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The New Abolitionists:
Global warming is the
great moral crisis of our time

The climate-justice movement must embrace its radicalism

by Wen Stephenson


This is what love looks like
I want to say a word for radicalism — for the role of the radical in building a movement to confront climate change, the most urgent crisis human beings have ever faced. I want to start with two scenes, and two speakers, who embody the imperatives, and the limitations, of the moment in which we find ourselves.

July 26, 2011. Inside a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, a 30-year-old climate activist named Tim DeChristopher is sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases back in December 2008. Registered as Bidder #70, he managed to win bids worth $1.8 million for some 22,000 acres of public land near Canyonlands National Park — bids he had no way of paying. He had acted spontaneously, on his conscience, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the heedless new extraction of fossil fuels that are catastrophically heating the planet and threatening innumerable innocent lives. Weeks before his sentencing, DeChristopher told Rolling Stone:

"I'm a climate-justice activist. We want a radically different world. We want a healthy, just world. But first, we need to get the fossil fuel industry out of the way. First we've got to overthrow the corporate power that is running our government. It will involve confrontation and it will involve sacrifice."

At his sentencing, standing before the federal judge, DeChristopher makes a long, eloquent statement that spreads across the Internet and galvanizes a growing climate-justice movement:

"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."

A month after he speaks those words, the largest civil-disobedience action in a generation begins in front of the White House, where 1,253 climate activists are arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, the project that would tap the second-largest carbon deposit on Earth.

The reality — or surreality — of this historical moment
November 4, 2012. It's the Sunday before Election Day, a week after Hurricane Sandy's hellish landfall, and Congressman Ed Markey stands before a capacity crowd inside the Town Hall of Arlington, Massachusetts. Hundreds of constituents have gathered on 48 hours notice for what the congressman has billed as an "emergency meeting" on climate change. Flanked by Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Mindy Lubber, representing $11 trillion in assets as the director of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, Markey displays satellite photos of Boston illustrating that huge sections of the city — like the entire Back Bay — would be underwater if Sandy had hit the Hub instead of New York and New Jersey.

But Markey isn't there just to talk about disaster response or building seawalls in Boston Harbor. He's there to demonstrate his seriousness on confronting climate change, an issue that had until that week gone all but unmentioned in the election campaign and in the  mainstream political media. "As the Minutemen responded, so must we," Markey tells his audience, calling for an unspecified "bold plan" from Washington to cut greenhouse emissions and prevent future "devastation." Global warming, if unaddressed, could lead to "events so horrific," he says, that they could "dwarf" other catastrophes in human history. In his final remarks, Markey intones, with what sounds like real passion:

"The American Revolution, it started here. The abolitionist movement, it started here. The women's movement, it started here. The anti-Vietnam movement, it started here. . . . The Freedom Riders, going South in the '60s, they left on buses from here. . . . [Global warming] is our generational challenge. The preceding generations accepted their challenges."

I was at Arlington Town Hall, and I had to wonder: if Markey was as serious as he sounded about climate change, what kind of "bold" action would match the necessity of the moment and his rhetoric invoking the grand radical tradition in American history? Certainly nothing that he or any other politician in Washington has ever proposed comes anywhere close. Even the doomed 2009 "cap-and-trade" bill that Markey co-authored — the strongest, indeed the only, comprehensive national climate legislation ever to pass either chamber of Congress — aimed merely to cut emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 (the same amount, as it happens, that Obama pledged at the failed UN climate talks in Copenhagen that year).

Compare that with what the scientific consensus, as represented by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says is required if we're to have a chance of stabilizing the climate: at least 25 to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. (Using the internationally recognized 1990 baseline, the Obama-Waxman-Markey target would amount to a roughly 4% reduction by 2020.) Those emissions targets are based on the IPCC's  most recent assessment, published in 2007. Its new report — due to be published this year and next — is expected to paint a far darker picture. Global emissions are  setting new records, currently rising roughly 3% per year.

Around the time that Markey spoke in Arlington, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and PricewaterhouseCoopers were releasing reports that would surely have been called "alarmist" if issued by climate advocates. (As it happened, the reports were barely mentioned by major U.S. news outlets.) The generally conservative  IEA affirmed that at least two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground between now and 2050 in order to have a shot at keeping the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 F), the internationally agreed-upon "red line." The World Bank warned that we're on track for 4 degrees C (7.2 F) this century — which it says is quite likely beyond adaptation, and "must be avoided." The analysts at PwC, in a report titled "Too Late for Two Degrees?," concluded that we've "passed a critical threshold," and that we should prepare for 4 degrees, or even 6 degrees (10.8 F), this century, unless the carbon-intensity of the global economy can be reduced by an unprecedented 5% per year for the next 40 years.

To put that conclusion in perspective: one of the world's leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson at the UK's Tyndall Centre, has said that 4 degrees C would be "incompatible with an organized global community." The US government's draft  National Climate Assessment, released in January 2013, suggests that we're  on track for 9 to 15-degrees Fahrenheit warming over most of the United States within this century.

Unless, that is, we drastically change course.

It seems fairly obvious that the reason we don't hear politicians, or the "serious" people in our media, talking (at least in public) about this situation — the true gravity of it — is that to grapple with this in any real way, to propose anything that would actually begin to address it with the necessary urgency at the national and global level, would simply sound too extreme, if not outright crazy. Leave fossil fuels in the ground? You must be joking. Why, that would mean canceling the Keystone pipeline! It would mean putting Alberta's tar sands, the second largest pool of carbon on the planet, off limits! Who are you kidding? Be serious!

This is the reality — or the surreality — of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. At this late hour in the climate crisis, with the clock ticking down on civilization, to be serious about climate change — based, mind you, on what science and not ideology prescribes — is to be radical.

Frederick Douglass, 1857: "If there is no struggle there is no progress"

Slavery was the great human moral crisis of the 19th century
-- Global warming is the great human, moral crisis of our time

In drawing historical comparisons between the climate movement and radical struggles for justice and human rights, Markey is echoing the sentiments of the climate movement itself. And for a good many climate activists and movement leaders, it seems that the most fitting comparison — the one that resonates most deeply — is to abolitionism: the stunningly radical and successful movement, led by a small yet fervent minority first in Britain and then the United States, to abolish the legal institution of human slavery on which a large part of the global economy was based.

The climate crisis "is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln," James Hansen, NASA's top climatologist stated in December 2009 in the run-up to Copenhagen. "On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%." Climate-movement elder statesman Gus Speth, advisor to two presidents, writes in America the Possible that a transformative progressive movement addressing the climate crisis "must capture the spirit of Frederick Douglass," the escaped slave who became the greatest of abolitionist leaders, and quotes the famous 1857 speech in which Douglass said, "If there is no struggle there is no progress." Just last month, Bob Massie of Cambridge-based New Economics Institute, speaking at a teach-in on  fossil-fuel divestment at the Tufts Fletcher School, compared the climate movement to the anti-slavery struggle and suggested that addressing climate change would require a political and cultural "paradigm shift" of a similar order.

Much of what appeals to these climate leaders, no doubt, is the bracing moral clarity and uncompromising urgency of the abolitionist cause. In 1831,  introducing the first issue of The Liberator in Boston, leading American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison answered his moderate critics: "I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."

"We need the urgency of a William Lloyd Garrison, or even more," founder Bill McKibben  told me, agreeing that the climate-justice movement, with its emphasis on human rights, has more in common with 19th-century abolitionism than with much of today's environmentalism. The climate crisis, McKibben notes, has a particularly unforgiving time limit attached. "If we don't solve it very quickly, we won't solve it." (Of course, as McKibben tells audiences, there's nothing radical about simply wanting a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. The real radicals, he says, run fossil-fuel companies.)

There are significant caveats to the comparison, of course, as there are to any historical analogy. Here are three big ones. First, I don't mean to draw any one-to-one equivalence between the consumption of fossil fuels to power our daily lives and put food on our tables (whether we're rich or poor) and the enslavement, systematic torture, and mass murder of countless human beings on the basis of race. Second, it should go without saying that fossil fuels and their effects on the atmosphere cannot simply be abolished at the stroke of a pen. There will be no Emancipation Proclamation or Act of Parliament freeing us from fossil fuels; no constitutional amendment abolishing climate change.

Finally, the climate movement advocates and engages in strictly nonviolent protest and resistance. When it comes to direct action, its models are Gandhi and Martin Luther King — not John Brown. That's not to say that violence was unjustified, ultimately, in the struggle to end slavery — or that it would never be justified to save millions of lives from the effects of climate chaos. But the climate movement is a resolutely nonviolent movement. What resonates, then, is not so much the analogy to slavery itself, or any literal comparison to abolitionist actions, but the role of the abolitionist movement, as a movement, in American and human history — and the necessity now of a movement that is every ounce its morally and politically transformative equivalent.

The parallels are irresistible: there's the sheer magnitude of what's at stake, in human and moral and, yes, economic terms — millions of lives and trillions of dollars. There's the explicit emphasis on human rights and social justice, including economic and racial justice — considering that the majority of those suffering the worst impacts of climate change globally are impoverished people of color. There's the fiercely principled opposition to powerful and entrenched reactionary forces — whether the "Slave Power" of the antebellum South or the filthy-rich fossil-fuel lobby of today. There are even the spiritual underpinnings of both movements, the progressive religious inspiration of many activists and leaders — abolitionism grew out of Quakerism and early evangelicalism, while today's climate-justice movement has deep support among progressive faith communities.

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.

I believe that the previous statement is true. In fact I've committed the rest of my life to it. And yet I also know that any proposition so large is never so simple. I know that history and the nature of radicalism are a bit more complicated. Climate justice may well be the greatest human-rights struggle of our time, but actions, however pure the motive, have consequences, and we need to be honest about the consequences of radicalism, then and now — even as we're honest about the consequences of not being radical enough.

DeChristopher: "We should not try to hide our vision about what we
want to change, of the healthy just world we wish to create"

The first time I recall reading about Tim DeChristopher, it was in the spring of 2011, around the time of his trial. In the months between his conviction and his sentencing, a number of stories and interviews popped up, and I came across one in the UK magazine Red Pepper. DeChristopher said there:

"We are at a time in our movement where we need to be honest — that it's too late to stop a climate crisis and that averting unthinkable catastrophe will now require deep, urgent, transformative changes. We should not try and hide our vision about what we want to change, of the healthy, just world that we wish to create. We are not looking for small shifts: we want a radical overhaul of our economy and society."

I've never been much of a leftist. I spent two decades in the mainstream media, where I considered myself a thoughtful, centrist independent. I've never registered for any party. I'm a climate activist now, but with my house in the suburbs, my two young children, and my spouse with her marketing MBA, I'm an unlikely radical, to say the least. So when I read DeChristopher in Red Pepper, my first reaction was, "No. What are you doing? You can't say that stuff. This sort of talk, if it goes too far, has consequences. People are listening to you now. If the movement radicalizes, we'll alienate people, we'll be marginalized, we'll never get anything from Congress — we'll sacrifice genuine, if incremental, progress for the sake of some kind of moral, or ideological, purity. And we don't have time for that. We have to take whatever progress we can get." I was still trying to fit my ideas of what needed to be done inside the suffocatingly cramped quarters of the politically "possible" at that moment. I had yet to fully face the facts of the situation in front of us. I wasn't as far along as DeChristopher.

But that fall, the news from the climate front was unrelentingly grim: global emissions set new records, extreme weather and melting ice caps showed accelerating climate impacts, the IEA told us we're on track to blow past the 2-degree limit on our way to 6 degrees,  Oxfam reported that climate change is already threatening global food security . . . and it went on. Meanwhile, a presidential campaign under the influence of the  fossil-fuel funded Tea Party, pushed Republicans ever further into denial and obstruction. It became clear that even modest, incremental steps — much less comprehensive, economy-wide national measures, leading to binding global commitments — were a pipe dream in Washington. By the end of the year, I bottomed out — in despair for the planet and my children's future, I realized: "We're fucked. Now what?"

The willingness to not be safe
More or less at that moment, Tim DeChristopher came back into view, in a long, astonishing interview with Terry Tempest Williams in Orion I see it as an essential, primary document of the climate-justice movement. What happened, quite simply, is this: DeChristopher, a 'convict', convicted me.

In that interview, he told of the "shattering" moment in March 2008 when he met climate scientist Terry Root, a lead IPCC author, at a symposium at the University of Utah:

She presented all the IPCC data, and I went up to her afterwards and said, "That graph that you showed, with the possible emission scenarios in the twenty-first century? It looked like the best case was that carbon peaked around 2030 and started coming back down." She said, "Yeah, that's right." And I said, "But didn't the report that you guys just put out say that if we didn't peak by 2015 and then start coming back down that we were pretty much all screwed, and we wouldn't even recognize the planet?" And she said, "Yeah, that's right." And I said: "So, what am I missing? It seems like you guys are saying there's no way we can make it." And she said, "You're not missing anything. There are things we could have done in the '80s, there are some things we could have done in the '90s — but it's probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we're talking about." And she literally put her hand on my shoulder and said, "I'm sorry my generation failed yours."

"Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future," DeChristopher tells Tempest Williams, "I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back." Actually, he does allow some hope:

"If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization. But that doesn't mean the end of everything. It means we're going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that's certainly not hopeless. It means we're going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world."

DeChristopher expresses here what I had been repressing. He knows that building the sort of movement that can "fight back" — and create the conditions in which we can build that better world — will require something of us beyond the ordinary conduct of politics. The climate crisis, he says, justifies "the strongest possible tactics in response," by which he means "nonviolent resistance." That doesn't mean everyone has to go to jail, he says, but "the willingness for that is what's necessary. That willingness to not hold back, to not be safe."

The willingness to not be safe.

"You can't move the center from the center," he goes on to say near the end of that interview (referring to Naomi Klein's often-quoted statement that the movement's job is to "move the center"). DeChristopher adds: "If you want to shift the balance — if you want to tilt that scale — you have to go to the edge and push. You have to go beyond what people consider to be reasonable, and push."

The movement's job is to tell the truth, however extreme
Tim DeChristopher is an abolitionist. He can be a little scary. He scared the shit out of me. But here's the rub: today, in our present crisis, one can easily argue that those who will have the "blood" on their hands, will not only be the denialists and the obstructionists on the right, but the moderates, the cautious pragmatists — the reasonable, serious, center-left types — who fail to acknowledge the true scale, urgency, and gravity of the climate crisis, and so fail to address it in any meaningful way.

People like that (and I was one of them) will say that people like DeChristopher have no "plan," no "workable solutions." But as any number of seasoned activists will tell you, it's not Tim DeChristopher's or the climate movement's job to offer detailed policy prescriptions that fit within the confines of our current politics. The movement's job is to tell the truth, however extreme — and to force those in power to recognize that even the outer limit of what our current politics will allow (a modest carbon tax, for example) is utterly inadequate to the crisis. Its job is to force that reckoning. To confront — and be prepared to sacrifice.

Yes, radicalism still carries risks, as it always has. But today those risks are mainly political, in the near-term. And at a moment when  political possibility is closed off, we have to ask, are we actually risking anything meaningful at all? You might say I'm understating the risks of radicalization, that there may be other real consequences, from the personal to the social: that friendships, marriages, families may be torn apart; jobs lost, careers ruined, life options foreclosed; that there will be economic hardship, that social unrest, even violence, could erupt. Yes, I understand.

Meanwhile, the risks of moderation, of accepting and working within our current political constraints, are infinitely more grave. The risks of moderation are a matter of life, death, and suffering for untold millions of human beings, alive today and yet to be born. If we can't radically alter our politics — radically expand the limits of what's politically thinkable, as the abolitionists did in Lincoln's day — then we might as well not even talk about "climate action."

We might as well change the channel, and drift back to sleep.  

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did; it never will"
At the end of January, Congressman Markey joined his colleague Henry Waxman of California and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — three of the most vocal climate champions in the United States Congress — in sending a letter to President Obama, informing him that they are creating a special "bicameral task force on climate change." It's a strongly worded letter. "We believe, as you do," they write, "that climate change is a profound threat to our nation, that our window for preventing irreversible harm is rapidly closing, and that leaders have a moral obligation to act." They call upon Obama for "decisive presidential leadership." That includes "executive action" — such as using the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate existing power plants — to ensure that U.S. emissions are reduced "at least 17% below 2005 levels by 2020."

Yes, that's the same target Obama pledged at Copenhagen, and the same as the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill. Never mind that the window is "rapidly closing." With fossil-fuel funded deniers controlling the House, with the U.S. Senate no longer bound to 51-vote majority rule, even the strongest advocates for climate action in Congress make no pretense that what the science demands can be  seriously discussed in Washington.

The only thing that matters now is whether there are enough of us ready to lead the President, and the rest of our country, in the direction that science — and hope, and patriotism, and love — tell us we must go.

"If there is no struggle there is no progress," Frederick Douglass said in 1857. "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Mr. President, I'm with Douglass. And DeChristopher.

Wen Stephenson is a founding member of the grassroots climate-action network 350 Massachusetts. The above is a concise version of the original.

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