Fighting Doom: The New Politics of Climate Change
I am not an environmentalist. But all I think about these days is the climate crisis.
I admit I have arrived late to the party. Only recently have I begun to realize what others have known for decades: The climate crisis is not, at its core, an environmental issue. In fact it is not an "issue" at all; it is an existential threat to every human and community on the planet. It threatens every job, every economy in the world. It threatens the health of our children. It threatens our food and water supply. Climate change will continue to alter the world our species has known for the past three thousand years.
As an oyster farmer and longtime political activist, the effects of climate change on my life will be neither distant nor impersonal. Rising greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures may well force me to abandon my 60-acre farm within the next forty years. From France to Washington state, oystermen are already seeing massive die-offs of seed oysters and the thinning shells science has long predicted. I can see the storm clouds and they are foretelling doom.
But my political alter ego is oddly less pessimistic. Rather than triggering gloom, the climate crisis has surprisingly stirred up more hope than I have felt in twenty years as a progressive activist. After decades of progressive retreat it is a strange feeling. But I am haunted by the suspicion that this coming crisis may be the first opportunity we have had in generations to radically re-shape the political landscape and build a more just and sustainable society.
The Power of Doom
The modern progressive movement in the U.S. has traditionally grounded its organizing in the politics of identity and altruism. Organize an affected group -- minorities, gays, janitors or women -- and then ask the public at large to support the cause -- prison reform, gay marriage, labor rights, or abortion -- based on some cocktail of good will, liberal guilt, and moral persuasion. This strategy has been effective at times. But we have failed to bring these mini-movements together into a force powerful enough to enact broad-based social reform. It takes a lot of people to change society and our current strategy has left us small in numbers and weak in power.
The highlights of my political life -- as opposed to oystering -- have been marked by winning narrow, often temporary, battles, but perennially losing the larger war. I see the results in every direction I look: growing poverty and unemployment, two wars, the rise of the right, declining unionization, the failure of the Senate's climate legislation and of Copenhagen, the wholesale domination of corporate interests. The list goes on and on. We have lost; it's time to admit our strategy has been too tepid and begin charting anew.
This time can be different. What is so promising about the climate crisis is that because it is not an "issue" experienced by one disenfranchised segment of the population, it opens the opportunity for a new organizing calculus for progressives. Except for nuclear annihilation, humanity has never faced so universal a threat where all our futures are bound inextricably together. This universality provides the mortar of common interest required for movement building. We could literally knock on every door on the planet and find someone -- whether they know it or not -- who has a vital self-interest in averting the climate crisis by joining a movement for sustainability. With all of humanity facing doom, we can finally gather under one banner and count our future members not in the thousands but in the millions, even billions.
But as former White House "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones told the New Yorker in 2009, "The challenge is making this an everybody movement, so your main icons are Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber, becoming Joe the Solar Guy, or that kid on the street corner putting down his handgun, picking up a caulk gun." The climate crisis is carrying us into uncharted waters and our political strategy needs to be directed toward making the climate movement an "everybody movement."
Let me use a personal example. As an oysterman on Long Island Sound my way of life is threatened by rising greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures. If the climate crisis is not averted my oysters will die and my farm will be shuttered.
Saving my livelihood requires that I politically engage at some level. Normally I would gather together my fellow oyster farmers to lobby state and federal officials and hold a protest or two. Maybe I would find a few coalitions to join. But we would remain small in number, wield little power, and our complaints about job loss would fall on largely unsympathetic ears in the face of so many suffering in so many ways. And what would we even petition our government to do about the problem? Buyouts and unemployment benefits? Re-training classes? Our oysters will still die and we will still lose our farms.
To save our lives and livelihood we need to burrow down to the root of the problem: halting greenhouse gas emissions. And halting emissions requires joining a movement with the requisite power to dismantle the fossil fuel economy while building a green economy.
To tackle such a large target requires my support for every nook and cranny effort to halt greenhouse gases and transition to a green economy. I need to gather up my fellow oyster farmers and link arms with students blocking new coal-fired power plants while fighting for just transition for coal workers; I need to join forces with other green workers around the country to demand government funding for green energy jobs, not more bank and corporate bailouts; I need to support labor movement efforts in China and elsewhere to climb out of poverty by going "green not dirty." I have a stake in these disparate battles not out of political altruism, but because my livelihood and community depend on stopping greenhouse gases and climate change.
In other words, the hidden jewel of the climate crisis is that I need others and others need me. We are bound together by the same story of crisis and struggle.
Some in the sustainability movement have been taking advantage of the "power of doom" by weaving together novel narratives and alliances around climate change. Groups in Kentucky are complementing their anti-mountain top removal efforts by organizing members of rural electrical co-ops into "New Power" campaigns to force a transition from fossil fuels to renewable power -- and create jobs in the process. Police unions in Canada, recognizing their members will be first responders as climate disasters hit, have reached out to unions in New Orleans to ensure the tragedies that followed Katrina are not repeated. Artists, chefs, farmers, bike mechanics, designers, and others are coalescing into a "green artisan movement" focused on building vibrant sustainable communities. Immigrant organizers, worried about the very real possibility of ever-worsening racial tensions triggered by millions of environmental refugees flooding in from neighboring countries, are educating their membership about why the climate crisis matters.
My hope is that over the coming years we will be able to catalog increasing numbers of these tributaries of the climate crisis. Our power will not stem from a long list of issue concerns or sponsors at events -- we have tried that as recently as the October 2nd Washington D.C. "One Nation Working Together" march with little impact. Nor, with the rise of do-it-yourself organizing, will our power spring from top-down political parties of decades past. Instead oystermen like me, driven by the need to save our lives and livelihood, will storm the barricades with others facing the effects of the climate crisis. We will merge our mini-movements under a banner of common crisis, common vision and common struggle. We will be in this fight together and emerge as force not to be trifled with.
This Time We Have an Alternative
I am also guardedly optimistic because this time we have an alternative. My generation came of age after the fall of communism, and as a result, we have been raised in the midst of one-sided debate. We recognize that neoliberalism has ravaged society, but besides nostalgic calls for socialism, what has been the alternative? As globalization swept the globe, we demanded livable wages and better housing for the poorest in our communities; we fought sweatshops in China; we lobbied for new campaign finance and corporate governance laws. But these are mere patchwork reforms that fail to add up to a full-blown alternative to our current anti-government, free-market system. Never being able to fully picture the progressive alternative left me not fully trusting that progressive answers were viable solutions.
But when I hear the proposed solutions to the climate crisis, the fog lifts. I can track the logic and envision the machinery of our alternative. And it sounds surprisingly like a common sense rebuttal to the current free-market mayhem: We face a global emergency of catastrophic proportions. Market fundamentalism will worsen rather than solve the crisis. Instead we need to re-direct our institutions and economic resources toward solving the crisis by replacing our carbon-based economy with a green sustainable economy. And by definition, for an economy to be sustainable it must addresses the longstanding suffering ordinary people face in their lives, ranging from unemployment and poverty to housing and healthcare.
For years I have tossed from campaign to campaign, but the framework of our new progressive answer to the climate crisis now provides a roadmap for my political strategy. It helps chart my opponents -- coal companies and their political minions, for example -- as well as my diverse range of allies. It lays out my policy agenda, ranging from creating millions of new green jobs to building affordable green housing in low-income communities. I finally feel confident enough in my bearings to set sail.
The Era of Crisis Politics
While building a new green economy makes sense on paper, it is hard to imagine our entrenched political system yielding even modest progressive reform, let alone the wholesale re-formatting of the carbon economy. But I suspect this will change in the coming years, with our future governed by cascading political crises, rather than political stasis.
We are likely entering an era of crisis politics whereby each escalating environmental disaster -- ranging from water shortages and hurricanes to wildfires and disease outbreaks -- will expose the impotence of our existing political institutions and economic system. In the next 40 years alone, scientists predict a state of permanent drought throughout the Southwest US and climate-linked disease deaths to double. As Danny Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, told the Las Vegas Review Journal, the ever-worsening water crisis could be "the end of the world" that could "turn us upside down, and I don't know how you recover from that."
As if that is not enough, these crises will be played out in the context of a global economy spiraling out of control. Each hurricane, drought or recession will send opinion polls and politicians lurching from right to left and vice versa. Think of how quickly, however momentarily, the political debate pivoted in the wake of Katrina, the BP disaster, and the financial crisis.
As White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously said "Never let a serious crisis go to waste...It's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before." While addressing the climate crisis requires radical solutions that cannot be broached in today's political climate, each disaster opens an opportunity to advance alternative agendas -- both for the left and right. While politicians debate modest technical fixes, ordinary people left desperate by floods, fires, droughts and other disasters will increasingly -- and angrily -- demand more fundamental reforms. While our current policy choices appear limited by polls and election results, in an era of crisis politics what appears unrealistic and radical before a storm may well appear as common sense reform in its wake.
My generation has been raised in the politics of eternal dusk. Except for a passing ray of hope during the Obama campaign, our years have been marked by the failure of every political force in society -- whether it be political elites or social movement leaders -- to address the problems we face as a nation and world. They have left us spinning towards disaster.
We can forge a better future. Climate-generated disasters will bring our doomed future into focus. The failure of political elites to adequately respond to these cascading crises will transform our political landscape and seed the ground for social movements. And if we prepare for the chaos and long battle ahead, our alternative vision will become a necessity rather than an impossibility.
As a friend recently said to me, "God help us, I hope you're right."