At the age of 22, Marielle Bacason experienced something that would change her life forever. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with record ferocity, killing thousands of people and affecting millions of others.
Winds of up to 315kmph (197mph) destroyed everything in their path. When the superstorm finally subsided, Bacason said, “You could not distinguish the roads and dead bodies of people and animals everywhere. We feared for our safety every day, especially during the night. We just wanted to leave Tacloban … I was traumatised.”
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Bacason did not just leave, she took action. She joined other brave survivors, local activists, workers, and fisherfolk to assert their fundamental rights before the Commission on Human Rights of The Philippines. The Commission announced that 47 big companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Total, could be found legally and morally liable for human rights harms to Filipinos resulting from climate change.
Despite widespread acknowledgement that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of the climate emergency, governments are yet to take real action against the industry even while the future of the planet, and all who live on it, hangs in the balance.
Air pollution from coal, oil, and gas killed 8.7 million people globally in 2018 alone, and the climate crisis already has an annual death toll of more than 100,000 – a fast-climbing figure – with some organisations saying 100 million people will die by 2030 and billions more will be displaced. Perhaps it is a testament to the extreme greed (or extreme cowardice) of those in power that they continue to allow dirty energy corporations to fuel a crisis that even they and their loved ones will not escape.
In fact, none of us will be safe unless the global economy shifts to run on renewable energy – fast. It is not enough for wealthy countries to run on clean power if they continue to produce and export fuels that crash the climate when they are burned elsewhere. Profiting from emissions made elsewhere may make for a handy accounting trick, but the consequences of those carbon emissions will be felt by all of us, with countries in the Global South shouldering the greatest burden.
With US President Joe Biden now occupying the White House – on the eve of a climate summit hosting 17 of the world’s largest carbon emitters – many across the planet hope that we might see action on climate from the United States commensurate with what science and justice demand. As one of the world’s most influential countries and most egregious climate polluters, the US has an opportunity and responsibility to make significant contributions to a safe and stable world. To truly claim the mantle of climate leader, President Biden must seize the moment to commit to phasing out the climate emergency’s main driver: the fossil fuel industry.
Biden can do two things right now to kick off a fossil fuel phaseout. First, take executive action, and put pressure on Congress, to eliminate billions in taxpayer handouts going to oil, gas and coal companies from the federal government each year. Public money that could be freed up to invest in domestic recovery by creating jobs in upgrading public infrastructure, or a just transition led by workers and affected communities, and to support vaccines globally. Those funds could also begin to support climate-vulnerable countries so they can adapt to a heating world and transition to clean energy, instead of propping up a failing and deadly industry.
Second, if the US is serious about addressing the climate crisis, it needs to reinstate the crude oil export ban. When Democrats permanently traded it away for temporary renewable energy tax credits in the last decade, it was one of the biggest handouts yet to the oil and gas industry. A Greenpeace and Oil Change International report recently found that reinstating the US crude oil export ban could lead to reductions in global carbon emissions of as much as 73 to 165 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent each year. The oil export ban should be brought back and expanded to cover any fuel that puts the future of life on Earth in peril.
The fossil fuel economy is not just obsolete: it trades in inequality and exploitation. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and marginalised communities worldwide have endured a disproportionate burden of toxic pollution and climate impacts, while a small cartel of fossil fuel executives, backed by their governments and impermeable finance systems, rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits.
Since 2016, 60 of the world’s largest banks have pumped more than $3.8 trillion into the fossil fuel industry, despite the signing of the Paris climate accords in 2015. This has led to fossil fuel financing being higher in 2020 than in 2016. And the big oil, coal and gas bosses are cashing in: their CEOs’ compensation, often in excess of $10m, is linked to the continued extraction of fossil fuels, exploration of new fields and the promotion of strong market demand through advertising, lobbying and government subsidies. Governments need to stand up and say, “No more.” People and the planet must come before profit.
It should not only be up to those most affected by the climate crisis, like Bacason, to fight for our collective future. We need leaders, like President Biden, to use their power to do what is not only necessary but is ethical and urgent. It is time to transition to a world beyond fossil fuels – because our lives depend on it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.