The Climate Activist Mistake And What Is Needed Now


John Michael Greer has written a provocative essay: Climate Change Activism: a Postmortem.

His list of activist mistakes should be interesting to many of you but Greer makes the same tactical error as the activists he derides in his ‘postmortem’. Greer is still concerned about winning political and economic battles instead of getting to necessary emergency government as quickly as possible.

Greer doesn’t mention the most critical mistake made by climate activists:  continuing to advocate for changes within BAU – political and economic business as usual – where emission reduction of a scale needed is clearly not possible.

Building a movement, education, putting a price on carbon, divestment, hastening the development of renewables and even blockading to try and keep fossil fuels in the ground – all of these tactics are worthwhile and still needed. But they will not, even all together, reduce emissions at a scale quickly enough to protect against dangerous climate change.

For at least a decade it has been clear that the only path to climate solution was getting to emergency government to unblock so that effective emission reduction becomes possible. Instead climate activists helped keep fossil fuels in the game with messaging and tactics that implied that we could still effectively mitigate climate within our very fortunate economic and political business as usual. We could keep living our fortunate lifestyles and merely tweak BAU.

James Hansen and others warned a decade ago that even a 1C rise in temperature was too deep into dangerous climate change. Prescient activists like Sutton and Spratt in CLIMATE CODE RED and Lester Brown with his hopeful PLAN B 2.0 argued that the scale of emission reduction needed was not possible within our present political and economic systems and that wartime-style mobilization was necessary. Powerful path dependence, neoliberalism with it’s golden straitjacket, corporate deep capture of all of our institutions, political gridlock, post-truth politics, now Trump and his ilk – there is no safe climate future on this BAU horizon.

Emissions have continued to rise despite two decades of international agreement about climate change dangers and the need to reduce emissions. Post-Paris there is widespread agreement that emission reduction isn’t happening fast enough to even stay under 2C. The carbon budget is shrinking so fast that even those countries that have made substantial emission reduction can not and will not be able to do their share to stay under 2C. The largest and worst polluters (the countries that also subverted Kyoto and Copenhagen) are now aiming for emission reduction targets that are a fraction of the 80-100% emission reduction by 2030 now needed. Globally, we are on a path to sail past a 3-4C warming by mid-century and worse to come.

But there is another path to climate solution that remains untried. Like Our Children’s Trust who are trying to use the courts, activists should try to force governments to do their duty to their citizens.

Those in positions of responsibility – unlike individuals or publics – must consider the full range of policy options as part of their obligation of due diligence to all their citizens. Emergency action within emergency governmental powers must be at least considered.

Climate change is an accidental side-effect of our use of fossil fuels. What once was the economic lifeblood of our tremendous societal success has become a toxic substance which threatens our civilization if not humanity itself. But activists have not yet insisted that fossil fuel use must now be strictly regulated by those in responsibility.

Climate activists have tried to use our societies present levers of power to make a transition so that fossil fuels would not be burned. Although they have been out-maneuvered so as to be ineffectual as Greer details, the majority of climate activists continued – continue – to try and achieve an incremental transition using approved incremental political and economic methods instead of petitioning legislators and agencies and responsible people in all of our institutions for emergency government action that could unblock for needed systemic change so that 80-100% emission reduction by 2030 becomes possible.

Like Greer, most climate activists don’t understand the mistake made, the mistake that continues to be made. (And don’t make an added mistake of thinking a socialist revolution is a possible solution.)

There are very hopeful technological improvement in renewables and, more importantly, in developing possibilities of alternative evolution of our present economy. If major nations such as the US, China and the EU could quickly implement proven emergency government – coalition governments, society-wide mobilization, focused planning and economic stabilization, etc. – it might be still possible to reduce emissions fast enough to stay under 2C.

But the all important first step must be action to force at least consideration of the imperative of emergency government. Otherwise we will continue to be that frog in warming water – 2C, 3-4C, oblivion.

I am not offering a postmortem – effective action is urgently needed, must be still possible. I’m not arguing for blame or guilt – who cares. Climate activists must overcome new climate denial, solution aversion and credibility cowardice to recognize that there is no future if we just keep trying to tweak BAU.

Climate activists must unite in effectively petitioning their governments with the strong but never properly made arguments for emergency government to treat fossil fuels as a now deadly toxin and wind down all production and use of fossil fuels (except without GHG emissions) in line with the most up to date carbon budget science. It is too late, far too late for anything less.

Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor to Countercurrents on Climate Change . He can be reached at bhenderson (at)

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