Over 150,000 people are already dying every year as a direct result of human-caused climate change. Tens of thousands have already been killed and made homeless due to extreme weather events. The entire nation of Kiribati is so threatened by sea-level rise that their President has already begun negotiations to relocate all 103,000 of the country’s people.
Even here in Washington, in one of the richest states in the richest nation in the history of the planet, we are already feeling the impacts of climate change: In recent years over 50% of Columbia River salmon have died in overheated rivers, record-breaking wildfires have scorched lands, burned homes and killed, drought has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and snow packs have plummeted resulting in more water pollution, less drinking water and less hydro-electric capacity.
It was against this backdrop that, after over two decades of international negotiations, we finally got an agreement on global warming targets in Paris last year. This was met with much fanfare and celebration around the world. Job done, the world’s governments declared. We are going to win the war on global warming, they promised us; yet, when the smoke cleared and the world leaders flew home on their private jets, one small and salient fact remained: Even if every single one of the non-legally binding, entirely voluntary pledges in Paris are kept, to the letter, we will still have between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees of global warming.
That is enough warming that will ensure that vast swathes of land will turn to desert, entire nations will be swallowed by the sea, marine food webs will collapse, species will be pushed to extinction, hundreds of millions will be displaced, millions more will die.
The journalist George Monbiot perhaps summed it up best: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
On the subject of global warming, COP21 in Paris made one fact more clear than ever: conventional, incremental politics have failed to the climate crisis.
Politicians around the world -- forced to adopt chronically myopic visions by the nature of electoral politics -- have dithered and dallied, obfuscated and kicked the can down the road until the crisis is so severe and urgent that it is now beyond the realms of incremental politics to respond adequately. This fact becomes all the more clear when we consider today’s calamities beside the chorus of scientific warnings about impending tipping points beyond which we lose all control of the climate crisis.
And this is precisely why only a movement can save us now.
The traditional view of politics is that change comes gradually, in small victory by small victory steps; yet history is coloured with rare moments when change arrives not incrementally, not gradually, but in great surges and cascades.
It was less than ten years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an event that in many ways signaled the start of the national civil rights movement, that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Acts Right were signed into law. These political achievements, as Princeton professor and Black activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes “could not have been imagined even ten years before [they] happened.” It was, Taylor argues, only the “amazing accomplishment by … the civil rights movement.” that made even imaging such change possible. That such accomplishments were possible appears to have been something that Martin Luther King was well aware of, “Sound effort in a single city such as Birmingham or Selma,” he wrote, “Produced situations that symbolized the evil everywhere and inflamed public opinion against it … [and] where a spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained that applied everywhere.”
This was also how the women’s suffrage movement achieved their goals. Woodrow Wilson may have signed the bill giving women the right to vote, yet he had opposed them almost every step of the way. As with the passing of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, it was only the amazing accomplishments of the suffrage movement that made such far reaching legislative change possible.
But we needn’t reach so far back into history to witness the rapid societal change that can be propelled by populous movements. In 1990 three-quarters of Americans viewed gay sex as immoral. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act -- an act that legally defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman -- sailed through the US Senate, passing by a huge 85 to 14 margin. President Bill Clinton signed it into law, stating that, “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages.” In 2004, this stance was further entrenched as thirteen states passed ‘marriage protection’ amendments. Yet a mere eleven years later same-sex marriage was legal in all fifty states.
This sort of rapid transformative change was only possible, as Mark and Paul Engler argue so convincingly in This Is An Uprising, because of the movement for marriage equality that fought their battles in the court of public opinion, drew on a transformational vision and brought tens of thousands to the streets, to knock on doors and to tell their stories. It was, the Englers argue, the movement and the subsequent shifting of public opinion, that forced the change upon government and not, as conventional wisdom would argue, the government that granted the change to the people.
It is here, in the power of people’s movements, that our best hope of curtailing further catastrophic climate change now rests.
* * *
Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Far from it. Millions have already marched. Hundreds of thousands have already started organizing. Huge victories have already been won.
Keystone XL was once viewed as a done deal. It was nothing more than just another pipeline, just another piece of fossil fuel infrastructure among a hundred others. Then 1,234 people chose to get arrested outside of the White House opposing the pipeline, over 90,000 Americans signed the Pledge of Resistance and protests exploded all over the country. And on November 6th 2015 President Obama used his veto power to ensure that the Keystone XL would never be built.
In 2011 a few idealistic students started a campaign to push their universities to sell their fossil fuel stocks. Today almost $5 trillion worth of investment capital has formally committed to not investing in the fossil fuel industry.
In May 2015, almost 500 people took to kayaks to protest Shell’s Arctic drilling. The protests spread around the world: from Portland to London to cities around the world. In September Shell formally pulled out of the Arctic, with an insider citing the “reputational element” as being a reason for their change of plan.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the movement too has won some huge victories. Several years ago there were five new coal terminals slated for the Northwest. Five of those proposals are now dead. And they are dead because thousands of people flooded public hearings, attended rallies and took to the streets. That is the power of movements, that is the power of people and that is the power that the corporations are afraid of and beginning to wake up to.
But as the scale of the problem increases exponentially so to must the movement.
And here’s a truth: I have no idea if we are going to be able to do it, I have no idea if we are going to win big enough, quickly enough -- the problem is already spiralling so quickly out of our control.
This much, however, I do know: without the movement, without the involvement of millions of ordinary people taking extraordinary action, without millions of people all over the world making fighting climate change a major part of their lives, without all of that, we are doomed.
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