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Fear and Loathing in the Climate Era: 8 Thoughts on How We Win

Fear. That’s what stands out in poll after poll, across all issue areas and locations. Two years into the pandemic, we have a litany of fears — rising energy and food costs, historic inflation, the threat of the next variant, increased polarization, the rise of a global alt right. And then Putin invaded Ukraine. Fair or not, the war in Ukraine — complete with the renewed threat of nuclear weapons — endangers the global order in a way other conflicts do not. That China, the world’s largest creditor, is cozy with Putin helps nothing.

Unsurprisingly, all of the above drowned out the release of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which starkly laid out the global impacts of climate change, and what we need to do and how fast, to stem what UN Secretary General Guterres calls “an atlas of human suffering.” Five weeks later, this next upcoming IPCC report, which will focus on solutions, also risks getting lost in headlines about the largest land invasion in Europe since WWII, and 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees.

For the climate movement, it is a bitter irony. Because climate change has been steadily killing and making refugees of millions, more than ever before and for much longer than we realize, and of course because this war is literally funded and fueled by the fossil fuel system we are fighting so hard to change.

Climate change doesn’t really hit home until it hits hard. For decades, there have been sea levels rising by imperceptible sea levels and growing seasons shifting subtly by a matter of days each year. It’s hard to see in isolation but what is impossible to ignore are the attention-grabbing extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe thanks to climate change. In Canada where I live, last year brought heat domes and extreme fires, followed by atmospheric rivers with massive flooding resulting in the worst extreme weather event in our country’s history. Ignorable, no longer. We just happen to be better resourced than many other nations, and therefore able to withstand the blow.

Extreme weather — more specifically intentional actions that destroy nature — impoverishes the world, and acts as a financially ruinous accelerant of political, social, and physical instability. And our fears — about the economy, our frayed trust in governments and authorities, our intense polarization in key decision-making constituencies — are keeping us from facing the changes or the big moves we need, that the IPCC stresses, for a habitable, safer, stable planet. Our fears are also fodder for those who benefit from a status quo that works for them at everyone else’s expense.

Climate deniers and the oil, gas and coal companies are using Russia’s war on Ukraine as an argument for doubling down on more fossil fuel infrastructure and projects. In the US, the American Petroleum Institute didn’t even wait for a full scale invasion in Ukraine before all but bringing back “drill, baby, drill.” The industry, worldwide, is doubling down on arguments that constraining fossil fuel supply and shifting to renewables will increase energy prices. Decision makers in Britain and other regions are starting to talk about trading off lower energy prices in the short term for a slower transition.

And then there’s the polarization. The 2020 occupation of the US Capitol, the recent “Freedom Convoy” in Canada which attracted extremists from south of the border and then flowed back into the US, and the yellow vest movement in France all signal a dangerous rise in populism. These cultural wars feed off our fears. They especially push back against climate action, and constraining fossil fuel production in particular — positioning both as another big government scheme or imposition on personal rights and freedoms. And this rise in nationalism, protectionism, and a lack of faith in international cooperation is taking place at the exact time that we know we need shared common purpose, engaged citizenry, and collective action from our governments.

But the climate movement can increase mobilization and build greater social license for decision makers to push back. We can successfully constrain both supply and demand for fossil fuels and stop new investment in oil, gas and coal infrastructure that would lock in climate catastrophe. Climate campaigns and mobilization need to address fear and security in a world on fire and create common purpose, and they can. Here’s 8 thoughts on how:

1. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If anything, let’s learn from industry and far right politicians — who are protecting the status quo of concentrated choke points with massive impacts on price, supply, and profit. They were out, grabbing the narrative, and arguing for greater investment in fossil fuels to address the implications of the war and prices spikes before the full scale invasion had even unfolded. The movement doesn’t have the luxury of getting every last talking point in order if it is to effectively counter the fossil fuel propaganda machine. Yes, be thoughtful and prepared. But in key moments, we need to trust our instincts. We lost precious time worrying about being opportunistic and navel gazing. We need to remind ourselves that the climate and biodiversity crisis not only gives us the agency we need, but also that understanding the science and scale of the challenge leaves us a responsibility to speak up, take risks and be bold.

2. Don’t let governments off the hook. The success of climate finance, divestment and insurance campaigns is astounding, with many tangible successes to celebrate. Campaigns rarely give us that kind of momentum and a constant drumbeat of tangle outcomes. Demanding that financial institutions end financing fossil fuels is absolutely critical, but we cannot at this moment in history let governments off the hook. Government action is required if we are going to bend the curve of emissions and stop the lock-in of fossil production now. We cannot allow the markets to decide the fate of humanity. It’s not just about acting quickly to avoid dangerous tipping points or to keep below specific degrees of warming. I remind myself daily that every delay costs lives. Every ton of carbon we stop from going into the atmosphere, save lives. We need international cooperation to ensure that countries like Canada and the US — which have benefited the most from fossil fuels and generated most of the emissions — lead the move away from oil, gas and coal and support other countries with fewer resources and capacity to be part of the transition. We are going to need debt relief and new international agreements to address who gets to produce what and how much. That’s why I have thrown my efforts right now behind the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. We need to set a new bar for climate leadership through a common call to action for governments to increase ambition and collaborate to remove the barriers to stopping fossil fuel expansion. It’s the big global ask. It’s time for elected officials to stand up to the fossil fuel companies that have been holding climate policy, public health and protection of ecosystems hostage for decades and its time for the climate movement globally to unite behind a new big bold audacious global ask that changes the game. (For more on that see my TED talk. Kidding, not kidding.)

3. Take back the language of fairness, planning and security. When people are scared they want a plan that brings a sense of security and fairness. Without increased ambition from our governments to constrain emissions from and the expansion of fossil fuels, we are facing massive insecurity from our failure to mitigate climate change. This is now the greatest and most likely global security threat according to the World Economic Forum. Without a plan that includes a just transition, there will be an unmanaged decline of oil, gas and coal that will result in financial casualties and leave millions of workers and their families behind. And this is as bad, as detrimental to global security, as climate change driven geopolitical instability. Climate action protects lives and jobs. Public support for it increases when we point out that the polluters are not paying their fair share for pollution and that fossil fuel companies are gouging us at the pump, lining the pockets of their executives, and successfully lobbying for billions of tax dollars in subsidies and making record profits. We need to stop earnestly communicating just the facts and trying to “educate,” and instead start trying to motivate action by communicating values and urgency based on a foundation of science. Calling for an end to expansion and a plan for managing the wind down is about facing and planning for the future and all of our safety. Let’s own that safety and security narrative.

4. Bring tangible, bold solutions to the table. The fossil fuel industry proposes projects that they claim generate wealth and jobs and drive innovation while those of us seeking climate action propose policies and concepts. They announce multi-billion dollar pipelines and LNG facilities that would create specific numbers of tangible jobs while we talk more generally about windmills and butterflies. That has to get better. We need big, bold, tangible proposals to drive debate. This is especially true in local fights: we have more success when we have something tangible to say “yes” to as well as “no.” That is also true on a national and international scale. It doesn’t need to be specific infrastructure projects. Bold, big, tangled budget and policy proposals can take off if fueled by good organizing because they capture public imagination and can be debated, and most importantly are commensurate with the scale of the problem. Take for example the success of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative in its first year. It is in no small part due to the fact that 101 Nobel Laureates, 3,000+ scientists, 230 parliamentarians from 30 countries, 40+ local governments, 1,300+ civil society groups and literally hundreds of thousands of health professionals are endorsing and advocating for a Fossil Fuel Treaty. People want something to say yes to and our organizing is stronger and faster when we give people something to rally around and a vision of building something that is tangible and creates the world we want and need.

5. Walk the talk, focus on outcomes. Good campaigning is about good organizing. We call on governments to be accountable, we need to demand the same of ourselves. If the climate movement focused as much on what we were actually doing — the petitions, the list organizing, events, protests, rallies, government lobbying — as we do on our positions and statements, we would be winning. And this goes back to my first point — far too often, we’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, trying to aim for extreme accuracy while the opposition barely bothers with facts and instead grabs the narrative and shapes the story to put the climate movement on defense. Creating a coalition or organizational position statement on a project or policy is not, on its own, campaigning. Release of investigative research reports, no matter how good they are, won’t cut it. Not for nothing are there sign-on letters urging the next upcoming IPCC report to, in effect, please use plain language, so the concerned but also overwhelmed and largely non-academic public doesn’t struggle to understand what the reports and science say, much less what they should do. If we spent even ten percent of the time actually organizing as we do on analyzing, discussing, writing those reports and deciding our own policy positions, we would be winning.

6. Support, fund and amplify Indigenous and frontline impacted community leadership. My experience working for more than 30 years with Indigenous and frontline communities from Canada to the Amazon is that they still feel isolated, unsupported and frankly bewildered by the culture of the movement and the demands of well-meaning philanthropic donors. When working with communities on the ground, you need to resource their participation in your coalitions and projects. If you are a funder you need to work harder to get proposals together and in some instances you need to fill out the forms yourself after an old school phone call to understand their priorities and resource needs. Most importantly capacity support for staff over multiple years is more important than particular project funding. Making the decision in a small community to organize against a project or even on climate change at all if you come from a resource town is a brutally hard one that often means risk to you and those you love, and huge rifts within families. Help them not worry about how to pay rent while they are taking these risks. The fact is supporting Indigenous and impacted community leadership isn’t just the right thing to do for a multitude of decolonization and human rights reasons, it’s also incredibly effective. Community opposition fuels financial risk and creates political space for the right decisions to be made. It also provides stark counterpoint to bogus net zero claims that allow the projects that are killing us to go forward.

7. Elevate the health risks of fossil fuels and the voices of doctors and nurses. In the wake of the pandemic, health professionals have emerged even more strongly as one of the most trusted voices in almost every region of the world. And they are loud and clear: Fossil fuels are literally killing us. Last year a groundbreaking scientific study showed us that air pollution from burning fossil fuels was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide per year, the equivalent of 8 million people. As climate campaigners we tend to go to planetary collapse but the research shows that’s hard for people to engage with while health is a good way to connect and motivate. A multi-year IPCC report that needs a 60-page summary can go over the public’s head, but everyone pays close attention and gets it when their doctors and nurses say climate change and burning fossil fuels are very bad for your health. The Global Climate and Health Alliance is a great place to start for materials and connections.

8. Be bold. Say the F word. I have watched for years as governments, policy think tanks, and even climate groups have edited out references to fossil fuels, which we know are the biggest driver of climate change, and instead focused on solutions to avoid being too negative or polarizing. But going along to get along is avoiding the problem. It doesn’t and hasn’t worked. We can’t build understanding or support for the solutions if we won’t even name the problem. Which is that oil, gas and coal are the primary contributors to carbon pollution and we are on track to build twice the amount of fossils than the world can ever burn, or it will burn us. But to go back to my previous point about being specific and bold, we can’t just leave people with the challenge. We have to articulate opportunities, solutions, actions, and choices to empower a hopeful and effective movement.

As the war in Ukraine intensifies and a resolution seems far off, we risk losing the next IPCC release much as we did the last. But no one can afford to take their eye off the climate ball. And after 30 years of campaigning, some great wins and some truly embarrassing mistakes, I offer these reflections on what I think we can lean into — effective campaign strategy and tactics for the current moment, and for effective climate action that is literally essential to life on earth. If action is the antidote to despair, the movement needs to get organized quickly, tangibly, and effectively.

Tzeporah Berman, BA MES LLD (honoris causa) lives in unceded Tsleil Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam territory in Vancouver with her husband, two sons and two dogs. She is the International Program Director of and the Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.



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