The possibility of swift change lies in people coming together in movements large enough to shift the Zeitgeist. In recent years, despairing at the slow progress, I’ve been one of many to protest pipelines and to call attention to Big Oil’s deceptions. The movement is growing. Since 2015, when four hundred thousand people marched in the streets of New York before the Paris climate talks, activists—often led by indigenous groups and communities living on the front lines of climate change—have blocked pipelines, forced the cancellation of new coal mines, helped keep the major oil companies out of the American Arctic, and persuaded dozens of cities to commit to one-hundred-per-cent renewable energy.
Each of these efforts has played out in the shadow of the industry’s unflagging campaign to maximize profits and prevent change. Voters in Washington State were initially supportive of a measure on last month’s ballot which would have imposed the nation’s first carbon tax—a modest fee that won support from such figures as Bill Gates. But the major oil companies spent record sums to defeat it. In Colorado, a similarly modest referendum that would have forced frackers to move their rigs away from houses and schools went down after the oil industry outspent citizen groups forty to one. This fall, California’s legislators committed to using only renewable energy by 2045, which was a great victory in the world’s fifth-largest economy. But the governor refused to stop signing new permits for oil wells, even in the middle of the state’s largest cities, where asthma rates are high.
New kinds of activism keep springing up. In Sweden this fall, a one-person school boycott by a fifteen-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg helped galvanize attention across Scandinavia. At the end of October, a new British group, Extinction Rebellion—its name both a reflection of the dire science and a potentially feisty response—announced plans for a campaign of civil disobedience. Last week, fifty-one young people were arrested in Nancy Pelosi’s office for staging a sit-in, demanding that the Democrats embrace a “Green New Deal” that would address the global climate crisis with policies to create jobs in renewable energy. They may have picked a winning issue: several polls have shown that even Republicans favor more government support for solar panels. This battle is epic and undecided. If we miss the two-degree target, we will fight to prevent a rise of three degrees, and then four. It’s a long escalator down to Hell.
Last June, I went to Cape Canaveral to watch Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket lift off. When the moment came, it was as I’d always imagined: the clouds of steam
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