The Climate Movement Needs to Hold Itself Accountable

The Climate Movement Needs to Hold Itself Accountable

By Amy Westervelt

For many, many—too many—years the consensus in the climate movement was that social justice issues (systemic racism, sexism, poverty, labor issues, really anything other than emissions and energy) were a "distraction" from the real work of fending off catastrophic climate change. We'll get to that later, they (usually white, affluent men) said.

During the Standing Rock protests of  2016, the mainstream climate movement finally started paying attention to the work frontline communities had been doing all along, and some folks realized a broader more inclusive movement was the way to actually win for a change. But not everyone was into it. As recently as 2019 some climate talking heads wondered aloud if things like the Green New Deal weren't "saddling the climate movement with a laundry list of other social programs" and thus turning off much-needed allies like moderate Democrats and Republicans (aka, educated, wealthy white people who don't historically line up to challenge the systems they benefit from).

This framing of inequality as a distraction rather than the root cause of the whole damn crisis, is a lot less common in the climate movement today. But don't celebrate just yet.

It's not gone, it's merely been replaced by a more genteel and thus more insidious version, what I've been calling the "united front" approach. In his book, The New Climate War, atmospheric scientist Michael Mann makes some valid points about the long history of propaganda in the U.S. (although he's far from the first to point that out), and argues that part of what he calls "the new denialism" is the fossil fuel industry sewing divisiveness in the climate movement. It's true, they have been! But while other climate folk (most recently climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe) have pointed to things like the spread of doomerism, Mann adds his old favorite target: "identity politics."

"The climate action deflectors," he argues, "are attempting to drive a wedge into pre-existing rifts within the climate community. That includes rifts arising from the ongoing debate over the role of personal behavior versus systemic change. (It also includes rifts involving the politics of identity, and matters of gender, age, and race.) When the climate discourse devolves into a shouting match over diet and travel choices, and becomes about personal purity, behavior-shaming, and virtue-signaling, we get a divided community unable to speak with a united voice. We lose. Fossil fuel interests win."

Whew that's quite the parenthetical aside! Some of this is very true, of course. I've documented myriad ways the fossil fuel industry tries to take advantage of weaknesses like racism and exploit them. But that's not an argument for not talking about race—it's the exact reason we must address systemic racism and how it shows up in climate spaces. Mann is far from alone in this sort of thinking, which is unfortunate because the idea that the way to get to a united voice is to simply stop disagreeing, to sidestep these longstanding issues altogether, is a far greater gift to the fossil fuel industry than what they might dare dream of.

This is not to say that there are no valid criticism of identity politics, particularly the idea that simply slotting in women or people of color to positions of power will automatically deliver wins (stares in Kyrsten Sinema). But that's not what Mann and his Mannions are talking about. As one acolyte put it recently (retweeted and amplified by Mann): "One of the climate inaction deflection tactics: making it an identity issue that polarizes the debate. Result: no policy, no progress - in spite of majority support for most common sense climate action policies." Translation: Stop talking about race so we can pass climate policy already!

The climate counter-movement is able to exploit these -isms because of the movement's refusal to deal with them, not because we're finally talking about it after 50 years. Advocating for more civil discourse amongst allies is one thing, but when it becomes "don't criticize me because we all need to be united against the real bad guys: Big Oil," then it's just another way to shut down the climate voices that are only beginning to find space in the movement. Fossil fuel interests win when we don't talk about it, actually.

I understand that conflict makes some people uncomfortable. And obviously I don't disagree that Big Oil are the bad guys but… how are you gonna hold them accountable when you can't even hold your friends accountable? Or take responsibility for your own shit? And why does just talking about race and gender and equality automatically mean arguing or a "shouting match"? Maybe it wouldn’t be a shouting match if some people would just learn to listen. We're not behind on climate because we're talking about race, if anything we wouldn't have the climate crisis without white supremacy and racialized capitalism before it, and the longer we ignore that, the longer it will be before we make progress.

The Only Good Thing About 2021

By Mary Annaïse Heglar

There weren’t a lot of good things about 2021. It came in hot as the second year of a pandemic with an actual storming of the Capitol, in which we nearly saw elected officials publicly lynched and lost all democratic function. Then there were the skyrocketing temperatures and raging wildfires and storms, and even the OCEAN CATCHING FIRE. Among so, so many other things. But, here’s one good thing: the media is finally paying more attention to climate change.

In fact, according to the good folks over at the Media and Climate Change Observatory, 2021 saw the highest climate coverage ever. Let’s get into the numbers. Global climate coverage increased by 55 percent in 2021, compared to 2020. Granted, 2020 saw a dramatic decrease in climate coverage compared to 2019, but climate coverage in 2021 was still 19 percent higher than 2019 coverage. And it was more than double climate coverage in 2016, 2017, and 2018. It was up by 90 percent from 2015 levels. That’s some serious progress.

That said, there’s still so much further to go. Greenhouse gas emissions are still going up and the fossil fuel industry is not going to tell the truth about itself (trust me, it won’t). As we go into 2022, we need to do everything in our power to make sure that climate coverage is high in both quality and quantity. If you work in media, it’s time to write like all our lives depend on it. If you consume journalism, it’s time to write letters to the editor or make calls to demand good climate journalism, and to subscribe to the places that invest in it. The world is on fire. It should be dominating the headlines.

All Science Matters

By Amy Westervelt

For the past decade or so, and especially in the last five years, the climate movement has come to realize that climate change is not a so-called "information deficit problem," solved by simply getting people data and information they might be missing. It is instead a question of political will. Which, you would think, would lead us straight to the question: okay, how do we build political will toward climate action? And for the answer to that, of course, the media and politicians have largely turned to…climate scientists. Um, what? Why?

Bless the climate scientists for figuring this out in the first place and telling us it was coming, and trying SO HARD to get their point across, but how tf are we still not realizing that it's psychologists and environmental sociologists and eco-economists and political scientists and science historians and futurists and philosophers that we really need to be listening to when it comes to the question of what human societies are actually going to do about climate change? What they're likely to do, what they respond to or not, what's driving social norms, how much money has gone into instilling the exact ideas about the environment and the economy that would preclude any climate action ever? These are the questions we need answers to, so why are physical scientists the ones on all the cable news shows telling us how we're going to act on climate? Why do most of those "400 scientists say" lists exclude social scientists working on climate altogether? Why did it take the IPCC until 2021 to include social scientists in its reviews on the climate situation? And WHY for the love of all that is holy, did they decide to publish the social science report last, so that it's coming out this year, months after the COP26 debacle (which, by the way, could have really used some social science input)?

Okay so yes, I do have some theories. First, there's the funding. According to a recent study, STEM sciences get a whopping 770 percent more funding than social science. Then there's the fact that, at some level, a majority of people want there to be an easy technological fix for climate change. Grappling with the complexities of human behavior and human societies—and looking at both the root causes of the problem and what it's going to take to unlock real action—means accepting that the solution probably isn't gonna be that easy and straightforward.

And then, let's not forget we had about 30 years of climate denial, during which every single person who ever said a word about climate was required to answer obscure scientific "gotcha" questions about it. During that time, folks who were against climate action kept the conversation focused largely on the (physical) science and whether it was solid enough to inform decisions.

But about 10 years ago, the climate counter-movement shifted gears. They focused on how climate action was gonna take away your hamburger. They talked about how cold it was outside. They trotted out spokesperson after spokesperson who said "look I'm not a scientist, but everything seems fine to me and we don't want anyone losing their job over this." Not a bit of hard science in there. Because guess what? Guess who has social scientists all over their comms and lobbying strategies? The damn oil industry, people! Of course they do!

So, again, with all love for the hardcore climate scientists, it's time we spread that love to the social scientists, and accept that the solution to this crisis might not fit neatly into a model or graph.


Your weekly roundup of climate stories

Rising Temperatures, Rising Tides

The Maldives is being swallowed by the sea. Can it adapt? By Tristan McConnell for National Geographic

It was the fourth-warmest year on record in the US, and that's just one of several climate records set in 2021, by Dharna Noor for Boston Globe

It's Time to Nuke the Doomsday Clock ,by Brian Kahn and Caitlin McGarry for Earther

2021 was 45th year in a row with an above-average global temperature, by Rachel Ramirez for CNN

9 Cool Things That Got Way Too Hot Last Year, by Brian Kahn for Earther

Florida's Red Tides Are Getting Worse and May Be Hard to Control Because of Climate Change, by Aman Azhar for Inside Climate News

In parched Beijing, claims of a 'green' Olympics may not hold water, by Christian Shepherd for The Washington Post

Doomsday Glacier in Antarctica Could Collapse Soon: New Research, by Jeff Goodell for Rolling Stone

High winds topple trees and power lines, stoke fires across California, by Alex Wigglesworth for The LA Times

The Climate Presidency?

Norway's Big Lesson for Build Back Better, by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic

'Build Back Better' Hit a Wall, but Climate Action Could Move Forward, by Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman for The New York Times

No. 2 US climate diplomat leaves after a year under Biden, by Ellen Knickemeyer for AP

Biden administration proposes updates to mobile home energy-efficiency - The Washington Post

Biden may break climate provisions out of Build Back Better, by Dharna Noor for Boston Globe

This 'super-freshman' is making a mark on climate policy in the House, by Maxine Joselow for The Washington Post

Biden's Inauguration Anniversary: Has He Kept His Campaign Promises? by Alexa Stevens for Teen Vogue

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi on Why We Need the Fashion Act, by Veronique Hyland for Elle

Climate Accountability

Judge: Energy Transfer Can't Keep Pipeline Records Secret, by Aleen Brown for The Intercept

How Exxon is using an unusual law to intimidate critics over its climate denial | Environment, by Chris McGreal for The Guardian

Shell CCS Plant Emits More Greenhouse Gases Than It's Captured, by Molly Taft for Earther

Abandoned oil well counts are exploding — now that there's money on the table, by Naveena Sadasivam for Grist

House panel asks Big Oil board members to testify about climate disinformation, by Maxine Joselow for The Washington Post

China Moves to Freeze Production of Climate Super-Pollutants But Lacks a System to Monitor Emissions, by Phil McKenna for Inside Climate News

The US Military Emits More Carbon Dioxide Into the Atmosphere Than Entire Countries Like Denmark or Portugal, by Sonner Kehrt for Inside Climate News

Scientists target PR and ad firms they accuse of spreading disinformation, by Valerie Volcovici for Reuters

Justice Is Justice Is Justice

Report: Climate disasters have a devastating effect on US students, by Yvette Cabrera for Grist

Dolores Huerta: Workers Must Unite to Take on Climate, by Yessenia Funes for Atmos

Shell's Massive Carbon Capture Plant Is Emitting More Than It's Capturing, by Anya Zoledziowski for Vice

Climate change is coming for Indonesia's cocoa farms; candy companies aren't helping, by Nikita Amir for Popular Science

An endangered wolf went in search of a mate. The border wall blocked him, by Douglas Main for National Geographic

Decolonizing Conservation: Native Communities Know How to Protect Nature , by Kate Wheeling for Teen Vogue

How Africa's First Heat Officer Confronts Climate Change - Bloomberg, by Peter Yeung for Bloomberg CityLab

Del Rio and the Call for Migrant Justice , by Alicia Schmidt Camacho for The New Yorker

Inspired by King's Words, Experts Say the Fight for Climate Justice Anywhere is a Fight for Climate Justice Everywhere, by James Bruggers for Inside Climate News

Climate change makes it deadlier to cross the US-Mexico border, by Angely Mercado for Popular Science

Glimmers of Hope

Sprawling Coral Reef Resembling Roses Is Discovered Off Tahiti, by Neil Vigdor for The New York Times

How “mechanical trees” could solve a huge climate change problem, by Klaus Lackner for Inverse

Minerals and the clean-energy transition: the basics, by David Roberts for Volts

This map may make you feel better about the state of the planet, by Benji Jones for Vox

Give the US Postal Service $3 Billion to Electrify Its Fleet, You Cowards, by Brian Kahn for Earther

The Simplest Way to Sell More Electric Cars in America, by Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic

Inside Finland's Plan to End All Waste by 2050, by Lisa Abend for Time

The Surprisingly Low Price Tag on Preventing Climate Disaster , by Yuval Noah Harari for Time

Superstores can meet half their electricity needs with rooftop solar, says a new report - The Washington Post

Los Angeles may ban urban oil and gas fields after decades of complaints - AP

Climate in Culture

Brutes by Amitav Ghosh for Orion

Mapping Climate Grief, One Pixel at a Time, by Julian Lucas for The New Yorker

Warming Trends: Winterless Olympics, a Disaster Novel Shows the Importance of Storytelling in Climate Conversations and a New Lab Studies Parks and Warming - Inside Climate News

Plus More

Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists, by Damien Carrington for The Guardian

Should the world ban solar geoengineering? 60 experts say yes, by Shannon Osaka for Grist

Why We've Succumbed to Pandemic Apathy, by Marion Renault for The New Republic

How a Married Undercover Cop Having Sex With Activists Killed a Climate Movement, by Geoff Dembicki for Vice

The 17th Day, by Christina Rivera Cogswell for Terrain


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