Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and author most recently of Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, is initiator of Tar Sands Action. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont and one of the Sojourners contributing editors.
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Battling the Straw Men
THERE ARE SEVERAL good and interesting arguments to be had about climate change: Should we tax carbon? How much? Concentrate on electric cars or on public transit? How best to reduce the factory farming that creates so many emissions? Dealing with this crisis will involve the biggest and most rapid transition in economic history, so it would be strange if there weren’t debates about how to proceed.
But one debate not to have is: Is global warming real? By now it’s entirely obvious that the scientists are basically right—that’s why there’s half as much ice in the Arctic as when they started warning us, and half as many coral reefs. Donald Trump aside (there’s a nice thought), this one is so clear even the oil companies don’t dispute it, though of course they try to delay and minimize the need for real change.
Deprived of that point of contention, those who want to disrupt the push for climate action fall back on two particularly dumb straw-man arguments, which are worth engaging just long enough to dispose of.
One is that climate activists want to “turn off fossil fuels tomorrow.” You hear this from oil companies, but you also hear it from liberal politicians who don’t want to take strong action against oil companies. When local environmental justice groups, for instance, asked then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to stop permitting new oil wells next to their schools and homes, he responded with roughly the sensitivity and candor of Oklahoma’s climate-denying Sen. Jim Inhofe. Environmentalists, he said, wanted him to “snap my fingers and eliminate all gasoline in all California gasoline stations.” And if he did that, he said, “What would happen? Revolution? Killings? Shootings?”
A Protest Against Extinction
LEADERSHIP COMES from unlikely places—Christians know that better, perhaps, than anyone else. So as we face the savage crisis of climate change, a crisis made far worse by our inaction, it is very good news that a 15-year-old autistic Swedish girl has shown the rest of us new directions in this battle.
When school began in the fall, Greta Thunberg decided not to go. Inspired in part by the Parkland students and their school walkouts over gun violence, she sat down on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm every morning and stayed there the entire school day. Every day. Her argument, at its core, was that if the country’s politicians couldn’t be bothered to fix climate change, there was no real reason for her to be studying, since the world she would inherit would be so fatally compromised.
Her protest drew widespread attention in Sweden, in part because her father is a well-known actor and her mother a famous opera singer (albeit one who has given up her international performing career, persuaded by her daughter that flying to concerts was a waste of carbon). Others noticed too. She came to Finland this fall to address the largest climate rally in Helsinki history, and then to London for the launch of a civil disobedience movement called Extinction Rebellion.
Only Art Can Measure the Cost of Climate Change
EVERY POLITICAL LEADER on the planet should be stuck aboard a jet and taken north to see the Greenland ice sheet—it would be well worth the carbon emissions to show them just how fast climate change is now happening.
Case in point: I was aboard a boat en route to the Qaterlait glacier in August when I looked up at the GPS unit above the captain’s head. It showed an icon of the boat, steaming rapidly across ... solid land. That’s because when the chart was drawn a decade ago, the bay we were crossing didn’t exist: It was still solid ice.
I had the great fortune of journeying to the ice sheet with two young poets—a Greenlander named Aka Niviâna and a native of the Marshall Islands, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. These two remarkable women were at opposite ends of the same story—as the ice melted, the traditional life of Greenlanders was beginning to disappear. And the water that poured into the oceans is now drowning low-lying islands such as the Marshalls.
Native Activists Show the Way
SOMETIMES TRAVEL exposes you to new things, and sometimes it reminds you how much is the same the world over.
I’ve just returned from a long organizing expedition from one end of the Pacific to the other: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, the San Francisco Bay. Many of the issues were the same, of course: plans for new coal mines and oil pipelines.
But what really struck me was that almost everywhere I went, Indigenous people are driving the fight. Whether it is battling new coal mines in Australia, protecting the Great Australian Bight from offshore drilling, stopping fracking in New Zealand, battling the Kinder Morgan pipeline headed for Vancouver, or standing up to California Gov. Jerry Brown over the Golden State’s endless oil drilling, native activists are leading the way.
This should come as no surprise. Groups such as Tom Goldtooth’s Indigenous Environmental Network have been at the forefront for decades; younger leaders such as Clayton Thomas-Müller and Melina Laboucan-Massimo have long been raising the alarm about Canada’s tar sands; and in the low-lying islands of the Pacific, great organizers are fighting against rapid climate change in every forum they can find. Winona LaDuke, Pennie Opal Plant, Rueben George—it’s an endless list. But perhaps Standing Rock—the great battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline—helped everyone see the depth and breadth of this leadership. New leaders appeared, and new groups, and arguments that had been too little heard got a much broader airing.
Leave it to Beavers
IN THE REMARKABLE speech that God delivers beginning in Job 38—God’s longest soliloquy in the Bible, Old Testament or New—we hear of the mountain goat, the raven, the lioness, even the wonderfully silly ostrich, redeemed by her wild speed. But nothing of the beaver! Doubtless this is because Job, confined to the old world, had not come across Castor canadensis, and so God did not want to confuse him (Job was freaked out enough already). But if God had been aiming at a North American audience, there is no doubt the beaver would have starred in the account, because there may be no finer creature under heaven.
What Would Sitting Bull Do?
AS SUMMER drew to a close, one of the great dramas in the planet’s ongoing environmental uprising erupted in a remote place, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that straddles the border of North and South Dakota. The Army Corps of Engineers had approved plans for “fast-tracking” the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry crude from the Bakken shale of North Dakota west to Illinois and then south to Gulf refineries. The pipeline was mostly on private land, and the company had gotten most of the necessary approvals from pliant state officials—but it had to cross the Missouri River somewhere.
The original plans had called for that crossing to happen just above Bismarck, a mostly white North Dakota city. But there had been concern about what would happen to the town’s water supply in the event of a leak, so the map had been redrawn, to take the pipe across the river just above the Sioux reservation. And the Army Corps had signed off on the plan—even though three other federal agencies, including the EPA, had raised serious objections. Just another day in the ongoing saga of environmental injustice that haunts this nation.
Except that this time something unexpected happened. The local Sioux said no: They erected an encampment blocking access to the construction work. And their message spread: White environmentalists joined them, as well as a crew from Black Lives Matter, but mostly other native Americans poured in, from all across the West—representatives of as many as 200 different tribal nations, according to reports. Chief Harry Goodwolf Kindness of the American Indian Movement commented that it has been well over a century since people from so many tribes had engaged in such joint action. “First time since the Battle of Greasy Grass,” he said, “so it’s been a long time.”
There Are None So Blind...
WE ARE TOLD, in the classic story of Oedipus, about the king who managed to bring devastation to his city and family, a king who, when he finally learned the truth of his crimes, blinded himself.
I thought of that epic tragedy when I read of one decision by our current ruler, one event amid all the dozens of others. And this one was less immediately tragic—it didn’t involve pulling an immigrant with a brain tumor out of a hospital for deportation, nor forcing transgender Americans to produce a birth certificate before they pee. No, this tragedy will play out over a longer time.
In early March (and, of course, late on a Friday afternoon), his new team at the Commerce Department announced that they intended to cut the climate satellite program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 22 percent. They proposed a lot of other terrible cuts the same day: virtually zeroing out the environmental justice programs at EPA and cutting the environmental education budget by 94 percent. But the one that future historians will, I think, obsess over is the satellites.
Consider: In the last few months, we’ve learned that 2016 set the all-time record for the hottest recorded year on planet earth. We’ve seen, over the last few years, the highest wind speeds ever recorded in one ocean basin after another, as record-hot water produces amped-up hurricanes. An iceberg a quarter the size of Wales (not a whale—Wales) is about to break off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. And we’re going to blind ourselves? We’re going to start paying less attention?
How Sweet the City Can Be
I HAD A REAL New York City sojourn on a recent weekend, one that reminded this longtime country dweller how sweet the city can be.
It began on Friday night at the IFC Center downtown, watching a premiere screening of the pilot of the new HBO series The Deuce, which is set on 42nd Street in 1971. Though I didn’t get to New York until the early ’80s, the street scenes in the show were familiar—the grit and violence and general decay lingered at least through the crack years of the mid-1980s; when I left New York, 42nd Street remained a canyon of porn theaters and massage parlors. (The Deuce, by the way, is brilliant—Maggie Gyllenhaal is unforgettable as the complicated lead.)
Keystone: The Fight Continues
OF ALL THE unlikely battles still to be raging, the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has to be about the unlikeliest.
It was a long shot in the summer of 2011, when the national fight really began. Though a hardy corps of ranchers in Nebraska were already battling, and though Indigenous activists in Canada had been spreading the word about its source in the tar sands, it was all but unknown on a national basis.
The Politics of the Post-Millennial Generation
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for the climate movement this year, you’ll find it at city councils arguing for 100 percent renewable energy, at pension boards demanding fossil fuel divestment, and in farm fields trying to block pipelines. But you’ll also need to track down a few ramshackle houses in swing states across the country.
Those houses will hold hundreds of young people—at least it will hold them late at night, once they’re done with the long work of knocking on doors, handing out voter guides, and going to rallies. These “movement houses” are the most visible face of the Sunrise Movement, one of those reminders that even the poisonous politics of our moment holds real possibilities.
The young people who founded Sunrise weren’t actually anticipating a Trump victory. “We had had a plan to focus on building popular support for climate change, anticipating that a Democratic president would be pushed to take action on climate if a majority of Americans wanted it and made enough noise,” Varshini Prakash, the group’s engaging spokeswoman who cut her teeth as a highly successful divestment activist at UMass Amherst, said in an interview last summer. But then came that fateful November day, and “our world turned upside-down.” Now it wasn’t about pushing Clinton harder—it was about pushing back against the desperate threat that Trump represented: to the Constitution, to vulnerable people, and to the climate, which can’t wait a decade or two for sanity to return to our national life. “When the dust settled we came to an important realization: We have to figure out how to win elections.”
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