A new insurgent force has joined the climate wars: planet Earth.
This summer, she’s blanketed two-thirds of the country in drought; turned New Mexico and Colorado into blazing infernos; crumbled roads in Alaska and Texas with record-breaking temperatures; and, in biblical fashion, shut down a nuclear plant by clogging cooling pipes with dead fish.
Armed with an arsenal of extreme weather, the Earth has taken to the battlefield and single handedly trounced the climate deniers by convincing an overwhelming number of Americans that climate change is a real and imminent threat. Texas, the axis of Big Oil, experienced one of the largest opinion shifts in the nation, with belief in climate change climbing 13 percentage points from March to July. Even more stunning, 77 percent of Americans now believe the government should limit the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses can emit.
After decades of climate stalemate, the Earth roared and people listened. Of course, Americans are fickle — concern about climate change will surely wax and wane. But the Earth’s decision to usher in the climate crisis a century ahead of schedule fundamentally changes the dynamics of the climate wars.
If this summer is any indication, it’s looking like we’re heading into an era shaped less by politicians and more by floods, hurricanes, and droughts. In the wake of each extreme weather event, long-standing political frames and alliances will begin to fracture as distraught — and increasingly angry — voters across the political spectrum demand action. Calls for smaller government, long the rallying cry of conservatives, will resonate less and less with farmers bankrupted by drought, wealthy voters who lose their homes to fire, and shoreline neighborhoods wiped out by hurricanes. Because bad weather is nonpartisan, the age of small government may be over for whole range of constituencies.
And as Americans begin to experience climate change in economic rather than environmental terms, the fossil-fuel industry’s jobs-vs.-environment frame will slowly lose potency. We’ve already seen unemployment spike along the path of storms, state budgets drained by infrastructure repair, and food and electricity prices driven up by drought. As the economic impacts pile up, climate change will emerge as the real “job killer.”
Political elites understand that crisis breeds change. During the financial collapse, Rahm Emanuel famously quipped, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Recall how both parties emerged as socialists overnight, nationalizing huge swaths of the banking sector (while most progressives stood idly by). If the Earth has indeed decided to disrupt politics-as-usual, this is the opportunity for climate activists to step into the breach.
Those concerned about water resources have already begun turning the drought into possibility. In his recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Don’t Waste the Drought,” journalist Charles Fishman writes, “We’re in the worst drought in the United States since the 1950s, and we’re wasting it.” We have an “opportunity to tackle long-ignored water problems and to re-imagine how we manage, use and even think about water.”
Climate activists have been slower to respond. Some groups have begun to pivot away from their “don’t talk about climate change” strategy and are now encouraging the public to connect the dots between extreme weather and greenhouse gas emissions, but if we are serious about saving the planet — and its people — we need to be bolder. Here are four modest proposals for organizing in the age of extreme weather:
Create a rapid-response network: With state budgets shrinking, first responders being laid off, and social services being cut, communities affected by climate change will increasingly be left to fend for themselves. Politically neutral groups — ranging from the Red Cross to the United Way — work to fill the gap by providing emergency services and other relief at the community level. But there is also a long tradition of unions, civil-rights organizations, progressive churches, and left political parties organizing similar relief efforts. The climate movement could create a national network charged with providing direct aid and services in damaged areas. This might include trained teams of activists to coordinate on-the-ground disaster relief, a national database of volunteers categorized by skill and region, and grassroots fundraising tools to raise money from thousands of small donors. But unlike the Red Cross, our strategy is to build political power, not just provide short-term relief. So our disaster plan also needs an organizing plan. On-the-ground local networks of grassroots groups, labor unions, students, and others need to be ready to frame the debate, organize town-hall meetings, knock on doors, and pressure politicians. Our goal is to help people in crisis, but also help them understand that to save their lives and livelihoods, we need to come together to defeat the enemies of the planet.
Pre-disaster community-labor agreements: In places like California and New York, community-labor agreements have been used to ensure that poor and working-class people benefit from large private and public construction projects, both in terms of targeted hiring requirements and job quality. Extreme weather events require massive rebuilding efforts that could put the unemployed back to work. Before the storms hit, the climate movement needs to team up with labor and community groups to negotiate pre-disaster community-labor project agreements with state and local officials to ensure reconstruction jobs are union jobs and open up new opportunities for low-income people. Beyond job creation, these agreements could include a wide range of community benefits, including investment in affordable housing, green building requirements, and mechanisms for community involvement in development plans.
Develop an alternative economic program: Whether it’s the solar company Sungevity, whose revenues grew by a factor of eight in 2010 and doubled again in 2011, or the just-transition program for coal workers in Washington state, all around the country the climate movement is hard at work turning the promise of a green economy into reality. It’s time to take these experiments and prepare a robust alternative for communities damaged by extreme weather. After Katrina, developers swooped in with their wish lists for new casinos and luxury condos while progressives scrambled to paste together alternatives of their own. In the future, we need to be ready to present storm-torn regions with a full-blown green alternative economic program. Elements of such a program could include green development banks; environmental-restoration jobs programs; new public transportation systems to reorganize metropolitan regions on a more sustainable basis; and new energy systems based on conservation and renewables. At the same time, the climate movement needs its own version of the conservative Koch brothers’ ALEC to prepare model legislation, talking points, and other resources for state and local legislators trying to rebuild their communities.
Build a broad-based climate movement: Now is our chance to make the climate movement an everybody movement. The upside of the early arrival of the climate crisis is that it will affect every segment of the population, thereby opening up the opportunity for activists to develop new organizing strategies. Many of the constituencies who have had little interest in the environmental movement — ranging from the poor and working class to small business people and veterans — will increasingly have a stake in mitigating climate change as disaster strikes. This means shifting our organizing focus from college campuses and liberal bastions like San Francisco to union halls, low-income neighborhoods, small business associations, and other areas previously ignored by the climate movement.
Maybe the bad weather has arrived just in time. For the last few decades, the possibility of addressing the climate crisis was limited by a political climate governed by polls and election results. But the earth has changed the rules of the game. While politicians debate modest technical fixes, ordinary people left desperate by floods, fires, droughts, and other disasters will increasingly demand action. If the climate movement prepares now, each disaster opens an opportunity to advance new organizing strategies and alternative agendas. Out of crisis we can forge a better future. In an era of extreme weather, what appears unrealistic and radical before a storm may well appear as common-sense reform in its wake.