One plague, when big enough, occludes others, and the coronavirus pandemic has, for six months now, almost fully eclipsed the very real, very large, and very pressing threat of climate change. Even as the United States normalizes a pandemic plateau producing roughly a thousand deaths every day, with continuing national failure to contain the spread of the disease becoming maddeningly familiar old news, COVID-19 is still preventing us from seeing clearly the wreckage being done by global warming, particularly elsewhere in the world, in parts of the global South where Americans and Europeans prefer not to look.
Since the beginning of the year, billions of locusts produced by climate disruptions to local weather patterns have descended in clouds of as many as 80 million insects on some of the world’s most food-insecure regions, chewing up the croplands of the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, India, and Pakistan, pushing perhaps 5 million people to the brink of starvation and threatening the livelihood of as much as 10 percent of the world’s population. Just months after a historic cyclone “pummeled” the country, about a third of Bangladesh was underwater from torrential rains and flooding, while temperatures across the Middle East soared above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In Iraq, where it reached 125, the heat wave was compounded by power outages depriving Iraqis of air-conditioning that was, in these circumstances, almost literally a lifeline. Last month, as many as 38 million were evacuated to avoid hundreds of simultaneous river floods in China, where some regions received twice as much rain as normal in June and July, and where the massive Three Gorges Dam was sufficiently stressed by the excess rainfall it has produced fears, likely premature, that the epic dam itself might collapse. In the Atlantic, there have been already nine named storms this season, a mark that is typically reached only in October, and the updated NOAA forecast for the remainder of the year projects between three and six major hurricanes, and a total of 19 to 25 storms — meaning there’s a decent chance we will fully exhaust the English alphabet in our naming of storms and move on to Greek. As a whole, the hurricane season is expected to be twice as intense as “normal.” In the midst of a pandemic, in a country that can’t muster the logistical capacity to control it, we will be functionally facing down two serious hurricane seasons at once. And the president is now, ahead of those likely disasters, literally pilfering FEMA’s disaster-relief funds to cover the very minimal amount of unemployment insurance Senate Republicans are unwilling to provide.
Over the past six months, the coronavirus has often been called a “fire drill” for climate change. But at present it looks more like a white-noise machine, drowning out what would be, in any other year, the unmistakable signal of a climate emergency. Last week, new research produced by the Climate Impact Lab on the relationship between warming and mortality underscored just what scale of emergency we may be facing in the decades ahead. By the end of the century, the researchers found, unmitigated warming produced by worst-case emissions trajectories could make climate change more deadly than all infectious disease in the world combined. Bill Gates summarized the research this way: “By 2060, climate change could be just as deadly as COVID-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly.” And unlike this pandemic, it would not abate and could not even be stalled, except by entirely zeroing out every ounce of carbon being produced now — 37 gigatons annually — by the planet we have transformed into an emissions factory, and then waiting, at least decades and perhaps centuries, for the climate to stabilize.
A pandemic is a horrible sort of social bottleneck. It is invariably brutal, but you can get to the other side of it. Indeed, we are counting on doing so — here in the U.S., counting on doing so only with the help of vaccines, given our utter American incompetence at managing the disease socially and politically without that simple silver-bullet solution. But climate change doesn’t work in the same way; practically speaking, without a complete elimination of the planet’s carbon footprint, it won’t ever end. We will be living in that new, lethal era of climate change indefinitely. Perhaps forever. Which makes the most pressing question we face: How will we adapt?
Despite all that, our collective focus on COVID-19 and our relative disinterest in new climate news is intuitive, even understandable. Though it is far from the world’s deadliest disease, even this year, the novelty of the coronavirus makes it a terrifying specter, and beyond the obvious sickness and death, the disruptions it has produced in nations and communities trying valiantly to protect themselves can be overwhelming. In the U.S., for instance, tens of millions are unemployed and tens of millions at risk of eviction, millions have lost their health insurance and we’ve just experienced the steepest drop in GDP in recorded American history. The sudden arrival of the pandemic, and its likely medium-term disappearance, makes a powerful emotional case for rapid and dramatic response, one that the slower-boil, permanent threat of climate change doesn’t.
In another sense, of course, especially given how much longer climate change will remain with us, turning away from one set of terrifying news to focus on another set represents a deeply distressing moral, intellectual, political, and managerial failure — marking one pathway by which previously unthinkable environmental horrors become unfortunate but accepted features of the modern world. Even as the world wakes up to climate change — a recent survey, for instance, found a record-high 81 percent of Britons worried about warming — the speed with which we seem capable of normalizing disaster seems to accelerate, too. Last June, fires in the Brazilian Amazon were a multiday international news story and a geopolitical scandal that led to would-be strongman grandstanding between Brazil’s climate-troll president, Jair Bolsonaro, and sanctimonious French president, Emmanuel Macron. This year, as of June, the fires are 20 percent worse. You have probably not read or heard about them. The European heat wave of 2019 made headlines around the world; right now, in France, the temperatures are considerably worse, indeed the worst they have been since 2003, when that summer’s heat wave killed at least 50,000 across Europe. Excepting that summer, this one will be the hottest France has seen since 1873. You probably haven’t heard much about that, either. Last year, record melting of the Greenland ice sheet — 80 billion tons in about a week — was passed around social media as a terrifying climate portent. This year, an ice shelf the size of Manhattan — Canada’s largest — suddenly collapsed, with more than 40 percent of it breaking off in a single day, but was not met with the same kind of general alarm or interest. You get the point.
This process of normalization was not unforeseeable, and yet it is nevertheless disorienting to be living through it, watching extreme weather and natural disaster big enough to once define whole local generations become merely regrettably grim wallpaper to the ever-scarier and more immediate news we doomscroll nightly. “This is the yowling torque muffled by the bland-seeming phrase ‘climate apathy,’” I wrote a couple of years ago, “which may otherwise feel merely descriptive: that through appeals to nativism, or by the logic of budget realities, or in perverse contortions of ‘deservedness,’ by drawing our circles of empathy smaller and smaller, or by simply turning a blind eye when convenient, we will find ways to engineer new indifference.”
Writing then, I thought I was describing the future.
Gazing out at the future from the promontory of the present, with the planet having warmed one degree, the world of two degrees seems nightmarish — and the worlds of three degrees, and four, and five yet more grotesque. But one way we might manage to navigate that path without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it, as we have so much human pain over centuries, so that we are always coming to terms with what is just ahead of us, decrying what lies beyond that, and forgetting all that we had ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely.
More recently, for Vox, David Roberts picked up the same thread in a long essay headlined, “The Scariest Thing About Global Warming.” “For as long as I’ve followed global warming, advocates and activists have shared a certain faith: When the impacts get really bad, people will act,” he wrote. “But there is a scarier possibility, in many ways more plausible: We never really wake up at all. No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise.”
Roberts was ruminating on a commonsensical but obscure academic concept called “shifting baseline syndrome,” which describes the pattern by which we constantly reestablish benchmarks in assessing and evaluating rates of change, such that generations of fishermen might each register only 10 percent declines, but find themselves, a century on, almost out of fish to catch without ever having raised an alarm — or even noticed a crisis. The pattern undeniably applies to our rapid normalization of climate change, which has already made the planet warmer than it has ever been at any point in the history of human civilization, over a period in which we have somehow managed to acclimatize ourselves to what should be truly alarming news — for example, that the city of Houston has been hit by five “500-year storms” in the last five years. Many of us know already that the term has become meaningless. Yet we rarely find ourselves reflecting on just what made it meaningless: that we are all already living as a planet entirely outside the window of temperatures that enclose all of human history, a transformation that makes everything we do on this new world unprecedented and uncertain, however familiar it may feel, according to those ever-shifting baselines.
And yet it is just as important, I think, to note that we are witnessing, simultaneously, another kind of normalization, indeed a good normalization — the normalization of climate alarm. Because even as we fail to make time to reckon explicitly with the present tense of the climate crisis, intuitions about it, and the future it portends for us, that alarm has grown much more central to political and social discourse, in America and elsewhere. Indeed, while the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus, with little apparent appetite for discussion or debate about the threat of warming, our collective, planetary response to the pandemic has brought along with it a sort of secret sidecar of unprecedented climate action. Fully 30 percent of the European stimulus package passed last month is earmarked for climate initiatives — which, while far short of the more than $2 trillion many believe is necessary to complete Europe’s green transition and allow the continent to meet its Paris Climate Accord commitments, is still a laudably large share of a quite large stimulus package. In the United States, the relief packages have been less of a climate boon, compromised in predictable ways by a Republican Senate, but over the course of the pandemic, the climate plan of onetime activist–punching bag Joe Biden has come to resemble climate candidate Jay Inslee’s — and at $2 trillion would mark by far the biggest commitment ever proposed not just by a presidential nominee but any major political figure in the country’s history until about a year ago. Indeed, that $2 trillion is 20 times the size of Barack Obama’s biggest green-energy investment — the $90 billion he snuck into the Recovery Act, which effectively kick-started the rapid global decline in the cost of renewables. (An investment that similarly went under-debated, at least compared to his failed cap-and-trade gambit.) In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has used the opportunity of the pandemic to transform the city, long among the most polluted in Western Europe, into a green model and cycler’s paradise — permanently. In China, the recovery record is far from ideal, from a climate perspective, but a recent report suggests new investment in wind power there could produce an eightfold increase in global capacity. There will be more bursts of stimulus in the next months, and it should not surprise, at all, if those bursts followed this same pattern: quietly radical climate action.
Some of this pattern comes from the natural lessons about fighting warming that comes from COVID-19, which teaches us that we are not invulnerable to the natural world, however modern and advanced we may feel; that it is better to respond quickly to emergent challenges rather than wait until the terrifying future takes concrete shape before us; and that while adapting to that new future may seem easier than preventing it in the first place, it almost always pays off to invest in mitigation first, if only to reduce the amount of adaptation you have to do later (as the U.S. is learning the hard way now, its horrendous pandemic plateau preventing anything like a normal school year or a bounce back for the economy this fall). It also has to do with the “radicalization” of previously centrist Establishment forces, particularly in the field of economics and public policy — we now have the IMF publishing papers questioning neoliberalism, the Fed arguing that corporate power has been undermining the health of the economy for decades, and right-wing policy advisers suggesting we discard GDP as a measure of human well-being, just to name a few data points almost at random (and not even mentioning the boundary-pushing work of economists on the left, like Stephanie Kelton and Mariana Mazzucato). And of course, it has to do with just how big a hole even the countries that responded relatively well to the pandemic have found themselves in, with stimulus needs so expansive that in certain places policy-makers are essentially going around looking for things to pay for.
But on climate action in particular, much of the movement undoubtedly comes from how much more worried the world has become recently about the medium-term threat of dramatic warming. Even when we don’t make time for news about locust plagues or fires in the Amazon, foreboding about the climate crisis has come to shape the country’s political, social, and emotional relationship to its own future much more profoundly than ever before. Our politics and policy can’t help but reflect those priorities now, even when we aren’t debating them directly. We are now alarmed enough about climate change, collectively, that even when we aren’t particularly freaking out about it, we still find ourselves drifting rapidly, as in a very fast stream, toward dramatic action.
I want to be careful, here, to not overstate how much progress has been made, in terms of policy — by any scientific measure, all of these proposals, even taken together, are nevertheless inadequate, and of course much remains to be seen about how any of it is implemented and what effect on emissions, if any, is achieved. But I do want to clearly note the very different place climate change, and climate action, now occupies in the political conversation in the U.S. and around the world, indeed how central climate change has become to the way nearly every country in the world conceives of progress, and public investment, and the very landscape of the future. When massive public investment appears necessary, as it has suddenly to stimulate a global recovery from the pandemic, climate investments are now included by default — not just on the margins or as window dressing, and, perhaps even more significantly, without all that much debate or discord. In each of these cases, the broad outlines of logic are the same: When engineering and designing that investment, the urgency of stimulus doesn’t mean sidelining climate goals, but embracing them, enfolding green prerogatives into an existing portfolio of good-governance values, which used to exclude them as “fringe.”
This is another shift which the terrifying distraction of the pandemic has perhaps prevented us from noticing or acknowledging properly. Because activists have such a clear-eyed sense of just how necessary immediate action is, and such a firm grasp of its necessary scale, they can be very hard to impress. (Indeed, being hard to impress is simply part of the job.) Others, less attuned to climate concerns, may not have even really noticed that decarbonization has become so central to the way the world’s governments are talking about recovery, or understood precisely what it means for the future of climate policy — a future still largely unresolved, and which remains very open to contestation. None of these plans are sufficient to meaningfully mitigate global warming, or prevent the planet from warming past two degrees — the threshold long described by scientists as “catastrophic,” and often called, by island nations, “genocide.” But while we are still largely talking at the level of rhetoric and policy pledges rather than already-banked gains, the climate action quietly encoded in these stimulus measures — and likely to be encoded in future rounds, as well — is nevertheless very real progress. And it is in large part, I believe, a credit to the work of climate activists deploying alarmist rhetoric in ever-greater numbers and at ever-greater volume over the past several years.
That last point is relevant simply because credit should be paid where it is due. But it is also relevant because, over the last several months, two much-talked-about books, a long, high-minded essay in Foreign Affairs, and a prominent Guardian op-ed by two eminent climate scientists have offered a series of similar arguments against the rising public alarm about global warming — indeed, taken together as a wave of anti-alarm, these warnings are themselves perhaps another sign that alarmism has gained a meaningful foothold in the center of political discourse.
The authors of these books and essays come from different places on the spectrum of climate politics. Michael Shellenberger, author of Apocalypse Never, and Bjorn Lomborg, author of False Alarm, are both argumentative critics of much environmental activism and are considered by most climate advocates to be irresponsible quasi-deniers. (To my mind, this goes a bit too far: While each reads the facts very differently than I do, and picks, I think, the wrong enemies and points of emphasis, targeting activists rather than the forces of delay, they also, as Amy Westervelt has suggested, raise some relevant questions about the place of nuclear power and the importance of making sure decarbonization enriches rather than impoverishes us, respectively.) Hal Harvey, the author of “The Case for Climate Pragmatism” in Foreign Affairs, is a technocratic-minded energy analyst and the CEO of the research and policy group Energy Innovation. Richard Betts and Zeke Hausfather, the joint authors of the Guardian essay, “In tackling the global climate crisis, doom and optimism are both dangerous traps,” are both among the most serious and well-respected climate scientists and analysts pulled into quasi-public roles by the seriousness of the crisis and the importance of their work on it. In other words, this recent batch of pieces warning against panic and alarm arrives from a few different perspectives, but each makes a similar charge: that alarmism and fear-mongering is a danger to be considered alongside climate skepticism, denial, and complacency (in the case of Shellenberger and Lomborg, possibly a danger exceeding those others).
To that I would say: What danger? I’ve written before about the scientific validity of alarm — based on the science, alarmism happens to be true. In their essay, Betts and Hausfather usefully outline that, from a scientific perspective, what were recently considered plausible best-case and plausible worst-case scenarios have come to look, over the last several years, considerably less plausible, giving us a narrower range of likely outcomes than we were staring at less than a decade ago, when the last major omnibus IPCC report was published (I’ve written about this, too). In that sense, they are right to suggest that, compared to how we might have oriented our understanding of future climate change five or ten years ago, we should probably be both a little less panicked and a little less optimistic at once. Unfortunately, compared to the climate of the present day — already “unprecedented,” already producing those strings of 500-year storms and once-unimaginable heat waves — even a best-case outcome is quite alarming: At two degrees, 150 million more people may die from air pollution, storms, and flooding that used to hit once a century but now come every year, and we could see the migration of possibly hundreds of millions of people. The world north of two degrees contains many more disasters, much more punishingly extreme weather, much more social disarray, and a much steeper climb to “adaptation” than humans have ever managed in their entire history. Presumably, we will find ways to manage it, at least to some degree, but that project will be much more difficult, much more expensive, and much more full of human suffering both discriminate and indiscriminate, the hotter the planet gets.
Trying to forestall that warming, of course, raises the strategic question: What political value is alarmism, fear-mongering, and urgent, strident declarations of climate emergency? Thankfully, the last few years offer, I think, something close to a natural experiment in precisely this kind of activism. I am thinking, chiefly, of activists and organizations like Greta Thunberg and the loose global alliance of school-age climate strikers she has inspired; Varshini Prakash and the Sunrise Movement here in the U.S.; and Extinction Rebellion, based in the U.K., with various offshoots all around the globe.
None of these people or organizations were known to the world, in any significant way, when the U.N.’s IPCC published its landmark “Doomsday” report in October 2018, outlining just how radically different the planet would look at two degrees of warming than at 1.5 — and why it was therefore quite imperative to do what could be done to keep the temperature lower. And the period of unmistakably alarmist activism that followed — and which is embodied by those few leaders — hasn’t coincided with a diminution of public concern about climate change, at all, but the opposite. Those two years have been the most productive and progressive in the decades-long history of climate politics. And while there are of course other factors contributing to the change — chiefly the increasing prevalence of extreme weather, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, where it had long been harder to see, and the declining price of renewable energy everywhere on the planet — it is very hard to look objectively at the political experience of the last several years as someone hoping for decarbonization and see this alarmist activism as dampening the pace of progress.
For years, some climate activists have warned about the risks of using fear as a PR tool, suggesting that fatalism could set in more quickly than action, depriving the world of the collective opportunity for action (or, in more local ways, depriving the forces of climate action of the support of some natural allies). I am sure that there are some people on the planet who’ve gone from engaged to disengaged over the last few years, but the angle of change strikes me as tilting very much in the opposite direction — making more people care about this issue, and intensifying the concern of those who do care (both intuitions are very much reflected in polling, for all its limitations). And while it is true there is a gap — in some cases, a large one — between the values and principles espoused by alarmist activists and what the median voters in their countries find plausible, or advisable, in potential climate policy, that distance isn’t an indictment of their activism, it’s a description of its purpose: pulling the public toward more ambitious action. If activists met voters where they were, they’d just be voters, too. And considering that the alarmist rhetoric of that “Doomsday” report — that everything needed to be done to avoid two degrees of warming — is now the official platform goal of the Democratic Party, I’d say those activists have pulled the public, and our politics, quite far indeed.
This is not to say that these groups all speak precisely in unison, or that all they do say lines up precisely with scientific consensus about the state of the climate. Extinction Rebellion, in particular, has gotten into some trouble, over the past year, by pushing narratives of imminent social collapse. (This recent Ecologist critique by Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, calls out some of the misleading rhetoric, though it also calls out “doomism” in general.) In part as a result, and in part as a reflection of some extremist tactics, the group is quite unpopular now in England. But precisely because of that they are also perhaps the most eye-opening case study of the bunch. Although XR is by far the most prominent group of environmental activists at work in the U.K. today, climate action hasn’t gotten less popular over the course of their controversial activism, or less urgent, even as the group has stumbled. In fact, again, the opposite, with the country’s Parliament passing a bill promising net-zero emissions by 2050, and its prime minister promising an end to the sale of nonelectric cars by 2035. Could an XR-less England have squeezed such meaningful climate commitments out of outgoing conservative prime minister Theresa May, her coalition collapsing around her, or from a politically disheveled Boris Johnson, trying to maneuver a path to a prime ministerial reelection through the Brexit crisis, that no other Tory seemed willing to even dare? It is almost impossible to imagine.
In the U.S., the stimulus needs of the coronavirus pandemic are massive, and suggest a different calculus here and now than when Johnson first ascended to the prime ministership in England. But if you import the American climate politics of even 2016 into the Democratic primary of 2020, what you’d get probably looks a lot more like the $90 billion in the 2009 Recovery Act than the $2 trillion of Biden’s current plan. Instead, our climate politics have moved quickly enough over the past four years that the stimulus needs of today are being answered very differently. Of course, what passes through Congress in 2021 — if anything — may not look anything like that plan. But the difference between the two — and, even more pointedly, the difference between Biden’s primary and his general election pitch — reflects the hard work and full-throated alarm of activists, as much as it does the size of the stimulus need and the openness of Biden himself and his circle of advisers.
In a recent conversation with my colleague Eric Levitz, the economic historian Adam Tooze raised a related critique, though not directed at activists per se:
One of the things that I would fault about the Green New Deal vision is that it didn’t really spell out who its allies were going to be in the business community. Or, for that matter, in the military. And I think that’s a major problem because you end up impaled on the kind of conflict you’re talking about. I don’t say this out of any enthusiasm for Davos-style business leadership on climate, but just out of an appreciation for what successful political-economic transformation has entailed historically. And it clearly involves coalition-building in which you grab on to particular bits of the security state, on the one hand, and also various factions of business that have developed a long-term strategic interest in transformation (which supersedes the imperative of immediate profit maximization).
A bit later, he goes on:
I think because the Green New Deal project was formulated so strongly from the left — and in the context of a Black Lives Matter moment — it centered itself on a coalition of the marginalized, what they call front-line communities. Which is fine. But it’s also a way of picking a fight with every conceivable interest that’s actually got power.
Tooze is a brilliant synthetic thinker, whose off-the-cuff commentary is often much more precise and provocative than the carefully composed observations of others. And I don’t think he is wrong to imply that climate progress is as much a matter of political power as moral virtue. But regarding the efficacy of Green New Deal advocacy, in particular, I think he is off the mark. Joe Biden is the very picture of American Establishmentarianism, and his climate plan looks more like a Green New Deal than it looks like Hillary Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s. Thanks to the fact of the GND (and more particularly the leaked “FAQ” that caused such backlash), Biden can plausibly pitch his plan by saying, “We’re not banning hamburgers or the internal combustion engine, just investing in a massive jobs program that will make your electricity cheaper and your air cleaner.” In other words, he can distance himself from “radicalism” while still pushing the most radical climate plan, by far, ever proposed by any American presidential candidate, and one that does quite a lot on the “climate justice” front, too, spending fully 40 percent of its budget investing in front-line communities. That rhetorical opportunity, and the political one, were opened up by the Green New Deal and its advocates — and while personally I’d prefer it if AOC and Ed Markey were writing the future climate policy of the U.S. directly, it’s hard to miss how much, even in “failure,” they have moved the center of public opinion, and political power, toward their own goals. They have done so dizzyingly fast — remember, Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t even been elected two years ago. All the way back in 2016, if you’d heard of the Green New Deal at all, you’d probably heard of it as the name of Jill Stein’s climate policy, and you might’ve thought of the Paris Climate Accords as the end-all, be-all of global climate policy — rather than an inadequate, and perhaps irredeemably broken, preliminary gesture. Times have really changed.
And while there hasn’t been nearly as much direct coordination between climate activists and big business, the movement there has been striking, too, if, as with everything else, still insufficient by the standards of the science. Without the pressure of activists, would Microsoft, or BlackRock, or BP have made commitments to decarbonization and climate action anywhere close to the ones they have?
Intuitively, the answer is “no,” but a powerful counterexample is offered by recent history, as well. Five years ago, say, none of them were making anything like these moves or investments, though the science was fundamentally the same and the cost of decarbonization not dramatically higher. What has changed, beyond the culture of climate concern more broadly, is widespread fear, in the corporate world, of generational disgust and abandonment. There is much talk on the environmental left, today, of stranded assets — all the built infrastructure and oil (and coal and gas) that will have to be abandoned for the world to come anywhere close to its climate targets. But those companies outside the fossil-fuel sector don’t want to be stranded either, forsaken by a rising generation much more centrally focused on climate politics and much more demanding that the corporations they patronize, even those only tangentially related to climate issues, reflect those politics, too. It’s the same dynamic that made soda and shoe companies into outspoken, if not entirely earnest, social-justice activists between the period following the Ferguson protests, when Black Lives Matter was a nationally divisive crusade, and the period following the George Floyd uprisings, when it commanded overwhelming American support. Getting even the hypocrites onboard is one mark of political progress, whether it’s through shame or fear or genuine awakening. And that threat of generational revolt has been made visible on climate not by large-scale boycotts, or consumer protests at the pump or the cash register. It has been made visible by protests, by outraged activists screaming out in alarm.
These companies, and those like them, aren’t going to solve the climate crisis on their own — of course not. Probably, they won’t even live up to their pledges (though I’d bet more money on Microsoft doing its part than BlackRock, if I could figure out precisely what BlackRock was actually saying it was going to do). But if you believe corporate power exerts any force in the world, it is certainly notable that such power is now, after decades of near-total indifference, bending toward climate action, however slowly and hypocritically. At the very least, corporate communications are like a seismograph of public opinion, and suddenly there is talk of urgency all across the board. Is it possible that climate action would have more momentum today if those pushing hardest for it had focused their energies on coalition building with the security state and the Davos-sphere? In some very theoretical way, I suppose. But these are all social experiments which history, and the climate, allows us to run only once. This time, we got a confrontational activism, and I’m very, very glad we did.
From one vantage, this is shocking progress to have achieved in just a few years, given how little movement was produced over the previous generation. On the other hand, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone, because it is precisely what political activism of this kind is meant to do — not persuade the median voter to embrace the full platform of the radicals in the streets but to shift the boundaries of political discourse such that the median voter may still find that platform uncomfortably radical but finds him or herself endorsing as reasonable, and indeed necessary, action that seemed, until just before, hopelessly extreme. (And indeed sets the public on a track to accept something more like the truly radical platform before too long.) This is, like, activism 101. To draw on an over-drawn-on analogy, it also explains how, for instance, a country in which 75 percent of Americans disapproved of Martin Luther King Jr. just before he was assassinated passed a landmark civil-rights law one week later (and how one that had found him only slightly more appealing had passed an even bigger one a few years before). It explains how the women’s movement achieved the gains it has, and how the fight for gay marriage was won — not by meeting the public and its leaders where they are, but tugging them along through acts of often-unpopular moral grandstanding. This is the general strategy for the rising left, in many ways still politically marginalized, offered brilliantly by Thea Riofrancos in a recent call to arms in the New York Times, and why Noam Chomsky has taken to praising Joe Biden, too. “Farther to the left than any Democratic candidate in memory on things like climate,” he told Anand Giridharadas this week. “It’s far better than anything that preceded it. Not because Biden had a personal conversion or the DNC had some great insight, but because they’re being hammered on by activists coming out of the Sanders movement and others.” Activists aren’t aiming for popularity, or the support of the average voter, though they’d welcome both, and we fool ourselves by judging them on those metrics. XR doesn’t need to get its founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, or its spokesperson Rupert Read, elected to Parliament to succeed, and Thunberg doesn’t need to be elected secretary-general of the U.N. — indeed, as she has said, many times, she doesn’t want that responsibility, or that power, but simply to shame and coerce the world’s leaders into taking the state of the science seriously. They’re not there yet — not to Greta’s satisfaction, and not to mine. But at least they are having the same conversation now.
What happens from here is not any kind of safe bet, at all — and, if I had to bet, well, I’d bet on considerable further frustration and disappointment from those who care most about the climate crisis about what insufficient actions are being taken. The uncompromising alarmism of activists may even complicate or stall efforts at climate action in the near future, and of course there is much more to effectively addressing the problem than marshaling political will to do something — you actually have to figure out what that something is, what trade-offs need to be made, at what scale and in what places, then see to it that it all actually gets done. But will is the critical first ingredient, and for the time being, the political achievement on that metric is very clear: The Overton window has shifted dramatically toward action, even if all of those involved in moving it — Prakash and AOC, Justice Democrats and New Consensus and Roosevelt Forward and Data for Progress, XR and Greta and Xiye Bastida and Jamie Margolin and Alexandria Villaseñor and many, many more — all are still living a bit outside the window, frustrated it isn’t moving faster.
Of course, activists often find themselves disappointed by the end product — and invariably, that will be the case on climate, since the response that science demands of us is so much bigger than anything our contemporary politics seems capable of producing. But that disappointment is not really failure; it is practically by design, and what differentiates activism from revolutionary politics. (This is, perhaps, activism 102.) If you believe that combating the climate crisis requires a total reformation of the existing political and social order, you are likely to regard Joe Biden’s move leftward on climate as terribly inadequate. (There is, fortunately or unfortunately, a fair amount of wisdom in that perspective, given the scale of the challenge and how little time we have to address it.) And if your ideological inclinations draw you toward skepticism — or skepticism that any meaningful change is necessary — you will probably find any movement, and any activism to drive it, self-destructive or worse. But if you are hoping the climate crisis could be met with a response approaching the necessary scale without first having to overturn the entire global geopolitical order, Sunrise and XR aren’t threats to that vision — they are the political agents making it possible.
Indeed, here in the U.S., Prakash is actually helping craft Biden’s climate plans, having given the candidate an “F” grade during the primary, with Sunrise protesters disrupting not just a few of his events. This is an additional sign, if you needed one, that Sunrise is not alienating the relevant powers that be, but strong-arming and negotiating with them. They made a place on those teams and in those rooms for themselves — indeed, made a place for environmental activism and climate justice more generally at the very center of Democratic politics. They did so through organizing, and protesting, and above all, objecting, loudly, that the status quo approach to their issue wasn’t working, and that those who believed it should continue were unacceptable choices. As a result, the party, and its candidate, moved. This is not a disconcerting or counterproductive overreach. It is precisely how activism is meant to work. And, indeed, it is working — especially if you’re looking at the polls and the policies, and not the carbon concentrations, which are still rising, and will continue to, almost invariably, for decades at least.