Bonn Climate Talks: Beyond BP

Even as we work to prevent future disasters and break the U.S. oil addiction, we must keep up pressure for a fair, ambitious climate treaty.
Oil on Orange Beach, photo by David Rencher

Oil from the BP disaster washes up on Orange Beach in Alabama.

Photo by David Rencher

As oil continues to spew into the Gulf and Senate Democrats contemplate sweeping energy and climate legislation, it would be easy for the growing U.S. climate movement to focus exclusively on domestic challenges. But the universal challenge of climate change demands that we also think globally.

Last week, against the news backdrop of oil-covered pelicans and bumbling oil company executives, negotiators concluded the first round of post-Copenhagen climate talks. The meetings, which took place in Bonn, Germany, were a potent reminder that ending our fossil fuel addiction will require more than a slap on the wrist for BP, or even strong U.S. climate legislation. It will take a fair, ambitious, and binding international climate treaty that meets the latest science.

After all, environmental disasters are not exclusive property of the United States. Indeed, the worst impacts of our fossil fuel addiction are often reserved for poorer, more vulnerable communities around the world, communities that often bear all the costs and receive few of the benefits associated with “cheap,” dirty energy.

"If [the oil spilled in the Gulf] had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully."
                  -Bill McKibben

There’s broad agreement that fishermen in the Gulf deserve compensation for the loss of their livelihoods. But what does the U.S. owe to families in Nigeria, our fifth largest source of crude oil, whose lives have been wrecked by repeated spills and oil company abuses?

What is our responsibility to island nations and other vulnerable communities who bear the cost when oil is burned, converting it to heat-trapping carbon dioxide that threatens their survival?

As Bill McKibben recently reflected, “Dirty as the water is off the Mississippi Delta, that’s barely the tip of the damage from fossil fuel. If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully.”

The Gulf oil disaster featured prominently in discussions at the U.N. Climate Meeting in Bonn, but the awareness doesn't go both ways: It’s clear that without a public outcry, the need for an international climate treaty won’t be on the mind of many Senators as they posture as anti-BP crusaders.

In fact, the latest reading of the Senate tea leaves is that Democrats are looking to drop the climate issue entirely. They’d rather settle for an energy bill now and save the more contentious issue of a cap on carbon for after the mid-term elections.

Delay may seem like an attractive alternative for nervous senators, but it’s not an option for many people around the world.

At the climate meetings in Bonn last week, island nations reiterated the need for immediate action to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the old 2 degree benchmark adopted at Copenhagen.

“We are convinced that sooner or later the whole world will be talking about 1.5—or less—the way things are going,” said Ambassador Ronald Jumeau from the Seychelles Islands in a press conference in Bonn. “But by the time that arrives, some of our countries may longer exist. They will be beneath the waves.”

He continued, “While the Copenhagen Accord talks about looking at a 1.5 C target a couple years down the road, our argument has been we can’t afford to wait that long. The small island states do not have the luxury of time.”

For concerned citizens and activists in the United States, our task then is two-fold.

First, continue to build the public outcry over the BP disaster and push for strong domestic action that breaks the U.S. oil addiction.

Second, work to make the connection between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the carbon spewing into our atmosphere, and push the U.S. to support a strong international climate treaty.

At, we’re working with hundreds of partners to try and accomplish these goals. In the US, we’re helping coordinate the Hands Across the Sand day of action, when thousands of citizens will join hands on our nation’s beaches to protest future oil spills. Internationally, we’re coordinating a Global Work Party on 10/10/10, when thousands of communities around the world will get to work on climate solutions and demand our political leaders do the same.

Personally, I’m still haunted by what Ambassador Antonio Lima, vice-president of the Association of Small Island States, said to me at the climate talks in Bonn, “When I look at those birds covered in oil on the beaches in the U.S., I think of my children in Cape Verde. They’re lives are also threatened by our addiction to oil. They too may die on our beaches.”

That story hasn’t been written yet. If there’s a silver lining to the tragedy in the Gulf it will be found in our ability to finally build a movement strong enough to break our addiction to fossil fuels and create a more sustainable future. Not only here in the U.S., but around the world.


  • Anger at the BP oil disaster has turned into action.

  • When an oil spill coated birds in San Francisco Bay 40 years ago, he quit driving. Then he quit speaking. Madeline Ostrander asked him what he learned in that process that can help us deal with the BP oil spill.

  • How to beat denial and rescue the planet.
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