- Our climate change goals are way too small for the severity of the crisis.
- Calling for the complete end of fossil fuel extraction is the only way forward.
- Other movements have proven that bold calls for abolition can radically change politics.
- P.E. Moskowitz is an author, runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology, and is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
As Joe Biden campaigned for president in 2020, he outlined an environmental agenda that included achieving 100% clean energy in the US by 2050. The goal was ambitious, but details were scant on how to get it done. How, for example, would Biden meet the target while simultaneously promising to not ban fracking, an extractive process that contributes tremendously to the climate crisis?
More recently, Biden pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030. But again, details on how to actually achieve this goal were sparse. Hobbling the administration’s chances even further is the fact that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a pro-oil politician who directly profits from the industry, will craft a large part of the party’s climate change policy.
And while the president tours global-warming ravaged communities, his administration has nonetheless opened up 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil leasing, leading to lawsuits from environmental groups.
Even the ambitious climate goals laid out by politicians in campaign promises fall far short of what’s needed to stop the climate crisis.
Though Biden and the Democrats can be blamed for their conflicting and inconsistent priorities, the base of the issue lies not with politicians, but with those of us who care about combating global warming. If Biden represents the most ambitious mainstream climate plan to date, that means we have not been ambitious enough in what we demand of our politics. We can no longer ask for abstract goals, or rely on the slow machine of electoralism. We must demand radical action – the complete abolition of the oil and gas industry.
We need a big, concrete goal
We already know that the time for action on climate is past-due. Even if we stopped all oil and gas production today, it’d be too late to arrest many of the effects of climate change. The desire to do something about climate change is there – public concern about climate change has grown steadily over the last few years, and the majority of people in most developed countries say they’d be willing to take action to prevent climate change.
Yet the demands we make of our politicians are milquetoast. Climate was not a central feature of the 2020 presidential debates, and the broadcast media barely covers climate at all, meaning our politicians are rarely pressured to take the drastic measures necessary to tackle the crisis.
And that’s because Americans don’t have a concrete goal for how to tackle climate change – we get lost in the morass of individual action (reduce, reuse, recycle), or in the technocratic, long-term goals of politicians. Only when the mainstream public has a real target to strive for will we be able to make actual progress on climate change. We need to call for the complete abolition of extractive industries.
There is no moderate solution to a global crisis. Fossil fuel combustion accounts for the vast majority of US carbon dioxide emissions. Eliminating these emissions by replacing our power grid with 100% clean energy is feasible and would work to get us to net zero, but right now it’s not politically palatable, largely because politicians are bankrolled by the corporations threatened by green energy. We often talk about global warming as if it’s an abstract concept that’s too complex to solve, when in reality its cause is relatively simple: Oil and gas companies are largely to blame, and stopping them will largely stop the problem.
But as long as there’s a profit incentive to keep extracting oil and gas, there will be no reason for oil and gas companies to stop. So we must eliminate the ability of oil and gas companies to profit from extraction, whether through laws that make the process illegal, or through massive protests that make the daily functions of oil and gas companies untenable.
This might seem like a lofty goal considering the bleak political moment we live in, but by drawing this line in the sand, we can then effectively evaluate whether politicians are moving toward that goal or not, and can develop a clearer sense of what actions need to be taken to meet that goal.
As Naomi Klein writes in “This Changes Everything,” politicians almost never declare an issue a crisis worth taking drastic action on until people force them to.
“Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one,” Klein writes. “Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one … if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond.”
Shifting the Overton window
Having a concrete goal (stopping the worst effects of climate change) with a concrete target (stopping oil and gas extraction) is the only way to move a pro-environment agenda forward.
As of now, there is no mainstream coherent objective when it comes to climate beyond “do something about it.” Contrast that with other successful political movements: Occupy Wall Street fought not for incremental change, but against the actions of specific banks and for the end of economic inequality. During the uprisings over police killings of people of color in the past year, activists fought not for an abstract idea of reform, but the complete abolition (or at least defunding) of the police. Socialist activists who supported Bernie Sanders in 2020 fought not to “do something” about healthcare, but for an actual policy proposal – Medicare for All.
Though all of these movements met setbacks and were repressed by the state, they undoubtedly shifted the Overton window of our politics so that once seemingly impossible ideas are now part of everyday political dialogue. Dramatic restructuring of police departments, vast economic change and free healthcare – ideas that just a few decades ago were barely even part of mainstream discourse – are now discussed as realistic goals. This push creates a positive cycle of change: The discourse shifts, lofty goals then seem feasible, and that allows people to push for more change – more people show up at pipeline protests, more people support movements against police brutality, more people pressure politicians into action – which then further shifts the discourse.
We can now see the same thing happening with the climate crisis: Even major publications are platforming what once seemed like radical solutions to stopping oil and gas production and consumption.
There are already many groups who have gotten the memo to push for massive, systemic change on climate. Students have forced over 100 colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel corporations. Indigenous rights movements blocked 1.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from being released through protest campaigns, pipeline blockades and other actions, equivalent to 25% of the emissions of the US and Canada each year.
But these movements, as powerful as they are, still remain on the fringe of the fight against climate change. As Klein points out, mainstream environmental organizations push for incremental change, while people thirst for something more radical.
We cannot end climate change without ending the extraction of fossil fuels. But if we keep considering that an unrealistic proposition, we’re doomed to use up massive amounts of people’s energy to push for small reforms, a cycle that creates cynicism and defeatism.
It’s a tall order to abolish all fossil fuel extraction, but the first step is simply naming it as a goal.
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