We’ve had 2 days now to talk, think and absorb the experiences of the last few days. And now we’re back on the train to California.
Power Shift ended up with over 12,000 participants and the Capitol Climate Action with more than 2,500. Those are impressive numbers, made even more impressive by the willingness of people from all around the country to converge on Washington, DC.
The Capitol Climate Action, at the urging of Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, called for participants to dress in their Sunday finest and to consciously adopt the approach used by civil rights demonstrators in the 50’s and 60’s. The echoes of the civil rights movement were more than tactical. The movement to address climate change is ultimately about justice and morality and, in that sense, it is an appropriate heir to the civil rights movement.
Time, in their coverage of the Capitol Climate Action, got the basics right.
For all the attention paid to it in the media, global warming remains an amorphous issue for many Americans, one with consequences that are far-off and unconnected to their daily lives. If that is ever going to change, warming advocates need to make climate change a matter of justice, appealing to Americans’ sense of fairness — just as social movements like the civil rights one once did.
As speaker after speaker addressed the plant-protesting crowd — from African-American activists whose cities are blanketed in pollution to protesters from Appalachia, where coal-mining has stripped the land bare — the message wasn’t about polar bears or sea levels but the essential injustice of climate change. Unjust because in the U.S. and around the world it is those least responsible for climate change who will suffer the most from warming, and because it is a form of “generational theft,” as one activist put it, with the young standing to inherit a ruined Earth. “My generation has blown it,” said Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, one of several politicians who joined the march. “But this power is going to be fueled by the young people.”
The young people were fully present, both at the Capitol plant march and over the weekend at the Power Shift conference, which brought together more 11,000 college-age activists from around the country to strategize and rally over climate change. For this generation — post–Cold War, post-9/11, perhaps post-prosperity — global warming is emerging as their issue. Averting dangerous climate change is going to take smart policy, vast technological change and brave entrepreneurs, but it will also require a popular social movement that can alter American values. Global warming is far from inspiring that kind of change — the Capitol plant protest still only attracted a few thousand people — but it is beginning and it is growing, and a snowstorm isn’t likely to stop it.
Over the last few days, we really did change the debate about energy. The willingness of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to throw coal overboard prior to the Capitol Climate Action makes it clear that coal is a dirty word. That’s a tangible victory that we can build upon over the next months.
The biggest battles, though, are still to come, and the most important of them will require us to expand our American sense of justice beyond our borders. This December, in Copenhagen, delegations from around the world will try to negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. But no agreement can be reached without addressing the disproportionate responsibility of the wealthy for the worldwide climate changes that impact primarily the poor. The poor, after all, can’t pack up their cars or hop on a jet and leave when disaster strikes. The global consuming class, which has created the problem, can. The images of Katrina make it very clear who the victims will be.
Climate change is fundamentally an issue of fairness and justice. Our success and our worthiness as heirs to the civil rights movement depend upon our ability to present climate change as the moral issue it truly is. Likewise, America’s place in the new world order will be determined by its willingness to hear the truth and lean into its moral responsibility.