In the last few weeks there have been a number of commentaries on the shifting nature of climate change activism. These include:
- the Sierra Club’s announcement that it will for the first time in its history engage in civil disobedience in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline;
- an article in The Pheonix by Wen Stephenson profiling climate activist Tim DeChristopher and drawing parallels with the nineteenth century abolitionist movement against slavery; and
- a recent piece by Andrew Winston in The Guardian pointing to the same theme of a new abolitionist movement around climate change action (you can nominate your favourite ‘climate change abolitionist’ here).
Together these pieces highlight a hardening of activism around anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, there is increasing recognition that traditional mechanisms of corporate environmentalism, government regulation and supranational agreement are failing badly in the fight against climate change.
The limitations of current responses to climate change have been graphically highlighted in Bill McKibben‘s widely-circulated article in Rolling Stone ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math‘. Here, McKibben pointed out that we are well on our way to emitting the remaining 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide that will push global temperatures beyond the 2 degrees celsius that scientists see as dangerous. Indeed, McKibben notes that the known fossil fuel reserves we intend to burn are 5 times greater (2,795 gigatons) than this remaining emissions budget. McKibben’s argument, and that of a growing number of climate activists, is that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground and that new developments (such as the Keystone XL pipeline being built to exploit the Canadian ‘tar sands’) must be rejected.
Implicit in this argument is the idea that anthropogenic climate change is not something around which compromise is possible. Like the fight against slavery, this is a moral issue which demands a clear position:
‘If slavery was the great human, moral crisis of the 19th century, then global warming is the great human, moral crisis of our own time. And the movement to confront it has every reason to be as resolute and as radical, in its own way, as the movement that ended slavery.’ (Stephenson, 2013)
So, as the realities of the current climate crisis play out, it seems likely that the political stakes will only get higher. For many the answer will be to tune out ‘…change the channel, and drift back to sleep.’ (Stephenson, 2013)
However, for others such as DeChristopher, climate change and what to do about it is a stark moral choice:
‘This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.’ (DeChristopher, 2011)