Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson
This is really happening.
The Arctic and the glaciers are melting. The oceans are rising and acidifying. The corals are bleaching, the great forests dying and burning. The storms and floods, the droughts and heat waves, are intensifying. The farms and savannahs are parched and drying. Nations are disappearing. People are dying. Mass extinction is unfolding. And all of it sooner and faster than science predicted. The window in which to prevent the worst scenarios is closing before our eyes.
And the fossil-fuel industry—which holds the fate of humanity in its carbon reserves—is doubling down, economically and politically, on all this destruction. We face an unprecedented situation—a radical situation. It demands a radical response. A serious response.
This is a book about waking up. It’s about waking up, individually and collectively, to the climate catastrophe that is upon us—truly waking up to it, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, as the most fundamental and urgent threat humanity has ever faced. And it’s about some of the remarkable, wide-awake people I have come to know and at times worked alongside—those I think of as new American radicals—in the struggle to build a stronger movement for climate justice in this country, still the most powerful, morally accountable, and indispensable nation on Earth. A movement that’s less like environmentalism as we know it and more like the human rights and social-justice struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A movement for human solidarity.
Of course, any book like this must begin by acknowledging the science and the sheer lateness of the hour—the fact that, if we intend to address the climate catastrophe in a serious way, our chance for any smooth, gradual transition has passed. We must acknowledge the fact that without immediate action at all levels to radically reduce greenhouse emissions and decarbonize our economies—requiring a society-wide mobilization and a thus-far unseen degree of global cooperation, leading to the effective end of the fossil-fuel industry as we know it—the kind of livable and just future we all want is simply inconceivable.
The international community has committed to keeping the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial average—the level, we’re told, at which catastrophic warming can still be avoided (we’ve already raised it almost one degree Celsius, with still more “baked in,” perhaps half a degree, within the coming decades). But there’s good reason to believe that even a rise of two degrees will set in motion “disastrous consequences” beyond humanity’s control—as former top NASA climatologist James Hansen, now at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and seventeen coauthors concluded in a December 2013 study. Catastrophic warming, by any humane definition, is virtually certain—indeed, already happening. Because even in the very near term, what’s “catastrophic” depends on where you live, and how poor you are, and more often than not the color of your skin. If you’re one of the billions of people who live in the poorest and most vulnerable places on the planet, from Bangladesh to the Sahel to Louisiana, even one degree can mean catastrophe.
But the world’s climate scientists and leading energy experts, including the International Energy Agency in its World Energy Outlook reports, are telling us that unless the major economies drastically and immediately change course—decisively shifting investments away from fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure, leaving all but a small fraction of proven reserves in the ground over the next three to four decades—we are headed for a global temperature rise of four or five or even six degrees Celsius (11.8 F) within this century. Kevin Anderson, former head of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has noted that even a rise of four degrees (7.2 F) would bring consequences “incompatible with an organized global community.” The World Bank warned in its major 2012 report, prepared by Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, that four degrees is likely beyond our civilization’s ability to adapt—and “must be avoided.”
But we’re not avoiding it. That’s the message of the world’s climate scientists in the latest assessment report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued in 2013 and 2014. We’re plunging headlong toward the worst-case scenarios—critical global food and water shortages, rapid sea-level rise, social upheaval—and beyond.
In the summer of 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 80 percent of Arctic sea ice, measured by volume, was gone. As my colleague Mark Hertsgaard has reported, scientists estimate that we could have an ice-free Arctic summer as soon as 2020 or 2030. But keep in mind, the speed at which the Arctic has melted, thus far, greatly exceeds what scientists had the stomach to predict. And once the Arctic sea ice is gone, well, we don’t really know what that will mean for the climate—but it’s not good. Given the positive warming feedback of a heat-absorbing open ocean—and the potentially massive release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost—it’s safe to say all bets are off. And the ice-free Arctic, along with the accelerated melting of Greenland’s great ice sheet, amounts to only one of several “tipping points” for the global climate system, which would render the effects of climate change irreversible on a human timescale. Scientists reported in 2014 that the great West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be collapsing, carrying an eventual eleven feet of sea-level rise, and it now appears that East Antarctica’s enormous Totten Glacier is headed in the same direction, with another eleven or more feet in store.
Even without crossing such thresholds, the unimaginable is becoming all too imaginable. A 2013 study from researchers at the Potsdam Institute concluded that with warming of only three degrees Celsius—the low end of what’s predicted for this century on our present course—12 percent of the global population could well face “absolute” water scarcity and 24 percent “chronic” scarcity. In other words, on our current trajectory, well within this century, more than a third of the human beings on this planet could face a catastrophic lack of water. Last I checked, you need water to grow food. Pointing to a September 2014 study on the increasing risk of “megadrought” in the United States by researchers at Cornell, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey, climate expert Joseph Romm asked, “For the kind of Dust-Bowlification caused by a megadrought, what does the word ‘adaptation’ even mean?” (We’re talking to you, California.) “Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible,” Romm wrote in a 2012 piece for the journal Nature surveying the scientific literature on drought. “Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place.’ . . . Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.”
Of course there’s uncertainty about exactly how these consequences will play out. There will always be uncertainty in anything as complex as climate science. But as MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, one of the country’s leading climate scientists (and a former Republican), likes to say in his public talks, “Uncertainty doesn’t translate into ‘no worries, mate.’” In fact, he says, it’s the opposite: uncertainty “is a double-edged sword.” It’s possible, Emanuel and his colleagues acknowledge, that the impacts of climate change will be less severe, and arrive more slowly, than the most sophisticated models predict. But those are averages, which means it’s equally probable that the impacts will be more severe, and arrive much faster, than predicted. So far, mounting evidence, like the rapid melting of the Arctic and Antarctic, suggests that the latter may be the case.
The question now is not whether we’re going to “stop global warming” or “solve the climate crisis”; it is whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough to salvage civilization itself—in any form worth salvaging. Whether any kind of stable, humane, and just future—any kind of just society—is still possible.
We know that if the governments of the world actually wanted to address this situation, in a serious way, they could. Indeed, a select few, such as Denmark and Germany, have begun to do so. (Denmark already produces nearly half of its electricity from renewables, and Germany close to 40 percent; both are moving aggressively toward the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.) Stanford’s Mark Jacobson published an influential 2009 report outlining a path to 100 percent renewable energy globally, and in 2014 created state-by-state roadmaps for the United States to be fully powered by renewables by mid-century. The IPCC, the IEA, and many others are telling us that it is likely still possible, technically and economically, to hold warming to the two-degree limit—but only if the world takes the necessary action now.
The point, these experts want us to understand, is that the barriers are not technological or financial—they’re political. And in the United States, without which there can be no effective global action, this is largely the result of a successful decades-long effort by the fossil-fuel industry and those who do its bidding (as shown by scholars like Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, as well as the public record of lobbying and campaign funding) to sow confusion, doubt, and opposition—obstructing any policies that might slow the warming, or their profits, and buy us time.
Let’s be clear about what the preceding statement really means: given what we know and have known for decades about climate change, to deny the science, deceive the public, and willfully obstruct any serious response to the climate catastrophe is to allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives—and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives. For profit. And for political power.
There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.
Where does this leave us? What is the proper response? Remain calm, we’re told. No “scare tactics” or “hysterics,” please. Cooler heads will prevail. Enjoy the Earth Day festivities.
I’m sorry, the cooler heads have not prevailed. It’s been a quarter-century since the alarm was sounded. The cooler heads have failed.
If you want sweet, cool-headed reason, try this: masses of people—most of them young, a generation with little or nothing to lose—physically, nonviolently disrupting the fossil-fuel industry and the institutions that support it and abet it. Getting in the way of business as usual. Forcing the issue. Finally acting as though we accept what the science is telling us—and as though we actually care about our fellow human beings.
Isn’t that a bit extreme?
Really? Extreme? Business as usual is extreme. Just ask a climate scientist. The building is burning. The innocents—the poor, the oppressed, the children, your own children—are inside. And the American petro state—which, under the “all of the above” energy policies of Barack Obama, has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil and gas on the planet—is spraying fuel, not water, on the flames. That’s more than extreme. It’s homicidal. It’s psychopathic. It’s fucking insane.
This is hard. Coming to terms with the climate catastrophe is hard. It’s frightening. It’s infuriating. It’s heartbreaking. A friend of mine, a young woman you’ll meet later in this book, says that it’s like walking around with a knife in your chest.
And so I ask again, in the face of this situation—in the face of despair—how does one respond?
Rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism and cynicism, many of us, and especially a young generation of activists, have reached the conclusion that something more than merely “environmentalism,” and virtuous green consumerism, is called for. That the only thing offering any chance of averting an apocalyptic future—and of getting through what’s already coming with our humanity intact—is the kind of radically transformative social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement like those that have made possible what was previously unthinkable, from abolition to civil rights.
On September 21, 2014, some three hundred thousand people converged on the streets of Manhattan for the historic People’s Climate March, demanding serious climate action from world leaders meeting at the United Nations two days later, a summit convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to prod those leaders toward a global agreement at Paris in December 2015. I was there that day with my wife and our two children, along with many of my friends and colleagues in the grassroots climate movement—and it was thrilling, as we were joined by hundreds of thousands of people in New York and in cities around the world, the single largest day of climate demonstrations ever.
One of the slogans for the march was, “To change everything, we need everyone.” And I couldn’t agree more. That’s what this book is about. But here’s what would really change everything: first acknowledging that the mainstream, Washington-focused environmental movement—and the mainstream, Big Green “climate movement” that grew out of it—has failed. That we’ve already lost the “climate fight,” if that means “solving the climate crisis” and saving some semblance of the world we know. That it was lost before it began—because we started so late. That it’s time now to fight like there’s nothing left to lose but our humanity.
And yet where does the courage and commitment and sacrifice required for that kind of fight—for the kind of radical movement we need—actually come from?
What I have found, in the stories of those profiled here, and many others, is that the climate struggle, like so many struggles of the past, is essentially a spiritual struggle—it forces us to confront the deepest, most difficult questions about ourselves. The climate catastrophe is so fundamental that it strikes to the root of who we are: it’s a radical situation, and it requires a radical response. But not radical, necessarily, in the conventional sense of ideology. Rather, it confronts us with a kind of radical necessity—a moral necessity. It requires us to wake up—to face the facts, to find out who we really are—and to act. In some cases, to lay everything on the line: our relationships, our reputations, our careers, our bodies, maybe even our lives.
Historically, you could say that transformative movements arise from such an awakening—an awakening that you might call spiritual. But whatever you name it, this kind of awakening transforms individuals—and, sometimes, it transforms the world. To suggest that the kind of awakening I’m describing here might lead to such a transformation may seem fanciful. But it’s our only hope.
While this book concerns itself with climate justice, it should be clear that I did not set out to write a history or survey of the climate justice movement. The climate justice movement in the United States is broad and diverse—including groups and networks from 350.org to the Climate Justice Alliance to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Rising Tide North America, and many others, including countless smaller, local and regional grassroots organizations. And the movement is of course global, with a history extending back to the early 1990s, at least, and the merging of local and regional environmental justice efforts with postcolonial and Indigenous human rights and global justice movements. I don’t pretend to offer a comprehensive or representative account of it. The same goes for the mainstream climate movement, and the environmental organizations out of which it has grown. Those histories would require an entirely different book, or books, best written by someone other than myself.
Nor, I should add, is this book a “data-driven” macroanalysis, in which I presume to chart the one sure path forward, or prescribe any specific set of strategies and tactics. This is not a how-to manual for climate activists. (Though I do encourage you to try some of it at home.)
Instead, I’ve merely written from my own experience, my own personal journey into the climate movement in the United States, about a few of the people I’ve come to know who have committed their lives, and at times risked everything, to help inspire and build a more powerful and enduring movement in this country. People who have honestly confronted despair—a despair fully justified by our situation—and yet, somehow, have found the resolve to keep fighting. This book represents no more and no less than my own search for the moral and spiritual wellsprings of that kind of courage and commitment—and my search for what the very idea of “climate justice,” at this late hour, might yet mean. The prologue that follows is where that search begins.
Excerpt: Chapter 3. Organizing for Survival
Excerpt: from Chapter 6. Too Late for What?
Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson. All rights reserved.