While world leaders play the blame game and politicians dither, deadly carbon emissions grow without restraint. The official US government "business as usual" projection is for a 39 percent increase in carbon emissions worldwide by 2030, roughly two percent a year. Given the apparent deadlocks in Copenhagen and Washington, is there anything those concerned about the climate crisis can do to halt this momentum?
Groups like 350.org and its hundreds of allies overcame a strategic crisis in the climate movement in 2009 by shifting the frame of the climate protection discussion. Instead of endlessly debating hypothetical carbon reduction targets for two or four decades from now, they honed in on the urgent necessity to reduce the levels of carbon already in the atmosphere to those scientists say are safe – currently estimated at 350 parts per million (ppm). That changed the game in the global climate debate.
But this movement now faces a further strategic impasse. The Copenhagen climate conference revealed that the nations of the world simply do not intend to make the necessary reductions any time soon. On the contrary they are preparing to go on increasing their carbon emissions while giving dubious assurances of good intentions and blaming each other for the failure to stop. Not only has the international negotiation process failed to create a just and binding agreement, few if any national governments appear likely to pass legislation that will adequately reduce carbon emissions prior to some distant, hypothetical future.
Climate protection action seems to keep getting bogged down trying to reach some condition years or decades in the future. Even the 350 ppm target can’t possibly be reached this year or next year, so in itself it does not yet provide an effective immediate demand. We can demand that nations and institutions adopt the 350 target as a goal, but it is not clear what the real effect will be on their carbon emissions even if they agree. How can we make concrete demands that carbon emitters can be pressured to meet right now?
Pillaging the "dustbin of history"
This situation in some ways resembles the civilization-threatening nuclear arms race of the early1980s. After seemingly endless negotiations, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to a modest Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) – but the US Senate failed to ratify it. Meanwhile, a huge military buildup was under way. The US moved to put a new generation of medium range nuclear missiles in the heart of Europe while the Soviet Union refused to halt nuclear testing or negotiate cuts in medium range missiles. Each superpower maneuvered to shift the blame for the costly and dangerous buildup to the other.
Large demonstrations broke out throughout Western Europe opposing the new missiles, which threatened to make Europe a nuclear battlefield. The superpowers parried by claiming that their goal was disarmament — but that they would continue deploying new missiles until the other side was forced to accept it on their terms.
The peace movement protested, but it had no effective handle for action. Then in April, 1980, a young disarmament researcher named Randall Forsberg proposed a "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race" built around a simple but charismatic idea: demand that the superpowers adopt "a mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons" and delivery systems in order to "freeze and reverse the nuclear arms race."
The "Nuclear Freeze Campaign" caught on like wildfire. Nearly a million people joined a June, 1982 rally at the UN, making it the largest demonstration in US history. The Freeze resolution was placed on local ballots and was endorsed by 275 city governments, 12 state legislatures, and nine out of the ten states that held referendums; the New York Times (November 4, 1982) called the voting on the resolution, "the largest referendum on a single issue in the nation’s history." Polls found that the Freeze was supported by 70 percent of the US population. The House of Representatives passed a freeze resolution, and all major candidates for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination supported the freeze. The freeze movement converged with the burgeoning European Nuclear Disarmament (END) movement to form the largest international movement in history prior to the Internet era.
The result was a bidding war between the superpowers. Historian Lawrence Wittner, who has exhaustively studied the effects of the freeze campaign, documents its huge impact on government policies in his book Confronting the Bomb. As antinuclear demonstrations swelled in America and Europe, Ronald Reagan told his astonished secretary of state, "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet leader] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons." The US agreed to forego deployment of medium-range missiles in Western Europe if Russia would remove its medium-range missiles from Eastern Europe. When Gorbachev came to power he met with peace movement leaders and unexpectedly agreed to support the Freeze proposal. The US cut back on its proposed MX missiles from 200 to 50; abandoned plans to deploy the neutron bomb in Western Europe; and accepted the limits of the unratified SALT II arms control treaty. Ultimately the superpowers negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which remains in force today.
A "carbon emissions freeze" campaign?
While the situations are different in many ways, a campaign for an immediate unilateral, unconditional, voluntary freeze on carbon emissions may provide a way out of the strategic impasse currently faced by the climate movement. Such a campaign could demand that emitters commit to immediately freeze carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions at their levels of a kickoff date, say January 1st or Earthday, 2010.
There is one particular difference between the situation faced by the nuclear freeze movement and today’s climate protection movement that might make a carbon freeze campaign even more compelling and easier to initiate. Nobody but the big powers had nuclear weapons, so no one else could – or could be pressured to – give them up. In contrast, every institution, every business, every country, every group, even every individual in the world emits carbon. And so a carbon emissions freeze needn’t start with the agreement of the superpowers. All carbon emitters can be asked – and pressured — to join the freeze.
The snowball strategy
A carbon emissions freeze campaign would be built around a simple demand: that every municipality, state, province, nation, institution, business, and other greenhouse gas emitter freeze its emissions at their level on the kickoff date. Agreement can be embodied in a simple pledge.
The first phase of such a campaign can start with an "alliance of the willing," getting the sign-on of the substantial number of local and state governments, educational institutions, corporations, and other entities that have already agreed or are willing to agree to freeze or reduce their emissions. (For example, 1016 US mayors have joined the US Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement vowing to reduce carbon emissions in their cities below 1990 levels.)
From that base the campaign can rapidly move to pressure other entities to "take the pledge." While every carbon emitter would be asked to join, targets for focused action could be carefully selected on the basis of their contribution to the problem and their vulnerability to pressure. Forms of pressure ranging from letter writing campaigns to demonstrations to nonviolent civil disobedience could be directed to the targets, with careful strategic consideration of how best to educate, mobilize, and empower the pro-climate protection public and undermine the opposition.
Of course, there are already dramatic campaigns aiming to shut down particular emitters – for example coal-fired power plants. But it is currently hard to make these more than symbolic actions — a target company can close down one emitting facility and open others elsewhere, for example. Making such actions part of a demand that a company freeze its carbon emissions as a whole would make them a more meaningful vehicle for halting the increase in greenhouse gasses.
The ultimate goal of the campaign would be a just and binding international agreement and national legislation requiring greenhouse gas emission reductions to the level science determines safe. Such agreements and laws are necessary to deal with the many complex policy issues that must be addressed for a fair and effective longterm transition to a low-carbon world. The freeze strategy doesn’t replace that goal; it gives us a way to start moving toward it.
Why do it?
If a carbon freeze campaign won’t in itself solve the global warming problem, what would it hope to accomplish? In a best-case scenario it would:
- create the context for massive public education. Every city council meeting, petition to a company, local action, and sign-on received is an opportunity for addressing the public directly and through media about why climate protection matters and what must be done about it.
- provide a way to identify responsibility, to show who needs to do what to protect the climate.
- make a real, if modest, change in the current carbon trajectory.
- counter feelings of fatalism by showing action that has real effectiveness at making a change.
- put citizen activists, rather than politicians or world leaders, at the center of the visible struggle for climate protection.
- keep the climate change issue in the public eye at every level.
- create a link among different individual campaigns.
- combat "greenwashing" by making institutions address their total emissions, rather than just touting isolated actions like one new green process or building.
- help change climate protection from a threat or a distant dream to a familiar everyday reality.
- define climate protection as a broad community effort, requiring and receiving participation from people and institutions across the board.
But first consider . . .
There are many issues that will need to be considered before the climate movement makes a commitment to such a freeze campaign. Here are a few of them:
- Would a campaign to freeze emissions detract from the necessity to radically reduce emissions or provide emitters an excuse to avoid further cuts?
- How likely would such a campaign be to "catch on"?
- If it did catch on, would it really have the impacts sketched above?
- Would such a campaign divert resources that could be better used in other ways?
- How could commitments be measured and monitored?
- Should individuals as well as institutions be asked to "take the pledge"?
- Should a freeze start by focusing on a particular set of targets like municipalities or schools or hotels?
- What if freezing carbon emissions causes hardships?
- Could the freeze lead to a phase 2 demanding annual emission reductions?
Call it the "free rider problem," or call it "after you, Alfonse," or call it "let’s just blame the other guy," climate protection is currently stymied by the idea that everyone can wait for somebody else. A fancy name for the carbon freeze snowball idea might be "unilateral initiatives" – demanding that "everybody go first" in ending the march to self-destruction. I prefer to think of it as the "lead lemming" principle – except in this case the lemmings are following each other away from the cliff.
Jeremy Brecher is a historian, the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, and a staff member of the Labor Network for Sustainability www.labor4sustainability.org His next book is Common Preservation in a Time of Mutual Destruction.