Tzeporah Berman on the Fossil Fuel Treaty

The environmental movement has made something clear: For the health of the planet, humans need to stop using so much fossil fuel. Period. Many efforts to reduce fossil fuel use focus on consumer behavior — CAFE standards, electric vehicle subsidies, and the like are designed to lessen demand for these polluting fuels. Meanwhile, billions upon billions of dollars are being invested right now in new fossil fuel extraction projects across the globe. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with one of the environmental leaders working to stem the supply side of the equation. Today we are speaking with Tzeporah Berman of Stand.earth, and the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty Initiative, about the work she and her colleagues are doing to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We examine the current state of pipeline projects in North America, discuss how fossil fuel companies are dealing with slimming profit margins, and look at how changing market realities are affecting the business.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Tzeporah Berman (TB) | 00:16 – We are going to need to stop expanding fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure and wind it down if we’re gonna keep the earth safe, because we can argue all we want about the solutions to climate change. But the atmosphere doesn’t negotiate.

Narrator | 00:35 – The environmental movement has made something clear: For the health of the planet, humans need to stop using so much fossil fuel. Period. Many efforts to reduce fossil fuel use focus on consumer behavior — CAFE standards, electric vehicle subsidies, and the like are designed to lessen demand for these polluting fuels. Meanwhile, billions upon billions of dollars are being invested right now in new fossil fuel extraction projects across the globe. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with one of the environmental leaders working to stem the supply side of the equation. Today we are speaking with Tzeporah Berman of Stand.earth, and the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty Initiative, about the work she and her colleagues are doing to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We examine the current state of pipeline projects in North America, discuss how fossil fuel companies are dealing with slimming profit margins, and look at how changing market realities are affecting the business.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:55 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Tzeporah Berman. She’s the chairperson of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the International program director for Stand.Earth Tzeporah. Welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Tzeporah Berman (TB) | 02:06 – Hi. Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:07 – So, when we spoke to you last five years ago, you were purely working for Stand.Earth, but you, you’ve also expanded your role and started this fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty organization. Why don’t you explain what it is and also catch us up with some of the work you’ve been doing at Stand.Earth, if you can. 

TB | 02:27 – Sure. The Fossil Fuel Treaty actually grew out of the work that I was doing at Stand.Earth. I think like many people in North America, I spent a bunch of years trying to understand, uh, how to stop, uh, new pipelines and oil drilling and fracking that is expanding in North America. And every time we stopped a pipeline, the oil industry proposed a new one somewhere else. You know, this is one of the most powerful industries on earth. And stopping one pipeline or stopping one oil or coil project, given the extent of the climate impacts of the oil and gas industry, really isn’t good enough. And it felt like some terrible game of whack-a-mole. You know, we do all this work, we do all these legal challenges and work in communities to, to support communities and their opposition to these, to these big pieces of infrastructure to try and convince our governments to use the money for cleaner, safer infrastructure. And we’d often win. I mean, I think of the six pipeline campaigns I worked on, we won four of them. And then the industry would propose another one. And it, it, it started me thinking on what, what are we doing to align fossil fuel production and infrastructure of fossil fuels with our climate goals? You know, we hear a lot about climate policy, about reducing the demand for fossil fuels or the pollution and emissions from fossil fuels. But then we hear about all these new projects growing and more and more pipelines growing. And so I started doing research and what I realized really shocked me, I realized that for 30 years we’ve been negotiating emissions, who gets to pollute and how much, but meanwhile, almost behind our backs, the industry has been growing fossil fuel infrastructure and projects, and then we keep missing our climate targets and climate change gets worse, and we wonder why that’s happening. And so the fossil fuel treaty emerged out of a basic logic that what we build today will be what we use tomorrow. And every country right now wants to be the last barrel sold. I mean, every prime minister and president I meet with says, oh, of course we’re gonna be use less oil and gas in the future. And, and, and of course we need to phase out fossil fuels to, to meet our climate goals. But as long as we’re using oil and gas, our oil and gas should be what, what, what people use. And so we’re caught in this strange moment in history where every country wants to produce more, who is a producer, and we keep building more and more infrastructure, but then we say we’re gonna use less of it. And, and so at Stand.Earth, I had been working for years on the Tars Sands, which is a, you know, one of the largest industrial oil projects in the world. One of the largest industrial projects in the world in Canada, huge oil, oil development in Alberta. And, and trying to mitigate the environmental impacts of that oil development, trying to stop the government from building more pipelines and expanding it. And I took a look around and realized that whether you’re in the US and Texas and New Mexico, or whether you’re in Norway or, or in the Lafonte Islands or Argentina or Nigeria, we’re all battling the same logic. We’re all battling actually the same companies and some of the same investors. And if we’re going to ensure a livable climate and manage climate change, we need to, uh, constrain and start to phase out in an equitable way how much fossil fuels we produce, not just how much we use. And, and so I started researching that and trying to develop it. And look, I’ll never forget the day that I searched the Paris Agreement for the words oil, gas, and coal and fossil fuels. And I found out that they don’t even exist in the world’s climate agreement because fossil fuel production is being invisible. And, and so I started knitting all these pieces together and reaching out to academics and diplomats from around the world and, and other organizations. And right around that time, I was awarded the Climate Breakthrough Award, which is given to a couple people a year to create new global breakthrough climate strategies. And with that money, I started building the campaign for the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty. And within a year it had gotten so big that we had to spin it out of Stand.Earth, which is the organization I was working at and still work with. And now, fossil Fuel Treaty is a standalone global initiative that has support from over 2000 organizations in, in 180 countries and has a growing, um, support from scientists and Nobel laureates and now countries themselves. 13 countries have endorsed the fossil fuel treaty, and we’re starting to build a block of nations that wants a, a, a standalone treaty that will be compatible with the Paris Agreement. 

AW | 07:32 – And is the elevator pitch to signatories to the treaty that this is going to be an add-on to the Paris Agreement? Or maybe if you can give us what the value proposition is for potential signatories to the treaty and and what should attract them to it? 

TB | 07:50 – The fact is, unless we are able to constrain the production of fossil fuels in line with Paris goals, we won’t meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. And right now, we have no mechanisms for international cooperation to constrain that production because climate policy and international agreements are complicated. But what’s not complicated is that 86% of the emissions trapped in our atmosphere come from three things, oil, gas, and coal. And we don’t currently have any agreements between countries on who gets to produce and how much. And if production is limited because we have a global climate carbon budget and we’re trying to meet the Paris goals, then we need to ensure that who gets to produce is a result of fairness and equity. And if we don’t have a fossil fuel treaty, then that doesn’t happen. Because there’s no justice baked into the marketplace. And right now the market gets to decide how much is produced and who gets to produce. So I think the value proposition to countries is that by negotiating a fossil fuel treaty, they can negotiate agreements between themselves that will relieve the barriers to new fossil fuel development, trade agreements, tax agreements, debt relief. Because most countries, even if they want to stop expanding fossil fuels, they can’t because they’re drilling for more oil like Ecuador in the heart of the rainforest just to feed their debt. Or in Malaysia they’re digging up more coal because their fossil fuel exports right now are 70% of their GDP. They don’t really have a lot of options. And, and so for, especially for countries in the global south, if they’re going to stop expanding fossil fuel production, then, then they’re going to need some international agreements to help them transition to a cleaner and safer economy. And so for a lot of countries, especially in the global south, when they start to realize that they’re very interested. And I think our biggest win on the fossil fuel treaty came at Dubai last year when Columbia joined Columbia is the fifth largest coal exporter in the world. And President Petro stood on the main stage of the United Nations and said, every day we make the problem worse. And we can’t stop unless we have support, unless we have cooperation between countries, because we all have to stop expanding fossil fuel production and use, and we need to cooperate to do that.

(Music Break) | 10:25 

AW | 11:06 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Tzeporah Berman. She’s the chairperson of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. So Tzeporah, what I think is really appealing about your organization is that you’re looking at it from a bigger perspective. Many consumers, many people use their consciousness when it comes to fossil fuels. It’s very single-minded and, and short term, generally and personal, whether they’re buying an electric vehicle, they’re, they’re getting solar panels put on their rooftops. But you and your colleagues are looking at it from the other side of things, from the infrastructure side of things. You mentioned pipelines. That’s something that a lot of people think, oh, well, the Keystone XL Pipeline has been nipped in the bud and there’s less of a threat now regarding pipelines. But actually there’s over 11,000 kilometers being built this year and many more kilometers proposed to being built. W why is that so alarming? 

TB | 12:14 – It is alarming because we need to be building infrastructure that will serve us tomorrow. And, and, and in future years, when you build a multi-billion dollar pipeline, you don’t build it to move oil over the next couple of years. It’s, you build it to move oil for the next 30 or 50 years. And, and we know from the science that it is the burning and, and using of oil, gas, and coal that is causing climate change. And, and from the International Energy Agency to the Intergovernment Panel on climate change, even the, the, you know, security commissions around the world, the Pentagon have acknowledged that we are going to need to stop expanding fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure and wind it down if we’re gonna keep the earth safe. Because we can argue all we want about the solutions to climate change. But the atmosphere doesn’t negotiate. This is physics and carbon gets trapped in our atmosphere and creates a sweltering blanket that’s smothering the earth and creates the fires and the storms and the floods and the extreme weather and unnatural disasters that we are seeing every day now and that are killing people every day. And that only gets worse with every ton of carbon that we put into the atmosphere. The good news is that we have solutions. We have solutions at scale. The International Energy Agency estimates that we could cut fossil fuel use and production by 50% today with existing technologies, and it could be put in place for that 50% cut by 2030. So that’s not very long from now. And, and we can, we can actually replace almost all of our uses of fossil fuels now with existing technology. I mean, there are some obvious things that we can’t, right, aviation, but aviation’s 2% of global emissions. So, so we have the technology today to replace fossil fuels and in a way that is cheaper, renewable energy at scale is now cheaper than fossil fuels in every country around the world. And, and so why aren’t we doing it? We are not doing it because we keep building, the industry keeps building more and more of the infrastructure and then we get dependent on it. It’s really expensive, so it needs to pay off. And so governments are convinced to continue using it. So we have to, to really focus on, on, on building, uh, uh, what we need for a cleaner and safer future in and, and instead the UN production gap report shows that we’re on track to produce 110% more oil, gas, and coal by 2030 than we can ever use and keep the planet below two degrees. So we’re literally digging up stuff that if we burn it, it will burn us even though cleaner and safer technologies exist. And I think that’s in part because people haven’t been thinking about systems. They haven’t been thinking about infrastructure. We’ve been only thinking about our personal use. And when you think about your personal use of fossil fuels and climate change, it kind of makes you feel guilty and you don’t know what to do. ’cause most people, unless you’re super wealthy, don’t have the option of just putting solar panels on their house and buying a Tesla. And so they feel guilty and they turn away from the issues. This isn’t by mistake. If you look at the strategies of the oil industry that are now becoming very clear in all of these lawsuits around the world, this was a plan. The personal carbon footprint was an idea created by BP 20 years ago. ’cause they wanted us to feel responsible for the use of fossil fuels. They wanted to put the onus on us and not the onus on them for creating a product that they knew was killing us. It’s not dissimilar to what happened with tobacco or newly on some of these toxic chemicals. Fossil fuels are the greatest cause of premature death on the planet. Not just because of heat waves and floods and fires, but because air pollution due to fossil fuels kills more people prematurely than any other thing on earth. 8 million people last year died just from air pollution alone due to fossil fuels. The rise in childhood asthma around the world is, is is unprecedented in in human history. These are toxic products. 

AW | 16:55 – So give us a, a peek behind the scenes, if you will, of how a pipeline gets green lit today. What would be appealing to policymakers is that, is it that we’ve already dug this oil up and we’re going to be digging more up. It is just more efficient to be delivering it by these pipelines than to be shipping it around by oil tankers where you could have an oil spill, or it takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuels to move these big heavy boats around the world. Is that the pitch or, or is there more to it? 

TB | 17:28 – No, because even with pipelines, you still end up with the oil and gas on ships. Do you know 40% of the world’s shipping is just to move fossil fuels around the planet? If we actually start, start reducing how much fossil fuels we use and produce, we actually, there’s a, a, a huge knock on effect of how much energy we need, which is actually really fascinating. But no, the, the case for the pipelines is not actually just about moving the product. The case for the pipelines is about expanding that country’s piece of the pie. Like in, in, in Canada when the, when, when Keystone was proposed, tr Mountain, Northern Gateway Energy East, every time it was framed around a national interest, we all have to come together and, and build this piece of infrastructure because if we can move more oil out of Alberta, which is landlocked, then, then we can, um, expand the size of the tar sands and pump out more oil. So the, so pipelines are designed to facilitate the expansion of that fossil fuel, uh, uh, reserve. And, and so the argument is that, you know, we can make more money, whether it’s oil from the tar sands or fracked gas to LNG facilities. It’s the, the argument is these pipelines are necessary for economic prosperity.

AW | 18:56 – And that was one of the arguments that we heard with Keystone XL Pipeline, that it was going to create all these jobs. But these jobs seem fairly fleeting. These aren’t long-term jobs once the pipeline’s built. 

TB | 19:10 – No, they’re very temporary. The jobs are very temporary. They’re just for the, the time of the, of the pipeline construction. But of course, there are also jobs in either the, uh, in the fracking and in the, the, the oil drilling end. Um, and there, you know, we, we shouldn’t be denying that, that the movement of those fossil fuels, the sale of that oil and gas does create, um, short term economic revenue. The fossil fuel industry is the most profitable industry on the planet. The IMF now estimates that the oil and gas industry has made $2 billion a day every day for the last 50 years. And so there’s a lot of profit to be had. However, what we do know now is that it comes at an incredible cost that, that every ton of carbon that is, that is being trapped in the atmosphere, is causing billions of dollars in fire damage, in flood damage, in lethal heat, et cetera. And we also know that, um, because renewables are now cheaper, and we’ve had breakthroughs in technology like electric vehicles, which are skyrocketing, more and more countries are now setting dates to ban the fossil fuel car. We have 90 countries that have now have policies to move entirely to electric fleets. That demand for oil and gas is softening and set to decline steeply over the next decade. So, so a lot of those new oil infrastructure projects that are, you know, are projected to produce a lot more than the demand that we have. And so part of what the fossil fuel treaty is saying is, hold on. We have to align production with demand. Like if demand is set to go down, why are we producing more and more of it? Well, a lot of people don’t realize is we already have enough oil, gas, and coal on the surface of the planet or under construction today to, to use while we transition to a completely renewable and electrified economy. In fact, we have so much already that if we use it all, it’ll take us well past two degrees of warming. So we’re, we’re literally digging up stuff that we can’t use if we want a, a livable planet, which, you know, you, you would think having a livable planet would be an incentive. Uh, but it’s, it’s almost like it’s too big for most people to grasp. So I think the argument is economic, but I think it’s short term because if demand does go down as fast as people are saying it’s going to go down, you’re going to be left with a lot of billion dollar stranded assets that the, the oil, if oil demand goes down, especially in places like the Permian Basin and the tar sands in Canada, we’re gonna see a lot less oil flowing because it’s more expensive to produce that oil. And in, in a lot of cases, it’s a heavier carbon content oil. And so likely the first places that will lose demand.

(Music Break) | 22:19

AW | 23:10 – This is Alex Wise on Sea, Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Tzeporah Berman from the Fossil Fuel, Non-Proliferation Treaty and Stand.Earth. So Tzeporah talking about these pipelines and infrastructure in general, what can be done to reverse this process? We know that when companies try to build on fragile ecosystems or where there’s indigenous land rights, these companies can encounter barriers. But what other barriers can organizations like yours put up to dismantle and reverse this process of infrastructure growth? 

TB | 23:47 – Well, you know, first of all, we have to support decision makers, um, when they’re trying to build the good stuff. You know, we have a terrible tendency, I think, in the environmental movement to be super critical of, of the bad stuff. Um, and then also to be at best wishy-washy about the good stuff. You know, we talk a lot wind windmills and solar farms and you know, we talk a lot about, you know, a future that is clean and safe, windmills and butterflies. Well, getting there is not easy. First of all, we have to acknowledge that we have to support retraining efforts and, and union efforts towards a just transition. We have to make sure that no one’s left behind. And when our government proposes windmills or solar farms or geothermal or um, uh, high density, um, uh, buildings that are, uh, free of gas hookups and electrified in, in, in cities new big public transit proposals, we have to get behind them. They need the political space to do the right thing. And, and, and so I I, I think besides just, um, trying to stop the bad projects, we have to, we have to vote, uh, for, uh, decision makers who are going to prioritize climate and our health and our safety. And, and we have to be very vocal against any new fossil fuel projects and infrastructure and very vocal in support of, of infrastructure, uh, that is cleaner and safer on the pipelines themselves. There’s a lot of tools in our, in our toolbox because most of these fossil fuel projects now are on very thin ice, very thin financial margins. So anything you can do to increase the costs and delay a project could kill it. We have a mantra within the pipeline movement delays are your friend. 

AW | 25:49 – Are those thin margins a new reality? Or has that been in existence for decades? 

TB | 25:56 – Well, look, these projects have always been fragile in that they’re susceptible to the changes in the marketplace. So if price goes down, they’re fragile, they’re very boom and bust. But I think, the newer reality is that investors can see that there’s not as much space left for new fossil fuel infrastructure because of climate policy, but also because of demand destruction that there’s, that they’re seeing as a result of EVs taking off and more governments constraining the use of fossil fuels, especially gas to for, for heating and buildings. 

AW | 26:35 – Do you think the proliferation of ESG investing is a variable in this as well? That they’re not gonna have a piece of that pie? 

TB | 26:43 – Oh, for sure. I mean, especially with European banks, we’ve seen a number of European banks actually say, we will not invest in new oil and gas infrastructure. HSBC, I think Paribas has done something similar. So, and insurance companies, a number of insurance companies in Europe also saying that, you know, I wish, the big banks in, in North America, RBC and Citibank would join that growing group of banks from Europe. Because the fact is that they’re investing in the wrong direction and they’re ignoring the science. And this is one of those moments in history that requires leadership. And it’s not easy because sometimes it’s ahead of where the mass public is. We are all dependent on fossil fuels, and it’s sometimes hard to make, to connect the dots between the wildfires, sleeping, sweeping California right now, or the heat wave killing people in Las Vegas and the, and the use of fossil fuels. And so it, I think it requires all of us, whether you work in finance and in business or in or in government, to step out, out front, because this is moving very quickly. 

AW | 27:58 – Tzeporah Berman, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

TB | 28:02 – Thanks so much for having me. 

AW | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Queen and David Bowie, the Pretenders and Bing Ji Ling. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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