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Activists and advocates seeking to abolish nuclear weapons...
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/01/28: Activists and advocates seeking to abolish nuclear weapons gathered at the steps of City Hall for a press conference followed by a hearing at New York City Council on two pieces of disarmament legislation that instruct the Comptroller of New York to divest the citys pensions and finances from nuclear weapons producers, to affirm New York City as a nuclear weapons-free zone and for the City Council to officially urge the federal government to sign and ratify the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Fossil fuels get the nuclear treatment in new climate effort

The new push for a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty

There’s a new strategy for boosting global action on climate change, and it’s modeled after Cold War-era campaigns aimed at preventing nuclear annihilation. Activists are starting to pick up the language of the nuclear nonproliferation movement. Eventually, they’d like to see a full-scale international treaty that would bring about the end of fossil fuels.

The existential threats posed by climate change have a lot in common with the threats posed by nuclear war, experts tell The Verge. Both have the potential to put all of humanity and the entire planet at risk. And neither issue can be tackled without global cooperation.

The idea for a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty publicly launched in September this year at New York City’s Climate Week. It’s still in its early days, but the treaty’s supporters plan to base it on the same three principles as the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the “peaceful” development of new energy technology. In this case, nonproliferation would mean an end to new coal, oil, and gas production. “Disarmament” would phase out existing “stockpiles” of fossil fuels. And where the third pillar of the original nuclear arms treaty supported the transition of nuclear technologies and research from weapons-making to energy, a new treaty would push for a “peaceful transition” from fossil fuels to renewables.

Talking about fossil fuels as if they’re weapons rebrands global climate efforts in a way that ups the stakes. A nonproliferation treaty on fossil fuels could add more urgency to the transition away from fossil fuels, hold polluters more accountable, and push nations to take more ambitious actions.

“They’re framing climate change as sort of a slow moving weapon of mass destruction. That kind of reframing can be very powerful,” says Charli Carpenter, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “We sort of think of climate change as an environmental issue, but it’s really more like a slow motion asteroid headed towards the planet.” Scientists have warned the world that greenhouse gases need to be virtually eliminated by around 2050 to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“The goal is to get people to see this new kind of complicated and abstract problem, climate change, in terms of a more familiar one that people have beliefs about and an understanding of,” says Stephen Flusberg, an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College.

Nuclear bombs are scary. Comparing that threat to the dangers of climate change might just help people wrap their heads around the problem and want to do something about it. Flusberg published a study in 2017 that found that when compared to framing climate action as a “race,” talking about it as a “war” made people feel a greater sense of urgency on the issue — at least in the short term.

In the long run, wars — whether real or metaphorical — tend to lose support over time, and using wartime language can also be divisive. But the new treaty initiative is more than a war of words or a shiny rebranding effort. If it actually comes into existence, a nonproliferation treaty would address the root causes of climate change in a way that previous international agreements, like the Paris climate accord, have not. The entire text of the Paris Agreement omits the terms “fossil fuel,” “coal,” “oil,” and “natural gas.” Instead, it focuses on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and setting goals to keep the planet from heating beyond a certain threshold.

Those goals, of course, couldn’t be met without burning fewer fossil fuels. But without naming fossil fuels as the culprit, the door stays open for smaller, less effective climate fixes and keeps fossil fuels from going extinct. BP, for example, pledged to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions, even though it plans to keep producing and refining fossil fuels for decades to come. Other companies, like Amazon, have made big environmental claims while still pumping out more greenhouse gases each year. One way these corporations can get away with this is by investing in technologies that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere after it’s been unleashed. Those technologies will likely play a role in stabilizing the climate, but most experts agree that it would have to be a small one. There’s no better solution for climate change than turning away from fossil fuels.

“Oil, gas, and coal companies are looking to hide behind “net zero” [goals],” says Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. “That’s why the fossil fuel treaty is critical … If the world is on fire, you don’t throw more fuel on it. That’s what we’re doing by allowing the expansion of fossil fuel production.”

Other activists have successfully pushed for similar treaties to stop the spread of weapons, from nuclear bombs to landmines. Treaties have the potential to set a tone globally even if key players don’t sign on to them or drag their feet. “Once those treaties are in effect, sometimes even before they go into effect, you will see powerful states who once held a very strong position in one direction, switching to the other side because they want to be seen as a norm leader and not a norm laggard,” says Carpenter, who points to the UK’s position on cluster munitions as an example. Once a majority of the world has signed onto the treaty, states that didn’t formally join it will often still comply, according to Carpenter. Because of that, treaties can set tough international standards without adoptees having to bargain with naysayers.

There’s still a long way to go before world leaders come to the table to draft a treaty on fossil fuels, although enthusiasm is growing. The steering committee behind the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative includes advocates and academics from across the world. Vancouver’s city council became the first in the world to pass a motion endorsing the treaty. A similar resolution was introduced in the New York City Council on October 29th.

While the fossil fuel nonproliferation movement is still in its infancy, its nuclear sibling is still going strong. In the fifty years since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force, nuclear stockpiles have fallen from a peak of about 70,300 in 1986 to about 13,410 in 2020. Since 2017, 50 non-nuclear countries have ratified a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that aims to eliminate the weapons entirely. More than 30 other countries that have signed on are expected to ratify it, too. The treaty gained enough support this last month for it to enter into force in January, a feat that a spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres called, “the culmination of a worldwide movement.” It’s a good example to which climate activists could aspire.

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