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Why Curbing the Climate Crisis Will Take More Than Summits and Divestment

Targeting the fossil fuel industry is essential, but divestment as the target for action raises the same question as global summitry does: Is it enough?
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Colorful Umbrellas photo by Nina Matthews

Photo by Nina Matthews.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you wanted to design a global crisis that the world's political systems would be particularly incapable of solving, it would be hard to do better than climate change.

Unlike a meltdown of the banking system or an attack from the sky, climate change has not come upon us suddenly, commanding our sense of urgency. It continues to creep closer towards us year-by-year in the form of record heat, decimating storms, and historic ice melt. Most of the measures proposed in response bear the uncomfortable feel of sacrifice—paying more for gas or living less large in our material lifestyles—and sacrifice does not make for good politics. Add in the powerful corporate machinery engaged in protecting coal and oil interests and it is little wonder that the political process is frozen.

What can we do in the political world in which we actually live that can make a significant difference while there is still time? 

As a result, the most significant and irreversible threat that our generation poses to the future is marked by an almost complete political incapacity to act. The only force with any chance of getting the political process to move is citizen action. But what kind, applied where, and with what aim?

Much has been written about the grim consequences of the climate crisis and much has been written as well about what, in an ideal political world, we should do to prevent those consequences. But the question that lingers unanswered is this: What can we do in the political world in which we actually live that can make a significant difference while there is still time?

Global summitry, the dead end

For more than a decade, a major focus of citizen action on climate has been the pursuit of an international agreement that would bind nations to swift and significant reductions in carbon emissions. From Bonn to Doha, climate campaigners have traveled to U.N. summits demanding action. The appeal of a global agreement is clear: setting an international speed limit on global warming with every nation doing its part to meet that goal. Unfortunately, it is also easy to see why a serious agreement on carbon emissions has proven politically impossible to achieve.

The reality is that the political decisions that will most determine the Earth's ecological future are going to be made nation-by-nation, state-by-state, and community-by-community.

A truly binding commitment on carbon emissions would require that the major carbon polluting countries in the world—the United States, China, India, and others—effectively surrender some measure of their sovereignty (over energy policy, for example). To believe that they will ever do so is, unfortunately, a fantasy. Their domestic politics would never allow it. Simply consider the probabilities of President Obama signing such an accord and winning its approval in the U.S. Congress.

For moral and educational reasons it is still important to call on nations to act in these forums, but it is a serious strategic error to believe that global climate summitry will deliver anything approaching a binding and serious agreement to reduce emissions. These summits remain important because they are setting policy on issues like financing for climate adaptation. But they are not where we need to wage the fight for substantial emissions cuts.

The reality is that the political decisions that will most determine the Earth's ecological future are not going to be made internationally. Rather, they will be made nation-by-nation, state-by-state, and community-by-community. These are the places, far more than in international forums, where citizen action on climate must make its stand.

Targeting the climate’s enemy

"Movements require enemies," writes climate activist Bill McKibben in a widely read August article in Rolling Stone, "and enemies are what climate change has lacked."

McKibben also has a strong nomination for who that enemy needs to be: the fossil fuel industry and its giants such as Exxon, Chevron, and Shell. He notes further that the fuel reserves that these and other companies have underground ready to market into the atmosphere are five times what the climate could possibly cope with under even the best-case scenarios. 

Divestment as the target for action raises the same question as global summitry does: Is it a strategy with a chance of delivering the goods or is it a dead end?

McKibben and his organization 350.org have launched a nationwide campaign aimed at the fossil fuel industry and are rallying people behind a strategy—a demand that universities, public pension funds, and other institutions "divest" their stock holdings in that industry.

Targeting the fossil fuel industry is essential. Like the tobacco industry before it, these corporations have assembled the same powerful arsenal in their defense: fake science ("clean coal" is the new "filtered cigarettes"), piles of political money, and warnings about job losses in tough times (coal miners and pipeline workers are the new tobacco farmers). It also helps to have vast numbers of people addicted to your product. As with tobacco, the fossil fuel industry knows that the damage it causes will eventually become undeniable and restrictions will follow, but the longer the industry can use politics and public relations to delay, the more profit it can take from its sunk investments.

The power of these divestment efforts is their potential to rally public attention to the industry and its role in the climate crisis. But divestment as the target for action raises the same question as global summitry does: Is it a strategy with a chance of delivering the goods or is it a dead end?

The divestment call to action declares, "If we start with these local institutions and hit the industry where it hurts—their bottom line—we can get their attention and force them to change. This was a key part of how the world ended the apartheid system in South Africa, and we hope it can have the same effect on the climate crisis."

The economic ties that bind most of us to Chevron, Shell, Exxon, and their like are not as investors, but as consumers. The lifeline we give them is not from buying their stock but burning their gas.

Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and the others, however, are very different institutions than South Africa's apartheid government was in the 1970s and 1980s and subject to very different economic and moral pressures. The divestment campaigns aimed at South Africa translated into domestic political pressures on the ruling National Party and helped force it to the negotiating table with the ANC. In the case of the oil giants, even if divestment efforts do succeed in provoking modest sell-offs of stock, by definition the sale of stock requires that someone else buy it. And corporations sitting atop scarce and valuable resources and record profits are likely to have little problem finding eager new buyers. In terms of moral pressure, it seems equally improbable that corporate boards will grow so tired of being despised that they vote to walk away from those profits and shift their investments to renewables. It is not how mega-corporations are programmed.

Bob Massie of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, observes, "We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change—now."

He is right, but the economic ties that bind most of us to Chevron, Shell, Exxon, and their like are not as investors, but as consumers. The lifeline we give them is not from buying their stock but burning their gas. Until that changes, they will be happily content to keep drilling, pumping, burning and raising the temperature of the planet. 

In the end, the fundamental challenge remains the same: altering the energy consumption habits of massive numbers of people in deep ways, very fast. We have to make fundamental changes in the ways we transport ourselves, how we power our homes and factories, and how we build lives on a fragile planet that do not depend on relentless consumption of finite natural resources. 

All of that requires smart and strategic political action aimed at both corporations and governments—and not just in one forum, but thousands, all at once, worldwide. It's worth noting that strengthening these local efforts has also been an admirable and important focus of 350's new campaign.

Lessons from the front lines

The good news is that there are important climate-related action campaigns underway all across the globe, some winning impressive victories and all offering up valuable lessons. The Democracy Center, where I serve as executive director, recently took an in-depth look at seven climate-related action campaigns around the world, from California to Kosovo, to capture some of that wisdom.

What is winning climate battles right now is talking about issues that have a much more immediate impact on people's lives.

One key lesson is the importance of moving these fights to the fields of battle where citizen action stands the best chance of winning. On climate issues, the more local we make those battles, the stronger we are.

In the United States, forward action is stalled by a combination of corporate cash and deep polarization. However, as these fights become more local, something changes. Instead of claiming a set of divided interests, we become neighbors battling a common threat to local water and air.

Don't Mess With Texas Waterways photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade
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The coalition fighting coal export plans in Washington State, for example, runs from environmentalists to fisherman to wealthy homeowners, all of whom oppose the prospect of 18 contaminating coal trains a day passing through their communities.

The fossil fuel industry needs complex infrastructure—pipelines, trains, and ports—to move its product across the world, and that infrastructure has deep local impacts. Campaigning for the right of communities to decide their own environmental fate can also be one of the most important battles for the planet's environmental fate as a whole.

A second lesson is about climate issues, speaking both global and local at the same time. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy offer "teaching moments" where public officials in particular (as in the cases of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo) can and should help the public connect the dots between local devastation and the dangerous, human-caused transformation of the atmosphere. Climate activists need to consistently combat voices denying climate change and work to educate the public. But in the meantime, what is winning climate battles right now is talking about issues that have a much more immediate impact on people's lives.

When I think of climate change what I think of most is my ten-year-old daughter and all of the other fourth graders around the world.

In 2010 in California, the billionaire Koch brothers and a pair of Texas oil companies launched a ballot campaign to kill the state's climate law (Proposition 23). Environmental and social justice groups beat them by more than two-to-one by talking about issues such as childhood asthma and air pollution created by dirty power plants, as well as the need for new "green jobs" in a tough economy. Activists in India stopped construction of a new coal plant by focusing on the threat to local livelihoods in fishing and farming. As we work to spread word about the larger threat to the planet, climate activists need to build political strength by talking about what people already care about now.

Finally, we need to start connecting climate issues to what really matters to us most: our children and grandchildren. Far too often the climate debate descends into discourses about data and exchanges of ideological rhetoric. When I think of climate change what I think of most is my ten-year-old daughter and all of the other fourth graders around the world. Are we really prepared to hand them a fearsome future of ecological unknowns, where Sandys become commonplace and where drought and food shortages spread across the planet?

As climate activists we can surely make a case as compelling about this threat to their future as others make about the threats posed to them by national debt. Groups such as UNICEF and others are already showing us the way.

Let us also not forget in the midst of our U.S. climate battles that it is across the Global South where vulnerability to climate change runs most deep. New York will now debate plans for a multibillion-dollar barrier aimed at holding back the rising sea. But here in Bolivia where I live, no infrastructure exists that can hold back the melting of the Andean glaciers, attacking not just the water supply but a part of the nation's soul as well.

Benaroya 350 by 350-555.jpg
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"A Tough Mind"

Half a century ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed from the pulpit, "The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness." He said that what was needed for the struggle against segregation was the combination of "a tough mind and a tender heart."  In activism, "tough-mindedness" is about being strategic—looking with a clear eye at the powers we need to move and at what will actually move them. In the climate crisis, soft-mindedness on strategy is not an option.

Decades from now our children will look back on this time and will ask how we responded to the climate crisis that was so clearly headed their way. They will not care what summits we attended or how eloquently we voiced our demands. They won't care whether our politics were sufficiently radical or moderate. They will judge us by the only thing that will matter then—whether the actions we took in this time made an actual difference in theirs.


Jim Shultz wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Jim is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center based in San Francisco and Bolivia. For two decades he has supported and trained thousands of citizen activists across five continents. He tweets at @jimshultz.

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