“This is a book about waking up,” Wen Stephenson writes on the opening page of his exceptionally well-timed What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other. Stephenson’s subject is the self-christened “climate justice” movement that’s trying to halt civilization’s march over the cliff of non-survivable global warming. Judging by events of recent days—especially Shell Oil’s halt to oil drilling in the Arctic, a retreat estimated to cost shareholders some $7 billion—this grassroots movement is only growing in size, sophistication, and economic and political clout. And more protests against the fossil fuel industry, along with demands for a rapid shift to 100 percent clean energy, are planned prior to the United Nations climate summit that begins in Paris on November 30.
Much news coverage simplistically attributed Shell’s Arctic retreat to the current low price of oil, roughly $50 a barrel. No doubt that was a factor, but Shell’s own announcement also referenced “the challenging, unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” And this “regulatory environment” is a function of politics, politics that have been rapidly changing and in no small part due to pressure from climate activists.
On August 18, the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner reversed course and endorsed one of the movement’s key demands as Hillary Clinton announced that she opposed Arctic drilling. Clinton’s move in turn obliged President Obama to defend green-lighting Shell’s plans, complicating the White House’s efforts to portray Obama as a climate champion during his visit to Alaska. A few days later, still lagging behind Senator Bernie Sanders both in the polls and in grassroots enthusiasm and recognizing that climate change is a major campaign issue for younger voters and the activists crucial to turning out the vote on election day, Clinton made a second attempt to burnish her green credibility by coming out against the Keystone XL pipeline—the same pipeline she said as Secretary of State in 2009 she was “inclined” to approve.
“Shell may fear that a Clinton presidency would doom its chancy northern exploration,” Paul Barrett wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek in one of the few reports to look beyond today’s oil price to explain the company’s retreat. As any business reporter should know, politics—and the regulatory, subsidy, and other government policies that flow from it—has always been central to the oil industry’s profitability. What’s more, the capital-intensive nature of the oil business requires evaluating the profitability of large infrastructure investments over a timescale of decades. Shell had said it didn’t anticipate selling much Arctic oil until 2030. Thus the price of oil in 2030—and the political environment in the years leading up to 2030—are at least as important as today’s price in deciding whether to pursue Arctic drilling.
Activists pledge to keep up the pressure between now and Paris—a campus Day of Action is planned for October 2, followed by a National Day of Action on October 14 and an international march in Paris on November 29 to welcome the world’s diplomats the day before the summit begins—even as skeptics wonder whether such mass actions make any difference.
Well, ask ExxonMobil that question (as Shell should have done). When the climate movement put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of New York City in September 2014, the marchers unwittingly boosted the “shadow price” of carbon ExxonMobil uses to evaluate future investment opportunities. This shadow price varies by country and rises as a country’s government appears more likely to discourage oil and gas production. The higher the shadow price, the more profitable a given investment must be for ExxonMobil’s management to approve it.
“We look at all kinds of things that affect government policies, and that many people marching is clearly going to put pressure on government to do something,” Alan Jeffers, the oil giant’s media officer, told me a few weeks later. Say what you like about ExxonMobil—the company has lied longer and louder about climate change than anyone—but it does recognize that politicians’ decisions are susceptible to public pressure, if that pressure gets strong enough.
What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other emphasizes that the movement making all this noise is quite different from—indeed, an implicit rebuke of—the big environmental organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C. Groups such as Environmental Defense, National Wildlife Federation, and The Nature Conservancy boast multimillion-dollar budgets, preach bipartisan collaboration, and occasionally even partner with corporate polluters. By contrast, the climate justice movement grew out of “front line struggles” waged by the kind of grassroots groups profiled in this book and indigenous peoples, such as the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a tribal government in Alaska active in the fight against Shell. National coordination has come from 350.org, the group author Bill McKibben co-founded with students of his from Middlebury College after concluding that the traditional environmental movement had plenty of lawyers, scientists, and well-heeled supporters but lacked the people power that animates a genuine social movement.
The climate justice movement, Stephenson argues, regards the climate crisis as primarily a moral issue—a matter of justice more than of tweaking policy—and thus favors civil disobedience and other forms of direct action over the incremental, compromise-laden approach of mainstream environmentalists. Its members also put a priority on expressing solidarity at a global scale with the victims of climate change—which fiendishly punishes the poor, who did next to nothing to cause it, first and worst. And they both preach and practice the importance of racial and other forms of diversity, which is why the New York climate march last September was led by a row of non-white youth from Rockaway and other neighborhoods that bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s destructiveness.
What put the Keystone XL pipeline on the political map was a protest outside the White House in August 2011 that was convened by McKibben and 350.org and ended with 1,253 activists getting arrested after refusing to disperse. Even as mainstream environmental groups and the media’s favorite talking heads shunned the Keystone focus as a misguided distraction, the activists of 350.org and kindred groups kept finding new ways to protest the pipeline. They chose this path because their theory of social change aimed not merely to defeat a single odious project or pass one piece of legislation; it required building a social movement that could gain and exert political power over time.
Stephenson writes both for and about this movement when he reports, “Rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism and cynicism, many of us, and especially a young generation of activists, have reached the conclusion that something more than merely ‘environmentalism’ and virtuous green consumerism is called for. That the only thing offering any chance of averting an apocalyptic future—and of getting through what’s already coming with our humanity intact—is the kind of radically transformative social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement like those that have made possible what was previously unthinkable, from abolition [of slavery] to civil rights.”
The book is polemical but also thoroughly reported, introducing the reader to the activists of the movement and allowing them to explain themselves. Many are young and grew up hearing about climate change. Now, as droughts and super storms are arriving decades sooner than anticipated and scientists have warned that 80 percent of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels must be left in the ground to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, these young people are concluding that the fossil fuel industry’s current business plans amount to a death sentence for them. “These companies are waging war on us and our lives,” Alli Welton told the author. “And we have to fight back somehow.” After two years at Harvard, Welton dropped out to do full time climate justice organizing, Stephenson reports, “waiting tables to pay her rent.”
Channeling Welton and dozens like her, Stephenson insists that at this late date in the climate crisis, the only serious response is a radical response. He himself is an unlikely radical, as he admits with self-deprecating arkwardness. A suburban husband and father of two, he was a “middle of the road” mainstream journalist (The Atlantic, NPR, The Boston Globe) when he began digging into the science of climate change in 2010. (I should mention that one book that influenced him was my HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which he reviewed for The New York Times, and that he has subsequently contributed to The Nation, where I’m the environment correspondent.)
What Stephenson came to recognize—which was by no means news but which many people still shrink from facing—was that our civilization was already deep in a Code Red emergency. Because of climate change’s physical inertia, the planet is already committed to so much additional temperature rise and its related climate impacts that it’s going to be very challenging to manage the future even if we slam the brakes on future emissions.
To those who disparage the strategy of “physically, nonviolently disrupting the fossil fuel industry and the institutions that support it” as too extreme, Stephenson flashes back, “Extreme? Business as usual is extreme. Just ask a scientist. The building is burning. The innocents—the poor, the oppressed, the children, your own children—are inside. And the American petro state … is spraying fuel, not water, on the flames. That’s more than extreme. It’s homicidal. It’s psychopathic. It’s fucking insane.”
As that passage illustrates, What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other is impassioned, provocative, beautifully written, and at times over the top. The great value of the book, as well as its great risk, is that it forces each of us to ask: What am I doing about the train that’s barreling down the tracks toward me, my loved ones, and all we hold dear? The question is bound to make some people uncomfortable and provoke jaded dismissals (as evidenced by snarky reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus).
Stephenson both grants his critics’ point and calls their bluff. If the radical action he advocates and celebrates is not the right response, he asks, what’s a better one? Because making no response is not an option. He is also honest enough to acknowledge that his preferred course of action by no means guarantees success, only the chance of it.
“Trust me, I know full well that any talk of a transformative radical movement for climate justice … sounds hopelessly naïve,” the former mainstream journalist concludes. “I get it. I know. I know the country, and the political culture in which I live and work. And yet—here I am anyway. Because I also know that … ending Jim Crow sounded hopeless and naïve in 1955 when Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on that bus in Montgomery. I know that ending apartheid sounded hopeless and naïve in 1962, when Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa. For that matter, even stopping the Keystone XL pipeline sounded hopeless and naïve in 2011—before thousands of people started getting arrested and literally laying their bodies on the line … Yes, the whole thing is just one pipeline—one very big, very dangerous, very symbolic and political pipeline. And yes, Montgomery, Alabama, was just one Southern city. And that bus was just one city bus.”
Mark Hertsgaard is the environment correspondent for The Nation and the author of six books that have been translated into 16 languages, including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth.