These Will Be The Biggest Climate Fights Of 2016

Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally before the climate talks. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LAURENT CIPRIANI
Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally before the climate talks. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LAURENT CIPRIANI

It has been quite the year for the climate movement, from the Paris climate agreement to the final rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. The movement has also seen some defeats, like the lifting of the oil export ban — which could lead to more crude oil being shipped via rail across the country — and the proliferation of climate-denying politicians in Congress and on the campaign trail.

But just because Keystone was rejected and Shell decided to cease exploratory drilling operations in the Arctic, that doesn’t mean key climate fights are finished for good.

“Those fights will get steadily starker in 2016,” Bill McKibben, co-founder, told ThinkProgress. “On the one hand, the damage from climate change grows daily more apparent — this year’s heat is starting to scare people.”

But, McKibben said, despite the increasingly visible impacts of climate change, the fossil fuel industry still wields a considerable amount of political and economic power in the country, a reality that will certainly lead to more clashes between climate activists and oil, gas, and coal interests in the year to come.


“A desperate fossil fuel industry still has immense power,” he said “Their deceit is ever-clearer — the impact of the Exxon revelations is only beginning to reverberate. But they still think they have the money to carry the day, as [Charles and David Koch’s] huge bet on next year’s elections makes clear.”

Here’s a review of some of the big moments for the climate movement in 2015 — and how they might evolve in the next year.

Keystone’s opponents fight to ‘Keep It in the Ground’

In November, after a six-year campaign by climate activists against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the Obama administration finally rejected the project. The moment was viewed as a huge victory for the climate movement, which had seized upon Keystone back when it seemed like an inevitability and managed to turn the pipeline into a rallying cry for activists across the country.

But the State Department hadn’t even finished its rejection before activists seized upon their next rallying cry.

“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” Obama said during a speech addressing the rejection of the pipeline.


Those words are reminiscent of the ‘Keep It In The Ground’ campaign, a rallying cry used by environmental organizations and climate activists to draw attention to the idea that the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will need to remain in the ground if the world is to avoid the worst of global warming.

“The Keystone fight has ended, and I think that there will be a few next places for the movement to go,” RL Miller, founder of ClimateHawksVote, told ThinkProgress. “The first one is ‘Keep It in the Ground.’”

The fight is already making its way to Congress, where Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill that would stop new leases on coal, gas, oil, and tar sands extraction on public lands in the U.S. Named the Keep It in the Ground Act, it would also stop offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic.

“The ‘Keep It in the Ground’ banner started as an academic principal in some ways,” Jamie Henn,’s strategy and communications director, told ThinkProgress. “I think now we’re seeing it being applied on the ground. ‘Keep It in the Ground’ is a unifying theme that can tie together local fights into a global resistance.”

Arctic drilling moves to the Atlantic

When Royal Dutch Shell announced its intention to pursue exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, climate activists from Alaska to Portland, OR came out in opposition of the project. In Seattle, activists kayaked into the Puget Sound to gather around an oil-rig. In Portland, activists hung from a bridge in the hopes of stopping another Shell vessel from reaching the Arctic (they succeeded in delaying, but not stopping the ship).


But in September — despite receiving the green-light from the Obama administration — Shell announced that it would be suspending operations in the Arctic “for the foreseeable future.”

Environmentalists cheered, but the Arctic isn’t the only place that oil companies are eying for offshore drilling. In 2016, the next fight between offshore oil operations and local communities will be along the Atlantic coast, where the Obama administration and several governors have been talking about new offshore drilling projects.

Local resistance to the proposals is palpable, and growing — last week, more than 400 businesses sent a letter to Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) asking her to oppose offshore drilling (Haley currently is in favor of the idea). And with South Carolina representing a key battleground state in the upcoming presidential election, Atlantic drilling could become a key issue for candidates hoping to court votes in the state.

Climate change gets its political moment in the spotlight

In 2016, climate change will look to take center stage during the presidential election, according to Henn.

“We have this little thing called the election coming up,” he said. “There’s already been a thousand times more conversation about climate than the last election. I’ve been really impressed by the role the climate movement has played already.”

Henn said that’s political arm will be working throughout the election to push both Republican and Democratic candidates to go further on climate policy. With Republicans, Henn said, that means highlighting their reluctance to accept mainstream climate science. For the Democratic side, that means pushing the Democratic nominee to embrace more progressive policies.

In the Republican presidential race and elsewhere, Miller hopes that what she calls the “the wall of denial” has started to crack.

“We are definitely starting to see some small shifts in the party,” she said. “It’s nothing big yet, but that will be driving a lot of the conversation.”

Look to states like New Hampshire, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is set to face a tight race from Democratic challenger Gov. Mag­gie Has­san (NH). Ayotte recently became the first Republican senator to support the Clean Power Plan — a rule that is supported by both Republican and Democratic voters.

Local fights have global implications

2015 was a big year internationally for the climate movement — culminating in the Paris agreement, which environmentalists have cheered as a “historic” step towards curbing climate change.

But in 2016, look for battles to be fought at a more local level, from citywide fights against fossil fuel infrastructure to state-wide divestment campaigns.

“I definitely see the fossil fuel divestment movement as not going away,” Miller told ThinkProgress.

Henn reiterated that sentiment, calling the divestment movement an integral part of continuing momentum out of Paris.

“Paris could not have sent a clearer signal to investors,” he said. “Our job is to continue to clarify the moral stakes of [fossil fuel investments], as well as the economic one.”

Henn expects the divestment movement to continue to gain traction in local fights, taking on bigger targets like the New York City pension fund or the New York State pension fund, both of which have made moves towards divestment but still contain some investments in fossil fuels.

Cities will also likely be the battleground for infrastructure battles between fossil fuel companies looking to export their goods overseas and environmentalists looking to divert from a fossil fuel-dependent world. Portland, Oregon recently passed an ordinance that bars any new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built within the city. Mayor Charlie Hales (D) told ThinkProgress that he hopes similar proposals will spread throughout the West Coast, which fossil fuel companies have begun looking to as a place to build export terminals in the hopes of shipping their coal — or crude oil — overseas.

“A lot of the other things that cities have done, that have made a difference in climate and are now becoming even more important, started small,” Hales said. “We’ve seen a kind of viral spread of good ideas among cities, and I think this is going to happen with this issue as well.”