The Heat Is Online

Draft Agenda for a Movement in Denial

Draft Agenda for a Movement in Denial
          Climate activists around the world are brimming with conviction, self-sacrifice and a passion to engage the most threatening challenge in our history. The tragedy is that in the race toward a very uncertain future nature is outpacing the movement.  As a result, the movement's focus is fixed exclusively on the rear-view mirror. 
         The massive Climate March on the UN last September presented to the world an inspiring display of potential political power -- drawing together groups from across the spectrum of environmental activists.
         As Bill McKibben noted, activism works. Writing in the Guardian about massive grassroots opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, McKibben noted that "[P] eople went to jail in larger numbers than they had for many years, and wrote more emails to the Senate than on pretty much any issue in history, and made more public comments to the government than on any infrastructure project in history."
         The movement, moreover, has clearly created ripples. Last spring World Bank President Jim Yong Kim call for climate action at the Bank's meeting. Seventy-three countries agreed to a yet-unspecified price on carbon in September. On Earth Day, people in 70 countries submitted 230 documentaries to a competition calling for strong action on the climate, according to And there have been repeated calls to rein in our increasingly unstable climate by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon.
         But, other than a potential presidential veto of Keystone -- whose symbolism far outweighs its contribution to atmospheric warming -- the surge of enthusiasm in the climate movement has been followed by a period of inward-turning, groping efforts to find a relevant pathway forward for the movement.
         Since its inception, the climate movement has fought a desperate and mostly losing battle -- especially in the U.S. -- against public denial about the gathering threat of intensifying climate change. 
         That denial was lavishly fuelled by the coal and oil industries. It was reflected most vividly in the virtual absence (until very recently) of climate coverage by mainstream news outlets -- a display of institutional denial that reflects a damning betrayal of their public trust.
         The cruelest irony is that a different -- but equally paralyzing -- denial has now infected the climate movement itself.
         At this point, the movement needs to rethink its role and expand its goals by an order of magnitude.
         Nature operates on her own timetable. She is not waiting for humans to figure how to pacify her inflamed atmosphere in a cost-effective way. While people have groped around the edges of the problem for 20 years, indifferent nature has followed her own internal dynamics. We are already seeing an ominous cascade of nature's feedbacks.
         Some of those feedbacks are manifesting themselves in more frequent crop failures, intensifying water shortages, more uncontrolled migrations of refugees whose land has become uninhabitable and foretastes of a succession of bankruptcies of governments which will be unable to pay for the rapidly growing costs of climate-driven disasters.         
         The initial goal of the climate movement -- to reduce carbon emissions and trigger a global transition to clean energy -- was a credible and compelling aspiration 20 years ago.
         Today, however, by ignoring a radical change in the climate context, the movement is in danger of promoting a dishonest message based on a false promise.
         To be sure, we need to continue to phase out oil and coal. The imperative of a stable atmosphere is simple: burn nothing. It is up to environmentalists to convince society to meet its energy needs by riding nature's coattails: electricity from the sun, the wind, the tides, from river currents and ocean waves and, ultimately, hydrogen fuel which comes from the most plentiful resource on the planet -- ocean water.
         But that goal has become dwarfed by the far more urgent need to prepare for a cascade of  breakdowns in human support systems -- food, water, habitable land, coherent government -- which are becoming unhinged by climate impacts.
         First and foremost, the movement needs a strong injection of courage to look reality in the eye.   
         Secondly, environmentalists can no longer pay lip service to the fact that climate change is truly not just an environmental issue. They need to make that reality a central strategic element of the movement's plans.
         Last September's march, organized by, did expand the movement by including a group of climate justice organizations.
         But any chance for a coherent future requires the climate movement to stretch further to partner with activist organizations around the world -- groups working on human rights, economic equity, poverty alleviation, civil liberties, social justice and government reform -- to mount a coordinated global effort to pressure the world's governments to prepare in concert for the coming breakdowns.
         Environmentalists are best positioned to spark that mobilization because they best understand the ominous and accelerating changes in the planet's natural systems.
         But while the climate movement is best suited to catalyze such a movement, it is not necessarily best suited to lead it -- a possibility that requires some serious soul-searching by movement leaders.       
         What we need is a historically unprecedented, globally coordinated  movement that forces governments to begin to plan together for an increasingly stressed future.  
         The world's leaders need to understand that we have failed to meet nature's deadline -- and that the consequences are becoming visible in every country on the planet. Most importantly, they need to understand that the only course of meaningful action lies in a cooperative -- not a competitive -- set of responses.
         Absent a rapid shift to global cooperation, we will see a surge in national conflicts over resources. As a former vice-president of the World Bank said in the late 1990s: "If the wars of this century were fought over oil,  the wars of the next century will be fought over water."
         We  will also see totalitarian reactions by governments who find themselves unprepared for the inevitable succession of coming crises.  When governments are confronted by breakdowns, their predictable reaction is to resort to dictatorial methods to keep order in the face of chaos.
         Without the world's leaders committing to binding cooperative agreements, many governments will may find themselves resorting to de facto states of martial law.
         The task is monumental. But at the same time, by virtue of its size and its raw enthusiasm, today's climate movement still poses a potentially game-changing impact. But it needs to recognize that the only honest goal at this point is one of zero tolerance for coal and oil -- a goal that, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, will not be achieved without changes in the larger economic and political structures that are leading us straight to climate hell.
         On the positive side, recent history does provide remote hope. We have learned that rapid social change can erupt as unexpectedly as rapid climate change. The Berlin Wall, which stood for 28 years, fell in about three weeks. The 46-year entrenched rule of apartheid in South Africa was overturned virtually overnight. 
         Ultimately the environmental movement needs to proclaim with one voice that the global climate has passed a point of no return. The implication for society is clear: the movement needs to persuade governments forcefully and urgently that, unless they plan together for an increasingly chaotic future, the ultimate casualty of prolonged and pervasive denial will be a coherent civilization.
                                           -- Ross Gelbspan ( c ) 2015