Last week, a new United Nations report confirmed that the world needs to move radically faster to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. The future of trying to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, is grim: we may only have just over a decade to cut global emissions by 45% to reach this target.
The UN’s report is exhaustive and includes research from more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles. The conclusion: every fraction of a degree of warming matters.
While we’ve heard time and time again (from fossil fuel companies) that radical change would be too costly, economists disagree. Right after the UN panel called for urgent action on climate change, the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to William Nordhaus (who has been called “the father of climate-change economics,”) of Yale University for his work on the economics of a warming planet and to Paul Romer of New York University, whose study of innovation raises hopes that people can slow the downward spiral we collectively find ourselves in.
“Many people think that dealing with protecting the environment will be so costly and so hard that they just want to ignore the problem,” Romer said. “I hope the prize today could help everyone see that humans are capable of amazing accomplishments when we set about trying to do something.”
We need to act right now, though, on all fronts and every second of every day until we break through. At ERI we are doing everything possible to contribute to this urgent struggle. It is undoubtedly the “defining issue of our time” and a fight that none of us can afford to lose.
Here are a few of the lessons that ERI has learned through its work on climate change.
Climate activists have rightly identified coal as climate enemy #1, arguing that the world simply cannot sustain more burning of coal if we are to keep temperatures below 1.5C. We need to get out of coal now; that means all coal, everywhere.
People in developing countries rightly flag the equity considerations around a coal (or broader fossil fuel) phase-out. My former colleague James Morrissey and I worked on these issues (see his thoughtful discussion here).
Some analysts believe, however, that the economic benefit developing countries and local communities get from coal consumption will be outweighed by the negative impacts they will suffer by coal-induced climate change. What’s more, many developing countries have huge untapped renewable energy potential that could be harnessed to drive development cleanly and efficiently. This is the case in Myanmar, a country with significant solar and wind potential, and also one of the hardest hit by climate change according to the Global Climate Risk Index. In November, ERI will host Myanmar’s first National Energy Conference. Civil Society Organizations, local and international NGOs, and key community activists working on energy issues in Myanmar will come together to discuss and collaborate on how they can raise their voices to influence and shape national energy planning in Myanmar, including advocating for the country to shift away from developing coal-based energy. See more here about ERI’s work with local partners on coal and energy issues in Myanmar.
Fighting deforestation has long been recognized as key to addressing climate change. While some progress against deforestation had been being made in the Amazon, much of this work is threatened by political turbulence in Brazil and other countries in the region.
At the recent global climate summit in California, a group of funders announced major investments in addressing deforestation, working particular to support indigenous peoples as forest stewards.
Helping strengthen the capacities of indigenous lawyers and organizations in the Amazon has been the focus of ERI’s work for a number of years – including through our annual Latin American Seminar on Indigenous Legal Defense. Many of the graduates of the seminar are using their skills to help indigenous communities fight resource and infrastructure projects that will destroy forest areas. ERI’s legal team is also taking proactive action on deforestation by filing a lawsuit against the Chadin 2 dam project in Peru, which would destroy significant swaths of rainforest.
Even if we succeeded in reducing our future greenhouse gas emissions to zero, we would still be too late. Communities across the world—including in the United States—already are experiencing the impacts of climate change. And these impacts bring significant costs.
Who should pay these costs? We have to remember that 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions (including the usual suspects ExxonMobil and Shell).
If the world is going to decarbonize at the speed necessary to save the planet, the companies that produce the most carbon must be held accountable. That includes paying for the damage to the climate they have already caused (read about our climate change litigation here.) At EarthRights International, we’re working to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the costs of climate change, by representing communities in Colorado that are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor for climate change damages.
We can also link global efforts to promote payment transparency in the extractive industries with greater investment of EI revenues in renewable energy. ERI has led the legal fight for payment transparency in the United States, including suing the American Petroleum Institute and the Security Exchange Commission over implementation of the U.S. mandatory payment disclosure law. Even though this data is stuck in legal limbo in the United States, other jurisdictions, including Canada and the European Union, have implemented mandatory disclosure standards. That information is starting to be produced and could be used by activists in developing countries like Ghana, for example, to argue for oil revenues to be invested in climate-friendly renewables. The original goal of this disclosure effort was to increase the economic development benefits of EI. There may be no greater development benefit now than contributing to decarbonization and providing access to clean energy.
We’re already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change. By 2040, if we don’t act fast enough, we will see a potential global hellscape of ferocious storms, vast coastal flooding, violent conflict, and famine. Everyone needs to do their part.