Disobedience: Direct action on global warming

December 27, 2010

If there was ever an issue about which civil disobedience should not be required, global warming is it.

It's not like the civil rights movement, in which protesters had to break through encrusted millennia of ugly habit, making the kind of dramatic and courageous stand that forced the rest of the nation to see them as real, vital, equal. Seeing black southerners set on by dogs, tossed sideways by fire hoses—somehow it managed finally to get across the notion that these were people. It made sense that preachers were at the head of the fight: this was a moral issue ultimately—the moral issue.

By contrast, global warming is, or should be, dry science, an entirely rational question that should be addressed by economists, engineers, scientists working on our behalf and with our thanks; a democratic process, difficult but not controversial. No one has a prejudice against chemistry, an animus about physics. A moral issue? Almost the opposite. Opinion isn't the issue; no one's heart should need changing.

But it's not happening. For 20 years now scientists and engineers and even many economists have spoken with rare unanimity: we need to use much less fossil fuel, and very quickly. They've coalesced around a fairly straightforward plan: make fossil fuel pay for the damage it's doing to the planet, so that we start quickly to shift toward renewable energy. We have to work speedily, because the damage from global warming is already under way; in fact, two years ago NASA scientists gave us the bad news that we were already past the threshold for real danger: above 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, they warned, we were in serious trouble from flood, fire, melt. We're at 390 ppm now and rising two parts per million per year, which is precisely why we're suffering through summers like 2010: 19 nations set new temperature records, drought devastated Russia and convinced the Kremlin to end all grain exports; record rainfalls put 7 million Pakistanis out of their homes. Global warming is under way, and unless we act very quickly the damage will get far worse; on its current path, our atmosphere will hold nearly 1,000 parts per million CO2 by century's end. That is to say, it will be a strange and dangerous place.

So why are we doing nothing? There are many answers. We're used to our way of life, so inertia gets in the way. But that's not the whole picture. Part of it is that the financial power of the fossil fuel industry gets in the way of rational political action. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising—half a billion, by some accounts, just to convince the Senate not even to take a vote on the very mild global warming bill that was before it last summer. It's managed to obscure the science and drain the sense of urgency from the debate in this country; as a result, last year's Copen­hagen conference on climate ended in failure, and the prospects for engaging the rest of the planet grow ever dimmer. (Happily, some nations are making halting progress on their own—the Chinese, for instance, though building coal-fired power plants, are also by some counts investing $700 billion in renewable energy programs; when 250 million Chinese take a shower now, the hot water comes from solar panels on their roofs.)

We've made the science of climate one more political football—just another issue we square off over, as if physics was simply one more interest group. As things stand, we are nowhere near taking the decisive action that might give us a chance of avoiding the most devastating kinds of warming; as coral bleaches, deserts grow and ice sheets melt across the planet, we're just marking time.

Which is why some of us have been thinking it may be necessary to mount a campaign of mass action, of civil protest, of dignified disobedience. Its goal would not be to shut down the fossil fuel system—that system is much too big and too pervasive to be shut down, since it powers every action we take from the moment we wake up. The campaign's aim, instead, would be much simpler: to demonstrate the sense of urgency that this issue requires. It would be in the nature of a witness.

Exactly where that witness makes most sense is an open question. Perhaps outside a few of the coal-fired power plants that spew the most carbon into the atmosphere—plants we no longer need, save to bolster the profits of the utilities that own them. Perhaps outside the headquarters of the fossil fuel billionaires that fund the cynical disinformation campaigns. (For instance, Charles and David Koch, brothers at the helm of an enormous energy empire, have become the bankroll for every organization fighting legislation on climate change, as Jane Mayer demonstrated in the New Yorker earlier this year.) Perhaps outside the offices of those congresspeople who have done the most to block progress.

The where is less important for the moment than the how. Civil disobedience is a tactic that's in decline, because we've forgotten certain truths about how to use it honestly and effectively. Maybe the most important of these is: it's a last resort, a step we use when other avenues are exhausted.  

I've been writing and speaking about climate change for a quarter century; I've watched as endless panels of eminent scientists have gone before Congress to tell the truth about what's happening to the planet. At 350.org we've organized the most widespread days of political action in the planet's history. This past October we had 7,400 "work parties" in 188 nations, where people put up solar panels and laid out bike paths—and implored their leaders to get to work too. A coalition of Amer­ican environmental groups last year proposed a mild and tame climate bill—a baby step in the direction we need to travel. They lobbied for it ceaselessly, but in the tidal wave of fossil fuel money, a cowardly Senate refused even to take a vote on the bill. I think we're justified to press our cause in new ways.

But we're not justified in doing it carelessly. Advocates like Thomas Friedman and Al Gore have called for students to stage sit-ins outside power plants, and I appreciate their urgency. But I don't think college kids should be the cannon fodder this time around. For one thing, it's not really their fault, not yet: it's those of us who have spent decades pouring carbon into the atmosphere who really need a way to show our remorse. In an ever-tougher economy, it's not fair to impose an arrest record on someone who hasn't even landed his first job; those of us with a little more security need to lead the way.

So if I'm going to be involved in this kind of battle, I know who I want by my side, at least at first: those of us born in, say, the Eisenhower administration or before. Many of us participated or watched as the civil rights movement pioneered these tactics and understand that their power derives in no small measure from the dignity that marked those events. I don't wear a necktie very often, but if I'm going to get arrested, I'm going to have mine neatly knotted.

The lesson we need above all to communicate is this: people asking for action on climate change are not radicals. Just the opposite—they're in some sense deep conservatives. What's radical is to double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and just see what happens—no one, not Marx or Mao, has ever proposed a change as radical as that. Those radicals backed by the fossil fuel industry flirt with destroying the planet's physical systems, and they do it so a few of us can keep our particular way of life a decade or two longer; that's not just radical, it's so deeply irresponsible that there's really no precedent.

Having been given this earth to keep and protect—dominion over a living planet—we're on the verge of wiping away much of creation. In the process we're already making life impossible for millions of our poorest brothers and sisters. This is not just radical, it's a kind of blasphemy. Global warming shouldn't be a moral question, but because of our inaction it's become the greatest moral challenge of our time.


I'm game, Mr. McKibben

If we open our eyes, ears and heart to these realities, you are so right about the size and urgency of the global warming issue. So, I'm game. Where do we go from here?

The Rev. Jerry Cappel
Province IV Environmental Coordinator
The Episcopal Church

awakening the dreamer symposium

I would offer two vehicles towards this moral and physical
transformation . Contact the nearest facilitator of the symposium for Awakening the Dreamer , Change the Dream and / or The Work that Reconnects workshops.
The emotional numbness is paralyzing people . The need to speak & look directly with wisdom and compassion at ourselves and others paramount . I share

It is the destruction of the world
in our own lives that drives us
half insane , and more than half .
To destroy that which we were given
in trust : how will we bear it ? " ~ Wendell Berry

Global Warming: Bill McvKibben

Every Sunday for two years we have had a Green Moment in our worship servicem=, and the whole wild resposnse has been "So What".We marched for 350.org, and what we got was wet in the weather.
Less than no positive response. We've got to do better.
Rev. Joe Fiske, retired-MMorris United Methodist Church jsf41869@dmcom.net

Before Disobedience try a dose of open scientific knowledge

I am an active Methodist of 66 years. while your zeal about the so-called man-made global warming has been building for a number of years, obviously your mind has been turned off to rational scientific analysis for that same amount of time. the science is nopt agreed upon or conclusive at this tiem. It has been ploarized by politics and politicians and those whose scientific background consists of mostly "political science" not geology, geophysics, climatology, physics and/or chemistry. My degrees are in geology. At this time the best I can offer you is for all of us to slowly err on the side of caution. Your actions will on the other hand dramatically raise energy costs world wide and especially here in the US. This will create a larger more dangerous chasm between the haves and have nots...you know those in a lower more difficult aocio-economic class for whom Christians must care. Let science work free from your rhetoric and cabal and then we should tak when the results from the smarter cats is in. Until then hlep someone in true need please.
David H. Hawk

Will the Real Science Please Stand Up

First, let me agree with you on something here. That is this:

"It has been ploarized by politics and politicians and those whose scientific background consists of mostly "political science" not geology, geophysics, climatology, physics and/or chemistry."

Our question is, on which side of this debate are those political ones aligned? I say we should only consider the opinions of those who meet the following criteria:

- They are actively, directly and currently involved in the climate science (not retired, not just "a scientist" and not "used to be active").
-- They are actively publishing in peer reviewed journals and the established means of scientific debate,
-- They have no connections with any institution or business that stands to win or lose from the outcome of the debate,

Once we draw that tighter circle, I bet we have consensus in well into the upper 90s percentiles. The rest of you need to keep silent and listen.

Funny that you would be so dismissive of your practices of peer reviewed theory and test. The data is there. Its just that the enormity of the realization staggers the heart (and the pocketbook) of so many.

civil disobedience

having finally come to the realization that there is no market solution, no brilliant consumer equation for the goal that we seek, in the face of global industrialization, we must also realize that civil disobedience is only one tactic, and certainly nothing more. it is not a moral imperative, either. it can and will only work when you have some hope to shame your oppressor into cooperation, something the transnational corporations and the medieval oligarchies of this world are clearly not capable of. if we want to stop global warming, of course, we all must rise up and refuse to silence or be seated, halting the man-made, aggravating factors contributing to global climate change will take this kind of commitment.

but when they come to sit us down, forcefully, they have to know that we are not only able, but extremely willing to fight back, in order to stop this environmental holocaust. is it worth it to you? at a conservative estimate, 150 species went extinct today, never to return. and calling a mild tactic like civil disobedience a "last resort" reeks of privilege.

civil disobedience

I completely agree with your sentiment on Bill Mc Kibben's albeit sincere appeal for disobedience. Yes we are dealing with some of the most powerful, fascistic corporate bodies in the history of industrialisation; and it is the so-called democracies which gave companies like BP, Shell, Alcoa and their ilk, this enormous clout.

I am seething when I consider just how insane the use of oil and coal continues to be, and moreso because I live in Australia where the coal lobby is almost ruling policy of the right-wing and moderate agenda nationally. Neither of the major parties is really willing, or has the spine morally, to admit that our power sources have to be changed radically from coal to renewables. They pussyfoot around with weak alternatives that only delay the inevitable. One might say that because of our spineless political bodies, apart from the Green Party, Australia is virtually agreeing with the USA in bringing on an environmenmtal apocalypse. It is a situation in which ecoterrorism is nopw needed by those brave enough to enter that dimension of the struggle against real EVIL. And I mean EVIL, no bones about it.

New South Wales

Climate Crisis: McKibben finally calls for civil protest

We can't tell you how long we've waited for this call to action, but like all things related to the Climate Crisis it's better late than never. Now can we plan for for a climate camp near DC in the spring? Now can we, like the citizens of Egypt, rise up peacefully and reclaim the direction of our government and, in our case, put the corporations in their proper place?

Why not start with joining

Why not start with joining the march in Salt Lake City at the trial of Tim DeChristopher? I see Mr. McKibben on the list of people supporting this event, February 28th, but not attending. More info at http://www.peacefuluprising.org/climate-trial#plan

And this is a case of a young man who is putting 10 years of his life on the line, to stop the auction of public lands to oil and gas developers. Just what Bill said the kids should not have to do, given that it is we older generations who have screwed up.