Still, the "long run" remains the problem. I worry that we can't make change happen fast enough. If we continue on the current trajectory, the planet that in 75 years runs on sun and wind will be a broken one. The strategy of the industry is to extend its business model another decade or two, even at the cost of breaking the planet. They want to make the transition untraumatic for themselves, even if it is traumatic for all life on earth.
Going forward, the movement needs to grow bigger and stronger. The strength of movements is a direct reflection of how many people are involved. And a movement must be bigger than the sum of its constituent organizations. We need a combination of breadth organizing and depth organizing. The first are the broad, low-barrier-to-entry, consciousness-raising efforts -- think about the student Climate Strikes now underway thanks to the inspiration of Sweden's Greta Thunberg. The second are the grittier, detailed efforts to get particular policies adopted -- say, the state-by-state and city-by-city fight for renewable portfolio standards that specify minimum levels of energy production from wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. And the third is an overarching framework to inspire action: for example, the incredibly exciting fight for a Green New Deal now being debated in US political circles and other countries. Together, these three components are the foundation for a bigger, stronger movement.
"System Change, Not Climate Change"?
I am not great with eschatology; I don't know the final destination. While I don't know how to change the "system," the urgent nature of the climate crisis doesn't let us simply put off action. The biophysics doesn't allow it.
That said, progress on the climate fight in its own right can help drive systemic change. Think about who dominates the prevailing political-economic system. So many of the major players have gained their power by controlling the scarce, geographically concentrated supplies of fossil fuel -- players like Vladimir Putin, the Koch brothers, the Saudi royal family, and Exxon. If we replace fossil fuels with sun and wind, the effect will inevitably lead to at least some erosion of the current power structure. In general, to achieve the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, decentralized and local is where we need to be headed.
Going forward, we must fight for the changes we know we need to make for a livable planet and, at the same time, make the world a fairer place. Some of this is inherent. Because sun and wind are intrinsically local, for instance, they reduce some of the power imbalances inherent in an economy based on who controls the small patches of ground above oil and gas. There will be solar billionaires, I imagine, but there won't be solar Koch Brothers or solar Saudi royal families, because the diffuse nature of non-fossil fuels tends to disperse rather than concentrate economic power. But enabling such a shift requires an intentional strategy to structure renewable energy so that its ownership and control is as local as possible. That was the particular genius of Germany's Energiewende law, which proposes a plan to democratize energy supply in the transition to a low-carbon, reliable, and affordable energy system.
The climate crisis could be the lever for other kinds of trans-formative change. Again, look at the discourse around the Green New Deal, which reflects a deep policy shift in the direction of fairness and equity. Like the New Deal of the 1930s, this proposal would be an economy-wide mobilization in the direction of greater justice, with the "green" part a reference to the fact that our main goal is not ending an economic depression but the full-scale decarbonization of the economy in light of the climate crisis. Such synergy between social and environmental issues holds great potential.
Do We Need a Meta-Movement?
The climate threat is so pressing and so intermingled with current economic arrangements, that it provides the best possible lever for making profound change in other aspects of the economy such as rampant inequality, as Naomi Klein articulates so well in her book This Changes Everything.
Social movements across diverse issues are inherently linked because they share a common critique of the status quo, whether you call it neoliberalism, predatory capitalism, or simply capitalism. All kinds of collaboration, both philosophic and strategic, are possible. Look, for instance, at the crucial role of indigenous groups and the indigenous rights movement. Shunted off to what we once thought were valueless wastelands, these communities often live atop fossil fuel resources or astride the transportation routes needed for pipelines and other infrastructure. As such, they are natural allies in the fight against climate change. Indeed, they are important leaders in the fight, and they bring a worldview that challenges the status quo with enormous clout.
Fighting for their human and legal rights often means complicating the lives of the fossil fuel industry. Specifically, it is crucial that the worldviews associated with indigenous peoples, human rights advocates, and other movements are recognized for their close alignment with the scientific data pertaining to the climate crisis. The oldest and newest wisdom traditions on the planet are powerfully syncing up while casting considerable doubt on the conventional wisdoms -- extraction, accumulation, commodification -- that have dominated our economic and political world.
For another example, look at the potential alliance between climate and anti-war movements, driven by the realization that most conflict in this century is going to be driven by climate disruption. Indeed, it already is: a severe drought in Syria, for instance, helped touch off years of deadly civil war. More broadly, climate disruption is widely recognized as the biggest obstacle to realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including the reduction of poverty and inequality. In the last couple of years, hunger and child labor are both on the increase again, thanks to warming-caused disasters. All these conditions point to opportunities for alliance building across movements to accelerate transformational change.
I have never been a Pollyanna. The cheerful title of my first book, after all, was The End of Nature. And its 30-year sequel is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? But I do sense that, at a moment when the climate emergency has become obvious and pressing, we might begin to pivot. If we do, we could progress very far very fast, especially if the climate movement forges alliances with other movements. The extremely rapid fall in the price of renewable energy and electric storage is one indication that the necessary conditions for rapid change are now in place.
We are not going to stop climate change -- that is no longer on the menu. Standing on the Greenland ice shelf last summer and seeing it melting was sobering. We're now playing for whether warming is going to reach 2, 3 or 4 °C, with the latter appearing increasingly likely. That range of temperature rise means we still can decide to sustain a livable civilization. But the window for survival is closing fast.
We must use this moment as crucial leverage to push the planet in a new direction. Let us try. If we succeed, then we have risen to the greatest crisis humans have ever faced and shown that the big brain was a useful evolutionary adaptation. If we fail -- well, we better to go down trying.
Originally published as part of a Forum by the Great Transition Initiative