In last week’s column looking back at “2018: The Year in Global Warming,” I reviewed the dire threat posed to humanity and our environment by climate change, and concluded with the following:
The big question for Bostonians and anyone else reading this: How do we go from this grim state of affairs to sparking the biggest social movement in human history to do what is necessary to hold global mean warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2030? Preventing worst-case scenarios from happening to begin with.
This week, I will look forward at the coming year. And take a shot at answering my question.
My short take: I don’t know how we’re going to organize to even begin to build the needed social movement in 2019. I frankly think our chances for doing so by the above deadline are quite slim at the moment.
Still and all, we must try.
Our biggest obstacle to bringing such a social movement into being is the fact that most people in the advanced industrial nations responsible for global warming in the first place aren’t yet willing to change our daily lives in any significant way to stop the already inevitable warming from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Which is not to say that most individuals are responsible. We’re not. Members of the ruling class that controls the commanding heights of politics and the economy in advanced industrial societies are. They’re the ones who run the multinational corporations and governments responsible for burning most of the carbon—oil, coal, and gas—that has led to global warming. And they’re the ones who are profiting handsomely from that environment-despoiling burning.
Those powerful people have created the unsustainable culture that residents of countries like the US enjoy (to one degree or another depending on our position in the pyramid of class, race, sex, caste, and gender), and that many other people in poor countries now aspire to.
Be that as it may, it’s not going to be enough for just those those powerful people to act to stop global warming. It’s got to be all of us. The genie is out of the bottle. Everyone on the planet must act together. Rich or poor. Regardless of identity or social position.
Meaning that people in the advanced industrial nations of the global north are essentially asking billions of our less fortunate fellows the world over—who have not yet even made it to the economic level of a typical poor American—to forgo the many pleasant but carbon positive technological advances that have made our lives easier in the last many decades. Having never really enjoyed them before.
Yet here in the United States—and I think this is also true of other powerful countries like the UK, France, Germany, or Japan—the proverbial belly of the climate change beast, most of us have no intention of meeting people in such countries in the middle. Simplifying our lives, and making do with less stuff in the process. [China is somewhat of a different story. It’s a large and powerful nation, and is acting more strongly than other large countries to curb global warming. But it’s also currently the largest producer of greenhouse gases—and still has a long way to go to bring its population up to first world living standards. Putting it kind of on both sides of the fence I’m sketching here, so I’ll have to return to discussing its problems and promise another day.]
It’s tough enough that vast numbers of people will have to band together to force global elites to stop pushing political economic policies that kill the biosphere by 2030. But we’re also going to have to make significant sacrifices ourselves. Starting with getting rid of our carbon-burning vehicles and carbon-burning power plants. Yet who in countries like the US is going to be willing to do that? And who in the majority of humanity that has not yet had a chance to live their lives the way we’ve been living in advanced industrial economies since the 1960s is going to be willing to join us?
As Meena Raman, coordinator of the climate change program at Third World Network and honorary secretary of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, put it in a recent interview with Democracy Now:
For the poor of the world, who had no contribution to emissions—for instance, large amounts of people in India are denied any access to energy—now they are being told that they have to reduce their carbon emissions. Now, these are people who emit nothing. They have to survive. They have to eat. They have to go to school. They have to have healthcare. But all this is not possible, because they don’t have access to energy. Now, we are saying that these people, who have very little contribution to any emissions, they are being asked to contribute to reducing emissions. I mean, it’s hypocritical, because the United States does not want to acknowledge that it is the largest historical emitter in the world. Now, you don’t have enough carbon space to allow countries like the United States to continue to emit. You need the survival emissions for people who actually are able to transition and develop. And this is what the big fight is about.
So we can’t even talk about how to solve the innumerable problems involved with building a social movement that will be able to hold global warming to 1.5 C by 2030 without grappling with these fundamental issues. Despite the certainty that time has run so short for human civilization to act on climate change that we have to do both tremendously difficult things at the same time: change the culture of all the advanced industrial nations to accept living without the benefits of burning carbon, and then actually organize all the nations of the world to stop burning carbon within 11 years.
Now what exactly can a political columnist in one mid-sized city in the United States of late 2018 suggest that readers should do to extricate our entire species from that little puzzler?
I know what I’m supposed to say. I mean, heck, I say it all the time: “Do these five things to get the desired outcome.” Then: “Join this group or that group”… pointing to a couple of grassroots political organizations that are doing the Lord’s work on whatever issue I’m writing about in a particular week. Then, conclude on a hopeful note: “The groups may not be super great, but they’re the best we have. We will have to muddle through. Etcetera etcetera.”
But you all must understand that global warming is a terminal crisis orders of magnitude larger and more complex than any popular organization (or network of organizations) that currently exists can handle. And the way things are going we may not even be able to hold that warming to a global average of 3 C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century let alone 1.5 C by 2030. Which will be nowhere near good enough to ensure that our civilization—let alone our gene pool—will survive very far past 2100.
This is not an instance of despondence or loss of faith on my part to discuss our predicament in such stark terms.
It’s just that people need to take our ecological situation more seriously immediately. There’s no more time to waste. And there is no way to sugar coat things: We need a culture shift in rich countries to prepare our populations to live more simply while continuing to advance technologically. And then we need humanity to move forward collectively to safeguard the future of the planetary environment and our species. Within a bit over a decade.
I’ll pick up this thread in the new year. But I’d like everyone reading this to think over what I’m laying on you. If you want some homework until I circle back to this subject, you all are welcome to help me think about: a) some activities that individuals can do to help push the desired cultural shift, b) some visionary organizations and incipient social movements people can imitate or join that look like they’re moving in some kind of right direction, and c) some wholly unrealistic policy prescriptions for those organizations and movements to strive for.
Because practical groups and realistic goals absolutely will not get us where we need to go.
My email, as ever, is firstname.lastname@example.org.