The United States’ military strategy has long been predicated on being able to fight two wars at once. Now the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, just weeks before the French capital hosts a landmark international climate-change summit, will test whether the world as a whole can address two crises at once. Massacring innocent civilians is never justified and calls for a range of responses: grief for the victims and their loved ones; solidarity with all who condemn such heinous acts; bringing to justice the immediate perpetrators; and unraveling the deeper causes of such violence. These necessities, however, must not be allowed to distract the world’s governments, media, or citizens from the equally urgent task of reversing our collective march toward climate chaos.
Dooming young people and future generations (not to mention other species) to an unlivable planet is no more justified than killing innocent civilians is, and it too demands a range of responses, starting with compassion for the victims. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is correct to link the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change (as US national security officials and scientists have long done). ExxonMobil and other perpetrators of climate denial should be brought to justice. World leaders should agree in Paris to leave most of earth’s remaining fossil fuels in the ground, as the latest science dictates. Such a goal requires launching the most rapid possible transition to “100 percent clean energy for all,” as activists have urged. Humanity has the tools needed to exit the Carbon Age and build a sustainable future; what’s required are dramatically different political and economic choices.
Insisting that the power to fight climate change resides not only in the corridors of global elites but also in ordinary people in the streets, activists had planned a huge march through Paris on November 29 to greet heads of state arriving for the two-week summit, along with sister marches in cities around the world. The terrorist attacks threw plans for that march into question; French authorities worried that large numbers of people streaming through the streets of Paris would be difficult to protect. Representatives of Coalition Climate 21, the international alliance of groups coordinating activism around the Paris summit, insisted the restricting of civil society from expressing itself during a summit covering humanity’s future was unacceptable. “We can think of few better responses to violence and terror than this movement’s push for peace and hope,” said Alice Jay, of the group Avaaz, a member of the coalition. In the end, the government prohibited street marches but said demonstrations in closed, more easily protected places would be allowed. The sister marches planned in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Tokyo, New Delhi and scores of other major cities will proceed, with activists saying that attendance there will now be even more important.
For his part, Barack Obama heads to Paris as a credible (though hardly perfect) climate leader because he has been pressured by increasingly visible and disruptive activism. Grassroots protests both pushed and created the political space for the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline this month. But the League of Conservation Voters’ controversial early endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president illustrates that the US climate movement remains divided between a grassroots wing, which has been winning victories such as Keystone by disrupting politics as usual, and the “Big Green” groups like the LCV, headquartered in Washington, DC, which favor working within the status quo to achieve the best outcome available.