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Come Hell and High Water
IF IT WASN'T the year from hell for the North American continent, it was the year from a place with a very similar temperature.
It's hard to remember, but it began with that bizarre summer-in-March heat wave that meteorologists described as one of the most anomalous weather events in the country's history. Before long there were record blazes burning in Colorado and New Mexico, and then a stifling heat wave moved east, triggering a "derecho" storm that raced almost 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Atlantic and left 5 million without power. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the United States; it was also when drought descended full force on the Midwest, stunting corn and soybeans and driving the world price of grain up by 40 percent (and making sure our hellish year became traumatic for poor people the planet round). By August it was clear we were in for a record melt year in the Arctic; when the long polar night finally fell, it was clear we'd essentially broken one of the planet's biggest physical features. And all that was before Sandy piled into our greatest urban area, leaving behind an indelible image of the future.
So the question becomes, what's an appropriate response? What even begins to match the magnitude of the trouble we face? What doesn't seem like spitting in the wind?
My sense is that the time has come to take on the fossil fuel industry itself—not the members of Congress they buy in droves each election season, but the real powers. Ignoring the damage they've already caused, these people spend hundreds of millions of dollars each day looking for new fossil fuels. And they spend hundreds of millions each year making sure no government stops them. They're like the tobacco industry at this point, except that instead of going after your lungs they're going after the lungs of the planet.
Divest from Fossil Fuels. Now.
“LOTS OF COMPANIES do rotten things in the course of their business—pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops—and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate-abuse leader Naomi Klein. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”
The numbers she’s referring to are straightforward—they were first put forth in a report by a group of U.K. financial analysts a year ago, and they’ve now begun to seep into the debate about climate change. They show that if we have any hope of keeping the increase in global temperature below the 2 degree Celsius line (a goal so conservative that even the U.S. and Chinese governments have embraced it as their target), we can only emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide. But the fossil-fuel industry, it turns out, has 2,795 gigatons worth of carbon in its inventory—that is, five times what it would take to run the Genesis creation story backwards.
In other words, this is not a case of “bad business practices.” It’s not like Apple paying bad wages or making workers use dangerous chemicals. Those are deplorable, and correctable—they’re what the boycott or the shareholder resolution was invented for. That’s how we’ve fought everything from grape growers to sweatshops.
Big Brain. Big Heart?
IN EARLY JUNE, a team of prominent biologists, ecologists, paleontologists, and climatologists published a long article in our most important scientific journal, Nature. It concluded that people have so disturbed the operations of the planet that it is nearing—perhaps within decades—a “state shift” to a new biological paradigm unlike any human civilization has ever encountered.
“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products, and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”
For many of us who have long studied these questions, there’s nothing that surprising in the conclusions. I mean, we’ve already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to melt 40 percent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, to make the ocean 30 percent more acidic, and to turn the atmosphere 5 percent wetter, thus loading the dice for drought and flood.
What’s surprising is not the science. It’s the endless lack of reaction to it. The secular press barely covered the Nature study—The New York Times discussed it in a blog post, not in the paper. And I didn’t hear any reaction at all from the nation’s clerics, though it strikes me this kind of story strikes much closer to the heart of our theology than most of the things we do hear clerics opining about. Contraception? Okay, sort of, you can kind of find something about it in the Bible. Homosexuality? The occasional passing reference. But the whole first page of the thing is about nothing but creation, the fact that God made everything around us, pronounced it good, and told us to take care of it.
The Global Warming Hoax
Please don’t sweat the 2,132 new high temperature marks in June — remember, climate change is a hoax.
The first to figure this out was Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who in fact called it “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” apparently topping even the staged moon landing.
But others have been catching on. Speaker of the House John Boehner pointed out that the idea that carbon dioxide is “harmful to the environment is almost comical.” The always cautious Mitt Romney scoffed at any damage too: “Scientists will figure that out 10, 20, 50 years from now,” he said during the primaries.
Still, you have to admit: for a hoax, it’s got excellent production values.
Welfare for (Very Rich) Oil Companies
Of the many gifts that the 99 percent award to the 1 percent—the various tax breaks and tributes that have helped push inequality in America to record levels—none are quite as annoying as the subsidies awarded the fossil fuel industry.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill this spring that would trim $20 billion a year from those payouts to coal and oil and gas companies. Barack Obama, modest almost to a fault, has identified $5 billion in handouts that he’d like taken away before this year’s budget is finalized. Whatever the number, the principle is crucial. Because if we can’t agree not to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, I’d submit we pretty much can’t agree about anything.
For environmentalists, few things could be more important. Worldwide, it’s estimated that global warming emissions could be cut in half if all governments stopped subsidizing fossil fuel—something that won’t happen unless the U.S. takes the lead.
But let’s say for the moment that you don’t care about climate change. Let’s say you agree with Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma that global warming is impossible because it says in Genesis “that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there,” Inhofe said. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (I can’t help myself: This is an exceedingly dumb theology. God allows war but prevents carbon emission from heating the atmosphere?) Even if you thought that way, you’d still want to keep the federal government from paying Exxon bonuses every year.
'And God Created ... Corporations'
Corporations want to store up treasure on earth — that's their whole, entire, complete, and utter point.
What Next for the Occupiers?
There are many things they seemed to hold in common, not least an instinctive nonviolence, contrasting so sharply with the police, who so often let the logic of force drive their actions (they found out, as often in history, that the logic that works with criminals doesn’t really apply to idealists).
The Roots of the Tar Sands Movement
The real work has been done for years by indigenous leaders on both sides of the border.
What's Next for the Occupiers?
I was also struck by their refusal to simply announce a set of demands. Occupiers aren’t dumb—they’ve read and heard the many calls from the media and politicians that they simply say what they want. It would be easy enough—but in some sense it would detract from the greatest usefulness of the campaign, which has been to articulate a sense of despair bordering on rage. Because they didn’t quickly say “we want this bill passed,” commentators have had to grapple with the actual message of many Occupiers: Our economy is unfair. It gives too much power to corporations who abuse that power for their own ends. They’ve not just cheated us financially; they’ve cheated us of our democracy.
What Next for the Occupiers?
One of the highlights of the fall for me was undertaking a kind of Occupy Tourism. I was spending most of my time on the move, working to build the broad coalition that eventually won at least a temporary victory against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta. In almost every city I visited, I tried to stop by the local encampment, in part because Occupiers were among our most reliable allies, and in part because it was so much fun.
I’ve gotten to speak through the human microphone in lower Manhattan and tour the D.C. campsite just a few blocks from the White House. But I’ve also gotten to sign the copies of my books in the library tent at Occupy Boston (a quiet tent, staffed by honest-to-God librarians from Boston Public Library, with everything arranged by subject). I even made it to foreign occupations—standing beneath a giant stone lion in the grand Vancouver encampment. Happiest occupation goes to San Luis Obispo, California, where I got a hug from a fellow with a huge “Free Hugs” sign. The most chic, not surprising, was Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they arranged not only a campfire for my talk, but a rising full moon in the desert sky.
Drawing a Line in the (Tar) Sand
This may be the largest use of civil disobedience yet around global warming.
The Keystone XL Pipeline: Game Over For the Climate
The New Ugliest Word
Fracking is just one more way to keep from coming to terms with our addiction to fossil fuel.
The Ugliest Word in the English Language: Fracking
Climate Change: Just the Facts
The fossil fuel industry is the main impediment to real change. Why? Because they are making money. Exxon made more money in 2009 than any company in the history of money.
The Planet Cries Out
We need to clear the polluted political air before we'll have a real chance to clear the actual atmosphere.
Time to Take It to the Streets
Nonviolent civil disobedience has been a less effective tactic in this country in the past few decades for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is probably that our woes are more complicated than in an earlier age. If there’s an exception to this rule, it's the issue I've spent much of my life working on: climate change.
True, climate change is rooted in complex science, but at this point the mechanisms are pretty clear: Burn fossil fuel and wreck the planet. It carries a strong moral edge: The people who burn the least suffer the most. And there are a series of relatively obvious villains: oil and coal barons, who not only profit from the carbon but use their proceeds to foul the debate with endless propaganda.
Since campaigners have in many cases changed their own lives, and tried for two decades the obvious tactics, such as legislative advocacy, without result, maybe the time has come to heighten the stakes, with mass action at the most obvious sites, from coal-fired power plants to corporate headquarters and congressional offices. Indeed, brave people have already begun: More than 100 were arrested, for instance, in a recent D.C. protest about mountaintop removal coal mining.
But using this tactic effectively will require some other changes.
A Problem of Biblical Proportions
The summer's weather can safely be described as biblical, in the sense that newspaper writers generally use the word -- that is, loud, scary, and dangerous.