Is it Time for a Climate Uprising?

Levi Draheim is twelve years old. He lives on a Florida barrier island threatened by rising sea levels. He is also one of a group of young people suing the U.S. government for inaction on climate change. The case, Juliana v. United States, is making its way through the courts. As recently reported in Grist, Draheim said at a public event, “The constitution says that I have a right to life, liberty, and property. How am I supposed to enjoy life, liberty, and property, if one day, the island I live on will be underwater?”

In 1988, NASA physicist James Hansen warned in a highly publicized Senate hearing that it was time to address climate change. The world’s nations followed with thirty years of inaction or inadequate half-measures, with the U.S. often playing an especially obstructionist role. This failure to act was, as Nathaniel Rich points out in a recent book, significantly due to special interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, its political beneficiaries, and its ideological allies and cheerleaders on the political Right. Even as corporations like Exxon quietly prepared for climate change, they spread misinformation and climate denial and worked with officeholders to stymie any attempts to regulate emissions.

John Locke, the seventeenth century English liberal philosopher whose ideas, including a right to revolution, greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence and helped shape our political traditions, believed that government’s most basic mandate is to protect the lives, liberties, and property of its citizens. In his 1689 Second Treatise of Government, Locke argued that when government abandons or subverts this duty, it loses legitimacy, even putting itself in a state of war with its own people. The people are then no longer bound by its authority and are free, through revolution if necessary, to institute a new government.

Neither Locke nor the American Founders could have anticipated the threat from climate change, though Locke called for leaving everyone “enough and as good” of the Earth’s resources in order to ensure their basic rights. One could easily make the case that a stable climate and a habitable planet are essential foundations for life, liberty, and property.

Has our government violated its most fundamental duty in order to curry favor with the fossil fuel industry? Are we in a revolutionary situation? Should we take to the streets to ensure our basic rights and, indeed, our very survival? These are not questions pitched from the extremes of the political spectrum. They follow from our mainstream liberal tradition of Locke and the Declaration of Independence.

We are indeed facing a climate emergency. Due to anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, the Earth is now experiencing atmospheric changes unprecedented on a scale of millions of years. These changes will have devastating environmental, political, economic, and social impacts that will directly threaten our lives, liberties, and property. Already at the frontlines of this crisis, in terms of impacts, are traditionally marginalized groups, i.e. people of color and the poor.

Yet while it is now too late to prevent significant changes to the Earth’s climate, it may not be too late to forestall massively catastrophic ecological disruption and the associated social and political upheavals. But we are almost out of time. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have until 2030 to significantly cut emissions and begin radically decarbonizing the global economy. Under more dire scenarios, failure to act could mean civilizational collapse by 2050. And we may have only until 2020 to take the political steps necessary to begin rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Whether or not these predictions are precisely accurate, they underscore the absolute urgency of the problem.

The United States is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases, and as the world’s premier economic and military power, we have an unparalleled degree of political and moral authority with regard to global issues. Our nation still can make an enormous difference in confronting this crisis. Yet Donald Trump’s presidency comes at perhaps the worst moment for our civilization and our planet. Trump, who persistently denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change and has stacked his administration with climate deniers and fossil fuel industry allies, represents the culmination of decades of obstruction and denial. With the blessing of Republicans, he is vigorously sabotaging efforts to address our climate emergency. Not only has Trump decided to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, but he is also dismantling President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards, and is eliminating other climate and environmental regulations. He wants to gut federal renewable energy and efficiency programs. His Administration has taken down climate change information on government websites. It is increasingly interfering with federal research on climate change and trying to prevent government scientists from speaking out on this issue. Trump even threatens to block state action on climate change, specifically seeking to revoke California’s longstanding right under the Clean Air Act to set its own, tougher emissions policies. Overseas, Trump’s actions are encouraging other world leaders to scrap climate policies.

Trump and his allies are thus preventing the mitigation of future climate change, while also hampering our ability to adapt to the changes that are inevitably coming. In favoring the interests of the fossil fuel industry over the fundamental welfare of the American people and all the Earth’s inhabitants, they are colluding with a malevolent power, in a monumental act of betrayal even more egregious than their ongoing unwillingness to address Russian interference in our electoral process. They are forfeiting their own citizens’ basic rights and hurtling us down a suicidal course.

For those of us not yet directly impacted by increasingly severe hurricanes, wildfires, and floods, we still cling to normalcy, planning our futures and our children’s futures as if life ten, twenty, forty, fifty years hence will largely be the same. But any prospect of future normalcy is gone, and inaction now could mean no future at all.

Some say it is too late to do anything. Democratic Presidential aspirant Andrew Yang said in the latest televised debate, “We are 10 years too late” and that our only recourse is for individuals and families to move themselves to higher ground. Others preach acceptance, of the inevitable collapse of the biosphere and human civilization and indeed our own extinction as a species. Both views falsely assume that we have passed some threshold at which any emissions reduction is pointless.

Defeatist views also assume an unchanging politics, that the political will for real action will never materialize. However, all bets are off politically. As political theorists John Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering argue in a new book, our political institutions and practices emerged over thousands of years in the relatively stable climate of the Holocene Epoch. Now, with such stability gone, political and economic arrangements as we have known them are being thrown into question. Paradoxically, we are in a time of both extreme danger and unusual political possibility.

It may still seem a whole lot easier to simply counsel retreat or indulge in melancholia about the end of the world instead of going out in the streets and demanding action from our leaders. But protest in both the U.S. and abroad is becoming increasingly assertive. High school students around the world, partly inspired by teenaged Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, have staged climate change walkouts. In Europe, a group called Extinction Rebellion has held mass civil disobedience events and called for the creation of citizen assemblies to address climate change.

We are long past the time to wait around for our political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat. We have endured thirty years of obstructionism. Locke counseled that people should exercise forbearance in the face of their rulers’ mistakes, bad laws, and human frailties. “But,” he warned, “if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected.”

So, is it time for a revolution? No, for both practical and moral reasons. Overthrow of our government is nearly impossible. Even if it had a chance of success, a revolution would likely be massively violent and destructive, with the risk that democratic institutions and individual rights would give way to civil chaos or dictatorship.

As citizens, our focus should first of all be to clear out the entire Trump Administration in 2020 — impeachment would only elevate Vice President Pence, another climate obstructionist, to the White House — and, just as importantly, to exert maximum public pressure to make climate change a centerpiece of the Democrats’ election campaign, media coverage of the race, and the televised debates. But what if Trump is reelected and the Republicans maintain control of at least one house of Congress? Or what if the Democrats win, but pursue inadequate half-measures? Another four years of climate obstruction and it may well be too late to prevent global catastrophe.

There is another course of action in keeping with Locke’s principles. I am talking about a peaceful climate uprising. An uprising would involve such actions as widespread, unrelenting protest; civil disobedience; general strikes; student walkouts; and demands that recalcitrant federal and state officeholders take serious action or resign. The people of Puerto Rico may have already set an example for the rest of the nation for how to remove entrenched, corrupt leaders. Hopefully, though, this will not be necessary and mass protest will instead deliver strong, vocal public backing for elected officials eager to address the climate crisis.

The political objective should be to put our nation on a war footing so as to: rapidly decarbonize our energy system; ramp up energy efficiency; modernize our electric grid; provide adaptation assistance to climate-stressed communities; extend financial assistance and green job training to economically marginalized populations and to workers impacted by the transition from fossil fuels; promote research and development on renewable energy resources, biological and technological means of carbon sequestration, and even last-resort geoengineering measures; and aggressively reengage the United States in global climate negotiations. To prevent an excessive centralization of power, this program should as much as possible involve broad targets, mandates, and resource provision at the national level, with implementation left to regional authorities, municipalities, neighborhoods, and businesses.

It may seem counterintuitive to invoke the legacy of John Locke, who is often cited by anti-government libertarians, to justify sweeping governmental action. However, unmitigated climate change, along with the increasingly desperate political and national security emergencies it will spawn, will make a mockery of our rights and liberties. In the Second Treatise, Locke himself said that extraordinary measures may be necessary if “all the members of the society are to be preserved.” It would be a mistake “not to pull down an innocent man’s house to stop the fire, when the [one] next to it is burning.”

Our own fire is spreading rapidly. We are at the moment of truth for our civilization and indeed our species. This is our time to act.

Professor of Government at Hamilton College