The Difference of a Decade

Notes on ten years in the climate justice struggle

West Port Arthur, Texas, with the Motiva and Valero refineries, seen from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge, April 2014. (Photo: Wen Stephenson)

Just about exactly ten years ago, in June 2010, after a decade and a half as a journalist in national media, I set out on the path that led to my engagement in the climate justice movement and my book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice, published by Beacon Press in October 2015. Most of the book was written from late 2012 to late 2014, and some of it appeared in early form in The Nation magazine, where I’ve been a contributor ever since.

What difference does a decade make? I’ve pondered that question here and there, in a longish essay for The Nation last year and in an open letter to the climate movement this past April. But if I had to boil it down to a bite-size phrase, I might say: all the difference — and none.

Ten years ago, let’s recall, there was barely a grassroots “climate movement” to speak of in this country, much less a climate justice movement. (Indeed, the phrase “climate justice,” while prevalent at the international level among advocates for global equity, was virtually absent from the mainstream climate debate in the United States.) There was, of course, the environmental movement — primarily centered around mainstream Big Green NGOs, but also scrappier and more radical groups — and there was the smaller and less-well-funded environmental justice movement, rooted primarily in communities of color disproportionately affected by industrial pollution, the “sacrifice zones” of American capitalism. But there was not much of a grassroots social movement focused squarely on the climate crisis and demanding government action at the scale and urgency required. In 2010, the then-nascent grassroots organization 350.org, the first group dedicated to building such a movement, was scarcely two years old. The national fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which did so much to galvanize grassroots resistance to the fossil fuel industry (including the ongoing fights against tar sands and fracked gas), with ensuing waves of nonviolent civil disobedience in which thousands put their bodies on the line, was still more than a year away. The incredibly successful fossil fuel divestment campaign (kicked-off nationally and then globally by 350 in the fall of 2012) — in which many of today’s younger climate leaders cut their teeth as climate organizers — was still two years off.

Instead, in the summer of 2010 we watched as the absurdly watered-down Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” bill — remember cap-and-trade? — died an agonizing death in the Senate and the White House punted on climate until late in Obama’s second term (all the while pursuing an “all of the above” energy strategy that made the U.S. the largest producer of oil and gas on the planet).

That was then. Today, the climate justice movement in the U.S. — best seen in the broad coalition pushing for a transformative Green New Deal rooted in principles of environmental, racial, and economic justice — is among the foremost political forces on the resurgent American left, reshaping the political landscape, forcing climate and just-transition energy policies into the top tier of Democratic Party priorities. Policies that majorities of the American people say they want. That is the difference a decade makes.

And yet, there’s also the fact that after ten years (and more) of determined movement building and political struggle, this country and the world have made little if any progress toward averting a runaway climate catastrophe within this century. The reasons are multiple and complex, and predate Donald Trump’s election by many years. In the United States, certainly some of the responsibility belongs to the climate movement itself, which has had its share of failings, but by no means all of it. A large share also belongs to progressives, and the left more broadly, who have only belatedly decided to the join in the fight for a livable planet, as though finally realizing it’s too big for “the environmentalists” to handle on their own. One can surely think of other factors: competing crises of forever war, financial collapse, racial and economic oppression, not to mention corporate media complicity in climate denial.

But the lion’s share of responsibility for this failure belongs to the antidemocratic, money-driven political system in which not only the Republican Party, as a fully-owned subsidiary of the carbon lobby, but also the center-left Democratic Party establishment, have done all they can to ensure the continuation of business and politics as usual. The party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and, yes, Joe Biden — despite all the lip service to “believing in science” — has plenty to answer for.

This latter point is what led me to argue in The Nation last year that “the climate movement’s time has passed.” I didn’t mean by this that the game is over and there’s nothing left to be done — far from it. Rather, I meant that the nature of the struggle has become clear: it’s not merely about enacting policies to change our energy systems and slash greenhouse emissions, because our corporate-controlled political system is rigged to prevent that from happening; it’s about radically transforming our politics and our economy, creating the conditions in which a rapid, just transition to a zero-carbon future is politically possible. If we’re serious about climate and about justice, then, yes — it’s about political revolution. And a movement built narrowly around the “issue” of climate change, or even climate justice, will never be adequate to this struggle on its own. What the situation calls for, as I and others have argued, is a broad, intersectional movement of movements for democracy and human rights — with economic, racial, and climate justice at the core — that is bold enough and radical enough to meet the moment.

That means an anti-racist movement. It means an anti-poverty movement. It means a movement for health care as a human right. It means a movement in which human life and welfare matter more than national borders. It means a movement for good jobs and good wages for everyone, as part and parcel of an energy transformation. In other words, the situation calls for a movement that looks a lot like the coalition for a Green New Deal. And it calls for a movement committed to sustained nonviolent resistance.

Oddly enough, this argument in its basic outlines is central to What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other. Rereading the book’s Preface recently, I was startled by how much of it holds up in the present moment. Of course, as anyone who follows climate closely will see, parts of it are dated. But on the whole, the thrust of the book’s opening salvo or manifesto could have been written in the past year. This, for example:

there’s good reason to believe that even a rise of two degrees will set in motion “disastrous consequences” beyond humanity’s control — as former top NASA climatologist James Hansen, now at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and seventeen coauthors concluded in a December 2013 study. Catastrophic warming, by any humane definition, is virtually certain — indeed, already happening. Because even in the very near term, what’s “catastrophic” depends on where you live, and how poor you are, and more often than not the color of your skin. If you’re one of the billions of people who live in the poorest and most vulnerable places on the planet, from Bangladesh to the Sahel to Louisiana, even one degree can mean catastrophe.

Or, this:

given what we know and have known for decades about climate change, to deny the science, deceive the public, and willfully obstruct any serious response to the climate catastrophe is to allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives — and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives. For profit. And for political power.

There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.

Or, this:

Rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism and cynicism, many of us, and especially a young generation of activists, have reached the conclusion that something more than merely “environmentalism,” and virtuous green consumerism, is called for. That the only thing offering any chance of averting an apocalyptic future — and of getting through what’s already coming with our humanity intact — is the kind of radically transformative social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement like those that have made possible what was previously unthinkable, from abolition to civil rights. …

A movement that’s less like environmentalism as we know it and more like the human rights and social-justice struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A movement for human solidarity.

I’ve posted the Preface in its entirety at my website, along with the entirety of Chapter 3, “Organizing for Survival” — in which I reported on entrenched environmental racism in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, going deep with pioneers of the environmental justice movement as well as young climate-justice organizers with a vision that sounds a lot like today’s Green New Deal — and a short section from the end of Chapter 6, “Too Late for What?”

If this material still holds up in 2020, that’s no cause for any smug satisfaction on my part. All it shows is how profound the challenge before us has always been, how radical the struggle, and how far we still have to go.

It may be too late to prevent climate catastrophe. It will never be too late to hold on to our humanity, come what may.

Wen Stephenson, June 2020

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store