By Jesse D. Palmer
The climate change group 350.org and others have called for a series of global marches and mass mobilizations before and after the so-called Conference of the Parties (COP 21) meeting scheduled in Paris from Nov. 30 – Dec. 11. The call to action gives us a chance to reject suicidal corporate business as usual and create a new world that is sustainable as well as just and free.
COP 21 is a massive meeting of the world’s governments to achieve a legally binding agreement about climate and emissions applicable to all nations on earth. It’s called COP 21 because it is the 21st annual meeting following the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Cutting through all the jargon, the world’s governments have been playing at addressing climate change for more than 20 years, and they’ve accomplished embarrassingly little so far. Global emissions have gone up almost each year since the industrial revolution, and they’ve actually increased more quickly since it became clear that CO2, methane, and other human-related gas emissions are causing an ecological catastrophe — the sixth great species extinction in the 3.5 billion year history of life on earth. Without swift action, the climate may become so destabilized as natural feedback loops kick in that humans could face widespread crop failure, famine and social collapse.
How could this be, given all the political, media and scientific focus on climate change over the last 20 years? We’re way beyond the time when it is a matter of understanding the problem. Now, nearly everyone realizes (or has to actively struggle to deny) that the ordinary day-to-day functioning of modern society is unsustainable. Yet there hasn’t been a significant response because the global economy is based on burning carbon, the world’s governments are beholden to big corporate interests, and regular people who have nothing to gain and everything to lose haven’t figured out how to break through the structural, political, cultural, economic, personal and psychological paralysis and turn our ship in another direction.
Governments talking at COP 21 isn’t going to fix this problem — but it does give us a focus around which to build the kind of decentralized, grassroots, global momentum necessary to dump fossil fuels and the bankrupt thinking, politics and technology that thrive on dirty energy.
It’s time to shake off our collective stupor and move forward with real change. The technology to transition away from carbon emissions exists, but the handful of people in charge — the ecological 1% — prefer to focus investment dollars on drilling in the arctic, fracking, building pipelines, and other projects that lock us into fossil fuels for another generation, not the wind farms and other alternative tech we need right now.
The situation looks grim because cutting emissions requires global coordinated action but we’re at a moment when most of us feel isolated, powerless and overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. This isn’t something any of us can address alone.
Confronted with 20 years of inaction and a power structure resistant to action, it is increasingly popular to sound all pragmatic and grown up: “It’s too late, the climate will crash and burn no matter what anyone does, we’re all going to die from massive famines and ecological collapse, don’t waste your time.” It’s a seductive headspace — it is highly romantic and dramatic because it places our lives at the end of history. It is comforting to have certainty about the future, but the truth is we really don’t know what is going to happen and life is usually a lot more complex and grey, not so black and white..
It is clear that the climate is changing and every corner of the world, every species, and every society is at risk. The question we just can’t answer yet is how bad it will all end up being. Given the grave reality, maybe it is actually comforting for some people to think “I won’t survive and have to see this go down.”
But learning to feel comfortable with doom is the wrong response. It isn’t the kind of energy we need individually, collectively, culturally and politically to build the unprecedentedly broad, sustained and powerful social movement we need to fight those who profit from climate change.
A less comforting thought is that if we do nothing to avert climate chaos, privileged people in the developed world will use their wealth and military power to maintain their lifestyles in armed camps — sucking up the last remaining food and defending borders against billions of starving, thirsty climate refugees. If you’re “lucky” enough to be on the inside of the fence with some food to eat — which most of the smug, youthful anarcho-pessimists are likely to be — you’ll watch as whole ecosystems, oceans, and societies die off before your eyes. Climate collapse, in other words, won’t get you off the hook.
If our response is resignation, depression, denial and apathy during an ecological red alert, chances are we’ll look back at our lives right now and ask “how could we have just sat there and done nothing knowing full-well what was at stake?” The longer we’re all checked out, passive, fatalistic — individually and collectively — the worse climate change is going to be. The earth isn’t going to mete out climate justice to the oil companies and corporations — only organized, courageous, loving human beings can do that.
At some point, the world will shift away from a carbon based world — even in a dystopian world run by oil company goons. It greatly matters whether this shift happens next year, or 10, or 50 years from now, because the difference will be measured in lives, in forests, in languages.
Getting out in the streets around COP 21 matters because it can help us move out of isolation and realize that virtually everyone around us and around the world already wants to wake up and wants to change course. Throughout history, power has always appeared irresistible and the status quo inevitable — right on the evening before moments of change.
Social movements are moments when people come together and are able to transcend individual isolation and powerlessness and accomplish change that appears impossible. You can’t schedule one of these moments when you need it — but you can make yourself available and join in when it arrives. If you felt the ecstatic energy during Occupy or blocking a freeway during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, you realize how much is possible when minds and social dynamics begin to shift. These recent moments have been fleeting with mixed results. A climate-oriented movement needs greater reach and staying power, but will be based on the same spark.
To get ready, we can practice building conversations that erode the assumptions we’re swimming in — that burning carbon, letting oil companies decide our future, and letting business as usual run us off a cliff is natural, inevitable or necessary. Bringing up climate change in everyday interactions normalizes and localizes the discussion. Over the past few months I’ve been trying this as an antidote to my own sense of anxiety and frustration and it really helps — it makes me feel better and the people I speak with are glad I brought it up. Actions around COP 21 offer a mass-moment to start conversations and make connections.
This is also about social organization. The world is too interconnected, complex and fast-moving and human’s technological power to alter nature is too great to leave life and death questions up to the will of a faceless market that is a-moral, dehumanizing, and that fails to consider (much less value) qualities like freedom, love, health, or life. The systems of private ownership, concentration of wealth and centralization of power are brutal and ecologically unsustainable holdovers.
Many people are realizing that it isn’t enough to simply change the way we get electricity. We need to understand the climate crisis as the strongest evidence that our hierarchical, greed based social organization is a dead end. Centralized, unaccountable corporate and government structures are increasing inequality, hurting our health, and making our lives oppressive, stressful, lonely, boring and miserable in addition to destroying the natural world. Why would we put up with this?
It is crucial to focus on who is benefitting because it is a tiny number of people. Since most of the world’s population is at risk without getting anything out of the system, this is an inherently vulnerable arrangement if we wake up, get together, and fight.
If you don’t go after what you really want, you’re certain not to get it. This is true on both a personal and a social level. Things we want personally — balanced lives based on fun, meaning, engagement and cooperation with others — align with the direction society has to go if we are to survive on our beautiful, fragile planet.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a strange sense of guarded optimism recently which I feel a little embarrassed to admit. For more than 20 years I’ve become more and more alarmed as the implications of global warming have become clearer, yet the social and political power structures have failed to respond.
But the funny thing is that the people I actually see and interact with on a day-to-day basis have never seemed more energized. All around me I see people working on amazing projects — radical social centers, land trusts, coops and alternative technology. I see parents pouring love and energy into their kids. I see people passionately loving each other; artists and musicians creating; cyclists pushing to the top of the next hill.
There is an energy building that is deeply responsive to and inspired by the climate crisis — that demonstrates that people want to survive and build a better future. A lot of these projects are strictly on a local basis because people feel hopeless about the global situation and so they’ve withdrawn. Since local projects won’t get us where we need to go, I’m hoping all these folks can re-engage with protests, re-engage with international networks, re-engage with the idea that we can and must build a global movement. While these actions may not feel as tangible nor as immediately satisfying as building a garden, the only way we’ll survive is to unite to fight the ecological 1%, the oil companies, the special interests, and the governments and political structures that do their bidding.
Tactics like the fossil fuel divestment movement that target universities and other public funds can sound like a liberal half-measure, but I think these efforts are a good start especially since investment is the way our society determines what is valued. Why can Shell invest billions in arctic drilling in 2015 given the climate implications?
It’s obvious we need to leave that shit in the ground. 350.org has issued a call to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground and fully transition to zero emissions by 2050. If we were really serious, we could get to zero emissions much faster. During WWII, virtually the entire US industrial system switched to war production in a matter of months and all kinds of technology evolved rapidly — the atomic bomb being a particularly notable example. The world needs to rapidly turn talent, money and technology towards energy sources and ways of living that don’t endanger life. Don’t tell me, “oh we can’t ditch fossil fuels” like it’s a physical law and I’m crazy. Alternatives exist now and the crazy thing is to keep burning fossil fuels thoughtlessly.
We need to fight the fossil fuel 1% in the streets as well as through the divestment movement. Over the last 20 years — maybe it’s because of the internet? — the number of street disturbances seems to have decreased each year, and this has taken a toll politically, spiritually and psychologically. There is a quality of shared experience and power in the streets that helps you be strong and feel that power structures can be fought, and that the future is up for grabs.
We need to practice physically disrupting the status quo like exercising a muscle. When people visibly put their bodies in the way of the machine, it is magnetic and can energize and inspire millions of other people who care — who want to do something — and are just waiting for the right moment.
The worst danger we face is succumbing to the idea that because things are a particular way now, those conditions are natural, inevitable, and permanent. I was recently reading a beautiful children’s book to my three year-old about the people who lived here before this land was covered in concrete — before the idea of humans changing the climate was imaginable. I was struck by how the idea of people living here for generations in harmony with the earth seems both invisible and impossible just a few hundreds years later.
For humans, things can change dramatically in a short time. It may be that someone standing here in 300 years — living in an ecologically sustainable future — will look at our oil-drenched lives now with their own sense of wonder. There’s really no way to know what the future will look like, but what we can say is that it makes a difference where you put your time, energy and heart now.
November 28 & 29:
Global climate march in Paris & worldwide