Volts podcast: treating fossil fuels like nuclear weapons, with Tzeporah Berman

A conversation about the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  
0:00
-1:00:21

In this episode, longtime activist Tzeporah Berman discusses the need to track and reduce fossil fuel production (not just consumption) and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty that she and other activists created to help coordinate those efforts.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Tzeporah Berman, July 7, 2021

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

For as long as I've been covering climate change, it's been conventional wisdom among economists — and the kind of people who aspire to please economists — that the proper focus of climate policy is on demand. We must reduce demand for fossil fuels, the argument goes, otherwise any supply we shut down will just pop up somewhere else.

Activists have always disagreed with this logic. For many of them, the fight against climate change is a fight for places — specific places, with histories, peoples, and ecosystems — and every fossil fuel project is, in some way or another, an assault on a place. Over the last decade, more economists and policy wonks have come around to their way of thinking, questioning both the economics and the sociology of the demand-focused conventional wisdom. As things stand now, wealthy fossil fuel–producing countries are making grand emission reduction commitments while continuing to ramp up production. All that fossil fuel has to go somewhere. It creates its own set of commitments and investments, its own momentum.

My guest today, Canadian activist Tzeporah Berman, has been fighting for places since grunge and flannel were big. There is no way to do her resume justice in a short intro, or else I would never get to the podcast, but here are some highlights.

Share

In the 1990s, she fought clear-cutting projects with blockades and civil disobedience. In 2000, she co-founded ForestEthics, which uses clever communications campaigns to shame companies into using less old-growth wood.

In 2004, she turned to climate change, founding her own nonprofit advocacy group, PowerUp, to defend BC’s carbon tax; in 2010 she became co-director of Greenpeace International's 40-country climate and energy program, where she led its storied Arctic and Volkswagen campaigns; in 2015, she was appointed to the BC government’s Climate Leadership Team to advise on climate policy; in 2016, she was appointed as co-chair of the Alberta government’s Oil Sands Advisory Group. She also led the effort to secure the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, which protects more than 40 million hectares of old growth forest.

Her activism continues today — she was just arrested in May defending old growth forests on unceded Pacheedaht and Ditidaht Territories on Vancouver Island, BC.

Anyway! In 2019, Berman received the Climate Breakthrough Project Award from a coalition of foundations, which came with $2 million to create “breakthrough global strategies” on climate change. She used the money on a project she’s been thinking about for a while: the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The IPCC is clear: there are already enough fossil fuels in known reserves to blow the world past its 1.5°C temperature limit. Yet fossil fuel production continues to increase.

Fossil fuels have become a threat to all of humanity, as nuclear weapons are, and just as with nuclear weapons, Berman believes we need a global agreement to cap their growth and ramp them down. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is meant to be a template for such an agreement.

Though the treaty is relatively new, it has already been signed by nine cities and subnational governments, more than 480 organizations, and over 12,000 individuals, including a wide array of academics, researchers, and scientists.

I called Berman to hear more about the need to address fossil fuel supply, the motivations behind the treaty, and where it might go in the future.

Tzeporah, welcome to Volts.

Tzeporah Berman:

Thank you. 

David Roberts:

I'm so happy to have you here. It seems like the last time we talked was either a few years ago or 100 years ago.

Tzeporah Berman:  

It definitely feels like a very long time ago, but so does last week. Time is fungible right now.

David Roberts:

Time is meaningless. OK, so I want to talk to you about many things, including the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. But before that, I'd like to just hear a little bit about what pulled you into all of this. You were born into a middle class Jewish family in London, Ontario, and went to school originally for fashion design, yes? 

Tzeporah Berman:  

You’ve been digging far back!

David Roberts:

And you were even lauded, even won some fashion-y awards -- then took a sharp left turn. So what in your youth pulled you toward environmental activism?

Tzeporah Berman:  

Like a lot of my privileged generation, I took a trip to Europe, with a Let’s Go Europe in my hand and a train ticket, in my first year of university, in the summer, and at the time my dream was to go to the Acropolis. I was studying Art and Art History and Fashion Arts Design because I had to have a career and all I wanted to do was art. 

That year, in the late ‘80s, pollution was so bad — in a lot of cities in Europe, but in Athens in particular — that the Acropolis was melting. I can remember hiking up to the top, and this is before all the restoration, and you could just see the pollution on it. It was all crumbling. I looked down on the city, and it was just covered in this yellow haze. I got back to my youth hostel and I remember rubbing my face and leaving a white streak across it and coughing up black goo. 

And I was like, I have got to get out of here. I mean, I'm Canadian, I'm used to a lot of space, a lot of air. And my sister and I, who I was traveling with, we were like, we’ve got to go to nature. We just picked a spot on the map and went to Germany: we're going to hike in the Harz Mountains and drink beer! And we went to the Harz Mountains. I didn't know that most of the Harz Mountains is dead, left standing as a testimony to acid rain. So we get off this train and start hiking through a standing dead forest, not a bird sound, not anything. 

Those two days rocked my world. I remember coming back to Canada and thinking, we are so lucky. And being really scared. I think environmental consciousness is one of those things where there's a new lens and then you can't see anything else. I, at least, went through that phase, and I seem to have never gotten out of it. So I started working on environmental issues, I dropped out of Fashion Arts Design, and I enrolled in Political Science and Environmental Theory and Environmental Studies at university. That was the beginning for me.

David Roberts:

And it's been a long road since. You spend a lot of your time organizing and fighting against forest exploitation, clear cutting, and fossil fuel exploitation. In the climate wonk community, it’s conventional wisdom that the only way to really solve the fossil fuel problem is to go after demand.

If people want fossil fuels, they're going to find them and burn them; if you shut down demand, it doesn't matter if people are supplying fossil fuels, they won't get bought. But if you shut down a supply project, and there still is demand, supply will just pop up elsewhere.

I'm sure you've heard variations on this a kajillion times. Why do you think that's wrong?

Tzeporah Berman:

I think the theory for a long time, now almost 30 years, has been that we're going to constrain demand -- which is happening, obviously: more electric cars, zero emission buildings, zero emission vehicles, etc. -- demand is going to go down, price is going to go up, a higher price on carbon, and the markets are going to constrain supply. That's what I often get from the Canadian government: “We're not responsible for who produces or how much fossil fuels are produced, we're just responsible for emissions.” And the thing about that market theory around demand is that it's not working. I mean, it's not working fast enough to keep us safe, that much is clear. 

I still actually kind of like it as a theory, but the fact is that there are two big problems with it. One is that the markets are completely distorted by fossil fuel subsidies and now by governments out-and-out buying projects that the industry runs away from. So renewables are cheap, cheaper than fossil fuels in a lot of places now; oil and gas companies are operating at the bottom of the SMP, more bankruptcies in that sector than any other; but these projects are still surviving.

Like the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Canada: it's surviving because investors ran away from it and the government bought it for $12 billion. That's because of the political influence of the fossil fuel industry, and because governments are only just starting to really grapple with the fact that they're going to actually need to deal with supply as well as demand. The fact is, there are very few issues, if any — intransigent issues, where governments have had to step in — that we haven't had to deal with both the supply and the demand side of the equation.

David Roberts:  

Another thing that I think is germane, especially to your case, is: “demand” is abstract. But fossil fuel supply fights take place on the ground, in particular places, and pull people in for a wider variety of reasons. So tell me about a supply fight that you won. What brings people into it?

Tzeporah Berman: 

I will, but I want to say one thing about places and policies. As a forest activist, when I first started working in the climate movement and on climate issues, the thing that I really noticed is: in the forest and conservation movement, we fight for places. We campaign about places. The climate movement — especially 15, 20 years ago, when I really started engaging — talks about not places, but policies.

I'll never forget, at a briefing with this great, brilliant pollster, Angus McAllister, he said to me, “Why is it that the climate movement is always trying to sell the airplane ride to the vacation? Sell the beach! Sell where you're trying to get to! Not the complicated, annoying journey to get to it.”

I think that's relevant here. I have three university degrees, and I spent years trying to figure out, what am I for on climate change? It's like, “no cap-and-trade, no cap-and-trade and auction, and then is it carbon tax, but from this benchmark date, and not this.” And we wonder why millions of people are not getting involved. 

Then when the pipeline, and the coal plant, or even the Heathrow Airport — when these tangible fights start arising, people can see them in their backyard, they can see that they're bad. The problem with climate change for years has been that carbon emissions are invisible. Oil spills are not. This pipeline, right now, they're starting to drill under Burnaby Mountain and under the Fraser River to put this pipeline in. Well, that's very tangible to people. 

I've been working on pipelines and oil sands issues for a little more than 10 years, and in that time, I would say we've won almost every fight. We've either stopped or delayed every single pipeline that the industry has proposed, other than the existing pipeline fights, which are Trans Mountain and Line 3.

Enbridge Northern Gateway: dead. Keystone: dead. Energy East: dead. These pipelines have been stopped because of citizen action, which delays the project, raises the concerns, and draws both investor action and government policy action.

David Roberts:

People’s involvement and passion for a particular place, protecting a particular landscape, is hard to generate for “the atmosphere,” which is everywhere and nowhere. Do people build momentum from these fights to go on to bigger things?

Tzeporah Berman:

Oh, entirely. Yes. The momentum builds. But also, what I've noticed and witnessed is, people go through a personal journey. The climate movement is growing and diversifying because of these fights. 

David Roberts:

You think they pull in young people, specifically?

Tzeporah Berman: 

They definitely pull in young people. But what I was thinking of in the back of my head was indigenous leaders that I have worked with in Canada, on Northern Gateway for example, who started these fights because this is a human rights issue. It's issues to do with their trap lines, their concern for water. As we work together, as we're having discussions, as they're learning, it's a journey. Now many of those same leaders are giving some of the most passionate climate speeches I've ever heard. 

Nebraska farmers that I worked with on Keystone, they started this because of eminent-domain issues. I watched some of those individuals become passionate about working on climate change. Because it's a journey — they start to be introduced to the other aspects of the issues. It's a mistake that we make in all of our communications work: we keep talking about the message box and the narratives. Well, we need a narrative that brings people with us, and that's what's happened through the site fights.

David Roberts:

This might sound like a weird parallel, but when people talk about music, lyrics that are very specific — ”Jane broke my heart at the high school dance” — can resonate in a universal way, even more universal than if you try to write something more generic and broad. The specificity of it is a gateway to the universal. I think of land fights and exploitation fights the same way. Like the Nebraska farmers: “Oh, this fight is happening all over the place.” 

Tzeporah Berman: 

Right, and they motivate people, because they're not about information and data and statistics. Of course there has to be a foundation of knowledge, but what resonates with people are the values: this isn't fair, this isn't right that this is happening to this local community, that they face the dangers or the cleanup from the oil development, or the toxins. Then there's a journey around to, “Well, wait a minute, why do these oil and gas companies get to profit off this when we know that it's killing us?” — not just at the local site level, but because of the contribution to climate change. 

What we know from decades of social movement theory and psychological research is that what motivates people is triggering values, but also an opportunity to do something. Education doesn't motivate; opportunity motivates.

David Roberts:

Agency. Having some sense of control.

So what happens when the indigenous people of northern Canada meet the Nebraska farmers, meet people in the Congo fighting oil projects — unlike demand fights, which tend to be fought by wonks and wonky NGOs, these supply fights bring in a really wide diversity of people. What does it look like when those people hook up with one another? What’s it like to watch them try to work things out?

Tzeporah Berman:

It's fascinating. It's joyful. It is also painful. One of the things I did when I was working predominantly on tar sands and pipelines is start to bring people together. I realized, whether you're in Nebraska or northern British Columbia, you're often fighting the same oil companies, the same pipeline companies — same strategy, same messaging, struggling with the same or similar regulatory issues. But they weren’t talking to each other; the movement wasn't learning from each other. It was very disparate. 

So I started convening these gatherings, 100 people at a time; first domestically in the US and Canada, and then eventually internationally through a network I helped create called the Global Gas and Oil Network. I have memories of sitting at a retreat center, watching an indigenous chief from a remote community engage with a Nebraska farmer, and a union leader, and then a climate policy wonk from NRDC, and then we've just finished dinner and they're all getting into the hot tub. I'm like, “Oh my god, what's gonna happen?”

David Roberts:

You’re over there chewing your fingernails.

Tzeporah Berman:

Some great and fascinating collaborations happened because of that. We all learned from each other. And there were huge blowouts!

David Roberts:

The Nebraska farmer is about private property rights; that's their lens. The indigenous leader is coming at it from a completely different viewpoint. What is the Venn diagram overlap where they can work together? It’s so fraught.

Tzeporah Berman: 

Oh yeah. In some ways it was a microcosm of all the debates. We were fiercely debating which issues are most important, how do you talk about this issue, who talks about the issue, what are we asking for, what if the government says yes to this but says no to this indigenous rights issue? As a movement, we are grappling with all those questions.

It's almost like we were testing it out before we went public. We were learning from each other and, quite frankly, unlearning our own biases, doing the deep work of decolonization and understanding our own privilege and trying to figure that out. 

In the process of doing all of that, we reached some pretty important agreements, which you see in the campaigns over the last many years: a commitment to step back for a lot of white folks and help raise indigenous voices and indigenous perspectives. A commitment to try and find resources for grassroots groups on the ground, instead of it just being “the big group” saying what the issues were. All of those things.

I think the movement has strengthened and diversified as a result of the site fights.

David Roberts:

Do you think there is something like a global movement against fossil fuel exploitation forming, or possible? As you say, every site fight is different, every place is different, in many senses the values that people bring to these things are very different. What is the connecting thread that might make a global movement? What would it look like?

Tzeporah Berman:

It’s, what does it look like? Because we are creating it. A whole bunch of us have been, for the past five or six years, consciously trying to connect the threads and figure out how to have global conversations that bring people together; to bring indigenous groups in the heart of the Amazon into a strategy conversation around what should we be doing at the United Nations relative to fossil fuels? What about the subsidies campaigns? How do we do finance strategies? 

It used to be there were just some environmental groups, maybe grassroots groups, having these conversations. Now you see more and more voices coming in, people from different countries connecting to it through the Global Gas and Oil Network, but also now through the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative and campaign that we've been developing. 

We realized we had to stop playing whack-a-mole — this pipeline, this project in Argentina, this offshore drilling in Norway — and we had to say, “No.” We had to say, “the science is really clear, we have to stop fossil fuel expansion.”

This was hard. This was a fight inside the climate movement, especially with climate policy wonks and philanthropic foundations. During the Keystone campaign, we had philanthropic foundations and other NGOs coming to us and saying, you have to stop this campaign, because it's not a climate campaign. It's diverting attention from the important climate issues.

David Roberts:

I heard many, many wonks make similar arguments.

Tzeporah Berman: 

That was happening all over the world. What we did is, we found our peers. A number of us — Steve Kretzmann and Hannah McKinnon from Oil Change International, myself, a bunch of others — made a list of the 100 people we knew who are at the forefront of oil and gas fights around the world, then added to that list a bunch of academics that we knew were thinking about supply-side policy, and indigenous leaders. 

At the time, there was a huge battle going on around the Lofoten offshore drilling in Norway. So we cast about and said, who wants to host this big strategy retreat? And the groups in Norway did. So we facilitated a five-day retreat for 100 people in Lofoten, Norway. That was the beginning of this international network.

That's where we released the Lofoten Declaration, which is the first global declaration calling for an end to fossil fuel expansion everywhere, and a global just transition.

In my mind, that's the moment when things changed — when we started really looking at supply-side pathways and the need for international cooperation and more work on constraining fossil fuels.

David Roberts:

That's a great segue into the treaty. It blew my mind a little bit, when you were first thinking about this and putting it together — I assumed people were keeping track of fossil fuels in the world, where they're being dug up, how much, and who's doing it. But it turns out, not! Can you tell us about the registry idea, and the state of knowledge about global fossil fuel production?

Tzeporah Berman: 

We started thinking, OK, so if the scientists and even Mark Carney [Governor of the Bank of England] is out there saying we have to keep two-thirds of fossil fuels in the ground, how much are we currently planning on producing? I also thought it would be an easy question to answer.

What we now know is, countries are responsible for submitting emissions data into the UN, and domestically. That's all easy to find. But if you want to count up today who's producing what [fossil fuels] and how much, you have to buy the data from Rystad and Wood Mackenzie. That’s exactly what Oil Change International has been doing for years, producing its Sky's Limit reports. That's what Stockholm Environment Institute is doing in producing the Production Gap report.

Most governments themselves don't even know, or don't have anywhere that they count up, what's being produced and how much.

David Roberts: 

So these private databases are the only places where that information exists.

Tzeporah Berman: 

If you dig deep at a national government level, you can find it. There are great experts out there, like Pete Erickson from Stockholm Environment Institute and others, who can do this. If you're an average person — or even, as I've discussed in several countries, a minister — you can't find it and you don't know what's being produced.

Intransigent global issues like this — nuclear weapons, landmines, etc. — the first piece in a global reckoning is accountability and transparency. In fact, that would be the first piece at a national level as well. And we don't have transparency or accountability. We don't even have a comprehensive database of how much coal, oil, and gas reserves, resources, and production is happening globally at any given time. It's not even accessible to decision-makers, let alone publicly accessible. 

That’s the basis of this idea which we're now producing a prototype for, called the Global Registry of Fossil Fuel Production: that we can't count up the carbon budget, we can't assess the potential lock-in of fossil fuel infrastructure and fossil fuels, if we don't know how much is being produced or who's producing it. We can't hold anyone accountable on that side of the ledger.

So the first critical piece in this puzzle was the Production Gap report that the Stockholm Environment Institute produced with the United Nation Environment Program, ISD, and others. It's that report that started crunching the global numbers and said for the first time that we're currently on track to produce 120 percent more fossil fuels than the world can ever safely burn under a 1.5 degrees scenario. In fact, we already have enough oil, gas, and coal, either above ground or under production, to take us past 2 degrees.

So the majority of the world's financial, political, and intellectual capital at this moment in history is going to produce three products — oil, gas, and coal — which are responsible for 80 percent of the emissions trapped in our atmosphere. Three products which we can't use if we want to have a stable climate.

David Roberts: 

So you put out this request for proposals on the registry, because I imagine there's quite a few logistical and technical issues to work out. What's the state of the registry now? Did somebody win that? Is somebody out there working on it?

Tzeporah Berman:  

Yeah, they did. What was really exciting is, we had a lot of submissions from some of the biggest energy agencies and analysts from around the world. None of them alone could really do it properly, because it's really hard to do. 

So what we ended up doing is starting negotiations between Global Energy Monitor and Carbon Tracker Initiative, because they both harvest data in totally different ways. This needs to be tested: what you need to do is to scrape data from industry, scrape data from governments. Originally we thought, oh, it's OK, Rystad and Wood McKenzie already do this. But we can't use their data — you have to be very careful, because they’re a company.

I actually think they're probably not very happy with us, because we're really having a go at their business model here.

David Roberts:

If you succeed in this, it's gonna take a whack off some big revenue streams for some big companies.

Tzeporah Berman:

Yes. When we launch it, which will be the prototype at COP 26, it will be the first open-source, comprehensive, detailed database of coal, oil, and gas reserves, resources, and production globally, that is both publicly accessible and is starting to have some buy-in from governments and other major institutions.

It will be quite a sophisticated, but interactive and publicly accessible, database. And it's on its way, currently being produced.

David Roberts: 

With some of the poorer fossil fuel producing countries that maybe don't have governments interested in transparency, is there any way to enforce this? Is there any data that are off limits, that you have to fight to get, or is all the data out there somewhere and this is mostly about gathering it? Like if Congo, for instance, wanted to hide how much fossil fuel it's producing or obscure it in some way, could they? 

Tzeporah Berman:  

Considering the majority of oil, for example, is from national companies: maybe. Honestly, I would have to talk to Carbon Tracker and Global Energy Monitor and see how they're doing on that front. But they were pretty confident that with what industry releases, combined with the data scrapes they're doing from government, they could provide a pretty significant picture. And we'll know, with the prototype. It's the first time that anyone has ever tried to build it and to make it available to the public.

What we're finding with both the registry and the fossil fuel treaty is that governments in the global south are pretty interested in this type of transparency, once we show them the data that shows that the majority, well over 70 percent, of the expansion planned for fossil fuels in the next five years is in the global north. It's in wealthy countries. 

David Roberts:

The very countries that are most vocal about climate change, right? 

Tzeporah Berman:  

That’s right. In fact, the majority of what is planned globally on oil and gas is in the US and Canada.

David Roberts: 

Let's talk then about the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Conceptually, where did this idea come from and what's it based on? What's the necessity for it? What do you want it to do or say?

Tzeporah Berman:  

The idea emerged from some of those conversations we were having in Norway and other places. What we realized is that every country was responding in the same way to this question of, how do we keep two-thirds of fossil fuels in the ground? Pretty much every nation-state, whether it was Norway, the UK, Canada, or Argentina, they were all saying: It’s not our problem. We don't deal with production, and obviously we couldn't, because then we wouldn't be competitive, and there would be leakage. If we don't produce it, someone else will. So these are all the answers of why they couldn't. 

Yet everyone's saying: we know we have to. Meanwhile, we are locking in all of this production. And all of this money and time is going to either fighting these projects or producing these projects that we can't use. The clock is ticking on electrification and the infrastructure that we actually need to be spending money on. 

So we started looking at what we could learn from other big, intransigent problems like this: the Montreal Protocol, the landmine treaty, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, nuclear weapons agreements. The idea started emerging, well, if one country can't do it alone, if it really is this kind of dilemma that no one will do it without the other countries, then that's the point where you need international agreements. That's what treaties are for. It’s a great analogy, the nuclear weapons treaty. 

Some academics started studying it. I think the first peer-reviewed paper to come out proposing a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty was from Peter Newell and Andrew Simms out of the UK. They are now on the steering committee of our initiative. I read their paper and I thought, yes, this is what we've been talking about for ages.

So I just called them up. I didn't know them yet. We’d been to some of the same conferences. And I said, Look, let's create an initiative and a working group and start talking about whether this is really real, and what we need to learn? What do we need to study? And we pulled together a group of former diplomats and academics and activists from around the world and started talking about it. 

Then that summer, out of the blue pretty much, I won the Climate Breakthrough award, where they give you $2 million to form global climate solutions that no one has ever tried before.

David Roberts:

Well that was helpful.

Tzeporah Berman:  

Yeah, good timing — and, you know, no pressure, just solve climate change.

This is the first time in well over a decade that I've worked on anything which is commensurate with the scale of the problem. Sure, it's bold, audacious; and you know what, we need bold, audacious right now. We're racing against the clock and we keep not meeting our targets. Every COP, every UN negotiation I've ever been to or heard about, at the end of every one, there's a press release that comes out that says, well, we've done this, but we've failed to address climate change and the world is still burning.

I just thought, let's try this. And then it took off. I mean, it's been a little bit over two years since that. It's just taken off. It's grown so fast. 

Now with the IEA coming out last month with the 1.5 net zero scenario, acknowledging that if we are trying to meet net zero we have to stop fossil fuel expansion, we're actually the kid on the block that for years has been studying how to stop fossil fuel expansion. We all know that we need to do it now.

There's evidence showing that we need to do it, but I think everyone is now going to start looking for a pathway to how. Part of it is finance, the divestment campaigns; a huge part of it is finance. But again, we can't leave it up to the markets, not just because the markets are distorted, but because the markets aren't going to address equity and justice.

The basis of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative is that we are going to need international cooperation in order to stop fossil fuel expansion everywhere. And that if we're going to do it in a way that is equitable, that addresses injustice, we have to have the hard conversations like debt forgiveness.

I do a lot of work with Ecuadorian indigenous nations in the Amazon. They're facing new oil drilling entirely to feed Ecuador's debt. A lot of it is debt-for-oil swaps with China. There's a number of countries like that: Argentina, Ecuador, many countries that are starting new fossil fuel expansion not because they're going to use the products; they're just doing it to feed their debt. So equity and justice is a huge part of this. 

I think one of the reasons we need a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is that some countries, especially wealthy countries, can put in place policies at a national or subnational level to constrain fossil fuel expansion. But if we are going to constrain fossil fuel expansion fast enough, in the time that we have to support actually moving to zero and beyond, we're going to need international cooperation. Right now, the Paris agreement does not provide the mechanisms for the conversations that we need.

David Roberts:

There are estimates that for some, for example, African countries, a successful green energy transition would devastate their oil and gas revenues and hurt their economies. That's a large chunk of their national income in some cases. So we can be conscious of equity, and conscious of the disparate effects, but what would an international treaty or organization do about that, exactly?

It's the same dilemma Canada or the US has internally: there are some parts of the US where the economy is extremely dependent on fossil fuels and would demonstrably be hurt if they went away. Internationally, it seems like that's even trickier. So what do you do? What's the solution to that?

Tzeporah Berman:  

Part of what we're doing right now is starting to pull apart, what are the barriers in the global south, and really starting to do deep dives and understand the situations in particular countries. The treaty initiative is made up of organizations from around the world and we have core partners in each region. So Power Shift Africa, Third World Network, Asian People Movement on Debt and Development: these are groups that are now doing deep analysis and case studies of, for example, in Malaysia, PETRONAS and its influence. We're also working with Sivan Kartha and Greg Muttitt, who have written a seminal paper on equity and fossil fuel production. They basically look at a whole bunch of countries: What is their GDP? What are their jobs? What is their dependency right now, and so what are their barriers going to be? 

So we're doing the analysis, pulling apart the barriers. But what a treaty would do is, first of all, if countries agreed to the end of expansion, it provides a roadmap. So right now — it's really strange and in fact, when I first started looking at this stuff, I thought I was kind of crazy, because we're all talking about phasing out fossil fuels and everyone's talking about 100 percent renewable, and so I started doing the research to find out, what is my country's own plan for production? We don't have one. We don't actually plan for the production of fossil fuels to go down.

David Roberts: 

Canada you mean, specifically, or anyone?

Tzeporah Berman: 

Canada specifically, but pretty much any country other than Denmark, who has now announced no new expansion and planning for managed ramp-down and phaseout of production. So if you go and look at the NDCs of what countries file in the Paris agreement and look at any major producing country — US, UK, Canada — they are saying we're going to go 100 percent renewable, and they're saying, we commit to these emissions targets. But they're not actually saying that their fossil fuel production will go down. 

And that's because the fossil fuel industry has been working for decades to try and convince governments that they're going to separate production from emissions, that we are going to eventually have the technology competitive at scale (CCS, CCUS etc.) so that we can keep producing and reduce emissions. I mean, the evidence doesn't show that, and we've run out of time for that in a lot of ways. But we don't actually plan right now to end expansion. 

So the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is designed on the pillars of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. First of all, end the expansion. Second of all, manage a global phaseout of fossil fuel production. The third pillar is, ensure peaceful and just and equitable transition. Right now we have research, diplomatic efforts, and discussions going on under each of those three pillars, and our vision is for a world where vulnerable communities are offered an alternative pathway. That we actually planned for this, instead of just leaving it up to the markets. 

Poor countries will have to be supported by wealthier countries to transition away from fossil fuels. And right now, in all of those countries, they're under heavy pressure with capital coming in still from fossil fuel companies to do more fossil fuel expansion. And they're under heavy pressure, many of them, to continue feeding their debt. So it's this really strange disconnect we have right now in the climate debate, with energy and infrastructure and fossil fuel discussions are over here, and climate targets over here.

David Roberts:

I wanted to ask about that last point. Even if you take supply out of the picture and just look at the traditional discussion around climate change and traditional treaties, Paris and everything else: even through that lens, it's clear that if we don't want them to emit so much that we shoot past our targets, wealthy countries are going to have to send money to poorer countries. It's been part of the COP talks forever, always super contentious. We allegedly set up this Green Climate Fund, but if you've been following the reporting on that, we're not doing it. The rich countries are not putting money into that fund.

That’s the part where I look around in vain for signs of optimism. Because if we're trying to pay them to emit less and to produce less fossil fuels, that's just a lot of money. It would be a huge wealth transfer to get that going. 

Tzeporah Berman: 

It is a lot of money. But there's a cascading series of impacts at the point that a country acknowledges that it's going to stop fossil fuel expansion. If you are going to stop the production of fossil fuels, then that also means that the tax breaks and the subsidies that are going to the fossil fuel industry don't make sense. The reason they need them right now is their margins are so small; it costs so much to produce those fossil fuels and to expand those productions. But for Canada, for example, a fracking project that has a declining field, it doesn't need a lot of money in support. It's the infrastructure that is the issue. 

So that's billions, if not over a trillion dollars. In Canada alone, it's at least $2.7 billion a year just in direct and indirect subsidies, and that doesn't even include doing things like buying a $12 billion pipeline that will likely become a stranded asset. So there is money. There is quite a lot of money. And that's just on subsidies, let alone what we're spending in cleanup — cleanup of both spills, billions of dollars, and cleanup of liability and dead wells and leaking wells and methane, and billions of dollars that governments are spending right now into CCS research and pilot projects around the world. 

And we haven't even started talking about health costs. We know from the data that's coming out that fossil fuel development, especially in the global south, is costing millions, if not billions in health costs. Because it's toxic. We've always known that.

Sure, we've benefited from this industry, lots of nice people work in this industry. Now we know, like nuclear weapons, that the expansion of it is killing us. That's the parallel, and that's the beauty of the treaty that we haven't really talked about, is that the climate movement hasn't had a global demand to government since well before Paris — except for increased ambition and complicated things that actually don't mean anything to the average person. 

David Roberts:  

Higher targets! It's always targets.

Tzeporah Berman:

What does that even mean? And what the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty does is start to shift the norm around fossil fuels, because we've all grown up with the idea that fossil fuels are prosperity. They were keeping the lights on. And in places like Texas or Alberta, where we see production, it's also what keeps your hospitals open and your roads paved.

In fact, that's not true anymore, because in both jurisdictions — and this is a trend in most wealthy countries — they’re spending more money for fossil fuel production than fossil fuel production provides to a subnational or to a nation state. Because of the liability costs, because of the royalties going down, subsidies going up, etc. We're paying them to extract and pollute now, that's what's happening. 

David Roberts:

So are people and NGOs and academic organizations endorsing this or signing on to it? I guess the idea, eventually, is that countries sign, right?

Tzeporah Berman: 

We decided to start at cities. And the reason we decided to start at cities is because cities are not as influenced politically by the fossil fuel industry. Also, historically, that's where treaties start. Look at nuclear. I'm old enough to remember driving into a city, there'd be a sign: nuclear-free city. That was part of the campaign for a nuclear weapons ban.

David Roberts:

And cities are where the left is, where progressive-minded people live.

Tzeporah Berman: 

It’s taken off like wildfire. We launched the idea of the fossil fuel treaty at Climate Week, last year in September, and by October, November, Vancouver became the first city in the world to unanimously pass a motion to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the council and the mayor sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, asking him to start to work on the treaty and international cooperation on stopping all fossil fuel expansion.

Vancouver was followed, less than a month later I think, by Barcelona. It just goes on and on. There were three cities in Australia this week, there were two cities in the UK last week, now LA and Hayward, California; there's a motion already tabled in New York. 

So the cities work is really taking off, and I keep hearing about new campaigns that have started. We created a campaign hub that has all the information that we could produce around what the treaty is, and now groups around the world are starting to make it theirs. So I know that Friends of the Earth Sweden is campaigning in Swedish on the fossil fuel treaty in 17 cities. Youth groups around the world are taking it up. We now have COICA, the association of all indigenous nations in the Amazon, who have endorsed and who are starting to work on the fossil fuel treaty.

It's really starting to become a movement — 400+ organizations now endorsing and starting to campaign on the fossil fuel treaty. It brings together those issues we were talking about at the beginning; it's tangible. People can say, yeah, I don't want Line 3, but I also don't want drilling in the heart of the Amazon, so enough already. Let's start focusing on the good stuff, instead of always focusing on the bad stuff.

David Roberts:  

So who will be the first country? And when?

Tzeporah Berman:  

It's hard to know. I do think it will likely be more vulnerable nations, because the meetings that I've been in, when you talk to countries in the global south and show them the data —that the majority of the new expansion of oil, gas, and coal is in wealthy countries, and the science of the Production Gap report, and how we're producing 120 percent more than we can burn — they're angry. 

Some people say it could take 10 years to get a treaty; we may never get a treaty. I think the journey matters here. If you look at other treaties — nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, etc. — the journey mattered. We're creating a new conversation.

Imagine the point when some vulnerable country stands up on the UN floor and says, “What do you mean, Norway? I saw it here in this global registry that you’re about to produce this.” I think what we're going to start to see is bilateral negotiations on fossil fuel production, some multilateral agreements on pieces of it, debt forgiveness, etc., working its way up towards a treaty. It's already started.

David Roberts:

It's slightly disheartening that so much of the production is in the US. The US has traditionally not been super jazzed about international treaties, especially lately.

Tzeporah Berman:  

But that's OK. The TPNW was a nuclear weapons treaty that was led by non-nuclear-armed states, and it stigmatized and banned nuclear weapons. It changed the narrative about nuclear weapons, and every country started being held accountable to what they were stockpiling and how they were going to reduce it.

It's likely that's how the treaty will emerge here as well, by marking out a legal pathway, by identifying the barriers, starting to create political will. Let's not forget that it was Kamala Harris on the campaign trail that talked about an inverse OPEC; that's essentially what a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would be. It was Biden that talked publicly during the debates about needing to phase out oil.

There are tipping point moments in history when the technology, the finance, the political ideas come together, being pushed by social movements, and I think on fossil fuels, we're living that tipping point now.

David Roberts:

The future is so opaque to me these days, but it's not hard to envision the US becoming a pariah on this, if enough momentum builds and enough countries sign on. I can't envision the US signing on, but I can envision it becoming isolated.

I'm trying to imagine, how would we here in the US respond to that? With grace and generosity? Hmm.

Tzeporah Berman: 

California just became the first subnational in the world with major fossil fuel development to announce an end date to fracking and new oil development. That's huge.

That's the beginning of recognizing that constraining and managing how much fossil fuels we produce, and for how long, is part of the climate debate. We have to start creating policy roadmaps for both supply and demand. That's the seed for the conversation in the US.

Given the immense opposition in Texas and New Mexico to what's happening in the Permian Basin, and how bad the financial outlook is in the long term … I don't know.

David Roberts:  

These unpaid-for cleanups are popping up more and more often. It’s brutal out there on those Texas natural gas fields. That's going to be billions of dollars. And of course it's not fracking companies who are going to pay that.

Tzeporah Berman:  

No, it's taxpayers. People are also waking up to the fact that there are alternatives. I'm starting to see them right here. Look, there's an electric car, I can see it now. Maybe we don't have to be using all these fossil fuels. It'd be cheaper if my house was using better efficiency, and then I didn't need to buy so much.

David Roberts: 

Maybe I wouldn't have to burn my back fence to stay warm during a cold snap if we had more renewables.

Tzeporah Berman:  

The solutions clearly are more reliable, even at the moment when we need them to be more reliable, because they're distributed and safer and healthier. Again, new data came out this year from the Harvard study that fossil fuels are killing millions of people every year because they're toxic.

There's a lot of good reasons to start thinking about fossil fuels in a different way, and to address that anxiety that we have: are we going to freeze in the dark? We're not going to freeze in the dark.

We have enough fossil fuels already above ground or under production to meet the world's needs while we transition to a cleaner future. That’s the part we're just starting to understand. That’s the point where people start getting excited about what that beach looks like.

David Roberts: 

Let's talk briefly about the beach. You've said before: the fossil fuel model, in terms of social and economic organization, is very centralized. It lends itself to concentrations of power, which of course then lend themselves to graft and bribery and all the rest, and the little people getting screwed, getting the ass end of all these cleanups, and not benefiting. I can't tell you how many stories I've read now about, this North Dakota town thought they were going to be rich forever … and then fracking left and now they’re all super poor.

Tzeporah Berman: 

Turns out now their water is poisoned, they have higher cancer rates, and, yeah, they don't have any more money. 

David Roberts:  

None of the wealth stayed behind. So what's your vision of what comes next after that, and why is it better? Obviously there’s not dying of inhaling poison — that's a bonus. But how else do you see clean energy reshaping some of those social and economic structures? 

Tzeporah Berman:  

Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, not just the use of them, but the production of them, changes everything. It changes the daily lives of millions of people. We're no longer fighting asthma. We're no longer fighting what should be rare cancers, which are now massive in downstream communities, especially communities of color, near refineries, and indigenous communities who are in the heart of the production in remote areas, from the Amazon to Canada. 

Having spent a bunch of time in some of those incredibly visionary communities in the heart of Amazon, and in northern Alberta, in Canada, where they are saying no to the oil extraction that is killing their communities — they show me the fish with lesions, I get introduced to people in their communities who are dying of cancer. And then they show me the renewable energy facilities that they're building, and they're so excited about them. The whole community is working on them, and they're plugging in their cell phones to their solar panels. They're doing traditional dances, circling the solar panels in the Beaver Lake Cree community. In the heart of the Amazon, I watched a shaman fire up his laptop after he plugged it into his new solar panel, and the beaming look on his face.

People get to control the power that fuels their daily lives. They know that it's not going to have the direct health impacts on them. It's safer, it's cleaner. That’s the thing about a solar spill: it’s just a sunny day. That's the best image I can leave you with about what the future looks like.

The work we're doing now on the fossil fuel treaty is, we're not going to get there just by the local efforts. We're not going to get there in time to have a planet stable enough where we're not just dealing with constant disasters. If we're going to do that, we need international cooperation. That's why we have to call on our governments to do this.

David Roberts:

Thanks so much for taking the time. 

Tzeporah Berman: 

This has been really fun. Thanks, Dave.