8 reasons why we need to phase out the fossil fuel industry

by Jack Shapiro

September 11, 2019

Fossil fuel companies are profiting from selling and burning vast quantities of coal, oil and gas, and it’s driven us into a full-blown climate emergency.

The industry’s bad behavior doesn’t stop with the carbon pollution that causes climate change. Here are eight reasons why we need to phase out fossil fuels once and for all.

1. Fossil fuels = Climate change

Let’s start with the basics. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas results in carbon pollution, which causes climate change. So if we want to stop climate change (and avoid devastating extreme weather, sea level rise wiping out communities, global conflict and instability, etc.), we have to stop burning fossil fuels. That wasn’t so hard, was it!

2. We already have more fossil fuels that we can use.

A blockbuster report last year from the UN made it clear that, to limit warming to 1.5°C (and avoid the worst of the above terrible consequences), we basically have to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030. That’s soon! Every single new ton of carbon pollution pushes global temperatures higher — and the total amount of carbon we can emit without going over that limit is referred to as our “carbon budget.” Here’s the thing: fossil fuel corporations have discovered roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal reserves than we can afford to burn and still limit warming to 1.5°C. Even the amount of carbon found in fossil fuel production projects currently moving forward (known as “developed reserves”) would by themselves push us past our climate targets.

3. The fossil fuel industry wants more (and to heck with the rest of us).

Despite the crystal clear warnings from scientists, and the evidence pouring in every day that climate impacts are already here — fossil fuel companies are still spending billions to lock in more climate pollution. In 2018, roughly $1.2 trillion in investment went to fossil fuels. $170 billion went to fossil fuel supply projects in the U.S. alone! We can’t let this happen. These companies and investors are literally betting billions on us failing to address climate change, and it’s unacceptable.

4. The fossil fuel industry has actually known about the climate crisis for decades.

Raking in massive profits while giving the bird to all future generations of humanity is not new for the fossil fuel industry. Investigations have uncovered that the industry was funding research into carbon pollution and was aware of the dangers of rising global temperatures all the way back in the 1960s. But instead of acting responsibly, companies like Exxon and Koch Industries funded a network of climate deniers to confuse the public, polarize the issue, and delay action. It’s both tragic and enraging. What could have been a difficult but manageable economic transition to clean renewable energy is — because of this industry — now an urgent planetary crisis that threatens the lives of millions.

Exxon Knew Banner in Dallas

5. The fossil fuel industry mistreats workers.

Fossil fuel industry workers and the communities where they operate pay a price. The upstream oil and gas industry has “one of the highest rates of severe injuries in the country,” and after years of decline, Appalachian coal miners are seeing a comeback of black lung disease. As the coal industry has declined, corporate bosses have stiffed workers: As “companies declare bankruptcy, executives get healthy bonuses, polluted coal mines are abandoned, and miners and retirees are denied long-promised health benefits and pensions.”

6. Clean air? They’re not worried about it.

On top of creating the climate crisis, burning fossil fuels also creates local air pollution. One kind, known as PM2.5, is soot so small it can actually enter your bloodstream, increasing the risk of death from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory illness among those exposed. Laws like the Clean Air Act have reduced health threats from air pollution since they were enacted in the 1970s, but polluters have fought them every step of the way. Tens of thousands of Americans still die every year from air pollution, and Trump’s attempted rollback of clean air protections could lead to 80,000 additional deaths every decade.

7. Clean water? They’ll pollute that too

The water pollution story is no better. Time and time again, oil spills and explosions have wreaked havoc on water, land, and homes and communities. Major incidents — such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or Enbridge’s massive tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River — show that there is no really safe way to extract, process, or transport fossil fuels. When there’s drillin’, there’s spillin’. It’s one of the issues that has sparked the Indigenous-led movement of water protectors and allies has risen up to oppose risky, climate-wrecking pipeline projects across the country such as Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and the Line 3 expansion. And if that weren’t enough, coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal in power plants — is incredibly toxic, is often stored in unregulated impoundment ponds, and can easily leak or spill into waterways.

Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Spills

Map of 373 U.S. hazardous liquids pipelines spills from 2010 to present for TransCanada (green), Kinder Morgan (purple) and Enbridge (blue). Data: PHMSA & EIA.

8. All of this deepens existing racial and economic injustice.

Climate impacts and conventional pollution hurt low-income communities and communities of color the hardest. Toxic waste sites (including toxic coal-fired power plants) are more often placed in communities without the political or economic power to fight them. Race and poverty predict higher exposure to the dangerous PM2.5 air pollution mentioned above. And a recent U.N. study found that climate change could “push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work.”

We need to phase out fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry and their political allies have tried to convince us that they are inevitable. But we know that’s not true. The transition to a clean, healthy, just, renewable energy economy can include everyone. It can clean up pollution, create millions of high-paying union jobs, and help end historic injustices, allowing all of our communities to thrive. That’s why we’re calling for presidential candidates to support a Green New Deal and a complete phase out of dangerous fossil fuels.

Visit the Greenpeace Climate 2020 Scorecard to see where the candidates stand on phasing out fossil fuels, and add your name to the petition to tell Congress we want a fossil fuel phase-out!

Jack Shapiro

By Jack Shapiro

Jack Shapiro is the Project Lead for Greenpeace USA's Climate Leadership project, focused on the intersection of climate change, policy, politics, and organizing.

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