A year ago, I was discouraged about our nation’s ability to rise to meet the twin challenges of global warming and climate change. Since then, it has become clear that the power dynamics in the United States have shifted. Most segments of U.S. society are waking up and taking actions to address the crisis. This is happening despite the efforts of the Trump administration, big oil, big gas, big coal and the United States Senate to deny that continued emissions of CO2 will lead to the calamitous future many of us are convinced is fast approaching. Such a shift does not require a majority of the people. Policy decisions are often made and held in place because a relatively small percentage of voters are deeply committed to achieving a certain outcome. Good examples are U.S. policies towards gun ownership and Cuba. Changes in such policies occur only when another relatively small but deeply committed group of voters comes into being and forces such a change.
Change is sometimes difficult to recognize when one is focused on day to day activities. Before the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, few observers saw it coming. On the surface it appeared that Moscow had total control. But, under the surface, support for its rule had been weakening little by little, and the willingness of many of the people and institutions to mount resistance was growing. Suddenly Moscow’s grip slipped. It lost control and a new era came into being. Millions of people and thousands of groups played a part. There was no single hero. As Margaret Mead wrote,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”
So too, a year ago the current United States administration, the U.S. Congress and the fossil fuel industries appeared to be in control and a large percentage of our people were unconcerned about global warming and climate change. But now I believe we are moving rapidly towards that critical tipping point. We are finally winning the climate tug of war.
According to a new national poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 29% of the American people are now “alarmed” and are deeply engaged in taking actions to avert the global warming/climate crisis. This is a very significant 8% jump since March of 2018. But that is still clearly not enough.
Another 30%, (100 million Americans), say they are “concerned” but remain distracted by their day to day concerns. If you are one of these 30%, now is the time to get off the sidelines and start pulling your weight. As a previous blog noted, you can choose among many satisfying actions to take, some in your personal life, some within your community and some in your professional life.
The following are examples of segments of our society who are now pulling their weight and providing the momentum we desperately need to win this tug of war against those well entrenched, powerful segments of our society who fear that they have much to lose if they admit that global warming is a significant threat that calls for immediate action.
The Green New Deal
Members of The U.S. House of Representatives, now controlled by a party that takes global warming seriously, recently introduced the “Green New Deal”, which has gathered an extraordinary amount of interest and momentum in the media and among the American people in a very short period of time. As I will discuss in my next blog, The Green New Deal is based upon deep concern about global warming and income inequality and provides a vision of what needs to be done by 2030 and by whom.
While these aspirations are facing considerable pushback, I applaud its goals if not necessarily its means, for if one does not start with a bold vision one is not likely to achieve any of it by any means. Remember that two years before President Roosevelt declared war on Japan and Germany in 1941, more than 90% of the American people were against becoming engaged in foreign wars. Remember the skepticism President Kennedy faced when he announced that we would put a man on the moon in just ten years.
For most of the years since the global warming/climate debate began in earnest in Rio in 1992 at the UN “Earth Summit,” the voices of indigenous peoples have been sidelined. Only recently have their voices been formally recognized at international conferences on climate change and their presence as a political force on this topic been felt, most notably in Ecuador to stop oil exploration and in the United States. The scope of their resistance at Standing Rock in an effort to block an oil pipeline across their territory in the North West exceeded just about every other protest in Native American history.
The leading U.S. climate scientist and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), report author I met with several weeks ago reiterated unequivocally that 97% of all climate scientists are clear that global warming is occurring, and that over 90% of the warming comes from human activities. He confirmed my deepest concerns. He stated that he cannot conceive of a way the world will achieve the Paris Climate Conference goal of limiting global warming to only 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore he thinks it unlikely that we will even hold it to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. His views also reflect the dire predictions of the 18 U.S. Federal Agencies which I mention below, of which he was also an author. He foresees average sea level rise by 2050 to be around two feet above current levels with ever more fearsome storms and storm surges during the intervening years.
Not for profit environmental organizations
Environmental not for profits, (NGOs), have made heroic efforts for many years to get Americans to address the global warming and climate challenges we face. Providing the public with ever more accurate data did not, however, do the trick. It was only after many forest fires and a series of “once in five hundred years” weather events ravaged parts of our country, coupled with the public’s concern about the Trump administration’s denial of global warming, that many Americans started taking this seriously. As a result, financial donations to environmental NGOS have surged. Individual donations to 350.org, for example, increased by almost $3,000,000 from 2016 to 2017.
Eighteen Federal Government agencies
The United States government’s “Fourth National Climate Assessment,” prepared by 18 Federal Government agencies, was released by the White House over Thanksgiving weekend in 2018. Mandated by Congress, the report laid out in great detail the enormous economic, social and environmental consequences that will result if these very same government agencies fail to address global warming and climate change. (See this previous blog or go to https://www.globalchange.gov/nca4).
President Trump has nominated, and the U.S. Senate has confirmed, the heads of each of these agencies, who have been relaxing regulations and maintaining fossil fuel subsidies that are making global warming worse. It is of some comfort however to know that many of the men and women in these agencies spoke “truth to power” in the Fourth National Climate Assessment and will be in their jobs far longer than our current President or his cabinet appointees.
State and local governments
California, the fifth largest economy in the world, has taken the lead in pushing back against the Trump administration’s relaxation of regulations on the automobile and other carbon emitting industries by establishing initiatives to reduce carbon emissions
Last September, then California Governor Jerry Brown hosted the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, which I attended.
The summit brought together over 5,000 climate leaders from more than 103 countries, including representatives of most every segment of U.S. society, to share initiatives each was engaged in to address the climate crisis. This is the most prominent example of how states and cities across the United States have been stepping in to counter the pro fossil fuel policies of the current federal administration.
Millennials, between the ages of 23 and 39, are well aware of how global warming and climate change will affect their lives. They are becoming a powerful voting block and they are mobilizing, a good example being the Sunrise Movement.
The subtitle of my book, In Our Hands, is A Handbook for Intergenerational Actions to Solve the Climate Crisis. I included this subtitle with the hope that the older generations who have benefitted so much from the fossil fuels that will do great damage to the lives of the millennials and other younger generations, can work together to advance solutions to solve this crisis. To test this intergenerational opportunity, I have been working with the Presidio Graduate School, whose students focus on sustainability, and Elders Climate Action, a program of the Elders Action Network, to explore how the generations can most effectively work together.
Our Children’s Trust v. the U.S. Government
The child on the left in the illustration that opens this blog is pulling far above her weight.
In a landmark climate lawsuit, formally called Juliana v. U.S., twenty-one plaintiffs from all over the United States between the ages of ten and twenty-one filed a suit in 2015 against the U.S. government. Their complaint asserted that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken agreed, writing “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
The suit, which pundits derided as a nuisance suit, is very soon heading to trial despite many efforts by the Trump administration to get it dismissed. Whether or not it ultimately prevails, the upcoming testimony by Nobel climate scientists and economists will be powerful expert testimony that could be used in many future cases. Hopefully the mainstream media will highlight this testimony and cause many more people to shift their views on the threat we face.
Many more segments of our society are becoming involved
The mainstream media, which has been reluctant to get into the middle of the climate debate, stepped out on December the 30th when NBC’s Meet the Press had an hour long hard hitting special on climate change.
The coal museum in Eastern Kentucky recently shifted to solar power to save money.
University endowments, pension funds and insurance funds, who invest for the long term, have divested trillions of dollars of their fossil fuel stocks, not only for moral reasons but because they have concluded that the world is moving away from fossil fuels. And foundations are doing the same, the most striking example being the divestment of fossil fuels by the Rockefeller family foundations. As is the case with the coal museum’s shift to solar, the Rockefeller Family foundation’s actions is ironic given that the very basis of their wealth was petroleum.
As suggested by the group sitting in the stands in the Tug of War illustration by Woody Guthrie’s grandson Damon that opens this blog, the world is watching the United states. An example of one particularly poignant observer is the 15 year old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg who spoke at the Global Climate Summit In Poland last December, and also gave this compelling TEDx talk in Stockholm.
Contrary to what Moscow assumed for years, power does not always reside at the top. Average Americans as well as major segments of our society are finally getting the upper hand in this tug of war. Please join them. Run over and grab the rope and start pulling with all the strength you can muster.