It got so hot in Australia in January that the weather service had to add two new colors to its charts. A few weeks later, at the other end of the planet, new data from the CryoSat-2 satellite showed 80 percent of Arctic sea ice has disappeared. We're not breaking records anymore; we're breaking the planet. In 50 years, no one will care about the fiscal cliff or the Euro crisis. They'll just ask, "So the Arctic melted, and then what did you do?"
Here's the good news: We'll at least be able to say we fought.
After decades of scant organized response to climate change, a powerful movement is quickly emerging around the country and around the world, building on the work of scattered front-line organizers who've been fighting the fossil-fuel industry for decades. It has no great charismatic leader and no central organization; it battles on a thousand fronts. But taken together, it's now big enough to matter, and it's growing fast.
Americans got to see some of this movement spread out across the Mall in Washington, D.C., on a bitter-cold day in February. Press accounts put the crowd upward of 40,000 -- by far the largest climate rally in the country's history. They were there to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run down from Canada's tar sands, south to the Gulf of Mexico, a fight that Time magazine recently referred to as the Selma and the Stonewall of the environmental movement. But there were thousands in the crowd also working to block fracking wells across the Appalachians and proposed Pacific coast deep-water ports that would send coal to China. Students from most of the 323 campuses where the fight for fossil-fuel divestment is underway mingled with veterans of the battles to shut down mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky, and with earnest members of the Citizens Climate Lobby there to demand that Congress enact a serious price on carbon.
A few days earlier, 48 leaders had been arrested outside the White House -- they included ranchers from Nebraska who didn't want a giant pipeline across their land and leaders from Texas refinery towns who didn't want more crude spilling into their communities. Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham was on hand, urging scientists to accompany their research with civil disobedience, as were solar entrepreneurs quickly figuring out how to deploy panels on rooftops across the country. The original Americans were well-represented; indigenous groups are core leaders of the fight, since their communities have been devastated by mines and cheated by oil companies. The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus was handcuffed next to Julian Bond, former head of the NAACP, who recounted stories of being arrested for integrating Atlanta lunch counters in the Sixties.
It's a sprawling, diverse and remarkably united movement, marked by its active opposition to the richest and most powerful industry on Earth. The Fossil Fuel Resistance has already won some serious victories, blocking dozens of new coal plants and closing down existing ones -- ask the folks at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization who helped shutter a pair of coal plants in Chicago, or the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which fought to stop Chevron from expanding its refinery in Richmond, California.
"Up to this point, grassroots organizing has kept more industrial carbon out of the atmosphere than state or federal policy," says Gopal Dayaneni of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. It's an economic resistance movement, too, one that's well aware renewable energy creates three times as many jobs as coal and gas and oil. Good jobs that can't be outsourced because the sun and the wind are close to home. It creates a future, in other words.
These are serious people: You're not a member of the Resistance just because you drive a Prius. You don't need to go to jail, but you do need to do more than change your light bulbs. You need to try to change the system that is raising the temperature, the sea level, the extinction rate -- even raising the question of how well civilization will survive this century.
Soon after the big D.C. rally, the state department issued a report downplaying Keystone XL's environmental impact, thus advancing the pipeline proposal another step. Since then, at the urging of the remarkable cellphone-company-cum-activist-group Credo, nearly 60,000 people have signed a pledge promising to resist, peacefully but firmly, if the pipeline is ever approved. By early March, even establishment commentators like Thomas Friedman had noticed -- he used his New York Times column to ask activists to "go crazy" with civil disobedience; 48 hours later, 25 students and clergy were locked down inside a pipeline-company office outside Boston. It's not a one-sided fight anymore.
No movement this diverse is going to agree on a manifesto, but any reckoning begins with the idea that fossil fuel is dirty at every stage, and we need to put it behind us as fast as we can. For those of us in affluent countries, small shifts in lifestyle won't be enough; we'll also need to alter the policies that keep this industry fat and happy. For the poor world, the much harder goal is to leapfrog the fossil-fuel age and go straight to renewables -- a task that those of us who prospered by filling the atmosphere with carbon must help with, for reasons both moral and practical. And for all of us, it means standing with communities from the coal fields of Appalachia to the oil-soaked Niger Delta as they fight for their homes. They've fought longest and hardest and too often by themselves. Now that global warming is starting to pour seawater into subways, the front lines are expanding and the reinforcements are finally beginning to arrive.
Right now, the fossil-fuel industry is mostly winning. In the past few years, they've proved "peak-oil" theorists wrong -- as the price rose for hydrocarbons, companies found lots of new sources, though mostly by scraping the bottom of the barrel, spending even more money to get even-cruddier energy. They've learned to frack (in essence, explode a pipe bomb a few thousand feet beneath the surface, fracturing the surrounding rock). They've figured out how to take the sludgy tar sands and heat them with natural gas till the oil flows. They've managed to drill miles beneath the ocean's surface. And the hyperbolic enthusiasm has gushed even higher than the oil. The Wall Street Journal has declared North Dakota a new Saudi Arabia. The New York Times described a new shale-oil find in California as more than four times as large as North Dakota's. "We could make OPEC 'NOPEC' if we really put our minds to it," said Charles Drevna of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. "We're talking decades, if not into the hundreds of years, of supply in North America."
But all that fossil fuel will only get pumped and mined and burned if we decide to ignore the climate issue; were we to ever take it seriously, the math would quickly change. As I pointed out in these pages last summer, the world's fossil-fuel companies, even before these new finds, had five times more carbon in their reserves than we could burn if we hope to stay below a two-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures. That's the red line almost every government in the world has agreed on, but the coal, oil and natural-gas companies, propelled by record profits, just keep looking for more -- and ignore reality. A new report shows that an anonymous group of industry billionaires has secretly poured more than $100 million into anti-environmental front groups. Weeks before Election Day, Chevron gave the largest corporate Super PAC contribution of the post-Citizens United era, making sure that Congress stayed in the hands of climate deniers.
But every flood erodes their position, and every heat wave fuels the Resistance. When the Keystone pipeline first became controversial, in 2011, a poll of D.C. "energy insiders" showed that more than 70 percent of them thought they'd have permits to build it by the end of the year. Big Oil, of course, may end up getting its way, but so far its money hasn't overwhelmed the passion, spirit and creativity its foes have brought to the battle. And we're not just playing defense anymore: The rapidly spreading divestment movement may be the single biggest face of the Resistance. It's no longer confined to campuses; city governments and religious denominations have begun to unload their stakes in oil companies, and the movement is even spreading to self-interested investors now that HSBC has calculated that taking climate change seriously could cut share prices of oil companies by up to 60 percent.