As I write this the air is brown and dangerous to breathe for the third day in a row in California. Yesterday I needed to wear a respirator to keep my lungs from hurting. So far over eighty people have lost their lives in these fires. Last year’s fires were the worst on record. This year’s fires are now worse than the last five worst years combined.
I went with my 16 year-old daughter to San Francisco yesterday. We walked through a hipster grunge district and got some work done on one of her piercings. She commented on how much she loved the smell of campfire that was in the air and how much she loves the round red sunsets we get when it’s like this. Good thing because that’s her future. Later that day she said it didn’t really matter what she did because the world will end in 10 years. She was partly joking. But partly she was not.
People have been warning for years about a grim future if we don’t act to dramatically reduce green-house gas emissions. They warned that the unstable climate would lead to droughts, more frequent and intense wildfires, and too much and too intense rain in other places. They also argued that while the Global North was the source of the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, the Global South would bear the brunt of the damage, and that this would lead to increased global migration, as climate refugees needed to flee as places became unlivable. In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report which says that we have 12 years to get greenhouse gas emissions down by a significant amount or we face irreversible consequences.
The grim future we have been warned about is now with us. For years it was incredibly frustrating to know what was coming, to try to engage others, and have most people living their private lives, based on the pursuit of private happiness, while leaving the public to rot from a lack of civic engagement. For many years it was difficult to get people to see that dealing with climate change was not going to mean they would have to give away their creature comforts for something that would happen to polar bears in fifty years. Now, as a result of the fires, and the hurricanes, and sea level rise, many more people feel a sense of urgency around the fact that the collective social fabric upon which we all depend is in serious trouble.
The way to solve the problem is in some sense incredibly simple: get everyone off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Plant and protect trees to help pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The scientists and engineers have done their part. Clean energy is now cheap enough to compete economically, and the world is full of effective ways to meet our needs without producing greenhouse gases. And people all around the world are continuing to develop better products, better city planning, and better regulations. In fact, the global transformation away from carbon emitting ways of running society is well under way. What is needed is more of the same and at a faster pace.
National political systems, on the other hand are moving with frightening speed in the other direction. And that isn’t just true in the US. Brazil has a new president who believes that military dictatorship was good for the country. His foreign minister sees climate change as a Marxist plot. And his actions will have a huge impact on the future of the Amazon basin, the biggest carbon sink on the planet. All around the world, liberal democratic governments are being replaced by nationalists who pander to people’s deep fears about the future. Those fears are rooted in a general sense that many have of a grim economic future. And the fears generated by the growing climate crisis only add to that. In the US levels of anxiety and depression are increasing. In much of the world, as well as in the US, right wing nativist forces are giving an easy answer to what people should be afraid of: it is the brown people coming to our shores who are destroying our supposedly once idyllic way of life.
In the US, the Democrats have done much more than the Republicans to develop regulations for greenhouse gasses. In June of 2018 the Democratic National committee voted to stop accepting campaign money from the fossil fuel industry (Huffington Post 6/12/18). And yet, the mainstream of the party has not been able to create a counter-narrative that will give voters a sense that a safe and stable future lies in policies that promote sustainability and inclusion. They haven’t done this because to do so would run them afoul of their corporate sponsors. The finance industry is one of the biggest lobbying interests in the US. It is deeply invested in fossil fuels and in an exploitative economy. The mainstream of the Democratic Party is still addicted to the money of that lobby, and must, like the Republicans find a way to make sense of the world that does not put too much attention on the ways those monied sectors drive our political system. And so like the Republicans, the mainstream Democrats can often be unbelievably evasive on climate and soft on anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Hillary Clinton recently gave an interview in which she argued that liberals need to pander to fears of immigrants in order to settle down the unease in the electorate. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame…I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic” (Guardian, 11/22/18).
Rather than calling out the lies that lead people to believe the grim future they face is being caused by immigrants taking people’s jobs and undermining their culture, one of the most influential Democratic Party leaders of our time, is arguing that liberals need to embrace a softer version of the racist views of the nativist right. This is the same strategy her husband pursued that led to the scourge of mass incarceration that now plagues our country. At that time the scapegoats were black people who were supposedly scary criminals. This time the scapegoats are people from the Global South fleeing unlivable circumstances. It is no wonder that people in nominally democratic counties are no longer voting for mainstream liberal parties. These parties have largely run governments in the interest of finance and real estate and other major corporate lobbies. As a result, even at a time when many governments are doing good work moving to a fossil free economy, people’s belief that government was working for the common good has shrunk to a low level, with unbelievable speed.
Those of us working to support aggressive policies on climate change need to develop counter-narratives that help people to understand who is getting in the way of a society that works for us all. We need to help people to understand that the policies that will solve the climate crisis are also ones that will lead to better living standards for everyone. We need to call out and defeat the Republicans. And we need to call out and defeat the corporate Democrats when they get in the way, even as we support them in their attempts to forestall the Republican moves toward fascism. And we need to build power at the local, state and federal levels for policies which will get our country off of fossil fuels. At the same time, we need to reweave the social fabric away from a culture of consumerism and individualistic disengagement.
We are living in incredibly unstable times. Old political certainties were shattered by the 2016 election. Some of the good news is that even with Citizens United and the grotesque amount of money being poured into the political system by corporations, in the 2018 election in many cases, small donations have swamped that corporate money. And in many races, it was intensive, on the ground grassroots organizing, that really made the difference. Many of those people who ran for political office are now accountable to their communities and not to the Democratic Party or to any corporate campaign funders.
Most people in the US live in states and cities which are moving aggressively to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Many people are using the judicial system to sue fossil fuel companies for the systematic and intentional lies they have made around the damage they have caused. People all around world are developing sustainable structures such as public banks, and worker owned cooperatives, which are parts of the sustainable world we are building in the carcass of the old.
To change everything we need to start anywhere. But we can’t just do anything. The time to only recycle and change individual consumption to make the difference has long passed. In these critical few years we have left to make a dramatic difference, we all need to learn to think strategically and decide where to best put our energy. There isn’t one solution. But each of us can find the places where our talents and characters are most likely to make a difference There are thousands of organizations doing important work reweaving the social fabric to make it sustainable. And in some cases you might be best served starting our own group. But whatever the best path is for you, now is the time to find a way to engage with challenging the systems of power that keep us on a path to destruction and to build that positive sustainable and inclusive world we need.
The future is not over for my child. But it is certainly uncertain. We now know that a deeply sustainable world is possible for all of the people of the world. And we know that such a sustainable world can be full of deep pleasures and basic comforts. Getting there is the fight of our lifetime. And I still believe that it is possible.