April 14 was without doubt a turning point in the movement to prevent catastrophic climate change. Many tens of thousands of people in all 50 states took action on Step It Up day. We demanded that Congress move now to cap and begin reducing the carbon emissions that are dangerously heating up the earth, toward the goal of 80% reductions by 2050.
I actively supported these actions. I was a leader of the N.J. Climate March April 13-16 which supported them. Bill McKibben and the young people from Middlebury College who called for and coordinated this campaign deserve tremendous praise.
However, I’ve been thinking all week about this fact: despite the tremendous upsurge in consciousness about and activism on the climate crisis over the past year and a half in the USA, those greenhouse gas emissions just keep going up. Despite everything that is being done by the tens of thousands of grassroots activists, many mayors and city councils, students and college administrators, businesses and state governments, famous politicians and movie stars, and individuals and families in their homes, when it comes to an actual capping of emissions and the beginnings of a downwards turn, it just isn’t happening.
This is not surprising, given the pervasiveness of fossil fuel use throughout the economies of the world, the maddening intransigence of the Republicans and the timidity until very recently of most national Democratic leaders. But it is not something to be sanguine about.
We don’t have the luxury of time on this issue. Scientists like James Hansen have said we have less than 10 years to fundamentally alter our energy policies, and that was a year and a half ago. A small number of scientists think we may have already reached the point of no return. Other scientists think that we are fast approaching it.
What is that “point of no return?” Climate scientists say that it’s when there is so much carbon and heat in the atmosphere that the world’s forests, oceans and soil — currently carbon “sinks,” absorbers and storers of carbon — are so saturated with it that they cannot absorb any more and become actual sources of carbon. There is a chance that this point will be reached when we get to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re currently at 382, and each year brings an additional two and a half parts per million (ppm).
According to the Potsdam Institute, as reported in George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, with the “equivalent of 440 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is a 67% chance of holding the temperature rise” to a point which will avoid catastrophic climate change. And as Monbiot explains, when you add in the other greenhouse gases — methane, nitrous oxide, several fluorocarbons — we are right around that “equivalent of 440 ppm” right now.
As study of the earth’s climate history demonstrates, if we reach a point where the earth’s carbon sinks become sources of carbon, it is virtually certain that we will enter a period in the world’s history that can best be described as climate hell. James Hansen believes that, under these circumstances, eventual sea level rise of 80 feet is a distinct possibility, probably inevitable.
Each year that passes without action to seriously reduce carbon emissions is one more year that we are rolling the dice for ourselves, our children and future generations.
We need to do more. We as a country need to lead the world on this issue. We need to provide an example in action that we get it. We need to operate as if we were on a war footing, a nonviolent war against anything which prevents the rapid and urgent unfolding of a clean energy revolution.
Can we actually reverse course, undertake the social and economic transformations in enough time? Yes, we can make the necessary transformations. How do we know this? Because we’ve done it before! In his book, Plan B 2.0, author and visionary Lester Brown looks at what happened in the United States right after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack:
The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation’s history. A sparkplug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts … The automobile industry was converted to such an extent that from 1942-1944, there were essentially no cars [for commercial sale] produced in the United States.
This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure the economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so. In this mobilization, the scarcest resource of all is time. With climate change, for example, we are fast approaching the point of no return. We cannot reset the clock. Nature is the timekeeper.
But let’s get real. We know the Bush Administration will never lead this kind of campaign. And neither will the Democratic Congress, absent a continuing (after Step It Up) and escalating grassroots campaign that will not take no for an answer. A grassroots campaign that demands:
-A capping and mandatory reduction of carbon emissions, as fast and as deep as possible.
-A moratorium on any new coal plants. Coal is the worst of the fossil fuels. We need to get off it as quickly as possible.
-A mandated increase in fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles produced in the USA. Support to a crash program to increase the production of high miles-per-gallon hybrid cars, particularly plug-in hybrids that can dramatically decrease oil use.
-An immediate allocation of at least $25 billion, to be increased annually, to go towards effective energy efficiency programs and clean, safe renewable energy from the wind, the sun, the tides, the currents and the earth.
All of this is technically possible. The USA has the resources for it, especially if we end the war on Iraq and work collaboratively with the nations of the world in a campaign to rewire the world’s energy system. What is missing is the visible and nonviolently aggressive grassroots political movement that will refuse to take anything other than yes for an answer.
What is missing is people willing to sit in, to get arrested, to refuse to eat until action is taken, to spearhead and motivate the more traditional forms of political protest and pressure that will also need to be taken, but by many more people.
This is not a new issue for the climate movement. For the last two years I have been part of organized discussions with other leaders of that movement about either a long fast/hunger strike or a campaign of nonviolent direct action. Two years ago in July about 40 people did fast for three days across from the White House at the same time as a Group of 8 meeting in Scotland which had climate change at the top of the agenda. There was serious consideration of a two week fast prior to the December, 2005 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Montreal. In early 2006, there was serious consideration of a long fast during that summer’s G-8 summit. Neither of these long fasts materialized.
There have been a handful of small civil disobedience actions in the last year or so, at Penn State University, in a Montana U.S. Senator’s office, in the West Virginia coal fields, at the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in D.C. and, just recently, at a big car show in New York City.
This is not enough. Climate activists cannot be seduced into believing that the main thing they should be doing is to get the candidates running for President to speak out on this issue. That’s OK as a way to build up pressure, but we can’t accept that nothing of substance can come from the federal government until there’s a new President in the White House two years from now.
What are the political realities right now? We have a Congress controlled by Democrats, a majority of whom more-or-less get it on this issue, at least giving lip service to it. You have a seriously weakened Republican President and Vice-President and Republicans who are fearful that they could lose large numbers of seats in Congress in next year’s election if they’re on the wrong side of popular issues. And you have a large majority of the U.S. American people wanting action on the climate crisis.
The conditions are ripe for a political offensive directed at Congress on this issue, demanding that they move now, pass strong legislation and refuse to give in if Bush vetoes. We should make it clear to Congressional Democrats and Republicans who say they care about this issue that we expect them to “go to the mat” with Bush in defense of our ecosystem, our economy, our children and future generations.
I’m prepared for a long fast. I’m ready to get arrested, again. Is there anyone else who feels the same?