The real reason the climate movement has failed

September 15, 2019

If you think that climate change is turning out to be worse than anyone had thought, it’s not hard to find people who agree with you.

Just check out some recent headlines:

And after reading all those, the obvious question arises — “Climate Change: Why is it So Often ‘Sooner than Predicted’?” Fortunately, you’ll find the answer at Resilience.org: Climate science is still an inexact way of predicting the future. But mostly it’s because scientists are trying to spare us from hearing the worst, so they edit out some of the doom from their reports.

Which, to me at least, is not a particularly reassuring fact to discover. And it makes it seem as if the nations of the world have made little real progress to save the climate.

Thirty Years of Climate Discussion but Little Government Action

After all, ever since the late 1980s, major governments, along with the news media and the public, have known the basic facts about climate change: that unseen pollution mostly from humans burning fossil fuels was heating the atmosphere to dangerous levels that would lead to worse storms, floods and droughts along with rising seas that would flood many coastal cities. That in turn will put human civilization at risk.

For the last three decades, environmental groups have diligently lobbied their governments to slow carbon and methane emissions. Activists have put pressure on industry too. They’ve been smart, full of energy and creative. And those activists have fought on and on, winning many victories against great odds.

Yet, despite several big international treaties — especially the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement — and some impressive accomplishments including holding up pipelines and getting institutional investors to divest from fossil fuels, the pollution and the warming have not stopped.

Cover of "Oil Now" by Erik Curren
My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do instead to win.

Quite the opposite. In the last three decades since the climate movement has gotten active, the world’s economy has released more greenhouse pollution than in the years previously since the Industrial Revolution.

Clearly, whatever progress on public policy that the movement has made with governments and businesses, those governments and businesses have failed to take meaningful action.

Why? Common explanations tend to blame the climate movement rather than either government or industry:

  • Scientists either scared people too much or didn’t scare them enough
  • Al Gore gave too many boring PowerPoints filled with data in charts and graphs
  • Fundraising appeals from eco groups used photos of polar bears instead of people or talked about Bangladesh instead of Bozeman, Montana or Birmingham, Alabama
  • So-called “Big Green” environmental organizations spent too much time lobbying in national capitals and at the U.N. and not enough time building support among the broad public

Another very common approach is to blame the public for being too apathetic to care about urgent warnings from scientists or too selfish to give up their wasteful consumer lifestyles.

While I agree that these may have been challenges for the climate movement, I respectfully disagree that any of them, or all of them combined, were fatal to the movement’s success.

After all, just speaking for the United States, we’ve solved problems that are pretty techy before (ie, reaching the moon through the Apollo Program). We’ve successfully dealt with problems that are hard to see or far away (like World War II). And our citizens have shown great ability for self-sacrifice in a good cause (I remember the grape boycotts that my white, midwestern mom joined in the 1970s to support the movement of Chicano farm workers in California for better working conditions).

The climate movement has achieved significant success reaching the public, as surveys showing vast majorities of citizens supporting climate action and clean energy demonstrate. We should not blame green groups for the failure of governments and business to act on climate solutions. And we should not blame ordinary citizens for failing to buy enough Priuses or turn down their thermostats enough.

Nor should we accept that climate change is the “problem from hell” as some communications experts have claimed, that global heating is too hard for people in the U.S. or other developed countries to understand because greenhouse pollution is invisible and its effects are often felt far away or are predicted to occur in the future.

No, the real problem is much simpler and the real culprit is much more specific: the world’s biggest, richest and most powerful special interest has thwarted the climate movement at every step.

I mean, of course, the fossil fuel industry.

Led by oil companies, dirty energy producers have not only stopped governments from acting against climate chaos. Those companies have also covered up their own role in the problem.

With enough money to burn and enough money to bribe, as Naomi Klein has put it, oil companies have used their massive political influence to reward their friends and punish their critics in government, all the while hiring pliable scientists and PR flaks to confuse the public about the real science.

Worst of all, oil companies have used their massive stores of cash to defeat promising legislation for climate solutions. For example, reports the Intercept, in 2018 an industry lobby group called the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers “mobilized over $30 million to defeat the carbon tax proposed in Washington State, easily outspending an environmentalist campaign funded by philanthropist billionaires and small donors.”

As the Intercept article explains, the same oil industry group has now started bragging about how they’ve managed to criminalize protest against new oil and gas pipelines in several states.

So, stop worrying about greedy consumers or apathetic voters. They’re not the reason the climate movement has failed. The oil industry is the real obstacle to climate action. To have any hope to save the world from climate chaos, we must first get oil companies out of politics. And then we must phase out their product, once and for all.

The challenge of course, is massive. Dirty energy companies claim ownership of reserves of oil, gas and coal worth between $10 and $20 trillion worldwide.

Is there any precedent for fighting such wealth and the political power it can buy?

The Most Successful Political Movement Ever

abolitionist image
There’s no moral equivalent between an enslaved human and a molecule of fossil fuel. But the politics and economics of the abolition movement can help the climate movement to successfully take on the massive political power of the dirty energy industry.

Fortunately for them, none of the big social movements of recent decades — whether civil rights, women’s rights or LGBTQ rights — had to face anything like a $10 trillion enemy. That very fact means none of these movements are a good model for fighting the economic and political power of oil companies.

But if we go back into history a little further, we do find one movement that did face off against such wealth and power. This was the most successful social campaign of the last two hundred years and perhaps ever — the movement to abolish slavery.

Active on three continents, but especially in Britain and the United States for nearly a century from about 1780 until the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the abolition movement worked tirelessly and intelligently to win freedom against great odds for millions of enslaved people.

And most importantly of all, abolition triumphed not merely over emotional or cultural attitudes like racism among white people but against the largest monied special interest of its day.

Whether it was the West Indian sugar planters that British abolitionists had to overcome or the southern cotton planters who ran slavery in the United States, at the height of its power, the constellation of wealthy interests that abolitionists dubbed “the Slave Power” was the biggest and most powerful political force on both sides of the Atlantic.

MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes has noted that, in the amoral financial accounting of the slave economy, the asset value”of enslaved people in the U.S. alone right before the Civil War would equal about $10 trillion in today’s money.

Coincidentally, that’s about the same as the low estimate for the amount of fossil fuel reserves held by oil, gas and coal companies worldwide today: $10 trillion.

Of course, there’s no moral equivalent between human beings and molecules of fossil fuels, as Hayes notes. The main point is for today’s climate movement to learn the rules of success from the history of abolition.

To break a political power with that much wealth, we would do well to follow the only example in modern history when it’s happened before. To break the $10 trillion Oil Power today, we should study what abolitionists did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to break the $10 trillion Slave Power.

And that’s what I’ll do in the book I’m writing now, Abolish Oil Now: Our Last, Best Hope to Save the Climate, Stop Endless Wars and Live in Freedom.

My publisher is planning to put the book out in January, but you can read the book’s outline now. And of course, I’ll publish updates here [at Transition Voice] over the next few months.

I reposted this piece from my author website.

Top image: David (Kansas) vs Goliath (Standard Oil). J.S. Pughe (1905). Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Kansas_David_in_the_field_-_J.S._Pughe._LCCN2011645685.jpg

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: climate activism