Monday, September 27, 2021
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The Answer to Climate Change Is Organizing

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A more personal note than usual this week, because this will be the last of these Climate Crisis columns I’ll write (though it’s not the end of my work for the magazine). I’m incredibly grateful to The New Yorker for letting me do them—and especially thankful for Virginia Cannon, who has edited them each week with grace and aplomb. Our run has overlapped almost perfectly with the course of the pandemic, and for me it’s been the perfect moment to sit back and appreciate and highlight the work of so many across the wide universe of activists, scientists, economists, and politicians who are taking on the deepest problem that humans have ever wandered into. I can’t overstate the comfort of that universe: it didn’t exist thirty-two years ago, when I started writing about climate change; its slow but inexorable rise has given me not just welcome company but real hope. I’ve particularly enjoyed “passing the mic” to many members of that gathering throng. The only rule I set myself was that I’d reach beyond the world of white guys like me, and, as I expected, that proved no boundary at all: this world of thinkers and doers—of poets, bureaucrats, sculptors, civil disobedients, statisticians, architects, farmers—is powerfully diverse. Appreciating their work gives me enormous pleasure.

I’ll continue doing some of that as I transition to a free newsletter at Substack—but one reason I’m leaving the all-consuming labor of this column is to free up some time and energy for the next round of my own work. I’ve long had two identities, as a writer and an activist; for the past couple of years, the former has dominated—in part because the pandemic has made activism hard. And, in truth, part of me hoped that all those who had built movements in the past decade had done enough. Victories have been won, from Keystone XL to fracking bans to divestment to—one hopes—the infrastructure bill now making its tenuous way through Congress. Certainly, the Zeitgeist has been moved—the polling makes clear that even Americans, living in the center of well-funded climate denial, have decisively shifted toward concern about global warming.

But the science has also shifted. As Louisiana digs out and Lake Tahoe evacuates, it feels to me that, with each passing week, the pace of climate destruction increases. And so do researchers’ fears that we’ve underestimated the vulnerability of the planet. Already we’re seeing real disruption of the most basic forces on Earth: the jet stream, the Gulf Stream, the hydrological cycle. From regularly interviewing scientists, I know that their sense of our peril grows—especially the sense that we must act quickly, making enormous changes by decade’s end. And, at the same time, I sense the growing ability of the fossil-fuel industry and its friends in politics and finance to finesse the increasing public outrage. Just as, in 1990, the industry built an intricate architecture of climate denial that cost us three decades, now they’re erecting a similar buttress, constructed of something that is not quite denial but is just as dangerous. They imply that we have plenty of time, that they’re moving as fast as they can. They’re getting good at spreading the message that there’s as much danger in moving too fast as in delaying too long. If they succeed with this grotesque agenda, they’ll lock in such extravagantly high temperatures that I fear the damage will overwhelm our societies.

The only way I can think of to meet this challenge is with more mass organizing. Young people are now fully engaged and leading the way; we’re seeing remarkable activism in frontline and indigenous communities. But there’s a group that, I think, is not pulling its weight, and it’s a group I’m now a part of. Call us “experienced Americans”—the baby boomers and silent generations that make up a huge percentage of the population, own a remarkable share of its financial assets, and vote in large numbers. As a rule, people do become more conservative as they age, but it’s not an inviolable maxim—many of the people in these generations witnessed broad cultural and political change in their early years, and now, conscious of their kids and their grandkids, they may be emerging from the primes of their lives with the skills and the resources to help make big change again. And so some of us are planning an organization called Third Act, an effort to mobilize older Americans in defense of environmental sanity and economic and racial fairness. We need a working, equitable society, both because it will do less damage and because it will be better able to cope with the damage that’s no longer preventable. If you’re part of this demographic, I hope you’ll figure out a way to help with this new venture—or that you’ll join with existing efforts such as Elders Climate Action and Great Old Broads for Wilderness. In any event, much of my writing going forward will be more closely tied to that activism. Not that I’ll give up writing for The New Yorker—I’ve been proud to be in its pages since I started as a staff writer, at the age of twenty-one. It’s the best magazine there ever was (and my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert may be the single most elegant chronicler of our climate peril); to be numbered among its contributors is an enormous honor. Because you’ve subscribed to this newsletter, the magazine will kindly e-mail you commentaries that I write for the publication in the future. (To hear from The New Yorker more often, you can also sign up for The Daily newsletter.)

I do not, precisely, relish the prospect of another bout of organizing. Part of me has always thought it’s crazy that we have to build these movements: Why must we fight so hard, even go to jail, in order to get our leaders to take more seriously the clear and unequivocal warnings of scientists? But I’ve long accepted that we’re engaged in a fight, not an argument—and that the main way to counter the malign power of vested interest is to meet organized money with organized people. I’ve highlighted many brilliant people in this column; the best shot at giving their ideas a chance is to keep shifting the balance of power. And that, in the end, is the point of activism. I have no idea whether we’ll be successful, but we’ll try.

Passing the Mic

In a 2008 election, Mohamed Nasheed toppled the longtime strongman ruler of the Maldives. Nasheed’s governance of the archipelago, which stretches across the equator, included a sharp focus on the existential peril caused by climate change. (His cabinet members learned to scuba dive so that they could hold a meeting on one of the nation’s imperilled coral reefs.) Deposed in a coup, in 2012, he spent time in exile abroad, but returned in 2018 after the party that he’d founded won new elections. He’s currently serving as the speaker of the Majlis, or Parliament. The Maldives remains turbulent: Nasheed survived an assassination attempt, in May, when an I.E.D. stuffed with ball bearings exploded near his home. In the run-up to the global climate talks in Glasgow, in November, he has been pushing for debt restructuring or debt repudiation for what he calls the Climate Vulnerable Forum countries—an alliance of forty-eight developing countries heavily exposed to the effects of global warming—in order to free up funds to spend on climate resilience. The Maldives will be chairing the U.N. General Assembly for the next six months, perhaps allowing the nation to amplify this call. (Our conversation has been edited.)

Explain the logic of this idea, both moral and political.

When Climate Vulnerable Forum countries went into debt, they did not envisage such a sharp increase in climate-adaptation expenses. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was implying that substantial climate-change impacts were in the future, and would not affect the loan periods of the existing debt. Most C.V.F. countries spend more than twenty-five per cent of their annual budget for adaptation, and, with the new extreme weather that the I.P.C.C. report says is on the horizon, it is likely that adaptation spending will drastically increase. It is therefore paramount that the C.V.F. countries’ debt is restructured. Debt-restructured expenditure requirements for countries will create enough space in domestic budgets to increase their spending on adaptation, giving the instant ability to adapt to new extreme weather. Funds provided to C.V.F. countries without debt restructuring will go to the debt holders and not to the intended projects.

You were in Copenhagen when the developed nations promised a hundred billion dollars in annual climate aid by 2020. Is this a different way to get that money?

This is a pledge that has manifestly been broken. According to the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development, the total amount provided and mobilized in 2018, 2017, and 2016 was $78.9 billion, $71.2 billion, and $58.6 billion, respectively. The missing twenty billion dollars is a breach of a promise that was made in front of the whole world, and it means that the developed countries are the defaulters—not us in the vulnerable developing countries. As Prime Minister Hasina [of Bangladesh] has stated, the high emitters have not kept their side of the bargain, therefore climate-vulnerable countries must change their position, too. With such a shortage of external funds, we have no choice but to shift resources from repaying debts to focussing on adaptation needs for survival in the face of escalating climate damage. Moreover, we simply cannot tolerate a situation where any provided funds for adaptation flow straight out of the country again in debt repayments.

How are you recovering from the assassination attempt? What’s your plan for the climate fight in the years ahead?

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