Sing it hard, and sing it well,
Send the robber barons straight to hell.
The greedy thieves who came around,
And ate the flesh of everything they found.
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now.
Who walk the streets as free men now.
They brought death to our hometown, boys.
— BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
“Death to My Hometown”
Welcome to the new decade. Gather your strength and say your prayers. The fight of your life is underway, and we’ve already lost the first rounds. The deadline to global climate disaster is a moving target but, by all scientific consensus, is dead ahead and rapidly closing. We have already done irreparable damage, and there are just these 10 few years that remain before our earthly home is beyond our ability to repair. We are in imminent danger.
This emergency issue of Rolling Stone was inspired by a speech that the then-16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made to the United Nations General Assembly last fall: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can do is talk about money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
A discussion of the climate crisis inevitably begins with a litany of alarms and flashing red lights. Antarctica is melting faster and faster; an ice shelf the size of Florida is at risk of collapse, and the temperature at one remote ice station was recently the same as in Atlanta. The Amazon rainforest is being burned down and could slip into a self-destroying end phase. Rainstorms and floods rage in the American South and throughout Western Europe and Southeast Asia. 2020 is already virtually certain to be one of the 10 warmest years on record, and has a nearly 50 percent chance of being the warmest in recorded history. A month ago, I read about the appearance of mile-wide clouds of hundreds of billions of locusts devastating Kenya and Ethiopia — caused in part by the same Indian Ocean weather changes that drove the fires in Australia.
What were once worst-case scenarios have been exceeded again and again, and are turning into self-reinforcing cycles. It is difficult to conceptualize carbon as the enemy. How do you see or fight an odorless, colorless, invisible gas? But the proofs are unmistakable and inexorable.
These events may be geographically distant from one another, but taken together, we are witnessing what looks like a slow-motion apocalypse. In Australia, the fires were quickly followed by floods, what are called “compound extremes,” where one disaster intensifies the next. The fires burned an area as large as South Korea. What has been the response in Australia? The government moves ahead with plans for the massive Adani coal mine, which will send millions of tons of coals to India, the world’s third-most carbon-engorged society. In the same time frame we learn that Japan will build 22 new coal-burning plants because they mismanaged one of their nuclear reactors.
The visible facts in the United States — Mississippi floods, California wildfires, punishing hurricanes — have now led to a 73 percent majority of public opinion that sees climate change as our most pressing national issue. Republican voters seem to be evenly split, but climate-change denial is part of the party’s orthodoxy, which includes racially-based immigration policies, voter suppression, health care and reproductive-rights rollbacks, and regressive taxation. The GOP may soon become the party that destroyed the planet. They are the zombies who ask no questions. They are the walking dead who blindly follow a monster without scruples or morals.
Putting the Democratic Party back in power is essential, but just a start. We will have the wind at our backs, but the real powers are the puppet masters of the GOP — the oil-and-gas interests that spent more than $250 million on lobbying in 2018 and 2019 alone. Make no mistake about their power to pay off Democrats as well as anybody else. They control trillions of dollars. They get hundreds of millions in tax breaks, and billions are spent on military protection of the oil reserves in the Middle East. Our missiles surround the oil fields, our aircraft carriers patrol the shipping lanes around the world.
I don’t believe the political system alone can face this down. In example after example, we see what unrestrained, unregulated financial strength has done to our society and the world. The oil companies are following the same playbook as other corporate leaders — the drug companies, gun manufacturers, sugar and fast-food giants — who knowingly spread disease and death: Lie, deny, and let them die.
Every year, the billionaires, global bankers, transnational corporate giants, celebrities, and “statesmen” gather in Davos, Switzerland, to talk shop. This year, there was a lot of what’s called “greenwashing,” the easy steps and “strategic plans” that make leaders appear as though they are doing something when they’re avoiding the hard choices. The “plant a trillion trees” pledge has a nice ring, but what we need is to stop burning the rainforests of Indonesia and Brazil. Now.
The notion that a multibillion-dollar international bank is greening its offices might be described as a move in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean much. It has to decisively abandon its support of the carbon economy.
Greed is a disease. The unending craving for more money, the addiction to luxury and power, may destroy our civilization. Climate changes are now colliding with one another. Chaos caused by failed states, fleeing populations seeking food, the disruption of our supplies, and the depletion of our treasury will ensue. We already see it on every continent, and this is just the easy stuff.
How do we cure the disease of greed?
Concern for the planet has been one of Rolling Stone’s principal areas of coverage since 1970, when we launched our first sister magazine, Earth Times. We have published consistently important, tough reporting ever since. In this special emergency issue, three of our most experienced writers on the environment are heard — Tim Dickinson, Jeff Goodell, Bill McKibben — and we join hands with three women, of three generations, who are putting their lives on the line for us: Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jane Fonda.
Hear our voices.
Will it be enough? Is World War III at the door? But instead of a nuclear holocaust it’s an economic clash over our endless consumption of resources — food, forests, the ocean. They were stolen and then resold to us by the merchants of death. And in those big shiny skyscrapers, where they keep all their money, selling us on the fantasy of limitless growth and endless gratification, they were heard saying to one another, “What does it matter? I.B.G.Y.B.G. — I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
We must start living our lives as if it is an emergency. With our extraordinary comfort and privilege, we may be too spoiled to make the necessary sacrifices. But one day we will have to answer for what we did to protect our children, our grandchildren, and the miracle of the diversity of nature and species on this planet, when we still had the time.
How much fight do we have left?