As the UN climate conference in Bonn, where the US government shilled for fossil-fuel corporations, was coming to a close last Thursday, several hundred Massachusetts citizens who care about climate and climate justice massed inside the State House at high noon, under the shining gold dome on Boston’s Beacon Hill. It was the peak of a months-long grassroots campaign asking the commonwealth’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, to sign an executive order preventing any new fossil-fuel infrastructure in the state, including controversial fracked-gas pipelines that have been a flashpoint for years.
I was among the 26 of us, including prominent clergy members, who proceeded up the grand staircase to Baker’s executive suite, a noisy throng of supporters at our backs, where we would sit-in all day and into the night, prepared to be arrested and go to jail. The week before, six people sat-in inside the office, but this time we were prevented by State Troopers from entering the suite, so we settled in on the hard floor of the ornate marble hallway outside its doors. We sang, we chanted, we spoke out; some of us prayed; some wept. You see, after two months during which ordinary citizens stood outside Baker’s office, week after week, we had not received even a minute of the governor’s time.
Back in January, as Donald Trump took office, I and others addressed a crowd on the State House steps, challenging Baker to reject Trump, Tillerson, and the rest of Trump’s science-denying cabinet, and to represent Massachusetts voters by showing some moral courage on climate change. That wasn’t going to happen. Although Baker, a moderate GOP governor of an otherwise blue state, eventually reassured voters that he accepts climate science and even joined those supporting the US commitment under the Paris Agreement—a pledge so manifestly inadequate as to be almost meaningless—he nevertheless remains in the pocket of the fossil-fuel lobby and big utilities pushing for unnecessary new pipelines and gas-fired power plants.
Now, there’s a wonkish temptation to get deep into the policy weeds on gas and electricity—a temptation that should be resisted. Because on this one, the facts are straightforward. Anyone who claims to accept climate science and to take climate seriously simply cannot support building out new fossil-fuel infrastructure at this late date, locking in carbon and methane emissions for decades to come, far beyond the point at which the IPCC tells us, and the Paris Agreement affirms, we must decarbonize our energy systems. It’s an emergency situation, and at some point—as we should have long ago—we need to act like it.
As a new briefing from the climate and energy think-tank Oil Change International spells out in the clearest possible terms, “fossil gas is not a ‘bridge fuel.’” Full stop. Even if we replace all coal-fired electricity with gas, carbon emissions would still vastly exceed the level we can afford by mid-century. In fact, even without coal, there’s enough oil and gas currently under production to far exceed the limit—and that’s without considering the inevitable, and massive, additional greenhouse emissions from methane leakage. Coal, oil, and gas must be replaced with renewables—but as OCI shows, new gas infrastructure doesn’t merely replace coal, it displaces wind and solar going forward, fatally slowing the necessary, rapid transition to decarbonized economies. If we’re serious about climate, then no more gas. It has to be phased out, not increased. It’s that simple. (And of course, this isn’t even to mention the many localized environmental and human-health impacts of fracked oil and gas.)
And yet here we are, confronted with a situation, increasingly characterized by scientists as a global emergency, where corporate and political forces of both major political parties continue to push fossil fuels (yes, that means you too, Jerry Brown), as if we can extend our reliance on oil and gas far beyond the point of no return. This is the most insidious form of climate denial, as if these politicians and corporate executives think they can bend physical reality to their will.
When one considers all that is at stake, at this late hour of the climate crisis—literally, countless millions of lives, even the future of human life on earth—there are perhaps a few things that can be said with a certain amount of moral clarity. For instance, it can be said with confidence that to deny scientific facts and obstruct what amount to emergency life-saving measures, on a global scale, is a moral crime of outsized proportions—an unprecedented crime against humanity. The motives may be as ordinary and unremarkable, as banal, as quarterly profits or a politician’s approval ratings, but that doesn’t lessen the magnitude of the crime or its effects. Indeed, those like Charlie Baker who collaborate in such a crime may be said to represent our contemporary version of the “banality of evil.”
Given such stakes, going to jail for a peaceful act of civil disobedience outside the governor’s office would seem a small thing to ask—a small, principled act of resistance on behalf of one’s fellow humanity.
As it happened, the 26 of us, after staying put past the building’s closing time, and being informed that we were therefore unlawfully assembled and trespassing on state property, were not arrested and did not spend any time in jail. Our organizers, concerned that after-hours arrests would receive little if any media coverage, accepted a deal so that we could walk away and receive a court summons in the mail.
I have the utmost respect for all who took action that day. But what does it say that we were willing to walk away? Personally, I feel like I failed on some fundamental level. And I’ll say this now: It’s the last time I’ll engage in that kind of weak display.
Perhaps it would have served no reasonable, “strategic” purpose for 26 ordinarily law-abiding citizens to be handcuffed at the door of the governor’s office and taken to jail, where we would have shivered for a night or even just a few hours (I’ve been to jail before; it’s not fun). Perhaps the cameras wouldn’t have seen it and The Boston Globe, as usual, would have shrugged. Perhaps there was no strategic purpose worth asking 26 people to bear that hardship or endure that inconvenience. Perhaps.
Yet perhaps there was a moral purpose, a principle.
It’s true that there was likely to be no mass-media audience for our action once the State House had closed and the cameras had gone away. No one would have seen us handcuffed and carted off to jail. But the governor’s office would have known, and our legislators would have known, and eventually many people in the climate movement and beyond would have known. Most importantly, Charlie Baker would have known, and it was the governor himself we were directly addressing with our protest.
A big part of what has made nonviolent civil disobedience powerful, historically, is the willingness of those engaging in the action to suffer the consequences—indeed, the very willingness to suffer at all, moved by conscience, for a principle or a principled cause. When protesters accept a deal offered by state law enforcement to take an easier way out of the situation—a way that not only spares themselves the inconvenience and hardship of a few hours in jail but also spares the state authorities the inconvenience and possible negative publicity of handcuffing ministers and grandparents—we fail to exercise our full power, the power of principled action.
Maybe it’s a cliché to quote Thoreau at times like this, but these words bear remembering. In the radical abolitionist essay we know as “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau wrote: “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, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” He went on, in that same essay: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
This people—that is, this country and our failure to confront the fossil-fuel industry—is wresting a livable future from innumerable drowning men and women and children, starting with the poorest on the planet, and from generations not yet born. We must restore it to them, whatever of it we can. And so this country must cease to extract fossil fuels, and to build new infrastructure for the production, transport, and consumption of fossil fuels, though it cost us—what?
What cost are we willing to bear, each of us, and as a country, now?