The battle lines are drawn — in some cases literally. On one side are those reaping massive profits from fossil fuels, determined to extract and sell as much as possible before the market dries up. On the other are those who see the amazing potential of energy conservation, renewable energy and other innovations to reduce pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystem destruction and exploitation of valuable non-renewable resources.
Despite international initiatives like the 2015 Paris Agreement, based on decades of research and evidence from around the world about human-caused global warming, those who would risk human health and survival for short-term profits from a destructive sunset industry appear to have the upper hand — for now. The election of a U.S. president and vice-president who deny the very existence of anthropogenic climate change and who have appointed likeminded people and industry executives to key positions illustrates how entrenched those committed to outdated, albeit still profitable, energy sources and technologies are.
Literal battles are heating up, such as at Standing Rock in the U.S., where the Sioux and their allies have been fighting to protect water resources and sacred sites from the 1,886-kilometre Dakota Access pipeline, which would transport crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois, under lakes and rivers, barely skirting Sioux territory.
Ideological battles are also heating up. Fossil fuel interests have long spent buckets of money to spread false and misleading information to downplay or deny the seriousness of climate change, aided by politicians, armies of online trolls and shady organizations and “think tanks.” The new U.S. administration has emboldened them further.
Unfortunately, those who believe we should continue to burn polluting, climate-altering, non-renewable fuels are bolstered by an abundance of resources: lots of money, secretly funded climate science-denial organizations, complacent media outlets and unethical politicians. Those of us who care about a safer, healthier future have our work cut out.
We also have a lot going for us. Despite the U.S. president’s promises, no one is going back to mining and burning massive amounts of coal. Making America — or any place — great doesn’t mean embracing 18th century technology in the 21st. That would be worse than if President Theodore Roosevelt had kicked the Ford Motor Company to the curb to keep the horse-and-buggy industry going!
Whatever greatness America can claim has largely been the result of government and society embracing science, technology and great ideas, from putting people on the moon to conserving some of the world’s most spectacular pristine places in its national parks system. Many of today’s political representatives and their fossil fuel cronies don’t seem to get that. But others do. Some, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, are developing clean power and storage technologies that are rendering fossil fuels obsolete.
Technological advances have made wind and solar cost-competitive, and the sector is growing rapidly. The U.S. Energy Department says the solar power industry alone employed almost twice as many people in electric power generation in 2016 as coal, oil and gas combined — 43 per cent compared to 22 per cent for fossil fuels. Meanwhile, coal-fired plants have dropped from supplying half the U.S.’s energy in 2008 to 30 per cent in 2016. Consumer electricity costs have also dropped significantly over the past year. Other countries and jurisdictions, including some U.S. states, are rapidly shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy, creating good jobs and economic opportunities.
Meanwhile, tensions around dwindling fossil fuel reserves — from Standing Rock to the Middle East — are increasing. People demanding change are coming together in massive marches and protests worldwide. Any administration that continues to support destructive energy-generating methods developed hundreds of years ago when consequences weren’t well understood, populations were smaller and conditions were different, will get left behind as the rest of the world prospers from new ideas and technologies.
It’s hard to fathom that so many people, especially in positions of power, can’t see the many benefits of science and technological progress. It wouldn’t be a battle if everyone accepted that clean air, fresh water, healthy agricultural soils and diverse ecosystems are critical to human health and survival.
There’s still time to get humanity on track, but in the face of powerful opponents who reject science and changes that improve people’s lives, there’s no time for complacency.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.