Hussh | The new era of the climate movement: How to make action happen

The new era of the climate movement: How to make action happen

I got asked the other day if I thought that the climate movement is beginning to fracture under the weight of its own success.

The question was loaded, of course, but I believe its point is valid. As we steadily move towards creating and passing more climate policy (albeit very slowly), the debate over which elements to focus on, or which contribute the greatest positive shift for our climate and energy security, is causing a lot of in-fighting and forcing discussions over the hard trade-offs that need to be made. Ultimately, everything has a cost.

However I’m not sure that “fracturing” is the right term here. From where I’m sitting, it’s more about “governing.” Writing legislation forces choice, and when what you’re passing or creating is imaginary, you’ve got to make lots of decisions that will surface tensions and create friction. Do we reflect the suns rays to limit warming or try and absorb and harness it more for energy production? Do we invest more in the currently expensive mechanisms to capture and store carbon, or do we halt carbon-generating forms of industry and energy production altogether?

The list of alternatives goes on. But those tensions are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of power.

Fracturing makes it sound like movements are losing momentum, when in truth, they are gaining it.

That’s where the climate movement — and those working on climate — is now. Enough legislation and policy have passed, money set aside, and technology developed that we really do have a chance to avert the worst of global warming. But that means a movement that has spent most of its life learning how to stop terrible things from happening, needs to become something different. A movement that builds real things, in the real world at a break-neck pace. A movement that doesn’t just say yes, but figures out how to make all kinds of communities and groups and cities around the country say yes — again and again. Faster than we have in decades.

The climate movement has to govern now; it has to help countries and our entire planet to come together and build this whole  infrastructure they have imagined. And that’s going to be hard. But this is a space not just for hope, but for excitement too. However our government fairs in the next election (or earlier, if recent history is to go by), the next few years are likely not going to be about passing more big-ticket climate policy. However that doesn’t mean a time of stasis, but of making good on the promises made so far, and without the countless U-turns we’ve come to see from areas like fracking and off-shore wind farms. It will be about building the world that those policies have promised to make and getting us on a better path for our climate.

We have outside reason to hope, too. 

The US saw positive moves for the more climate-conscious Democrats winning more than they expected in the midterms — albeit by the narrowest of margins. Lula da Silva beat Bolsonaro in the recent elections in Brazil, suggesting a movement towards greener policies to protect the Amazon rainforest again. And so on. All of these things are tied to the climate and energy story. It feels like sometime soon, some of the climate regression that has engulfed the world in the past few years, may break enough for us to take rational action.

The climate reality — from tech to policy — is going to have to change in this new era, but as a result of their success, not failure. It can be argued that we are living through a major transition point in terms of how we address climate change and what needs to be done. We’re at the point where we may well be able to end the 700,000 year habit of burning things! Fire has been good for humans: we were able to cook food which gave us bigger brains; we were able to migrate North and South away from the equator — the anthropologists even think that gathering around the camp fire helped build the bonds that make us a social species. And once we learnt to burn coal, gas and oil in the industrial revolution, we reaped the benefits of prosperity that came with it.

But now, burning stuff has turned into a big problem. There’s climate change, melting sea ice and rising sea levels, catastrophic weather patterns, not to mention the direct health effects — data suggests that 8.7 million people died in 2018 as a result of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Add on top of that the idea that fossil fuels and autocracy seem to be more closely linked than ever, as exemplified by Putin this year .

The good news is, for the first time we seemingly don’t need to be burning things any more. In the last decade, engineers have brought down the price of renewable energy about 90%. The cheapest way to generate power on planet Earth today is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. That’s an extraordinary break-through and impacts everything — from our heating to our cooking appliances.  We now know how to harness the ball of burning gas 150 million kilometres away in the sky and capture its rays directly in photovoltaic panels, take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the earth creating the winds that turn turbines, and store its power long after the sun goes down or the wind drops in batteries. We’re at a moment where we could make dramatic, rapid change.

It’s important to note that we have a timed test with climate change. Unlike other areas of social contention, we don’t have long to play. Once you’ve melted the Artic, no-one has a very good plan for how you freeze it back up again. The scientists have shown us that if we want to keep on track to the targets set in Paris, we have to halve emissions by 2030 — which is just over 7 years away.

The physics of climate change enforces a certain group reality in our set of solutions. The timing question is the single biggest enforcer of that reality: we have to make very, very rapid change. Changes in basic human desires (or even in the physical set up of the world around us) come, if at all, move slowly. In 100 years time, will humans be amusing themselves by consuming immense amounts of stuff? Hopefully not, but in 7 years time we probably will be there still. We’re stuck for now with the physical limitations of the society and cultures we’ve built. Today, lots of people drive cars, so we have to figure out how to scale electric vehicles, and quickly. 

We’ve been given a tremendous gift to right-size the way we do things, but survival demands that we move quickly and the survival that’s most at risk at the moment is that of the people in places who have done the least to cause the problem. Those of us who have been pouring carbon into the air for generations need to move very quickly to make sure our lives, institutions, and societies aren’t making that worse. The recent Loss and Damage fund promises from this year’s COP are at least a nod in the right direction.

For me, that has to be the number one driver in addressing and building on our advantage today.