“Given the urgency and magnitude of the escalating pace of climate change,
the only hope lies in a rapid and unprecedented mobilization of humanity around
this issue. . . that some spark might ignite a massive uprising of popular
will around a unifying movement for social survival and the promise it holds
for a more prosperous, more equitable, and more peaceful world.” -- Ross Gelbspan,
There is no cause, no issue, no crisis more significant and more immediate
than the crisis of global warming. There is a very real prospect that, absent
a deep and broad clean energy revolution, we will see within our lifetimes a
massive disruption of human society throughout the world -- above and beyond
the widespread structural injustice and poverty that already exists -- via floods,
major storms, rising sea levels, large-scale refugee movements, droughts, deforestation
and a major decline in food production. More and more people in the United States
are coming to realize this.
Why, then, are the many different actions being taken in the U.S. about this
crisis, important as they are, so minimal when compared to the urgency?
One reason is certainly the scope of the issue. With global warming we are
dealing with a problem that is not just international in scope; it is also intertwined
with the basic functioning of our economic system, currently dependent upon
fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas -- for the production of needed energy
to power our cars and computers, to light our buildings and streets, to provide
heat in the winter and to make possible a number of other products and processes
that are essential to modern civilization as we know it. Absent the knowledge
that there are many concrete steps that can be taken to dramatically reduce
fossil fuel consumption and therefore greenhouse gas emissions without any significant
effect on these social and economic processes, and absent the hope that our
government is willing to seriously address this issue, it’s understandable
that people feel helpless.
This is related, of course, to corporate control of our mass media and the
influence within the corporatized economy of energy companies like Exxon Mobil.
Information about the escalating seriousness of the climate crisis is underreported
or underplayed, and there is even less information provided about the viability
of clean energy alternatives like wind and solar and the potentially huge impact
of serious energy conservation and energy efficiency standards if they were
built into the way in which our economy functions. Much of the information that
people get on this and other crucial issues comes via the internet, alternative
media, word of mouth or other less-extensive sources.
Then there is the “competition” of issues like the war in Iraq,
the health care crisis, problems with our schools, polluting sprawl and other
environmental problems, police brutality and a racially-discriminatory legal
system, violence against women and more. These issues are important, and they
also tend to affect people more directly on a day-to-day basis, which makes
them more immediate in people’s consciousness and therefore more natural
focuses for popular organizing.
But probably the major reason why we have seen little overt activism -- demonstrations
in the streets, sit-ins, mass lobbying campaigns and the like -- on global warming
is because it has only been in the last few years that the scientists who have
been studying this issue are realizing and reporting that there is an alarming
increase in the rate at which global warming is taking place and that the window
is closing during which time human action has a chance of averting a massive
We are literally faced with a race against time, as indicated by these facts:
* Virtually every single glacier on the planet is receding noticeably and dramatically.
According to Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment
at Harvard University, 43% of the Arctic sea ice has disappeared in the last
40 years. In a recent interview Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nation’s
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), spoke about the melting of
the glaciers in the Himalayas on which 1 billion people are dependent for water.
The IPCC is made up of approximately 2,000 scientists from around the world
and has been studying this issue since 1989.
* The melting of the Arctic sea ice could lead to a shutting down of the Gulf
Stream so that it no longer continues up the Atlantic coast and across the Atlantic
Ocean to northwest Europe. This could lead to an average temperature drop in
that area of 10 degrees and the devastation of European agriculture. And because
the Gulf Stream is like an engine powering what is called the “Great Ocean
Conveyor,” a current which winds through all the world’s oceans,
its disruption would probably lead to additional weather havoc throughout the
* According to Ross Gelbspan in his book, Boiling Point: “In 2001, researchers
at the Hadley Center, Britain’s main climate research institute, found
that the climate will change 50 percent more quickly than was previously assumed.
. . When they factored in the warming that has already taken place, they found
that the rate of change is compounding. Their projections show that many of
the world’s forests will begin to turn from sinks (vegetation that absorbs
carbon dioxide) to source (vegetation that releases carbon dioxide). . . by
* According to an article in the August 11th, 2005 Guardian newspaper in England,
“A vast expanse of western Siberia is undergoing an unprecedented thaw
that could dramatically increase the rate of global warming, climate scientists
warn today. Researchers who have recently returned from the region found that
an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres -- the size of France
and Germany combined -- has started to melt for the first time since it formed
11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. . . The area is the world's
largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release
billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon
dioxide, into the atmosphere. It is a scenario climate scientists have feared
since first identifying ‘tipping points’ -- delicate thresholds
where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in
the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures.”
* A recent report indicates that, because of ocean warming, there has been
a significant decrease in the number of fish and sea birds off the coast of
the Pacific Northwest due to an estimated reduction of ¾ of the plankton
that is normally available for fish to feed on.
* Climate Change News, an email publication of the Environmental and Energy
Study Institute, reported that, “Retreat rates of Greenland’s glaciers
are substantially increasing, according to a BBC video-interview of a NASA research
team. The team has been monitoring this area from Iceland and satellites. NASA
Scientist Jay Zwally said, ‘The alarming aspect of this is the increase
in melting and the effect of warmer temperatures on the thinning ice. It’s
a really dramatic change and it’s picked up in the last 5 to 10 years.
Before that, things were relatively stable but now we’re seeing the effect
of climate change kicking in.’ Daily, enough ice calves off of one large
glacier in Greenland to supply water to New York City for a year. In the past
five years, a section the size of a small city has melted from this glacier,
contributing to sea level rise.”
* Taking these types of developments into account, an international task force
reporting to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and co-chaired by his close ally,
Stephen Byers, concluded in early 2005 that we could reach “the point
of no return in a decade.
Facing the Facts
In the face of these facts, and given the predominant role within the world
of the U.S. government which, under oil millionaires Bush and Cheney, is literally
obstructing efforts to address this issue, it is easy to feel pessimistic about
the chances of reversing global warming in enough time to avert worldwide disaster.
Indeed, the United Nations, as contained in an official publication, El Diario,
circulated at the Conference of Parties 10 international meeting last year,
reported that global warming has led over the past decade to nearly 500,000
deaths, has impacted over 2.5 billion people and has generated economic losses
of over $690 billion.
Some people say, as I’ve heard it expressed, that “It’s too
late.” They believe, with justification, that there is so much carbon
dioxide and methane either in the atmosphere or certain to enter it no matter
what is done in the coming years that we cannot avoid tremendous climate instability
and negative impacts for decades to come.
That is probably true. But other things are also true.
* No one alive is absolutely certain of what the future holds in store, either
as regards the specific effects of global warming or as regards the equally
important process of popular mobilization on this issue.
* If it turns out to be the case that there are an unfolding series of steadily
more destructive global warming impacts, that does not mean we should relax
our efforts to enact a clean energy/sustainability revolution as quickly as
possible. The longer it takes to enact that revolution, the more extensive will
be the damage done to all forms of life on the earth and the more difficult
it will be to bring into being that badly-needed, new, equitable and sustainable
* Oil, coal and natural gas are finite resources. Many energy analysts, including
those in the pay of Exxon Mobil, are predicting that we will soon be at the
point of “peak oil,” the stage at which we will go, in the words
of “The End of Peak Oil,” an article in the June, 2004 National
Geographic, “from an increasing supply of cheap oil to a dwindling supply
of expensive oil.” This is occurring as demand for energy is accelerating
around the world and as a greater percentage of the oil that remains is more
difficult to pump and more expensive to extract from alternative sources such
as tar sands, oil shale or coal. As stated elsewhere in that article, “In
the end the quest for more cheap oil will prove a losing game: Not just because
oil consumption imposes severe costs on the environment, health and taxpayers,
but also because the world’s oil addiction is hastening a day of reckoning.”
If there was no crisis of global warming, a transition to wind, solar, tides,
biomass, geothermal and other forms of clean energy would be necessary in this
century on economic grounds alone.
* And there is a number of positive aspects to this deep and wide energy crisis.
It will only be solved by the nations of the world working together, as is already
happening within the framework of the Kyoto global warming treaty. It will only
be solved if the tremendous power of the oil and coal corporations over U.S.
energy policy is significantly lessened. The needed clean energy revolution
will directly create large numbers of new jobs producing, installing, maintaining,
teaching about and improving these systems. And the kind of massive and sustained
political movement needed to bring about these changes, built of necessity on
principles of not just environmental sustainability but, if is to be broad enough
to be successful, economic and social justice, can generate the political forces
to make the United States not a nation to be feared and hated but a constructive
partner in a world moving towards social, environmental, racial, gender and
economic justice for all.
Specifics of a Transition
Given that, as this is written, the USA has spent close to $300 billion in
the last three years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, resources for a clean energy
transition are not an issue. The resources are unquestionably there if there
is a political will.
Other countries are far ahead of the USA in the “political will”
area. In his book Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan reports that, “Holland,
for example, recently completed a plan to cut its emissions by 80 percent in
forty years. Germany has committed to cuts of 50 percent in fifty years. British
Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged the United Kingdom to reducing carbon
emissions by 60 percent in fifty years. Even China, whose economy grew by 36
percent between 1995 and 2000, cut its emissions by 19 percent during the same
In the area of energy efficiency, Gelbspan refers to “Amory Lovins, director
of the Rocky Mountain Institute, (who) has identified and developed an extraordinary
array of efficiency technologies that, if adopted, would reduce our carbon emissions
considerably. Whereas most economists estimate that the industrial world could
cut its aggregate emissions by about 30 percent through efficiencies, Lovins
contends that figure is closer to 50 percent.”
Defense of the world’s forests and the spreading of community-run, not
corporate-run, tree planting campaigns is a concrete way to preserve and spread
an absolutely essential natural resource in the battle to stabilize our climate.
It was a positive development when the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Wangari
Maathai of Kenya, leader of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 10 million
trees since 1977.
Gelbspan has outlined a World Energy Modernization Plan, developed in the late
‘90s by a group of “energy company presidents, economists, energy
policy experts and others,” which has since received the support of other
organizations and individuals. It involves three “interacting strategies:”
ending subsidies for fossil fuels and using them instead for the development
of clean energy (approximately $20 billion/year in the U.S.); the creation of
a large fund to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries,
possibly financed by a ¼ of a cent per dollar tax on international currency
transactions, yielding $300 billion; and the development within a “Kyoto-type
framework” of a “progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency
Standard” under which every country would reduce its carbon fuel use by
5 percent a year until there has been a global 70 percent reduction.
Without question the rapid development of solar, wind, geothermal, clean biomass,
tides and perhaps other non-polluting energy sources is an absolute necessity.
Wind power in particular is growing rapidly in Europe as it has become increasingly
competitive economically with fossil fuels.
Another necessary step -- some environmental activists believe the key step
-- is to shift from regressive taxes like sales taxes to “carbon taxes.”
Analyst Charles Komanoff has explained the concept: “Such a tax directly
addresses the buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere that
is causing global warming. The tax revenues would also let fiscally pressed
state governments eliminate regressive sales taxes while maintaining vital services,
making carbon taxes palatable to otherwise hostile constituencies and officials.
Based on the chemical make-up of fossil fuels, a carbon tax would be lightest
on natural gas, around 40% higher on petroleum products like gasoline, and another
20% higher on coal.” Such a tax-shifting plan would create a more equitable
and progressive system of taxation while encouraging energy efficiency and conservation.
One questionable technological “fix” for this crisis is carbon
sequestration, under which carbon dioxide in the air would be captured and buried
deep underground. One problem with sequestration is the high cost of the process.
Other problems are the possibility that at some point in the future an earthquake
could lead to the CO2 being released into the atmosphere or the possibility
of contamination of underground water aquifers. Although the severity of the
crisis is an argument for continued research into the potential of this process,
it should certainly not be a central part of the solution.
This entire transition from an inefficient and wasteful dirty energy economy
to one which is about conservation and clean and efficient use of energy must
be done in a just way. In the words of the Environmental Justice and Climate
Change Initiative (www.ejcc.org), “Low-income workers, people of color
and Indigenous Peoples will suffer the most from climate change’s impact.
We need to provide opportunities to adapt and thrive in a changing world. No
group should have to shoulder alone the burdens caused by the transition from
a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy. A just transition
would create opportunities for displaced workers and communities to participate
in the new economic order through compensation for job loss, loss of tax base
and other negative effects.”
Can nuclear power be part of the answer? Most environmental activists don’t
think so. In a statement released earlier this summer and signed by a significant
number of the major national enviro groups (e.g., Friends of the Earth, Sierra
Club, Greenpeace, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG and others), it was stated: “We
flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is
an acceptable or necessary solution. Instead we can significantly reduce global
warming pollution and save consumers money by increasing energy efficiency and
shifting to clean renewable sources of energy. . . Nuclear power still remains
the least attractive, least economic, and least safe avenue to pursue.”
It is unnecessary, too expensive, too dangerous and too polluting. “We
believe that the financial and safety risks associated with nuclear power are
so grave that nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address
global warming. There is no need to jeopardize our health, safety and economy
with increased nuclear power when we have cleaner, cheaper solutions to reduce
global warming pollution.”
The Requirements for Success
However, the battle to slow global warming and stabilize our climate will not
be won on the basis of logical, rational arguments. Those are important, but
given the economic forces we are up against, what is needed is a political and
social movement the likes of which this country and world have never seen. We
need an early 21st century mobilization for global survival that is massive,
visible, multi-faceted, creative, and determined. It must also be willing to
use non-violent civil disobedience in a strategic way to underline the urgency
of this crisis.
We need individuals who are willing to make personal sacrifices for this most
fundamental of causes, the cause of global survival. In the words of Donella
and Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update,
“How to bring into being a world that is not only sustainable, functional,
and equitable but also deeply desirable is a question of leadership and ethics
and vision and courage, properties not of computer models but of the human heart
If we truly believe that the clock is ticking toward midnight, that we’re
minutes away from it and that at midnight the flood gates will almost literally
be opened, we need a growing number of people who are prepared both for the
daily sacrifices of hard work on the details and the less frequent dramatic
actions of demonstrating, fasting, sitting-in, being prepared to risk arrest
or go to jail.
What we really need in this country is something like a Tiananmen Square action
on the mall in Washington, D.C.
In the spring of 1989 hundreds of thousands of students and workers non-violently
took over the government plaza in Beijing, China demanding democratic reforms,
adherence to socialist principles of equality and protesting government corruption.
For a month this occupation continued. A number of the participating students
went on a hunger strike to press their demands. Although the demonstration was
broken up by military force on June 4th, the example of these young people was
felt throughout the world.
For the last several months a coalition of environmental, student, people of
color, religious, labor, peace, community-based, women’s and other groups
has been discussing the idea of a massive national march on Washington sometime
in 2006. It has not yet been decided upon. Instead, many of the groups which
participated in those discussions are working together to organize local actions
all around the country and, indeed, around the world on December 3rd. This is
at the time that a major international conference is being held in Montreal
of all the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, as well as some that have
not, like the United States. It is hoped that a successful organizing campaign
leading up to December 3rd will provide a springboard into a stepped-up 2006
campaign that will include a decision to organize a massive D.C. action.
There are reasons to believe that such a 2006 campaign is possible. One key
reason is the emergence over the last few years of a growing movement for clean
energy among students. In the fall of 2004 close to 300 college campuses experienced
local actions on this issue and an important national network, Energy Action,
which brings together over 20 mainly youth and student groups, is continuing
to grow and build.
Without the energy and fresh perspectives of young people, no movement for
global justice has a chance of success.
Another reason is the growing understanding within the peace movement of the
connection between the war on Iraq, fought for oil and control of the oil-rich
Middle East, and global warming. Momentum is building for a major demonstration
against that war on September 24th in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. The major
national peace coalition, United for Peace and Justice, supports the call for
actions on December 3rd so that it is reasonable to expect that many of those
who demonstrate on September 24th will be “likely suspects” for
visible action on this issue.
And within the environmental movement a debate was re-opened in late 2004,
having been raised over a decade ago by people of color activists, as to how
it can become more effective, less policy-wonkish, more diverse, less white
middle-class. Some of the large, more established environmental groups were
part of the discussions about a national march on Washington and are connected
with the organizing efforts toward December 3rd.
There are many localities, and some states, which are taking action to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and replace dirty energy with clean energy alternatives.
Just recently the U.S. Conference of Mayors went on record as in support of
Finally, and very significantly, the global warming crisis is of such a magnitude
that even within the ranks of the leadership of the Republican Party and the
Christian Right, there are people speaking out about the need to address it,
including U.S. Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Lincoln Chafee and Olympia
Stowe and long-time party figures like James Baker and James Watt. Rev. Rich
Cizik, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the 30-million member National
Association of Evangelicals, has been quoted as saying, “I don’t
think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what
we did with what he created.”
Increasingly, people in the USA are getting it. A poll in July 2005 by the
Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland
reported that, “an overwhelming majority of Americans supports the US
agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions in concert with other members of
the G8 Summit. The new PIPA-Knowledge Networks poll asked, if, at the G8 Summit,
‘the leaders of these other countries are willing to act to limit the
greenhouse gases that cause climate change, President Bush should or should
not be willing to act to limit such gases in the US?’ Eighty-six percent
said that he should. Eighty-one percent of Republicans supported this as well
as 89% of Democrats. Virtually all respondents -- 94% -- said the US should
limit its greenhouse gases at least as much as the other developed countries
do on average. Nearly half -- 44% -- think the US should do more than average.”
All of this has happened without a visible movement taking action in the streets.
Is it unrealistic to believe that with such a movement many things would be
possible that right now seem impossible?
We must act as if we have it in our power to bring into being a new world,
a desirable world, a world grounded upon justice where we are at peace with
one another and the earth which gives us life. Because we do.
Ted Glick is the coordinator of Climate Crisis: USA Join the World! (www.climatecrisis.us),
which is building support for the Kyoto and Beyond petition campaign (www.kyotoandbeyond.org)
leading up to actions around the country and the world on December 3rd. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-338-5398.