Time for a More Militant Climate Movement

People’s climate march, Washington DC. April, 2017

As the COP23 international climate conference opened in Bonn Monday, two new reports lend urgency to global climate change trends, particularly concerning the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. At the conference itself, the Washington Post reports on a  paper about carbon dioxide emissions that poured cold water on the hope that these emissions had peaked and started to decline. After flatlining for three years, CO2 emissions in 2017 appear to be on the way to a 2 percent increase (give or take 1%), which would make this year’s emissions the largest on record.

The reasons for the increase this year are still a bit unclear and there is a chance that it is a single “blip” on the chart. One possible explanation is that China–by far the world’s biggest emitter of CO2–is not turning to renewables as quickly as some had hoped. So, while that country has made large investments to cut back its operation of coal plants and advance its commitment to renewable resources, there is still a huge base of coal-powered electricity generating plants that is available in many parts of the country and is still cheaper than solar or wind. In many instances, local authorities may be turning to these power sources instead of renewables, slowing China’s turn away from coal.

Globally, CO2 emissions as a result of deforestation have not declined as hoped while emissions of methane, a short-term, but more powerful greenhouse gas, are also rising. Taken together the trends are sobering. The Global Carbon Project is an organization that closely follows CO2 emissions and relates those to a CO2 “budget” for the world, beyond which we cannot go if we are to keep average global temperatures well below a 2 degrees centigrade increase compared with pre-industrial times, the goal of the 2015 Paris climate accords. With the increase in CO2 emissions this year, it will be that much more difficult to bend the global emissions curve downward in order to stay within the carbon budget.

Having said that, it should also be noted that we are now around 1 degree centigrade above pre-industrial levels and are already experiencing major droughts, more intense storms, and other extreme weather events; just as scientists have been predicting for decades. The 1.5 degree target is already dangerously high and will have serious detrimental consequences for many countries and tens of millions of people. But that is where we are.

As if to underscore these findings, another report just released by a large group of scientists states: “If unchecked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” The report advocates for many sensible measures such as more sustainable food and land-use practices, reforestation, and restoring native plant communities–all good practices. On the main issue of CO2 emissions, they simply say the international community should be “devising and promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels.” This is clearly the most critical step to take and the only one that addresses the full scope of the dangers they talk about. But making it one of 14 different measures softens the emphasis and dilutes the dire message.

Being cautious scientists and writing a consensus letter with 15,000 co-signatories, this may have been as far as they could go. But, that is the problem the global community is facing, or, to be more precise, not facing. Our actions must measure up to the grave conclusions–however cautiously stated–made by the world’s most credible scientists. To dramatically bend the curve of CO2 emissions, major investments and regulations must be made to transform the world’s power generation, transportation, and other major systems. As Bill McKibben consistently asserts, we need a global mobilization similar in scale to what the US did in the Second World War.

The challenge is not technical. Renewable technologies along with electric cars and other transportation modes are already coming on line and proving to be workable–oftentimes preferable–replacements to old, dirty technologies.

As McKibben and others have written, getting to where we need to go is, above all, a monumental political challenge. That was the case even before Donald Trump was elected and it is all the greater now that his government of deniers, corporate executives, and big polluters is in office doing damage to science and the environment on a regular basis.

It is encouraging that many organizations and groups are standing up to the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests. Native American organizations have often led the way and there have been others such as the Valve Turners, who are now on trial and may be facing years in jail for temporarily shutting down the Dakota Access pipeline. The science and climate marches were impressive mobilizations that demonstrated the potential scope of the climate movement. When Trump backed out of the Paris accords, climate change got more visibility as an issue.

But with the daily chaos and other critical issues, such as healthcare, taxes, the threat of war, just to name a few, climate concerns have not maintained the visibility they had back in the spring and early summer. From a practical, political perspective, the reasoning may go like this: progressives must first defend key programs like healthcare and fight to maintain our democratic institutions. Then they must win elections, first in 2018 and then 2020 in order to put people in power who will do the right thing for the climate.

While this may be true, I think it is way too conservative for the looming emergency we are facing. So, while other political struggles cannot be ignored, it is also time to build a much broader, militant movement to take on existing power structures and to clarify the great danger human societies are facing.

In her seminal book, Challenging Authority, Francis Fox Piven explains that real change in the United States only comes by way of mobilizing large numbers of ordinary people to take action–sometimes disruptive action–to transform public opinion and introduce new alignments into the party system. This is the only way the foundation for major changes in energy and transportation policy can be laid. It is time to strengthen grassroots organizations and to build power through action.

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