Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Climate Justice Provides a Moral Case for the Aggressive Switch to Renewable Energy

The future of fossil fuels looks grim.  The popularity of coal, oil and natural gas is waning in the face of rising production and transport costs, along with a growing public consciousness demanding that fossil resources be left in the ground.  Throw in the fact that renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and tidal power continue to go down in price, and it’s clear that fossil fuel’s days are numbered. 

That may seem a bold statement to make when you observe the situation on the ground today.  Globally, fossil fuels accounts for a staggering 87% of all energy consumed (see: "Global Energy Trends - BP Statistical Review 2014",, June 18, 2014).  However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that fossil fuels are not sustainable. Burning fossil fuels at the current rate is completely at odds with the need to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.  Further, the transportation of fossil resources to markets, whether by pipelines, rail or tanker ships, is meeting with increased resistance from citizens concerned about the health and well-being of their families and the local and global environment.

The emergence of the climate justice movement is a direct challenge to the future of fossil fuels.  With a focus on maintaining and improving the health of the planet through an equitable, evidence-based approach to the environment and energy, climate justice embodies a growing awareness around the morality of the continued use of fossil fuels to meet global energy needs.

The science is clear. Holding the line of warming at a non-catastrophic level will require most of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves to remain in the ground.  If reserves are extracted and burned, it is quite likely that the planet will experience warming between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century – and even more in the 22nd century.  While these time frames may seem remote, I can’t help but think that my own children, and my grandchildren (should there be any) will likely be around at century’s end, dealing with a planet transformed by climate change.  Concern for the well-being of future generations is why the need to decarbonize our economy is increasingly being framed as a moral issue.

Calls for academic institutions and pension funds to divest from corporate fossil energy stocks are based on both the moral argument to stop profiting from an industrial activity which is harming the planet, and economics which question the long term viability of fossil fuel profits in light of rising resource costs and the growing climate justice movement.

Blockadia, a term popularized by Canadian author Naomi Klein in her best-selling book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”, was first used by direct action protesters opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas (see: "Naomi Klein: Only a Reverse Shock Doctrine Can Save Our Climate", Joshua Holland,, September 16, 2014).  Don’t think of Blockadia as a single place, but rather as collective series of grassroots actions on the front lines of the climate justice movement.  Blockadia insists that new fossil fuel extraction and transport projects lack a social license, given the known need to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius.  In Canada, two recent Blockadia events made international headlines – the anti-fracking demonstrations at Elsipogtog in New Brunswick, and the pipeline protests on Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia.

The largest hurdle to limit climate change impacts has been a lack of political will.  Calls to divest from fossil energy resources and the direct actions of Blockadia are advancing compelling moral arguments in favour of weaning our economy off of fossil fuels.  Our elected officials are starting to pay attention to the morality-based positions of climate justice. With growing political will to take action on climate change, an aggressive shift to renewable energy will follow. The future of fossil fuels looks grim.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published as "Decarbonizing the economy a moral issue", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, May 2, 2015 (print and online), without hyperlinks.

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