Yesterday, the Obama Administration canceled what had previously been a relatively obscure DC event: an auction selling off the drilling and mining rights to fossil fuels on government-owned lands.

The Administration called off the auction after hundreds of people signed up to protest the scheduled Thursday event, and after the White House phones were clogged early Monday with callers demanding that Obama keep government-owned fossil fuels in the ground. 

Climate activists are now paying attention. And we know that when we organize, we win.

We’re calling on President Obama to be a real climate leader and keep fossil fuels underground. He has the power — by himself, without Congress’ interference — to stop all new fossil fuel extraction on government-owned lands.

Here’s why that’s important:

Already, we’re seeing the effects of climate catastrophe across the world. As I write, cities in India are flooding from major storms, California is facing unprecedented drought, and storm surges are ripping away the coasts of island nations.

And as I write, U.N. negotiators in Paris are sparring over whether to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (a dangerous proposition, but still a steep cut from the 4.5 degrees we’re on track for) or 1.5 degrees Celsius (still dangerous, but less so for many vulnerable nations). To have even a shot at doing either of those things, we’re going to have to start keeping fossil fuels in the ground sooner rather than later.

Climate scientists tell us that we need to keep at least 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re going to have a halfway decent chance of preventing runaway climate catastrophe. That means that 100% of fossil fuels on federally controlled public lands need to stay exactly where they are.

There could be as much as 450 gigatons worth of greenhouse gas pollution — mostly in the form of carbon dioxide and methane — sitting underground on public lands. To put that into perspective: If we’re going to stay below 2 degrees (which we know isn’t ambitious enough), then we can only burn 565 gigatons. That means that if we dug up and burned the fossil fuels on public lands in the United States, that alone would account for 80% of what we have left in the global carbon budget. Fossil fuel companies already have five times more oil, gas, and coal than they can burn. We can’t afford to sell them any more.

On top of the climate impacts, we also have to remember that the predominant extraction methods currently used are extreme in every sense of the word — extremely energy intensive, extremely impactful on the local environment, and extremely hurtful for local communities.

Everything about this is unacceptable, but this Thursday’s scheduled fossil fuel auction carried a particular sting. With negotiators in Paris scrambling to hammer out an international climate treaty that actually has some substance, another arm of the Obama administration was busy selling off fossil fuels to the highest bidder. Not a good look.

Here’s the bottom line: If the President wants to position himself as a climate leader — both in Paris and in the eyes of history — he needs to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

That means doing everything possible to keep 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves unburned, and keeping 100% of un-auctioned, government-owned fossil fuels under wraps. With the stroke of a pen, Obama could ensure that the fossil fuels on government lands — from Arctic oil to Powder River Basin coal — remain safely underground.

After the North American climate movement’s successful battle to shut down Keystone XL — finally won last month after many hard-fought years — President Obama went to Paris as the first head of state to reject a major fossil fuel project on climate grounds. That’s a really big deal.

But we always knew Keystone XL was just the beginning. We always knew that the real fight is about keeping fossil fuels in the ground on a massive and unprecedented scale. Climate leadership means keeping fossil fuels in the ground, full stop. Obama has the power to do just that — and that would truly be a big deal.

Let’s make sure Thursdays canceled auction isn’t the last.

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