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The Desperate Search for a Strategy to Defeat Climate Change

The most significant and irreversible threat that our generation poses to the future is marked by an almost complete political incapacity to act.
 
 
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Photo Credit: © James Steidl/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

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 does not come upon us suddenly and command our sense of urgency. It creeps closer towards us year-by-year as 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 possessions – 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.

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 UN 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. It is also easy to see, unfortunately, why a serious agreement on carbon emissions has proven politically impossible to achieve.

A truly binding commitment on carbon emissions would require that the major carbon polluting countries in the world – the U.S., 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 but 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. 

 
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