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The Real Reason the Climate Movement Has Failed

Public Policy
My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do instead to win.

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 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 climate movement has failed to achieve anything significant.

Thirty Years of Climate Activism with Nothing to Show for It

After all, ever since the late 1980s, the governments of the world, 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 lobbied their governments to slow carbon and methane emissions. Activists have put pressure on industry too.

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

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 it has made with governments and businesses, the climate movement has failed in its goal of saving the climate.

Why? Common explanations include:

  • Scaring people too much
  • Not scaring people enough
  • Giving too many boring PowerPoints filled with scientific data in charts and graphs
  • Making it about polar bears instead of people
  • Making it about Bangladesh instead of Bozeman, Montana or Birmingham, Alabama
  • Too much lobbying by insiders in national capitals and at the U.N. and not enough building support in the broad public
  • Plain old selfishness of the public that isn’t willing to drive less or otherwise 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).

No, the real problem is much easier to understand: 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

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 over the next few months.

I reposted this piece from my author website.

— Erik Curren

Transition Voice

56 Comments on "The Real Reason the Climate Movement Has Failed"

  1. elqutbthehatermuzziealamerikiakafmr on Fri, 30th Aug 2019 11:37 am 

    Why u disrespect supertard

  2. makati1 on Fri, 30th Aug 2019 5:30 pm 

    Anon, if he really is in Italy, and, if his “wife” is really in the hospital, he will likely get zero sympathy from anyone here. He deserves none after all the attempts to destroy anyone here who disagrees with his delusional, twisted view of the world.

    I also give zero sympathy for the collapse of the US that is in progress as we type. I hope you are prepared. The road ahead in the US Police State is going to be very rough. The ride to the 3rd world is only getting started. Buckle up!

  3. Anonymouse on Fri, 30th Aug 2019 11:34 pm 

    Like yourself mak, I only rarely read anything by the exceptionalturd. Did he try to play a sympathy card recently? If so, I must have missed it, imagine that.

  4. makati1 on Fri, 30th Aug 2019 11:49 pm 

    Anon, he tried but failed. No one cares what happens in his life except himself. I read some of his rants when my name is mentioned, but never his cut&paste word salads.

    I do feel sorry for those in the path of Dorian, but that is part of living in Florida, just as living in the Philippines means having to endure a typhoon occasionally.

  5. Cloggie on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 3:35 am 

    No, the real problem is much easier to understand: 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.

    The beauty is that technological powerhouses like Europe and China don’t have large fossil fuel reserves. That provides a huge incentive for said blocks to develop renewable sources, putting the US at a technological distance.

    Once developed and in place, Europe and China can forbid imports of fossil fuel.

  6. Davy on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 5:53 am 

    annoy and makato, why would I give a shit if you live or die? LOL, I am here and you worthless fucks are besides yourself about it. Annoy and juanpee have been attacking me with mindless shit for years now but I am still here. Juanpee has been moderated so bad on topic that he now is exclusively an ID theft criminal and a mindless sock puppeteer. In fact I think he has gone mad. Annoy, you are stale and lame with your goat sex stories and jealousy that I have a life and you don’t. When is the last time you made a quality comment, annoymouse? LMFAO. Annoy and juanpee, reads everything I say. Their first thought when they wake up is DAvvy. They are obsessive cyber stalkers this is what stalkers do. You makato are nearly as bad by attacking me every chance you get IMA not in debate but along with your stalker gang’s ad-homs. The quality of this forum would go up tremendously if the 3 of you useless fucks were gone.

    Yea, I am back from Italy. Alpine Italy is one of the finest places I have been in the world. Good hard-working people in a beautiful place. I am back to getting the farm up and running. It is a bitch to be gone but this is the nature of modern life. A generation ago I would have a couple of people working for me but less equipment and money. People are the key to flexibility and they are hard to find today. Too bad makato, my wife is making a full recovery. She is weak but improving daily. I am impressed with Italian health care. It is not as fancy as the US but the doctors are good and the basic services excellent.

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