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Some of my best friends are climate doomists, and I know why. A set of negative and potent trends feed doomism. Temperatures keep hitting new records, as do carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. We’re back to carbon levels not seen for three to five million years. Fossil fuel use keeps increasing. And feedback loops are already churning. From the Amazon, where rainforests have turned from one of the planet’s great carbon storage reservoirs to a net emitter, to the poles, where ice is disappearing at rapid rates. There are lots of reasons to believe we’ve already crossed the line, and coming generations will be wracked by uncontained climate chaos.
Despite all that, I am not a doomist, and believe we still have possibilities to leave our children and their generations with a world with which they can cope. After many years working on climate, that is how I express my climate mission. There is no doubt that humanity will be adapting to the consequences of our fossil-fueled bacchanal for generations, if not millennia. We will be learning to live with far less water in certain regions, and too much in others. We will be dealing with dustbowls where there were breadbaskets, and retreating from coastal cities. Storms will be ravaging, and wildfires widespread. But we will be coping, and will have eliminated the root causes of climate chaos, fossil fuel pollution and deforestation.
We will do it because we have to. Because the story will have changed, we will realize what we face, and as humans can do in the face of disasters, pull together in a common response. Facing the most challenging crises in human history, we will rise to the better angels of our nature, and leave the children of the future with a world in which they have possibilities other than coping with collapse.
I realize what skepticism such statements can arouse. There’s certainly a lot of evidence for the opposite conclusion, that we will draw into our own little tribes, circle the wagons, and pursue survival for only our own. The varying responses to the Covid pandemic can easily feed cynicism, and we are far from united on climate response. But my own experiences as a long-term climate activist feed my hope. A people-powered climate movement has in just a few years changed the story in a stunning way. A grassroots upsurge has taken climate into the streets. It has changed the language, and forced governments and other powerful institutions to at least appear they are paying attention.
We increasingly realize the importance of story and language. People are willing to accept facts if they fit the story in their minds. But if facts contradict the story, people will discount them. You can write the most informed policy papers in the world, but if they don’t have a receptive audience, it is in vain.
At around the midpoint of the 2010s, a powerful new way of telling the climate story was emerging from the margins. First, some background. Though people had been calling out climate impacts and threats for decades, there was a certain resistance in the mainstream climate movement to spelling out what a dire situation we faced. The concern was that it would crush people into despair and inaction. There was also reluctance to specify just the scale of needed changes in economies and infrastructure, believing it was politically impractical to call for such changes. The size of the problem and necessary responses was being downplayed out of political considerations. Not by everyone, but by many of the key organizing groups.
But something else was happening. Out of the fires of climate movement failure, a new climate movement was rising, one more oriented to protest and direct action. The old climate movement that emerged in the 2000s had been more collaborative. Primarily constituted of NGO environmentalists, scientists and progressive businesspeople, it was oriented to the “grasstops,” to moving influential leadership groups with well-researched policy and technology papers and proposals.
I remember that movement. I wrote some of those papers. And it had its successes. Research and policies enacted in those days laid the groundwork for much of the current success of renewable energy. The meat on the bones of the climate plan Obama took to Paris were rooted in state victories on vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and a Supreme Court judgement that carbon dioxide is a health-endangering pollutant. Those led to national standards for vehicles and power plants, most of the pollution reduction the U.S. was promising at Paris.
But everything in that early climate movement was aimed at a sweeping federal policy victory. The thought was that Bush would be replaced with a friendly Democratic administration, and with comfortable congressional majorities framework climate legislation could be passed. Big Green sat down with the big polluters, and together they hammered out what was to become the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Obviously, plans did not work out. Many post-mortems have been written, and another is not necessary.
What is important is to recognize that a new climate movement emerged from that debacle. It moved out of the suites of collaboration onto the streets of protest and direct action. It was far more youth-oriented and ethnically diverse than the old movement, and far more inclined to place climate in an overall context of social and economic justice. And it was willing to name the enemy, the fossil fuel industry and its allies. As the movement to abolish slavery of centuries before first sought to abolish the slave trade, the new movement to abolish fossil fuels took dead aim at the growth of fossil fuel infrastructure. Across the country and the world, activists set up blockades at critical chokepoints, fighting pipelines and export terminals.
That was the fertile soil in which a new movement grew that was far more willing to challenge business-as-usual assumptions. It was the seedbed for the emergence of two big new story-changing ideas. One was climate emergency. Though Al Gore and others had used the terminology, somehow it never seemed to grab hold. But a few voices crying in the wilderness were pushing the idea forward, notably Climate Mobilization in the U.S. and Climate Code Red in Australia. By the mid-2010s, a few advanced local governments had made climate emergency proclamations. Since 2018, fueled by grassroots organizing, declarations have been made by 1,920 jurisdictions including 18 national governments, together representing 950 million people. Sen. Chuck Schumer has called for a U.S. climate emergency declaration. Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer has introduced a climate emergency act.
No doubt, the emergence of severe climate impacts is helping drive this trend. Pictures of burned out towns in California, storm-devastated communities on the Gulf Coast, and blown-down fields in Iowa, and the increasing intensity of temperature and precipitation extremes, are heightening public awareness. But an active movement focusing the issue, and calling the media to account on its failure to make the climate connection to disasters, has been crucial to this increased awareness.
The other big complementary idea was rapid movement to zero out carbon pollution with a societal effort to transform economies and infrastructures. It came under various names, such as the new World War II or Green Marshall Plan. In 2018, Sunrise Movement youth activists crystallized around the term Green New Deal. Now cities around the world are adopting plans to rapidly reduce carbon pollution. Moves that seemed unlikely a few years ago, such as local fossil gas hookup bans, have made phenomenal progress. The European Union has passed a Green Deal aimed at zero emissions by 2050. Around 100 countries have adopted net-zero carbon commitments or are considering them. The Biden climate plan envisions halving carbon pollution from 2005 levels by 2030, and spending trillions to do so. Many corporations have announced carbon neutral plans.
Yes, of course most of these commitments fall short, and considering that greenhouse gases are still rising, there is just skepticism commitments will be met, or met with bookkeeping tricks. The point is that the commitments have been made at all, and why – public pressure. Climate has moved from an issue primarily discussed at conferences to one that is a subject of a growing grassroots mobilization. The center of the debate has moved to acknowledgement of the climate emergency, and the vast transformations that are required to deal with it. That we are having the argument now over the nature of those transformations, rather than that we need them, is one of the key reasons I am not a doomist.
Climate disruption evidences a vast societal failure. That we would go so far down the road of fossil fuel pollution when it was obvious where it would take us, even to oil company scientists, says a great deal about the forces that drive our society and economy, who has the power, and who doesn’t. Criticism of the doctrine of endless economic growth, subdued since the 1970s, has returned to the fore, as has the idea of degrowth. It is a complex conversation, as much of the growth in the world is from people coming out of poverty, while the richest 10% – That is most of us in the developed world – produce more than half the pollution. It is clear that if there is to be diminished consumption, where it must take place.
And recognize there are 10-year questions and 50-year questions. For instance, we cannot simply replace the current car system with electric vehicles. But transforming the sprawling suburbs that necessitate cars is a 50-year project, so we will need those EVs in the immediate future. It is also clear that, whatever the level of economy, it must be powered without carbon emissions. And that means sun and wind.
If carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were not heating the planet, we would still face an ecological crisis. The fundaments of life are eroding, soils, water, forests, wildlife. The planet is struggling under the weight of us and our economies, and a long-term future for our children depends on resolving the broad scope of our relationships with the planet, not just climate. Somehow, in grappling with the basic questions around climate, getting to the roots of the issue and finding the better angels of our nature, my hope is we can undertake this complex re-definition.
While some climate doomists believe they are grounded in science, that humanity has passed tipping points that will push climate disruption beyond any possibility of mitigation, more generally the issue is one of human agency. Yes, theoretically we could deal with climate at the necessary scope and scale, but the forces of institutional inertia will put us over the line. So while we may not be scientifically doomed, politically and socially, we are. That is why the people-powered climate movement is so important. On the current trajectory, we are doomed. But we can alter the trajectory. Today’s movement affirms we have agency in the issue, that we can change the story in time, and spur the needed scale of action. Its successes in recent years have gone far towards doing just that. That is why I am not a climate doomist.