Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
In 2022, on Earth Day, a 50-year-old Buddhist named Wynn Bruce self-immolated on the steps of the United States Supreme Court Building, just as the high court was poised to weaken laws regulating carbon emissions. Bruce’s action was motivated by a deep concern about climate change.
The story of Wynn Bruce is not well known. But as it becomes clear that our political system is incapable of responding to the scale of the climate emergency unfolding before us, radical actions like Bruce’s will continue. In the coming years we are going to witness an overall escalation of activist tactics in response to the climate crisis.
In my new novel, Altar to an Erupting Sun, I explore this shift through real, historical actions as well as fictional, potential actions. My protagonist, a lifelong environmental activist named Rae Kelliher, is deeply formed by the nonviolent social change movements of the past four decades, including the efforts to stop construction of nuclear power plants, avoid a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, and prevent construction of a fracked gas pipeline in her Boston neighborhood. In each case, she engages in unwavering tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience and witness, usually after exhausting all legal remedies to preventing harms. But facing down a diagnosis of terminal cancer as she approaches age 70, Rae engages in a shocking act, taking her own life and the life of a fossil fuel CEO whom she blames for delaying society’s response to climate change.
Rae’s husband, Reggie, who is virulently opposed to violent tactics, argues presciently that her action will lead to negative blowback, with the hammer of state repression coming down on social movements and criminalizing dissent. We can see this in our world today, with racketeering charges against Cop City protesters and harsh penalties dealt to water protectors. But as Reggie later observes, it is hard to suppress a “decentralized army of terminally ill patients” who engage in militant acts at the end of life.
While the choice Rae makes in the novel is fictional, the situation she faces is all too real: It is the situation we are facing right now.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report underscores that if we stay on our current course, in terms of carbon and methane emissions, we will blow past the “defense line” of a 1.5 C (2.7 F) temperature increase with disastrous impacts in the form of weird weather, droughts, floods, and challenges to our food system.
We now know from investigative reporting that the largest fossil fuel companies, Shell and ExxonMobil, have known for decades about the dangerous repercussions of burning coal, gas, and oil. Yet for almost half a century, the industry deployed its considerable assets and power to deny climate change, fund disinformation and doubt about the science, lobby to block energy-efficient alternatives, and delay timely responses. And the industry’s reckless pursuits continue unabated in the face of surging global heat waves.
As you read this, the leaders of a couple dozen global energy corporations are making conscious decisions to build new infrastructure to extract and burn billions of tons of carbon and methane that is presently sequestered. A Guardian expose identified 195 carbon-bomb projects; each will burn a billion tons of carbon over its lifetime.
The largest banks and financial institutions in the world are providing the investment capital to enable this extraction. They are all betting against humanity, counting on the failure of governments and social movements to stop their activities. The U.S. government is gridlocked between one political party that is entirely subservient to the carbon barons—and another party still mostly captured by energy interests.
Meanwhile, among those who are adamant that major changes are necessary, the debate about what to do reels between magical thinking and defeatism. Proposals range from untested and risky techno-fixes to hyperlocal civic engagement around carbon drawdown and regenerative agriculture. Others have already started grieving the losses they see coming or have withdrawn from civic engagement, believing our political system incapable of forming an adequate response.
However, there is still time to secure a livable future, or at least a “Better Catastrophe,” as humorist Andrew Boyd describes it. We can still shift the trajectory away from the worst-case scenarios if we act decisively in the next seven years, dramatically reducing fossil fuel consumption and implementing a wide range of mitigation and adaption strategies. But the first step is to stop the pipeline, if you will, of new fossil fuel infrastructure for extraction and burning.
The fossil fuel industry and its leaders will not voluntarily make these changes. The tobacco industry was the last to admit that smoking was bad for our health. Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Coal will extract until they are stopped by external pressure. And if they are not stopped, they will destroy the world.
Who will stop them? State actors are unable to meaningfully respond at this point. Witness the Conference of the Parties process, with all the world’s leaders sitting around a table, increasingly cutting deals with polluters. At the same time, corporate defenders of the energy status quo have created a significant propaganda industry—including think tanks, astroturf advocacy groups, and symbolic “net zero” campaigns—to distract us. As Rebecca Solnit observes, the fossil fuel industry is promoting “carbon footprint” tracking to reinforce the “we are all responsible for climate change” deflection from its own culpability.
The divestment movement has inspired thousands of institutions to pledge to move more than USD$40.5 trillion out of fossil fuel investments while “revoking the social license” of the industry. One coalition is calling for U.S. lawmakers to establish a climate tribunal to investigate the role of the fossil fuel industry in fomenting denial and delay in responding to the climate crisis. But it is hard to imagine the current oil-soaked Congress acting on such an idea.
I am not surprised that a growing number of people have given up on our political system as a path for making change. Instead, they focus on private sector responses or social movement interventions in blocking new fossil fuel infrastructure—such as Standing Rock and the Valve Turners. Other forms of disruptive direct action, such as efforts by Extinction Rebellion and Climate Defiance, are critical in drawing attention to the urgency of the fight.
But ultimately, in the absence of radical, system-wide solutions, these efforts can only serve as delay tactics. What we need is a bold “just transition” program that ends fossil fuels as soon as possible. This should include a declaration of a federal climate emergency; an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure; an immediate elimination of all fossil fuel subsidies; and a public/government takeover and rapid phaseout of the fossil fuel sector while using its superprofits to fund the transition.
Without such actions, the collision course between ecological realities and our insufficient societal responses will only intensify. The coming decade will see more Wynn Bruce–like acts of desperation as well as acts of eco-sabotage such as those depicted in the new dramatic film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Andreas Malm.
As the fictional Rae Kelliher says in anticipation of those who will object to her radical and violent act: If you don’t like what I’ve done, what bold action will you undertake to protect mother earth, our one and only home?
Chuck Collins is the director of the program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org. His new book is, The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions, is about the wealth hiding industry (Polity). Here's the link to his book: https://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509543489