The climate movement, culture and politics.
“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary…” —Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Henry’s jaw would’ve dropped. This morning, for a moment, at least, a higher law—the law of conscience—held sway in Massachusetts.
OK, I know that sounds a bit much. But something truly remarkable, a kind of blessed unrest, took place today at the Bristol County courthouse in Fall River, Massachusetts, where climate activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara (Nation readers will remember them from this piece last year) were going to trial for blockading a coal freighter at Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset—using an old wooden lobster boat christened the Henry David T.—for the sole reason of addressing the climate crisis. In what looked to be an unprecedented case in the United States, they were set to be the first to use a “necessity defense” in a direct-action civil disobedience case centered on climate change, arguing that what they did was justified for the sake of public health and safety. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, and 350.org’s Bill McKibben, among others, were lined up as expert witnesses.
And what happened, the truly remarkable thing, was this: the prosecutor, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, not only dropped the charges (which could have resulted in months, or even years, of jail time); he then proceeded out to the courthouse plaza where he made a statement to the media and to the hundred or more people gathered in support of Ken and Jay. Here’s what he said:
The decision that Assistant District Attorney Robert Kidd and I reached today was a decision that certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was also made with our concerns for their children, and the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind.
Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking. I am heartened that we were able to forge an agreement that both parties were pleased with and that appeared to satisfy the police and those here in sympathy with the individuals who were charged.
I am also extremely pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.
The crowd (myself included) went wild.
Then, if possible, it got better. When the cheering settled down, someone asked. “Will you be a model for across the country?”
“Well,” Sutter said, “I certainly will be in New York in two weeks,” referring to the much-anticipated People’s Climate March on September 21, just ahead of the UN climate summit convened by Ban Ki-Moon. “How’s that?”
The crowd thought that was pretty swell, too.
He added: “I’ve been carrying around Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone”—and brandished the magazine (Jack White and all).
OK, maybe this guy’s running for office.
Still, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did. A reporter then asked if he was sending a message condoning this kind of action violating the law. He said no, that’s not the message. “I’m sending a message that this was an act of civil disobedience, that we had to reach an agreement. I’m not at all disputing that the individuals were charged, but this was the right disposition, it was reduced to a civil infraction.” (To be precise, there were four charges: conspiracy, disturbing the peace, failure to act to avoid a collision, and negligent operation of a motor vessel. Sutter dropped the conspiracy charges and reduced the other charges to civil infractions. Ken and Jay will also pay $2,000 each in restitution, not fines, to the Town of Somerset).
“Just to be clear,” the reporter asked, “what would you say if people say in fact you’re encouraging other people to blockade tankers?”
“This is one case, one incident, at a time,” Sutter responded. “I think I’ve made my position very clear. This is one of the gravest crises the planet has ever faced. The evidence is overwhelming and it keeps getting worse. So we took a stand here today.”
And so, sometimes we win. It’s a small victory, in the scale of the climate. But it’s something.
Meanwhile, as Ken and Jay are quick to point out, the Brayton Point plant burns on. The announced 2017 closure (which came a few months after their action and a wave of protests they inspired) doesn’t come nearly soon enough—for the climate, or for the plant’s neighbors suffering its pollution.
What’s more, as Ken noted to me in an e-mail, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration, the Brayton Point plant essentially doubled its coal consumption last year, and reduced its use of natural gas, making it the first or second largest source of carbon emissions in New England, New York and New Jersey. And Ken says observed shipments of coal to the plant in recent months were increased over the previous year.
So here’s my message to DA Sutter, should he ever want to run for office as true climate champion: some people may think coal is dying a “natural” (market-driven) death in the Northeast, and therefore not much needs to be done. But if we really want to put an end to coal, we’re going to have to drive a stake through its heart, otherwise it will keep on rising from the grave.
Read Next: Wen Stephenson: “From Occupy to Climate Justice”
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. 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.”
—Frederick Douglass, 1857
Fuck Earth Day.
No, really. Fuck Earth Day. Not the first one, forty-four years ago, the one of sepia-hued nostalgia, but everything the day has since come to be: the darkest, cruelest, most brutally self-satirizing spectacle of the year.
Fuck it. Let it end here.
End the dishonesty, the deception. Stop lying to yourselves, and to your children. Stop pretending that the crisis can be “solved,” that the planet can be “saved,” that business more-or-less as usual—what progressives and environmentalists have been doing for forty-odd years and more—is morally or intellectually tenable. Let go of the pretense that “environmentalism” as we know it—virtuous green consumerism, affluent low-carbon localism, head-in-the-sand conservationism, feel-good greenwashed capitalism—comes anywhere near the radical response our situation requires.
So, yeah, I’ve had it with Earth Day—and the culture of progressive green denial it represents.
* * *
But why Frederick Douglass? Why bring him into this? And who am I to invoke him—a man who was born a slave and who freed himself from slavery, who knew something about struggle, whose words were among the most radical ever spoken on American soil? Who the hell am I? I’ve never suffered racial or any other kind of oppression. I’ve never had to fight for any fundamental rights. I’m not even a radical, really. (Nor am I an “environmentalist”—and never have been.) All I want is a livable world, and the possibility of social justice. So who am I to quote Frederick Douglass?
Let me tell you who I am: I’m a human being. I’m the father of two young children, a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, who face a deeply uncertain future on this planet. I’m a husband, a son, a brother—and a citizen. And, yes, I’m a journalist, and I’m an activist. And like more and more of us who are fighting for climate justice, I am engaged in a struggle—a struggle—for the fate of humanity and of life on Earth. Not a polite debate around the dinner table, or in a classroom, or an editorial meeting—or an Earth Day picnic. I’m talking about a struggle. A struggle for justice on a global scale. A struggle for human dignity and human rights for my fellow human beings, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable, far and near. A struggle for my own children’s future—but not only my children, all of our children, everywhere. A life-and-death struggle for the survival of all that I love. Because that is what the climate fight and the fight for climate justice is. That’s what it is.
Because, I’m sorry, this is not a test. This is really happening. The Arctic and the glaciers are melting. The great forests are dying and burning. The oceans are rising and acidifying. The storms, the floods—the droughts and heat waves—are intensifying. The breadbaskets are parched and drying. And all of it faster and sooner than scientists predicted. The window in which to act is closing before our eyes.
Any discussion of the situation must begin by acknowledging the science and the sheer lateness of the hour—that the chance for any smooth, gradual transition has passed, that without radical change the kind of livable and just future we all want is simply inconceivable. The international community has, of course, committed to keeping the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above the preindustrial average—the level, we’re told, at which “catastrophic” warming can still be avoided (we’ve already raised it almost one degree, with still more “baked in” within coming decades). But there’s good reason to believe that a rise of two degrees will lead to catastrophic consequences. And of course, what’s “catastrophic” depends on where you live, and how poor you are, and more often than not the color of your skin. If you’re one of the billions of people who live in the poorest and most vulnerable places—from Bangladesh to Louisiana—even 1 degree can mean catastrophe.
But the world’s climate scientists and leading energy experts are telling us that unless the major economies drastically and immediately change course—leaving all but a small fraction of fossil fuel reserves in the ground over the next four decades—we are headed for a temperature rise of four or five or even six degrees C within this century. The World Bank has warned that four degrees “must be avoided.” But we’re not avoiding it. Global emissions are still rising each year. We’re plunging headlong toward the worst-case scenarios—critical global food and water shortages, rapid sea-level rise, social upheaval—and beyond.
The question is not whether we’re going to “stop” global warming, or “solve” the climate crisis; it is whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough now to save civilization itself—in any form worth saving. Whether any kind of stable, humane and just future—any kind of just society—is still possible.
We know that if the governments of the world actually wanted to address this situation in a serious way, they could. Indeed, a select few, such as Germany, have begun to do so. It can be done—and at relatively low cost. And yet the fossil-fuel industry, and those who do its bidding, have been engaged in a successful decades-long effort to sow confusion, doubt and opposition—and to obstruct any serious policies that might slow the warming, or their profits, and buy us time.
As I’ve said elsewhere, let’s be clear about what this means: at this late date, given what we know and have known for decades, to willfully obstruct any serious response to global warming is to knowingly allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives and their children’s lives—and their children’s children’s lives. For money. For political power.
These are crimes. They are crimes against the Earth, and they are crimes against humanity.
What, are you shocked? The same industry, the same people committing these crimes—while we subsidize them for their trouble—have been getting away with murder along the fence lines and front lines for generations.
What is the proper response to this? How should I respond?
The cooler heads have not prevailed. It’s been a quarter-century since the alarm was sounded. The cooler heads have failed.
You want sweet, cool-headed reason?
How about this? Masses of people—most of them young, a generation with little or nothing to lose—physically, nonviolently disrupting the fossil-fuel industry and the institutions that support it and abet it. Getting in the way of business as usual. Forcing the issue. Finally acting as though we accept what the science is telling us.
Um, isn’t that a bit extreme? you ask.
Really? You want extreme? Business as usual is extreme. Just ask a climate scientist. The building is burning. The innocents—the poor, the oppressed, the children, your own children—are inside. And the American petro state is spraying fuel, not water, on the flames. That’s more than extreme. It’s homicidal. It’s psychopathic. It’s fucking insane.
* * *
Coming to grips with the climate crisis is hard. A friend of mine says it’s like walking around with a knife in your chest. I couldn’t agree more.
So I ask again, in the face of this situation, how does one respond? Many of us, rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism, have reached the conclusion that something more than “environmentalism” is called for, and that a new kind of movement is the only option. That the only thing, at this late hour, offering any chance of averting an unthinkable future—and of getting through the crisis that’s already upon us—is the kind of radical social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement far less like contemporary environmentalism and far more like the radical human rights, social justice and liberation struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Does that sound hopelessly naïve to you? Trust me, I get it. I know. I know how it sounds.
And yet here I am. Because I also know that abolishing slavery sounded hopeless and naïve in 1857, when Frederick Douglass spoke of struggle.
What I’m talking about is not a fight to “solve the climate crisis.” That’s not possible anymore. But neither is it simply a fight for human survival—because there are oppressive and dystopian forms of survival, not to mention narcissistic ones, that aren’t worth fighting for.
What I’m talking about is both a fight for survival and a fight for justice—for even the possibility of justice. It’s a fight that transcends environmentalism. It requires something of us beyond the usual politics and proposals, the usual pieties. It requires the kind of commitment you find in radical movements—the kind of struggles, from abolition to women’s, labor and civil rights, that have made possible what was previously unimaginable.
Because our global crisis—not merely environmental but moral and spiritual—is fundamental: it strikes to the root of who we are. It’s a radical situation, requiring a radical response. Not merely radical in the sense of ideology, but a kind of radical necessity. It requires us to find out who we really are—and, nonviolently, in the steps of Gandhi and King and many others, to act. In some cases, to lay everything—everything—on the line.
And it requires us to be honest, with one another and with ourselves, about the situation we face. We’ll never have a movement radical enough, or humane enough, until we are.
That is, until Earth Day is buried—and a day of reckoning begins.
Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
This morning, a large and distinguished group of faculty at Harvard University released an open letter to President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation. It calls, in striking terms, for divestment of the university’s endowment—the largest university endowment in the world—from fossil-fuel corporations. Perhaps most striking, it responds forcefully, and at times bluntly, to Faust’s public statements opposing divestment. The letter begins:
Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue. We now know that fossil fuels cause climate change of unprecedented destructive potential. We also know that many in this industry spend large sums of money to mislead the public, deny climate science, control legislation and regulation, and suppress alternative energy sources.
We are therefore disappointed in the statements on divestment made by President Faust on October 3, 2013 and April 7, 2014. They appear to misconstrue the purposes and effectiveness of divestment. We believe that the Corporation is making a decision that in the long run will not serve the University well. [Read the rest of the letter.]
The faculty’s challenge comes hard on the heels of Faust’s latest pronouncement on the subject of climate change, in which she appeared to move ever so slightly in the direction of moral seriousness, yet reaffirmed her opposition to divestment and doubled down on the unserious path of action she has advocated in the past, which is restricted to research, campus greening and investor engagement with fossil-fuel companies.
The faculty letter also comes after many months of organizing, campaigning and writing by students and supportive alumni. (See, for example, these posts by undergraduates Chloe Maxmin and Hannah Borowsky, grad students Tim DeChristopher, Ben Franta and Ted Hamilton and alums Todd Gitlin of Columbia University and former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth. How often does a Reagan appointee join forces with a ’60s-era president of SDS?) I even had a few words to say on the subject myself.
So it’s good to see Harvard faculty stepping up. And it’s good to see them making clear statements like this one:
Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means. The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests. If the Corporation regards divestment as “political,” then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.
The only way to remain “neutral” in such circumstances is to bracket ethical principles even while being deeply concerned about consequences. Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking.
As the statements of October 3, 2013 and April 7, 2014 indicate, the Harvard Corporation wishes to influence corporate behaviors in the fossil fuel and energy sectors. We therefore ask:
How, exactly, will the University “encourage” fossil fuel corporations in “addressing pressing environmental imperatives”? Will Harvard initiate or support shareholder resolutions? Will it divest from coal companies? Will it ask questions at shareholder meetings? Will it set standards analogous to the Sullivan Principles? Will it conduct private meetings?
In short, how long will Business As Usual continue?
The questions in this section are not rhetorical. They require answers.
Yes, they do. And this campaign isn’t going away—it’s just getting started. Harvard can expect students, alumni, and now faculty, to keep increasing the pressure until we receive answers that can be taken seriously, both intellectually and morally, in the face of what we know about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. (I have reached out to Faust’s office and will update with any comment I receive.) As Ben Franta wrote here last month:
At the end of the day, we are acting for our children and grandchildren and for the generations beyond that. When we choose convenience over truth, we ultimately slow progress, and future generations pay the price. They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.
Maybe today Harvard came a step closer to actually doing something commensurate with this crisis.
Read Next: A student’s open letter to Harvard President Drew Faust
“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.”
Well, if you’re Deval Patrick, here’s one thing you do: You tell the students that you’d be happy to meet with them, and you direct your office to schedule the meeting. That is in fact what happened, so that when a delegation of students on Monday marched up to the governor’s office on Beacon Hill and met with Patrick’s deputy chief of staff, they were able to come back out and report to the cheering rally (and the media) that Patrick agreed to sit down with them in the near future.
Of course, that decision wasn’t made on the spot Monday morning. When the students signalled their intentions in the weeks prior, the administration was quick to respond. Last week the students and their Better Future Project partners sat down with David Cash, one of Patrick’s key advisors on energy policy and newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection.
Cash asked the students for a date by which they’d want to see the ban take effect, which the students took as an encouraging sign. But Cash ultimately explained that with the state’s remaining coal plants coming offline by 2017, as well as regional nuclear plants, there is a serious concern that without new natural gas capacity, renewables alone won’t fill the gap, and that blackouts in eastern Massachusetts—and the ensuing political fallout—would become a real possibility. (Better Future Project’s Climate Legacy white paper argues that an urgent effort to scale up renewables and speed efficiency and conservation measures, commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis, could meet the challenge.)
With the door to any further discussion of the matter seemingly closed, it was only after a last-ditch appeal directly to Patrick (through a friendly back channel) that the offer of a meeting came—the night before the walkout.
David Cash is a very smart and congenial guy, and he and the students appear to share a mutual respect. But when I talked with him before the student action, he sounded genuinely perplexed, perhaps even a tad frustrated, that he was now being forced to defend Deval Patrick’s climate legacy to young climate activists. What the students should be doing, he told me, is “holding up what Patrick has done as a model for other governors who are nervous, and say, here’s how you do it.”
In a follow-up email, he described the administration’s record: “GHG emissions have decreased by 11% since 2007, solar capacity has increased from 3MW to over 450MW, wind has increased from about 3MW to over 100MW, Massachusetts has become number one in the country in energy efficiency while saving customers billions of dollars, and clean energy jobs have grown between 6% and 12% per year for the last several years.” (The emissions reductions are smaller than needed to meet the 2050 goal, and the Patrick administration has yet to set the crucial interim targets for 2030 and 2040.)
And yet, what about the IEA’s warning of a catastrophic emissions “lock-in” if we don’t stop building new carbon infrastructure now? Cash never directly answered that one. And what about recent warnings from top scientists that even the internationally agreed-upon goal of a 2-degree Celsius warming limit may well bring disastrous effects, and that we simply have to move faster to address the crisis?
“Governor Patrick has not shied away from saying that this is a huge problem that we have to address now,” Cash said. But, he insisted, to say “we’re just going to have to suck it up and have some blackouts, and prices are going to be really high for the next ten years until we can get all of this stuff online—that’s not going to sell. Massachusetts is going as fast as possible.” Cash’s biggest worry is that the resulting political backlash would set back the national climate agenda (and, though he didn’t say this explicitly, Deval Patrick’s political prospects).
So there you have the stark dilemma, and brutal reality, of progressive climate politics circa 2014. On the one hand, a rising generation of young people who feel trapped in an impossible situation that they didn’t make or choose. On the other, a generation of progressive politicians caught between an apocalyptic scientific reality and a political and economic status quo that is driving us off the cliff—a status quo they apparently cannot imagine ever changing, even in the face of increasingly visible climate impacts and ever more alarming warnings from scientists.
These students, and the larger climate movement of which they’re a part, are desperately trying to change that political reality. And if they can’t move the most sympathetic politicians to show the kind of leadership that could break the status quo—if even Deval Patrick can’t do what the crisis really demands, even in a state like Massachusetts, and if his friend Barack Obama can’t stand up to the carbon lobby and reject the Keystone XL, sending an unmistakable and unprecedented message to the world—then this generation of young leaders, who increasingly grasp the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, may well begin to lose hope.
And when that happens, all political bets are off. Because then you have a generation of young people who feel they have nothing to lose. Nothing to lose by laying everything on the line. Nothing to lose by taking their future into their own hands.
Read Next: Michael T. Klare on our global fossil fuel addiction
The movement for fossil-fuel divestment has swelled to what an Oxford University study calls the fastest-growing divestment movement in history, one with the potential to shift the political ground beneath the fossil-fuel lobby’s feet. There are more than 500 campaigns globally—including on some 400 college and university campuses in the United States, along with city and state governments and major religious institutions. Ten colleges and more than twenty cities—including Seattle, San Francisco and, as it happens, Cambridge, Massachusetts—have committed to divest.
Back in October, Harvard University President and distinguished American historian Drew Gilpin Faust, having faced more than a year of increasing calls by students, faculty and almuni to divest from fossil fuels, released a statement in which she explained why Harvard would do no such thing, at least not on her watch. Reactions to her position—by critics ranging from climate activist Tim DeChristopher (now at Harvard Divinity School) and Columbia’s Todd Gitlin (an alum) to former Oberlin president and National Science Board member James Lawrence Powell, among others—pointed to its logical inconsistency, not to mention blindness to moral, political and economic facts. Nevertheless, as others have noted, Faust’s arguments have become the de facto orthodox positions of the anti-divestment crowd.
On campus, in Cambridge, the student-led Divest Harvard campaign (I’m involved with the alumni wing), has repeatedly invited Faust to engage in a public forum on divestment—and has repeatedly been rebuffed. So earlier this month, the students confronted Faust after a public speech, and captured the conversation on video. During the exchange, incredibly, Faust denied that the fossil-fuel industry obstructs progress on clean energy. The video made a stir—thanks to leading climate blogger Joe Romm, who demolished that assertion. Faust felt compelled to respond to the students in an e-mail, as reported by the student newspaper The Crimson. Needless to say, relations between the students and the president’s office are somewhat tense. The students—and their faculty and alumni supporters—are far from backing down or going away. If anything, they’re more resolved than ever to raise the pressure—and the stakes.
Into this steps a 27-year-old Harvard graduate student, Ben Franta, a member of Divest Harvard’s student board, with a qualitatively different kind of response to Faust: direct, personal, unsparing—and, I’ll add, principled and brave. Last month, Franta met privately with Faust in her office—not for the first time—to discuss divestment. Two days later, he wrote her an impassioned letter, which he shared with me and others, in which he rebutted her points one by one and appealed to her, again, for an open debate. She has not responded. The moment she gets up and speaks publicly about divestment from fossil fuels, she told Franta, it will end up on the front page of The New York Times.
And so Franta has decided to publish an open letter, based closely on that first one, and he asked me to post it here.
Franta, who grew up in rural Iowa, is working toward a PhD in applied physics—more specifically, as he describes it, focusing on “reducing the cost of solar energy by developing high-efficiency photovoltaics using industrially scalable methods.” In his recent meeting with Faust, she continued to extol Harvard’s programs in sustainability and energy research as the proper way forward. In response, he told her, speaking as one who works on solar energy at Harvard, such research simply isn’t enough. “Politics,” Franta says, “lies upstream of technology development.”
Franta’s open letter follows here. This is surely not the first time a sitting Harvard president has been schooled by a Harvard student—but it’s a moment worth recording for history.
* * *
March 19, 2014
Gordon McKay Lab
9 Oxford St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
Dear President Faust,
I am writing to you today in the hope of generating a public discussion that is based on intellectual honesty and moral seriousness.
I will be direct in this letter. It does not imply a lack of respect. I believe it is best to work together, and the need for clarity is urgent.
Last month you and I met to discuss Harvard’s divestment from the fossil fuel business. We disagree on whether or not Harvard should continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations, but I am not concerned by disagreement per se. I am concerned by the possibility that you are not treating this issue with the honesty and seriousness that it deserves. I believe that possibility has troubling implications.
I wrote to you a month ago with the concerns in this letter. They are still unaddressed. It is important to address them, because they affect many people. I will explain the reasons for my concern.
To justify the university’s continued funding of the fossil fuel industry, you have provided a list of unsubstantiated beliefs in place of evidence-based arguments, both in your written statement on fossil fuel divestment and in subsequent conversations. Unsubstantiated beliefs will not suffice to protect our children and grandchildren from damages arising from planetary climate change.
The plan you have put forth as an alternative to divestment—that Harvard, through a strategy of shareholder activism, will induce fossil fuel companies to become clean energy companies—is a proposition that requires evidence to demonstrate its seriousness and feasibility. I am not aware of evidence to suggest that: 1) fossil fuel companies have any interest in becoming clean energy companies anytime soon, if ever; 2) that it is possible for such companies to become clean energy companies while maintaining fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders; 3) that shareholder activism is capable of inducing such fundamental shifts in business strategy; or 4) that Harvard, as an activist shareholder, has such power.
Your repeated preference of this plan indicates either that you are privy to evidence regarding its feasibility that others are not privy to, that you are naïve regarding the feasibility of this plan or that this plan is proposed cynically. If you do have special information that supports the feasibility of this plan, it should be made public. Without such evidence, there is no reason to believe that this plan is both serious and well informed.
The same need for evidence applies to your statement that divesting from fossil fuel companies will cause a significant loss of revenue for the University. This may very well be true, but, again, evidence to support that conclusion is needed. Various studies to date have indicated that divestment from fossil fuel companies need not result in significant financial losses. Do these studies not apply to Harvard’s endowment, in full or in part? Are there other losses of revenue that concern you besides investment returns, such as corporate and private donations? Or are your concerns less tangible?
It is right for you to act as a steward of Harvard’s financial health. However, when your statements run counter to the body of evidence, it is necessary to provide compelling evidence of your own. It is never enough to say, “Don’t kid yourself—divesting will hurt the University financially.” Calls for divestment are not made in jest. Climate change is and will be a matter of life and death for many. The lack of evidence brought to the table thus far by you and the rest of the Harvard Corporation, however, does suggest a lack of seriousness.
Other statements of yours indicate, to my mind, a lack of seriousness that is troubling, such as your suggestion to me during our last meeting that if Harvard divests from fossil fuels, the University will need to decide whether to divest from sugar. Surely you understand that fossil fuels and sugar are distinct in a number of fundamental ways. One of those ways, perhaps the main one, is that the production and consumption of sugar does not degrade the habitability of the planet for modern human civilization.
Another important difference between fossil fuels and sugar is that those who decide to use fossil fuels and immediately benefit from their use are not the same people who bear the risk for their use. When carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere, it requires 25-50 years to cause the bulk of its warming effect, which then affects every living thing on the globe. Thus, when we use fossil fuels today, our children and grandchildren bear damages as a result (along with everyone else’s children and grandchildren). These future damages are large, they are accumulating and they are unpaid for. Fossil fuel companies are particularly profitable today because no one is paying for these damages. None of these facts are secrets. Through investing in fossil fuels, Harvard seeks to profit, and does profit, from these future damages.
Your fear of a “slippery slope,” as you put it, in which divesting from fossil fuels leads to a campaign to divest from sugar, must be elaborated upon if it is to be used as a valid argument to maintain the status quo. The fear of a slippery slope can be used to counter any call for action in any area; it is not a valid argument unless there is evidence to show that taking one action will inevitably lead to another with costs that outweigh the benefits of the first action. We are not talking about divesting from sugar, or cats, or apples, even though cats scratch people and people choke on apples. We are talking about divesting from fossil fuels, because fossil fuels cause planetary climate change.
You assert that to cease investments in fossil fuel extraction would be tantamount to using the endowment as a “political weapon.” This presupposes both the political effectiveness of divestment and the neutrality of remaining invested in fossil fuel extraction. Of course, if an act of divestment would be politically effective, then remaining invested cannot be neutral.
In refusing to divest, Harvard is choosing to profit from future damages that create intergenerational and geographical inequity. This unnecessarily positions the endowment in conflict with the future welfare of our children and grandchildren. It is this status quo—not some hypothetical scenario—that is cause for offense and leads many to demand change.
You have asserted that because we unavoidably use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, we should not stop investing in them. It is unclear why this should be the case. If your argument is an appeal for self-consistency, you seem to imply that no repudiation of fossil fuel use should be undertaken while we unavoidably use them. This is clearly not what is happening in the world around us, and pursuing such a policy would be enormously naïve. The renewable energy research at Harvard is done using electricity from fossil fuels. The Office for Sustainability carries out its work using fossil fuels. Both are repudiations of fossil fuel use that use fossil fuels. Should we stop these activities because they violate your appeal for self-consistency? Or do you mean something else by your argument?
Fossil fuel use is unavoidable, because it is a large part of the energy mix today. We must become accustomed to taking steps away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy sources even while we use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, because there does not seem to be another choice. The description of self-consistency you have laid out, in which Harvard must either fund the fossil fuel industry for a profit or isolate itself entirely from fossil fuels in every way, is not representative of reality.
It is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while carrying out low-carbon energy research to displace fossil fuels, and it is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while choosing not to invest in their continued dominance. If you truly think there is a case to be made regarding the inconsistency of divestment, then that case must be made more clearly.
Some of your arguments appear to be inconsistent with each other, and this concerns me because inconsistency can indicate a preference for convenience over the truth. You’ve asserted that if Harvard were to divest from fossil fuel companies, it would have “no” political impact because Harvard, you allege, is not sufficiently influential. At the same time, you’ve told me that you are unwilling to speak on these issues publicly because a discussion of fossil fuel divestment at Harvard might garner too much media attention. These statements give the impression that you are willing to both deny and invoke the influence of Harvard, even at the same time, in order to avoid taking action on this important problem. I think some clarity is required on this topic.
Finally, I am concerned that you are, perhaps, in denial or unaware of important political realities. Your recent denial of the effectiveness of fossil fuel companies in slowing the implementation of clean energy was surprising. I know that you have since indicated that you did not understand what was being discussed at the time. However, you have still not clarified what you understand regarding the political power of fossil fuel companies and the use of that power in our society.
If you have evidence to support the feasibility of your plan to change fossil fuel companies to clean energy companies, you must present it. And if you have evidence to support your assertion that divestment, even partial divestment, will significantly hurt the University financially, you must present it. And if you are going to use “slippery slope” and self-consistency arguments as reasons for inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, then you must make those arguments more clearly.
Those calling for divestment have the right to do so, because the profit motive to exacerbate climate change at the expense of others—an activity that Harvard is now engaging in and endorsing—affects the welfare of their children, grandchildren and the generations that come after them. And the Harvard community has the right to discuss this issue openly with those who have decision-making power in this matter and those who are currently vetoing such calls. This includes, but might not be limited to, you and the other members of the Harvard Corporation.
As for me, after more than a year of unproductive, closed-door meetings with members of the Corporation, during which the same list of unsubstantiated beliefs was presented repeatedly to justify inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, I believe that public debate and discussion are required to separate the sense from the nonsense. You have shown an eagerness to engage with the fossil fuel industry. I ask that you show the same eagerness to engage with members of your own Harvard community who are working to protect their children and grandchildren.
Climate change presents a long fight that will likely require generations of action. I believe we can make more progress by working together in the ways we are able rather than by dismissing others’ concerns. I cannot ask or expect that we will agree on every matter. All I can ask, for the sake of my descendants and those of others, is that you show both honesty and seriousness on this issue. Without those virtues from our leaders, our hope is greatly diminished.
At the end of the day, we are acting for our children and grandchildren and for the generations beyond that. When we choose convenience over truth, we ultimately slow progress, and future generations pay the price. They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.
Read Next: Rebecca Solnit on the urgent need for climate action
Eriel Deranger, an activist and spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, doesn’t live in her community in northern Alberta. “I don’t live in my community because I have children,” she told a rapt audience at the Conservation Law Foundation offices in downtown Boston last week. “And I can’t bear the fact that if I lived in my community, I would be putting their lives at risk.”
Deranger was speaking in Boston as part of the Tar Sands Exposed Tour along with photographer Garth Lenz, who has documented not only the stunning beauty of northern Alberta’s natural landscape but the biblically-proportioned devastation and dire human cost of industrial tar-sands oil extraction—a form of strip-mining considered the most ecologically destructive resource extraction project on the planet, and the source of the viscous, toxic tar-sands crude, or diluted bitumen, that will flow at a rate of more than 800,000 barrels a day through the full length of the Keystone XL pipeline if the remaining northern segment is approved by John Kerry and Barack Obama. The tour was organized by the grassroots climate group 350 Maine, which is fighting to prevent tar sands oil from flowing via an existing pipeline from Montreal to the Atlantic coast at Portland. But the stuff is already flowing through a cumbersome network of pipelines and rail across the United States—and has already spilled disastrously in Mayflower, Arkansas, and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan (where three activists with Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands were convicted on January 31 and now face a two- to three-year jail sentence for nonviolent direct action to oppose expansion of the Enbridge pipeline there). And it may already be flowing through the southern segment of Keystone XL—from Cushing, Oklahoma, through East Texas, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast—which was fast-tracked by Obama in 2012 and went into operation on January 22.
What Deranger wanted her Boston listeners to understand is that the massive tar sands extraction projects in Alberta are not only ecologically devastating and life-threatening but culturally devastating, threatening the ability of her people and other indigenous communities to maintain their way of life and their traditional, sacred connection to the land and water—even as that land and water is poisoned, posing lethal threats to their health. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) has started fighting back, launching legal challenges to the oil companies and the Canadian government, arguing that approval of tar sands projects violates the terms of Treaty 8, signed in 1899, guaranteeing their First Nations rights.
“Our leadership has taken the direction of the elders, an Elders Declaration, that enough is enough,” Deranger told the Boston audience. “We have to draw the line somewhere, projects can no longer continue to expand, at will, unabated, the casualties being our people, our livelihoods, and who we are.… We have made a decision. Any new projects and proposals in that region, we will fight. And we will fight to the highest levels of law.”
“The driver for me,” she said, “is that this is my homeland, these are my people…my family. I know people with cancer. I know people who are dying. A few years ago, when I started working with [ACFN] leadership, they asked me to move back [to Fort Chipewyan]. And I talked with my family, with my daughter, who was 12 at the time. And she was like, ‘I’m not moving to Chip.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I don’t want to die.’ ”
“So, I do this for those who still live there,” Deranger concluded. “And I do it so my children will one day have the ability to go back there.…All we need is the political will to change the course of where we’re going…and respect those who are so impacted by out-of-control, psychotic, bottom-of-the-barrel resource development, not just here in Canada, but globally. Indigenous people have become the canary in the coal mine. I don’t want my children to have to be the sacrifices for humanity to wake up.”
As Washington and much of the climate and environmental movements are consumed with the debate over Keystone XL in the wake of the State Department’s release of its much-criticized Final Environmental Impact Statement, voices like Deranger’s from frontline communities tend to get drowned out amid the din of the national conversation. While ACFN’s battle got a big boost recently from Neil Young, who performed a series of “Honor the Treaties” benefit concerts last month (after Deranger gave him a tar sands tour), other communities affected by tar sands remain largely unseen and unheard in US media.
Last summer, I went to East Texas and Houston, at the southern end of the Keystone XL, on assignment for The Nation, and wrote a piece about Tar Sands Blockade and the grassroots battle against KXL South, as activists down there call the southern leg. I also wrote about the Manchester neighborhood on Houston’s East Side, where I talked with Yudith Nieto and Juan and Bryan Parras of the environmental-justice group t.e.j.a.s. about their struggle against decades of toxic pollution and the lethal health effects from oil refineries and other industry along the Houston Ship Channel.
But I didn’t write much about the situation of rural and small-town East Texas communities along the route of KXL South, where grassroots opposition to Keystone and other tar sands pipelines has been growing for years. So on January 22, when I received an e-mail from the group NacSTOP (which stands for Nacogdoches Stop Tar Sands Oil Permanently), I reached out to spokesperson Maya Lemon, 24, whose parents, Jim and Kerry Lemon, were among those I met and interviewed in Nacogdoches last July.
I interviewed Maya by e-mail over the past week, and she has so much to say I’ve decided to include most of our exchange here in Q&A form. It has been lightly edited.
Wen Stephenson: First, can you briefly introduce yourself to Nation readers?
Maya Lemon: I grew up in the pineywoods of East Texas on an off-the-grid homestead. As a child I spent endless hours exploring the woods and creeks of my family’s land as well as many other pieces of adjacent property. Our closest neighbor was over a mile away but the dirt roads to my home often had a lot of traffic. Situated in the largest oil & gas field in Texas, industry was a closer and more present neighbor than any one person. We lived alongside drilling, pipelines, fracking, compressor stations and chemical storage tanks. Because my family doesn’t own our mineral rights, Exxon has been able to do pretty much whatever they want on our land. When I was 14 my father was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer with known links to petroleum production. Surrounded by industry activity, every day I live at my parents’ home I wonder what chemicals and carcinogens my family and I are being exposed to.
For the last several years I’ve worked as an outdoor educator with youth-at-risk in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. This spring I am using my off-season to engage in community organizing in East Texas. Although it feels good to advocate for my community, there are also many moments that I am overwhelmed with the breadth of work to be done in East Texas and the enormity of the task we face. Texas is the belly of the beast for sure, and only through the work of dedicated individuals will shifts be made to protect the people, places and culture of this unique state.
There’s an intense focus right now on Keystone XL in Washington and within the national climate and environmental movements. But of course the southern leg of the pipeline is already operational, as of January 22, and frontline communities like yours in Nacogdoches, and near the refineries, stand to suffer the consequences. I’m curious how the national Keystone fight looks from your perspective.
First of all I think that we need to clarify that the “national Keystone fight” is about the northern segment of Keystone XL. What my community, along with groups like Tar Sands Blockade and others along KXL South, have been trying to stress is that we are part of the national Keystone fight. The southern segment of the pipeline, the part that runs through my community, is the missing link that brings tar sands all the way from Canada to refineries in the Gulf. Keystone XL South runs through my community—our lived experience with this pipeline and with TransCanada is our stake in the national Keystone fight. When we talk about the “national Keystone fight” without clarifying—or highlighting—that KXL South has already gone into operation, we effectively undermine the work and reality of individuals living along the route of KXL South.
No one should have their land taken, no communities should be cut through with tar sands exportation, no more tar sands should be extracted at the cost of indigenous life and land, no more oil should be refined in the gulf at the expense of human health in what are mostly communities of color. What the national Keystone fight often seems to miss, however, is that all of the things I listed above will continue to happen regardless of what gets decided about KXL North. The climate movement has made KXL North the symbolic fight, and although it is very important, we will miss the point and be ineffective unless we broaden the tar sands fight to include KXL North and South, refining communities, other corporations looking to extract and export tar sands, indigenous communities who are harmed at the source and all those who live with the reality of tar sands in their communities.
I received an e-mail last week with a potential timeline for the decision on KXL North. My stomach dropped immediately and tears welled in my eyes. I feel concern and empathy for all those that work to stop this project. The work in my community will continue regardless, however. The ongoing, daily work of my community’s resistance to tar sands is completely left out of conversations that center only around the concept of the “national Keystone fight.”
What does it mean to resist tar sands in your part of East Texas, now that the pipeline is up and running?
We resist by speaking up so that we will not be helpless victims in the event of a tar sands spill. We resist by empowering members of our community to feel that they can speak out against things that are unjust but may not be easily be stopped. We resist by continuing to work for the safety of our community even though Keystone XL South is in operation.
Our resistance is our continued struggle to give voice to the people and places that we love and that are threatened by this pipeline and other forms of extreme extraction.
What kinds of specific things are you doing, with NacSTOP and your community allies/partners?
One of our largest areas of concern at this point is for the local first responders who would be responsible to act in the event of a tar sands related emergency. We do not feel that these individuals, who are mostly volunteers, have received the training they need to ensure their own safety in the event of a tar sands spill or leak. We are therefore working with local first-responder groups to encourage extensive training and preparation for responding to a tar sands spill on a local level.
Baseline testing is another focus of our work for this coming year. We are hoping to test water, air and soil along sections of the pipeline in our community in order to have a baseline measurement to offer for comparison in the event of a spill or leak.
How can climate activists, in particular, help fulfill their mission—in short, to prevent runaway global warming—by placing more emphasis on frontline communities? How is it strategic? Can you offer an example?
In the early 2000s very few people knew much about fracking. The technology expanded rapidly and rural communities were undergoing drastic development, but a general understanding of the practices used in fracking or the ways they impacted communities did not exist. Historically, East Texas was a very important oil field, one of the biggest in the US outside of Alaska, and the discovery of the Haynesville shale has made it a major natural gas producer as well. I live in this community and as early as 2004 I could have discussed, in detail, the trauma of living next to a frack site, the burning eyes and nose, nausea, headache and psychological fear.
Frontline communities are the “trial sites” for new extraction technologies and practices. Taking direction from frontline communities is strategic because they are on the ground experiencing the realities of different extraction techniques and are close enough to see future problems associated with these methods before anyone else. The experiences, fears and questions of frontline communities make them experts.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that many people already live climate change impacts. Folks in the Gulf Coast region are frontline experts on reasons to fight climate change because they are living it now. Weather events like hurricanes have increased (and been very destructive) in this area, heat and drought have hit records (in 2011 between 300–500 million trees were killed by drought in Texas), extraction industries hold ultimate power in many communities, and incidences of cancer and other illnesses related to the petroleum industry leave their mark on many individuals and families. As a united movement we must work to improve these conditions and circumstances or risk condemning millions of people right now to living a life impacted by climate change and runaway industry development.
People I know in the grassroots climate movement in Massachusetts and New England are tirelessly fighting the climate fight, including against Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines, including one that could run through New England to Portland, Maine. How can grassroots groups in different parts of the country support one another?
Before the January 22nd startup of KXL South, organizers in East Texas sent out a call to our allies asking that they tell our story and demonstrate solidarity with us on the 22nd. One particularly meaningful solidarity action came from two allies in Portland, Maine, who locked themselves to a TD Bank to raise awareness on our experience. What was unique about their action was the intentionality with which they highlighted our message. Every piece of press coverage on their story in turn linked back to those of us living with KXL South in Texas. This selfless demonstration of solidarity also drew local attention in Maine back to the ways that Portland stands to be impacted by tar sands. They succeeded in bringing attention to tar sands in Maine while not undercutting the experience with tar sands that folks have in Texas. This action demonstrates the ways that showing solidarity can make us all stronger. It shows how offering love and support to another community facing a similar struggle can have a mutually beneficial effect.
Grassroots groups can also support one another by using inclusive language to frame their work. As a movement we must use language that highlights the importance of our collective struggle with tar sands, using local level issues as a lens to examine this many-headed beast. Sharing resources, offering support and continuing to point to the millions of people impacted right now by tar sands is an important way that grassroots groups can support one another’s work. Grassroots groups need to look to one another to define both the work and the conversation—guiding national discussions towards the lives of the real people impacted in local communities across the US.
Read Next: Zoe Carpenter on the implications of the Keystone XL environmental report
It’s the closing weeks of 2013 and The Boston Globe, the recently acquired real estate of proud Red Sox owner John W. Henry, still publishes climate denial on its Opinion page. This puts Mr. Henry in fine company, so to speak, as shown in an important new study of the climate-denial funding machine from Drexel University’s Robert J. Brulle and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Of course, Henry’s funding of his op-ed page can’t be compared with the billion-dollar ocean of right-wing anti-science money. But still.
If it’s hard to accept—at this late date, given what we know about the imminent threat of catastrophic warming—that one of America’s great newspapers still runs columns denying the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, consider for a moment some of the other forms that denial still takes, many of them far more subtle and yet, perhaps, no less dangerous.
Indeed, you find them in places you’d least expect, such as Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall. As Tim DeChristopher put it in a guest post on this blog in October, when Harvard President Drew Faust issued her public statement rejecting students’ call for fossil-fuel divestment, she revealed, not outright denial of climate science, but a failure to acknowledge what the situation requires. Here’s DeChristopher:
[Faust] touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive. Faust never admits whether or not she agrees with the basic science of the carbon budget, which is the foundation of the understanding that the current reserves of the fossil fuel industry cannot be burned without condemning us to an unlivable future. If she accepts the science, she should explain how her plan of cooperation will convince the industry to leave those assets in the ground.
But here’s the truly scary thing: Drew Faust is utterly conventional in her failure to connect climate science with our political and economic realities. And I’m not talking about conservatives here. Remarkably, you see it across a broad swath of the center-left and left, from mainstream to radical, where climate is too often completely absent from any analysis—whether it’s Peter Beinart, to take just one example, in one of the year’s most talked-about pieces, arguing that millennials are giving rise to a “new new left,” while leaving out of his generational analysis the existential threat looming over today’s young people; or whether it’s Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, whose recent “Letter to The Nation From a Young Radical” described a “Next Left” that’s apparently oblivious to climate science. (To be fair, Jacobin has published some searching essays on climate and left politics by Alyssa Battistoni, with another forthcoming in January.)
Even as well-informed a writer as Paul Krugman, reviewing William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino in The New York Review of Books, seems unable to admit the full magnitude of the climate threat. “Facing up to global warming,” he writes, “would involve virtually eliminating our use of coal except to the extent that CO2 can be recaptured after consumption; it would involve somewhat reducing our use of other fossil fuels…” Wait. What? It’s not clear how Krugman imagines us avoiding the worst-case scenarios—and stabilizing global average temperature at the internationally agreed-upon target of two degrees C—while only “somewhat reducing” our use of oil and gas in the coming decades. (It’s hard to believe Krugman is unaware of analyses like UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson’s, spelled out in this classic post by Grist’s David Roberts.) But then, he also notes that Nordhaus believes the acceptable warming limit can be raised to 4C, if the near-term costs of emissions reductions are too high—without ever telling readers that a 4C planet, as the World Bank reported last year, is likely beyond adaptation. In other words, he fails to note that Nordhaus is talking blithely about civilizational catastrophe within the lifetimes of today’s children.
If even the smartest writers, who obviously get the reality of climate change, don’t acknowledge what “facing up” to it would actually mean—essentially, global emissions peaking by 2020 and then plummeting to near zero by 2050, leaving something like 80 percent of fossil-fuel reserves untapped—then where are the truth tellers? What does “facing up” really look like?
Well, here’s one example—and my pick for 2013’s climate truth-teller of the year award.
Back in October, in “How science is telling us all to revolt” in The New Statesman, Naomi Klein highlighted “a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems—particularly the climate system—is leading them to…transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions.” Foremost among them is the aforementioned Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and one of Britain’s leading climate scientists. “In recent years,” Klein writes,
Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous… Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.
With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies—all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned—that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else….
what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.
Anderson and Bows, Klein notes, have “laid down something of a gauntlet” for fellow scientists, essentially arguing, as Klein puts it, that “in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research.” She quotes Anderson, who wrote this past August:
Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” [his emphasis].
(On December 10-11, the Tyndall Centre hosted a conference on “radical emissions reduction,” at which Anderson and Klein spoke.)
Now, ask yourself what our national conversation on climate would sound like—including (no, especially) on the left—if this kind of brutal honesty broke through with any regularity.
For one thing, it might sound a lot more like Bill McKibben’s latest piece in Rolling Stone, “Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story,” in which McKibben writes:
If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.
As McKibben points out, “All this new carbon drilling, digging and burning the White House has approved will add up to enough to negate the administration’s actual achievements” on climate.
Or, at least among activists on the left, an honest conversation might sound a bit like Occupy organizer and Wildfire Project founder Yotam Marom’s must-read essay “Confessions of a climate change denier” (Waging Nonviolence and openDemocracy.net), a heartfelt and provocative call to fellow activists who have tended to see climate as an issue separate from their own work. “It wasn’t until I was out organizing on New York City’s outer beaches after Hurricane Sandy,” he writes at the outset, “that I understood my sluggishness on climate justice was nothing short of climate change denial.”
Then again—though this may be far too much to ask—it might sound like James Hansen, recently retired as NASA’s top climate scientist, and seventeen co-authors, who just this month released a major study concluding that warming of 2 degrees C—that internationally agreed-upon limit—would itself set in motion “disastrous consequences” beyond humanity’s control. Instead, Hansen and his co-authors write, we should do everything we can to stay as close as possible to 1 degree C—which means our global carbon “budget” should actually be half of what the international community committed to at Copenhagen (i.e., half the budget on which Kevin Anderson’s already grim analysis is based). It may sound unreasonable. But as Hansen et al. write, “There is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.”
But maybe, in the end, truth-telling might also sound at least a little like these parting words from Dave Roberts of Grist, in his farewell post at the end of August, as he prepared to take a year off, exhausted from writing about climate and needing to unplug entirely. (I’m glad Dave had the wisdom to pull back and take care of himself, but his absence has been the most conspicuous feature of the climate conversation these last few months of 2013.) “It looks like things are going to get bad, possibly really bad, even within my children’s lifetimes,” he wrote in August. “The decisions we’re making today will reverberate for centuries, and so far we’re blowing it.” But he went on, “Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory.…”
The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear….
History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)….
We don’t know when history might unlock the door, so we have no choice but to keep pushing on it.
Indeed. And I’d only add: we need a lot more of us out there pushing—and pushing a whole lot harder.
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden wrote that, sitting in a dive on 52nd Street nearly three-quarters of a century ago, as the world plunged into darkness on September 1, 1939. I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. Because it feels to me, and many others I know, like we’re poised at the edge of another darkness.
It’s a darkness already visible, right now, in the Philippines, where thousands are dead and many hundreds of thousands made refugees by the force of a storm like none had ever seen.
And it’s a darkness visible in the bright corporate halls of a conference center in Warsaw, where delegates to the nineteenth annual U.N. negotiations on climate change are divided and dithering, even as the window to prevent civilizational catastrophe rapidly closes.
In those same bright halls last Monday, during the opening session, the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Naderev Yeb Saño, announced in a powerful and emotional speech that he would eat no food for the duration of the twelve-day conference, or until meaningful action was taken to address the global crisis, and sparked an international outpouring of solidarity.
It so happens that two young friends of mine, Adam Greenberg and Collin Rees, recent Boston-area college grads, are in Warsaw as youth delegates to the U.N. conference with SustainUS, and they and other young people there immediately joined Saño in his hunger strike—and have now been fasting for more than a week. (Adam and Collin are allowing themselves some liquid nutrients so they can keep up the grueling conference schedule.)
By coincidence, it also happens that I spent this past weekend with a core group of about fifty committed student climate organizers from Students For a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) at their fall convergence in Worcester, Massachusetts, as they spent two full days in trainings and strategy meetings to strengthen their network and support the fast-growing grassroots climate movement in New England and beyond. And yesterday, the SJSF groups at Tufts and Brandeis launched a weeklong fast in solidarity with Saño and the people of the Philippines (as well as their friends Adam and Collin), and held a candlelight vigil in Cambridge. (Update: See their "Open Letter: Why We Are Fasting This Week," signed by students at 74 campuses.) They’re joined by people throughout Boston and the region, and coordinated fasts and vigils are being planned around the U.S. and the world for Thursday and Friday, the final days of the Warsaw conference.
These students (many of whom I’ve come to know personally as we’ve worked side by side in the 350 Massachusetts network) understand full well what’s happening to the climate, and are acutely conscious of the fact that time is running out for their generation—and, especially, those that will follow. They know that we simply cannot wait until 2020, or even 2015, to turn things around decisively. It has to be now. And they’re prepared to engage in the kind of hard work and struggle that building their movement will require.
In an email last week, Adam Greenberg told me:
I’m fasting because we need to, as Yeb said, stop this madness. I refuse to accept that we can’t. I refuse to accept that we won’t. I refuse to let the fossil fuel companies win. This is about justice, this is about taking action, and this is about preventing harm both now and in the future. We know what needs to happen. The science and the deadly simple math could not be more clear. Walking away from these talks each year without making progress is morally unacceptable.
I followed up with some questions for the two of them, and Collin Rees was able to respond last night. Noting that expectations for what the UN process can achieve are exceedingly low, I asked if he could describe what the atmosphere at the Warsaw conference was like coming in, and how the devastation in the Philippines and the action by Yeb Saño has changed it.
Collin Rees: Expectations from the UNFCCC are traditionally very low; this has been even more true in Warsaw. There was not a lot of hope for real action coming into the talks; there was some fairly vague talk about a loss and damage mechanism and some small hopes for moving on finance. Ever since Copenhagen expectations have been kept exceedingly low to avoid disappointment—I think they’ve actually been kept artificially low through this method, and this week has shown us there’s still a lot of hope.
People are now talking about real advances in the loss and damage arena, and tangible movement on finance. Discussions on REDD+ has been surprisingly hopeful, and sessions have run late into the night as countries continue debate. It hasn’t changed everything and expectations are still low, but I think we’re seeing real movement and that’s something we can continue to push for as we move into the second week.
I also asked what the goals of SustainUS were for Warsaw, and whether they had changed, and what the US delegation’s reaction has been, if any.
CR: SustainUS’s goals for Warsaw were largely related to two campaigns—inserting intergenerational equity into the negotiating text for 2015’s agreement and sparking a climate conversation in the U.S. about this June’s upcoming Clean Air Act Section 111(d) EPA standards for existing-source power plants. Both campaigns have been going well, but the domestic efforts especially have been augmented by Haiyan’s devastation and Sano’s courageous stand. The media is connecting climate change to real impacts, and the need for climate action is clear. The upcoming EPA regulations are a simple, easy way the U.S. can instantly become a leader on climate action, by implementing aggressive standards that force the worst energy sources out of the equation. These regs will be issued; the only question is how much of an impact they will have. They’re a chance to avoid a completely dysfunctional Congress and take real action with immediate impacts.
The large majority of the U.S. delegation didn’t show up until this week, so they’ve been largely absent from the dialogue thus far. We’re planning to bring it to their attention, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that they’ve essentially been given their marching orders from Washington and have very little flexibility in their actions here in Warsaw. What we need in the U.S. is aggressive domestic action, so that in the next two years we can come to these negotiations and be a real leader in the international sphere. This fast is about solidarity with climate change victims worldwide, but it’s also about getting action back at home (in every country, not just the U.S.).
I asked Collin, as someone in his early twenties, what he wanted people to understand about what’s happening there in Warsaw right now—not just in terms of the negotiations, but in terms of what’s truly at stake.
CR: We want people to understand that negotiators are coming to the table with full knowledge of the science of climate change and its devastating impacts. They’re coming with knowledge of what needs to be done, and the steps that need to occur to get to that point.
They’re coming with all of this knowledge, they’re waving their arms and giving windy, empty speeches for two weeks, and they’re walking away WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING. This is not a process that’s subtly flawed, it’s a process that’s being hijacked by a small group of countries who refuse to commit to action. That’s morally unacceptable.
If we don’t take action on climate change, we’re condemning the entire world to an unlivable future. We’re condemning those currently living in vulnerable regions disproportionately affected by the ravages of climate change, and we’re condemning all future generations to a world incompatible with life. That’s what’s at stake here, and that’s why inaction is so unacceptable.
[Update, 11/20/13: The Guardian reports that a bloc of 132 poor and developing countries (the G77 and China) have walked out of the Warsaw negotiations in an "orchestrated move," protesting wealthy nations' refusal to discuss "loss and damage" compensation until after 2015.]
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A personal note: As I post this, I’m nearing twenty-four hours without food myself, as I fast in solidarity with Yeb Saño, the people of the Philippines, people suffering the effects of climate change everywhere—and with these young friends of mine in Warsaw and at home. It’s a small thing, not eating for a day or two, by choice. A very small thing. And yet, fasting last week and again now, it has been a profound reminder of my physical connection to, well, everyone and everything.
“No one exists alone,” Auden wrote in that same poem, “September 1, 1939,” just before the lines about hunger and love I quoted at the outset. It’s also worth noting how Auden ended that poem. After telling us that “we must love one another or die,” he leaves us in the final stanza with an image that, the more I repeat it to myself, retains an uncanny staying power:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden wrote in another famous poem (his elegy for Yeats) earlier that same year, 1939. And yes, I know, my temporary self-imposed hunger doesn’t either.
But as all those fasting this week must feel in their guts and bones, it’s not really about the fast itself. It’s about the flame that started it—and keeps us going.
Aura Bogado explores the terrible truth behind climate debt.
Yesterday, Harvard President Drew Faust issued a public statement explaining why the university will not divest from the fossil fuel industry. Renowned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, newly arrived at Harvard Divinity School after serving a two-year federal sentence for peaceful civil disobedience, is now a member of the “Harvard community” addressed by Faust. I wrote about Tim in an essay called “The New Abolitionists,” but we met in person for the first time only this week. We had a good conversation yesterday about divestment and Harvard, and just after we spoke, we learned that Faust had issued her statement. Tim immediately wrote a concise and powerful response to Faust, and I asked him if I could post it here. It’s worth noting that Tim indicts the industry in much the same terms I used in my divestment speech at Harvard on September 16: crimes against humanity.
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Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral. She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” Or as Howard Zinn put succinctly, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
She touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive. Faust never admits whether or not she agrees with the basic science of the carbon budget, which is the foundation of the understanding that the current reserves of the fossil fuel industry cannot be burned without condemning us to an unlivable future. If she accepts the science, she should explain how her plan of cooperation will convince the industry to leave those assets in the ground.
Faust’s claim that the university should not divest while it continues to consume fossil fuels obfuscates the fact that divestment is about undermining the political power of the fossil fuel industry. Energy is a market driven not by consumers but by political influence, yet Faust alludes to the worn out old argument that the consumers of fossil fuels don’t have a right to object to the crimes against humanity committed by an industry that uses political leverage to prevent alternatives. As a historian of the Civil War, surely Faust knows that the exact same argument was made to defend slavery, an energy source that was once every bit as vital to our economy as fossil fuels are today.
The students’ call for divestment was a call for help by the young people who will reap the consequences of the climate crisis. The industry committed to ruining our future simply asked Faust to stay out of it. There is no way for someone in a position of influence to not take a side in such a situation. That’s why leadership is no place for a coward. By turning her back on those calling for help, Faust absolutely took a side. I strongly suspect that time will show that she chose the wrong side of history. When our generation writes Drew Faust into the history books, being not as bad as Larry Summers will not suffice as a position of honor. Harvard needs leaders better able to see beyond their own time, and the students who will continue to push for divestment are a great example.
Wen Stephenson on why Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Harvard University (Flickr/Kelly Delay)
The following is the text of my keynote speech at the first Divest Harvard alumni demonstration, outside Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard, on Monday, September 16, 2013. As of this writing, more than 500 Harvard graduates have signed the Alumni Resolution calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels.
Let me ask you something: Why are we here? Why are we standing here, in this place, right now? Why are you here?
I’ll tell you why I’m here. I’m here because I’m afraid. I’m the father of two young children, and I’m scared. And I’m here because I’m angry. That’s right. I’m angry. But most of all, I’m here because I’m determined. I’m determined to fight alongside these students for a just and stable future on this planet.
In the fall and spring of 1986 and ’87, as a freshman at this college, I lived on the top floor of Massachusetts Hall. My dorm room—right up there, in the top northeast corner, two floors above the President’s offices—faced out over the Yard, and I have vivid memories of large protests demanding that this university divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Suffice it to say, it got loud out here. Very, very loud.
And if any of you, here today, were out here then—thank you. I confess, I was too self-absorbed as a freshman to join you. I knew you were right, but I lacked the courage of my convictions. The kind of courage that these students here today have shown in this campaign to divest from fossil fuels. The courage to stand and speak truth to power.
Now, in the past year, since this campaign was launched, we’ve heard from a few critics—and, frankly, from a few cynics. And that’s just fine. We’re getting their attention.
And one of the things we’re told is that fossil-fuel divestment will be ineffective as a strategy to address climate change—that the economics of it won’t alter the behavior of these companies, the wealthiest on Earth. But this misreads—or fails to read—our clearly stated reasons for divestment. The leverage we aim to bring is not simply economic. It’s moral.
And on that score, we’re also told that we have the wrong target—that the fossil fuel industry isn’t the enemy, that we ourselves, as consumers—who, yes, in spite of our best efforts, still depend on fossil fuels—we are the enemy. As though the fossil fuel companies are somehow blameless—despite everything we know to the contrary. And as though the working, poor, and struggling families of this country and every other country are somehow responsible for solving the climate crisis, which they did nothing to create, by themselves—even as they’re forced to rely on fossil fuels, through no fault of their own, simply to put food on the table. This is a basic issue of justice. The wealthiest corporations on Earth have the power to help solve the crisis they have done so much to create, and from which they have profited—and continue to profit—so richly. And they must use it. Not stand in the way of solutions. Not, for God’s sake, deceive the public, deny science, and obstruct solutions.
So we’re told these things, but at the end of the day, what we’re mainly told is that divestment is…well, you see, children, it’s complicated. It’s difficult—for various technical reasons.
In fact, what this really means is that Harvard just can’t be bothered. “Climate change, yes, it’s very serious,” we’re told. “Indeed, Harvard’s faculty is contributing much to our understanding of climate change and its solutions. But you see, children, it doesn’t rise to such a level that we would take any such radical or extreme course of action as divestment.”
Only in the rarest of circumstances, we’re told—indeed, only in “extraordinarily rare circumstances,” in the words of the administration—will the university go so far as to divest.
This is what all of us have heard. As though to say, Harvard is a busy place. It has a lot of important things on its plate. All you climate change people will simply have to understand.
Well, climate change people, do we understand? I think we understand all too well.
So let’s consider this language, this boilerplate, emanating from Massachusetts Hall. Only in “extraordinarily rare circumstances” will the university divest.
Presumably such circumstances would include—oh, I don’t know—humans melting the Arctic.
Presumably such circumstances would include humans rapidly acidifying the oceans—and raising them.
Presumably such circumstances would include burning the planet’s great forests. Drying up its great rivers. Flooding its great cities.
Presumably such “extraordinarily rare circumstances” would also include the fact, famously reported by Bill McKibben, class of 1982, that the fossil fuel industry controls in its reserves more than five times the amount of carbon that climate science tells us can be burned, over the next four decades, if we’re to have a chance of preserving a livable climate this century—and the fact that the industry shows every intention of extracting and burning every ounce of it, unless and until somebody stops them, or makes it unprofitable for them to do so.
In other words, it is perhaps among the rarest and most extraordinary of circumstances that the power of a single industry holds the fate of the planet and of humanity in its grip.
Presumably these circumstances are rare and extraordinary.
Here’s what else they are: Given what we’ve known about climate change for decades, to willfully obstruct any serious solution is to knowingly, willfully allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob people of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives and their children’s lives—and their children’s children’s lives. For profit.
There’s a word for this. These are called crimes. They are crimes against the Earth, and they are crimes against humanity. They are crimes against humanity.
So, yes, divestment may be bothersome. It may be—inconvenient. Well, I hate to tell you, but nobody ever said that taking on this crisis would be convenient. Or that business as usual—or academics as usual—would be enough. Nobody ever said it would be easy.
Ask the folks on the front lines of global warming how easy it is:
Ask them on the bone-dry farms out west.
Ask them on the beach fronts of Jersey and of Queens.
Or on the floodplains of Asia.
Or on the drought-stricken plains of Africa.
Or on the heat-stricken streets of Chicago—or of Roxbury and Dorchester. Or Cambridge.
Or ask the people of the disappearing nations of the Pacific and Indian oceans, entire societies going under the waves.
There is nothing easy about the climate fight. Nothing.
And all we ask—all we demand—is that this university stop investing in all this destruction, all this death.
We’re here today, graduates of this proud university, to demand that Harvard divest from fossil fuels, not because it’s easy—though it is. And not because it’s profitable—though it will be. But because it’s right. And because it’s necessary.
“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
Henry David Thoreau wrote that, in an essay called “Civil Disobedience.” He was a graduate of this College, class of 1837. And in that great abolitionist essay he also wrote this:
“If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself…. This people must cease to hold slaves…though it cost them their existence as a people.”
This university must cease to invest in crimes against humanity—even if the cost were to be its existence as a university.
Fortunately, as we all know—as they all know in that building behind me—the cost will be nothing of the sort. Not even close. In fact, quite the opposite. Divestment may be inconvenient, but it will do no damage to this great institution. It will only make Harvard stronger.
It will reassure the world of Harvard’s leadership.
It will ensure the faith of its alumni in its integrity.
And it will demonstrate to its students and to future generations that it understands the meaning of “action from principle,” of moral courage—of conscience.
And in doing so, it will change things and relations. In taking this principled action, Harvard will live up to its history and its calling. It will be, and rightly so—rightly so—revolutionary.
One whistleblower with the courage to fight climate change.