There is Nothing Naïve About Moral Clarity
My speech from the September 20th Youth Climate Strike in New York City, where I was the oldest person to address a gloriously large and diverse crowd.
I am honored to follow the youth leading these climate strikes. And I want to encourage all of us to approach the climate crisis with the moral clarity of children. Some things are simply right and some things are simply wrong.
It is wrong to make this magnificent planet unlivable. It is wrong for fossil fuel corporations, who got us into this mess, to continue to profit while they set the world on fire. It is wrong to drive 1 million species extinct by changing the climate, destroying habitats, and dousing the planet with pesticides. It is wrong to create 100s of millions of climate refugees and then close our borders when they seek shelter on our shores. It is wrong to force the most vulnerable to bear the heaviest climate impacts — from rapidly rising seas, to expansive fires, to more dangerous storms, to enduring droughts, to frequent floods, to unbearable heat.
Don’t forget what we’re up against. In 1977, Exxon knew. And so far the Trump Administration has rolled back 85 environmental protections, including many on emissions and drilling. Just this month they announced plans to ditch energy efficiency rules for light bulbs, revoke California’s authority to set auto emissions standards, open the Arctic to drilling, and reduce protections for wetlands, whose soil can hold five times more carbon per acre that the soil of rain forests. Not to mention the disbanding of scientific advisory committees and telling federal government scientists to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. And the list goes on.
On the other hand, it is right to charge ahead at full speed toward 100% clean, renewable energy. It is right to protect habitats and species. It is right to hold corporations accountable. It is right to ensure a just transition, leaving no one behind as we transform our economies and societies. It is right to enact strong government policies that will accelerate this transformation. We need a Green New Deal!
But let’s be clear: youthful moral clarity is not the same thing as naïveté. Don’t let anyone tell you it is. It is naive to focus only on what we can do as individuals, instead of what we can do together, in community. It is naive to assume that the needs of poor communities, communities of color, and indigenous peoples will be taken care of, unless we ensure that they are prioritized. It is naive to expect that governments and corporations will do the right thing without our insistence. So we must persist in our insisting. Remember: they work for us. It is naive to think we can “solve” or “stop” climate change. We have already made way too much of a mess. It is also naive to give up, when every tenth of a degree of warming, every centimeter of sea level rise, every species we save, and every increasingly unnatural disaster we avert all matter so very much.
And we already have all the solutions we need — from regenerative farming, to renewable energy, to replanting ecosystems, to electrifying transportation — we don’t need to wait for new technologies, we just need to get to it. Where national governments won’t step up, local, city, and state actions are even more important.
At the same time as we work to erase the political and corporate barriers, we can implement the solutions we each have at our fingertips. If you have even a small bit of land, plant trees and grow food. Plant a Climate Victory Garden. If you can vote, vote in every single election. In the last U.S. presidential election, around 10 million registered environmentalists did not vote, way more than enough to flip the outcome. If you have special skills put them to use. Make art to inform and inspire, use law to fight for climate justice, create websites to help us organize, cook meals to nourish activists, throw parties to build community. If you have money or hours to spare, donate it to groups like Youth Climate Strike, Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion, and Sunrise Movement. If you eat and feed others, choose foods that are grown regeneratively, restoring carbon to the soil, where it belongs.
And we must continue to show up and raise our voices. We have to transform culture. So, talk about climate change. With your friends, colleagues, neighbors, church, school, sports team, family. We can’t mobilize at the scale we need to, unless we face this existential challenge head on, together, with clarity, grounded in science and empathy, and focused on solutions.
Building community around solutions is the most important thing. We must build a coalition so massive that we shift the status quo and no longer need to march.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech against the Vietnam War, and those remarks could not be more apt for this context and this moment:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time…. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect…. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.”