Against Climate Optimism—Because “Team Normal” Won’t Save the World
Liz Cheney, the anti-MAGA yet deeply conservative outgoing representative from Wyoming, may have said it best: The midterm election results were “a clear victory for team normal.” The center held. “Democracy,” such as it is, held. Even stalwart progressive comrades of mine in the climate movement found the results reassuring.
And, yes, now that Raphael Warnock has held his Georgia seat, full control of the Senate will help the Democrats defend the past year’s legislative gains. But even if they had managed to hold the House as well, US climate policy—at both the national and global level—would remain far behind where it needs to be.
At the same time, yet another UN climate conference—the 27th—produced little or no progress on global emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius hangs by a thread. So let’s be clear: If there’s going to be the slightest chance of salvaging the now all-but defunct Paris Agreement goal of averting catastrophe for a vast portion of humanity, overwhelmingly in the Global South—catastrophe that is already underway—something will have to give.
A great many words have been written recently (including by me) about reasons for political and climate despair—the two are inseparable—and reasons to resist them. And along with the post-election relief at a seeming return to political “normalcy,” there’s an equally premature sense of optimism among climate pundits and movement insiders—as though recent progress has bought us some breathing room. A sense that we might finally be winning.
It may be true, as David Wallace-Wells reported in The New York Times in October (in what is probably the year’s most influential piece of climate writing), that thanks to scientists’ revised climate and energy models—plus totally unforeseen technological and economic progress on renewables—it appears humanity has “likely” escaped the very worst-case, “truly apocalyptic” scenarios. Rather than a civilization-ending 4- or 5-degree Celsius warming by 2100, we are now looking at the prospect of a mere 2 to 3 degrees, based on current policies and pledges (that is, words on paper). This was what most commentators and interviewers took away. But as climate science makes clear, given the expected impacts of 2-plus degrees of warming—and the fact that impacts are already far more severe than predicted at just 1.1 degrees—this will be a very rough ride, especially for those who don’t live in the wealthier parts of the Global North. Thus the rising intensity of the demands at COP27—and the surprise baby-steps agreement—for “loss and damage” payments to poor and vulnerable countries already suffering unprecedented extremes.
Such is the case for optimism. Meanwhile, global emissions are still rising, and not expected to peak until sometime around 2030—rather than falling by half, by that same date, as would be necessary to have a shot at avoiding 1.5ºC. Newly inked investments in oil and gas projects (some deals apparently made on the sidelines at COP27), profiteering off the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine, will blow the Paris Agreement carbon budget in less than a decade—despite the International Energy Agency’s latest warning that no new fossil-fuel infrastructure can be built if the Paris goals are to mean anything. All this bad news (and there’s plenty more), even as recent science points to an increasing likelihood of irreversible earth-system “tipping points” between 1.5º and 2ºC.
This is what winning looks like—for some people. It’s the world, anyway, that “team normal” has given us.
Not Settling for Genocide
There’s something deeply disturbing—chilling, even—about the doctrinaire insistence upon hope and optimism in Democratic and mainstream climate movement circles. I find it chilling because it implies, on the part of the optimists (who are, by the way, almost always white, and either NGO- or party-affiliated), a readiness to settle. That is, a readiness to accept a world beyond 1.5 degrees, even 2 degrees—with all that will bring. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could accept or resign themselves to such a thing, unless they’re already fundamentally comfortable with our political and economic system—the system that got us here—and have faith in its ability, and theirs, to weather the storm. At the very least it reveals an unwillingness to do, or even to consider, what is actually required—to take the necessary risks, individually and collectively, as a movement.
And yet, regardless of the new optimist orthodoxy, there are still quite a few people—more than ever, I’d wager, as a new generation is radicalized—who are unwilling and, on some visceral level, unable to accept the systemic barbarity of a global ecocide that amounts, in many places on the planet, to a form of genocide. Some of us are not willing and able to settle, or to go along with a movement that settles, for genocide.
That’s easy to say, of course—mere words. But what do I really mean?
It’s abundantly evident, as the internationally agreed-upon goal of 1.5ºC is effectively abandoned, that the world is well past the point where there’s the slimmest chance of averting such genocide without in fact shutting things down that already exist and stopping new things from being built. Things like coal and oil and gas projects. There are multiple ways of doing this, some of them financial and regulatory—i.e., the normal, business-as-usual ways—and some of them direct.
Why bother with the far riskier—and more forceful—direct ways, skeptics will ask, when there’s so little chance they’ll convince team normal to abandon business as usual? Here’s one answer: because nothing else has worked, and time is up. Nothing has created the sense of crisis necessary to break the grip of those who protect and profit from the status quo.
And here’s another, every bit as important: Direct action is a form of truth-telling—maybe the most powerful form of truth-telling that radical social movements have invented. It demonstrates, not in the abstract but physically, bodily, on the ground and at the root, what needs to be done—and demonstrates the will to do it. The will to place human life, all life, ahead of the interests of corporate property and profit. (I’m speaking here only of nonviolent direct action, that which strictly avoids physically harming other people.) This kind of action doesn’t require large numbers in order to be effective, but it does help considerably if it has the support of aligned social and political movements.
What Risks are Acceptable?
To the shame of the US climate movement, and much of the left more broadly, such support is what’s lacking in this moment of utmost need. The US climate movement, at the national level, has if anything de-mobilized—content to pursue an inside strategy, employing the mildest of tactics, becoming in effect a mere extension of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But those who are committed to the truth-telling of direct action will not go away just because the future looks a little brighter for the comparatively rich people in the Global North—the countries historically responsible for the coming devastation and erasure of entire countries and cultures. They’ll do what’s necessary, with or without the blessing of a movement that settles.
One reason, I think, that Andreas Malm’s 2021 manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline struck such a nerve among climate activists, and others on the left, is the way it forces readers to ask themselves, as they look into the abyss—i.e., the desolation towards which political normalcy, the status quo, is leading us—what is in fact necessary and morally justified in our situation? What risks are acceptable? At this juncture, as Malm put it when I spoke with him in December 2020, there are “no safe options.” He’s right. Those of us engaged in the struggle for climate justice have to ask ourselves whether sticking with politics and activism as usual, in the face of our global emergency, isn’t itself a kind of giving up, a kind of fatalism, even despair.
In which case, perhaps those who are still committed to the radical truth-telling of direct action—who refuse to give their consent to genocide—are the real optimists. Some might call them optimists of the will. At this late hour, there’s no other kind.