The response to climate change is the organization
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A more personal note than usual this week, because it will be the last of these columns on the climate crisis that I will write (although it will not be the end of my work for the magazine). I am incredibly grateful to The New Yorker for allowing me to make them – and especially grateful to Virginia Cannon, who edited them weekly with grace and aplomb. Our run overlapped almost perfectly with the course of the pandemic, and for me it was the perfect time to sit down and appreciate and highlight the work of so many in the vast universe of activists, scientists, economists and politicians who face the deepest problem humans have ever wandered into. I can’t stress enough how comfortable this universe is: it didn’t exist thirty-two years ago, when I started writing about climate change; its slow but inexorable rise has given me not only welcome company, but real hope. I especially enjoyed “passing the mic” to many of this gathered crowd. The only rule I set for myself was to go beyond the world of whites like me, and, as I expected, that proved no boundaries: this world of thinkers and actors – of poets , bureaucrats, sculptors, disobedient civilians, statisticians, architects, farmers — is powerfully diverse. I am very happy to appreciate their work.
I will continue to do this while I move on to a free newsletter on Substack– but one of the reasons I’m giving up the all-consuming work of this column is to free up time and energy for the next stage of my own work. For a long time I had two identities, that of a writer and that of an activist; over the past two years, the former has dominated, in part because the pandemic has made activism difficult. And, in truth, part of me hoped that everyone who had built movements over the past decade had done enough. There have been victories, from Keystone XL to fracking bans to divestment to – hopefully – the infrastructure bill now making its way to Congress. Certainly the Zeitgeist was moved – the poll clearly shows that even Americans, living in the center of well-funded climate denial, have resolutely turned to concern about global warming.
But science has also changed. As Louisiana digs and Lake Tahoe evacuated, I have the impression that with each passing week, the rate of climate destruction increases. And so are the fears of researchers that we have underestimated the vulnerability of the planet. We are already witnessing a real disruption of the most fundamental forces on Earth: the jet stream, the Gulf Stream, the hydrological cycle. By regularly interviewing scientists, I know their sense of our danger is growing, especially the sense that we need to act quickly, making huge changes by the end of the decade. And, at the same time, I sense the growing ability of the fossil fuel industry and its friends in politics and finance to bypass growing public outrage. Just like, in 1990 the industry built a complex architecture of climate denial that cost us three decades, now it is erecting a similar buttress, constructed of something that isn’t quite denial but is equally dangerous. They imply that we have a lot of time, that they move as fast as they can. They manage to get the message across that there is just as much danger in going too fast as in too late. If they are successful with this grotesque agenda, they will lock themselves in temperatures so extravagant that I fear the damage will overwhelm our societies.
The only way I can think of to meet this challenge is to organize more en masse. Young people are now fully engaged and showing the way; we are seeing remarkable activism in aboriginal and frontline communities. But there is a band that I think is no match for it, and that’s a band that I’m a part of now. Call us “Experienced Americans” – the baby boomers and silent generations who make up a huge percentage of the population, own a remarkable share of its financial assets, and vote in large numbers. As a rule, people to do to become more conservative as they get older, but this is not an inviolable maxim – many of these generations witnessed vast cultural and political changes in their early years, and now aware of their children and their grandchildren, they can come out of their prime of life with the skills and resources to make big changes again. And so some of us are planning an organization called Third act, an effort to mobilize older Americans in the defense of environmental mental health and economic and racial equity. We need a society that functions and is fair, both because it will do less damage and because it will be better able to deal with damage that is no longer preventable. If you are in this demographic, hopefully you will find a way to help with this new venture or join existing efforts such as Seniors Climate Action and Great Old Broads for the wilderness. Either way, much of my writing going forward will be more closely tied to this activism. Not that I’m going to give up writing for The New Yorker“I have been proud to be in its pages since I started as an editor at the age of twenty-one. It is the best magazine that has ever existed (and my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert is perhaps the most elegant columnist on our climate peril); to be counted among its contributors is a huge honor. Because you have subscribed to this newsletter, the magazine will kindly email you the comments I write for publication in the future. (Hear from The New Yorker more often, you can also sign up for the Daily newsletter.)
I do not like, precisely, the prospect of another organizational fight. Part of me always thought it was crazy that we had to build these movements: Why do we have to fight so hard, even go to jail, in order to get our leaders to take the clear and unequivocal warnings of the people more seriously. scientists? But I have long accepted that we are engaged in a fight, not an argument, and that the main way to counter the malicious power of special interests is to meet organized money with organized people. I have highlighted many brilliant people in this column; the best way to give their ideas a chance is to keep shifting the balance of power. And that is, ultimately, the point of activism. I don’t know if we will be successful, but we will try.
Pass the microphone
In the 2008 elections, Mohamed Nasheed overthrew the longtime ruler of the Maldives. Nasheed’s governance of the archipelago, which stretches across the equator, has emphasized the existential peril caused by climate change. (His cabinet members learned to scuba dive so they could hold out a meeting on one of the country’s endangered coral reefs.) Deposed by a coup in 2012, he spent time in exile abroad, but returned in 2018 after the party he founded won new elections. He is currently president of the Majlis, or Parliament. Maldives remain turbulent: Nasheed Survived an assassination attempt in May when an IED stuffed with ball bearings exploded near his home. Ahead of the global climate talks in Glasgow in November, it was to push for the debt restructuring or repudiation of the debt of what he calls the countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum – an alliance of forty-eight developing countries highly exposed to the effects of global warming – in order to free up funds to be devoted to climate resilience. The Maldives will be preside the United Nations General Assembly for the next six months, perhaps allowing the nation to amplify that call. (Our conversation has been edited.)
Explain the logic of this idea, both moral and political.
When the countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum got into debt, they did not consider such a large increase in climate adaptation spending. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that substantial effects of climate change would occur in the future and not affect the lending periods of existing debt. Most GCF countries spend more than twenty-five percent of their annual budgets on adaptation and, with the new extreme weather conditions that the IPCC report says are looming on the horizon, it is likely that adaptation expenses will increase considerably. It is therefore essential that the debt of the CVF countries be restructured. The restructured debt spending requirements for countries will create enough space in national budgets to increase their adaptation spending, giving them the instant capacity to adapt to new extreme weather conditions. Funds provided to GCF countries without debt restructuring will go to debt holders and not to planned projects.
You were in Copenhagen when developed countries pledged a hundred billion dollars in annual climate assistance by 2020. Is that a different way to get that money?
It is a clearly broken commitment. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the total amount provided and mobilized in 2018, 2017 and 2016 was $ 78.9 billion, $ 71.2 billion and $ 58.6 billion, respectively. The missing $ 20 billion is a breach of a promise that was made to the whole world, and that means the developed countries are the defaulters – not us in the vulnerable developing countries. As Prime Minister Hasina [of Bangladesh] said, large emitters have not kept their end of the market, therefore climate vulnerable countries must change their position as well. With such a shortage of external funds, we have no choice but to shift resources from debt repayment to focusing on adaptation needs to survive in the face of escalating climate damage. Moreover, we simply cannot tolerate a situation where funds provided for adaptation are once again flowing directly out of the country in the form of debt repayment.
How are you recovering from the assassination attempt? What is your plan for the fight against the climate in the years to come?