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Which way for the climate movement?

By Michael Schreiber - Socialist Action, May 11, 2017

On April 29, more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., in a powerful show of determination to rescue the earth from the ravages of climate change. Over 370 sister marches took place simultaneously across the United States and in countries around the world from Britain to Brazil, and from Mexico to Kenya and the Philippines.

The size of the crowd in Washington far surpassed earlier expectations by the organizers and the National Park Service. At precisely 2 p.m., virtually the entire march, which at that point extended more than 20 blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, grew quiet as people sat down as an ensemble. Drums kept the rhythm as the marchers thumped their chests to show that while coming from many backgrounds, their hearts beat as one.

In addition to the colorful puppets and banners carried by organized contingents, most of the marchers brought hand-lettered signs, with slogans reflecting a variety of related social concerns (such as “Black Lives Matter”) in addition to that of the environment.

Although the organized trade-union contingents were meager, spirited groups of Native Americans, LGBTQ people, and communities of color—including a number of Washington, D.C., youth—made their presence felt.

“In the face of a federal administration that would rather reap profits than protect people, our communities are rising up,” Jeremiah Lowery, climate justice organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a press statement on the eve of the march. “In Washington, D.C. and around the world, it’s low-income communities, communities of color, and workers who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis they did the least to contribute to.”

There is no doubt that the threats by the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords and to rescind environmental measures put in place by Obama—which themselves were far from adequate—were responsible for swelling the numbers of people who joined the demonstration.

Only three days before the April 29 actions, Trump and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke released plans to open federal land across the country, including historic and sacred Native American sites, to fossil fuel mining. At the same time, the administration revealed its plans to roll back environmental protections in ocean waters in order to increase oil exploration and drilling. Twenty-seven areas on land and sea would lose their designations as National Monuments.

“Six months ago, my kids woke up to half a foot of water in our living room,” said Cherri Foytlin, director of BOLD Louisiana and spokesperson for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Now, Trump wants to open up the Gulf Coast to even more offshore drilling. But we have a message for him: we are not afraid, and we will not stop fighting. With 100 and 500-year storms now coming every year, we are fighting for our lives.”

Scorn for Trump and his policies favoring Big Oil was likewise widespread in the Science Marches, which brought out tens of thousands on the previous weekend, Earth Day.

The Washington march on April 29 was sponsored by the People’s Climate Mobilization, a coalition that had the active support of over 900 environmental, labor, and social justice organizations. The PCM was founded three years earlier around the giant September 2014 Climate March in New York City.

A lingering criticism of the 2014 action was that, despite its massive size, it yielded relatively few organizing projects in its wake. In contrast, the PCM is now trying to carry the momentum forward, and particular attention has been given in PCM literature to the situation of front-line, indigenous, and working-class communities in the climate fight.

“Today’s actions are not for one day or one week or one year,” PCM national coordinator Paul Gestos states. “We are a movement that is getting stronger everyday for our families, our communities and our planet. To change everything, we need everyone.”

But in order to achieve real “change,” our goals and strategy need to be hammered out and made precise. Unfortunately, the movement to combat climate change has lagged in promoting a broad and democratic discussion, while key figures in the current leadership have allowed themselves to be lured into supporting proposals that fall short of the major tasks ahead.

Just days before the April 29 climate mobilization, Democratic Party Senators Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, and Cory Booker announced that they were sponsoring a new bill that, among other provisions, would mandate a U.S. transition to 100 percent renewable energy no later than 2050. The bill, dubbed the “100 by ’50 Act,” was immediately embraced by several environmental leaders. Jason Kowalski of 350.org cheered it on as the “North Star” of the climate movement. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, touted the bill in an April 19 Nation article as being able to bring about “an end to fossil-fuel infrastructure.”

McKibben claimed correctly that the U.S. needs to undertake a “World War II-scale mobilization for clean energy,” but he was far off the mark in implying that passage of the Senate bill would launch an effort at anywhere near that level. During the war, the government essentially took control of the entire economy. The total output of U.S. manufactured goods increased 300 percent from 1940 to 1944, mainly due to government orders and investment.

In 1945, the U.S. devoted over 41 percent of the economy to war spending, whereas the Sanders-Merkley bill would allocate less than 1 percent of the $18.5 trillion U.S. economy to protecting the climate.

Should climate activists rally around the “100 by ’50 Act?” In a Common Dreams article, Ezra Silk, director of strategy and policy for The Climate Mobilization, gave strong arguments against that course. He believes that by establishing 2050 as the target year for 100 percent renewable energy, the bill falls far short of what is necessary and thus “fails to meet the challenge of this historic moment.”

Silk pointed out that even the makers of the bill admit that it stands little chance of passage in the Senate, and so, “why not go big [in establishing goals] and try to actually solve the climate crisis?” He stressed that “for humanity to have a good chance of holding warming permanently below 1.5°C (which itself is far too high for safety), there is no carbon budget left to burn. …

“That means we need to stop emitting greenhouse [gases] right now. And according to climate scientist Michael Mann, even if we did that, the current carbon dioxide concentrations of approximately ~405 ppm are already high enough to produce a catastrophic 2°C of warming, which would devastate African farmers’ ability to grow food and would cause a large-scale release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.”

Ending the climate crisis, Silk wrote, would require at the very least:

1) Building a zero greenhouse gas emissions economy in 10 years or less.

2) Tackling all sources of greenhouse gas emissions—including the food system.

3) Safely removing all the excess carbon from the atmosphere to get back to pre-industrial greenhouse gas concentrations.

Silk expressed a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, and of Bernie Sanders in particular as a “trusted messenger” of the climate movement. We think his enthusiastic trust in Sanders is misplaced, but we strongly agree with his criticisms of the Merkley-Sanders-Booker bill.

Giving active support to the bill would drive the climate movement into an unnecessary detour, a diversion. The snail-paced provisions of the bill, even if they were enacted, would prolong the lives of the automobile and fossil fuel industries at the world’s expense. And more fundamentally, it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. Congress, which is entirely beholden to the corporate and banking interests that profit from fossil fuels, to undertake the systematic planning necessary to combat climate change.

The first task of the U.S. climate movement is to mobilize millions of citizens in mass action to confront the governmental and corporate purveyors of climate change with hard demands of what needs to be done. An essential tool in this process would be democratic regional conferences, in which the environmental movement can interact with organizations of workers, community groups, and oppressed people to plan our strategy and goals and to build a united coalition of struggle.

It is essential that the trade unions give muscle to this movement, mobilizing their members and the entire working class in the effort. Ultimately, it will be the working class and its allies—those who suffer the most from climate change and environmental degradation—who will take charge of restructuring the economy for human needs instead of profits, and of building a fully democratic and sustainable society.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.