The Naivete We Need: Notes on a Climate Action

"A lot of naive people around here today."

"A lot of naive people around here today."

The middle-aged guy in the Fall River Herald News T-shirt was casually chatting up the cop, just some friendly mid-morning chit-chat, as I walked past them in the middle of Brayton Point Road in Somerset, Massachusetts, on Sunday. He was referring to the crowd of some 400 singing and chanting protesters moving toward us, marching to the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant down the street, carrying banners like "Gov. Patrick: Quit Coal," "Coal Kills," "There Is An Alternative" and "Just Transition For All." Leading the march, which had the support of local community members and organizers, was a group of forty-four people--including college students, grandparents and mothers of young children--who would shortly be arrested for trespassing at the gates of the plant. They engaged in peaceful civil disobedience to demonstrate the moral seriousness of their demand: that Governor Deval Patrick use his authority under the state's Global Warming Solutions Act to close the largest coal plant in New England, one of the region's largest sources of the carbon emissions that are catastrophically heating the planet.

I stopped and turned to the Herald News guy. I couldn't help myself.

"You think these people are naive?" I asked him.

"Uh, yeah. Sure." He was startled.

"And you're a reporter?"

"I'm a photographer," he said flatly, and walked away, suddenly in a hurry to find a better angle. The police officer stared at me inscrutably. I'd been mingling with the press, taking photos and tweeting with my phone, but I was clearly with the protesters. I smiled and kept walking.

What I wished I'd asked the photographer was this: What's more naive? The belief that we can afford to go on burning coal without robbing our children of a livable future on this planet? Or believing in the possibility of a fearless and determined peoples' movement to change the course we're on?

I hate to tell the cynics, but an epidemic of the latter kind of so-called naivete is sweeping the country. The protest at Brayton Point on Sunday was just one in a nationwide series of actions taking on the fossil-fuel industry--from Pacific Northwest coal-export terminals to a Utah tar sands operation, from an Ohio fracking site to a proposed tar sands pipeline in Maine--under the banner Summer Heat. (The Brayton Point protest, organized by 350 Massachusetts and Better Future Project, where I serve on the volunteer board, was inspired by a high-stakes direct action on May 15, which I write about in The Nation's current issue, when two New England climate activists anchored a lobster boat in the path of a coal freighter.) In June, the youth-led Fearless Summer campaign began a series of direct actions targeting extreme fossil-fuel extraction, while the indigenous Idle No More movement and Defenders of the Land launched "Sovereignty Summer."

All of which is just the latest surge of a growing Fossil Fuel Resistance that includes grassroots uprisings along the Keystone XL pipeline route, from Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance to Bold Nebraska and many others; the long fight against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia; fossil-fuel divestment campaigns on more than 300 campuses, now joined by city and state governments and religious institutions moving to divest. Meanwhile, more than 68,000 people nationwide have signed a "pledge of resistance" to engage in peaceful civil disobedience if President Obama approves the Keystone XL.

And in case you haven't noticed, Obama seems to be paying attention. As National Journal's Coral Davenport wrote last week, in a piece called "Why It Finally Makes Political Sense to Talk About Climate Change" (or, why it's finally OK for mainstream media to talk about it):

[...]on the campaign trail last year, Obama followed the advice of his staff and barely mentioned climate change, to the dismay of his environmental base. Suddenly, that's all changed. Now, it seems, Obama can't stop talking about climate change. In both his Inaugural Address and the State of the Union, he spoke at length and with passion about his commitment to tackling the warming climate. Last month, in a sweeping, nearly hour-long speech, Obama presented a historic set of new climate policies, centered on Environmental Protection Agency regulations to slash coal pollution. EPA's new administrator, Gina McCarthy, will soon set off on a high-profile road trip to tout the climate rules in speeches, public meetings, town halls, and wherever else there's a case to be made.

Davenport suggests there's evidence of a "new politics" emerging around climate. If so, we might want to give just a little credit to the grassroots movement that we saw a small example of at Brayton Point, and that we're seeing around the country this summer--a movement that's been growing steadily since the Keystone protests at the White House began in August 2011, a turning point if there ever was one, putting climate at the center of an intensely lobbied and legacy-defining presidential decision.

In his new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (coming out in September), founder Bill McKibben--the "unlikely activist" who spearheaded the Keystone fight and who has done more than anyone to inspire and build this grassroots wave--describes what it was like to see a crowd of 40,000 to 50,000 people, from all over America, stretched out on the National Mall last February at the Forward On Climate rally against the Keystone XL. "I knew it represented much more than anger at a single pipeline," he writes. "I knew the size of the crowd meant that people in large numbers had finally managed to overcome the numbing sense that there was nothing to do about global warming." I was in that crowd, and I remember Bill's opening words that day: "All I ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I've seen it."

But McKibben is as clear-eyed about the odds we face as anyone you'll meet. Because let's not kid ourselves. Obama may be talking about climate change, and even pressing ahead with some welcome executive actions to curb carbon emissions. But we're a long, long way from the kind of political change it will take to address climate in a serious way--that is, in a way that takes the science seriously--and truly alter the catastrophic course we're on. The kind of change that could, for starters, put a strong price on carbon and an end to massive new investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure.

To a lot of people, when you put it in those terms, the climate fight looks unwinnable--as naive as trying to shut down a coal plant with nonviolent direct action. For others, including many of us who marched on Brayton Point, it's reason to fight all the harder, and to commit ourselves for the long haul. We can't help thinking of all the "unwinnable" fights of the past--to abolish slavery and end segregation, to win labor rights, women's rights, gay rights--and we're grateful for those naive enough to have fought them. And to keep on fighting.

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