The UN climate conference in Paris, COP21, is fast approaching in December. Coincidentally, last week the UK Met Office—Britain’s National Weather Service—declared that the planet will pass 1C warming by the end of the year, moving the world’s climate into “uncharted territory.” The US presidential primaries are in full swing with one party rife with climate change deniers. In this context, one question rises above all others: Does the climate movement have the political clout to save planet Earth?
As a youth climate activist and co-founder of Divest Harvard, I focused on this question for my senior thesis. I asked: How does the climate movement mobilize political power, and how effective have its political efforts been? After interviewing dozens of climate movement leaders, I identified what I call “the mobilization gap.” Movement leaders identify their goals as political, but they don’t see the movement as having the political power to achieve those goals. This dissonance has not yet been recognized—let alone addressed—but it jeopardizes the success of all our work.
Three recent examples illustrate the mobilization gap.
One word lit up the climate movement last spring: kayaktivist. The Obama administration had just granted Royal Dutch Shell permission to drill for oil off Alaska’s shore. In May, hundreds of people took to the water in protest and kayaked across Seattle’s Elliott Bay. Their message: “sHell No.” In June, kayaktivists blocked one of Shell’s Arctic-bound drilling rigs in Seattle. In July, 13 Greenpeace protesters hung off a bridge in Portland, Oregon, to stop another Shell rig from departing. Kayaktivists supported from the water below, making national headlines. Organizations like 350.org, NRDC and CREDO issued statements and petitions, protesting Obama’s decisions to allow Arctic drilling.
Then in September, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. His goal: to confront the human and environmental impacts of the climate crisis. Staring forlornly at a rapidly vanishing glacier, Obama spoke with a reporter from Rolling Stone. In his interview, he appeared to be resigned to a status quo that remains frozen despite the melting mountains of ice. For example, when asked about his approval of Arctic drilling, Obama claimed that he couldn’t stop Shell, lamenting that, “regardless of how urgent I think the science is, if I howl at the moon without being able to build a political consensus behind me, it’s not going to get done.” His rhetoric reflects a political climate in which the work of the kayaktivists and those of other broad-based organizations opposed to Arctic drilling are considered futile idealism—the political equivalent of howling at the moon. The movement has yet to provide Obama with the cover needed to reject Arctic drilling as a matter of political necessity. When the Obama administration did suspend auctions for two offshore drilling leases in October, the low price of oil and lack of competitive bidding were cited as reasons—not political or existential requirement.