Prioritizing Climate

Future Hope column, June 29, 2008

By Ted Glick

“We have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation. Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.”
-James Hansen, Congressional testimony, June 23, 2008

Dr. James Hansen is a, if not the, leading climate scientist in the USA and probably the world. When he says, as he did a week ago before a Congressional hearing in Washington, that avoiding catastrophic climate change “requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year,” people really need to take notice.

Note that he didn’t say “the next administration,” or “the next two years.” He was very specific: “the next year,” 2009.

The hard truth is that humankind is in grave danger of blowing it. Serious action to shift from oil, coal and natural gas to renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation is a good 10 years late, particularly in the USA. And we need to be clear why this is the case. Primarily, it is due to the dominance over energy policy of the coal, oil, automobile and utilities corporations.

James Hansen understands this and has the courage to say so: “The ones with the power, the ones with the ability to make a difference, with the ability to change our course, the ones who will live in infamy if we pass the tipping points, are the captains of industry, CEOs in fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, automobile manufacturers, utilities, all of the leaders who have placed short-term profit above the fate of the planet and the well-being of our children.”

In his testimony a week ago he said, “CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of the long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

But there is more to it. The additional truth is that many people who understand the urgency of this issue have been unwilling to prioritize it, to take it seriously in their lives, to talk about it and act upon it consistently, day after day after day.

This includes those who call themselves progressives. For reasons that are hard to understand, far too many are essentially missing in action when it comes to this overarching, profoundly essential survival issue.

There are reasons that people give for this. For some it’s that the environmental movement is too white and middle-class. Or it’s that the Iraq war is so destructive and dangerous. Or it’s that police brutality or poverty or housing or jobs are more pressing and immediate. And for some it’s that they can’t see how individual life-style changes—the dominant solution pushed by far too many prominent climate leaders—will ever add up to an action program that works.

All of these things are true. But, ultimately, they are all excuses.

Every single person reading this column, every progressive, every person who is trying to make a useful contribution with their life—we all have an obligation to internalize the seriousness and the priority of the climate crisis and to speak and act accordingly.

What would this mean, concretely?

-The most important task right now is do everything we can to bring this issue into the 2008 elections for President and Congress. Every person running for office, from whatever party, must hear again and again, at forums, events, via email and letters, in every possible way, a cascading demand that the voting public wants strong action NEXT YEAR, in the first 100 days of the new administration, on climate. Those candidates who get it on this issue have an obligation to speak out clearly and consistently.

What should we be demanding that those running for office support? The demands of the 1Sky campaign ( are the essentials: no new coal plants, invest in renewables, cap and rapidly reduce carbon pollution, and 5 million green jobs in a sweeping national mobilization for change.

-In localities where efforts are underway to build new coal plants, people should join with efforts already underway—or help start new ones–to prevent coal plants from being built. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels; it is essential that we get off it as soon as possible, and the place to begin is to keep any new ones from being built. Already, the no-new-coal movement has played a key role in eliminating 1/3 of the 150 plants that were in the planning stages less than two years ago.

-If you are already active on a particular issue or within a union or in a community, make the connections to this issue. It touches just about everything. Health care will erode massively as the ecosystem deteriorates. Wars for oil will continue for decades unless we break our fossil fuel addiction. Money spent on fossil fuel subsidies and oil wars is money not spent on housing, jobs and schools. A clean energy revolution will create millions of jobs and stimulate economic development on a transformative scale. It will decrease the power of corporations and strengthen local, grassroots democracy.

But as James Hansen said in concluding last week’s testimony, “Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.”

The climate crisis is not a gloom-and-doom issue. The solutions to it hold tremendous potential to bring about truly fundamental, positive change, on a worldwide basis. But time is literally running out. It’s all hand on deck time.

Ted Glick is the coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council ( and has been active in the progressive movement since 1968. He can be reached at or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.