As an activist who has been arrested for civil disobedience, organized national climate mobilizations, protested outside of coal plants, and worked for Greenpeace, I am calling on my friends and colleagues to fight for the Kerry-Boxer “Clean Energy Jobs Act” and a strong global treaty in Copenhagen. On Monday Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Energy Secretary Steven Chu said there is a chance of passing a climate bill in Congress before the international talks in Copenhagen this December. Many of us have spent the better part of a decade preparing for this moment. While supporters of the Kerry-Boxer legislation fend off well-financed attacks by the fossil fuel industry, they simultaneously face opposition from progressive voices within the climate movement.
It’s time for radicals and moderates to come together around what we stand for. Being right isn’t enough. Each of us must be loud and strong and boisterous in defense of our cause. Oppose offsets and giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. But let us fight hardest for what we believe in — a strong climate bill and a stronger global treaty — than what we fear.
In November 2000 I had the privilege to be one of 200 young people from the U.S. and Africa invited by Greenpeace to lobby delegates at the U.N. Climate Negotiations in The Hague, Netherlands. We stood below a stage listening to four middle-aged Inuit women, who had traveled outside of their homeland for the first time. They were coming from Alaska, a place where winter temperatures had increased 6 degrees since 1950. Fighting back tears we listened as the women told us of men falling through melting ice while traversing age-old caribou hunting routes. They spoke of dwindling food supplies from altered seasons and seeing mosquitoes in a region that had never known such things. They felt the climate crisis first-hand and were reaching out to us in partnership.
Instead of leaving us in fear, the women joined together in a traditional dance. At that moment we knew what we were fighting for: a strong global climate treaty — to preserve hope, love, community, tradition. The lesson for me: in a crisis, fight hardest for what you believe in, not what you fear. While we should never be afraid to oppose weaknesses and flaws in a policy, they should not rule our agenda or define our movement.
Nine years later there is still no cap on carbon pollution and the stakes have risen. CO2 has risen from 369 ppm in 2000 to 385 ppm in 2008. Progressive opponents of the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs Act include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the recently-formed Climate SOS coalition. The Energy Action Coalition, a youth clean energy alliance that I co-founded in 2004 while serving as Greenpeace Campus Organizer, has struck a largely positive chord on the climate bill. However, several of the 50 member organizations are part of Climate SOS lobbying swing Senators to filibuster a federal climate law. These voices have real power and legitimate concerns.
In 2008 Energy Action Coalition mobilized over 300,000 youth to sign a pledge to vote for candidates supporting a clean energy economy. Responding to student pressure, over 650 college and university presidents have committed to eliminating carbon pollution on their campuses. Students in Appalachia and around the country have fought side by side with fence-line communities against new coal plants, stopping several. The call for 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050 landed in Barack Obama’s climate platform and was inserted into the federal climate bill following a youth-led “Step It Up” campaign in 2007. If united, the climate movement has the power to pass a federal climate law and a strong global treaty in Copenhagen.
Those who follow climate science and support people on the front lines of this crisis are frustrated. By now we should have built a unified movement so powerful that in policy debates we wrangled over penalties for Big Oil as if they were Big Tobacco instead of capitulating about carbon offsets and tolerating coal subsidies. We know that the climate bill’s carbon reduction targets are not strong enough to prevent dangerous tipping points. Many polluters will buy carbon credits rather than reduce their own emissions. We will continue a long trend of wasting tax money on false energy solutions like “clean coal”, offshore drilling, and nuclear power. This is unfortunate — and we should make it clear that we do not support these things and will fight to change them. However, the consequences of inaction are much higher.
Bold actions are needed now more than ever. On July 8, Greenpeace activists put their lives on the line, hanging a giant banner on Mt. Rushmore that reminded President Obama of his obligation to lead: “America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians. Stop Global Warming.” The President and leaders in Congress will only stick their necks out far enough if we come together to make them act.
The truth is Kerry-Boxer, by itself, will not solve the enormity of our climate issues. No matter the outcome, we will have work left to do. Nevertheless, Kerry-Boxer is an important step forward and its overall impact will be overwhelmingly positive.
Because of a four-month fight from a coalition of civil rights and labor groups led by Green For All, the Clean Energy Jobs Act includes important equity provisions. These provisions would provide access to quality green jobs and job training for under-served communities through funding for the Green Jobs Act and a first-of-its-kind Green Construction Careers Demonstration Project. More than words, the climate bill represents legal action that will force change.
- The declining cap on carbon will send an undeniable signal to banks and venture capitalists that carbon is not the future.
- The playing field for renewables and energy efficiency will begin to level out with new standards and new markets.
- Working class people and people of color in every state will gain access to middle class careers in the green economy.
- Other countries will know that the United States is serious about carbon reduction and will race ever faster toward clean technologies and stronger policies.
- The climate movement will have serious political and legal backing when fighting new coal power plants and working for green collar jobs and zero carbon communities.
There is a principle that says to change people’s hearts you must first meet them where they are at, not where you would want them to be. As much as we would like to believe everybody in America is part of the climate movement, it is not the case. People want clean energy and they want change, but they are afraid of a weak economy and rising energy bills. An army of powerful, moneyed forces with short-term interests is playing on peoples’ fears to kill any action on climate change.
In this defining moment in our history, I am calling on fellow climate activists to fight for a federal climate law and a strong global treaty in Copenhagen. Let us be a generation of “Yes we can” instead of “We should not.” If noise gets attention, let our noise be solution-rich. Let’s win real change for real people and build upon each success as a foundation for something better.