The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Leave a comment

Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!


1 Comment

I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of them¬† drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


Leave a comment

One Less

My dog died yesterday morning.

Not Reilly, of whom I have written before, but his older co-dog, Una Mas. Although she’d carried a terminal diagnosis for the better part of a year, and had lately showed clear signs of failing health, I’ve seen “failing health” persist for months. 48 hours ago, I was somewhat concerned–she had fallen for no apparent reason, and seemed to be having a bad day–but I didn’t doubt she’d be around for my book launch party next month. I thought it possible she might hang on long enough to come with us to Maine next summer. Instead, her body simply began to fail in the middle of the night, and she died in the parking lot of the vet’s office in the morning. I can’t quite believe that she’s gone.

Reilly sits huddled on the couch, disoriented, perhaps, by his sudden singularity.

Those of you who know me–and even those who don’t, if you’ve been reading carefully–know this has been a rough year on my end, culminating several rough years, which may be why I have not been as politically active as I’ve wanted to be. I just don’t have the energy. And yet energy must be expended. The global emergency continues.

One of the great things about large demonstrations is that they require relatively little energy from individual participants. For the organizers, of course, it’s a different story, but for everyone else, you just have to show up–and showing up matters. If something’s on your mind and you’re having trouble focusing, that’s OK. You can still help. Even if you can’t get yourself together to do the kind of all-out problem-solving work this moment in history demands, you’re still needed–to turn up to make sure the organizing work of others makes a difference.

So, this Friday is a great opportunity for people like us, a world-wide day of action. To find an event near you, click here. To multiply your impact, reach out to others and get more people to participate.

Change can happen very fast. You wake up one morning, thinking the world will go one way, and by the next morning, there you are–missing a beagle, hit by a hurricane, living in a country you don’t always recognize anymore….

But not all changes, even all sudden changes, are bad. I didn’t know Greta Thunberg was going to come to prominence, but here she is, and people are listening to her. Maybe we have a chance–if enough people show up, if enough people get serious about climate change and act like it.

Be the change. Turn up on Friday.


1 Comment

Strike!

For years, now, I’ve been wondering why nobody’s organizing climate demonstrations. Seems a bad time to let the pressure up. Or am I just out of the loop? Are demonstrations happening without me? As far as I can tell, in recent months, most of the energy has indeed not been going into marches but rather into “direct action,” either strikes or deliberate attempts to get arrested in a good cause. And unfortunately, I’m not really available for either. The nature of my work means that for me to strike would hurt only me; writers occasionally change the world by writing, but never by not writing.

But now, apparently, there’s a march scheduled–lots of them! All over! On September 20th!

To find an event near you, please click here.

I have to say this one looks a bit odd. For one thing, they’re calling these events “strikes,” when they are clearly demonstrations or protests. The difference matters.

To strike is to walk off the job in order to force change. We’re most familiar with strikes against specific employers, where workers cease work en mass in order to shut down the company until management agrees to workers’ demands, like pay raises and better working conditions. A general strike shuts down an entire economy for the same reason. For a strike to work, it has to hurt, or threaten to hurt, somebody with the power to make the changes the strikers want. It is a species of force, like boycotts and sit-ins, a non-violent means to take control of a situation and make someone else comply. Such force can be countered with force–not all strikes succeed–but cannot be ignored.

In contrast, demonstrations and protests can be ignored. When they succeed, it is because someone in power decides the protestors are right, because someone in power takes the demonstration as a warning that force will soon be used, or because someone uses the political cover provided by the demonstration to seize power.

Both work–but which one are we doing on the 20th?

Of course, there will be some of each. I plan to demonstrate. I may take the day off work to do so, but none of my clients are likely to stop climate change if I miss a deadline, so I won’t miss any. Others will doubtless suspend work for a day, and some strikes may be genuine applications of force, while others will be symbolic. But I’d like to see the distinction acknowledged as a matter of strategy–because demonstrations don’t always make good strikes and vice versa. And we need both to work right now.

The question is further complicated by the fact that, strategically speaking, the children’s strike for climate is itself a demonstration–for kids and teens to walk out of class doesn’t hurt those in power, it simply grabs their attention. Grabbing attention can be a very powerful thing to do, though. Demonstrations have toppled dictators. They have started wars–and ended them.

Either way, all of us need to know what our mission is on that day, and how what each of us is doing contributes to the whole.

I’ve written before comparing the children’s climate strike to the move, “Amazing Grace and Chuck”. In that movie, children quit their extra-curricular sports in order to demand nuclear disarmament–an effort that, in the movie, eventually proves successful. Now, in our real children’s strike, Greta Thunberg is our Chuck.

My guess is that our objective on the 20th is to flush out Amazing Graze.

 


2 Comments

On Strike for Real

Last week, on March 15th, thousands of school children around the world walked out of class, striking for climate. It was likely one of the biggest climate protests in history (I have not seen final numbers on participation, yet), and is certainly remarkable as a global protest planned and executed by minors.

The question is–was anyone listening?

The Children’s Climate Strike

The children’s climate strike began with one person.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, started cutting school every Friday last August to protest in front of Parliament. She had been inspired to act by the terrible heatwaves in Europe last year, as well as by the activism of the Parkland students. She intends to continue her protest until Sweden adopts policies in line with the goals established at Paris.

Thunberg began her strike alone, but began getting media attention and speaking publicly. She’s inspiring others to join the strike. She is not acting as an organizer of the movement, so far as I can gather. The March 15th strike was organized by three girls: Alexandria Villasenor, Isra Hirsi, and Haven Coleman. I’ve been saying “children’s march,” but Thunberg isn’t exactly a child. She’s 16, as is Hirsi, an age that some cultures have considered definitely adult. But Villasenor and Coleman are 13 and 12, respectively, and they are all minors, meaning they have little to no legal authority or power. Their age provides a ready excuse to anyone who wants to not take them seriously.

Indeed, some political leaders have criticized them for skipping school, which rather misses the point.

There have been other mass strikes over the past few months, mostly in Europe. The first mass school strike for climate in the UK was February 15.  March took the movement worldwide. And while there has been plenty of adult criticism, many adult political leaders and activists are supporting the youth strikes as well.

….And Chuck

What all this reminds me of is an old movie–released in the late 1980’s, called “Amazing Grace and Chuck.” Usually, when I refer to some item of culture, a movie or a book, I link to a site where you can read a description, but so far all the descriptions I’ve read leave out something fundamental–and the reason I’m bringing up this movie at all.

The movie is about a world-wide children’s strike.

Movie Synopsis

Chuck is a gifted Little League pitcher who decides to stop playing ball until all nuclear weapons have been destroyed. As he explains, he has to do something, and so he’s decided to give up the one thing he does best–pitching. As personal protests go, it’s a savvy one, because it’s the one thing that is both entirely within his power (you can’t force a kid to play baseball) and likely to be noticed by grown-ups. But it’s not likely to trigger global nuclear disarmament–the adults around him see Chuck’s protest as noble but pointless.

But then other children also start quitting their extra-curricular activities. There’s no internet yet, but Chuck’s protest makes the news and other children hear about it and follow his example. The movement starts to spread. But still the adults react with condescension–obviously, this isn’t going to do anything. The kids are only hurting themselves.

Until an adult joins the movement.

Amazing Grace, an NBA star, quits the game and reaches out to Chuck. The two become friends, and the movement spreads among adult athletes–all striking for full nuclear disarmament. Now it gets serious. The strike is beginning to exert real political force, threatening the livelihoods and public face of some very powerful people. Anger erupts. Both Chuck and Amazing receive real pressure to call off the strike. Supporting each other, they refuse.

Finally, Amazing is murdered by monied interests connected with the defense industry. Chuck, heartsick, responds by deepening the strike: he stops talking.

Again, other children hear about his choice on the news and follow suit, and the children of the world fall silent.

Finally, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union sit down to talk. They sign a total nuclear disarmament treaty for a very simple reason; they miss the talk of their grandkids.

The movie begins with the words “once upon a time” and ends with the words “wouldn’t it be nice.” The implication is that such a strike could never happen and wouldn’t succeed if it did–the story is not intended as a blueprint for action so much as a statement of an ideal.

Except in the real world, a global children’s strike actually did happen last week. Now what?

Action vs. Protest

Does a political action depend on changing somebody’s mind?

That is a critical strategic question, one running deeper than whether the action is legal, even deeper than whether it is violent. Protest marches, generally, are aimed at convincing someone else to take a certain action–they can work, but the someone else is free to ignore the march. Boycotts are aimed at forcing change, since the target is not free to ignore the loss of revenue.

Boycotts are legal, though some forms of force are not. Force can be violent or it can be peaceful. It’s also worth noting that an action can be illegal, or even violent, and still depend on changing someone’s mind, just like a protest march. Chaining yourself to the White House fence in order to be arrested for some good cause is strategically almost identical to marching by the White House carrying a sign. Either way, you’re hoping the occupant of the White House notices and cares.

It’s not that true direct action can’t fail–lie down in front of a bulldozer and the owner of the bulldozer is likely to have you picked up and moved out of the way–it’s that action and protest succeed or fail for different reasons.

In general, strikes are direct actions, not protests. When autoplant workers walk off an assembly line, production grinds to a halt until their demands are met (or until management hires scabs). In contrast, Chuck’s (fictional) refusal to play baseball was a protest. Little League is basically only important to the players and, vicariously, their parents. For the players to shut down the game qualifies as ignorable.

Shutting down the NBA, on the other hand, would border on being a true strike, since professional sports is big money–but a strike by athletes for nuclear disarmament doesn’t actually put direct pressure on anyone able to disarm (unless the president at the time happens to be a team owner).

But for children to stop talking to their families? That is a true strike, and a nearly perfect one, since there is no way to break the strike by force.

The question now is whether the real children’s strike can achieve a similar perfection.

Strike for Climate

The children’s climate strike is, at present, a demonstration or protest. It’s an emotionally powerful protest, and perhaps it will change some minds. But it also might well be ignored. I’d like to see it transform itself into a true strike, something that cannot be ignored.

Perhaps adults will start walking off the job next. Or perhaps the kids will find something they can grind to a halt that powerful adults cannot do without. I honestly hope they do, as they are taking the issue seriously in a way that everyone needs to and most adults aren’t.

We really should not be depending on children to save the world. That’s our job. But until the adult world gets it’s act together, the world should take the champions it can get.