In the wake of the most recent, terrifying climate report, I think it’s important to look at the positive side of the policy ledger.
Although there is plenty of data on the “dark side” (what I sometimes think of as the OMG side), there is also a lot of evidence of progress. (At least what I consider progress; the “take me back to the 1950s” folks will undoubtedly disagree.)
At the beginning of this year, The Guardian ran a story about progress against climate change during the preceding year. Granted, in 2021 we saw a number of climate disasters and what the article called “a grim prognosis from the world’s top experts.” Granted, too, some of the harm is probably irreversible. But as the article documented, a movement to fight climate change is gaining momentum.
As the UN secretary general declared in August, the urgent need to curb carbon emissions marks a “death knell” for the fossil fuel industry.
For decades, Americans were told that standing up to powerful oil and gas companies wasn’t possible. But the reality is that everyday people are making a difference in the fight to cut emissions. These grassroots victories also show that the people who have been made most vulnerable by fossil fuel extraction, including Black and brown communities, already have solutions on hand.
What were some of those victories?
After a nine-year, highly-contentious organizing battle, students with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard succeeded in pushing the university to divest all of its $42bn endowment – the largest in the world – from fossil fuel-related companies.
That victory wasn’t limited to Harvard. Both Boston University and Wellesley University also divested from fossil fuels in 2021. With respect to Wellesley, divestment was the product of “a decade of student activism from campus groups called Renew Wellesley and Fossil Free Wellesley.” The victory also wasn’t limited to universities: Boston’s mayor signed an ordinance in late November that will require phasing out the city’s investments in fossil fuel, tobacco, and prison industries by 2025.
It’s worth noting that all of these decisions were the result of activism by the young people who are often inaccurately excoriated for their lack of civic engagement.
The Guardian also enumerated several community victories.
In Memphis, Tennessee, a majority-Black neighborhood was able to stop construction of a 49-mile underground pipeline that was slated for approval in mid-2021.
In the north-east, the Delaware River Basin Commission secured a moratorium on new drilling permits. The historic fracking ban covers some 14,000 square miles of the river’s basin.
The board of supervisors for Los Angeles county voted–unanimously– to scrap new and existing oil and gas drilling projects.
The new rule is slated to impact Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country, which is surrounded by many majority-Black neighborhoods. In April, a pipeline in the oil field spilled 1,600 gallons of oil just a few hundred feet from the nearest playground.
It is heartening to see these victories by minority neighborhoods and young activists, but it is even more significant to consider what the Guardian calls “shareholder revolts.” A primary example occurred when hedge fund activists won election to three of the 12 voting seats on Exxon’s board
The activist hedge fund Engine No 1 staged an upset victory in electing three new directors to Exxon’s board after disgruntled investors hoped to push the oil giant toward a greener future.
Meanwhile, Chevron faced opposition from the Dutch activist campaign group Follow This, which led a shareholder revolt in voting to force the company to implement tougher emissions targets.
Why it matters: Mark van Baal, who founded Follow This, said the shareholder rebellions mark a “paradigm shift” for investors and a “victory in the fight against climate change”.
There were other important victories:Indigenous groups negotiated the return of stolen lands in Maine and Minnesota to halt destruction to the environment; a Dutch court ruled that Shell has to reduce its emissions by nearly half within this decade; and 16 of those young people who are routinely dismissed were victorious plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Montana contributed to the climate crisis and violated their constitutional rights. The judgment requires the state to implement a plan to reduce emissions.
Addressing climate change–and many of the other challenges we face– requires that we change the culture–and culture change is a slow and inevitably incremental process. The term “culture wars” is apt–those who recognize the imperatives of our modern, globalized world are facing the hysterical resistance of people who want to go “back,” or at the very least, cling to the cultural status quo. As a friend once put it, changing the culture is like turning a tanker mid-ocean–neither quick nor nimble.
It’s easy to focus on the barriers to progress, but it’s important to recognize the progress, too.