Bill McKibben: Why the Climate Movement Can't Wait for Democrats

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Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, it
took Democratic leaders four decades to “evolve” on marriage equality. But the
climate movement, and the planet, don’t have the kind of time.

This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.

A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will
bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the
U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.

Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and
bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers
of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for
the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the
“environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility
and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put
pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous
round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.

Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took
place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide
if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement
takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The
section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this
winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac
River out of downtown DC.)

It was certainly joyful to see marriage
equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the
most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide
that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings.
In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri,
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia
figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the
greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had
signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate
John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too,
had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe

Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest
part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to
do about the Democrats.

Fiddling While the Planet Burns

Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole,
they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney
declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if
necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every
Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the
pipeline — every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to
the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you
know exactly what you’re getting from them.

With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their
Senate caucus — about a third — joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone
XL. As the Washington
insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate:
Senate Democrats.”

Which actually may have been generous to the president.
It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he
has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for
that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.
His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental
impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists
and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.

Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough,
that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite
his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist
on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientistJames
Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week,
simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.

All these men and women have excuses for their climate
conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and
they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic
and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do
even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they
also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of
voting records than party affiliation.

Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic
sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad
enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.
Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given
long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At
least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the
Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able
to marry.

Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human
justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain
point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will
prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so
the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more
fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for
their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need,
desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public
opinion and public policy.

Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the
edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for
Action, for instance — an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into
a kind of quasi-official — has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of
joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to
other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more
energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great,
but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of
climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly
the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.

Energy Independence:
Last Century’s Worry

So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to
face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of
concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is
now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have
disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House
finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways,
including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could
start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).

Recently, I had a long talk with an administration
insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our
energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.

And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it
clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into
killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic — from Greenland to its
seas — essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic
is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your
left arm was missing. You’d panic.

There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and
Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North
Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia,
even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into
more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting
nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last
century’s worry. It dates back to the crises
set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early
1970s, not long after… Stonewall.

So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that
physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough
answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly
offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been
decisivein nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments.
But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have
been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an
enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s
Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will
effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with
carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to
follow one’s heart.

Along with some way to make a third party truly viable,
we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform — not just a
change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end
to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on
revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see
broad new campaigns
underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what
needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their
most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the
scientists tell usthat we have no hope of holding the rise in the
planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.

Of course, climate-change activists can and should
continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the action fund is organizing
college students for the Massachusetts
primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to
build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent,
Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got
considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund
manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but
any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal
here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said,
demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might
actually start to shake things up.

It will take a while, though. According to press reports,
Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer
hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still
underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”

By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At
this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase
actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that
perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he
said, is “going to take people in Washington
who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks
politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two
miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”

That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit
ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.

And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head,
I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the
time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a
movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the
trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At
which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe
even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is
what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the

The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics
is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time.
He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the
same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global
warming summit he convened in Vermont’s
state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think
of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A
movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”

“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he

And so, down to work.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most
recently, of
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben

Image of November 2011
climate march at the White House by TarSandsAction.
Image of a 2012 Barack Obama speech by Matt Wansley. Both
are licensed under Creative

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