“Hey, Barack, it’s Deval. You know those 400 kids who got themselves arrested outside your place last month, protesting Keystone and ‘all of the above’? Well, a whole bunch of them just showed up at my office and want me to ban new fossil-fuel infrastructure in the state. And they’re quoting the goddam IEA!”
OK, I made that up. But it’s a conversation I couldn’t help imagining between Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and his personal/political friend Barack Obama on Monday morning. That’s when a couple hundred young people representing the statewide network Students for a Just and Stable Future, most of them engaged in the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns on their campuses, walked out of their classes and gathered in sleet and rain on the steps of the State House in Boston.
Calling their action the Youth Walkout for Climate Justice (in alliance with the Climate Legacy Campaign coordinated by Cambridge-based Better Future Project and its grassroots network 350 Massachusetts), they insisted that Patrick “draw a hard line against new fossil fuel infrastructure,” and that he meet with them to answer their demands. A distinct possibility of civil disobedience hung in the air. (Trust me, I watched the organizers run through their action contingency plans the night before. This is also a good place to mention that I helped launch 350MA two years ago and serve as a volunteer on the Better Future Project board, though I’m currently on leave while writing a book.)
The “kids” cited the International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook, which reported that the world must shift decisively away from new long-term investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure by 2017 or risk “locking in” decades of carbon emissions that would all but guarantee catastrophic warming within this century—that is, quite possibly their lifetime. That’s the same reasoning behind the effort to stop Keystone XL—and to stop new natural gas plants in Massachusetts (and gas and coal export facilities everywhere).
“The energy infrastructure built today will affect our entire lives, and we insist that these decisions not be made without our involvement,” the students wrote in an open letter to Patrick posted weeks ahead of the walkout and demonstration. “We are driven to this action by the desperation we feel as we see the impacts of political inaction on the climate crisis…. Your legacy is our future, Governor Patrick.”
What to do if you’re Deval Patrick? Arguably the best governor in the country on climate change—the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, the strongest climate law in the nation, as well as Green Jobs and Green Communities legislation, were all passed in his first term—he now finds himself confronted by a fast-growing state and national youth climate movement (i.e., voters representing his political future) telling him that his signature accomplishment, and key to his legacy, is simply insufficient. “Your climate initiatives, while stronger than those of most politicians,” the students wrote, “are not enough.”