Hot, Hot Summer Points to the Future
by Paul Kim, South Side Solidarity Network
A video compilation of weather news clips has recently been making the rounds on the Internet. It is a compilation of TV news, but it is also what the head of the National Center for Atmospheric Research called “a window into what global warming really looks like.” The Guardian also has a frightening overview of what global warming means for us. For a while now, Americans have known what’s going on. They link climate change to storms and record heats that affect them and their neighbors. It’s not just a problem for “polar bears and maybe Bangladesh” any more.
And while oil company CEOs tell us that “we will adapt to this,” the rest of us are realizing how quickly and drastically we must act in order to save you, me, and everyone we know. The warming effects of a ton of carbon today are the same as those of a ton tomorrow. Therefore, the later we start, the more sharply, and painfully, we must reduce emissions. Moreover, all the options that give us a decent shot of avoiding disaster involve us cutting down our emissions to around one-fifth of what they are now.
This leaves us with the question: what can we as organizers and leaders do about this? World CO2 emissions still rose by 3.2 percent last year, leaving environmentalists in approximately the position of the levees during Katrina. America, still the world’s leader, has been sitting on its hands. We need to scale up to “movement status”; unfortunately, not even an organization or coalition full of devoted, talented leaders can make a movement happen. They can only lay the groundwork to help a movement get started, and shape its path once it does. The success of the labor movement was a product of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and going back further, the end of slavery. Likewise, the American Civil Rights movement came out of, among other things, World War II and the discontent of black soldiers who had just risked their lives for their country.
There are some huge national-level issues. The one making the most news is the fight over Keystone XL, the pipeline that would take energy-expensive, habitat-destroing oil from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past year, a series of actions at the White House summoned activists from around the country to DC. It got so hot for the president that despite pressure from Republicans, approval of the pipeline has been delayed several times. Now, in response to Obama’s stated wish to expedite the “Gulf Coast Project,” people will travel south for the second time in our nation’s history to engage in non-violent direct action and change history. I should also mention our increasing exports of coal as an issue to look out for in the future.
Yet there’s also a huge role for us to play in city- and state-level fights. First of all, cities are at once the first victims of climate change, and an arena where real change is happening. On my campus, the largest environmental organization was organized in the fall of 2010 around the campaign to shut down the Fisk and Crawford coal plants in Chicago. Several months later, students from other colleges in Chicago organized the Chicago Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC). Though this fight is now won, CYCC is now a force that can take on other fights on a local level. Just as importantly, its members now see how change is possible. Before people will travel to DC or to Texas to act on a national-level issue, they must often see what can happen when people organize. Luther Mason of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation wrote about one such fight that we can all get around: fully funding the Urban Weatherization Initiative could attack climate change and unemployment at the same time. Energy efficiency is a cost-effective way of reducing a state’s carbon footprint.
If anything positive can come out of this disastrous summer, it will be a change in the political weather, which brings climate change out of people’s individual minds into public discussion. But to turn this into mass action and concrete steps toward emissions reductions, we need to help regular angry people become savvy, motivated, and hopeful angry people. That’s our job.