What Is Your Vision of a Just and Climate-Stable 2050?

Last week, thousands of people came to Seattle — on foot and by kayak — and put their bodies on the line to say “Shell No” to arctic drilling. Like many climate activists who couldn’t be there in person, I watched the events unfold on Twitter on the edge of my seat. Seeing hundreds of people stand up to a 30-story arctic drilling rig in their tiny kayaks is enough to make a longtime activist think, maybe we’re not so screwed after all. The odds might still be stacked against us, but at least now we’re witnessing the rise of a mass movement determined to fight back. As one local organizer of the “Paddle in Seattle” recently said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. When the Kulluk [another Shell Arctic drilling rig] was here in 2012 there was nothing like this here.”


The past few years have been a time of unprecedented energy and dedication in the climate movement. Together, we’ve marched in the streets in the largest climate mobilization in history. We’ve fought in our communities and stopped dirty energy projects from going forward. We’ve successfully pushed public institutions, universities, and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. We’ve banned fracking in New York, stopped coal export terminals from being built, and blockaded oil trains.

Within the past year there were two big victories on corporate campaigns that Rainforest Action Network and our allies worked on for years, that many people told us would never be won: agribusiness giant Cargill, the largest importer of rainforest-destroying, climate-killing conflict palm oil into the U.S., announced last September that it would implement a new policy across its sprawling global supply chains to eliminate suppliers connected to deforestation and carbon pollution. And, after years of pressure, Bank of America announced earlier this month that it would phase out its support for coal mining entirely. When we first approached Bank of America four years ago, they told us they aspired to be “number one in every sector” — including coal. But here we are in 2015, with BofA “turning its back on coal,” in the words of one industry publication.

On top of all that, things don’t look good for the fate of the Keystone XL, despite insiders calling the pipeline a done deal back in 2011.

I have no doubt that our movement will build on all this momentum in the months and years ahead, and win new victories that now seem impossible. But I confess that, even with so much good news and with the surge of new energy behind bold climate activism, I sometimes find myself asking, will everything we’re doing be enough? In 35 years, will our activism have been enough to prevent the worst case scenario?

If you’re like me, you worry about this, too. It’s impossible not to, when your daily dose of climate news includes not only incredible victories, like the ones I’ve described above, but a new oil spill in Santa Barbara, a new oil train derailment, a new warning from scientists that the window to stop catastrophic levels of warming is rapidly closing — if it hasn’t closed already.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s what I’ve landed on: we can’t expect to completely remake the world and change everything about the way we live — unless we have a shared vision for the future we want to live in to work backwards from.

That’s why we at Rainforest Action Network, together with a fantastic group of partner organizations, want to invite the climate movement to join us in a new project called Change the Course: People-Powered Strategies for a Stable Climate. Change the Course is an invitation to dig deep and think hard about what it would actually take to stabilize the climate and create a just transition to a post-carbon future.

Last fall, we toured the U.S. and held “visioning summits” with climate activists in 14 cities. The summits invited participants to close their eyes and imagine what a just and climate-stable 2050 would look like — in detail, at the local, national and global level — then share their ideas with each other and map out what they could do in their communities to start building the 2050 we need today. Now, we’ve brought that experience online at ChangetheCourse.org.

The word “visioning” may make you think of mysticism, with lots of candles and incense. But from our perspective, creating a collective vision for the future we want is a necessary and pivotal step toward creating strategies that will stabilize the climate and create the equitable future we need. Without this shared vision we leave our fate to the fossil fuel industry and their imperative: to extract as much as they can while the planet burns. For the rest of us, that would mean a future where oceans and emissions rise unchecked, where extreme energy practices encroach on our communities, and where the worst impacts of climate change are shouldered by those least able to bear them. 

But what’s our vision? What would the world look like, if we stabilized the climate below 2 degrees of warming, and ushered in a just transition to a post-carbon economy? What would our cities and towns look like? Floating, self-sustaining ecovillages? Vacuum-sealed tubes taking us from Beijing to New York in three hours? Hyper-local communities where we mostly keep close to home, but stay connected via the internet? Something else?

There are other questions to consider, as well. How will our economy function? How we will respond, locally and globally, to the warming that’s already locked in? With rising sea levels and worsening storms and droughts, we need to think through how to ready our communities, and how to respond in a just and equitable way to climate impacts that will be unevenly distributed.

Grappling with these questions isn’t easy, but it is important. Also important is thinking through what the critical milestones are between now and the 2050 we want to live in. In other words, what are the most urgent items on our collective to-do list? Some answers we heard in our in-person workshops: getting money out of politics, banning fossil fuel production, recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples, fighting for racial justice, transforming our food system, passing a carbon tax.

If we don’t define the future we want to live in, those who have money and power will do it for us. Our opportunity is to join together and take this power back. To create the world we want and desperately need, and to refuse to let billionaires sacrifice our future for private profit. We’re already seeing the devastating consequences of what their vision looks like. Let's change the course together. It’s our turn.

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