Web Only / Features » December 12, 2016
Bill McKibben: Where the Climate Movement Can Still Make Progress, Even Under President Trump
Moving forward won’t be easy, but we can help prevent the worst.
This winter may find climate activists spending as much time trying to block deportations as pipelines.
This article originally appeared at BillMoyers.com.
We’re going to be dealing with an onslaught of daily emergencies during the Trump years. Already it’s begun—if there’s nothing going on (or in some cases when there is), our leader often begins the day with a tweet to stir the pot, and suddenly we’re debating whether burning the flag should lose you your citizenship.
These crises will get worse once he has power—from day to day we’ll have to try and protect vulnerable immigrants, or deal with the latest outrage from the white supremacist “alt-reich,” or confront the latest self-dealing scandal in the upper reaches of the Tower. It will be a game (though not a fun one), for 48 months, of trying to preserve as many people and as much of the Constitution as possible.
And if we’re very lucky, at the end of those four years, we might be able to go back to something that resembles normal life. Much damage will have been done in the meantime, but perhaps not irreparable damage. Obamacare will be gone, but something like it—maybe even something better—will be resurrectable. The suffering in the meantime will be real, but it won’t make the problem harder to solve, assuming reason someday returns. That’s, I guess, the good news: that someday normal life may resume.
But even that slight good news doesn’t apply to the question of climate change. It’s very likely that by the time Trump is done we’ll have missed whatever opening still remains for slowing down the trajectory of global warming—we’ll have crossed thresholds from which there’s no return. In this case, the damage he’s promising will be permanent, for two reasons.
The first is the most obvious: The adversary here is ultimately physics, which plays by its own rules. As we continue to heat the planet, we see that planet changing in ways that turn into feedback loops. If you make it hot enough to melt Arctic ice (and so far we’ve lost about half of our supply) then one of the side effects is removing a nice white mirror from the top of the planet. Instead of that mirror reflecting 80 percent of the sun’s rays out to space, you’ve now got blue water that absorbs most of the incoming rays of the sun, amping up the heat. Oh, and as that water warms, the methane frozen in its depths eventually begins to melt — and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Even if, someday, we get a president back in power who’s willing to try and turn down the coal, gas and oil burning, there will be nothing we can do about that melting methane. Some things are forever, or at least for geologic time.
There’s another reason too, however, and that’s that the international political mechanisms Trump wants to smash can’t easily be assembled again, even with lots of future good will. It took immense diplomatic efforts to reach the Paris climate accords—25 years of negotiating with endless setbacks. The agreement itself is a jury-rigged kludge, but at least it provides a mechanism for action. It depends on each country voluntarily doing its part, though, and if the biggest historic source of the planet’s carbon decides not to play, it’s easy to guess that an awful lot of other leaders will decide that they’d just as soon give in to their fossil fuel interests too.
So Trump is preparing to make a massive bet: a bet that the scientific consensus about climate change is wrong, and that the other 191 nations of the world are wrong as well. It’s a bet based on literally nothing—when The New York Times asked him about global warming, he started mumbling about a physicist uncle of his who died in 1985. The job—and it may not be a possible job—is for the rest of us to figure out how to make the inevitable loss of this bet as painless as possible.
It demands fierce resistance to his silliness—clearly his people are going to kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but perhaps they can be shamed into simply ignoring but not formally abrogating the Paris accords. This is work not just for activists, but for the elites that Trump actually listens to. Here’s where we need what’s left of the establishment to be weighing in: Fortune 500 executives, Wall Streeters—anyone who knows how stupid a bet this is.
But we also need to be working hard on other levels. The fossil fuel industry is celebrating Trump’s election, and rightly so—but we can continue to make their lives at least a little difficult, through campaigns like fossil fuel divestment and through fighting every pipeline and every coal port. The federal battles will obviously be harder, and we may lose even victories like Keystone. But there are many levers of power, and the ones closer to home are often easier to pull.
We also have to work at state and local levels to support what we want. The last election, terrible as it was, showed that renewable energy is popular even in red states—Florida utilities lost their bid to sideline solar energy, for instance. The hope is that we can keep the buildout of sun and wind, which is beginning to acquire real momentum, on track; if so, costs will keep falling to the point where simple economics may overrule even Trumpish ideology.
And of course we have to keep communicating, all the time, about the crisis—using the constant stream of signals from the natural world to help people understand the folly of our stance. As I write this, the Smoky Mountain town of Gatlinburg is on fire, with big hotels turned to ash at the end of a devastating drought. Mother Nature will provide us an endless string of teachable moments, and some of them will break through—it’s worth remembering that the Bush administration fell from favor as much because of Katrina as Iraq.
None of these efforts will prevent massive, and perhaps fatal, damage to the effort to constrain climate change. It’s quite possible, as many scientists said the day after the election, that we’ve lost our best chance. But we don’t know precisely how the physics will play out, and every ton of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere will help.
And amidst this long ongoing emergency, as I said at the beginning, we’ve got to help with all the daily crises. This winter may find climate activists spending as much time trying to block deportations as pipelines; we may have to live in a hot world, but we don’t have to live in a jackbooted one, and the more community we can preserve, the more resilient our communities will be. It’s hard not to despair—but then, it wasn’t all that easy to be realistically hopeful about our climate even before Trump. This has always been a battle against great odds. They’re just steeper now.
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Bill McKibben is the author of more than ten books, including, most recently, EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is the founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and 350.org. He lives in Vermont with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and their daughter.
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