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The Climate Movement Has Gained Unprecedented Momentum Since 2018

More voters are prioritizing the climate crisis and holding politicians responsible for their ties to oil and gas.

People march as part of the global strike day organized by Earth Strike on September 27, 2019, in Brooklyn, New York.

The climate movement has started gaining momentum, and the oil and gas industry is getting scared. Fossil fuel companies have been ramping up their ad buying, placing loads of ads on social media, in magazines, and even at the global climate summits. Meanwhile, in Australia, a recent report found that the fossil fuel industry doubled its political donations over the past four years.

These examples of increasing desperation from oil and gas companies are actually a hopeful sign in that they reflect the rising power of the climate movement, which has been gathering wins across the country.

The current momentum of the climate movement traces back to unprecedented social and cultural shifts that happened in late 2018, when the U.S. public started caring in a new way about the climate crisis.

Recent Cultural Shifts in the U.S. Are Fueling the Climate Movement

As recently as 2016, it was hard to get people to care about the climate crisis. Climate researchers and communicators had been ringing the bell for decades. As of late, they were frantically pointing at the seminal 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which said, decisively, that humans were warming the earth and that we only had a few decades to stop emitting to avoid utter catastrophe. Still, out of 14 electoral issues, American voters polled by Pew Research Center in 2016 ranked the environment twelfth. The Democratic presidential candidate in the general election was a climate opportunist who led the State Department to “[sell] fracking to the world,” wrote Mother Jones. It was the warmest year on record.

Then it was 2018, the fifth warmest year on record, and, well, it was still hard to get people to care about the climate crisis. At a Democratic leaders’ conference that year, Politico reported, Democratic figures supposedly devoted to climate — Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, even Washington Governor Jay Inslee — danced around the topic when talking to voters. Compared to other issues, “you can’t say it’s predominate,” Inslee told Politico. Only 2 percent of voters surveyed by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) said global warming was their top issue in the upcoming midterms.

But late that year, something new happened within the American public: A critical mass of people started really caring about the climate crisis.

It’s hard to say exactly why. Most likely it was a confluence of things: Natural disasters over 2017 and 2018 cost the country nearly $400 billion in damages, climate activism was ramping up, and the Green New Deal (GND) gave the climate community a policy that matched the urgency necessary to address the crisis. As Al Gore said in early 2019, the U.S. was, for the first time, close to a political “tipping point” on climate.

A paper released earlier in February by German researchers on social tipping points on climate also suggests as such. “There is recent anecdotal evidence that protests, such as the #FridaysForFuture climate strikes of school students around the world, the Extinction Rebellion protests in the United Kingdom, and initiatives such as the Green New Deal in the United States, might be indicators of this change in norms and values taking place right now,” the authors wrote.

The climate movement is finally starting to get its due. Old wisdom says that understanding the problem is half of the solution, but the climate crisis is a much more complex problem than modern humans have had to solve. As David Roberts wrote for Vox, “The problem is, climate change … is more deeply rooted in economics, global, and irreversible in a way no previous problem has been.”

The climate movement is gaining some wins, but there are still huge hurdles to jump over.

Oil and Gas Companies Are Losing Power

Part of the reason the problems are as deeply rooted as Roberts says is because of the near-complete historical dominance of fossil fuels over the energy supply. But, even just since the start of 2020, that dominance has been beginning to wane.

More institutions have been divesting from fossil fuels than ever. The investment firm BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced belatedly in January that it will now center climate in its investment choices (a positive step but one that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that it will “still be the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels” according to VICE).

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs recently announced that it would not be funding drilling in the Arctic — a far cry from divestment, but a good start. There are now over 1,100 institutional investors that have committed to cutting fossil fuels, up from 180 in 2014, reports Financial Times. And, more visibly, Georgetown University joined the growing number of universities that have pledged to divest, and the Harvard divestment campaign stepped closer to divestment recently when Harvard faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of doing so.

Meanwhile, at the end of January, Mad Money host Jim Cramer said he’s “done” with fossil fuels, declaring that they’re in the “death knell phase.” Around the same time, ExxonMobil and Chevron’s stocks tanked because of low quarterly earnings.

Long story short, the money is starting to dry up. And it’s inching the companies further toward desperation.

Oil and gas companies are afraid, “due to the visible and growing public activism and movement building,” says Kathy Mulvey, who leads the corporate accountability campaign at the Union of Concerned Scientists. They still aren’t looking to give up oil and gas, and likely never will be. As Emily Atkin reports in HEATED, oil executives doubled down on their strategy to continue buying social license — in other words, trying to increase public acceptance of the company — in a recent call with investors instead of stopping or slowing drilling. But they’re being pushed to further extremes to continue buying social license, and campaigns like #ExxonKnew are sowing further skepticism in those attempts.

In February, BP announced its plan to reach net zero by 2050 — a claim met with much skepticism by the climate community seeing as even fossil fuel companies that talk up their clean energy investments extensively still jointly spent only about 1 percent of their budgets on them in 2018.

Mulvey said that the anti-fossil fuel movement is actively gaining momentum, “and at this point in a campaign, when it does have momentum, is exactly when we need to step up pressure further.” Momentum is great for the movement, but it won’t reduce emissions. That’s where, hopefully, policy can step in.

Climate Policies Are Spreading

Barring major judicial wins, one of the best ways to bring down the fossil fuel industry will be dramatically reducing demand for fossil fuels. Over the last year, the Green New Deal has emerged as the policy best posed to do so.

The Green New Deal has become a gold standard in the climate policy realm. Climate activists, policy wonks and scientists have said the plan is the closest any plan has come to addressing the scale of the crisis. During the GND media blitz in late 2018 to early 2019, several media outlets predicted that support for the policy package would be a litmus test for 2020 presidential hopefuls. Since then, it’s taken on a new form: All of the remaining Democratic candidates have some sort of plan to address the climate crisis, with Bernie Sanders promoting a comprehensive plan that has echoes of the GND throughout.

Meanwhile, local and state governments in places like Santa Fe have introduced or are planning to introduce GND-like legislation that addresses not only greenhouse gas emissions but also includes language on environmental justice. New York City passed a Green New Deal in April of last year, thanks largely to the hard work of activists, and New York state followed soon after with an ambitious emissions-cutting plan that Justine Calma wrote at Grist was the “first step” toward a national GND. Mayor Bill de Blasio expanded on the city’s GND ambitions by announcing a ban on building new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city. The feasibility of this is questionable, but it is the exact kind of messaging that climate activists have sought from politicians for years.

“The grassroots [movement] is building momentum in ways that we had always dreamed of, in terms of pushing our politicians” says Beta Coronel, a lead U.S. organizer at “What we’re seeing is the result of, truly, a decade or more of work of the climate movement.”

In October of last year, Congress held a hearing investigating the extent to which Exxon sowed doubt about their business’s effect on climate change. Politicians are starting to catch on to the influence of the fossil fuel industry, and so far, over 2,000 local, state and federal politicians have signed on to the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Presidential candidates who signed the pledge but are nonetheless taking money from people with ties to fossil fuels like Joe Biden are being held accountable by activists and journalists. The pledge might be a symbolic victory for now, but it’s the first step toward loosening the grip of the industry on our politicians, and therefore our policy.

Media Outlets Are Waking Up to Their Role

Journalists pushing accountability — and those not doing so — play an undeniably large role in where we are today on climate. In ignoring or downplaying the climate crisis, the media has been complacent, and still is today. A special report by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation last year found that “climate silence continues to reign” across American media, especially broadcast news. But as much as the media is culpable for the continuing climate crisis, the media can also contribute to stopping it.

“Instead of sleepwalking us toward disaster, the US news media need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities — to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action,” wrote Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope in that same CJR/The Nation article. In it, they announced the “Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World” project that over 400 outlets, including Truthout, participated in in an effort to spread and better climate journalism.

It was one of the several new climate initiatives undertaken by media outlets and reporters in the past year. Climate reporter Emily Atkin — formerly a writer for The New Republic — started a climate newsletter, HEATED, that got thousands of subscribers upon launching; Atkin’s success inspired The New Yorker to commission a weekly newsletter from writer and activist Bill McKibben; Bloomberg Media started a new environment-focused publication, Bloomberg Green, which includes a podcast, newsletters and a print magazine; and reporter Amy Westervelt and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar started a podcast on climate media. And the list goes on.

The Guardian has been setting the pace on editorial and advertising standards related to the climate crisis: along with a net-zero-by-2030 plan of its own, it announced last year that it would be eliminating phrases like “climate change” and “global warming,” which can mislead readers about the gravity of the crisis, and instead replacing them with the more accurate “climate crisis” and “global heating.” And, in January, it announced that it would no longer be running ads funded by fossil fuel companies.

Climate coverage on the broadcast news front, on the other hand, is still dismal: A Media Matters for America report found that the largest problem to ever face humanity accounted for only 0.6 percent of broadcast news coverage in 2019. Regardless, broadcast media took a baby step toward better coverage in 2019: Though the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wouldn’t allow a real climate debate, CNN held a climate town hall. As Robinson Meyer argued in The Atlantic, a climate debate could have elevated the issue and aided public understanding of climate plans. Alas, though many in the media called for a climate debate, the DNC proved immovable. Nonetheless, a climate town hall would have been unheard of in 2016.

Public Opinion Is Shifting

Media outlets have the power to influence public opinion, and the recent push on climate in the mainstream media is, likely not coincidentally, happening alongside changes in awareness in public opinion.

In Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, climate was either the top or second issue for Democratic primary voters. Employees at companies like Amazon are risking their jobs to protest their own company’s climate impacts. Encouragingly, the YPCCC’s latest survey finds that, for the first time, there are more people in the “Alarmed” group, those who are the most concerned about the climate crisis, than any other people in the groups that range across climate opinions.

These changes in public opinion are not yet sufficient, but they are exciting. U.S. voters in both parties have long wanted climate policy but have not prioritized it — as illustrated by the election of wave after wave of climate-denying and -delaying officials. But more voters are finally starting to prioritize the climate crisis in their electoral decisions and seeking to hold politicians responsible for their ties to oil and gas interests.

Spending time reflecting on the wins and growing momentum of the climate movement — as this article has done — is necessary to keep fueling that momentum. Even though focusing on wins can feel like an indulgence in the face of so many urgent changes and bad climate news, we need to acknowledge these small and imperfect steps in order to not lose hope in this critical time.

Climate activists and the community at large need to know that their work is effective, especially right now. Nearly all of these changes have taken place in the last year, and a huge bulk of them just in the last two months.

So, fold up these wins, put them in your pocket, and take them with you as you go. There is much more work to be done.

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