If you viewed Earth from far above (and for better or worse, this book will often take a high, wide perspective), roofs would probably be the first feature of human civilization you’d notice. A descending alien would see many shapes, often corresponding to the local weather: A-frames for shedding snow, for instance. There are gambrel roofs, mansards, hipped and gabled roofs. Pagodas and other Asian temples often sport conical tops; Russian churches come with onion domes; Western churches sit beneath spires.
Palm leaves probably topped the earliest houses, but as humans began to grow grain in the Neolithic era, the leftover straw became a reliable roofing material. Some homes in Southern England have thatch roofs five hundred years old; new layers have been added over centuries till, in some cases, the roofs are seven feet thick. Though it is harder to find good stuff to work with—the introduction of short-stemmed wheat varieties and the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer have weakened straw—thatch is now growing more popular with rich Europeans looking for green roofs; in Germany, for instance, you can now get a degree as a “journeyman specialist thatcher.” But at least since the third century BC (perhaps beginning with Greek temples deemed valuable enough to protect from fire) humans have been tending toward hard roofs. Terra-cotta tiles spread rapidly around the Mediterranean and to Asia Minor; slate roofs became popular for their low maintenance; where trees are plentiful, wood shakes and slabs of bark work well. Given that the average human being currently resides in an urban slum, it is possible that corrugated iron shelters more sleepers than anything else.
Do you find this a little dull? Good. What I want to talk about is the human game—the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram; of love and loss; of everything that comprises the experience of our species. But that’s beyond my powers, at least till I’m warmed up. So, I’ve looked for the most mundane aspect of our civilization I can imagine. Almost no one thinks about her roof from one year’s end to another, not unless it springs a leak. It’s a given. And so, it will illustrate my point—even the common and boring roof demonstrates the complexity, the stability, and the reach of this human game.
Consider the asphalt shingle, which tops most homes in the West and is itself, doubtless, the dullest of all forms of roofing. The earliest examples date to 1901, and the first manufacturer was the H.M. Reynolds Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which sold its product under the slogan “The Roof That Stays Is the Roof That Pays.” Asphalt occurs naturally in a few places on Earth—the tar sands of Alberta, for instance, are mostly bitumen, which is the geologist’s word for asphalt. But the asphalt used in shingles comes from the oil-refining process: it’s the stuff that still hasn’t boiled at five hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Vacuum distillation separates it from more valuable products such as gasoline, diesel, and naphtha; it then is stored and transported at high temperatures until it can be used, mostly for making roads. But some of it is diverted to the plants that make shingles, where manufacturers add granules of some mineral (slate, fly ash, mica) to improve durability. The CertainTeed Corporation, the world’s biggest shingle manufacturer, has produced a video showing what it rightly calls “this underappreciated process” at its plant in Oxford, North Carolina, one of sixty-one facilities it operates around the country. The video shows a ballet of pouring and dumping and conveying, as limestone arrives by rail car to be crushed and mixed with hot asphalt and then coated onto hundreds of thousands of miles of fiberglass mat. A thin mist of water is sprayed, and as it evaporates, the sheet cools, ready to be cut and then bundled onto pallets in a giant warehouse, to await distribution.1
Marvel for a moment at the thousands of events that must synchronize for all this to work: the oil drilled (maybe deep undersea, or in the equatorial desert); the pipelines and rail lines laid; the refineries constructed (and at each step, the money raised). The limestone and the sand need mining, too, and the miles of fiberglass net must be fabricated on some other production line. The raw materials are all sucked into the North Carolina factory, and then the finished shingles must be spewed back out again, across rail lines and truck routes and into a network of building supply stores, where contractors can haul them to building sites, confident that they’ve been rated for resistance to wind, fire, and discoloration. Think, again, of the sheer amount of human organization required for the American Society for Testing and Materials to produce directive D3462-87 (“Asphalt Shingles Made from Glass Felt and Surfaced with Mineral Granules”) and then to enforce its mandates.
We could, clearly, repeat this exercise for everything you see around you, and everything you hear, and everything you smell—all the infinitely more interesting activities always under way beneath all those roofs. As I write, for instance, I’m listening to Orchestra Baobab on Spotify. It was the house band at a Dakar nightclub in the 1970s, where its music reflected the Cuban beats that came with sailors to West Africa in the 1940s; eventually the group recorded its best album at a Paris studio, and now it somehow resides on a computer server where 196,847 people from across the planet listen to it each month. Try to parse the play of history and technology and commerce and spirituality and swing that make up the sound pouring into my headphones—the colonialisms layered on top of one another; the questions of race, identity, pop, purity. Or consider what I’m going to have for dinner, or what you’re wearing on your back—everything comes with strings attached, and you can follow those strings into every corner of our past and present.
What I’m calling the human game is unimaginably deep, complex, and beautiful. It is also endangered. Indeed, it is beginning to falter even now.
I’ll spend this book explaining that danger and, at the end, pointing to some ways we might yet avert it. But I think it’s best to begin by stressing not the shakiness of the human game but, instead, its stability. For humans, all of us together, have built something remarkable, something we rarely stand back and simply acknowledge. The sum of the projects of our individual lives, the total of the institutions and enterprises we have created, the aggregate of our wishes and dreams and labors, the entirety of our ceaseless activity—it is a wonder. I call it a game because it has no obvious end. Like any game, it doesn’t really matter how it comes out, at least in the largest sense of Our Place in the Universe, and yet, like any game, it absorbs the whole concentration of those involved. And even if it has no ultimate aim that doesn’t mean it lacks rules, or at least an aesthetic: by my definition, the game is going well when it creates more dignity for its players, and badly when that dignity diminishes.
Dignity, in the context of the human game, can be measured in many ways: enough calories, freedom from fear, clothes to wear, useful work. And by plenty of those measures, we’re on a roll. Extreme poverty (life on two dollars a day or less) is far rarer than it used to be. Many of the diseases that poverty helped spread have lessened, too: worms in your gut, say. Even compared to the twentieth century, violence is now far less likely to kill us—of the more than 55 million people who died around the world in 2012, war killed just 120,000 of them.2 Eighty-five percent of adults can read now, a staggering increase inside two generations.3 Women, with more education and at least a modicum of equality, have gone from having more than five kids apiece on average in 1970 to having fewer than two and a half today, probably the most rapid and remarkable demographic change the planet has ever witnessed. In the year 1500, humans managed to produce goods and services worth $250 billion in today’s dollars—five hundred years later, that number is $60 trillion, a 240-fold increase.4 The chorus of affirmation swells, from Steven Pinker insisting we’re in an age of unprecedented enlightenment to Donald Trump tweeting, “There is an incredible spirit of optimism sweeping the country right now—we’re bringing back the JOBS!”
We’re quite accustomed to this idea of progress, so accustomed that some can’t imagine anything else: the former chief economist of the World Bank, Kaushik Basu, recently predicted that, in fifty years, global GDP will be growing 20 percent a year, meaning that income and consumption will be doubling every four years or so.5 There are, each day, more ideas hatched, more songs sung, more pictures taken, more goals scored, more schoolbooks read, more money invested.
And yet. There are other authorities almost as highly placed as the former chief economist of the World Bank. Pope Francis, in his landmark 2015 encyclical on the environment and poverty, said, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Don’t consider popes sufficiently authoritative? Consider this: In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” Just like Pinker, they had charts, but theirs depicted everything from the decline in freshwater per person to the spread of anaerobic “dead zones” in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted, we face “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”; soon, they added, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” (Within six months, that warning was already the sixth-most-discussed academic paper in history.)6 The worries have grown severe enough that a NASA-funded group recently created the Human and Nature DYnamics (HANDY) program to model the fall of the Roman, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, and when they pushed the button, it spit out a disquieting forecast: “Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” (The fact that I’d never even heard of the Mauryan Empire gave me a quiet shiver.) In this model, by the way, one of the greatest dangers came from elites who argued against structural change on the grounds that “so far” things were working out.7
That “so far” is always the problem, as the man who fell off the skyscraper found out. If you want to fret, you can find plenty of indications that the pavement is approaching with discouraging speed. A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity,” according to a September 2017 report.8 We’ve displaced most everything else: if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals (all the moose and cheetahs and wombats combined) total just 3 percent.9 In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970, an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing. In 2018, scientists reported that the planet’s oldest and largest trees were dying fast, “as climate change attracts new pests and diseases to forests.” The baobab—Africa’s tree of life, in whose shade people first hunted and gathered—can live as long as 2,500 years, but five of the six oldest specimens on the planet have died in the last decade.10 Before century’s end, climate change may kill off the cedars of Lebanon—plundered by Gilgamesh, name-checked in the Bible—as snow cover disappears and sawflies hatch earlier in the heat.11
Even our arks are leaking: with a burst of foresight, the world’s agronomists designed a Global Seed Vault in an Arctic mountain, an impregnable bank where they could save a million varieties of seed covering all the Earth’s important food crops. Eight years after it opened, during the hottest year ever recorded on the planet, melting snow and heavy rain flooded the entrance tunnel and then froze. The seeds weren’t damaged, but the builders were no longer confident that they’d constructed a stronghold that would last into deep time. “It was not in our plans to think the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” a Norwegian government spokesman said.12
And yet nothing slows us down—just the opposite. By most accounts, we’ve used more energy and resources during the last thirty-five years than in all of human history that came before.13 Every economic assumption our governments make about the future requires doubling the size of the economy again, and then again, and then again during the lives of the youngest people on the planet. So, it’s hard to make the argument that past performance indicates much about the future—it looks like the same game, but it’s on new ground.
In part, that’s because the past is so short. We are the first acutely self-conscious species, so wrapped up in our own story that we rarely stop to remember how short that story really is. Day to day, we forget that if the billions of years of life on Earth were scaled to a twenty-four-hour day, our settled civilizations began about a fifth of a second ago.14 That short burst covers the taming of fire, the development of language, the rise of agriculture. On the time scale of a human life, these changes seemed to take forever, but in geological reality, they occupied the blink of an eye. And now we see shifts (the development of nuclear weapons, the rise of the internet) that change many of our assumptions in real time. So, the fact that even over this short span we’ve seen the routine and often sudden collapse of one civilization after another might give us pause. And in some ways, it does—books such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse intrigue us with their stories of past calamities, from Greenland to Easter Island.
But these warnings also somehow seem to give us confidence, because, after all, things continued. Rome fell, and something else rose. The Fertile Crescent turned to desert, but we found other places to grow our food. The cautionary tales about transcending our limits (the apple in Eden, the Tower of Babel, Icarus) seem silly to us because we’re still here, and we keep transcending one limit after another.
Sometimes we scare ourselves for a season, but then we shake it off. As the postwar explosion in consumption spread across much of the planet, for instance, modern environmentalism also took shape, questioning whether this trajectory was sustainable. That movement reached its first height in 1972, with the publication of a slim book called The Limits to Growth. Without specifying precisely how and when, the authors of that book, and the computer models they built, predicted that our pell-mell growth would, “sometime within the next hundred years,” collide with many natural limits, and that without dramatic change, “the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” Alternately, they said, the nations of the world could “create a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future,” a task that would be easier the sooner we began.15 Needless to say, we’ve not done that. Though we’ve taken the environmental idea semi-seriously, passing the laws that cleaned air and water, we’ve never taken it anywhere near as seriously as we’ve taken further growth. On his way to the theoretically groundbreaking Rio environmental summit in 1992, the first President Bush famously declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,”16 and as it turns out, he was correct—and speaking for much of the world. And so far, we’ve gotten away with it: even as we keep accelerating, the game spins on.
So, why should you take seriously my fear that the game, in fact, may be starting to play itself out? The source of my disquiet can be summed up in a single word, a word that will be repeated regularly in this book: leverage. We’re simply so big, and moving so fast, that every decision carries enormous risk.
Rome’s collapse was, of course, a large-ish deal. But given that there were vast swaths of the world that didn’t even know there was a Roman Empire, it wasn’t a big deal everywhere. Rome fell, and the Mayans didn’t tremble, nor the Chinese, nor the Inuit. But an interconnected world is different. It offers a certain kind of stability—everyone in every country can all hear the scientists warning of impending climate change, say—but it removes the defense of distance. And the sheer size of our consumption means we have enormous leverage of a different sort—no Roman emperor could change the pH of the oceans, but we’ve managed that trick in short order. And, finally, the new scale of our technological reach amplifies our power in extraordinary ways: much of this book will be devoted to examining the godlike powers that come with our rapid increases in computing speed, everything from human genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.
We are putting the human game at risk, that is, from things going powerfully wrong and powerfully right. As we shall see, humans have now emerged as a destructive geologic force—the rapid degradation of the planet’s physical systems that was still theoretical when I wrote The End of Nature is now under way. Indeed, it’s much farther advanced than most people realize. In 2015, at the Paris climate talks, the world’s governments set a goal of holding temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius and, at the very least, below 2 degrees; by the fall of 2018 the IPCC reported that we might go past that 1.5 degree mark by 2030. That is to say, we will have drawn a line in the sand and then watched a rising tide erase it, all in a decade and a half.
And humans have simultaneously emerged as a massive creative force, in ways that threaten the human game not through destruction but through substitution. Robots are not just another technology, and artificial intelligence not just one more improvement like asphalt shingles. They are instead a replacement technology, and the thing’s that’s going obsolete may well be us. If we’re not humans, then the human game makes no sense.
Over our short career as a species, human history has risen and fallen, gotten stuck and raced ahead, stagnated and flourished. Only now, though, have we achieved enough leverage that we can bring it to an end, both by carelessness and by design. As a team of scientists pointed out recently in Nature, the physical changes we’re currently making by warming the climate will “extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”17 And as the Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Harari recently wrote, “Once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.”18 That is to say, the game that we’ve been playing may end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the burble of a rising ocean and the soft beep of some digital future being birthed.
The outsize leverage is so crucial because, for the first time, we threaten to cut off our own lines of retreat. When Rome fell, something else was there. We had, to draw on pinball, perhaps the most delightfully pointless of games, another silver ball, another chance. But our current changes are so big that they’re starting to tilt the whole machine, at which point it will fall silent. And as we shall see, because of the radical inequality we’ve allowed to overtake our society, the key decisions have been and will be made by a handful of humans in a handful of places: oil company executives in Houston, say, and tech moguls in Silicon Valley and Shanghai. Particular people in particular places at a particular moment in time following a particular philosophic bent: that’s leverage piled on top of leverage. And their ability to skew our politics with their wealth is one more layer of leverage. It scares me.
It scares me even though the human game is not perfect—in fact, no one gets out of it alive, and no one without sadness and loss. For too many people, it’s much more tragic than it needs to be—indeed, it’s wretched, and often because its rules have been rigged to favor some and damage others. Given that I’ve been in the luckier fraction, the game may seem more appealing to me than to others. And perhaps its loss will not feel as acute to those being born now: certainly, they will not mourn the absence of things they did not know, just as we are not wrenched by the loss of the dinosaurs. If you back up far enough, it’s possible to be philosophical about anything—the sun is going to blow up eventually, after all. But that’s more philosophy than I can manage; for me, and for many others, the loss of this game is the largest conceivable tragedy, if, indeed, we can conceive it.
And so, we will fight—some of us already are fighting. And we can, I think, see some of the ways out, even if the odds of their succeeding are not great. Success would require real changes in thinking from both conservatives and progressives. (Conservatives, oddly, tend not to worry about conservation; progressives tend to think all progress is good.) But if those changes came fast enough, the game could roll on: scientists estimate that we have five billion years until the sun turns into a red giant and expands past Earth’s orbit. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just realistic—enough to know engagement is our only chance.
I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end, but it does come with two logical imperatives. The first is to keep it going, and the second is to keep it human.
1. Youtu.be/3UgGVKnelfY CertainTeed Roofing, “How Shingles Are Made,” youtube.com
2. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p. 15.
3. Nicholas Kristof, “Good News, Despite What You’ve Heard,” New York Times, July 1, 2017.
4. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 247.
5. Kaushik Basu, “The Global Economy in 2067,” Project Syndicate, June 21, 2017.
6. “Scientists’ Warning to Humanity ‘Most Talked about Paper,’ ” March 7, 2018, sciencedaily.com.
7. Nafeez Ahmed, “NASA-Funded Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for ‘Irreversible Collapse’?” Guardian, March 14, 2014.
8. Baher Kamal, “Alert: Nature, on the Verge of Bankruptcy,” September 12, 2017, ispnews.net.
9. Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), p. 42.
10. John Vidal, “From Africa’s Baobabs to America’s Pines: Our Ancient Trees Are Dying,” Huffington Post, June 19, 2018.
11. Anne Barnard, “Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon,” New York Times, July 18, 2018.
12. Damian Carrington, “Arctic Stronghold of World’s Seeds Flooded After Permafrost Melts,” Guardian, May 19, 2017.
13. William E. Rees, “Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse,” TheTyee.ca, July 17, 2017.
14. Eelco Rohling, The Oceans: A Deep History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 15.
15. Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report of the Club of Rome (New York: Universe Books, 1972), abstract.
16. “A Greener Bush,” The Economist, February 13, 2003.
17. Peter U. Clark et al., “Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change,” Nature Climate Change 6, no. 4 (February 2016): 360–69.
18. Adam Gopnik, “The Illiberal Imagination,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2017.
Copyright © 2019 by Bill McKibben
As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.
Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.
The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.
In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.
These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).
But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline. It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”
Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.
On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.
His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane — another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment. At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.
The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.
There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.
Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine. These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.
At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.
If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.
But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam. I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.
As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.
Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.
It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished. In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.
That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
A Movement for a New Planet
We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.
When we started 350.org five years ago, we dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw everyone to a central place — the Mall in Washington, D.C. — for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the same — about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.
Part of me, though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d grown up watching — or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a leader. In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, reflects on that growing sense of identity.
However, in recent months — and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your mind after your book is in type — I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders less and less. It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.
For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.
In the last few weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.
From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio — Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.
Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years. It was their combined witness that got the ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been describing.
The big environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information, while keeping track of straying members of Congress. Among them were the National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on the Mall in Washington.
Organizations and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without complaining about how late we were. Then there were the ranchers and farmers of Nebraska, who roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us. One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.
Non-experts quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow through it. CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company), as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people pledged to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.
And then there was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd after another, and the labor unions — nurses and transit workers, for instance — who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers’ union which would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent grandparents’ march from Camp David to the White House. Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas, which have organized epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the pipeline.
The Indigenous Environmental Network has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia, just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of the European Union.
We don’t know if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built — his is the ultimate decision — based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.
What the Elders Said
This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas.
The cause couldn’t be more compelling. There’s never been a clearer threat to survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this disaster.
That’s why it’s such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate struggle. When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.
Expansion by geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, 350.org and its allies trained 500 young people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.
This sort of planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation. When, for instance, the big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been poisoned by tar sands mining.
Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.
Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.
Yet figures like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined. They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the “biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.
When you have that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the cause.
These elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the most useful work I’ve done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via Twitter or write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently to a group of grandparents who had just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp David. A young man demanded to know why I wasn’t backing sabotage of oil company equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by our movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were doing genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their construction schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my estimation wrecking bulldozers would play into their hands.
But maybe he was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive.
The Coming of the Leaderless Movement
We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org. When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.
The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing. Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because that’s what the world mostly is.
Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce such powerful ideas and initiatives. We need to stop thinking of them as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.
We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself nothing new. In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new opportunities.
More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the gay rights movement into a new phase.
But Dan Choi doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases. There are plenty of others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.
The ultimate in leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the U.S. (and other areas of the world) in 2011-2012. It, in turn, took cues from the Arab Spring, which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor, who exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s around the planet.
Occupy was exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic practice. Those of us who are used to New England town meetings recognized its Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur one day a year. Not that many people had the stomach for the endless discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many cases, the crowds began to dwindle even without police repression — only to surge back when there was a clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after that superstorm hit the East coast).
All around the Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of democracy in action. As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often engaged as facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic and dramatically effective. It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably necessary one.
How to Save the Earth
Communities (and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of hierarchy, even if it’s an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we’ll need in a time of increased climate stress — communities that place a premium on resiliency and adaptability, dramatically decentralized but deeply linked.
And it’s already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California, where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents. When a section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message essentially requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local environmental justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight against the plant.
Like the other oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around the world. The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to continue to cover up the horrors it’s responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in Ecuador. And of course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar recklessness when it comes to our home planet. Their reserves of oil and gas are already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of the way past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged to prevent, which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming — and yet they are now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of “unconventional” fossil fuels to burn.
In addition, as the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two weeks before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing would shake the status quo.
And so our movement — global, national, and most of all local. Released from a paddy wagon after the Richmond protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees waiting to be booked, I saw lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of the Chevron equation. Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in the construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal Plant, who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids who can breathe more easily in far less polluted air.
I continue to hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds. They all make up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it. These are people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same general direction; and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at all, save profiting from the suffering of the planet.
I’m sure much of this thinking is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t. I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front of a movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience.
What I do sense, however, is that it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador — to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake the world in record time.
That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them. It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Movements Without Leaders
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole, they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the pipeline — every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their Senate caucus — about a third — joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone XL. As the Washington insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate: Senate Democrats.”
Which actually may have been generous to the president. It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough, that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientist James Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week, simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights. Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able to marry.
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for Action, for instance — an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org — has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great, but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Energy Independence: Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways, including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic — from Greenland to its seas — essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia, even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last century’s worry. It dates back to the crises set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early 1970s, not long after… Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been decisive in nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments. But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable, we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform — not just a change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see broad new campaigns underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the scientists tell us that we have no hope of holding the rise in the planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate-change activists can and should continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the 350.org action fund is organizing college students for the Massachusetts primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent, Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said, demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports, Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he said, is “going to take people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.
And so, down to work.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?
At a moment when megafires are sweeping the southwest and heat records continue to be set across the country, climate-change deniers are finally having a few problems of their own. As Bill McKibben begins his latest, typically timely piece for TomDispatch, “It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.” And it all started when the Heartland Institute, that nerve-center of climate-change denial, put the Unabomber on a billboard to stigmatize the global warming crowd and experienced a little blowback of its own.
It’s a fascinating story and McKibben uses it to offer an anatomy of a denial job disastrously well done until now, despite the fact that the deniers have no serious scientists to back up their position. He then vividly describes the hapless crew the climate-change deniers tend to cite as authorities — only to add: “If your urge is to laugh at this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you — because it’s worked.”
This is a story about how, with various right-wing billionaires and energy companies bankrolling them, the deniers have intimidated climate-changers and helped wreck our future planet. McKibben offers an unnerving success story — and the first hints that this may be turning around. He concludes: “But damn, it’s a hard fight, up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will ‘lose,’ because physics and chemistry are not intimidated… But timing is everything — … a crew of certified planet wreckers delay action past the point where it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in political history — one that will last for geological epochs.”
Another McKibben must-read!
The Planet Wreckers, Climate-Change Deniers Are on the Ropes – But So Is the Planet
My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve — dangerously naïve.
I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for. It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.
Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings. We sent 1,253 people to jail in the largest civil disobedience action in a generation. Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.
And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review. (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.) Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political.
A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms. Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline. Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.
That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit. After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”
As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.
I know that cynics — call them realists, if you prefer — will be completely unsurprised by that. Which is precisely the problem.
We’ve reached the point where we’re unfazed by things that should shake us to the core. So, just for a moment, be naïve and consider what really happened in that vote: the people’s representatives who happen to have taken the bulk of the money from those energy companies promptly voted on behalf of their interests.
They weren’t weighing science or the national interest; they weren’t balancing present benefits against future costs. Instead of doing the work of legislators, that is, they were acting like employees. Forget the idea that they’re public servants; the truth is that, in every way that matters, they work for Exxon and its kin. They should, by rights, wear logos on their lapels like NASCAR drivers.
If you find this too harsh, think about how obligated you feel when someone gives you something. Did you get a Christmas present last month from someone you hadn’t remembered to buy one for? Are you going to send them an extra-special one next year?
And that’s for a pair of socks. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who insisted that the Keystone approval decision be speeded up, has gotten $1,111,080 from the fossil-fuel industry during his tenure. His Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, has raked in $1,277,208 in the course of his tenure in Washington.
If someone had helped your career to the tune of a million dollars, wouldn’t you feel in their debt? I would. I get somewhat less than that from my employer, Middlebury College, and yet I bleed Panther blue. Don’t ask me to compare my school with, say, Dartmouth unless you want a biased answer, because that’s what you’ll get. Which is fine — I am an employee.
But you’d be a fool to let me referee the homecoming football game. In fact, in any other walk of life we wouldn’t think twice before concluding that paying off the referees is wrong. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, everyone in America would be outraged to see owner Robert Kraft trot out to midfield before the game and hand a $1,000 bill to each of the linesmen and field judges.
If he did it secretly, the newspaper reporter who uncovered the scandal would win a Pulitzer. But a political reporter who bothered to point out Boehner’s and McConnell’s payoffs would be upbraided by her editor for simpleminded journalism. That’s how the game is played and we’ve all bought into it, even if only to sputter in hopeless outrage.
Far from showing any shame, the big players boast about it: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, front outfit for a consortium of corporations, has bragged on its website about outspending everyone in Washington, which is easy to do when Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and News Corp are writing you seven-figure checks. This really matters. The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers. That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn’t real.
It also explains why “our” representatives vote, year in and year out, for billions of dollars worth of subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. If there was ever an industry that didn’t need subsidies, it would be this one: they make more money each year than any enterprise in the history of money. Not only that, but we’ve known how to burn coal for 300 years and oil for 200.
Those subsidies are simply payoffs. Companies give small gifts to legislators, and in return get large ones back, and we’re the ones who are actually paying.
Whose Money? Whose Washington?
I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve. I want to be hopefully naïve. It would be relatively easy to change this: you could provide public financing for campaigns instead of letting corporations pay. It’s the equivalent of having the National Football League hire referees instead of asking the teams to provide them.
Public financing of campaigns would cost a little money, but endlessly less than paying for the presents these guys give their masters. And it would let you watch what was happening in Washington without feeling as disgusted. Even legislators, once they got the hang of it, might enjoy neither raising money nor having to pretend it doesn’t affect them.
To make this happen, however, we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.
Still, there’s a chance. The Occupy movement opened the door to this sort of change by reminding us all that the system is rigged, that its outcomes are unfair, that there’s reason to think people from across the political spectrum are tired of what we’ve got, and that getting angry and acting on that anger in the political arena is what being a citizen is all about.
It’s fertile ground for action. After all, Congress’s approval rating is now at 9%, which is another way of saying that everyone who’s not a lobbyist hates them and what they’re doing. The big boys are, of course, counting on us simmering down; they’re counting on us being cynical, on figuring there’s no hope or benefit in fighting city hall. But if we’re naïve enough to demand a country more like the one we were promised in high school civics class, then we have a shot.
A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month, when rallies outside every federal courthouse will mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. That’s the one where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to spend whatever they wanted on campaigns.
To me, that decision was, in essence, corporate America saying, “We’re not going to bother pretending any more. This country belongs to us.”
We need to say, loud and clear: “Sorry. Time to give it back.”
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. To catch Timothy MacBain’s first Tomcast audio interview of the new year in which McKibben discusses how the rest of us can compete with a system in which money talks, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Armed With Naïvete
Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama’s announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in — and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.
The pipeline decision was a true upset. Everyone — and I mean everyone who "knew" how these things work — seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of “energy insiders” — that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was “virtually unanimous” in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year’s end.
Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed. After all, they’d already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they’d bought with millions in lobbying gifts and other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren’t smart enough to know they’d been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.
No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule. Still, we're waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation. But even that won't be final. Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline — as any Republican victor certainly would. Chances are, nonetheless, that the process has now gotten so messy that Transcanada’s pipeline will die of its own weight, in turn starving the tar-sands oil industry and giving a boost to the global environment. Of course, killing the pipeline will hardly solve the problem of global warming (though heavily exploiting those tar sands would, in NASA scientist James Hansen’s words, mean “game over for the climate.”)
In this line of work, where victories of any kind are few and far between, this was a real win. It began with indigenous activists, spread to Nebraska ranchers, and eventually turned into the biggest environmental flashpoint in many years. And it owed no small debt to the Occupy Wall Street protesters shamefully evicted from Zuccotti Park last night, who helped everyone understand the power of corporate money in our daily lives. That these forces prevailed shocked most pundits precisely because it’s common wisdom that they’re not the sort of voters who count, certainly not in a year of economic trouble.
In fact, the biggest reason the realists had no doubts the pipeline would get its permit, via a State Department review and a presidential thumbs-up of that border-crossing pipeline, was because of the well-known political potency of the jobs argument in bad economic times. Despite endless lazy reporting on the theme of jobs versus the environment, there were actually no net jobs to be had from the pipeline. It was always a weak argument, since the whole point of a pipeline is that, once it's built, no one needs to work there. In addition, as the one study not paid for by Transcanada made clear, the project would kill as many jobs as it would create.
The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson finally demonstrated this late in the game with a fine report taking apart Transcanada’s job estimates. (The 20,000 jobs endlessly taken for granted assumed, among other stretches, that modern dance troupes would move to Nebraska, where part of the pipeline would be built, to entertain pipeline workers.) Still, the jobs trope remained, and you can be sure that the Chamber of Commerce will run 1,000 ads during the 2012 presidential campaign trying to hammer it home. And you can be sure the White House knew that, which was why it was such a tough call for them — and why the pressure of a movement among people whose support matters to them made a difference.
Let’s assume the obvious then: that one part of their recent calculations that led to the postponement decision might just be the suspicion that they will actually win votes thanks to the global-warming question in the next election.
For one thing, global warming denial has seen its apogee. The concerted effort by the fossil-fuel industry to underwrite scientific revision met its match last month when a team headed by Berkeley skeptic and prominent physicist Richard Muller –– with funding from the Koch Brothers, of all people — actually found that, what do you know, all the other teams of climate-change scientists were, um, right. The planet was indeed warming just as fast as they, and the insurance companies, and the melting ice had been insisting.
Still, scientific studies only reach a certain audience. Weird weather is a far more powerful messenger. It’s been hard to miss the record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and across the Northeast; the record drought and fires across the Southwest; the record multi-billion dollar weather disasters across the country this year; the record pretty-much everything-you-don’t-want across the nation. Obama certainly noticed. He’s responsible for finding the cash every time some other state submerges.
As a result, after years of decline, the number of Americans who understand that the planet is indeed warming and that we’re to blame appears to be on the rise again. And ironically enough, one reason may be the spectacle of all the tea-partying GOP candidates for the presidency being forced to swear fealty to the notion that global warming is a hoax. Normal people find this odd: it’s one thing to promise Grover Norquist that you’ll never ever raise taxes; it’s another to promise that you’ll defeat chemistry and physics with the mighty power of the market.
Along these lines, Mitt Romney made an important unforced error last month. Earlier in the primaries, he and Jon Huntsman had been alone in the Republican field in being open to the idea that global warming might actually be real. Neither wanted to do anything about it, of course, but that stance itself was enough to mark them as realists. It was also a sign that Romney was thinking ahead to the election itself, and didn’t want to be pinned against this particular wall.
In late October, however, he evidently felt he had no choice but to pin himself to exactly that wall and so stated conclusively: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” In other words, he not only flip-flopped to the side of climate denial, but did so less than six months after he had said no less definitively: “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer… And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Note as well that he did so, while all the evidence, even some recently funded by the deniers, pointed the other way.
If he becomes the Republican presidential candidate as expected, this may be the most powerful weathervane ad the White House will have in its arsenal. Even for people who don’t care about climate change, it makes him look like the spinally challenged fellow he seems to be. But it’s an ad that couldn’t be run if the president had okayed that pipeline.
Now that Obama has at least temporarily blocked Keystone XL, now that his team has promised to consider climate change as a factor in any final decision on the pipeline’s eventual fate, he can campaign on the issue. And in many ways, it may prove a surprise winner.
After all, only people who would never vote for him anyway deny global warming. It’s a redoubt for talk-show rightists. College kids, on the other hand, consistently rank it among the most important issues. And college kids, as Gerald Seib pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, are a key constituency for the president, who is expected to need something close to the two-thirds margin he won on campus in 2008 to win again in 2012.
Sure, those kids care about student loans, which threaten to take them under, and jobs, which are increasingly hard to come by, but the nature of young people is also to care about the world. In addition, independent voters, suburban moms — these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment. Count on it: they’ll be key targets for Obama’s presidential campaign.
Given the economy, that campaign will have to make Mitt Romney look like something other than a middle-of-the-road businessman. If he’s a centrist, he probably wins. If he’s a flip-flopper with kooky tendencies, they’ve got a shot. And the kookiest thing he’s done yet is to deny climate science.
If I’m right, expect the White House to approve strong greenhouse gas regulations in the months ahead, and then talk explicitly about the threat of a warming world. In some ways it will still be a stretch. To put the matter politely, they’ve been far from perfect on the issue: the president didn’t bother to waste any of his vaunted “political capital” on a climate bill, and he’s opened huge swaths of territory to coal mining and offshore drilling.
But blocking the pipeline finally gave him some credibility here — and it gave a lot more of the same to citizens' movements to change our world. Since a lot of folks suspect that the only way forward economically has something to do with a clean energy future, I’m guessing that the pipeline decision won’t be the only surprise. I bet Barack Obama talks on occasion about global warming next year, and I bet it helps him.
But don’t count on that, or on Keystone XL disappearing, and go home. If the pipeline story (so far) has one lesson, it’s this: you can’t expect anything to change if you don’t go out and change it yourself.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Obama’s Positive Flip and Romney’s Negative Flop
For connoisseurs, Barack Obama’s fundraising emails for the 2012 election campaign seem just a tad forlorn — slightly limp reminders of the last time ‘round.
Four years ago at this time, the early adopters among us were just starting to get used to the regular flow of email from the Obama campaign. The missives were actually exciting to get, because they seemed less like appeals for money than a chance to join a movement.
Sometimes they came with inspirational videos from Camp Obama, especially the volunteer training sessions staged by organizing guru Marshall Ganz. Here’s a favorite of mine, where a woman invokes Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez and says that, as the weekend went on, she “felt her heart softening,” her cynicism “melting,” her determination building. I remember that feeling, and I remember clicking time and again to send another $50 off to fund that people-powered mission. (And I recall knocking on a lot of New Hampshire doors, too, with my 14-year-old daughter.)
It’s no wonder, then, that I’m still on the email list. But I haven’t been clicking through this time. Not even when Barack Obama himself asked me to “donate $75 or more today to be automatically entered for a chance to join me for dinner.” Not even when campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out that, though “the president has very little time to spend on anything related to the campaign… this is how he chooses to spend it — having real, substantive conversations with people like you” over the dinner you might just win. (And if you do win, you’ll be put on a plane to “Washington, or Chicago, or wherever he might be that day.”)
Not even when deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon offered to let me “take ownership of this campaign” by donating to it and, as an “added bonus,” possibly find myself “across the table from the president.” Not even when Michelle lowered the entry price from $75 to $25 and offered this bit of reassurance: “Just relax. Barack wants this dinner to be fun, and he really loves getting to know supporters like you.” Not even when, hours before an end-of-September fundraising “deadline,” Barack himself dropped the asking price to three dollars. God, have a little self-respect man! Three dollars?
Here’s the thing I’m starting to think Obama never understood: yes, for most of us the 2008 campaign was partly about him, but it was more about the campaign itself — about the sudden feeling of power that gripped a web-enabled populace, who felt themselves able to really, truly hope. Hope that maybe they’d found a candidate who would escape the tried-and-true money corruption of Washington.
None of us gave $50 hoping for a favor. Quite the opposite. You gave $50 hoping that, for the first time in a long while in American politics, no one would get a favor. And the candidate, it must be said, led us on. His rhetorical flights were dazzling — to environmentalists like me, he promised to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all,” and pledged that his administration would mark the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
Once in office, it was inevitable that he’d disappoint us to some degree. In fact, we knew the disappointment would come and braced ourselves for it. After all, our movement was up against the staggering power of vested corporate and financial interests. It’s hard to beat big money. Still, we didn’t mind thinking: Yes, we can. We’ll work hard. We’ve got your back. Let’s go!
What we completely missed was that Obama didn’t want us at his back — that the minute the campaign was over he would cut us adrift, jettison the movement that had brought him to power. Instead of using all those millions of people to force through ambitious health-care proposals or serious climate legislation or [fill in the blank yourself here], he governed as the opposite of a movement candidate.
He clearly had not the slightest interest in keeping that network activated and engaged. Though we had brought him to the party, it was as if he didn’t really want to dance with us. Instead — however painful the image may be — he wanted to dance with Larry Summers. (Fundraising idea: I’d pay $75 to be assured I never had to have dinner with Summers.)
As the months of his administration rolled into years, he only seemed to grow less interested in movements of any sort. Before long, people like Tom Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were topping the list of the most frequent visitors to the White House. And that was before this winter when — after they’d been the biggest contributors to GOP congressional candidates — Obama went on bended knee to Chamber headquarters, apologizing that he hadn’t brought a fruitcake along as a gift. (What is it with this guy and food? At any rate, he soon gave them a far better present, hiring former Chamber insider Bill Daley as his chief of staff.)
Now, his popularity tanking, Obama and his advisors talk about “tacking left” for the election. A nice thought, but maybe just a little late.
Increasingly, it seems to me, those of us who were ready to move with him four years ago are deciding to leave normal channels and find new forms of action. Here's an example: by year's end the president has said he will make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The nation's top climate scientists sent the administration a letter indicating that such a development would be disastrous for the climate. NASA's James Hansen, the government's top climate researcher, said heavily tapping tar-sands oil, a particularly “dirty” form of fossil fuel, would mean “game over for the climate.” Ten of the president's fellow recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates pointed out in a letter that blocking the prospective pipeline would offer him a real leadership moment, a “tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.”
But every indication from this administration suggests that it is prepared to grant the necessary permission for a project that has the enthusiastic backing of the Chamber of Commerce, and in which the Koch Brothers have a “direct and substantial interest.” And not just backing. To use the words of a recent New York Times story, they are willing to "flout the intent of federal law" to get it done. Check this out as well: the State Department, at the recommendation of Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada, hired a second company to carry out the environmental review. That company already considered itself a "major client" of TransCanada. This is simply corrupt, potentially the biggest scandal of the Obama years. And here's the thing: it's a crime still in progress. Watching the president do nothing to stop it is endlessly depressing.
For many of us, it’s been an overdue wake-up call, a sharp reminder of just who the president was really listening to. In mid-summer, several leaders of the environmental movement, myself included, put out a call for nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House over the upcoming Keystone pipeline decision. And more people — 1,253 in total — showed up to be arrested than at anytime in the last 40 years. (One reason Obama’s emails stink this time around: the guy who used to write many of them, Elijah Zarlin, not only isn’t working for the campaign any more, but got hauled off in a paddy wagon.)
Bare months have past and already that arrest record is being threatened, thank heavens, by the forces of #OccupyWallStreet, a movement that includes plenty more of the kind of people who rallied so enthusiastically behind Obama back in 2008.
Obama had mojo when he knew it wasn’t about him, that it was about change. But when you promise change, you have to deliver. His last best opportunity may come with that Keystone Pipeline decision, which he can make entirely by himself, without our inane Congress being able to get in the way. So on November 6th, exactly one year before the election, we’re planning to circle the White House with people. And the signs we’ll be carrying will simply be quotes from his last campaign — all that stuff about the tyranny of big oil and the healing of the planet.
Our message will be simple: If you didn’t mean it, you shouldn’t have said it. If you did, here’s the chance to prove it. Nix the pipeline.
We don’t want dinner. We want action.
Bill McKibben is an organizer at tarsandsaction.org, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Obama’s Failing Emails
I didn’t think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days.
As I headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea that I would write something. Not an epic like King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but at least, you know, a blog post. Or a tweet.
But frankly, I wasn’t up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming — and so with our first crew they were… kind of harsh.
We spent three days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there’s one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.
I didn’t have a pencil — they wouldn’t even let me keep my wedding ring — but more important, I didn’t have the peace of mind to write something. It’s only now, out 12 hours and with a good night’s sleep under my belt, that I’m able to think straight. And so, as I said, I’ll go to this weekend’s big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for his calm power.
Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we’ve experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the main purposes of our protest:
First, it made Keystone XL — the new, 1,700-mile-long pipeline we’re trying to block that will vastly increase the flow of “dirty” tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico — into a national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along the route of the prospective pipeline who were organizing against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its prospective route.)
Now, however, people are coming to understand — as we hoped our demonstrations would highlight — that it poses a danger to the whole planet as well. After all, it’s the Earth’s second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-largest potential source of global warming gases after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We’ve already plumbed those Saudi deserts. Now the question is: Will we do the same to the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” That message is getting through. Witness the incredibly strong New York Times editorial opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on our release from jail.
Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn’t in the picture. The situation couldn’t be simpler: the president, and the president alone, has the power either to sign the permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills to come) or block it.
Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so. That means — and again, it couldn’t be simpler — that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.
That’s why many of us were wearing our old campaign buttons when we went into the paddy wagon. We’d like to remember — and like the White House to remember, too — just why we knocked on all those doors.
But as Dr. King might have predicted, the message went deeper. As people gather in Washington for this weekend’s dedication of his monument, most will be talking about him as a great orator, a great moral leader. And of course he was that, but it’s easily forgotten what a great strategist he was as well, because he understood just how powerful a weapon nonviolence can be.
The police, who trust the logic of force, never quite seem to get this. When they arrested our group of 70 or so on the first day of our demonstrations, they decided to teach us a lesson by keeping us locked up extra long — strong treatment for a group of people peacefully standing on a sidewalk.
No surprise, it didn’t work. The next day an even bigger crowd showed up — and now, there are throngs of people who have signed up to be arrested every day until the protests end on September 3rd. Not only that, a judge threw out the charges against our first group, and so the police have backed off. For the moment, anyway, they’re not actually sending more protesters to jail, just booking and fining them.
And so the busload of ranchers coming from Nebraska, and the bio-fueled RV with the giant logo heading in from East Texas, and the flight of grandmothers arriving from Montana, and the tribal chiefs, and union leaders, and everyone else will keep pouring into D.C. We’ll all, I imagine, stop and pay tribute to Dr. King before or after we get arrested; it’s his lead, after all, that we’re following.
Our part in the weekend’s celebration is to act as a kind of living tribute. While people are up on the mall at the monument, we’ll be in the front of the White House, wearing handcuffs, making clear that civil disobedience is not just history in America.
We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but we’re getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in their day — the courage to put your body where your beliefs are. It feels good.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Arrested at the White House
The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months. Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire. First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s flooding at historic levels.
The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States. Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history. Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.
Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”
There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010. These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations. They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.
Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so — for the moment anyway — the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!
Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta. We set up a new website, tarsandsaction.org, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.
Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline. It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)
There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb. Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.
If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature. It won’t happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was “essentially game over” for the climate of this planet.
Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar sands problems. The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least, would be a start. Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way. The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.” There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration. Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department’s “energy envoy” was already instructing Alberta’s fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their “oil sands messaging,” including “increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.” This is the government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.
Still, the president can say no. If he does, then no pipeline — and in the words of Alberta’s oil minister, his province will be “landlocked in bitumen” (the basic substance from which tar-sands oil is extracted). Even energy-hungry China, eager as it is for new sources of fossil fuels, may not be able to save him, since native tribes are doing a remarkable job of blocking another proposed pipeline to the Canadian Pacific. Oil, oil everywhere, and nary a drop to sell. (Unfortunately that’s not quite true, but at least there won’t be a big new straw in this milkshake.)
An Obama thumbs-down on the pipeline could change the economics of the tar sands in striking ways. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary.
Faced with that prospect, Canada’s oilmen are growing desperate. Earlier this month, in a classic sleight of hand, they announced plans for a giant “carbon capture and sequestration” scheme at the tar sands. That’s because when it comes to global warming, tar sands oil is even worse than, say, Saudi oil because it’s a tarry muck, not a liquid, and so you have to burn a lot of natural gas to make it flow in the first place.
Now, the oil industry is proposing to capture some of the extra carbon from that cooking process and store it underground. This is an untested method, and the accounting scheme Alberta has adopted for it may actually increase the province’s emmissions. Even if it turns out to work perfectly and captures the carbon from that natural gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere, the oil they’re proposing to ship south for use in our gas tanks would still be exactly as bad for the atmosphere as Saudi crude. In other words, in the long run it would still be “essentially game over” for the climate.
The Saudis, of course, built their oil empire long before we knew that there was anything wrong with burning oil. The Canadians — with American help, if Obama obliges the oil lobby — are building theirs in the teeth of the greatest threat the world has ever faced. We can’t unbuild those Saudi Arabian fields, though happily their supplies are starting to slowly dwindle. What we can still do, though, is prevent North America from becoming the next Middle East.
So there will be a battle, and there will be nothing complicated or abstract about it. It will be based on one question: Does that carbon stay in the earth, or does it pour into the atmosphere? Given the trillions of dollars at stake it will be a hard fight, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But at least there’s no fog here, no maze of technicalities.
The last climate bill, the one the Senate punted on, was thousands of pages long. This time there’s a single sheet of paper, which Obama signs… or not.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Will North America Be the New Middle East?
In our globalized world, old-fashioned geography is not supposed to count for much: mountain ranges, deep-water ports, railroad grades — those seem so nineteenth century. The earth is flat, or so I remember somebody saying.
But those nostalgic for an earlier day, take heart. The Obama administration is making its biggest decisions yet on our energy future and those decisions are intimately tied to this continent’s geography. Remember those old maps from your high-school textbooks that showed each state and province’s prime economic activities? A sheaf of wheat for farm country? A little steel mill for manufacturing? These days in North America what you want to look for are the pickaxes that mean mining, and the derricks that stand for oil.
There’s a pickaxe in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, one of the world’s richest deposits of coal. If we’re going to have any hope of slowing climate change, that coal — and so all that future carbon dioxide — needs to stay in the ground. In precisely the way we hope Brazil guards the Amazon rainforest, that massive sponge for carbon dioxide absorption, we need to stand sentinel over all that coal.
Doing so, however, would cost someone some money. At current prices the value of that coal may be in the trillions, and that kind of money creates immense pressure. Earlier this year, President Obama signed off on the project, opening a huge chunk of federal land to coal mining. It holds an estimated 750 million tons worth of burnable coal. That’s the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants. In other words, we’re talking about staggering amounts of new CO2 heading into the atmosphere to further heat the planet.
As Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute put it, “That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy — from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc. — used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined.” Not what you’d expect from a president who came to office promising that his policies would cause the oceans to slow their rise.
But if Obama has admittedly opened the mine gate, it’s geography to the rescue. You still have to get that coal to market, and “market” in this case means Asia, where the demand for coal is growing fastest. The easiest and cheapest way to do that — maybe the only way at current prices — is to take it west to the Pacific where, at the moment, there’s no port capable of handling the huge increase in traffic it would represent.
And so a mighty struggle is beginning, with regional groups rising to the occasion. Climate Solutions and other environmentalists of the northwest are moving to block port-expansion plans in Longview and Bellingham, Washington, as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since there are only so many possible harbors that could accommodate the giant freighters needed to move the coal, this might prove a winnable battle, though the power of money that moves the White House is now being brought to bear on county commissions and state houses. Count on this: it will be a titanic fight.
Strike two against the Obama administration was the permission it granted early in the president’s term to build a pipeline into Minnesota and Wisconsin to handle oil pouring out of the tar sands of Alberta. (It came on the heels of a Bush administration decision to permit an earlier pipeline from those tar sands deposits through North Dakota to Oklahoma). The vast region of boreal Canada where the tar sands are found is an even bigger carbon bomb than the Powder River coal. By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2 — or roughly half the current atmospheric concentration. Put another way, if we burn it, there’s no way we can control climate change.
Fortunately, that sludge is stuck so far in the northern wilds of Canada that getting it to a refinery is no easy task. It’s not even easy to get the equipment needed to do the mining to the extraction zone, a fact that noble activists in the northern Rockies are exploiting with a campaign to block the trucks hauling the giant gear north. (Exxon has been cutting trees along wild and scenic corridors just to widen the roads in the region, that’s how big their “megaloads” are.)
Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to permit that Minnesota pipeline has made the job of sending the tar sand sludge south considerably easier. And now the administration is getting ready to double down, with a strike three that would ensure forever Obama’s legacy as a full-on Carbon President.
The huge oil interests that control the tar sands aren’t content with a landlocked pipeline to the Midwest. They want another, dubbed Keystone XL, that stretches from Canada straight to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. It would take the bitumen from the tar sands and pipe it across the heart of America. Imagine a video game where your goal is to do the most environmental damage possible: to the Cree and their ancestral lands in Canada, to Nebraska farmers trying to guard the Ogallala aquifer that irrigates their land, and of course to the atmosphere.
But the process is apparently politically wired and in a beautifully bipartisan Washington way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must approve the plan for Keystone XL because it crosses our borders. Last year, before she’d even looked at the relevant data, she said she was “inclined” to do so. And why not? I mean, the company spearheading the Keystone project, TransCanada, has helpfully hired her former deputy national campaign director as its principal lobbyist.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political aisle, those oil barons the Koch Brothers and that fossil fuel front group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pushing for early approval. Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy Committee, is already demanding that the project be fast-tracked, with a final approval decision by November, on the grounds that it would create jobs. This despite the fact that even the project’s sponsors concede it won’t reduce gas prices. In fact, as Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation pointed out in testimony to Congress last month, their own documents show that the pipeline will probably cause the price at the pump to rise across the Midwest.
When the smaller pipeline was approved in 2009, we got a taste of the arguments that the administration will use this time around, all masterpieces of legal obfuscation. Don’t delay the pipeline over mere carbon worries will be the essence of it.
Global warming concerns, said Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg then, would be “best addressed in the context of the overall set of domestic policies that Canada and the United States will take to address their respective greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, let’s confine the environmental argument over the pipeline to questions like: How much oil will leak? In the meantime, we’ll pretend to deal with climate change somewhere else.
It’s the kind of thinking that warms the hearts of establishments everywhere. Michael Levi, author of a Council on Foreign Relations study of the Canadian oil sands, told the Washington Post that, with the decision, “the Obama administration made clear that it’s not going to go about its climate policy in a crude, blunt way.” No, it’s going about it in a smooth and… oily way.
If we value the one planet we’ve got, it’s going to be up to the rest of us to be crude and blunt. And happily that planet is pitching in. The geography of this beautiful North American continent is on our side: it’s crude and blunt, full of mountains and canyons. Its weather runs to extremes. It’s no easy thing to build a pipeline across it, or to figure out how to run an endless parade of train cars to the Pacific.
Tough terrain aids the insurgent; it slows the powerful. Though we’re fighting a political campaign and not a military one, we need to take full advantage.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Three Strikes and You’re Hot
In Beijing, they celebrate when they have a “blue sky day,” when, that is, the haze clears long enough so that you can actually see the sun. Many days, you can’t even make out the next block.
Washington, by contrast, looks pretty clean: white marble monuments, broad, tree-lined avenues, the beautiful, green spread of the Mall. But its inhabitants — at least those who vote in Congress — can’t see any more clearly than the smoke-shrouded residents of Beijing.
Their view, however, is obscured by a different kind of smog. Call it money pollution. The torrents of cash now pouring unchecked into our political system cloud judgment and obscure science. Money pollution matters as much as or more than the other kind of dirt. That money is the single biggest reason that, as the planet swelters through the warmest years in the history of civilization, we have yet to take any real action as a nation on global warming.
And if you had to pick a single “power plant” whose stack was spewing out the most smoke? No question about it, that would be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose headquarters are conveniently located directly across the street from the White House. On its webpage, the chamber brags that it’s the biggest lobby in Washington, “consistently leading the pack in lobbying expenditures.”
The group spent as much as $33 million trying to influence the midterm 2010 elections, and has announced that it will beat that in 2012. That, of course, is its right, especially now that the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United ruling, opened the floodgates for corporate speech (as in “money talks”).
But the chamber does what it does with a twist. It claims to represent “three million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions.” The organization, that is, seems to speak for a country full of barbers and florists, car dealers, restaurant owners, and insurance salesmen, not to mention the small entrepreneurs who make up local and state chambers of commerce across the country.
At least when it comes to energy and climate, though, that claim is, politely put, a fib. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have to say where it gets its money, but last year a group called U.S. ChamberWatch used one of the last disclosure laws still in existence to uncover a single pertinent fact. They went to the headquarters of the chamber and asked to see its IRS 990 form. It showed that 55% of its funding came from just 16 companies, each of which gave more than a million dollars. It doesn’t have to say which companies, but by their deeds shall you know them.
The chamber has long opposed environmental standards. In the 1980s, it fought a ban on the dumping of hazardous waste. In the 1990s, it fought smog and soot standards. On climate change, though, it’s gone pretty near berserk.
In 2009, for instance, one of its officials even demanded a “twenty-first century Scopes monkey trial” for global warming: “It would be the science of climate change on trial,” the chamber’s senior vice-president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs explained.
That didn’t go over so well. Several high-profile companies quit the chamber. Apple Computer, the very exemplar of the universe of cutting-edge technology, explained: “We would prefer that the chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue and play a constructive role in addressing the climate crisis.”
Other businesses complained that they hadn’t been consulted. Some, like Nike, quit the organization’s board. “We just weren’t clear in how decisions on climate and energy were being made,” said a Nike spokesman.
One thing was for sure: they weren’t being made by three million small businesses — because many local chambers of commerce started quitting the chamber as well. From Florida and South Carolina to Missouri and Kansas, from Colorado and Pennsylvania to New Hampshire and Washington, dozens of local chambers have announced that the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for them on these issues. In Largo, Florida, for instance, the head of the local chamber explained that the U.S. Chamber was composed, “for the most part, of political action committees and business lobbyists. They hold little resemblance to the local chambers of commerce that have been the cornerstone of their communities for generations.”
Faced with that kind of incipient rebellion, the chamber backtracked just a little, issuing a statement saying that they didn’t really want a global warming version of a monkey trial after all, and that climate change was an “important issue.” (The same statement went on to call for transforming the United States into the “Saudi Arabia of clean coal.”)
The happy talk in public, however, has done nothing to change the agenda the chamber pushes so powerfully in private. The same year as that statement, for instance, the organization petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to take no action on global warming on the grounds that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.”
Now, read that again. No suggestion here that 16 dinosaur companies adapt their business model to a reality that now includes melting ice caps, desertification and massive flooding, ever fiercer storms and acidifying oceans. Instead, they would prefer that every human being (and every other species) be so kind as to adapt their behavior and physiology to the needs of this tiny coterie of massive contributors. Forever.
What’s become clear is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization formed in 1912, more than a century after the first local chamber came into being, is anything but a benign umbrella for American small businesses. Quite the opposite: it’s a hard-edged ideological shop. It was Glenn Beck, after all, who said of the chamber that “they are us,” and urged his viewers to send them money. (Beck personally contributed $10,000 of the $32 million he earned in 2009.) The chamber’s chief lobbyist even called in to offer his personal thanks. It shouldn’t have come as a great surprise: Beck’s Fox News parent, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, had given its own million-dollar donation to the chamber.
Thanks to the Supreme Court and its Citizens United decision, there’s no way to keep the chamber and others from running their shadowy election-time campaigns. As long as monster companies are pumping money into their coffers, it’s “free speech” all the way and they’ll simply keep on with their dodgy operations.
Still, the rest of us can stand up and be counted. We can tell the Congressional representatives taking their money that they don’t speak for us. We can urge more big companies to act like Apple and Microsoft, which publicly denounced the chamber. (It’s good to hear Levi Strauss, General Electric, and Best Buy making similar noises.) We need to hear from more dissenting chambers of commerce. It cheered me to find that the CEO of the Greater New York Chamber said, “They don’t represent me,” or to discover that just a few weeks ago the Seattle chamber cut its ties.
But it’s even more important to hear from small businesspeople, the very contingent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce draws on for its credibility. Across America in the coming months, volunteers from the climate change organization I helped to found, 350.org, will be fanning out to canvass local businesses — all those bakeries and beauty salons, colleges and chiropractors, pharmacies and fitness centers that belong to local chambers of commerce.
The volunteers will be asking for signatures on a statement announcing that “the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me,” and offering businesspeople the chance to post videos expressing just how differently they do think when it comes to global warming, energy, and the environment. It’s a chance to emphasize that American business should be about nimbleness, creativity, and adaptation — that it’s prepared to cope with changing circumstances, instead of using political cash to ensure that yesterday’s technologies remain on artificial life support.
It’s easy to guess how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will respond to this campaign. Last week, a series of leaks showed that their law firm had been carrying out extended negotiations with at least one “security firm” to collect intelligence on the chamber’s adversaries, including the group that uncovered the tax data showing where their money came from. Once the leak was made public, the chamber’s law firm cut off the negotiations, but not before they received “samples” of the kind of intelligence they presumably wanted — pictures of their opponents’ children, for instance, or the news that one foe attended a “Jewish church” near Washington.
For the record: I don’t like the chamber’s deceptions. I belong to the Methodist church in my hometown. Keep away from my daughter.
With my colleagues at 350.org, I’ll do what I can to help undermine the chamber's claim to represent American business. I don’t know if we can win this fight against money pollution, but we’re going to do what we can to clear the air.
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
The UN’s big climate conference ended Saturday in Cancún, with claims of modest victory. “The UN climate talks are off the life-support machine,” said Tim Gore of Oxfam. “Not as rancorous as last year’s train wreck in Copenhagen,” wrote the Guardian. Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican foreign minister who brokered the final compromise, described it as “the best we could achieve at this point in a long process.”
The conference did indeed make progress on a few important issues: the outlines of financial aid for developing countries to help them deal with climate change, and some ideas on how to monitor greenhouse gas emissions in China and India. But it basically ignored the two crucial questions: How much carbon will we cut, and how fast?
On those topics, one voice spoke more eloquently than all the 9,000 delegates, reporters, and activists gathered in Cancún.
And he wasn’t even there. And he wasn’t even talking about climate.
Barack Obama was in Washington, holding a press conference to discuss the liberal insurgency against his taxation agreement with the Republicans. He said he’d fought hard for a deal and resented the criticism. He harked back to the health-care fight when what his press secretary had called the “professional left” (and Rahm Emanuel had called “retards”) scorned him for not winning a “public option.” They were worse than wrong, he said; they were contemptible, people who wanted to “be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.” Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he continued: when he started Social Security it only covered widows and orphans. Medicare, at its start, only helped a relative few. Sanctimonious purists would have considered them “betrayals of some abstract ideal.” And yet they grew.
It was powerful and interesting stuff, especially coming from a man who ran on abstract ideals. (I have t-shirts on which are printed nothing but his name and abstract ideals.) I don’t know enough about health-care policy or tax policy to be sure whether he’s making a good call or not, though after listening to much of Bernie Sanders’s nearly nine-hour near-filibuster I have my doubts.
I do know the one place where the president’s reasonable compromises simply won’t work — a place where we have absolutely no choice but to steer by abstract ideals. That place is the climate.
The terms of the climate change conundrum aren’t set by contending ideologies, whose adherents can argue till the end of time about whether tax cuts create jobs or kill them. In the case of global warming, chemistry rules, which means there are lines, hard and fast. Those of you who remember your periodic table will recall how neat that can be. There’s no shading between one element and the next. It’s either gallium or it’s zinc. There’s no zallium, no ginc. You might say that the elements are, in that sense, abstract ideals.
So are the molecules those elements combine to form. Take carbon dioxide (CO2), the most politically charged molecule on Earth. As the encyclopedia says: “At standard pressure and temperature the density of carbon dioxide is around 1.98 kg/m3, about 1.5 times that of air. The carbon dioxide molecule (O=C=O) contains two double bonds and has a linear shape.” Oh, and that particular molecular structure traps heat near the planet that would otherwise radiate back out into space, giving rise to what we call the greenhouse effect.
As of January 2008, our best climatologists gave us a number for how much carbon in the atmosphere is too much. At concentrations above 350 parts per million (ppm), a NASA team insisted, we can’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We’re already past that; we’re at 390 ppm. Which is why 2010 will be the warmest year on record, almost a degree Celsius above the planet’s natural average, according to federal researchers. Which is why the Arctic melted again this summer, and Russia caught fire, and Pakistan drowned.
So here’s the thing: Just as in Copenhagen, Obama’s delegation in Cancún has been arguing for an agreement that would limit atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 450 parts per million, and the cuts they’ve been proposing might actually produce a world of about 550 parts per million.
Why have they been defying the science? The answer isn’t complicated: because it’s politically difficult. As chief negotiator Todd Stern said last year in Copenhagen, “We’re very, very mindful of the importance of our domestic legislation. That’s a core principle for me and everyone else working on this. You can’t jeopardize that.”
In other words, if we push too hard the Senate will say no, and the oil companies will be really, really pissed. So we’ll take the easy way. We’ll negotiate with nature, and with the rest of the world, the same way we negotiate with the Republicans.
It’s completely understandable; in fact, it’s even more understandable now that the GOP has increased its muscle in Congress. In that context, even the tepid text drafted in Cancún goes too far. Four Republican Senators sent Obama a letter earlier this month telling him to stop using any foreign aid funds to tackle climate change. If I were Obama I’d want to make some kind of deal, and consider any deal as the start down a path to better things.
The problem, again, is the chemistry and the physics. They don’t give us much time, and they’re bad at haggling. If we let this planet warm much longer, scientists tell us that we’ll lose forever the chance of getting back to 350. That means we’ll lose forever the basic architecture of our planet with its frozen poles. Already the ocean is turning steadily more acidic; already the atmosphere is growing steadily wetter, which means desertifying evaporation in arid areas and downpour and deluge elsewhere.
Political reality is hard to change, harder than ever since the Supreme Court delivered its Citizens United decision and loosed floods of more money into our political world. But physics and chemistry are downright impossible to shift. Physics and chemistry don’t bargain. So the president, and all the rest of us, had really better try a little harder. The movement we’ve launched at 350.org has spread around the world, but it needs to get much stronger. Because this one time, in the usually messy conduct of human affairs, reaching an abstract ideal is our only hope.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org. His latest book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He recently was awarded the prestigious Puffin Prize. To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which McKibben discusses various kinds of global-warming denial, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2010 Bill McKibben
Everything Is Negotiable, Except with Nature
I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap up close and personal last week, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The backstory: I help run a global warming campaign called 350.org. In mid-summer, we decided to organize an effort to ask world leaders to put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was to be part of the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party on October 10th (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and politburos something easy to do in the hope of getting the fight against global warming slowly back on track. One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still committed to change, even though he hadn’t managed to pass new laws.
And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the White House roof, way back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan took them down, they’d spent the last few decades on the cafeteria roof at Unity College in rural Maine. That college’s president, Mitch Thomashow, immediately offered us a panel to take back to the White House. Better still, he encouraged three of his students to accompany the panel, not to mention allowing the college’s sustainability coordinators to help manage the trip.
And so, on the day after Labor Day, we set off in a biodiesel college van. Solar road trip! Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food, and for company, the rock star of solar panels, all 6 x 3-feet and 140 pounds of her. We pulled into Boston that first night for a rally at Old South Church, where a raucous crowd lined up for the chance to sign the front of the panel, which quickly turned into a giant glass petition. The same thing the next night in New York, and then DC, with an evening at one of the city’s oldest churches headlined by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip-Hop Caucus.
It couldn’t have been more fun. Wherever we could, we’d fire up the panel, pour a gallon of water in the top, point it toward the sun, and eight or nine minutes later you’d have steaming hot water coming out the bottom. Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm — a vexing reminder that we’ve known how to do this stuff for decades. We just haven’t done it.
That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across — the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.
There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn’t heard anything conclusive from the White House. We’d asked them — for two months — if they’d accept the old panel as a historical relic returned home, and if they’d commit to installing new ones soon. We’d even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them free. Indeed, as word of our trip spread, other solar companies kept making the same offer. Still, the White House never really responded, not until Thursday evening around six p.m. when they suddenly agreed to a meeting at nine the next morning.
As you might imagine, we were waiting at the “Southwest Appointment Gate” at 8:45, and eventually someone from the Office of Public Engagement emerged to escort us inside the Executive Office Building. He seated us in what he called “the War Room,” an ornate and massive chamber with a polished table in the middle.
Every window blind was closed. It was a mahogany cave in which we could just make out two environmental bureaucrats sitting at the far end of the table. I won’t mention their names, on the theory that what followed wasn’t really their idea, but orders they were following from someone else. Because what followed was… uncool.
First, they spent a lot of time bragging about all the things the federal government had accomplished environmentally, with special emphasis on the great work they were doing on other federal buildings. One of them returned on several occasions to the topic of a government building in downtown Portland, Oregon, that would soon be fitted with a “green curtain,” by which I think she meant the “extensive vertical garden” on the 18-story Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building with its massive “vegetated fins,” the single largest use of stimulus money in the entire state.
And actually, it’s kind of great. Still, I doubt many people are going to build their own vegetated fins, and anyway I was beginning to despair that nothing could stop the flow of self-praise until one of the three seniors from Unity raised her hand and politely interrupted.
Now, let me say that I already knew Jean Altomare, Amanda Nelson, and Jamie Nemecek were special, but my guess is the bureaucrats hadn’t figured that out. Unity is out in the woods, and these kids were majoring in things like wildlife conservation. They’d never had an encounter like this. It stood to reason that they’d be cowed. But they weren’t.
One after another, respectfully but firmly, they asked a series of tough questions, and refused to be filibustered by yet another stream of administration-enhancing data. Here’s what they wanted to know: if the administration was serious about spreading the word on renewable energy, why wouldn’t it do the obvious thing and put solar panels on the White House? When the administrators proudly proffered a clipping from some interior page of the Washington Post about their “greening the government initiative,” Amanda calmly pointed out that none of her neighbors read the Post, and that, by contrast, the solar panels had made it onto David Letterman.
To their queries, the bureaucrats refused to provide any answer. At all. One kept smiling in an odd way and saying, “If reporters call and ask us, we will provide our rationale,” but whatever it was, they wouldn’t provide it to us.
It was all a little odd, to say the least. They refused to accept the Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with the students and the petition they’d brought with them. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point blank said no. In a less than overwhelming gesture, they did, however, pass out Xeroxed copies of a 2009 memorandum from Vice President Biden about federal energy policy.
I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn’t keep them back, because it’s a tough thing to learn for the first time how politics can work.
If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action. As Jean Altomare told the New York Times, “We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet.” And Amanda Nelson added, “I didn’t expect I’d get to shake President Obama’s hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care.”
Did I say I was impressed with these young women? I was more than impressed. Nobody I went to Harvard with would have handled it as powerfully as they did (maybe because they weren’t looking for a job in the White House someday). A few hot tears were the right response, followed by getting on with the work.
Our next question, out there on the sidewalk, was how to handle the situation — which, indeed, we had to do right away, because in today’s blog-speed world, you’re supposed to Put Out a Statement to reporters, not to mention Tweet. So how to play it?
The normal way is to claim some kind of victory: we could have said we had an excellent exchange of views, and that the administration had taken seriously our plea. But that would have been lying, and at 350.org, we long ago decided not to do that. The whole premise of our operation, beginning with the number at its core, is that we had better always tell the truth about our actual predicament.
Alternatively, we could have rounded on the administration, and taken our best shot. In fact, it would have been easy enough right then and there for me to chain myself to the White House fence with the panel next to me. It would have gotten some serious press (though not as much as if I’d burned a Koran). And in fact, some of our supporters were counseling that I head for the fence immediately.
We got an email, for instance, from a veteran campaigner I deeply respect who said: “Show Obama you can’t be taken for granted, and I predict you will be amazed at the good things that come your way. This is a watershed moment: if they think they can get away with this with you, they’ll judge they can get away with more in the future. If you show them they can’t get away with it (at the very least without embarrassment), they will come your way more in the future. It’s power politics, pure and simple. This is how the game is played. Get their respect!”
And I think he was probably right. As he pointed out, Obama was even then on the phone with the mustachioed Florida geezer, the stack of Korans, and the following of 50 or less. But I couldn’t do it, not then and there. Because… well, because at some level I’m a political wuss.
I couldn’t stand to make that enthusiasm gap any wider, not seven weeks before an election. True, it’s the moment when you have some leverage, but no less true: the other side was running candidate after candidate who literally couldn’t wait to boast about how they didn’t believe in climate change. (Check out R.L. Miller’s highly useful list of ‘climate zombies.’) That’s why we’re deeply engaged in fights this fall like the battle to defeat California’s Prop 23 and save the state’s landmark climate law. As a group we can’t endorse candidates, but I came home and spent part of the weekend mailing small checks to Senate candidates I admire, men like Paul Hodes from New Hampshire, who have fought hard for serious climate legislation.
And a confession. We’d walked past Obama’s official portrait on the way out and, despite the meeting we’d just had, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that he was president. I could remember my own enthusiasm from two years ago that had me knocking on doors across New Hampshire. I admired his character and his smarts, and if I admire them a little less now, the residue’s still there.
And so I couldn’t help thinking — part of me at least — like this: the White House political team has decided that if they put solar panels up on the roof, Fox News will use that as one more line of attack; that they somehow believe the association with Jimmy Carter is the electoral equivalent of cooties; and that, in the junior high school lunchroom that now comprises our political life, they didn’t want to catch any.
If that’s their thinking, I doubt they’re on the mark. As far as I can tell, the right has a far better understanding of the power of symbols. Witness the furor they’ve kicked up over “the Mosque at Ground Zero.” My feeling is: we should use the symbols we’ve got, and few are better than a solar panel. Still, with the current craziness in mind, I was willing to give them a pass. So we just put out a press release saying that we’d failed in our mission and walked away.
At least for now, but not forever, and really not for much longer.
On October 10th, we’re having our great global work party, and ever since Obama stiffed us, registrations for its events have been soaring. Last week, with the heads of Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, I issued a call for ideas about how to mount a campaign of civil disobedience around climate. Not a series of stunts, but a real campaign. At coal plants, and drilling sites — and at the places where our politicians do their work.
Actually, I’ll be surprised if the White House doesn’t put up solar panels within a year. But even if they do, that would just be the barest of beginnings. We’ve run out of spare decades to deal with climate change — the summer’s events in the Arctic, in Russia, in Pakistan proved that with great clarity. I may be a wuss, but I’m also scientifically literate. We know what we need to do, and we will do it. Enthusiastically.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.
Copyright 2010 Bill McKibben
My Road Trip With a Solar Rock Star
Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first president Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”
I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil” and last week, the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning “a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome” on a nearly party-line vote.
And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.
Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.
Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the U.S., never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, no less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.
Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment
The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede into our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?
The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian et al. decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt, and doubt, of course, was all they needed. Hence, those days of cross-examination about exactly how Dennis Fung had transported blood samples, or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs when talking to a screenwriter in 1986.
If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.” His only real audience was the jury, many of whom had good reason to dislike the Los Angeles Police Department, but the team managed to instill considerable doubt in lots of Americans tuning in on TV as well. That’s what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be.
Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.
Indeed, the IPCC managed to include, among other glitches, a spurious date for the day when Himalayan glaciers would disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated — a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it’s more or less obliterated another, undeniable piece of evidence: virtually every glacier on the planet is, in fact, busily melting.
Similarly, if you managed to hack 3,000 emails from some scientist’s account, you might well find a few that showed them behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climate-gate” scandal from an English research center last fall. The English scientist Phil Jones has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.
Call him the Mark Fuhrman of climate science; attack him often enough and maybe people will ignore the inconvenient mountain of evidence about climate change that the world’s scientific researchers have, in fact, compiled. Indeed, you can make almost exactly the same kind of fuss Johnnie Cochran made — that’s what Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) did, insisting the emails proved “scientific fascism,” and the climate skeptic Christopher Monckton called his opponents “Hitler youth.” Such language filters down. I’m now used to a daily diet of angry email, often with subject lines like the one that arrived yesterday: “Nazi Moron Scumbag.”
If you’re smart, you can also take advantage of lucky breaks that cross your path. Say a record set of snowstorms hit Washington D.C. It won’t even matter that such a record is just the kind of thing scientists have been predicting, given the extra water vapor global warming is adding to the atmosphere. It’s enough that it’s super-snowy in what everyone swore was a warming world.
For a gifted political operative like, say, Marc Morano, who runs the Climate Depot website, the massive snowfalls this winter became the grist for a hundred posts poking fun at the very idea that anyone could still possibly believe in, you know, physics. Morano, who really is good, posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down; his former boss, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), had his grandchildren build an igloo on the Capitol grounds, with a sign that read: “Al Gore’s New Home.” These are the things that stick in people’s heads. If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.
Why We Don’t Want to Believe in Climate Change
The climate deniers come with a few built-in advantages. Thanks to Exxon Mobil and others with a vested interest in debunking climate-change research, their “think tanks” have plenty of money, none of which gets wasted doing actual research to disprove climate change. It’s also useful for a movement to have its own TV network, Fox, though even more crucial to the denial movement are a few rightwing British tabloids which validate each new “scandal” and put it into media play.
That these guys are geniuses at working the media was proved this February when even the New York Times ran a front page story, “Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel,” which recycled most of the accusations of the past few months. What made it such a glorious testament to their success was the chief source cited by the Times: one Christopher Monckton, or Lord Monckton as he prefers to be called since he is some kind of British viscount. He is also identified as a “former advisor to Margaret Thatcher,” and he did write a piece for the American Spectator during her term as prime minister offering his prescriptions for “the only way to stop AIDS”:
“…screen the entire population regularly and… quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month… all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently.”
He speaks with equal gusto and good sense on matters climatic — and now from above the fold in the paper of record.
Access to money and the media is not the only, or even the main reason, for the success of the climate deniers, though. They’re not actually spending all that much cash and they’ve got legions of eager volunteers doing much of the internet lobbying entirely for free. Their success can be credited significantly to the way they tap into the main currents of our politics of the moment with far more savvy and power than most environmentalists can muster. They’ve understood the popular rage at elites. They’ve grasped the widespread feelings of powerlessness in the U.S., and the widespread suspicion that we’re being ripped off by mysterious forces beyond our control.
Some of that is, of course, purely partisan. The columnist David Brooks, for instance, recently said: “On the one hand, I totally accept the scientific authorities who say that global warming is real and it is manmade. On the other hand, I feel a frisson of pleasure when I come across evidence that contradicts the models… [in part] because I relish any fact that might make Al Gore look silly.” But the passion with which people attack Gore more often seems focused on the charge that he’s making large sums of money from green investments, and that the whole idea is little more than a scam designed to enrich everyone involved. This may be wrong — Gore has testified under oath that he donates his green profits to the cause — and scientists are not getting rich researching climate change (constant blog comments to the contrary), but it resonates with lots of people. I get many emails a day on the same theme: “The game is up. We’re on to you.”
When I say it resonates with lots of people, I mean lots of people. O.J.’s lawyers had to convince a jury made up mostly of black women from central city L.A., five of whom reported that they or their families had had “negative experiences” with the police. For them, it was a reasonably easy sell. When it comes to global warming, we’re pretty much all easy sells because we live the life that produces the carbon dioxide that’s at the heart of the crisis, and because we like that life.
Very few people really want to change in any meaningful way, and given half a chance to think they don’t need to, they’ll take it. Especially when it sounds expensive, and especially when the economy stinks. Here’s David Harsanyi, a columnist for the Denver Post: “If they’re going to ask a nation — a world — to fundamentally alter its economy and ask citizens to alter their lifestyles, the believers’ credibility and evidence had better be unassailable.”
“Unassailable” sets the bar impossibly high when there is a dedicated corps of assailants out there hard at work. It is true that those of us who want to see some national and international effort to fight global warming need to keep making the case that the science is strong. That’s starting to happen. There are new websites and iPhone apps to provide clear and powerful answers to the skeptic trash-talking, and strangely enough, the denier effort may, in some ways, be making the case itself: if you go over the multi-volume IPCC report with a fine tooth comb and come up with three or four lousy citations, that’s pretty strong testimony to its essential accuracy.
Clearly, however, the antiseptic attempt to hide behind the magisterium of Science in an effort to avoid the rough-and-tumble of Politics is a mistake. It’s a mistake because science can be — and, in fact, should be — infinitely argued about. Science is, in fact, nothing but an ongoing argument, which is one reason why it sounds so disingenuous to most people when someone insists that the science is “settled.” That’s especially true of people who have been told at various times in their lives that some food is good for you, only to be told later that it might increase your likelihood of dying.
Why Data Isn’t Enough
I work at Middlebury College, a topflight liberal arts school, so I’m surrounded by people who argue constantly. It’s fun. One of the better skeptical takes on global warming that I know about is a weekly radio broadcast on our campus radio station run by a pair of undergraduates. They’re skeptics, but not cynics. Anyone who works seriously on the science soon realizes that we know more than enough to start taking action, but less than we someday will. There will always be controversy over exactly what we can now say with any certainty. That’s life on the cutting edge. I certainly don’t turn my back on the research—we’ve spent the last two years at 350.org building what Foreign Policy called “the largest ever coordinated global rally” around a previously obscure data point, the amount of atmospheric carbon that scientists say is safe, measured in parts per million.
But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.
So let’s figure out how to talk about it. Let’s look at Exxon Mobil, which each of the last three years has made more money than any company in the history of money. Its business model involves using the atmosphere as an open sewer for the carbon dioxide that is the inevitable byproduct of the fossil fuel it sells. And yet we let it do this for free. It doesn’t pay a red cent for potentially wrecking our world.
Right now, there’s a bill in the Congress — cap-and-dividend, it’s called — that would charge Exxon for that right, and send a check to everyone in the country every month. Yes, the company would pass on the charge at the pump, but 80% of Americans (all except the top-income energy hogs) would still make money off the deal. That represents good science, because it starts to send a signal that we should park that SUV, but it’s also good politics.
By the way, if you think there’s a scam underway, you’re right — and to figure it out just track the money going in campaign contributions to the politicians doing the bidding of the energy companies. Inhofe, the igloo guy? Over a million dollars from energy and utility companies and executives in the last two election cycles. You think Al Gore is going to make money from green energy? Check out what you get for running an oil company.
Worried that someone is going to wreck your future? You’re right about that, too. Right now, China is gearing up to dominate the green energy market. They’re making the investments that mean future windmills and solar panels, even ones installed in this country, will be likely to arrive from factories in Chenzhou, not Chicago.
Coal companies have already eliminated most good mining jobs, simply by automating them in the search for ever higher profits. Now, they’re using their political power to make sure that miner’s kids won’t get to build wind turbines instead. Everyone should be mighty pissed — just not at climate-change scientists.
But keep in mind as well that fear and rage aren’t the only feelings around. They’re powerful feelings, to be sure, but they’re not all we feel. And they are not us at our best.
There’s also love, a force that has often helped motivate large-scale change, and one that cynics in particular have little power to rouse. Love for poor people around the world, for instance. If you think it’s not real, you haven’t been to church recently, especially evangelical churches across the country. People who take the Gospel seriously also take seriously indeed the injunction to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.
It’s becoming patently obvious that nothing challenges that goal quite like the rising seas and spreading deserts of climate change. That’s why religious environmentalism is one of the most effective emerging parts of the global warming movement; that’s why we were able to get thousands of churches ringing their bells 350 times last October to signify what scientists say is the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere; that’s why Bartholomew, patriarch of the Orthodox church and leader of 400 million eastern Christians, said, “Global warming is a sin and 350 is an act of redemption.”
There’s also the deep love for creation, for the natural world. We were born to be in contact with the world around us and, though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature, it doesn’t really work. Any time the natural world breaks through — a sunset, an hour in the garden — we’re suddenly vulnerable to the realization that we care about things beyond ourselves. That’s why, for instance, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are so important: get someone out in the woods at an impressionable age and you’ve accomplished something powerful. That’s why art and music need to be part of the story, right alongside bar graphs and pie charts. When we campaign about climate change at 350.org, we make sure to do it in the most beautiful places we know, the iconic spots that conjure up people’s connection to their history, their identity, their hope.
The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster. We want to remove every possible doubt before we convict in the courtroom, because an innocent man in a jail cell is a scandal, but outside of it we should act more conservatively.
In the long run, the climate deniers will lose; they’ll be a footnote to history. (Hey, even O.J. is finally in jail.) But they’ll lose because we’ll all lose, because by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there’s still time. If we’re going to make real change while it matters, it’s important to remember that their skepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change. That’s what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That’s what we need to overcome, and at bottom that’s a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April 2010). He’s a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. Catch the latest TomCast, TomDispatch.com’s audio interview with Bill McKibben on what to make of the climate-science scandals.
Copyright 2010 Bill McKibben