“Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18
The spectacle of 300,000-400,000 people marching in the streets of New York City on the issue of the threat we face from our changing climate was an wonderful thing, and a frankly overdue level of attention for this, the greatest challenge to our civilization. And now that the polar bears are (hopefully) bailed out and everyone is back at home and at their day jobs, it’s time to take a hard look at what we do now.
I did not attend. I was ill and had work to do. I work in the solar industry, writing about solutions to the Climate Crisis every day. And I didn’t even plan to attend. I don’t attend protests that lack clear and meaningful demands. And this is a central problem not only of this march, but of the Climate Movement in general. It brought in a lot of people, but it failed to articulate a coherent vision for a solution.
I don’t know any other way to say this. Complaining about a problem and not offering a credible solution is the approach of a child. It is understandable for the masses of people who scarcely understand this problem, let alone the solutions. But for the leaders of this movement it is a failure, and one that needs to be addressed.
A climate of opportunism
There are a lot of people for whom this lack of vision works fine, because they can use this crisis that we are facing as a means to prop up their own pre-existing analysis. This is true from both the Left and the Right, and the problem is that the leadership in both camps is not as invested in stopping Climate Change as making the case for their ideology.
In the case of the American Left, outside of Van Jones and his cohort I have yet to see a feasible approach to addressing Climate Change in the near term. I also see a general lack of understanding of these issues, which includes a lack of knowledge of what is currently happening in the transition off of fossil fuels.
The progress that has been made so far in the global energy transition has required working with what the Marxists would call “progressive sections of capital”. It takes finance capital and thus the direct participation of both investors and financial institutions to build solar and wind factories, and their active participation has been critical in deploying renewables as well. By the way, some of those factories are run by the world’s largest worker-owned cooperative.
We can’t wait for “system change”, and the American Left has not delivered politically for 50 years or so. We need to work with these actors to accelerate the transition now, whether or not they are not popular with some groups and whether or not we have other critiques of their role in our society.
Likewise, free-market ideologues have shown again and again that, like the Left, their ideology comes before meaningful action. I will refer to the public statements of Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, not because he is alone but because he is the loudest voice I know of in favor of a radical “free-market” approach in clean energy deployment.
Liebreich opposes both feed-in tariffs, which are responsible for the large majority of installed solar and wind globally, and renewable energy mandates, which he likens to Soviet five-year plans. In this case, the ideology of Liebreich and others directly matches their interests. Liebreich’s work is advising the investment community, and I don’t mean the little guys. Making money comes first, and a livable world second.
Second place is not good enough. Climate Change is the greatest threat to our civilization and we need to approach it with whatever policies work best to most rapidly transition our energy systems off of fossil fuels – wherever they come from on the political spectrum.
We can’t leave this up to politicians
However, I am less concerned with ideologues, who are often more ridiculous than dangerous, than I am with what this lack of strategic vision means for our interaction with those who actually craft and implement policies.
Recent history has shown that the people who run the United States and many other nations simply can’t be trusted to craft and implement effective solutions. Here’s the problem: when you tell someone in charge of a nation that they need to do something about x problem, their natural response as a politician is to do something that makes it look like they are doing something about x problem – in the most politically easy way possible.
This is exactly what Barack Obama has been doing. Since Hurricane Sandy, he’s been talking like Climate Change is a problem – and his “solutions”, like the move from coal to gas, are not necessarily helping. But now he can talk about how he is addressing this greatest challenge of our time, without angering the oil companies, who are knee-deep in fracking. So we cook the planet with CH4 and CO2, instead of just CO2.
We need a coherent vision for a solution
It is past time that the Climate Movement starts putting forward a coherent plan for a solution – and it is the responsibility of leaders like Bill McKibben to move the messaging to articulating more proactive, concrete proposals to get us off carbon instead of simply opposing fossil fuel mega-projects. Luckily, there great examples out there, particularly in Europe which has shown how you can reduce GHG and begin the switch to a renewable energy future in the electricity sector. Europe has even provided us with an example of how to create simple messaging for these complex changes, in the form of Germany’s concept of the Energiewende (Energy Transition).
I must also point to the work of one group, Zero Carbon Britain, which has done a lot of work developing a very detailed vision. Here in New England, this work has been started by Environment Northeast, specifically with their EnergyVision report. When I worked with 350 MA I led efforts to craft a vision for the state of Massachusetts, which was more focused on near-term policy proposals.
There are reasons why McKibben and others would choose not to take this path. Chiefly, there is a lot of debate between the pro-nuclear forces and the pro-renewable energy forces as to what sort of future we are going to have. This is not a small problem, as the pro-nuclear forces are well funded (thank you 60 years of government largess) and influential in the media.
It’s a fight that is going on now in both the EU and the US at the highest levels. Unfortunately, it’s a fight that we have to go through, because someone is going to decide whether we have wind and solar or nuclear power plants. The Climate Movement can’t keep sticking its head in the sand. The longer it fails to clearly articulate a coherent message for real solutions to get us off carbon, the less it looks less like the Civil Rights movement, and more like the Children’s Crusade.
So for Bill McKibben and all of you who are leaders, I ask: What’s the plan?