Annals of a Warming Planet
The Coronavirus and the Climate Movement
March 18, 2020
One frustration of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s interrupting the movement-building that is necessary to beat the fossil-fuel industry.Photograph by Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP / Getty
Subscribers to The Climate Crisis newsletter received this piece in their in-boxes. Sign up to receive future installments. My daughter—full grown and accomplished, but still my daughter—asked me the other day, “Do you think we’re going to go on having crises like this my whole life?” Probably not quite like the coronavirus
(pandemics are fairly unique among disasters, in that they attack the whole world at the same time), but I’ve long feared that the result of heating the Earth will be an ongoing, accelerating series of disasters, eventually overwhelming our ability to cope. The pace of those events has been increasing in recent years, and our ability to keep them at something like a manageable level depends, above all, on the speed with which we transition off of gas, oil, and coal.
That’s why, for me, one frustration of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s temporarily interrupting the movement-building that is necessary to beat the fossil-fuel industry. Just as basketball
have had to take a break, so have some forms of protest. Greta Thunberg
asked school-strikers to go digital for a while: “We young people are the least affected by this virus but it’s essential that we act in solidarity with the most vulnerable and that we act in the best interest of our common society,” she told
her four million Twitter followers. The Sunrise Movement—the inspiring young people who made the Green New Deal into a cause célèbre—asked organizers “to avoid mass physical gatherings,” saying
, “as a generation shaped by the Internet and social media, it’s time to innovate, esp. digitally.”
When not writing this newsletter, I’ve been volunteering as an organizer for Stop the Money Pipeline
, which has been trying to persuade banks, insurance companies, and asset managers to cease their funding of the fossil-fuel industry. (My interest grew out of a piece that I wrote
for The New Yorker
last fall.) Some of us went to jail
, in January, to launch the campaign, which was going to crest with a wave of acts of nonviolent civil disobedience with the occupation of hundreds, or thousands, of Chase Bank branches, on April 23rd, the day after Earth Day’s fiftieth anniversary. (JPMorgan Chase is the world’s single biggest funder
of fossil fuels.) But now we can’t—as soon as the potential for community spread of covid-19 became clear, so did the cruelty of perhaps introducing it into the correctional system. I’ve spent just enough time in jails to know that they’re usually dirty, overcrowded, and full of people (many of whom do not need to be there) in constant motion between holding cells, prisons, and the courts. It’s going to be hard enough
to keep inmates healthy without additional germs making their way inside from unknowing protesters. And people really should not be gathering in numbers now, anyway.
Digital activism is rarely as effective as in-the-flesh nonviolent action, but, for the time being, that is what people can engage in. On Monday, Paul Engler, one of the best strategists of nonviolent action, wrote that “we should draw both on the possibilities of new technology that allow for decentralized action and some time-honored lessons from past social movements.” And when the pandemic passes? Here is how Extinction Rebellion U.K. put it: “Nothing will feel the same and we need to be ready”—ready for resuming civil disobedience “when the time is right.”
In case you’re wondering why activists are so enraged at banks, read this report from the California-based N.G.O. Amazon Watch, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, about the “dirty five” financial institutions enmeshed in oil drilling in the Amazon rain forest. Someday, people may look back in wonder at a moment when bankers thought it proper to profit from damaging what the report calls “part of the Earth’s natural ‘thermostat’ ” in order to extract hydrocarbons that would wreck the climate system.
published last week by the journal Nature Communications found that large ecosystems, including the Amazon, tend to collapse “disproportionately faster” than smaller ones. “The findings imply that shifts in Earth ecosystems occur over ‘human’ timescales of years and decades, meaning the collapse of large vulnerable ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest and Caribbean coral reefs, may take only a few decades once triggered,” it said. As the lead researcher, John Dearing, of the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom, told
reporters, “the messages here are stark.”
Although it was mostly lost amid the news of the escalating pandemic, the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis held an important hearing last week on the risks that global warming poses to financial markets and the energy transition required to avert them. The testimony of Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, was particularly powerful, an American version of the warning that Mark Carney—who was, from 2013 until earlier this month, the governor of the Bank of England—has been providing for the past half decade. Raskin said that, while financial-industry exposure to the fossil-fuel industry risks turmoil, a turn away from oil and gas implies “a sweeping reallocation of resources and technological revolution”—a reallocation that “would generate new, creative investment at a pace, by some estimates, of roughly quadruple the present rate.”
Passing the Mic
Tara Houska is Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe, from Minnesota, an attorney who works on indigenous land issues, and the founder of the Giniw Collective, which describes itself as an “indigenous womxn-led frontline resistance to protect our Mother, defend the sacred and live in balance.”
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You’ve been engaged in the Line 3 fight for a long time now. Remind us of the basics of that struggle, and why it’s so important to indigenous communities.
Line 3 is a massive tar-sands pipeline proposed from Alberta to the shores of Lake Superior. Just that single line is a ten-per-cent expansion of Canada’s oil production. Expanding tar sands, in the face of the climate crisis—it’s total madness. Minnesotans and tribal nations have been fighting tooth and nail in the system for years, but we’ve reached the point of final permitting by the state. I’ve been living in a pipeline-resistance camp in the forest for nearly two years, keeping tabs on the ground movement and land. The bulldozers are here.
For the Anishinaabe territory that the proposed route passes through, Line 3 could eradicate the heart of our culture: wild rice. Wild rice is of such importance to our people. It is the only grain mentioned in any treaty ever made between Native nations and the United States. Pipeline construction through wetlands—through more than two hundred bodies of water and watersheds into wild-rice beds—irrevocably harms the water quality and ecosystems that wild rice needs. Upstream and downstream, Line 3 is a continuation of violating the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of future generations to have a world that can sustain human life.
Indigenous leaders have been at the forefront of the climate fight in recent years. What are they bringing to this work that makes their presence so important?
Native folks aren’t new to defending land—it’s what we’ve done since colonization showed up at our doorstep. But the rise of independent and social media has brought new light to our narratives and fights for justice. Indigenous peoples are just five per cent of the global population, holding eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous peoples have other ways of living, other value systems, that hold the basic knowledge that too many human beings have forgotten and need to remember. We cannot drink money. We are supposed to live in balance, as caretakers.
You spend a fair amount of time in the woods, hunting and so on. What role does the natural world play in your life?
Nature helps me figure out what truly matters in the short lifetime I have. Out here, the simple truths of life are tangible, and priorities are clear. Everything is hard work, every being has both purpose and fluidity. Everything has a spirit and must be treated with respect. It is life in the circular.
has won few plaudits for the speed of his Administration’s response to the coronavirus. But a big fall in the value of oil-company stocks at the start of last week caught his attention, perhaps because some of his biggest contributors lost billions
. By the week’s end, he’d instructed
the Department of Energy to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve “right up to the top,” in what Oil Change International called
an example of putting “the interests of oil and gas executives ahead of the interests of people and communities.”
The effort to figure out the effect of the virus on global warming’s future continues. A big variable is how China might react to the downturn in its economy. After the 2008 financial crisis, China’s recovery depended on huge infrastructure projects (such as airports) that lock in lots of fossil-fuel use, and, according to
the South China Morning Post
, that strategy is a possibility again. The World Resources Institute suggests
that the better option, not just for China but for the world, would be to invest in low-carbon energy.
This feels like a week when real comfort is required—everyone’s nerves are jangled as we try to adjust to new realities. The song that most reliably puts me back on an even keel is “O-o-h Child.” (There’s even a solar-power message.) The original hit
, by the Five Stairsteps, is undeniably great, and you should definitely sit down with Kamasi Washington’s wonderful mix. But, for sheer pull-up-your-socks-it’s-going-to-be-O.K. reassurance, it’s Nina Simone’s take
all the way.
is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis
, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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