How can we build the majoritarian social force we need to slow global warming?
The climate movement we have is not the climate movement we need.
It’s not that there hasn’t been a lot of very fine work done by a great many activists over the decades since scientists discovered that global warming is an existential threat. There has been. I know that from experience. I have been one of those activists since the 1980s.
But the strategies and tactics used by the many factions of that movement to date have not worked. And every year that passes without any significant reversal of the ever-increasing average worldwide temperature reminds us of the magnitude of our failure.
Boston, with our many world-class research universities and some of the strongest environmental organizations in the US, is in many ways a polity where one could reasonably expect to have already seen concerted action to move toward the net zero carbon emissions target that climate scientists are now virtually certain is the only way we can slow global warming. Preserving our civilization long enough to develop the technology—and the wisdom—to stabilize our climate and solve many of our persistent social, economic, and political problems in the bargain.
Yet that has not happened. Instead Boston city government is squirreling around the edges of dealing with some of the symptoms of global warming without remediating carbon emissions in any real way. Same goes for the natural gas pipeline-friendly Massachusetts state government.
The reason? The old story. Big companies—the oil, gas, and coal multinationals first among them—and banks and the rich people who own them don’t want to change anything about our society that might involve cuts to their profit margins. So the word comes down the political grapevine to limit ameliorative activity at the city level to years-long “community engagement” processes leading inexorably (despite a paper-thin veneer of communitarian rhetoric) to work on preordained and aesthetically pleasing plans for a future water-friendly “Blue Boston.” Replete with minimal flood defenses of questionable effectiveness. But to drop the idea of building huge dikes across the harbor—which could really protect the city from accelerating sea level rise long enough to move critical infrastructure away from the flooding shoreline—as too expensive. And to do next to nothing to curb emissions at Logan Airport, the Mystic Generating Station (technically in Everett, but the power it generates serves Boston) and on highways filled to the bursting with ever more traffic… lately including at least 100,000 barely regulated extra rides a day courtesy of Uber and Lyft, according to Mass Department of Public Utilities data. All of which would cost tens of billions that the city and state are certainly not willing to raise taxes on corporations and the rich—and float bonds—to fund. While our once-decent public transportation system is being allowed to go to seed.
And this in the “Athens of America.” If brilliant Boston and the supposedly clever state surrounding it can’t get their climate remediation and preparedness acts together, how are less wealthy parts of the country supposed to manage the job?
Though it remains true that the biggest climate battles have to be won at the federal level—regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power—major progress at the city and state levels of government on winning necessary reforms is a precondition for eventual success in Washington, DC.
Which cannot happen unless the climate movement becomes a majoritarian social force. And that in turn can’t happen without some key changes to the way the movement runs.
I don’t know exactly how to build the climate movement we need: the climate movement to come. But I have a few ideas that I thought I should share with you all toward that goal on the occasion of the Sept 20 Global Climate Strike. Here they are:
Massive Education Campaign
Every solid climate activist group I’ve ever worked with has always put some real effort into its public education work. But one of the single most important tasks for the climate movement is to do constant high-profile global warming-education work, hand in hand with emboldened climate scientists, to the point where it is impossible for people to go anywhere in America—or on the internet—without encountering the latest information about the climate crisis based on the best science at least as often as they encounter propaganda from global warming deniers.
Wave Front of Ideas
Most successful social movements in US history, as I’ve written more than once, were not created by professional organizers waving some magic organizing wand over a population. They were the result of a wave front of activist ideas spreading to every corner of the nation—propelled by the popular news media. To create the conditions necessary for such a salutary outcome, not only will climate movement organizations have to spend a large portion of their time and treasure on media work in hopes of spurring a new wave front of such ideas to spread ahead of their direct climate organizing campaigns, but also existing media outlets will have to commit to constant climate movement coverage for the foreseeable future. Something that the Covering Climate Now initiative spearheaded by the Nation and Columbia Journalism Review is happily already helping make happen. And that the news organizations I run with my colleagues Chris Faraone and John Loftus, DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, have already committed to. We can expect that the carbon industry will continue its campaign of wholesale disinformation and sowing political chaos to the bitter end. Given that industry’s deep pockets, defeating it will take a running battle of information as much as it will require a fierce political struggle. But new climate organizations will spring up in every city, town, and neighborhood in the land if real effort is put into spreading the best activist ideas widely enough to ensure that everyone in the country is getting updates on the climate movement at least once a week.
Independent Political Power
An American wing of a global climate movement that does massive public education and uses available media to spread a wave front of ideas will be capable of starting to win political power in every level of government. But only if it resolves to move away from its longstanding focus on symbolic politics like street protests and goes for the proverbial jugular. The way climate deniers do when they focus on winning political power. And then use it… to crush the climate movement. Street protests are obviously important, used judiciously. An “inside-outside” strategy is critical. No grassroots political bid can succeed without people outside the halls of power putting pressure on those inside it. But the outside part of that equation can’t work without allies on the inside. So, as messed up as US politics is, if people want to save our civilization and the biosphere, the climate movement has to take over local, state, and federal government. To enact the necessary profound political changes—while staying independent of the climate criminals that will try to buy it off or destroy it.
Every Organization In
In the last several years, some activists on the political left have revived the idea of “intersectionality.” Meaning, in brief, that various forms of oppression in society are intertwined; so fights against those oppressions must be interconnected to succeed. I think that’s a reasonable analysis that definitely applies to the climate movement. With stakes so high for humanity, then, it only stands to reason that every political, social, cultural, or religious organization that’s not engaged in active global warming denial needs to spend as much time and money as it can spare on helping the climate movement. In fact, if that movement is going to mitigate human-induced global warming, every human organization and institution of good conscience must act in tandem with that goal. To start with, let’s say 10% of each group’s budget and time should be devoted to the climate movement. That should get the ball rolling quickly.
An Intergenerational Fight
When I was a young political activist on climate and other issues, I learned a bad lesson from from the 1960s counterculture. I thought that young people—15- to 25-year-olds (later expanded to 30-year-olds as I aged)—were the only group capable of effecting societal change. I was wrong. No one generation can go it alone. As intelligent and committed as young activists can often be, and as important as their energy is to the success of mass movements, it’s romantic and dangerous to say—as too many people still do—that “only the young can save us.” Which is just a really heavy trip to lay on young people, and obviates all the experience that older activists bring to the table—not to mention said statement being a proven recipe for failure. And the last thing the climate movement needs is to continue to fail.
Movements, Not Messiahs
From time to time, social movements produce individual leaders who personify the messages and goals of those movements in exactly the right way at exactly the right time necessary to capture public attention worldwide. This is the generally desirable outcome of years of hard work by large number of activists, and is often a sign that such movements are starting to become a force to be reckoned with. But it is extremely dangerous for social movements to pin all their hopes on individual leaders. Because those leaders, however talented, are human. And no human being is perfect. By making movements synonymous with those leaders, when their human failings become apparent—and they will become apparent—entire struggles can go from wild popularity to nonexistence over the course of a single negative news cycle. So the climate movement should welcome the arrival of charismatic leaders. But it should neither submerge its identity in them nor base its strategy solely on their pronouncements. Because that is both unwise and undemocratic. Especially if the leaders’ actions turn out to be harmful to the movements from which they sprang. History is replete with examples of this kind of problem. So let’s leave such avoidable mistakes in the history books where they belong.
Interested in continuing this discussion? My colleagues and I are down to publish climate movement strategists, participate in public forums on slowing global warming, and publicize forward-thinking actions aimed at curbing emissions and saving the biosphere. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with pitches and proposals.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
This article is part of the Special Climate Crisis Issue of DigBoston (9/19/2019, Vol. 21, Iss. 38) produced in cooperation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative organized by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.