Last week’s losses by Democrats in the midterm elections definitely do not bode well for action on climate change — or for a range of progressive issues such as women’s and immigrant’s rights. Climate change denier James Inhofe (R-OK) will be replacing Barbara Boxer (D-CA) as chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, arguably the most influential committee on climate policy. Senate Republicans plan on attempting to push through the Keystone XL pipeline deal and to gut the EPA’s first-ever carbon regulations.
These losses came just days after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report on climate change. The report detailed, in more stark terms than ever, the urgency of the climate crisis and the short timeline on which we have to act if we are to avoid “serious, pervasive, and irreversible” climate change. We must peak global emissions by 2020, meaning the UN climate conference next year may be our last chance to strike an international agreement to prevent the worst of climate change. The report, despite being authored by thousands of scientists, made clear that the challenge we face is a political rather than scientific one. As Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, said, “The solutions are many … all we need is the will to change.”
Though the election results certainly will not help the climate movement, they by no means represent a huge loss. Needless to say, Congress has not exactly been steaming ahead on climate action. The 113th Congress is currently on track to be the least productive ever and, due to gridlock, has never seriously attempted to craft climate legislation. In the short run, this means that lobbying for climate action is less effective than ever. And, as has become the norm in an era of polarized politics, pundits have already set their sights on 2016. But given the urgency of the climate crisis, we cannot hope Democrats will sweep back into power.
The election results render often-used tactics like lobbying and testifying on Capitol Hill around climate issues largely useless. However, given the incredibly short timeline during which we have to act, we cannot cut our losses and try again in two years, hoping that Democrats are able to take back Congress and retain the presidency in 2016. We need to organize and create change outside the halls of Congress to create the political conditions in which climate action is not only possible but a political necessity.
This election also shows the futility of trying to beat the fossil fuel industry on its own turf. For the past 30 years, the environmental movement has tried to beat the fossil fuel industry’s insider game; scientists have given increasingly dire warnings, environmental groups have lobbied Congress and fundraised for candidates. This election cycle, billionaire Tom Steyer spent over $60 million to support candidates with strong stances on climate change to little effect. Yet, the movement will simply never be able to out-lobby and outspend one of the wealthiest industries on Earth. Four of the six vulnerable Democrats Steyer supported lost. Even when the Democrats controlled both houses in 2009, the Wax-Markey climate bill failed in the Senate. We do not have decades more to wait.
In contrast, the bright spots in last week’s election came when grassroots movement groups leveraged existing power and popular support: despite Chevron’s $2 million effort to re-elect incumbents, organizers in Richmond, CA successfully elected a progressive city council and mayor that ran on pledges to crack down on pollution from Chevron’s oil refineries in the city. Denton, TX, one of the first towns to begin fracking, passed a ballot measure banning fracking within the city, despite industry groups outspending organizers ten-to-one. In contrast with Steyer’s strategy, both these wins came as a result of long-term organizing efforts, exemplifying the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and movement-building. If we are to take action within the next five years as the climate science demands, we need to stop trying to win single elections and focus on changing the broader political climate around the climate crisis.
There is a strong precedence for such dramatic changes. Arguably the most successful and dramatic political shifts in the last half-century, environmental protection in the 70s — expansion of civil rights and the decommissioning of nuclear weapons — took place because social movements transformed the unthinkable to the status-quo. The early environmental movement successfully passed the most powerful environmental legislation to date under Richard Nixon because the movement mobilized 20 million people around the country on April 22nd, 1970, collectively demanding a healthy and sustainable future. Similarly, civil rights activists achieved swift and momentous victories not by lobbying the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but by shifting public consciousness, highlighting the injustices of Jim Crow and politically isolating segregationists. And as society shifted, politicians followed. Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee Chairman, when describing his party’s recent shift on marriage equality, acknowledged the power of social movements, saying that “any political party that ignores societal change does so at its own peril.” In 2004, Massachusetts’ law recognizing gay marriage was an outlier. Today, over 30 states recognize gay marriages. The previously unthinkable extension of marriage rights to gay couples is rapidly becoming the status quo.
A broad and powerful social movement is likely our only chance of creating the type of swift and bold change on climate action that we need to avoid catastrophic warming. Rather than trying to fight what appears to be a losing battle in the short-term on Capitol Hill, we need to focus on building power and creating change around the country and world. We can do that by building on what is working. In September, 400,000 people marched in New York City — in addition to hundreds of thousands more around the world — demanding climate action in what was by far the largest climate mobilization in history. The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown into one of the fastest-growing and powerful movements in a generation. The President of the World Bank and the UN Secretary-General have endorsed the movement. Sweden’s $37 billion AP2 pension fund, and even the Rockefeller Foundation, built off the family’s oil wealth, divested. By doing so, these leaders and institutions delegitimize the fossil fuel industry and highlight the incompatibility of the fossil fuel industry’s business model with a just and sustainable future and lay the groundwork for previously unthinkable climate action. By divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in sustainable solutions, Swarthmore can play a powerful role in this movement. We can leverage one of our most powerful social and political assets, our endowment, to powerfully declare that the fossil fuel industry is incompatible with our values of social responsibility.