Thunberg effect may have waned, but climate protest movement is back to call time on Big Oil

We need to stop talking about the climate crisis and start talking about the fossil fuel crisis

As an observer of climate protests, it has been easy to detect a big shift recently in tone and scale of mass opposition to the slowness of the response to an overheating world.

It’s the first time post-Covid that the global outcry is loud and co-ordinated, though not quite back at pre-pandemic levels.

In September 2019, when “the Thunberg effect” was at its height, more than six million people participated in strikes and marches throughout the world. Coinciding with a UN climate summit, New York hosted a rally with more than 100,000 people marching through Manhattan. Greta Thunberg, who prompted the school strikes for climate movement, was in their midst. A week later some 500,000 people marched with her in Montreal – probably the biggest climate protest ever.

Politicians were becoming uneasy; some were at last facing up to the crisis. Covid undermined all that as it curtailed the campaign’s visibility. Meanwhile, carbon emissions continued their unrelenting rise after a blip during the pandemic.


Cut to this month, some 75,000 people took to the streets of New York before the UN General Assembly in a “march to end fossil fuels”. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd the movement must become “too big and too radical to ignore”. The numbers of young protesters stood out.

Around the world activists took to the streets including in Ireland, where Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth called for a “fast, fair and forever” end to fossil fuel dependence.

Former president, now climate campaigner Mary Robinson hit out at the estimated $7 trillion (€6.6 trillion) in subsidies that the International Monetary Fund says governments spent last year on oil and gas drilling. “We are subsidising what is destroying us,” she told protesters in New York.

According to International Energy Agency (IEA) projections, countries must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the world is to stay within relatively safe levels of atmospheric warming, ie 1.5 degrees.

UN secretary general António Guterres said last week: “G20 countries are responsible for 80 per cent of greenhouse emissions. They must lead. They must break their addiction to fossil fuels.” He called for a phase-out of oil and gas.

With the IEA predicting demand for oil, gas and coal will peak before 2030, the writing is on the wall, though fossil fuel companies are shamefully backtracking on decarbonisation commitments in the guise of maintaining energy security at a time of marketplace volatility.

For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing us for fools. They have been buying off politicians

—  Gavin Newsom, governor of California

A push to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, nonetheless, is likely to dominate at Cop28 in Dubai next December despite being hosted by UAE, a petrostate. The exact nature of “phase-out” is the crux issue.

Cop28 president Sultan Al Jaber, who is chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, says climate diplomacy should focus on phasing out emissions from oil and gas, leaving the door open for their continued use alongside technologies to capture carbon pollution produced by burning them.

We should not fall for the notion of “clean” fossil fuels.

Addressing last week’s UN climate summit, governor of California Gavin Newsom called it correctly: “It’s time for us to be a lot more clear. This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis.

“It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out. For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing each and everyone in this room for fools. They have been buying off politicians.

“They have been denying and delaying science and fundamental information that they were privy to, that they didn’t share or they manipulated. Their deceit and denial going back decades has created the conditions that persist here today.”

Big Oil may have always had a licence to pollute for free in the US but the federal government has decided to fight climate change through a “social cost of carbon directive” given the “$700 billion harm” it causes annually. This will affect purchasing, permitting and regulation, forcing down emissions as true costs are made clearer.

We have had an appalling summer of weather extremes as climate change showed its teeth like never before. The planet is entering a bumpy, disruptive phase. We are too far gone to fully control our destiny. We can only minimise impacts.

A swift and orderly phasing out of fossil fuels is the single biggest step that will help get to a safer place. Guterres has called it “the fight of our lives”. The global climate movement in full voice can ensure there is no political stalling in pursuing this course.