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This week, the Portland City Council will take up what seems at first glance a visionary piece of legislation, one ending the construction of new infrastructure for transporting and storing fossil fuels. If passed, it would certainly stand as a landmark — but it’s a cairn on an increasingly inevitable trail.


For one thing, the math of climate change makes it abundantly clear that we simply have to stop any expansion of fossil fuels and instead reduce their use with all possible speed. So far, 2015 is the hottest year we’ve ever measured.

As I write this, the lead story in The New York Times is headlined “Greenland Is Melting Away.” In the past 10 days we’ve seen the highest hurricane winds ever measured, and the lowest barometric pressure. The West Coast is gripped in a seemingly endless drought — and hoping that its end will come with an El Niño capable of unleashing epic floods.

All that carnage is driven by carbon, and if we build new pipelines and storage fields and oil ports then we will extend the reign of that carbon another few crucial decades. Any hope of slowing down climate change means a rapid transition to renewable energy — a transition that’s possible, and affordable, but only if we stand up to the sheer momentum of the status quo.

And people are standing up. That’s the other thing that makes a moratorium like the one Portland is considering inevitable. All across the country (all across the world) people are sitting in, locking down, testifying, Facebooking. Using all the tools of nonviolent resistance, people across the continent have enacted a de facto end to most fossil fuel expansion.

The fight may have started most publicly with the resistance to the Keystone pipeline, but it didn’t end there. A fossil fuel executive recently complained to his colleagues at an industry conference about the “Keystone-ization” of so many other projects.

Some of that resistance is always going to be on local grounds. People are tired of the spills, the leaks, the fumes that go with fossil fuels. They know that the poorest people bear the brunt of these effects — that’s why many of the most effective environmentalists in America come from those frontline communities.

But that local resistance meshes nicely with the rapidly growing concern about climate change. It was no accident NASA’s Jim Hansen, our foremost climatologist, went to jail fighting Keystone, for scientists understand this “lock-in” problem better than almost anyone.

The reassurances of the fossil fuel industry — that we need a long transition away from their products—are simply self-serving lies. That becomes clearer all the time, as spiraling exposés make clear that the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil, routinely misled and deceived the public even though its scientists knew decades ago that climate change was a deadly peril.

Portlanders have begun to stand up to that deceit by divesting their holdings from the fossil fuel industry, and now they can take a further step toward a working planet by rejecting plans for new fossil fuel infrastructure.

When thousands took to the rivers and bridges of the Rose City to block Shell drilling rigs last summer, this is the message they were raising. And it worked: Shell backed out of the Arctic, just as it last week canceled a $2 billion project in the Canadian tar sands because campaigners had blocked the new pipelines required to get its filthy product to market. We’re starting to win this endless game of whack-a-mole. But Portland can make the process rational and definitive with its ban on new infrastructure.

And if it does? Well, a hundred years from now this will be remembered as the year that Portlanders — in kayaks and in City Council seats — made it utterly clear what direction the planet needed to head.

Bill McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, an organization that is building a global climate movement, with a network active in more than 188 countries. Website: www.350.org. Contact the organization’s Portland chapter at 350pdx.org.

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