If you want a revolution, start with a clean energy one
It was about five years ago. I was talking with a radical friend about my then-recent personal decision to prioritize work on the climate crisis. I had done so after the European heat wave in the summer of 2003 that led to 30,000 or more deaths. This catastrophe jolted me into serious study about the issue of global warming, study which led me to conclude that the dangerous, earth-heating-up process was happening much more quickly than I had thought it was.
My friend didn’t disagree about the urgency of the climate crisis, but his view was that what we needed to do about it was to build a stronger movement to replace capitalism with a 21st century version of socialism. At the time, I didn’t agree. I felt that we didn’t have the many, many years that it would take to build the kind of powerful mass movement that would be necessary to accomplish that objective, especially given the weaknesses and disorientation of the Left. I felt that the immediate historical need was to do all we could to get off of fossil fuels and onto a renewable energy/energy conservation path. I was convinced that this clean energy movement, to be successful within the limited time period we have, would have to include a very broad range of people, people like Al Gore, for example, not exactly a revolutionary.
However, for the past few months, since liberal Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman made public a first draft of comprehensive climate legislation for the House of Representatives, I’ve been seriously re-thinking this question.
Waxman’s draft of “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009,” ACESA, was very problematic, but as it evolved through behind-closed-doors negotiations between Waxman and coal state, oil state and industrial agriculture Democrats, it got even worse. The target for greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions over the next 10 years, an absolutely critical period of time if we are to have any hope of avoiding world-wide catastrophe, is way too weak, and it is questionable if even this weak target would be met. It contains a huge percentage of problematic “offsets” that will likely allow U.S. corporate polluters to avoid or minimize actual reductions of emissions from their dirty coal plants or oil refineries for 15-20 years or more. It gives away free 2/3 of the permits to emit ghg’s to corporate polluters; half are given directly to the fossil fuel industry. It strips the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate coal plants and other stationary sources of ghg’s. Its cap-and-trade framework allows Wall Street speculators to get into the huge new “carbon market” being created. It is nuclear power-friendly, and it projects giving the U.S. coal industry tens of billions of dollars for carbon capture and sequestration, an unsafe boondoggle that is, at best, a decade away from being commercially viable, if it ever is.
All of this from a liberal Democrat who, in the spring of 2008, one year before the release of the ACESA bill, introduced legislation calling for a moratorium on the building of any new coal plants unless they sequestered 85% of their greenhouse gas emissions. The ACESA bill will allow new coal plants to be built without having to sequester any carbon dioxide or other ghg’s until 2025.
It’s a similar thing with our “yes we can” President. All through his campaign for the Presidency one of his top issues was a call for a steadily-declining cap on ghg emissions and a 100% auction to polluters of ghg emissions permits. Most of that auction money would be returned to taxpayers and consumers to help them deal with higher prices, with some of it used for clean energy and green jobs investments. In March of this year Obama included this plan in his proposed 2010 budget authority legislation. But when he couldn’t get a filibuster-proof 60 U.S. Senators to support this, and after Waxman came out in late March with his ACESA bill draft, Obama went silent. Like Waxman, he allowed the powerful fossil fuel interests which continue to dominate Capitol Hill to wreak their carnage.
I wasn’t a big Obama fan. I wanted him to win and said so publicly, but I also said publicly that Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney was the candidate whose platform and personal history of courageous leadership were most consistent with my own beliefs. However, I did believe that an Obama Presidency would create openings for progressives and revolutionaries, and based upon Obama’s consistently-articulated, 100% auction position, I thought we had a good chance to get some decent climate legislation through the House of Representatives even if the odds were much longer in the Senate.
I was wrong.
What might have made a difference? Things might have been different if there had been a much stronger, more massive radical wing of the climate movement to visibly push back against the fossil fuel Democrats and the environmentalists who quietly went along with them. If there were demonstrations of thousands around the country, or a massive sit-in on Capitol Hill, this might have had an impact. Instead, most environmental and climate groups used their usual tactics, doing some lobbying to try to strengthen ACESA but engaging in virtually no “street heat.”
Where was the U.S. Left during this battle for strong federal climate legislation? It was around, here and there, individuals writing articles, some groups putting out statements, but by and large independent progressives who understand that corporate capitalism is our underlying problem were largely missing in action.
Why This Issue Is So Critical, Short- and Long-Term
There are a number of reasons why this issue needs to be one that every person in the world who considers themselves part of the Left should be studying about and taking action on.
The most important one is the reality of the climate science. There is no question that the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forests and the general disregard for our ecosystem manifested by industrial capitalism, as well as 20th century efforts to build socialism in the Soviet Union and China, have led us close to the edge of a cascading series of ecological disasters that are a grave threat to the future of life on earth as we have known it for thousands of years. Stronger and more destructive hurricanes and typhoons, spreading desertification, more intensive and extensive heat waves, chronic and numerically increasing wildfires, rising sea levels, 100-year-floods happening every decade or less, the disruption of agriculture, growing water scarcity—all of this is happening now, and it’s going to get worse. The question is whether we as a human species, worldwide, are going to be able to gather the spiritual and political strength in enough time to make a rapid shift away from our past polluting practices. We must, we absolutely have to do this to prevent the acceleration of global warming which, sooner or later, will lead us past critical climate tipping points.
What are these tipping points? There are four: the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets, the thawing of the methane-full permafrost in the northern latitudes, the release of methane frozen in ice on the bottom of the ocean as the ocean warms, and the decimation of the Amazon rainforest caused by drought or by humans cutting down too much of it. Any one of these tipping points alone would likely cause such catastrophic impacts or trigger such a major spike in greenhouse gas emissions that the extensive ecological disruption would be almost impossible to reverse for centuries if not millennia.
We aren’t at any of these tipping points yet, but each year that goes by without a dramatic worldwide effort to seriously reduce our ghg emissions brings us closer to one or more of them.
Any “revolutionary” or alleged revolutionary movement which doesn’t do all that it can to prevent this worldwide catastrophe is a complete and total contradiction in terms.
The climate crisis is also a fundamental justice issue. Who is it that is being hit first and hardest as the world begins to experience the negative impacts of a hotter world? It is the people who did the least to cause it, low-income people and people of color. It is Black people in the 9th Ward in New Orleans who lived in the neighborhoods least protected from a strong hurricane. It is Indigenous people in the Arctic where the ice and permafrost are melting, villages are collapsing into the ever-rising ocean waters and hunters are experiencing an unstable and weakening ice. It is residents of islands in the South Pacific where rising seas are threatening to displace entire nations from their historic homelands going back thousands of years.
Those with the least resources are those with the fewest options as climate impacts affect their livelihoods and living situations.
The politics of this dynamic is currently playing itself out as the nations of the world struggle to come up with a stronger international climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, expiring in three years. For close to two years there’s been an effort underway to come up with a treaty by this December at a major United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen. Yet as of right now there are significant differences between the Group of 77 and China, the formerly colonized countries of the global South, and most of the industrialized countries of the North, with some European exceptions. The global South is demanding significant cuts in ghg emissions by the industrialized North, at least 40% below the baseline year of 1990. They are demanding this since over 80% of the ghg emissions in the atmosphere affecting all the nations of the world are the result of the North’s economic development over the past 150 or so years. Yet the United States, responsible for over a quarter of those historic emissions, is proposing via the ACESA legislation to reduce U.S.-based emissions no more than 7-8% by 2020.
Revolutionaries who recognize the deep-seated inequality and injustice of the world economic order, growing out of centuries of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism by the coal- and oil-burning capitalist powers, have a responsibility to support the call for a truly just treaty. Only such a treaty can begin to restore the necessary trust internationally that would then make possible rapid leaps forward to renewable energy-based, sustainable and fair economic development throughout the world.
There is a growing and interconnected, international grassroots climate movement that is planning for action in scores of countries all around the world this fall, beginning on October 24th (www.350.org) and continuing with other actions leading up to and during the Copenhagen climate conference in December. This movement has been steadily developing since 2005. It is a hopeful development and a concrete indicator of the potential for the climate issue to galvanize and advance an independent progressive movement that puts climate justice issues at its center. Another reason why the Left should be doing consistent work on this issue is because, as a once-great revolutionary leader once said, “the masses make history.”
Everyone is affected by this issue. Some are affected more by it and are suffering and will suffer earlier and more seriously, but this is an issue that ultimately affects us all. 75% of U.S. Americans understand that global warming is real and that we need to shift away from the use of fossil fuels. People are experiencing the changes in weather patterns in their daily life.
You can be sure that Barack Obama and John McCain would not have made this a major issue in their 2008 campaigns for the Presidency if it wasn’t one that their polls showed had resonance among the broad voting public.
We have a significant opportunity to build the kind of mass-based movement that, sooner or later, can force the kinds of changes needed in the way the U.S. creates its energy. As we are seeing right now with what is happening on Capitol Hill, there is a need for people who understand the way in which corporate power operates. We need people who can help the climate movement avoid the trap of blindly following Democrats who say one thing but, once in power, are then willing to settle for something very different. In this process progressive independents can build a stronger base of support and a more activist movement able to increasingly challenge corporate power and those subservient to it.
Helping people to understand the way in which power works, helping them to develop the tactics and the organizational strength to overcome it on particular issues—this is a key task for an independent progressive movement. In the process of doing this work and exposing the powers-that-be for who and what they are, we will be laying the basis for broadly-supported revolutionary changes in our energy policy, as well as in other areas of society.
On a very practical level, renewable energy technology can be used on local levels to provide “power to the people,” not just the power of the sun or the wind but power to build local economies that are more self-sufficient. Think about a local neighborhood which joins together to install rooftop solar panels and/or several windmills which, in combination, provide most or all of the electricity needed by that neighborhood. Organizing a neighborhood to do this is, first, a way to bring people together around a commonly-shared need—affordable and reliable electricity. The process of community organizing around a commonly shared need can develop confidence and hope within the community that will then likely manifest itself in other positive projects and initiatives. It will give people a sense of their power when they join together with others.
This kind of a process is the essence of what is needed to build a popular movement capable of eventually making revolutionary change.
Finally, but very importantly, the process of building a clean energy revolution will organically lead growing numbers of people toward a deeply-felt appreciation for and connection to our natural environment. This is something needed not just by the general population but by too many of those who call themselves radicals or revolutionaries. It is needed because the negative values of domination and greed which undergird capitalism and the destructive corporate practices which flow from them are responsible for tremendous environmental damage and pollution. The development of an ecological consciousness and a will to act on it on the part of ever-larger numbers of people is an absolute prerequisite if we are to have any hope for developing the kind of future new society which sees itself as one with nature, not its master.
On an individual level, appreciating, connecting to and learning from the natural world is an essential aspect of how new women and new men can emerge who are able to give leadership within a 21st century revolutionary process.
There are many things that make good revolutionaries: an ability to listen, a sensitivity to human suffering, an understanding of history and economics, basic organizing skills, a commitment to development of new leadership, self-motivated discipline, a willingness to sacrifice for others. Many of these qualities are enhanced by a personal connection to the many other life forms with whom we share this planet Earth.
In the words of an Ojibway prayer,
Look at our brokenness.
“We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
Who are divided
And we are the ones
Who must come back together
To walk the Sacred Way.
Teach us love, compassion
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.”