message, “We are all here for one reason: to end fossil fuels around the planet.”
When world leaders gathered for the annual United Nations General Assembly and the Climate Ambition Summit, many of the protesters headed to the financial district. Nearly 150 were arrested blockading the Federal Reserve. Others camped outside of Bank of America protesting its $280 billion in finance to fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement.
Inside the UN, diplomats and politicians were more demure but increasingly focused on the fossil fuel industry. Secretary General António Guterres declared, “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”
Only countries deemed to have new ambition on climate were asked to attend the secretary general’s Climate Ambition Summit. Among the big fossil fuel producing nations, only Canada managed to wangle an invite.
Trudeau got the diplomat’s version of a grilling before his turn to speak. UN Under-Secretary-General Melissa Fleming introduced Canada as “one of the largest expanders of fossil fuels last year.”
She asked the PM to explain whether Canada is aligning with the secretary-general’s Acceleration Agenda, which pointedly calls on rich countries to end all licensing and funding of new coal, oil and gas and to end expansion of existing oil and gas reserves. (Wealthy countries are also asked to hit net zero by 2040, phase out coal power by 2030, end fossil fuel subsidies, set ambitious renewable energy targets, and implement just energy transitions.)
As the summit proceeded, an unprecedented number of political leaders echoed the call from the streets. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was crystal clear: “This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” he said. “It’s the burning of oil, it’s the burning of gas, it’s the burning of coal and we need to call that out.”
Newsom had just launched a lawsuit against five big oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute. The state claims the companies deceived the public, caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and wants compensation. “These companies knew about the catastrophic consequences of fossil fuels,” Newsom said. “They covered it up. Suppressed scientific data. Spent millions to cast doubts on climate science. Time for them to pay.”
The president of Chile was similarly blunt: “The climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis, so we have to leave fossil fuels behind. And we also have to react to the greenwashing by major businesses.”
Spain’s prime minister called for “more efforts to eliminate fossil fuels.” While Germany looked forward to the upcoming COP28: “In Dubai, it will take the resolve of all of us to phase out fossil fuels.”
Colombia’s intervention really stood out because the country is heavily dependent on fossil fuels — 60 per cent of the country’s exports, according to President Gustavo Petro. Nevertheless, he said: “The real goal that all countries should have is aiming for zero in terms of production and supply of coal, gas and oil. If we keep as we are on our current track, it will be suicide.”
In August, Colombia announced it was joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance of countries committed to phase out oil and gas production.
It was so unusual to hear so many leaders speak so clearly that it’s worth rounding up a few more highlights.
Tuvalu’s prime minister called for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to supplement the Paris Agreement and declared: “There is no greater threat than fossil fuels.The longer we remain addicted to fossil fuels, the longer we commit ourselves to mutual decline.”
The Marshall Islands publicly joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. President David Kabua said the country was “lending our strength to those taking the courageous decision to leave fossil fuels in the ground.”
He told the assembled nations: “We call for a fossil fuel phaseout and demand that abatement technology not be used to greenlight continued expansion. Fossil fuels are at the root of this crisis.”
Palau called for commitments on no new oil, coal and gas. “We urge all major emitters to develop fossil fuel phaseout plans.”
The momentum to build an international structure to tackle fossil fuels continued beyond the official speechifying. Nine Peruvian Indigenous nations called for a treaty on fossil fuels. And WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, gave its panda seal of endorsement.
For those discouraged by decades of official obfuscation about the biggest driver of climate change, this week’s rhetoric was startling in its clarity. Countries big and small, rich and poor are dropping the diplomatic euphemisms and training their sights on target.
“The urgent actions required remain elusive,” said Harjeet Singh, head of political strategy for Climate Action Network International and engagement director for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.
“But at the Climate Ambition Summit, the world heard an unequivocal message: We are in the midst of a climate emergency, and fossil fuels are its chief culprit.”