A New Mandate for the Climate Movement

A New Mandate for the Climate Movement

By Ross Gelbspan

Nature has given the climate movement a new mandate.

To this point, the central mission of the movement has been to phase out coal and oil and rewire the world with clean energy.

That mission has been superseded for two reasons.

The first is the speed with which the climate is changing. We have been absolutely blindsided by global warming. It didn't even surface as an issue in the public arena until 1988. Two years later, the UN first put in place the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Today, just 26 years later, scientists are telling us that we are approaching -- or are already at -- a point of no return in terms of staving off climate chaos. That is an incredibly short period of time -- the blink of an eye historically speaking -- for such enormous changes in these massive planetary systems.

The second reason has to do with lagtimes and feedbacks. Carbon dioxide stays up the atmosphere for 100 years. Scientists determined that it takes about 30 years from the time emissions are released into the atmosphere to time we see their impacts on the planet. So many of the climate-related disruptions we are now seeing are probably the result of emissions we put up in the 1980s and 1990s as China and India began to accelerate their surge of coal-fired industrialization. This makes it inevitable that we will see many more events of the magnitude of Katrina, the European heat wave of 2003 that killed 35, 000 people and Hurricane Matthew which killed more than 900 people in Haiti and at least 36 people in the US.

Can the climate movement shift its priority to deal with the new reality?

I am not optimistic.

But if it were to mobilize the courage to leave its comfort zone, it could end up as a pivotal player in shaping 21st century history.

In the US today, virtually all of the national and grassroots climate groups are pushing hard to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. Hopefully the Paris Agreement will continue to move the world toward a clean energy transition.

But even assuming that humanity began tomorrow to replace its coal and oil with non-carbon energy sources it would still be too late to avert major climate disruptions. Al Gore did a superb job in bringing the climate crisis to public attention. But Gore, like many activists, continues to peddle the notion that we can solve this problem.

We can't.

* The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has lost an amount of ice equal to the size of Mt. Everest every two years because of ocean warming.

* The buildup of our coal and oil emissions has postponed the next ice age for up to 100,000 years.

* The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has reached 400 ppm – a level that has not been present on the planet for two million years.

* Sea levels are rising faster than at any time in the last 2,800 years.

* Warming waters are driving the largest migration of fish and marine animals toward the poles in the last two million years.

* What used to be known as “thousand year floods” are now “hundred year floods.” “Hundred year floods” are now annual events. Last year’s flooding in South Carolina was a 1-in-1000-year event.

* Scientists tell us that 2016 will be the hottest year ever recorded – beating the previous hottest year in 2015 which, in turn, beat the previous hottest year which was 2014. In fact, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

* In October, scientists reported a staggering fact: the global temperature today is hotter than it has been for 115,000 years.

In short, we have failed to meet nature's deadline.

In the next few years, this world will be experiencing progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes. These will happen either incrementally – or in sudden, abrupt jumps.

Under either scenario, we will see more crop failures, water shortages, national budgets decimated by the escalating costs of extreme weather events, a widening spread of infectious disease, uncontrolled migrations from people whose lands are no longer habitable and a series of breakdowns in our civic lives.

These coming disruptions will lead us either into a future of totalitarianism or into a new and unprecedented era of human cooperation.

Today the climate crisis has outgrown the environmental movement. Any chance for a coherent future requires the movement to redefine itself.

Global warming is no longer the exclusive purview of environmentalists. The world is waking up to the fact that climate change is not just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue that, unchecked, will swamp all other issues.

To remain relevant, climate advocates need to abandon their role as experts and learn to function as facilitators. They need to realize that merely warning about the catastrophic potential of runaway warming and extolling the virtues of clean energy is not enough.

It is time for climate activists around the world to embrace a new role as global catalysts by engaging people working on a range of other social, political and economic issues.

In short, environmentalists need to dramatically broaden their understanding of their responsibility for the human future.

The environmental community needs to enlist activist organizations around the world -- groups working on human rights, economic equality, poverty alleviation, civil liberties, worker rights, social justice and government reform -- to mount a coordinated global effort to pressure the world's governments to prepare in concert for the coming breakdowns.

Absent that kind of international cooperation, we will see a devastating increase in wars over diminishing resources –- and a rising wave of domestic repression. When governments are confronted by breakdowns, they frequently feel forced to resort to totalitarian measures to keep order in the face of chaos. It is not hard to foresee governments resorting to states of emergency – and states of emergency morphing into permanent states of siege.

That same initiative could also lay the groundwork for the creation of a new economic order – one based on equity and sustainability rather than economic concentration, exploitation and environmental destruction.

When I began to write about climate change some 20 years ago, I realized it could only be addressed by the nations of the world working together. My driving hope was that global warming was the one issue that could provide a platform for peace among people and peace between people and nature.

As I look reality in the eye today, I cannot foresee a happy ending.

Activists are confronting so much cowardice in so many people that they need as many partners as possible working in many different arenas around the world to break through.

If an army of activist groups around the world were to mount an organized effort to force governments to address the coming climate nightmare in a collaborative -- rather than competitive -- effort to manage the upheavals, it could provide a very different direction for our collective future.

A world-wide coalition of activist groups mobilized by the environmental movement could yield a very positive long-term outcome: an awareness of the increasing irrelevance of human-drawn borders, the fading out of nationalism as a defining element of one’s identity and ultimately an evolutionary step toward more connectedness among human beings.

As an Argentine climate negotiator once summed it up: “We are all in the same boat – and there’s no way half the boat is going to sink”

-- (c) Ross Gelbspan 2016

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