by: Emily Williams
We’ve probably all heard of the Five Stages of Climate Grief. It has its roots in the Five Stages of Grief, and refers to the emotional processing our society uses to cope with climate change.
First you are in denial. You deny that the earth is warming, you deny the severity of climate change, and you deny that current human activities could cause it.
Next, you become angry that corporations and government have allowed for and financed such reckless exploitation, creating climate chaos; or you are angry that environmentalists are demanding that people change their habits and give up their comforts for the polar bears.
Next, you bargain. We trade scientific fact for political gain, trade carbon credits for a few more years of uncontrolled burning, and trade our logical minds for a monopolized media that will tell us that the science isn’t that serious and we will all be ok.
When one of our cities is devastated by a superstorm or plagued by drought, we enter into depression.
And so, grudgingly, we enter into acceptance. Acceptance is when we acknowledge the science and explore solutions…. But will we really ever accept?
Acceptance assumes that if we understand climate science and are given enough time to move through the five stages, our institutions will ultimately collaborate to implement solutions that will mitigate, and help adapt to, this crisis. However, if acceptance is enough to enact change, a climate denier would not be poised to be head of the Senate Environment and Public works committee, our government would not continue to subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, and fossil fuel industry would invest its money and infrastructure in renewable technology development, accepting that we must leave 80% of reserves in the ground. In the five stages, there is no mention activism. However, the climate crisis need more than acceptance. If we are to see meaningful action on climate change, we cannot wait for these stages to play out; civil society needs to pave the way.
Where are we trying to get to?
Let’s talk about 2 degrees Celsius. The Copenhagen Accord glommed onto the target, stating that governments recognize “…that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius…” But what does 2 degrees entail? Was it in fact science that arrived at the 2 degree target as a safe limit? Ultimately, 2 degrees is a political concept; most climate research shows little confidence in 2 degrees as a safe limit. Already, at 0.8 degrees of warming, we are seeing changes in our climate and adverse impacts on our society occurring at an alarming rate. A 2 degree limit leaves island underwater, or at least inhabitable. Representatives from African nations and Pacific Island nations stated that by signing onto the accord, they would be signing a “suicide pact.” By agreeing to this political limit, our governments have already sold out the Global South, committing one of the worst and largest in scale injustices.
However, to illustrate just how hard it will be to stay within even 2 degrees, we need to understand the carbon gap. The carbon gap is the difference between the rates of emissions we need to stay under to achieve climate stability versus our actual rate of emissions. Closing this gap would mean achieving climate stability. However, our current rate of emissions is not slowing, and the gap widens.
Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall center, outlined the global emissions cuts we need to make if we are to stay below 2 degrees. Anderson’s plan not only closes the gap, but factors in climate justice. Granting non-Annex 1 countries (or developing countries) a carbon budget so that they may continue to develop and phase away from fossil fuels, Anderson details that annex 1 countries need to cut 70% of their emissions in 10 years. To put that figure in perspective, the U.S. would have to cut by 2023 the equivalent of all the emission from the electricity, transportation, and agriculture sectors. Early last week, the United States and China reached a “historic agreement”, committing the nations to certain emissions cuts and peaks in emissions–the United States would decrease its emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2025; China would peak its emissions in 2030 with 20% of its electricity pledged to come from non-fossil fuel sources. This agreement is historic in that it was not mandatory, and it was made by two of the most powerful countries in the climate negotiations. However, this agreement is non-binding, and translates to a 10% emissions cut from the base year scientists use. So can we succeed in reducing our emissions stay below 2 degrees? It’s not impossible, but ambitious and extremely difficult, especially if there isn’t financial support and regulatory pressure that supports the transition.
Climate activism as a tool to reach our goal
If we are to ensure that our five stages of climate grief result in progress, we have to rethink how we as civil society engage to catalyze ambitious action. Civil society is responsible for the agreement that the US and China reached last week; civil society pushed, and in the wake of the GOP sweeping the elections, the Obama administration chose climate to make his stance. We now know that the administration listens to us; this past week, Obama addressed the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and said “the issue of climate change is a perfect example of why young people have to lead.” But if we are to see a more ambitious agreement and achieve significant action on climate change that adheres to the severity of the crisis, and if we are to acheive climate justice, we need to push harder. That means that over the next few years, we need to mobilize even more. So let’s take a look at how one campaign—divestment—manages to do that.
Fossil Fuel Divestment and the Road to 2015
We’ve heard a lot about divestment over the past few years; Bill McKibben became an unlikely rockstar overnight with the Do The Math tour, the campaign spread to new continents making it an international effort, and the Rockefellers—the family that made its fortune from oil—chose to divest. Divestment and gives a face to the crisis, allowing people to rally around a target and feel empowered to take their futures into their own hands, therefore democratizing the issue of climate change. Divestment has the power to change the public perception of the fossil fuel industry. It points to the culprit and organizes the masses to demand that their institutions—their campuses, businesses, churches, or cities—refuse to profit off of that industry. When enough institutions divest, it creates a tipping point where people become passionate about the issue and put enough pressure on their elected officials to start representing their needs instead of the desires of oil barons.
Divestment also frees up finance, forcing institutions and our government to shift finances away from the industry that’s launching us over the edge and toward the low-carbon, just economy we need. This is the reinvestment side of the campaign, and it goes far beyond moving that money into renewable technology development. When we divest, we can reinvest in communities—in their resilience and in community-owned energy generation—and in radical and innovate solutions. The campaign is yin-yang: it identifies that which is harmful, denounces it, and calls upon society to denounce it as well; but it also identifies the real solutions, and financially and ideologically supports those solutions by investing in them.
There are a fair number of critiques of divestment—that it’s too symbolic and draws attention from what really works (on-the-ground resistance); that it is an elitist campaign and excludes those who are the most marginalized by the climate movement and those who are most affected by the industry; and that isn’t radical if folks like Tom Steyer can hop on board and perpetuates the same old capitalist, exploitative, immoral system. A lot of those critiques are founded, and like most campaigns, the divestment campaign has made many mistakes and still has a lot to learn before reaching its effective potential. But it learns from its mistakes, and therefore creates a platform on which many related campaigns can converge into a global movement.
So what is the role of divestment in national and international politics? Divestment is local—it’s implemented at the local level, and has direct local repercussions. Yet its ability to influence the public’s opinion of climate change gives it a global scope. It is a solidarity campaign that allows institutions to make a stand and commit to the transition to a low-carbon and just future, standing on the side of future generations and those most disproportionately impacted by both climate change and the extractive economy. It commits to invest in the solutions that the Global South so desperately need. This shift impacts negotiations. When enough institutions in a country divest, it begins to change the climate and discourse around climate change and the fossil fuel economy. It ultimately shifts the political atmosphere of the country and puts pressure on governments to go into the negotiations with a few more bargaining chips. When 500 campuses, 5 states, and all the foundations divest in the United States, it gives Obama the go-ahead and the political backing to offer more at the UN.
It’s up to us.
Divestment, and every other campaign that focuses on local and grassroots action, shifts systems and create tipping points. Civil rights, women’s rights, and democracy were all won by local, grassroots actions and narratives. They have the power to create a peoples’ movement that creates the political backing (or pressure) that allows for (or forces) governments to enact changes that work for the people over profit. But no one else is going to create this change. If we want to see change, it’s up to us.
Our generation has moved through all five stages of grief, and we’ve been told far too many times that we just need to accept it and let those in power make the changes necessary. But it’s time to start accepting and start acting. If we want to see global change, we need a global movement—and that movement needs to come from the grassroots, be led by those most disproportionately impacted, and create the solutions that our generation needs.
 Carbon Tracker Initiative.