The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released the “summary for policymakers” section of the group’s forthcoming Synthesis Report, the final portion of its massive Sixth Assessment Report. Two messages in particular have stood out in both media coverage and the report itself. The 1.5 degrees C warming threshold scientists say is the line between relative stability and extreme volatility—which may be irreversible—is more likely than not to occur within around five years, even under scenarios positing very low carbon emissions. This has accompanied the urgent message that there’s still time to avert calamity. As the IPCC report notes, the consequences of crossing the 1.5º C threshold will linger for thousands of years. But halting greenhouse gas emissions entails removing fossil fuels from the world’s ships, planes, cars, farms, factories, militaries, homes, and buildings. Doing this in a few years would be like turning the world’s biggest ship 180 degrees at a moment’s notice—without using fossil fuels. The assessment report’s 3,675 pages tells us what technology has to change to avert disaster. But changing technology is a deeply political process; even swapping in renewable energy for fossil fuels has proven to be a politically fraught and difficult prospect. So how, exactly, are these massive changes supposed to happen?
The obvious answer, and the one the IPCC report leans on most, is an elite solution: All the world’s leaders must cooperate to move governments and industries toward zero greenhouse gas emissions. The report emphasizes investments in renewables, low-carbon transport, and as yet non-deployable technology that captures atmospheric carbon and stores it underground. This top-down focus on post-facto tech fixes is partly due to a last-minute push by Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest oil producer after the United States, to downplay the need to stop using fossil fuels outright. The report even says we should continue using fossil fuels—for agriculture, aviation, shipping, and industrial processes—as long as we deploy carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods. These methods do not exist at scale and require so much energy that it’s possible they never will. But even if these technological interventions could work, will heads of state and industry work together to implement them?
Unfortunately, world leaders have been jetting to expensive cities for 28 years for UNFCCC Conference of the Parties meetings (COPs), ostensibly with the mission of doing this very thing: coordinating their institutions and government agencies to reduce global emissions. The upcoming annual meeting, COP28, will be held in the United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh-largest oil producer.
And it seems unlikely that the track record of COP gatherings will change. In nearly three decades, they have delivered little measurable improvement in global carbon emissions. Even a generous survey of their achievements would come up well short of what the climate crisis requires—which is why we’re now on the precipice of irreversible climate change. IPCC reports have likewise been urging governments and businesses to act for 33 years—and governments and businesses have yet to comply. Even seemingly conscientious nations, like Scotland and Norway, can’t help themselves from exploiting the oil under the North Sea. Since publication of the first IPCC report in 1990, the USSR fell, 20 wars were fought, every social media network, smartphone, and WiFi-based technology was launched, and the human population gained almost 3 billion more people. Meanwhile, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere grew steadily from 354 parts per million to around 420—-well over the “safe” limit of 350 ppm. This increase now totals more than half of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere since 1751. Over the course of the last 20 COP meetings, 1.7 billion new cars were manufactured.
Are world leaders likely to reverse their historical behavior in the next few years? Given this grim pattern of noncompliance, it does not seem prudent to rely on them. It may even be reasonable to assume that the COPs have prevented meaningful action by providing world leaders the appearance of acting while avoiding doing anything of substance.
If these leaders are unlikely to effect change in the world’s most powerful institutions, what about the public? The IPCC report suggests that individuals can do many things to reduce their personal contribution to GHG emissions, like reducing driving and flying, and eating less meat. While that’s a nice goal, globally all of these activities are on the rise. What’s more, individuals making isolated decisions to change consumption behaviors are too diffuse across space and time to have much of a concentrated impact on emissions in the near term. These sorts of demand-side solutions require billions of people to do the same thing at the same time—actions that may go against their self-interest, culture, or comfort—indefinitely. Calls for green consumerism have been popular since the 1960s and ’70s and saw a resurgence in the early 2000s. But they have yet to put a sufficient dent in emissions. Will the next five years be different?
What about social movements: the coordinated actions of a smaller portion of the public? Climate movements are young, first emerging in earnest around 2007 in the Global North, where emissions are highest. I remember the excitement of participating in the first stirrings of this social movement and drawing inspiration from past ones. Lessons from the American civil rights and Indian independence movements—with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as charismatic figureheads—have positively shaped tactics, like demonstrations, marches, occupations, and other forms of nonviolent direct action. Unfortunately, these mobilizations also face major obstacles. One is time. Past movements benefited from many decades of groundwork—-a luxury that climate movements simply don’t have. Another obstacle is emotive: Fighting immediate physical oppression with racial solidarity feels different from toiling to stop parts per million of carbon dioxide being emitted from millions of sources. Still another is societal: Activists blocking traffic and disrupting public spaces with spectacle have not necessarily garnered broad support, nor inspired enough people to pressure politicians, vote a certain way, or change behaviors. Finally, governments today have far more tools of repression than they did in the mid-20th century—the heyday of nonviolent direct action social movements—like greater surveillance and harsher incarceration methods, more sophisticated control of protesters, and more punitive sentencing for activists.
What about organized labor? There are good reasons to appeal for greater working-class support in climate movements. Organized labor is mobilized and primed to pressure both policy and industry. Some of the greatest successes of among all modern reform movements have come about via industrial labor action. But much organized labor is invested—financially, professionally, emotionally—in the very industries causing climate change, from extractive energy industries to manufacturing to heavy transport. And labor victories in the past have often depended on controlling and expanding fossil-fuel dependent industry—coal miners being the quintessential examples. Will these sections of the labor movement now work in concert to help destroy their own industries and livelihoods? If not, will other sectors betray union solidarity to do so?
Given the scope of this crisis, there’s space for all of these tactics. But, historically, the most effective actions for stopping fossil fuel development—and other sources of emissions like deforestation—have come from Indigenous and environmental protectors. Standing Rock Sioux water protectors in North Dakota stopped a proposed 1,172-mile oil pipeline. In Latin America, Indigenous victories are widespread. One recent example involved a legal victory in Ecuador protecting 32,000 hectares of the Cofán people’s land from gold mining. In Colombia, the Indigenous people of the semiautonomous Tacueyó reservation guard territory that provides clean water to the whole country. They carry only sticks and machetes to protect against armed guerrillas who try to seize land for marijuana and coca production.
But these activists are also extremely vulnerable to attacks. In Colombia alone, 290 environmental protectors—117 of whom were Indigenous—were killed over the last ten years. Environmental defenders are among the most murdered of all activists globally. Around the world, at least 1,700 environmental activists were killed in the same time period. That number is almost certainly an underestimate. The threat isn’t just drug-cultivating guerrillas. State forces and industry mercenaries on every inhabited continent have made it clear that they will use force, often lethal, to remove people trying to prevent extraction and development. A recent bloody example occurred in the United States: Earlier this year, Manuel Esteban Páez Terán, known as Tortuguita (Spanish for “Little Turtle”), occupied a woodland in Georgia attempting to prevent the construction of a compound for training new police recruits to wage “urban warfare.” Tortuguita was sitting, unarmed, with their hands raised when police fatally shot them 14 times.
So the stark reality remains: Despite securing notable victories—probably more than any other tactic has realized—this mobilization of Indigenous protest has not yet slowed carbon emissions at a rate sufficient to avoid the rapid approach of the 1.5º C threshold. The Indigenous peoples and environmentalists taking on the burden of protecting land and water for everyone are under-protected legally and under-armed materially. When governments fail to secure the basic foundations of our collective future, aren’t these land and water defenders morally justified in securing the safety of themselves and the environment with any means at their disposal? Maybe my imagination is limited by my upbringing in the notoriously armed and militia-friendly state of Michigan, but it’s hard to picture any scenario that can avoid 1.5º C—or even 2º or 3º C—increases that doesn’t include well-organized and heavily armed militias willing to put not just their own bodies on the line but to risk wider conflict in order to finally stem the destructive legacies of fossil-fuel production and deforestation. Is this any more likely to save us than any of the other pathways? No one, not even the IPCC, knows.