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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  1. theinitiate says:

    Wow… this is about the best direction I’ve seen yet… in admitting where we are and what to do about it….. although, I do not see that “petitioning” will do much good either…. I mean, we CAN do that FIRST….. and when they laugh us into next year…. THEN, WE CAN….. PROTEST(?)….. STRIKE, RIOT?…. until they realize we are serious…. BUT… then again….. It may be even more effective…. to STOP PARTICIPATING IN INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY…… by ORGAINZING together to form connected groups of people that REFUSE to participate… cutting their consumer activity to almost nothing…. using the GIFT ECONOMY AND SHARING… ( this can really only be done in local communities..)…. stop driving, stop working, (stop making money for the 1%…….)… First we have to GROW OUR LOCAL GROUPS, COUNT OUR NUMBERS…..and when we get to maybe, what…. 50million, 100 million… we all drop out at once…. NOW THAT IS A PLAN….
    I REALLY DO LIKE THIS ARTICLE… but, well, I doubt petitioning will do much good… but the idea behind it is what we need…

  2. Victor Holm says:

    While industrialization is the primary cause too many climate activists don’t want to admit that population growth is also contributing. In the last hundred years world population has quadrupled, in addition the number of domestic animals has greatly increased. Renewable energy alone will not solve the problem. Most of new renewable energy is just going to meet the needs of population growth.

    • George Dyke says:

      Absolutely. If we cut population by 80%, we’d cut emissions 80%. QED.

      • alan2102 says:

        1. The issue is consumption growth, not population growth.

        2. How do you propose that “we” cut population by 80%? Please be specific.

        3. The population that needs to be cut, IF we are to talk in terms of “cutting population”, are the people who are responsible for 90% of the problem: the affluent. That would include almost everyone reading these words.

  3. Bill Henderson says:

    Victor and George,

    Princeton’s Stephen Pacala:

    Poorest half emit “essentially nothing”
    Pacala: “The 3 billion poorest people…emit essentially nothing. The take-home message here is that you could increase the emissions of all of those people by putting diesel generators or anything you wanted into their lives and it would not materially affect anything I’m going to say… In other words, the development of the desperately poor is not in conflict with solving the climate problem, which is a problem of the very rich. This is very, very important to understand.”

    Wealthiest 8% emit 50%
    Pacala: “In contrast, the rich are really spectacular emitters. …the top 500 million people [7.5% of humanity] emit half the greenhouse emissions. These people are really rich by global standards. Every single one of them earns more than the average American and they also occur in all the countries of the world. There are Chinese and Americans and Europeans and Japanese and Indians all in this group.”

    Furthermore, his data shows that the wealthiest 15% are responsible for ¾ of global emissions. The remaining 85% of humanity emit ¼ of the total. ‘Cutting’ populations of rich people might work.

    I did once jokingly propose that the Bush Jr era neocons would consider Depopulating Asia (Google it) given how serious a prob climate will be for BAU USA.

    • alan2102 says:

      Yes, thank you. Cutting populations of rich people might, indeed, work. But then, that is of course not quite what the “must cut population drastically!” (neomalthusian) crowd had in mind, eh?

      The “cut population” crowd is ALWAYS talking about THEM — those billions of brown people over there, the ones who emit (and waste, and despoil) next to nothing.

  4. Nicholas C. Arguimbau says:

    Henderson is absolutely right that the politics of what has gone wrong is much less urgent than cutting emissions NOW.. Naomi Klein made that mstake too, essentially sahing the revolution hjas to come before climate change. No, climate change is too urgent.

    But at the same time, petitioning corrupt governments can be to a great extent a cop-out to avoid personal action. The governments and major ngos have been cnsistently saying that global warming mitigation should be accomplished without “lifestyle changes,” i.e. without cutting consumption. and implicitly cutting the GDP. That is a fantasy.. We can’t cut emissions without cutting emissions. It is everyone’s job, and we cannot wait for government action to cut our meat consumption down, lower our thermostats in winter and raise them in summer, abandon all unnecessary or duplicative driving, etc. . Emissions will drop when we cut emissions. And when we slow and stop population growth. We can petition the government until we’re blue in the face unless we demonstrate personal commitment to take the consequences.

    Nicholas C. Arguimbau