Recently, environmentalists organized the People’s Climate March (PCM) in NYC, drawing nearly 400,000. Political commentators on both the left and right wrote off the March as ineffective, claiming that it did little to solve climate change. But starting the conversation is, unfortunately, still necessary. Even now, Pew and Gallup polls show that the majority of Americans neither believe in anthropogenic climate change nor see climate change as a top priority. Only mass protests can begin to change these misconceptions.
The March also served to make climate change a social justice issue. The First Nations’ representatives led the March, raising awareness about the impact of pipeline projects on the Native populations. We can’t keep talking about how climate change “will” impact people – it already has. Kiribati, Maldives, and other Pacific Island nations are already sinking, according to the IPCC. A UN study has found that climate change is already affecting food supply for developing countries. Communities in the US downstream from oil refineries have long suffered from air and water pollution. In light of these facts, denying that climate change is a top priority becomes tantamount to undermining the value of the lives impacted by it.
What Won’t Work
Where do we look for solutions? For starters, stop hoping the federal government will combat climate change – it won’t (cue the Star-Spangled Banner). The March did well to scrap the common misconception (in both liberal and conservative circles) that Obama is an environmentalist. He himself praised his climate-killing policies in a 2012 speech in Oklahoma: “We’ve added enough oil and gas pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some. So we are drilling all over the place…” As long as oil and gas companies continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress, federal environmental protections will remain toothless.
Green consumerism won’t save the environment either. Go ahead and buy recycled materials and fluorescent light bulbs, but don’t expect that to be an adequate response to climate change. The industrial sector, according to the Department of Energy, uses about 33% of all energy consumed, and until essential consumer goods depend on fossil fuels, changing individual behavior only marginally affects climate change.
Resist Fossil Fuel Expansion
First, we need to protect the rights of First Nation peoples from pipeline projects that encroach on their land. In places where new tar sands projects have been built, air and water pollution has led to increased incidence of cancer. As Kalamazoo, MI unfortunately learned in 2010 when 840,000 gallons of crude spilled into the city’s river, pipelines tend to rupture; the Keystone XL Pipeline, the most well-known tar sands project, is projected by the University of Nebraska to experience 13 spills over a 50-year timespan.
Natural gas extraction hasn’t proved to be any safer than tar sands; ProPublica surveyed numerous public health studies, concluding that living near gas wells drastically increases the risk of a number of diseases and birth defects. Resistance to fossil fuel expansion, whether through mass sit-ins or class-action litigation, is the first step toward combating climate change.
Reform Institutions that Back Fossil Fuels
Second, we need a mass movement to change institutional behavior. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns, which first began in universities, have now been successfully launched against other non-profit organizations. Oil magnate John Rockefeller’s heirs announced that they will divest the family fortune ($860 million) from fossil fuels. Over 180 organizations also pledged to divest over $50 billion from the fossil fuel industry. Divestment puts pressure on the fossil fuel industry in a way that empty platitudes from politicians don’t.
Divestment must extend to pensions, especially public pensions held by municipal governments. Public pensions hold assets worth over $5 trillion – that’s $5 trillion available for investment in renewable energy, all while conservatives wail about $154 billion in federal money “wasted on renewable energy.” Now that the cost per watt of solar energy has fallen to $0.70, it’s not surprising that renewable energy stocks and funds have been soaring recently. Reforming institutions that average people connect to and directly impact (i.e. not the federal government) looks to be promising in the fight against climate change.
Rebuild Energy Infrastructure
Lastly, we must create renewable energy infrastructure at the local and state levels. It’s time to stop hoping for the US to comply with the Kyoto Protocol and impose cap-and-trade regulations or a carbon tax. We must look toward local experiments that are already succeeding. The tremendous outgrowth of community-supported agriculture in the US shows that communities can simultaneously gain power over their food supply and reduce their carbon footprint.
Burlington, Vermont’s largest city has already transitioned to 100% renewable energy, and 5 US states (ID, WA, SD, OR, ME) now produce more than 50% of their energy from renewable sources. Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson has even created individualized roadmaps to 100% renewable energy for each of the 50 states. Like the battles to legalize gay marriage and marijuana, renewable energy will likely succeed on the state level long before the federal government even considers a sensible exit strategy from fossil fuels.
Reclaiming Our Rights
Instead of moving through the traditional channels of green politics or green consumerism, we must adopt innovative tactics: Resist, Reform, and Rebuild. In doing so, ordinary people gain more than just the right to live in an inhabitable climate (which is important enough itself) – resisting oil and gas expansion will preserve the property rights of indigenous peoples; reforming institutions will return to average Americans the right to manage their wealth; rebuilding energy infrastructure bottom-up will give average Americans the right to control the affairs of their own communities.
Few rights are more fundamental to the American character, and it’s time to confront the structures of concentrated power that prevent us from realizing them. If this seems hopeless, let’s remember the words of feminist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Maybe if the US can wean itself off fossil fuels, it may stop propping up dictatorships in the Middle East for cheap oil. But that’s a revolution for some other time.