Thursday, December 2, 2010

Civil Disobedience

There was a side event organized by the advocacy group the other day that raised a number of questions that everyone here is asking, either privately or vocally. Namely, "what is the role of the U.S. in these negotiations and what will it take to mobilize support within the U.S. for taking the issue of climate change seriously." Good questions. The answers proposed were all over the map.

Being identified as an American here is sort of like telling people you come from a family of meth addicts, drug runners or poachers. It makes people slightly uncomfortable because they pity you and are angry at the same time that your peeps act so irresponsibly. They smile politely and say, "oh, American." is an organization that has been very successful over the last couple of years in generating youth activism in the U.S. and around the world with the stated goal of keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels under 350 parts per million (hence the organizations name). In the U.S. that is a particularly challenging problem. They face a great deal of pushback from people who think that solutions will either be too expensive, too much of a hassle, or simply unnecessary (in the case of those who do not accept the science of climate change).

One thing that their founder Bill McKibben said over and over again is that in order to be successful, their organization has to make significant headway in a couple of different areas: make it uncomfortable for corporations and the fossil fuel industry to formally deny the science and continue business as usual; raise awareness within the popular culture; and make political headway.

Making things uncomfortable for corporations and the fossil fuel industry is one of the primary strategies I think the organization will adopt moving forward. At one point someone stated, "the goal is to make big polluters such as the coal industry into big tobacco." Have them defend themselves and their actions in court, and drive public opinion on them into the toilet. I suspect that they will try and do this by suing corporations for violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Will they be successful on this front? It remains to be seen. Much of it will probably depend on the ways in which they cast their arguments about the legality of corporate action. Much of it will depend on the reception they get from judges sitting on the bench. It will not depend on them extending equivalent resources as the corporations they will be up against. A small environmental non-profit will never have the same magnitude of resources as even a single company like Chevron. They already expect to be massively outspent which puts them at a distinct disadvantage.

One of the suggestions offered by the audience as far as facing the politics of the issue was to specifically target certain individuals who represent the biggest roadblocks to establishing some kind of climate legislation in Congress. Maybe identifying a modern-day "dirty dozen" who represent the most intractable interests. They would be easy to find .

Successfully organizing such a campaign would be an enormous victory but it remains to be seen whether they have the organization and the momentum to actually be able to do that. Their efforts to make political opposition to climate science and climate legislation in the run up to the elections just a month ago were a self-described "complete failure."

In my mind, the task of getting the issue of climate change into the public awareness and making Americans care is the biggest challenge that an organization like faces. With all due respect to my students, and I love you all, I do not see a whole lot of motivation and passion about this from the age group that should be the most idealistic. Will stunts like getting the lead singer for Radiohead to pose for publicity pictures make any difference at all? What is the best way to appeal to the things that people value the most?

One idea that was raised was the possibility of pursuing organized acts of civil disobedience around the country. I'm not sure what these will look like or whether they will be in the end, effective. But they are in the planning stages at this moment and you will know them when you see them as I suspect they will get a great deal of press coverage.

If acts of civil disobedience do begin to happen around the country in support of climate change legislation, the spirit of Thoreau will undoubtedly be raised. But he always struck me as a bit of a libertarian.

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