This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Here’s a reckless prediction: a decade or so from now, when the climate revolution is fully underway and Miami Beach real estate prices are in free-fall due to constant flooding, and internal combustion engines are as dead as CDs, people will look back on the fall of 2019 as the turning point in the climate crisis. At the very least it will be remembered as the moment that it became clear that people were not going to give up their future on a habitable planet without a damn good fight.
It’s not easy to feel hopeful at this dark hour. The Amazon rainforest is burning, heat waves this summer have killed thousands of people around the world, the Midwest is still reeling from massive flooding, and the human suffering from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas is just beginning to be revealed. Meanwhile, President Trump doodles on hurricane maps and big oil is still investing millions in fossil-fuel infrastructure that will only further load the atmosphere with carbon and accelerate the devastating climate impacts. Climate scientists tell us that nations of the world need to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030 to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Yet in 2018, carbon emissions grew faster than any year since 2011.
On the other hand, consider this: Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, has become a media star for calling CEOs and politicians liars and thiefs who have stolen her future – and the future of millions of other voiceless people. Inspired in no small part by Thunberg, tens of thousands of people will participate in a global climate strike on September 20th to demand action. CNN just devoted seven hours of coverage to climate change. In the U.S., a majority of registered voters now say climate change is an “emergency.” The climate crisis is at the top of the agenda for every Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign. And, of course, there’s the Green New Deal, which has emerged in the past year to become one of the hottest political topics of the moment.
To me, these are all signs that the climate fight is gaining momentum and becoming the driving political movement of our time. Of course, I thought the same thing back in 2015, after the gavel came down in Paris on the climate deal. Boy, Paris is turning out to be an empty gesture. According to Climate Action Tracker, only two countries in the world, Morocco and the Gambia, have policies in place that are compatible with the 1.5 C target set in Paris.
This time, the moment feels different. And the difference can be summed up by the emergence of two qualities that have been in the background of the climate fight until now – moral courage and financial panic.
You can see moral courage most clearly in the words and actions of Greta Thunberg. Her secret (or not-so-secret) power is her simple ability to say things that everyone recognizes is true but few have the guts to state so bluntly. “If we can save the banks, we can save the world,” she remarked during an interview the other day. She also has an ability to speak not just for her generation, but for everyone whose future has been trashed by greed and carelessness. “[Our] future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money,” Thunberg said in a speech to the UN earlier this year. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.”
But it’s not just Thunberg who is displaying remarkable moral courage these days. It’s all the young activists in the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion and other groups that have emerged in the past year to hold the Fossil Fuel mafia accountable for their actions. It’s scientists like Michael Mann and Katharine Hayhoe and Andrea Dutton who are speaking out in blunt ways about climate risks. It’s politicians like Washington Governor Jay Inslee who drove climate change to the top of the agenda among Democratic presidential candidates by releasing an ambitious climate plan that was so good that other candidates openly borrowed large parts of it for their own campaigns.
But perhaps the clearest manifestation of how much the climate fight has changed is the rise of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal – which is not actually a policy proposal, just a 14-page-long congressional resolution put out last February by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — calls on Congress to pursue a “10-year national mobilization” that zeros out carbon pollution, builds resiliency against climate-change-related disasters, repairs and upgrades the infrastructure of the U.S., develops an energy-efficient smart grid, upgrades existing buildings to achieve maximum energy and water efficiency … the list goes on, including guaranteeing a job with a “family-sustaining wage” and access to high quality health care.
What the strategy is to actually transform this into a legislative agenda is not clear yet, nor is it clear that Green New Deal activists can build a broad enough coalition around their agenda to make it a top priority if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020. But many cities around the country aren’t waiting around to find out. New York City and Los Angeles have both launched their own Green New Deal initiatives that cut emissions and address economic inequality. City planners are using the ideas of the Green New Deal to think differently about urban infrastructure (last week a “Designing the Green New Deal” conference at the University of Pennsylvania attracted more than 2,000 attendees). On college campuses, the Green New Deal has gone viral, transforming depressing lectures about the climate crisis into inspiring debates about race, power, and environmental justice.
“We’re trying to build the climate equivalent of the civil rights movement,” says Julian Noisecat, director of Green New Deal Strategy at Data for Progress. “It’s about articulating the dream of a better world – one without fossil fuels.”
And that’s where the financial panic comes in. Taking climate change seriously has always meant ditching fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. But now it is blindingly obvious to anyone who thinks honestly about it that the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era is nigh. It’s just a question of how much damage to the climate they will do before they topple over into the tar pit of history.
The relentless decline in the cost of clean energy is eroding the ground beneath fossil fuel empires all over the world, pushing much faster adoption of clean energy than almost anyone anticipated. A decade ago, the Energy Department forecast that by 2030, the U.S. would have 12 gigawatts of solar and 44 gigawatts of wind. Today, the U.S. already has more than 70 GW of solar and 100 GW of wind. In another big breakthrough, VW just announced an electric car called ID3 with batteries that cost $100 kwh, an important price point for mass-market electric cars that automakers didn’t think they would hit for years. These trends will only accelerate.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, thinks the end of the fossil fuel era will come much faster than ExxonMobil and others are willing to admit. Carney is a highly respected figure in the international banking world, and he has been outspoken about the financial risks that fossil fuel companies, as well as automakers and other related industries, run in continuing to invest in reserves and infrastructure that will be worthless in a world that takes climate change seriously – a.k.a. “stranded assets.” Carney and other climate-risk-savvy bankers have urged these companies to accept that the world is changing fast and to transition their businesses rapidly away from fossil fuels. “If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist,” Carney wrote earlier this year in The Guardian.
And then there are the lawsuits – so many lawsuits!
In 2015, an investigation by Inside Climate News revealed that ExxonMobil had long understood the threat that fossil fuels pose to the Earth’s climate, then spent millions to promote misinformation and blur the science. In the aftermath of these revelations, the oil and gas industry has been inundated with legal challenges. States, cities, and counties have launched investigations into fossil fuel companies over climate change and filed lawsuits. “These companies are terrified of these lawsuits because the discovery process will reveal even more about how far they went to mislead the public on climate change,” says Geoffrey Supran, a research associate at Harvard who co-authored an exhaustive report on ExxonMobil’s 40 years of climate communication.
For Big Oil, the risk with these lawsuits is not just the billions of dollars in potential judgements against them, but the larger risk of being banished from the civilized world as willfully evil, just as tobacco companies were banished for marketing cigarettes to kids. Once an industry loses its social license to operate, it’s impossible to recover.
So there’s my hopeful scenario at this moment in the climate fight. Of course, I could be wrong again. Greta Thunberg might lose her magic, the Green New Deal might get co-opted by weak-kneed Democrats, and the fossil fuel industry could be propped up for years by Trump and Putin and their progeny. “I still don’t think that most Americans understand that we are on the verge of climate breakdown,” says Varshini Prakash, the co-founder and executive director of Sunrise. “People are literally not perceiving that we are in the middle of a chaotic and violent future. Until people see that, we are going to be in a tough spot.”
But if the climate crisis has taught us anything, it’s that it’s up to us to choose the future we want. I know what I’m fighting for. Do you?