This Sunday’s “People’s Climate March” in New York City could be the biggest demonstration yet for action on climate change. The march is scheduled to coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit, which begins two days later. Despite the advance billing and the official nature of the summit, the march is what matters. The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco.
That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.
There was a time when governments dealt with international threats. Now, as the columnist George Monbiot says, they “propose everything except the obvious solution — legislation.” Rather, they will talk, commission panels, invoke market-based solutions and even offer subsidies to industry, rather than say, for example, “Wealthy nations are reducing emissions globally by 8 to 10 percent per year, beginning now.” By Klein’s estimates, that’s precisely what it will take to avoid catastrophe and that is precisely what we are not going to see.
As Monbiot points out, when the ozone layer threat emerged, an international protocol was established, ozone-hole-making chemicals were banned, and that threat was drastically reduced. And just as we knew how to repair the ozone layer, we know how to combat climate change: Slow the burning of fossil fuels, speed up the development of alternative energy sources, and mandate that at least two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves be left in the ground. It’s simple, even straightforward and, as my colleague Justin Gillis wrote in yesterday’s Times, not even expensive.
But carbon polluters clearly have more political clout than makers of hair spray, and there’s another tragic element at work here, a hole in the heart of government that developed at about the same time as that in the ozone layer: Neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism has given us a “system” in which corporate power is stronger than ever and government controls weaker than they’ve been in a century. The net result is that some corporations are more powerful than governments, both domestically and globally. To fix, or combat, or deal with a threat to the wellbeing of citizenry like climate change is the business of government, but governments are no longer able to dictate what industry does. (No one has said this more eloquently than Monbiot: “Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address.”)
There remain several possible responses to climate change. One is stupidity: “There is no crisis.” (A subset of this is to acknowledge the crisis privately, but deny it or choose to ignore it publicly.) A second is hopelessness: “It’s all over.” (Sadly, many of my friends fall into this category.) A third is blind faith in technology, as if it were easier to modify the power of nature than to change a system that resists not only radical change but even tinkering.
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But a fourth is action, a fight to regain democracy (a.k.a. “who is government for?”) and begin to remember quaint little slogans like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” to recognize that the payoff for seriously fighting climate change is not only the survival of our species (and others) but a better society. As Naomi Klein says, “Climate change isn’t just a disaster. It’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.”
That’s what makes this march important. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, it’s not so much about changing light bulbs as it is about changing the system that’s powering our destruction.
Klein, whose new book, “This Changes Everything,” is the workbook for this new, more assertive, more powerful environmental movement (and the subtitle of which, “Capitalism vs. The Climate,” sums things up neatly), argues convincingly that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war … there are policies that can lower emissions quickly, and successful models all over the world for doing so. The biggest problem is that we have governments that don’t believe in governing.”
If government believes that energy assets cannot possibly be stranded and capital must be allowed to pursue its interests no matter how harmful, there’s only one strategy for slowing the temperature rise that will eventually cripple the earth for 1,000 years. Unless you want to leave it to the very corporations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and fighting change, which isn’t much of a strategy. Remember that Exxon Mobil remains in the world’s top three most profitable corporations. Why would it want anything to change?
No, the only choice is for people to fight climate change ourselves, by confronting the fossil fuel industry and fighting plutocracy. And while marches rarely change things immediately, they do demonstrate potential power. Sometimes, marches and associated activities — in recent times, most notably against the Vietnam War and for civil rights — have made a difference in moving history in the right direction.
Capitalism needs to expand in order to survive, Exxon Mobil is not going to willingly give up its stranded assets, and government will not force it to. And yet corporate sacrifice is in order. Chris Hayes convincingly compares the essential losses that fossil fuel companies face if we are to reduce the impact of climate change — somewhere between $10 and $20 trillion, according to his estimates — with the costs to slaveholders at the end of the Civil War. This was within government’s power, and can be again, but not this day.
That’s why so many centrists, liberals and progressives are depressed into inaction; they see no way of winning this struggle, no matter how critical. This defeatism, in turn, leads to Obama-style compromises in which the importance of working to limit the catastrophic effects of climate change are acknowledged but action is mostly limited to adaptation to those effects, adaptation that cannot possibly succeed in the long run without complementary mitigation. The fact is we must burn fewer fossil fuels.
We’ll continue to burn carbon short-term, but we don’t need the added risk of projects like the Tar Sands and fracking. Rather, we need policies that scale renewable energy sources up quickly. Klein cites the example of Germany, which reached a goal of making about 25 percent of its energy clean and renewable within 15 years, not through nuclear energy or massive hydroelectric projects but with bold national policies that systematically encouraged small players like municipalities and co-ops. (The parallels to agriculture are obvious, appealing, and relevant, but you can draw those conclusions yourself here.) “If,” says Klein, “you believe that because this is a big problem you need mega solutions — well, that’s not true. The most successful approach is decentralized and small, not, ‘me and my friends will start an energy co-op,’ but well-designed government policies that support small, clean, local energy generators.”
None of this will be easy, of course, but climate change provides us with an opportunity to remake our society in an image that comes closer to its rhetoric. “If we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade…” writes Klein, we need “a robust social movement [that will] demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: long-term public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations.”
We can change what seems inevitable; it will just take sacrifice and hard work, what Klein calls “Marshall Plan levels of response.” We are nowhere near that now, though we can point to thus-far successful opposition to destructive projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and the ongoing moratorium on fracking in New York State, or support for the success of the divestment movement. These are important, but compared to the scope of the threat they are not nearly enough.
We have to think bigger, and we have that opportunity. The same things that can fix climate can fix many other problems — agriculture, health care, inequality, campaign finance — because to be successful the climate movement must be a pro-democracy movement. That would change everything.