Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On Christmas, Some Reflections on Hope and the Climate Justice Movement

"It's best to not confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude toward life. Hope goes further. It is an anchor that one hurls toward the future, it's what lets you pull on the line and reach what you're aiming for" and head in "the right direction."   - Pope Francis

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”   - David Orr

Amidst the busy Christmas festivities of family, presents, and food I took some time to reflect on what the holiday means to me.  The Christmas story is a tale of Love and Renewal, but most of all it is a story of Hope.  The Hope of a savior, the Hope of peace on Earth.  To me the world often appears cruel and capricious, with widening social and economic divides, accelerating climate change, and a discourse where cynicism is the norm.  Yet the story of Hope offered at Christmas still holds promise, and in difficult years ahead, I believe that the virtue of Hope can be one of our greatest assets.

Today is also my 24th birthday.  There is nothing particularly significant about this change of age.  But it feels meaningful to me, in some ways serving as a marker of a loss of innocence.  Reflecting back on the past year, I feel as if I have come to terms with some hard truths about the dysfunction of our political system and the difficulty in building meaningful political power.  I’m no longer optimistic that we’re going to find ways sweeping legislative solutions to inequality, climate change, or other major challenges.  And with these doubts arising, I have been searching for more authentic forms of Hope.

I came of age politically in early 2008, during the primary campaign of Barack Obama.  The then-Senator and had many inspiring qualities, but the thing that most captured my imagination was the vision of Hope that surrounded his candidacy.  For me, “Hope” came to symbolize a profound renewal in our country’s politics and policies.  This call for Hope, along with the slogans of “Change” and “Yes We Can,” called for a shift in our priorities, an elevation of concern for the common good over individual wealth, power, and desires.  Many of us projected our vision of hope onto Obama, believing that his rhetoric would quickly translate into concrete change.  When that did not happen, we were deeply disappointed.

For me, the biggest disappointment in the promise of “Hope” in the Obama administration has been on climate change.  In his first Presidential campaign, Obama spoke of “ending the tyranny of oil” and of this being “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”  But within the first two years of his Presidency, the US failed to pass major climate legislation and the much-hyped Copenhagen climate talks failed to deliver a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty.  With the victory of the Tea Party in 2010, the chances for comprehensive climate legislation all but disappeared.

As tragedies wrought by extreme weather this year clearly demonstrated, climate disruption is already here.  From Hurricane Sandy to Typhoon Haiyan, from the wildfires in Colorado to the droughts in Texas, communities are already dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. I once saw climate change as a concrete and winnable challenge, something we could “Stop” or “Confront” and emerge victorious.  I now see the climate crisis as a slowly unfolding pattern, something that will continue to exacerbate the current struggles to achieve sustainability and social justice. It’s not something that will suddenly be solved, no matter what policies we pass, technology we develop, or treaties we negotiate.

Climate-fueled disasters are going to continue to get worse, because the climate system has a long delay (about 30 years) between CO2 emissions and resulting increases in temperature.  And as the IPCC, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, and many other expert scientific bodies have repeatedly warned, we are rapidly running out of time to prevent truly catastrophic warming.  If we honestly assess the climate trajectories, we are likely heading towards a world totally different from the one in which we now live, with vast  areas of productive land turned to desert, widespread collapse of species and ecosystems, wars fought over resources, and generally increased social strife.  We need to act urgently, both to reduce our current greenhouse gas emissions and transition the world’s energy systems, and to prepare for the inevitable stresses to come resulting from further climate disruption.

But even as the threat posed by climate change continues to grow, our political leaders appear largely paralyzed.  Half of the US Congress (at least on the House side) doesn’t even acknowledge that the problem is real.  The UN climate process is slated to conclude with a global treaty in 2015, but each new round of negotiations still features setbacks and broken promises.  It’s hard to be upbeat about the prospect of having a political breakthrough anytime soon.

Yet when I look out at the climate movement and assess our progress, I feel hopeful.  Not optimistic, because we are still a long ways from where we need to be in order to fundamentally shift power dynamics and move towards a clean energy, low-carbon world.  Hope is different than optimism.  In David Orr’s words, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  Hope requires active effort.  And in the past year, the climate movement has displayed some fairly active hope.  Here are three such examples:

·         The KeystoneXL Pipeline: This wasn’t even an issue three years ago.  It quickly grew to be the defining symbol of the US climate movement, growing from a call to action to massive civil disobedience to a rally this past February with more than 40,000 people.  We have made this the biggest climate test for President Obama.  And if he fails this test and approves the pipeline, 70,000+ people are committed to resist through further acts of civil disobedience.

·         Fossil Fuel Divestment: A rag-tag bunch of student organizers have mobilized a movement that has put fear in the heart of the fossil fuel industry.  The strategy of divestment isn’t designed to directly erode the profits of major fossil fuel companies (endowments don’t have enough stock to make a major dent) but rather to chip away at the social license of the entire fossil-fuel business model.  And the movement is growing rapidly.  A recent study from the University of Oxford showed that the Fossil Free divestment campaign is spreading more rapidly than any other previous divestment effort, and that “The outcome of the stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.”

·        The turning political tide for climate change: We’re finally (finally!) starting to win elections based on climate change and make the issue matter politically.  Following the “climate silence” of the 2012 election, in 2013 climate suddenly mattered.  It became a defining issue in Ed Markey’s Massachusetts Senate race, won by climate champion Ed Markey.  In Virginia, climate-denier Ken Cuccinelli was defeated by clean-tech advocate Terry McAuliffe.  And President Obama committed major political capital to advance climate policy via the executive branch, unveiling his “Climate Action Plan” that will keep the US on track to reach its Copenhagen pledge of 17% reductions by 2020 (based on 2005 levels).

Is this enough to move us towards achieving a stable climate and a sustainable future?  Not even close.  As former head NASA climate scientist James Hansen says, what we need is a full-scale World War II style mobilization.  We need to grow our movement from 40,000 to 400,000 marching in DC, and then turn out 40 million climate voters (or more) to make climate change really matter politically. 

We also need to figure out much more meaningful ways to support our brothers and sisters on the front lines of climate disruption, from the battered towns of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan to the or devastated boreal ecosystem of the tar sands fields of Alberta.  Dealing with climate change in a just manner means helping those who need help the most, but the climate justice movement still does not have enough power to substantially increase to amount of aid flowing to the places most impacted by ongoing climate disruption

Yet the movement for climate justice is growing.  We are making progress. For the movement, “Hope” is no longer a passive stance with faith placed in Obama.  It is now an active stance, with hope stemming and spreading from the actions of countless organizers and activists around the world.  Our hope has shifted from being focused on our leaders to being focused on ourselves.

Over the last few years I have dabbled in Buddhist Meditation, and one the things I most appreciate about the Buddhist tradition is its focus on individual agency.  A quote from Buddhist teacher Jiyu Kennett nicely captures this spirit: “There is no savior in Buddhism. You have to do it for yourself. No one else is going to meditate for you.” I believe that the same can be said of nurturing authentic Hope, particularly in work related to climate justice. No one else is going to create lasting Hope for you.  You have to do it for yourself.

I think in our hearts, most people in the climate justice movement now realize that there will never be a “grand solution” to climate change.  No matter what happens with US national policy or in the Halls of the UN, we will need to keep fighting for climate justice for the rest of our lives.  Like racism, poverty, and other intractable injustices, climate change isn’t suddenly going to go away.  But this realization shouldn’t overwhelm us; rather, it should strengthen our resolve to keep working, to keep moving forward.

For us to succeed in the long-term work of the climate justice movement, we still do need leaders.  We need wise and inspiring elders, mentors, and friends who can keep us fired up and committed for the long haul.  We need leaders who demonstrate their deep commitment to social justice not just through their words, but through their actions.  For many in the climate movement, Bill McKibben has served as this authentic leader.  Others have found inspiration from Naomi Klein, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, and Crystal Lameman. The key thing to remember is that these leaders are not going to save us; these leaders exist in order to help us learn how to save ourselves.

The mainstream media doesn’t seem to understand this distinction, as media coverage of great leaders often portrays them as Messiah-like figures.  Such was coverage of the initial rise of Barack Obama, and such was the coverage of Nelson Mandela following his death.  Pope Francis now is receiving similar Messianic coverage, with commentators from all over the spectrum speculating on he will steer the Catholic Church in a new direction to confront the challenges of the 21st century.  As a progressive Catholic, I have found it remarkably refreshing and encouraging to see Pope Francis so fully embrace the servant leadership of Jesus and act out authentic compassion. But there is a difference between being inspired by Pope Francis and placing our hope in him to single-handedly reform the Catholic Church. It is an impossible task for one person; the renewal of the Church (or in the case of climate change, the creation of meaningful climate policy and a global transition to low-carbon energy) can only be accomplished by many millions of people stepping forward to create the change they wish to see.

So this Christmas, I invite you to remember that Hope is an active virtue.  The great leaders and teachers throughout history, from ancient religious leaders like Jesus and Buddha to modern nonviolent revolutionaries like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, understood this lesson fully.  They lived out their Hope with every ounce of their being, serving as an embodied example of their teachings.  These examples of active Hope are what I wish to emulate within the climate justice movement.  I turn to the lessons of these great leaders on this Christmas Day, as I work to develop my own source of deep authentic Hope that will sustain me for the long road ahead. 


  1. really well written, Adam! good stuff! and merry Xmas

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