Over twenty-eight years have passed since James Hansen’s historic Congressional testimony about anthropogenic global warming. Scientists knew about global warming before then, and further research has greatly improved our understanding of it. But Hansen’s testimony is a clearly identifiable moment in history when both the government and the general public of the United States were informed by the scientific community about the emerging climate crisis.
For the past twenty-eight years, many individuals, groups, and public institutions have sought to take action on this climate crisis. An amazing amount of groundbreaking scientific research has been conducted so that we might better understand climate science in general and global warming in particular. Various social, economic, political, and technical solutions have been proposed. Some of these are being implemented. Others have been attempted but failed or were defeated. Others still have not yet been attempted at all, or have been implemented on too small of a scale to make a difference in global emissions. The end result is that in spite of our best efforts to date, our greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. Even if all nations meet their Paris Climate Accord pledges, the world will still significantly overshoot the two degrees Celsius goal.
In other words, time’s up!
Only swift and dramatic action can change our course in time to avert the worst of this global catastrophe. How can we mobilize such action before it’s too late?
Initiating such profound changes to our outward reality will require equally profound inward changes. As individuals and as communities, we must recognize that the climate crisis is more than just an abstract question of public policy. It’s a moral, ethical, spiritual crisis that cuts to the core of who we are as human beings.
What our society considers “business as usual” is killing people — and if we do nothing, it’s only going to get worse. “Business as usual” is disrupting the climate so dramatically that human civilization may collapse this century. If we embrace any sort of moral code or ethos or spiritual path that places any value on human (and non-human) life, then we must throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the effort to do something about this crisis.
Climate justice is calling.
Climate justice demands that we stop emitting unthinkable amounts of greenhouse gases when we know that those emissions are causing catastrophic climate disruptions. Climate justice recognizes that the people least responsible for causing this crisis — the poor, the young, the “developing” nations — are often the most harmed by it. Climate justice demands that those who have profited the most from this crisis should fund the transition to a zero emissions society. Climate justice recognizes that this is a matter of life and death for many people alive today and an existential threat for all human societies in the near future. Climate justice therefore demands that all people of conscience embrace a relentless urgency in their pursuit of effective solutions to the climate crisis.
How do we heed the call of climate justice?
On an inward level, we heed the call of climate justice by reconnecting with our own humanity, our relationships with our fellow humans, our relationships with the land and water and air and all life on Earth. We examine who we are, what we’re doing with our lives, where our water comes from, where our food comes from, who shares the air we breath, who is helped or harmed by our every action. We learn about these things, we talk about these things with the people around us, and we choose to do something about these things, individually and collectively. Once we rediscover and rebuild these vital relationships, we will naturally start rejecting any actions or ways of living that cause great harm to our fellow humans and the living ecosystems that we call home. When we know and care for ourselves, why would we choose to harm ourselves? When we know and care for our neighbors, why would we choose to harm our neighbors? The more we learn about the role of climate justice in our lives, the more committed we will be to taking action in pursuit of climate justice. We will become restless in our moments of complicity with harm, and relentless in our moments of resistance and positive transformation.
On an outward level, we heed this call in our communities and regions by taking clear, specific, strategic, effective, direct action to resist greenhouse gas emissions and advance the transition to a zero emissions society. Simply acknowledging the problem, or supporting feel-good half-measures that don’t solve the problem as rapidly as possible, isn’t enough. We must find the courage to act on our convictions and our love for our fellow beings. We must take action to interrupt the cycle of injustice and create the active presence of climate justice. We must stop new sources of emissions and rapidly transition away from our use of old sources. We must install cleaner energy systems and start relying on these entirely to meet our energy needs.
Where do we start?
The single biggest source of emissions is fossil fuel consumption. We have the technology and resources necessary for everyone to live comfortably without consuming fossil fuels. Continued use of fossil fuels will cause tremendous climate disruption which will in turn cause tremendous death and suffering. Given these two options, the choice is clear. It’s well past time to stop all new fossil fuel development and rapidly phase out all existing fossil fuel use.
Fossil fuels aren’t our only emissions source, but they’re a good place to start. Even if we start a rapid transition away from them tomorrow, we’ll probably have to use some currently-unknown energy-intensive carbon sequestration technology to suck vast quantities of CO2 out of the air just so that we can have even odds of avoiding the catastrophic threshold of two degrees Celsius of warming. Even this long-shot scenario — absolutely no new fossil fuel development, plus a rapid transition to 100% zero emissions technology, plus dramatic carbon sequestration later this century — may not be sufficient to keep warming below the two degrees Celsius threshold. And the election of Donald Trump, plus a sufficient critical mass of climate deniers in the House and Senate, essentially ensures that climate policy in the United States is about to get much worse, not any better.
Climate action and climate justice aren’t new ideas. Some people and groups are already working to make this transition a reality. But our current approaches are failing to prevent catastrophic global warming.
Everyone who understands the basic science of the climate crisis needs to recognize that even our best efforts at mitigation and adaptation are currently failing to keep warming below the two degrees Celsius threshold. Once we have accepted that we are currently falling far short of any reasonable emissions goals, we must become emboldened to devise and implement new and improved strategies that will succeed where others have failed.
How do we use what little time we have remaining to stop the onset of catastrophic global warming?
To resolve this crisis, we must first ask ourselves what is currently limiting our ability to make the transition to a zero emissions society. The primary factors limiting the rate of transition from dirty energy to clean energy are not technical, but social. In other words, we have the necessary clean energy technology and material resources, but lack the political will necessary to implement rapid change.
This social problem — lack of political will — has a simple solution. It’s not an easy solution, but it’s a simple one. What we need right now is for a growing number of people to feel a strong moral imperative to stop the incredible harm caused by these emissions. We need more people to feel this moral imperative, and more people to act on it. But powerful fossil fuel interests are actively and often successfully pushing the opposite message — that fossil fuels are a necessary and even morally commendable part of our society, and that they are justified in developing more of them rather than transitioning to cleaner energy technologies.
Of course, there are also some technical challenges to the rapid and mass transition of energy infrastructure, especially if we intend to provide comparable or improved energy access to the people of the world during and after this transition. However, these technical challenges are not what is currently limiting the rate of transition. That rate is being limited almost exclusively by an unfavorable social, economic, and political environment created by the fossil fuel industry for the sake of great private profit at tremendous public expense.
The fossil fuel industry is acting as an inhibitor to this necessary clean energy transition. We must respond by becoming catalysts for the transition. Our moral imperative to pursue climate justice must catalyze the transition to a zero emissions society. We must resist the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to inhibit that transition, and we must advance our own efforts to catalyze the transition.
Where do we start?
I have a proposal for a new strategy for mobilizing mass action in pursuit of climate justice. This proposal is simple in concept but complex in implementation.
I propose that we form local Climate Action Teams in as many places as possible. Wherever you live, organize a meeting of everyone you can find who’s concerned about global warming. Educate yourselves, talk to each other, reach out to your friends and neighbors, and determine what actions you can all take individually and collectively to solve this problem.
There are at least three components to this strategy that Climate Action Teams should work on:
- The Constructive Program. People of all nations, especially “developed” nations, should immediately form community-level and state/province-level committees to coordinate a rapid but just transition to a zero emissions society. This should involve determining how all people in the community can work together to meet their basic needs — food, shelter, energy, healthcare, education, etc. — during and after the transition to a zero emissions community and society. The Transition Towns movement is an example of a similar concept. New and existing transition efforts must adopt clear transition goals that are consistent with the realities of global warming — for example, eliminating all fossil fuel use by a specific date within the next decade or two.
- The Resistance Program. People of all nations, especially “developed” nations, should immediately start or continue organizing active resistance campaigns to new and existing fossil fuel infrastructure in their region. This resistance may take many forms: social organizing, economic policy (carbon fee and similar), legislation (fracking bans and other fossil fuel bans), political pressure, and nonviolent direct action, including action that physically interrupts fossil fuel extraction, transport, and consumption. Rising Tide is an example of a resistance campaign (with some constructive elements). No one tactic should be favored over others. Whatever tactic, or combination of tactics, seems most likely to reduce emissions most rapidly with minimal harm to life and livelihood should be used. Priority should be placed on resisting any large new projects (“carbon bombs“) that entail extraction or transportation of mass quantities of fossil fuel. If no such projects are identified in the committee’s region, the committee should consider aiding people in neighboring regions or resisting the continued use of old infrastructure. People in each place must also be willing to cooperate with people in other places in stopping all new fossil fuels development and transitioning to a 100% zero emissions society, with an emphasis on the wealthier nations and communities who were the greatest cause of this crisis aiding the nations and communities who contributed the least to the crisis and are often the worst affected. Climate Action Teams must work to ensure that these resistance campaigns have the volunteers/staff, funding, training, legal aid, and any other resources necessary to effectively stop new fossil fuel development rather than merely protesting or bearing witness while development proceeds. A rapid reduction in emissions is only likely to occur if all new and existing fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and combustion is met with heavy grassroots resistance. If legislative efforts to place a fee or tax on CO2 emissions are unsuccessful, a similar economic effect can be achieved by ensuring that all major fossil fuels projects are met with substantial resistance on the ground, thus increasing the expenses of each project and delaying the completion of each project. The fewer projects that reach completion, the more lives will be saved from the catastrophic consequences of climate disruption. Resistance will save lives.
- The Communication Program. The need for these constructive and resistance programs must be communicated in as many places, in as many ways, to as many people as possible. Mass mobilization on the scale necessary to disrupt the fossil fuel industry’s field operations, institutional dominance, and communications strategies will likely require millions of active and highly motivated participants around the world. High participation in “developed” nations like the United States is especially important due to our high per capita emissions and close physical proximity to many of the world’s largest extraction and transportation sites (and the corporations that initiate these projects, and the think-tanks that advocate these projects). We must find diverse and effective ways to communicate the severity of the climate crisis, and the moral imperative to act on it, that are simple enough to be easily accessible yet powerful enough to recruit large numbers of people into the constructive and resistance programs. The emphasis in such communication should not be on any particular political party or even any particular solution, though specific campaigns and solutions can at times be mentioned. Instead, the emphasis should be on conveying accurate information about the crisis, its implications, and most of all, the moral imperative to organize immediate mass action to save lives.
The details of implementing this Climate Action Teams proposal will be too complex and place-based for a single author to summarize in a single document. However, each Climate Action Team should make an effort to document what they’re doing locally and make this information available to other teams. This will make it easier for communities to learn from each other quickly and adjust their strategies accordingly.
If this proposal makes sense to you, please share and discuss it with your friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, and anyone else who will listen. This will only work if we break the climate silence and talk about climate justice and Climate Action Teams with as many people as possible.
I don’t have any attachment to what exact form this takes. But we all need to start meeting with people in our local communities right now to figure out how we’re going to heed the call for climate justice.