Dear George Monbiot: Climate Change Doesn't Need Enlightenment, it Needs a Movement

Dear George,

Your recent column about the death of "climate enlightenment" was a quite a doozy. Let me make sure I got the gist of it: the UN climate summit in Copenhagen failed, the US Senate is ass-backwards, hopes for the climate talks in Cancun are dismal, and environmentalists are ninnies, leaving the planet on a crash course with apocalypse. Does that about cover it?

But you see, the closer you come up to the issue, the better it looks. You're right on that expectations for Cancun are low and that endless discussions of LULUCF would put any bureaucrat to sleep. But remember, the process isn't broken because there's a lack of good ideas on the table. It's broken because the big polluting nations, led by the United States, refuse to make any meaningful commitments to... anything. Let's face it, the UN climate process isn't a negotiation: it's a hostage crisis (that reasoning also helps clear up why some countries may have signed onto the Copenhagen Accord: it was Stockholm syndrome).

Recognizing the United States as (still) the major hurdle blocking progress should change the way we look at the meetings in China at the beginning of October. The real story in China won't be what's happening at the conference venue, but what's happening at the factories down the road. China is racing full speed towards a clean-energy future, and this October will be a chance for them to show off a bit. That show couldn't be more important (I don't anticipate anything as dramatic as the Olympic opening ceremonies, or Sputnik for that matter, but it still should be impressive). One of the big things that may actually get the US moving is the sense that it's being left behind.

Now that we've seen there's a bit of momentum still out there, let's talk about that fight of yours. You think the climate process is dead. Here's why I think you're wrong.

First off, you've been checking for vital signs in the wrong places. Yes, it sure would have been nice if enlightened governments took the initiative and lead the clean energy revolution on their own. But we always sort of knew that that was -- how do you put it in the UK? -- complete bollocks. As Frederick Douglass rightly pointed out a while back, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." What we need now is the same thing we've needed from the very instant we found out about this crisis. We need a movement. A movement that's capable of dramatically changing the political landscape on this issue. A movement that can expose Big Oil and their lobbyists and make in unacceptable for politicians not to take dramatic action.

So let's skip over a lot of your depressing statistics about the failure of European carbon trading (kind of a dodgy system to begin with) and get right down to what I read as the big thesis of your piece: "What all this means is that there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth."

I think there is an instrument, but it isn't policy prescriptions or solar panels: It's the internet.

More specifically, it's the social movement(s) that have grown up with the internet and are just now coming into their own. Let's face it: environmentalists and greens aren't going to be able to stop the climate crisis on their own, but perhaps they shouldn't have been tasked with the job in the first place. To expect a movement that grew up around wilderness preservation to be capable of taking on the richest corporations in the history of money and fundamentally altering the global economy was never too logical to begin with.

Thankfully, there's a new movement that's been building up outside and inside the established environmental groups. All around the world, there's a new set of Young (twittering) Turks that are shaking up the status quo and offering a new way forward.

You'll find them in places like China and India, where students there are building youth climate networks linking hundreds of colleges and universities. Or at campaigns like, which has built a global activist network of over 5.5 million members in just three years. Or across Africa, where mobile phones are allowing young organizers to coordinate across the continent for the first time.

I'm most familiar with the campaign I helped co-found, Last Oct. 24, we organized 5,200 rallies in 182 countries, what CNN called "the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history," to support the goal of reducing C02 in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million. You can see some of our colleagues in the 20,000 photos that streamed into our Flickr set over that day.

Maybe it's because I grew up with George Bush in office or because I used Wikipedia instead of Encyclopedia Britannica in school, but I never indulged in the "fantasy of benign paternalistic power" that you say your generation of environmentalists have fallen victim to. And I've never believed that a little prompting or protest was going to do the job: we're going to need a movement the depth and breadth of which we've never seen to make real progress. So what do we do now?

Well, despite all of the above, I don't really know either. There's no book (or even a Wikipedia entry) for wiring a global movement to take on the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. All I know is that we've got to get to work.

That's why, here at we're working with the 10:10 campaign and many others to coordinate the 10/10/10 Global Work Party this October 10. It's a day for people all across the planet to set aside despair, pick up their hammers and shovels, and get to work on climate solutions. At the same time, we'll be sending a message to our politicians as well: we're doing our work, what about you?

With less than three weeks until the big day, 10/10/10 is quickly gaining momentum: there are more than 3,000 events planned in 162 countries with hundreds more "work parties" getting registered up at each day.

10/10/10 isn't going to be enough, of course. We're going to have to build this movement even larger. That's why it's promising to see letters about the role of civil disobedience, but also about the importance of art and music. But Oct. 10 can be a big step forward, a chance to face up to a grim reality and then get to work changing it.

That work starts now.