We need a tipping point toward climate justice

April 14, 2014

Can we stop the tipping point? Every week seems to bring new and frightening evidence that what scientists call the "tipping point"--when greenhouse gas emissions cause irreversible and disastrous climate change--is fast approaching, if not already here. Yet the multinational energy giants in the U.S. and beyond, aided and abetted by political leaders, are continuing their mad drive to drill, mine and frack.

But the polluters and the politicians are facing growing discontent and a grassroots challenge to their policies from activism emerging in every corner of the U.S. and around the globe. Ahead of the upcoming Global Climate Convergence--10 days of action at the end of April between Earth Day on April 22 and May Day--SocialistWorker.org talked to some of the activists and writers involved in the environmental justice movement today--to ask about the tipping point and what we can do about it. Dr. Jill Stein, Chris Williams and Joel Kovel give their answers below. Click here to read part two of the roundtable.

Dr. Jill Stein

2012 Green Party presidential candidate and an initiator of the Global Climate Convergence

I THINK the challenge here is to change the tipping point from a tipping point into climate disaster into a tipping point toward political empowerment. And I think we have the ability to do that.

We have solutions that can eliminate carbon very quickly, and we also have the means of ecologically sequestering carbon. Carbon is not the problem--the problem is oligarchy, and political and ecological and economic suppression. There's nothing that's rocket science about this. The climate crisis, like the economic crisis, is eminently fixable. The problem is that the political predators are in charge.

To, me what is very exciting is that there is a big wake-up moment going on about this. We're in a historic moment right now, with a movement for democracy and justice that is sweeping the planet--from the democracy revolutions in the Middle East, which are very much in motion, to the Occupy protests, to the austerity uprisings by students, to the teachers' strikes and other workers standing up with incredible courage.

Participants in a national demonstration that brought tens of thousands to Washington, D.C.

We have eviction blockades, and the incredible courage of Native Americans and the Idle No More campaign. We have immigrants who are standing up for their human rights, and the incredible fight to stop fracking and tar sands and GMOs.

We've had some incredible successes that are relegated to the back pages just as soon as possible so that we don't get big ideas about moving forward.

This is, in many ways, a tipping point moment, where we can tip towards democracy and justice. I think the biggest challenge at the moment is not the challenge of climate or the challenge of the economy--it's really the challenge of just getting organized, because we have the makings of critical mass. They engineer us into a perception of helplessness in many ways, but we can reject that and begin to organize our power--the power that we have already.

If you look at the numbers, nearly one out of two Americans lives in poverty or is classified as low income. One in three African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 is held hostage by the prison-industrial complex. Some 39 million people are basically indentured servants as a result of student debt, while the Department of Labor tells us that more than half the new jobs created in the next decade are going to be low wage. And needless to say, all of the ecological indicators are in free fall right now.

But we have on our side the two most powerful public relations campaigns imaginable--the dire state of the climate and the economy. People are hungry for deep systemic change. We see that in poll after poll. So we've won in the court of public opinion, and that win is only going to get deeper and stronger.

The most important thing in my view is for us to focus on that political tipping point, and how we build political power by bringing together the mass constituencies that are being thrown under the bus.

It means that we have to make ourselves visible and make ourselves heard, and we have to build our coalitions. That's not a simple thing to do. But it's way simpler than the alternative, which is to simply roll over onto the railroad tracks.

I think there's an enormous public will here that's ready to be mobilized. I was tipped into political empowerment by realizing that the public is already with us--that as an independent, non-corporate political movement, we are speaking for the vast majority of everyday people. There's no reason that we can't seize the moment and organize to exert democratic control over our destiny.

I guess the reason that it feels hopeful to me right now, paradoxically, is because we're clearly at the point where we have to choose whether we're going to survive or not. It's become that clear. The climate science tells us we are in the end game right now, without a massive change in public policy.

I think that increasingly, people get it. The choice is in our hands. This is the time to embrace the struggle--that empowerment is within our reach to take back our future and make it healthy, sustainable and peaceful.

I think the Global Climate Convergence is a vehicle that allows us to come together across movements, across national borders and across demographics. This is where we converge to say: All of our issues are important, and we must keep working on them all. And at the same time, we need a broader agenda that unifies us--an agenda for people, the planet and peace over profits.

It's been so exciting to see how people recognize that in a heartbeat and start to mobilize to make it happen. The Earth Day to May Day wave of actions is the first campaign, but as people come to it, they're not coming for just those 10 days--they're coming for the duration of the struggle.

The uncertainties I had myself about where this is going to go have been overcome by the incredible energy, enthusiasm and artistry of the troops that are assembling within the convergence. We're here for the long haul. I really encourage people to go to GlobalClimateConvergence.org and join the team to take back our future.

Chris Williams

Author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis and a founding member of the System Change Not Climate Change coalition.

OVER THE course of 2013, a steady drumbeat of ever-more-alarming reports on the quickening pace of climate change formed the scientific backdrop to what the U.S. government's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration indicated were more than two dozen "significant climate anomalies." Most prominent among them, causing thousands of deaths, was Super Typhoon Haiyan, with the highest winds ever recorded for a storm as it made landfall.

2014 opened with a state of emergency declared in California as a result of a drought that is having a devastating impact on agriculture, in a state that provides a quarter of the food on U.S. tables. While drought is ongoing across 15 Southwestern states, during the winter months, the Northeast and Midwest endured temperatures below those of Siberia and repeated record snowfalls--the result of climate change-linked changes to the Gulf Stream that brought bitterly cold conditions barreling down from the Arctic.

Reflecting the level of destabilizing impacts from climate change right now, not to mention what will happen if business-as-usual continues, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has a recognizable change of tone, as the authors note that "the worst is yet to come."

The report makes clear, as the BBC reported, that "increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts." In a world of staggering and still growing inequality, those least responsible for creating the global ecological crisis will bear the consequences first and worst: "People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change," the report states.

The impact of climate change is no longer something to be worried about in 20 or 30 years' time, but is already a feature of life for millions of people across the world struggling to adapt to and live with stronger storms, increasing variability of rainfall patterns that affect crop production, increasing numbers of hotter days and wildfires, or the geographical movement of fish species due to warmer oceans.

A new question has arisen: Have we already surpassed the point of no return, whereby the destiny of humanity has been removed from our hands? As positive feedback loops kick in and increase average temperatures not by the 2 degrees Celsius estimated to be the "tipping point," but four degrees or more, making human civilization, as well as the existence of many species, untenable, has climate change become an unstoppable force?

Some people, such James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis of a self-regulating earth; conservation biologist Guy McPherson; and author and founder of Deep Green Resistance Derrick Jensen all answer in the affirmative--time has run out, and the best humanity can do is gird itself for civilizational breakdown, and quite possibly extinction.

I strongly disagree with the analysis of the doom-mongers--and I do so not because one should, in the immortal words of Graham Chapman and his fellow prisoners as they are being crucified in the final scene of Monty Python's Life of Brian, "always look on the bright side of life."

Rather, there is a strong scientific case, as leading climate scientist Michael Mann outlines in an article in Scientific American, that it is unlikely we will pass any irrevocable tipping point before 2036.

Of course, this isn't an absolute certainty, and it's true that many scientific reports, particularly those from the IPCC, have consistently under-represented the swiftness with which we are transitioning from one relatively benign and stable climate regime, to a much less hospitable and erratic one.

Nevertheless, having already caused an increase in global average temperatures of 0.8 degrees Celsius, and while we are irrevocably locked into close to 2 degrees of warming by 2050 (there is a lag time between changes in carbon emissions and their impact on climate change), there is still time to avert further increases. Not an awful lot of time, but nevertheless enough to make the energy transition to a low-carbon society.

This is particularly true because not only do we know quite precisely the extent of the problem, as well as the cause. In addition and most importantly, we already have all of the solutions ready to hand, with well-developed technology and plans to power the planet with renewables.

Which brings us to what climate scientist Kevin Anderson, at Britain's premier climate science institution, the Tyndall Center, says is the need for "radical social change" to stave off climate change turning into a self-reinforcing phenomenon outside of our control. After two decades of essentially pointless climate negotiations, it is clear that neither capitalism's free markets, nor the politicians that serve them, will in and of themselves step in to solve the problem--despite climate change being, to all intents and purposes, an existential threat to the entire capitalist system.

Hence, rather than lament the paucity of real change from the top or sink into depression with the latest ever-more-severe scientific report, activists need to organize for real change from below. This is the only guarantee of success--especially as we know from history that social change can far outpace climate change.

Joel Kovel

Author of The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? and a founder of Ecosocialist Horizons

AS I understand the question, it asks us to consider that moment in which positive feedback loops induced by climate change--for example, growing release of methane from tundra that has softened thanks to warming trends--leads, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, to further warming, etc., in a kind of doomsday scenario.

It is impossible to specify the trajectory of this with any precision, if only because new discoveries are constantly being made, while boundaries remain indefinable. Further, the notion of "stopping" leads into an indefinable quandary, not worth pursuing in a contribution of such brevity as this, and by someone with such scanty climatological credentials.

In fact, there is only one word in the question which bears examination here, and that is "we." Whatever else the tipping point means, it connotes a calamity of extraordinary, indeed, unique dimensions. This is occurring to a human community with a history, an imagination and potentialities for self-organization into the future. So what I hear in this question may be read as follows:

How are we to bring forward a human response--a revolutionary subject, a collective consciousness embodied in people in motion, and capable of grasping and transforming the present moment--so that the "tipping point," and--crucially, everything else it connects with in the larger ecological crisis that we now confront--can be overcome? I mean here by "overcome," not just to survive, but to prevail, so that life can continue.

I can tell you this--this will not happen as the world is now organized, under the domination of a global capitalist ruling class and the immense and technocratic bureaucracies that are its instruments for dealing with the ecological crisis and its climatic aspects. We are in great need of the scientific community; however, we need science as a community and not as an instrument of global capital in pursuit of its paramount goal, which is the act of accumulation, money constantly growing and poisoning the world.

We should get one thing straight before all others--that we can have the accumulation of capital, and we can have ecological integrity, but we can't have both of them together.

The "we" is a body that has to choose, and can choose to reject capital, which means in this context to take the option for life over annihilation. Bringing about this option on a planetary scale is now and will be for the foreseeable future the leading political project for all people of good will.

Facing World War Two, the United States radically transformed its system of production, and in a remarkably short time became a mega-machine capable of destroying the Axis powers. Today, the technological prowess for doing this is exponentially greater; but the political will is weaker and faces a radically different task.

President Roosevelt was able to enlist the support of the capitalist classes to interrupt business as usual with the promise of global dominion after victory; and this proved to be so. The struggle for global ecological integrity, however, is one for the bringing down of the capitalist class, and not its triumph. It also proposes a global society beyond nationalist chauvinism, and not the triumph of any state over others. And it has to do so by liquidation of the death-dealing instruments of war, while building the life-affirming organs of eco-centric production.

This seems outlandishly difficult, even impossible. But there is nothing, in this way of looking at things, that is beyond human capabilities. Each woman and each man comes into the world with a transformative power that is the legacy of the universe acting through us. And there are a lot of us out there--billions to be exact--capable of restoring ecological integrity if well organized.

Can I prove this to be true? Of course not! Can anybody prove the contrary to be true? Of course not! So what are we waiting for?

Karen Domínguez Burke, Andrea Hektor, Ragina Johnson, Alan Maass and Chris Williams helped with this discussion.

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