The Time for Direct Action on Climate Change Is Now

A protest march in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access pipeline in San Francisco, California, August 24, 2016.A protest march in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access pipeline in San Francisco, California, August 24, 2016. (Photo: Peg Hunter / Flickr)

“In your heart, you know we’re right.” — Imogene Williams, 84, to BNSF Railway officers about to arrest her for blockading the oil train tracks.

What if you brought a patient dying of fever to the hospital, and the doctors looked earnest and suggested removing a sweater?

We’re in an emergency, and no one in power is treating it as such.

Happily, the goals that seem “politically possible” dissolve fast in a time of profound change, and other goals reveal themselves as clearly within reach.

Our warming world is by far the most dire emergency humanity has ever faced, and thanks to the inaction induced by decades of corporate lies, our political and social systems are radically failing us. There is currently no policy under consideration anywhere that will keep us below a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (we’re almost there), which might avoid the worst impacts and tipping points of climate change. Likewise, there’s no policy that currently has a prayer of passage and implementation that will keep us below 2 degrees Celsius, which might mean a chance for those of us in the Global North, though it would make refugees, at best, of hundreds of millions of people across the Middle East, Africa and Asia — not to mention those in low-lying island nations.

Elected leaders tell us — when they talk about this at all — that we need to aim for what’s “politically possible” — a concept with which physics is unacquainted. But happily, the goals that seem “politically possible” dissolve fast in a time of profound change, and other goals reveal themselves as clearly within reach. The only question that has meaning now is: What has a chance of waking politicians of their torpor and spurring them — spurring all of us — to act with the clarity and determination the situation requires?

“In your heart, you know we’re right,” my friend Imogene Williams said, as a police officer was about to arrest her for blockading the tracks used for transporting explosive Bakken crude oil. Williams is 84 years old, and is as pink-cheeked and twinkly-eyed a great-grandmother as Norman Rockwell could hope for. I suspect her soft words were rather more unsettling than they would have been coming from someone else. They stayed with me, because I kept wondering if she was right. Some police officers are informed enough to fear for their kids’ futures on a warming planet, no doubt, and some aren’t, just like any other demographic. What I wondered was not about that one man, but about the way he seemed at that moment to represent both the broader, law-abiding public and the enforcers of the current, deeply problematic construct of human law. In its fundamental denial of the laws of nature, for example, human law still allows companies to emit gases that we now know for a fact will kill countless millions, and yet imprisons a young man for winning an oil and gas lease auction in an act of protest.

When we are old, what will we wish we had done? What can we do to wake the human spirit enough that we might save ourselves?

What do we owe those who are already dying? Or even our loved ones? As a friend of mine asked once: “The people who don’t know what we know, 10 or 20 years from now, what will they think that we should have done to warn them?” Notwithstanding the old cartoon about the stages of global warming denial (It’s not real … it’s not human-caused … it’s not a problem … why didn’t you tell us?), they clearly can’t say we didn’t tell them; many brave and tired people have been doing little else for decades. But telling, for a variety of reasons, has not been enough.

If I do nothing but tell people, now — if I continue organizing, voting, writing, speaking — and the world continues on the 4-degree trajectory represented by current pledges, I will see hideous things before I die — things that have already begun: countries imploding, hundreds of millions starving and displaced, entire ecosystems collapsing. We all will. It will come closer and closer, and then it will come for us.

When we are old, what will we wish we had done? What can we do to wake the human spirit enough that we might save ourselves?

I’ve seen the climate movement build from handfuls of people here and there, to hundreds and thousands — and even hundreds of thousands, in rare moments. I believe that we’re poised for a growth far more explosive: The wave of energy that has recently come into the group that I’m part of, 350 Seattle, has been extraordinary. We’re having to run with all our might simply to make sure we don’t fail new people by not having meaningful ways for them to engage.

I believe we’re coming to what This Is an Uprising calls “the moment of the whirlwind” — the moment when years of effort suddenly cohere, and people pour into the streets. If groups of students can bring down Slobodan Milošević, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, then you, I and our friends can bring down Exxon, and spill its pockets to the people trying to rebuild the world the company is in the process of destroying. I promise. We don’t even have to worry about death squads.

There will be a moment — perhaps not within months, but not as long as decades either — when the police, like Milošević’s soldiers, will refuse to follow orders. They’re human beings, and if they’re not worried yet, they will be; an understanding of the current crisis will change their ideas of what’s right as it has changed mine. There will be a moment when judges understand that if there has ever been a time to interpret our laws so as not to exclude the realities of the planet we inhabit, this is it. Otherwise, our legal system is worth no more than King Canute’s (ironic) attempt to hold back the tide.

There have already been moments when prosecutors understood this. There has already been talk among politicians in my city of explicitly decriminalizing nonviolent civil disobedience on climate. Friends of mine have been thanked by police officers for blockades they’d taken part in. Other friends have been mildly sentenced by judges who said, “We need more people like you.”

When I began writing this, I was in an RV with several others, on the way to North Dakota to support the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, where the Standing Rock Sioux and representatives from hundreds of tribal nations have been blockading the construction of an oil pipeline near to their water supplies. Not long before, there were protests in Louisiana over the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s sale of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases, just weeks after unprecedented flooding left the state with three times as much rain as Hurricane Katrina. There must be somewhere that new fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t being fought hard, but I don’t know where it is. I’m from the Northwest, where we’ve successfully staved off or defeated every new infrastructure project in the last few years. Which is good, because we have to.

But it’s not nearly enough — not yet. On the road to Standing Rock, I read about the (warming-induced) spread of Zika and the damage it’s doing to babies’ brains. We passed through two areas of intense wildfires. Whole neighborhoods of Miami now regularly flood at high tide. How biblical does it have to get before politicians act?

There have been few social movements that have not succeeded when people were willing to move beyond themselves, and peacefully step up en masse.

Hillary Clinton, who at least has an idea how serious the problem is, hired a pro-fracking transition manager, Ken Salazar, even though we may have already used up all of our carbon budget. Fracking releases vast amounts of methane, which is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the near term — and the near term is exactly what we have to worry about most, given the terrifying speed of Greenland’s and other ice sheets’ melt. If we turn up the thermostat now, we might — no, will — be paying for it for millennia. If there’s even a we. It’s not clear how there could be, with ecosystems collapsing across the planet.

So again: When we are old, what will we wish we had done? What will you wish you had done? How do we wake each other out of this?

As the brave people at Standing Rock and along the Gulf Coast are showing us all, it’s time — it’s past time — to make our stand and defend the world with all we have. Creatively, peacefully and with the utmost resolve, we have to put ourselves on the line to change things. There has never been a movement for social change that succeeded by people simply being good people and attending to their daily lives. There have been few that have not succeeded — however unlikely they were — when people were willing to move beyond themselves, and peacefully step up en masse to demand something different. Because we are deeply social creatures, nonviolent resistance may be the most powerful force on the planet. As Williams understands, many — perhaps most — people know in their hearts that we’re right. All we have to do is let them see that together, we really do have this power.

People often feel uncomfortable with civil disobedience; it reveals tensions in the current system (in this case, the fact that our laws are deeply inadequate next to the laws of physics), and that system feels inevitable to them. But unexpected and deep social change happens regularly, in truth — from bringing down a dictator, to changing racist laws, to letting people marry (whether they’re of different races, or of the same sex). Seldom do these things happen without civil disobedience.

Here’s our choice: The world represented by Donald Trump, in which we fiddle while escalating climate change creates escalating horror, refugees, anxiety and walls — or a world in which we stand together and demand the change we need by every peaceful and inspiring method available to us, until it happens. There will still be climate change, but we’ll do our best to minimize it, and to become united as a people in our response — determined, compassionate and creative. Not building walls, but building communities that will fight together to keep the planet as vibrant and alive as physics and our previous bad behavior permit.

The people in power don’t actually know that this world is possible; almost to a person, they need to “evolve” (again). And we can help them.

We can’t leave the hard work to other people. We have to stand up for the world we love.

Look outside your window, and understand that if we don’t succeed, everything you see will be profoundly changed in coming decades: Your trees will die from insects, drought or flood; your neighborhoods may become fortresses or go underwater; the people walking down your street may die — or have babies who die — of diseases once unheard-of in your climate. That is what we have to lose.

What can we gain? Everything, but most of all faith. Faith in a planet well enough to continue supporting us; ecosystems slowly coming back into balance; and social systems that acknowledge the natural world, and know that we must be in harmony with it.

We gain a decent (perhaps even beautiful) future, which is a possibility that will otherwise — within years — be in our rearview mirrors.

When we are old, what will we wish we had done? Everything, perhaps, but for a start, we could do much worse than simply standing together in the resolved and clear spirit of Standing Rock: We demand the possibility of a decent future. We will not stand by as that possibility vanishes daily.

Not just in Standing Rock and Louisiana, but also in Washington State, Massachusetts, Vermont and many other places — that is exactly what communities are doing. Direct action by itself, of course, won’t be enough to set us on the right path. But when you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. So we have to stop digging.