By Graham Clumpner, 2nd Year MES Student.
I barely stepped off the plane and the victory celebrations were commencing ’round the planet.
The author, left, in Paris for COP21.
We finally have a global climate deal. We have a chance to actually survive the destruction we have unleashed upon ourselves. If we do this right, we just might come out of this with a better world.
I had been preparing for Paris for over 2 years [Ed. note: The author is referring to COP21, which was a climate conference held in Paris in October 2015 with the intent of achieving a “legally binding and universal agreement on climate” around the world] . When this process began this sort of outcome was unlikely to say the least. The United States was still the largest global emitter (soon to be passed by China) and also the greatest obstructer when it came to climate negotiations. The new IPCC had not yet been released (2014) and we in the political community were still arguing over whether climate change was real, human caused, and a national security threat. Keystone XL was a foregone conclusion. Shell was preparing to reap profits from its arctic drilling. The world was divided on this issue and was still recovering from the 2008 economic meltdown. What a change a social movement can make!
If we do this right, we just might come out of this with a better world.
For the longest time the role of education in the climate movement revolved around convincing people that climate change was real. We have put so many eggs in that basket that we have actually hampered ourselves now that the world is changing. Climate impacts are being seen everywhere from droughts to monster storms. Slower effects of shifting species and migration patterns for humans have destabilized once predictable regions. Every day has brought more visceral evidence that the threat is real, and all that work to convince people of the science is paying off. To be fair, the United States is the last developed country to have a serious contingent of people denying the science of climate change. Corporate influence and religious interference have done more to derail humanities chance of survival than anything else. The real question is, “What has changed over the last 2 years?”
How a people became a movement
No one can say definitively how things begin. When it comes to the climate movement, there is an immense amount of historical shoulders we stand on, dating back through time including Rachel Carson, Murray Bookchin, Aldo Leopold, Thoreau and many others. Their work and struggle as individuals built much of the collective framework we use to understand and move the world today as organizers and activists. Those organizers needed a symbol to unite around something specific and they found it in the Keystone XL pipeline. Bringing dirty tar sands oil from pristine northern Alberta through a pipeline and exporting it to the rest of the world seemed like a slam-dunk for the oil industry. Until we fought back. Instead of all the other battles where people signed petitions or voted or asked nicely (although this is always a part of the work) people put their bodies in the way. From refusing to leave their land as farmers and ranchers to tree—sitting anarchists who want to smash the state; resistance flourished. A Cowboy and Indian Alliance (C.I.A.) was formed to resist attempts in Nebraska to buy off individuals. According to internal company receipts and equipment orders, millions of dollars of equipment was sabotaged or damaged and had to be replaced all along the proposed route. The attention grabbed more mainstream environmental activists and liberals. This fight entered the mainstream and soon became a yardstick with which to measure President Obama’s climate commitments.
Most importantly, it showed us we could fight back.
Soon, proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest were being challenged by activists. Arctic drilling was becoming a mainstream opposition and any new fossil fuel proposal was fought from day one. While it took five years to declare victory against the Keystone Pipeline, the real victory happened when people chose direct action to fight back. It focused attention not on the abstract theory of atmospheric carbon concentrations (which people cannot imagine easily) into a specific manifestation of bad. People could sink their teeth into that. They could learn about how it directly affected them. It had good guys and bad guys. It had a story.
Our approach to Paris was to force the politicians to give the world a just global deal. Then the Daesh attacks all over Paris changed everything. Many of the big green groups suggested that we call off actions altogether. This was never an option. Given that much of the crisis in Syria was influenced by climate disruptions in the form of drought and that the US war in Iraq for regional oil stability created the eventual Paris attackers, we knew alternative voices were needed.
Resistance is most necessary when we are most afraid.
We shifted our approach away from the governments themselves and targeted those who directly profit from fossil fuels and climate chaos: corporations. Aside from the first day where we formed a human chain of 10,000 people in a spirit of peace, everything we did sought to disrupt business as usual. We began by targeting the Heartland institute, a climate denial “think-tank.” By infiltrating their sessions, we asked hard questions that were unanswerable such as, “How do you disagree with the US Military? Are you unpatriotic?” Then we went after Engie and Total, two of the largest world suppliers of energy, by shutting down their headquarters. We interrupted a fracking symposium and targeted California governor Jerry Brown for his flip-flopping on REDD (“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”). We drew the links of militarism and climate by showing the relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia to be a global driver of this chaos. By raising the voices of indigenous people, we showed there are alternatives to an extractive approach to the planet. These and many more actions pushed the limit of what is possible to imagine. That is the work of radicals, to expand what is able to be done. The road through Paris is now the work of keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
For me, the appeal of direct action is its ability to cut through what we consider “conventional wisdom”. Like a hot knife through butter, it takes education directly to the people with the power of example. It forces people to pay attention to something they have long tried to ignore. It challenges people to engage in the world and choose a side. This is much needed in a world that has come to rely almost exclusively on the classroom or the computer as the only means of learning. We are story-based creatures. All of us are participating in a story at any given time whether we know it or not. The role of a good organizer is to provide a story that leads us in a productive way towards our goals. The goals may not seem realistic when we start but the process of doing, direct action, teaches us further, the lessons we need to achieve those goals. Vision is important but there is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and confronting your fears. This is the ultimate visceral education to oneself. It also has a profound impact on those around you as you show people “the art of the possible.” Success builds upon itself and as a community of resistance develops, more opportunities for learning emerge. Suddenly we wake up realizing that what we thought was impossible is now expected and new opportunities are now on our radar. We started with Keystone and now are fighting to keep all fossil fuels in the ground. This is a massive transition in five years.
The success of the Paris agreement was not what the negotiators accomplished.
In fact, Paris was less of a negotiation than it was a scoreboard of the work we have done for the last half-decade. Achieving a 1.5 “to stay alive” goal of global warming is a massive step and will influence future negotiations. It, in essence, is saying the fossil fuel age is over. How many people would have predicted this two years ago?
The Republicans in Congress and the Presidential race have derided the negotiations as farcical. However, theirs is the only party in any developed country to deny the science of climate change. They are losing. As economic institutions like the World Bank, IMF and global insurance companies move towards keeping fossil fuels in the ground, Republicans stand literally opposed to a healthy economy. Something has to break. We are currently in a monumentally important election year. The victories we gained in 2015 still hang in the balance. Those of us working in the climate movement and believing in science must stand up once more. This election can be about climate change. It must be. Our climate is the one thing that binds us all together and could tear us all apart. It exacerbates all the existing divisions in society. It is fueled by capitalism and only a move away from this exploitative economic system will give us an opportunity to build a more peaceful and just world.
Change the system, not the climate!
Paris didn’t give us nearly enough of what we needed.
It only got us halfway towards our goal of a livable planet. Having a ratchet system to increase countries pledges going forward is vital but there are no binding requirements to make sure countries follow through on those pledges. That’s our next work, making it impossible for energy companies to ruin the planet. Looking forward as the oil export ban is lifted by Congress, we have to fight to prevent extraction on public lands. We must shut down every single export terminal and newly proposed pipeline. We have to stop oil and gas trains (bomb trains) from destroying our cities, like Lac Megantic in Canada. Most of all, we have to offer a vision of an alternative world. A story must be created where climate justice includes all people living on the one earth we have. Climate change is our opportunity to address centuries of oppression in one systematic way because this problem affects us all. No one can survive on a dying planet.
In order to reach people on the less believing side of America, people need to hear from their own group or tribe. This means that we must pick up individuals within the power elite to shame their followers into changing. Education has played a major role in moving people towards this conclusion. We are in a race against ourselves and more aggressive forms of education are needed now. We need to educate and lead with action. If you still think that only scientific papers or asking nicely will get us the world we were promised, then I direct your attention to any one of the republican presidential debates. As one sign at the final action in Paris said “The dinosaurs didn’t believe in climate change either.”