Earth: Too Big to Fail?
100,000 in the Streets vs. Three Degrees of Heat
I wish life on this planet really were like an action movie. I wish that a handful of heroic individuals could do battle with the mightiest of forces and decisively alter the fate of the world--and then we could all go home to a planet that's safe. As we know, however, it's going to be a lot more intricate and complicated than that. There are millions, maybe billions, of players in this one, and its running time is a lot longer than the two weeks of Copenhagen or the two hours of a movie. For our heroines, we get not the commando-siren Sarah Connor but the sturdy, ex-middle-school American government teacher and now California state senator Fran Pavley, 61.
Really, though, if there's going to be a superhero in our world, a friendly Terminator to go up against the villains in suits and ties, it will be civil society. Even for the betterment of humankind, civil society won't get to shoot anyone or drive a truck through a wall. Instead, it'll organize, educate, build and pressure, while working to create models and alternatives. It'll re-elect Pavley and shut down Chevron.
There have already been some moments of great drama with this superhero leading the way--the civil disobedience of the Climate Ground Zero mountaintop coal campaign in Appalachia, the Climate Camps in Britain, the Kingsnorth Six climbers who blocked a coal-power plant's smokestack in England last October (and were exonerated by a British jury), the underwater cabinet meeting held in the Maldives this October to protest that low-lying island nation's possible fate. All this was done in part to get people to take an interest in the fate of their planet, which is not so readily reducible to a blockbuster's plot as we might like.
The pivotal moment just came--and went. This week in Copenhagen, the Bella Center conference, in which a new climate treaty was supposed to be negotiated, stagnated while repression around it grew furiously. It stagnated because the rich countries were unwilling to either reduce their own emissions significantly or pledge meaningful funding to help poor nations transition to greener economies. Or it stagnated because the poor countries didn't consent to be crucified for crumbs. The United States, which just spent nearly a trillion dollars bailing out its floundering financial corporations and spends about $700 billion annually on the military, offered an obscenely inadequate $1.2 billion in aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $100 billion way down the road, but only if an unlikely quantity of factors and conditions were to align beforehand.
Outside the center, the Danish police became increasingly brutal as activists from everywhere--representing the poor, developing and most affected nations; the Arctic, small farmers, indigenous nations; and the environment--demonstrated. Inside nongovernmental groups were increasingly excluded from the discussions and then from the actual space itself. None of this prevented the conference from stalling.
On Monday, negotiators from the African nations shut down the climate talks in fury at attempts to undermine the Kyoto accords--a move designed to make the global situation worse at a meeting that was supposed to make it better. On Wednesday, hundreds of delegates inside the Bella Center protested, walking out to join the thousands already in the streets. By all reports the atmosphere was increasingly tense and repressive.
Everyone whose opinion I respect deplores what just went down in Copenhagen. There's an agreement of sorts, but it was achieved by Obama and a few powerful nations over the objections of the rest in violation of the way the process should have unfolded. Worse, it contains no binding agreements to limit climate change. The so-called agreement acknowledges that we should limit warming to two degrees Celsius, but the actual commitments, if honored, would bring the world to 3 .9 degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Even two degrees, African negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping had said, "would condemn Africa to death." Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that three degrees would "spell death for the Maldives and a billion people in low-lying areas." Three degrees, said Joss Garman of the British branch of Greenpeace, "would lead to the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, droughts across South America and Australia, and the depletion of ocean habitats."
All that was achieved was consensus that there's a problem and clarity about what that problem is: the refusal of the wealthy corporations and nations to do what benefits humanity and all other species. Money won. Life lost. Copenhagen is over, a battle lost despite valiant efforts, but the war continues.
The crazy thing about this moment in history is that it isn't at all like Terminator 2, except that the Earth and our species are in terrible danger, and ruthless superhuman forces push us toward our doom. In the movie, Sarah Connor is the only human being who knows what's coming, and she's in an Abu Ghraib-like mental hospital for saying and doing something about it. In our reality, anyone who cares to know what the dangers are should have no problem finding out. Most of us have known, or should have known, for quite a long time. Because we've done so little, what a decade ago was imagined as the terrible future has actually, like the Terminator, made it here ahead of time.
The learning curve for so many of us, for so many people and even nations, has been speeding up impressively. If we had forty years to figure it all out, we might be headed toward just the sort of victory that civil society has, in fact, achieved on so many other environmental and human-rights ideas. But there aren't decades to spare. It needs to happen now. It should have happened even before the last century ended.
Even in my fever dream, with the Superdome just out the window, I couldn't help noting the key axiom repeated in Terminator 2: "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."
So here's the lesson: there are no superheroes but us.
And here's the question: what are you going to do about it?