Not that long ago, you could count on the world’s Establishment institutions to give you a comforting if mistaken assessment of the risk of climate change. You could choose to see those demanding radical action to take hold of global warming as, by definition, extremists. And you could be reassured by the fact that none of the planet’s most powerful “responsible” parties were really freaking out much about the state of the crisis.
Somewhat all of a sudden, that is no longer the case. Very much no longer the case. Last week, the power company PG&E preemptively cut power to 700,000 Californians to cut down on wildfire risk (at least one man using a breathing machine has died) and the San Francisco airport announced its intention to build a $587 million seawall to protect the airport from flooding. You probably haven’t heard much about it, but the Army Corps of Engineers has developed a preliminary plan to build a 30-foot seawall to entirely enclose New York harbor, and last week the state of Arizona announced that Pinal County, which includes parts of greater Phoenix and greater Tucson, does not have sufficient groundwater to support its growing population. This summer, the U.N.’s secretary-general, António Guterres, called climate change “a battle for our lives.” Joe Biden, whom climate activists consider the Democratic candidate for president most hopelessly retrograde on climate, says it is an “existential threat.”
This story began with the U.N.’s “Doomsday” IPCC report from last October, which produced an unprecedented wave of protest movement — Greta Thunberg and her school strikes being only the most global example. The two global strikes she helped organize last month, bracketing the feckless U.N. Climate Action Summit, drew over 7 million protesters. Earlier this month, in Bolivia, as many as 1.5 million marched in the streets of Santa Clara to protest Evo Morales’s indifference to wildfires — roughly 10 percent of the country’s population, an astonishing show of climate anxiety, though it went almost uncommented-upon in American media.
One striking feature of these movements is that, unlike even recent bursts of environmental activism, their rhetoric is, with few exceptions, not out of line with the chorus of scientific consensus, which grows increasingly panicked by the day. A report published by the IMF this month summarizes that new consensus this way: “There is growing agreement between economists and scientists that the tail risks are material and the risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction.” This is the IMF, for Christ’s sake.
When alarmist rhetoric and Establishment wisdom have collapsed into each other, what role is there for protest? It may be less about shifting the Overton window and more about simply insisting that those in power operate as though they believe what they say, rather than retreat into an already-familiar climate hypocrisy (declaring a climate emergency and then immediately approving a new oil pipeline, as Justin Trudeau, for instance, has done).
Of course, some protests are still moving that window. Last Monday, the most extreme of the large new groups, the U.K.-based Extinction Rebellion, began a major two-week action by distributing a pamphlet in the Tube that read “Londoners: Take two weeks off work.” On the eve of the protest, British police raided the XR headquarters, bashing down the front door with a battering ram and confiscating such dangerous items as portable toilets, solar panels, thermoses, and hot-water bottles. In week one, Boris Johnson’s father joined the protests; in week two, Margaret Atwood joined in. Late yesterday, the police began clearing the protesters from Trafalgar Square; the group announced it would “let Trafalgar Square go,” but insisted “the International Rebellion continues.”
XR’s rhetoric can be off-putting. In fact, I am put off by it, too, since I tend to think human extinction is quite unlikely on any timescale it makes sense for us to think about. The group’s founder, Roger Hallam, has been (fairly) criticized for somewhat overstating the urgency of the climate science, insisting that Britain needs to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 (perhaps an impossible task, given the Herculean work required not just in the electricity sector but in infrastructure and industry and housing and agriculture).
But, as Alex Randall has argued in an illuminating Twitter thread, XR’s strategic value is not in its scientific perspective but its political one. And while the group probably does overstate — to some degree — the scientific consensus, their goal of a net-zero U.K. by 2025 is closer to what would have to be done to avoid catastrophic warming than any existing policy in place anywhere in the world, given that hardly any country in the world has taken meaningful action to reduce emissions. Which is perhaps why a group called “Scientists for XR” has emerged — 750 scientists endorsing not just XR’s sense of scientific urgency but the necessity of taking direct political action to bring new climate policy about. XR protestors call themselves “rebels,” and while the political call for rebellion may be as jarring as their use of the word “Extinction,” the logic is almost airtight: to imagine decarbonization fast enough to avoid horrifying impacts requires a contortion of the mind, not to mention our politics.
So, can these kinds of protests bring about those kinds of necessary contortions? In other words, what is the value of protests like these? Since the recent history of even epic protest movements has not been especially inspiring, skeptics can be forgiven for wondering just how much this apparent momentum actually means: There was Occupy Wall Street in the last decade, the mobilization against the Iraq War in the one before, the furious rallies against the WTO in the last years of the last century, each judged in their immediate aftermath to be something like a total failure, deflated balloons of discontent lying in the proverbial parade ground almost as reminders of the limits of protest and the barriers to power.
But years on, we find ourselves living amid a politics not just reflecting each of those movements and their priorities but perhaps arising out them: suspicious of globalization, horrified by the prospect of casual military adventuring by the world’s great powers, and animated by outrage about not just income inequality but the lifestyle and cultural inequality that flows inevitably from it. Contemporary politics is now protest politics, the anger so thickly absorbed we often have difficulty even recognizing it as radical.
The problem with climate change is that we don’t have years to wait for that anger to be absorbed, and processed, and transformed into actual policy. To safely avoid catastrophic warming, the U.N. says, would require a halving of global emissions by just 2030 — and a massive buildout of nuclear capacity, which is shrinking today, and such a rapid expansion of negative-emissions carbon-capture technology that by 2030 we’d need a whole new industry at least twice as big, and perhaps four times as big, as the oil-and-gas business that took a century and a half to build out. If that sounds intimidating, it should. It’s why the U.N.’s preferred analogy for the necessary response to climate change is a global mobilization at the scale of World War II, when nearly every man of fighting age was drafted into the army and every woman of working age into the workforce, when whole factories were seized and repurposed and whole industries were nationalized, and all on a timeline of about a single year. The U.N. says we’d need to start that business this year, 2019.
Rupert Read, one of the central figures in Extinction Rebellion and probably its leading spokesperson in British media, likes to say that what is needed is a “revolution in consciousness.” We are already seeing that revolution unfold, in the form of those unprecedented marches and unprecedented surges in public concern. But to take the U.N.’s timeline seriously, it simply isn’t enough, not by a long shot. What would be required to achieve the U.N. targets is probably a revolution of the more familiar kind — or at least a profound reorientation of priorities. For a generation, the world responded to hints that the task of addressing climate change was incompatible with existing politics by deferring to the guardrails and boundaries of that politics. Whatever happens with Extinction Rebellion, the guardrails do seem to be falling away.