Days after a new study found that fossil fuel use could cook the whole Antarctic ice sheet, a coalition of hundreds of scientists, advocates and environmental groups is asking President Obama to ban new oil, gas and coal extraction on public land.
“We call on you to make our nation the first to commit to keeping all of its remaining, unleased public fossil fuels in the ground, thereby challenging other nations to do the same,” the group wrote Monday in an open letter to the White House. “Such leadership is necessary to ensure a livable climate and planet for both present and future generations.”
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The range of names on the letter is a testament to the spreading acceptance of outright climate activism. Some of the people are already famed for their activism, like Noam Chomsky, Bill McKibben and Tim DeChristopher, the young man who landed in jail after disrupting a 2007 oil and gas auction with fake bids.
Others stand out for apparently crossing a new line in their personal push against fossil fuels. The United Auto Workers Union, for example, is there alongside organizations like 350.org, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. There’s also Michael Mann, the climatologist dragged into the debunked “climate gate” scandal of 2009. Another signer: Katharine Hayhoe, the so-called evangelical environmentalist because of her blend of top-tier science credentials and Christian faith.
Their effort, which will be further unveiled at a press conference Tuesday morning outside the White House, will almost certainly fail – at least in the short term. There are more than 67 million acres of public land already leased to the fossil fuel industry, and the Obama administration has signed off on nearly a quarter of that total, plus an additional 21 million acres of fuel-rich ocean floor.
In fact, the president has repeatedly defended the need for the development of American fossil fuel reserves. “Our economy still has to rely on oil and gas,” Obama said last month. “As long as that’s the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports.”
Hillary Clinton seems to agree. She was asked at a town hall in July if she would support a similar ban on fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Like Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate said no. “The answer is not until we’ve got the alternatives in place,” she told a gaggle of protesters. “That may not be a satisfactory answer to you but I think I have to take the responsible answer.”
And yet both the Clinton protesters and the letter’s writers have a case to make in favor of restrictions. It’s based on the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which has been chiseled into a single scary figure: 80% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground in order to keep global warming within a relatively safe range.
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That idea got a surprise boost last Friday when scientists reported what would happen if we released all the heat-trapping emissions left on Earth. They found that burning the world’s deposits of coal, oil and natural gas would melt all of Antarctica’s ice, driving up sea levels enough to swamp coastal megacities from New York to Shanghai.
The letter’s writers argue that its largely up to America to prevent this fate. The issue of reserves will be on table in December when the world’s governments gather in Paris in hopes of reaching an accord. So far no country or company has committed to keeping even a smudge or a squirt of fossil fuel in the ground.
“As the world’s largest historic cumulative polluter and a global economic leader, the imperative for U.S. climate leadership is paramount,” the letter says. “A U.S. commitment to stop new fossil fuel leasing would set an important precedent in the global fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
They also argue that we don’t really need fossil fuels to keep the lights on and run the economy. This wasn’t a plausible case just a few years ago, but the world is adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. Even some investors admit that there’s no going back. The age of fossil fuel is ending. The only question, it seems, is who will actually end it?