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

A conversation about the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.


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.


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.