The New Abolitionists: Global Warming Is The Great Moral Crisis Of Our Time

The UK Guardian has put me in a gallery of “climate change abolitionists, those engaging in an uphill battle to challenge the broken systems that threaten our survival.” They also want your suggestions for who else to add (click here).

Climate change abolitionists: who is fighting for a more sustainable world? It took Abraham Lincoln and others many years of campaigning to abolish slavery — but who are the contemporary figures fighting to abolish dangerous climate change?

Well, I don’t really think I should be mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln — unless you are talking about our mutual love of the figures of speech and my book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

The Guardian has a good piece by Andrew Winston accompanying the gallery,”The campaign to abolish slavery has many parallels with the work of today’s climate change activists: it takes bravery and determination to try and make the world a better place.”

I agree that there are many parallels, many of which are spelled out in that article — and in an even longer piece in the Boston Phoenix, by Wen Stephenson, “The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time,” which argues “the climate-justice movement must embrace its radicalism to fight it.”

And readers of my books know I think metaphors are important — and that our inaction on climate change is a great moral crisis, the greatest moral crisis of our time. But it is also useful to spell out the differences.

Obviously slavery was not merely a great moral wrong, but cruel and inhumane to millions from the very start and for as long as it was occurring.

Unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions became immoral only when we learned that they would destroy a livable climate — and while we certainly need to go to zero this century, ideally by mid-century, we don’t have to go to zero tomorrow whereas, of course, slavery needed to be ended completely and instantly.

Winston writes:

So what are we “abolishing”? Climate abolitionists are not fighting to eliminate growth. Eradicating slavery did not rid the world of cotton or tobacco, and moving away from carbon will not mean abandoning human and economic development – in fact, it will help ensure it. What we want to abolish is our outmoded, broken economic and energy systems that threaten our survival, in part because they put no value on human and ecosystem inputs and impacts. We’re seeking a new way of powering our world that will save vast sums of money (variable costs of near zero), avoid the significant health impacts of burning dirty fossil fuels, and conserve our planet’s ability to support not only our entire $70tn economy, but our very existence.

I do think that is where we need to start. Development will continue, but it will have to continue as CO2 is pulled out of the economy ASAP. I’ll have more to say about “growth” soon.

Stephenson’s piece focuses on Tim DeChristopher. Here are two excerpts:

I want to say a word for radicalism — for the role of the radical in building a movement to confront climate change, the most urgent crisis human beings have ever faced. I want to start with two scenes, and two speakers, who embody the imperatives, and the limitations, of the moment in which we find ourselves.

July 26, 2011. Inside a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, a 30-year-old climate activist named  Tim DeChristopher is sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases back in December 2008. Registered as Bidder #70, he managed to win bids worth $1.8 million for some 22,000 acres of public land near Canyonlands National Park — bids he had no way of paying. He had acted spontaneously, on his conscience, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the heedless new extraction of fossil fuels that are catastrophically heating the planet and threatening innumerable innocent lives.

Weeks before his sentencing, DeChristopher told Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell: “I’m a climate-justice activist…. We want a radically different world. We want a healthy, just world.” But first, he said, “we need to get the fossil fuel industry out of the way. First we’ve got to overthrow the corporate power that is running our government.” He understands what that requires. “It will involve confrontation and it will involve sacrifice.”

At his sentencing, standing before the federal judge, DeChristopher concludes a long, eloquent statement that spreads across the Internet and galvanizes a growing climate-justice movement:

“This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.”

DeChristopher is truly brave. I’m just a blogger.

Stephenson ends with the words of another truly brave man:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass said in 1857. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Hear, hear! Speak, speak! Act, act! If not now, when?


70 Responses to The New Abolitionists: Global Warming Is The Great Moral Crisis Of Our Time

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Congrats Joe. I look forward to your notes on ‘growth’ because while I can think of many things we need growth of such as respect for the laws and beauty of the natural world, we do not need growth of population, consumerism or believers in that strange creed called Economic Growth, ME

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Congratulations Joe, that is great company to be in.

  3. Dean Grodzins says:

    As a historian who writes on abolitionism and a citizen deeply concerned about fighting climate change, the analogy between the two movements has been on my mind for a long time, and I think valid. Congratulations, Joe!

  4. Leif says:

    Congratulations Joe, Good company indeed and thank you for your dedication. ( As well as staying out of jail.)

    “Slavery” is alive and well right here in the USA. Please give me another word for a capitalistic system that pays a minimum wage lower than average living costs to millions of it’s citizens. About 80% women. ? Is not poor access to food, health care and housing torture in every sense of the word? How about a government that taxes me to provide profits to others directly working to destroy Earth’s Life Support Systems on which we all depend? The GOP do not fund abortion. Fine. A precedent. Why must progressives fund the ecocide of the planet via subsidies to the Fossil Barons? Corporations, “Corpro/People”, are people now. How come the special treatment? “We the People” will be fined for throwing a paper cup out the car window. ($1,000 in AK.) Yet Corpro/People dump 19 pounds of toxins out the exhaust of commerce and get rich! Privatized profits and socialized loses is a failed paradigm.

    This is “Slavery” in every sense of the word IMO. When one segment of society is in a life and death bondage to another which prevents escape of the first? What would you call it?

  5. Yes, congrats, Joe.

    Climate change obstructionism has a lot in common with supporting slavery. An egregious first-order moral wrong (e.g., slavery or climate change inaction) is justified with second-order moral arguments (e.g., maintaining the economy or a traditional way of life). The difference is that the obstructionists of today aren’t slave owners. They aren’t personally injuring specific human beings.

    But like the crinolined belle in the Savannah drawing room whose daddy may only have been a banker or a whip and chain supplier, their privilege and well-being derives directly from the social and economic structure they live within and perpetuate. As does ours.

    Of course, there are degrees. We shouldn’t scold ourselves for being born into this fossil-fueled world and shame ourselves into giving it up as if it were a bad habit. It’s one thing to spend millions to defame climate scientists, deploy misinformation, and elect fellow obstructionists. It’s another to carry on with “normal” life, to wait for someone to lead us, simply because the issue is so overwhelming we can’t see what an individual can do to make a substantial difference.

    But, as with slavery, segregation, repressing women, pollution, or accommodating second-hand smoke, we can decide we’re not going to do this anymore. We need the neo-abolitionists to rally us, and I thank them.

  6. Climate Hawk says:

    Congratulations, Joe! I don’t do twitter, but somebody ought to mention Tim DeChristopher. I think he’s done more than a number of people on their list.

  7. Jack Wolf says:

    I think Dr. Chu should be included.

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    Nice ☯.
    “I don’t really think I should be mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln” But you look like him… a little.

  9. Susan Anderson says:

    Thank you Dr. Romm!!!!

    We lurkers applaud you.

  10. Susan Anderson says:

    If Katherine Hayhoe and Paul Douglas are not on that list, they should be.

  11. Superman1 says:

    Kevin Anderson and Guy McPherson. They understand what really needs to be done, and Anderson has put forth the best quasi-plan for what is required (although I don’t believe even it is sufficient).

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    I applaud the work of those on this list, a few of whom are friends of mine. Unfortunately… I would guess that 90% of the American public recognizes nobody on that list except Al Gore, who has been successfully demonized in right wing media sources.

    We have to figure out a way to break through here. It’s time to treat US media as the prime enablers of the fossil fuel economy, and punish them accordingly. This could take the form of product boycotts of key advertisers on network TV, newsletters aimed at the public showing poor climate coverage, and serious efforts to set up alternative media companies. For the last suggestion, key progressive advertisers (yes, they exist) should be recruited.

    We are all media consumers. Without much better climate awareness from Joe and Shirley in Nebraska, nothing is likely to change in time.

  13. David Smith says:

    Of all on the list, you are the one that I interact with daily, through your work. Thank you.

    The industries we fight live by violence. Our act of consumption of their product is one of violent destruction (by fire). I am afraid that I cannot see “the demand” against this without violence or at least the serious threat of violence.

    I wish it were not so. I prefer civil disobedience and other peaceful strategies. Maybe we will get lucky.

  14. Tami Kennedy says:

    Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe just touted carbon energy “nirvana” of shale fuels well into this century. A gift for our global economy. The uphill battle against the oil industry and the GOP.

  15. Joe Romm says:

    You should write something for the blog!

  16. Jamie Ross says:

    Good comment. The parallels between the slavocracy and the fossil fuel interests are profound. Neither the slave owning elite nor the oil and coal barons tolerate their property losing value. It would make them lose their high place in society. Thus, by their self-interest, they both became actors against the best interests of humanity.

    The slave-owning elite would not even accept limiting states where slavery was legal. That was bad for their bottom line. So we had a terrible war, Jim Crow, debilitating racism, etc.

    How will it play out this time?

  17. Joan Savage says:

    Dr. Jennifer Francis brought the climatology and meteorology together at last, connecting the dots from melting Arctic to more deeply looped jet stream to droughts and deluges.

  18. Ken Barrows says:

    Agreed. Any proposed solutions must state how quickly carbon emissions are to be reduced. It cannot just be we’ll have skittles and rainbows and it will be okay.

  19. BobbyL says:

    Simply trying to limit global warming. Can’t stop it entirely. As consumers we all also contribute to global warming. Don’t see much analogy with abolishing slavery which was only carried out by certain individuals.

  20. SecularAnimist says:

    Just as I have long argued that global warming deniers are, in fact, WORSE than the Holocaust deniers that the term “denier” implicitly invokes, I would suggest that abolition of GHG emissions is a far GREATER “moral” crisis than abolition of slavery.

    Say what you will about the Holocaust or slavery, neither one was going to bring about the mass extinction of most life on Earth, including the human species. Whereas unmitigated global warming could easily do so.

    The fact is, that we know of only one rich, diverse, complex, endlessly creative biosphere in the entire Universe. And the fight against global warming is a fight to save the biosphere from destruction.

  21. Jan says:

    Could not agree more.

  22. Belgrave says:

    There’s 18 spaces to recommend more people. I’ve just recommended Katherine Hayhoe and a few others (and “liked” the 3 people who have already recommended John Cook). Get over there and vote now!

    (My others are David Archer, Katey Walter Anthony, Igor Semiletov, Natalia Sakharova & Peter Wadhams).

  23. Belgrave says:

    Neven Acropolis, of course.

  24. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes. We should develop this theme and all its appropriate analogies and parallels.

    Imagine a war in which we are all on the same side and all our weapons clean the air!

    Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

  25. Brooks Bridges says:

    Well deserved Joe. Please keep it up.

  26. Leif says:

    … “19 pounds of toxins” per gallon of fuel consumed,… I apologize for the oversight.

  27. max says:

    Unfortunately no longer alive but a true champion of renewable energy whose contributions will not be forgotten: Hermann Scheer

  28. Jeff says:

    We should also begin constructing an international roster of people whose denial and obfuscation will one day be regarded as “climate crimes against humanity.” Fill it with Kochs and Moncktons and all manner of lesser known denialists. Develop a bio and analysis on each illustrious nominee.

  29. Superman1 says:

    “Any proposed solutions must state how quickly carbon emissions are to be reduced.” Ken, that’s one of the best statements I’ve seen yet. Any ‘proposal’ that does not contain such temporal CO2 emissions trajectory information is nothing more than a sales pitch. And, it’s pretty obvious why most of the ‘proposals/sales pitches’ we see don’t contain such information. It would show in black and white why the ‘proposal’ would not get us from here to there.

  30. BobbyL says:

    Anderson says reaching 4C is now pretty much guaranteed. What is his plan for? To stay below 5C.

  31. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Also no longer with us is Stephen Schneider. Not only an eminent researcher and an IPCC Chair, but also a prominent public face of climate science up until his untimely death a couple years ago.

  32. SecularAnimist says:

    Ken Barrows wrote: “Any proposed solutions must state how quickly carbon emissions are to be reduced.”

    Any and all solutions that can significantly reduce GHG emissions should be aggressively deployed, NOW, at all scales. Especially those that have numerous other environmental and economic benefits.

    In particular, because fossil-fueled electricity generation is the largest source of GHG emissions in the USA (41 percent of the CO2 from fossil fuel combustion in 2011 according to EPA), and because we can easily, quickly and affordably replace fossil-fueled electricity generation with solar, wind, geothermal and biomass, we should be moving as aggressively as possible to do so.

    We can easily eliminate ALL emissions from electricity generation in 10 years if choose to do so — which is to say, eliminating 41 percent of 2011 emissions.

  33. Mark E says:

    Heroes all…..

    HOWEVER, we *do* have to challenge nonstop never-ending growth.

    Even if we rapidly deploy all of this:

    ….the ecological toll of never-ending economic growth will still destroy the base on which civilization rests. At best, clean tech buys us more time to convert growth-addicted capitalism to some form of democratic government based on steady-state economics. Otherwise, all is moot.

  34. SecularAnimist says:

    That approach is a good way to ensure that nothing ever gets done, Superman1.

    Of course, I think you know that.

  35. BobbyL says:

    Step #1, remove all subsidies for fossil fuels. Step #2, pass legislation for a cap and trade program or a carbon tax.
    Step #3, develop and fund programs to help fossil fuel workers transition to new careers
    Step #4, make sure there is access to enough rare earth metals for wind and solar installations
    Step #5, prepare for law suits regarding citing of solar and wind facilities and transmission lines
    step #6, fund research aimed at protecting birds and bats from wind turbines

  36. Richard Miller says:

    Yes Dean please help develop this analogy.

    It seems to me that one of the most important criterion for this list is that the person speak of the moral dimensions of our current path. Thus those who argue that it will be bad for the economy and do not speak in moral terms should not be on the list. Their economic arguments might carry greater weight in our society, but to be true to the analogy with abolitionists, the emphasis should be on those who speak (not exclusively) in moral terms.

  37. K Draper says:

    In the making of a movement I think it’s important to understand the different kinds of influences people can have on the movement’s speed and trajectory. The environmental movement casts a wide net including purists and pragmatists; panic-inducers, flag wavers and educators. We have scientists that ‘know’, activists that ‘do’ and thankfully writers like you that wield their mighty pen. We have those in the limelight and those in the trenches. All have a role to play. So while I congratulate those that have made the list (LOVED your book and believe you are very deserving of selection!), I would reserve a seat at the table for the ‘thousand points of light’ (a nice bi-partisan term!), the grassroots ‘solutionistas’ that are building more resilient communities brick by brick.

    I also wonder about casting the movement as being AGAINST something versus PRO (recall the anti-abortion rebranding to pro-life!). The term ‘abolitionist’ sounds a bit like the GOPs current tactics of always saying ‘no’ regardless of the question. Perhaps it would be easier to motivate a movement under a moniker that is more pro-active, more hopeful, such One Planet Living or the Blue Economy.

  38. Superman1 says:

    ‘That approach [of requiring proposers to show their plan will not take us over the climate cliff in the interim] is a good way to ensure that nothing ever gets done’. Hold on to your wallets; Carnival Barker alert!

  39. Jon Jermey says:

    Great idea! Get all the crazies together in one place so we can keep an eye on them!

  40. Joan Savage says:

    Yes please. We have to be all-in for the long haul, and the perspective helps.

    Climate change GHG ‘abolition’ is only a first step, even if it takes a century to complete that first step. After that, there may be a century or more of climate change equivalents to defeating Jim Crow and segregation, the sorts of inequities that are likely persist. And we know we aren’t quite done with getting civil rights “right,” anyway.

  41. fj says:

    Hero’s pantheon more like it.

  42. fj says:

    Or, League of Extraordinary People

  43. Superman1 says:

    PART 1 OF 4
    He wrote a very detailed paper last year where he laid out the details, and I am not able to locate it. A reasonable, but less detailed summary, is contained in the interview at the following link. The essence of his target is the quote that follows the link (in Part 2 of 4).

  44. Superman1 says:

    PART 2 OF 4
    “Now I’m going to talk specifically about the Annex 1, the wealthy parts of the world, the OECD countries, broadly, the countries that are fairly well industrialised. In those parts of the world, the rate of reduction in emissions that would be necessary for us to even stay within an outside chance of avoiding dangerous climate change, characterised by the 2°C rise that we’re all internationally committed to, would be in the order of around 10% per annum.”

  45. Superman1 says:

    PART 3 OF 4
    Now, his computations are based on models that exclude positive feedback mechanisms, and he states in the paper that 1 C is a far better target. But, 1 C, or anything near, would require essentially a vertical emissions slope (end CO2 emissions now), so he works with 2 C. As I remember the details in the paper, he has the Annex 1 nations reducing consumption substantially; he has stated in other presentations that ‘planned austerity’ would be required. With positive feedbacks included (which we are seeing in operation now), the reduction in consumption would result in global Depression.

  46. Superman1 says:

    PART 4 OF 4
    Now you see why the Carnival Barkers here don’t provide temporal emissions data along with their sales pitches. Their siren song of seamless transition to renewables provides far more interim emissions than what Anderson is proposing, and we would be guaranteed to go over the climate cliff in short order.

  47. Superman1 says:

    In the interview referenced in PART 1, Anderson sees 4 C by 2050 under business as usual. 4 C is game over, given the acceleration of positive feedback mechanisms that will occur. 2 C is a fiction, as Anderson points out; 0.5 C would have made a better target, and possibly delayed the catastrophe that is unfolding in the Arctic.

  48. Superman1 says:

    If we assume linear transition from fossil to renewables in a generation (I’m being optimistic), with no reduction in standard of living as the sales pitch promises, then there will be ten years of full time equivalent renewables and ten years of full time equivalent fossil. Guaranteed over the cliff with those emissions. One final chance for the Carnival Barkers to get the ‘rubes’ into the tent!

  49. Lollipop says:

    Third that . . .

  50. BobbyL says:

    Step #7 Pass PACE legislation.

  51. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Who will be our John Brown?

  52. BobbyL says:

    So, why does Bill McKibben buy into the 2C threshold as realistically possible and why is everyone following him? Are we lemmings?

  53. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The entire Western world, most particularly the primarily hereditary elites, have been living for 500 years on the proceeds of slavery, genocide, colonialism and imperialism. I neglected to mention huge drug trafficking and ceaseless military aggression. We’ve been preparing the way for this crisis for centuries, and the only glimmer of hope left is if we can, somehow, find a way to remove the pathologically malignant elites, who love the world just as it is, from power, once and for good.

  54. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Frackenstein monster is the fossil fuel ghouls last throw of the dice to delay and derail renewables and keep their fossil fuel profits flowing. Apparently their metabolism is better suited to a planet five or six degrees Celsius warmer. It helps their eggs hatch into males.

  55. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Acropolis Now? Necropolis Soon!

  56. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And get a team of lawyers and legal scholars to draw up draft Laws for Crimes against Humanity through Ecological Destruction, and put the reptiles on notice, that, if they live long enough, they will face justice.

  57. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The anti-choice misogynists of the anti-abortion movement are only ‘pro-life’ while in utero. Once born, if you are the wrong race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, class or ideology, their tender humanity evaporates in an instant.

  58. Superman1 says:

    PART 2 OF 3
    At the end of the paper in PART 1, he offers some possibilities of how the 2 C target could possibly be met. Its main focus is that we would be depending on those who caused the problem to solve the problem; usually, a losing strategy. I suspect he added this section to keep the readers from jumping out the window. There is no way of meeting a meaningful target like 1 C or thereabouts without the most stringent of controls. With positive feedbacks thrown in the models, and the CO2 restrictions made harsher, I see no realistic way of reaching 2 C.

  59. Superman1 says:

    PART 3 OF 3
    In a practical sense, Anderson is saying roughly the same as McPherson, when one normalizes to the differences in their assumptions. The other scientists who select targets and lay out plans are even less realistic than Anderson in their assumptions. Given the seamless transition sales pitches of the Carnival Barkers here, it is no wonder why they don’t do the types of emissions trajectory analyses that Anderson does. Fiction at its best!

  60. Superman1 says:

    You have posed three excellent questions, and I can’t answer any of them. You tell me how McKibben will do it, or, better yet, ask him for the details. If we add the positive feedback contribution to the emission trajectory requirements, I can’t see how we can hold to 2 C. What’s even worse, the number is so unrealistic by Anderson’s (and others) own admission, achieving it would be a hollow victory. People are looking for leadership on this crucial issue, and McKibben is filling that vacuum. Once he assembles a sufficient following, he may shift course and do something with tangible impact. Hope springs eternal!

  61. Leif says:

    I have been thinking about the “Slavery” corollary and it is important to realize that “Slavery did not end because of moral implications or a lack of slaves, but because society realized that a 100k BTU’s of fossil fuel did as much work in an hour as 100 slaves for an hour. It was cheaper work and the slaves were set adrift with indifference or hatred shoved in their face at every turn. As is any worker today that can be outsourced. I fear that the Fossil Barons will not be displaced until a vast majority of the people realize Green at any price is less expensive than the cheapest fossil. Stop profits from the pollution of the commons and that day will dawn much sooner. This time Morals will trump $$$ or the cancer will win.

  62. Superman1 says:

    Mulga, in the words of your hero, Bush the Elder, ‘we need 1000 points of light’; 1000 John Browns who are willing to do whatever is necessary to save the climate.

  63. Superman1 says:

    Far different. In those days, perhaps 1/3 or so of the population liked and benefitted from slavery. Today, 99% like what the fossil barons are providing. Your analogy might be better with cigarette smoking, where the non-smoking majority could impose its will on the smoking minority.

  64. Superman1 says:

    Now you know why we have Congress!

  65. Joan Savage says:

    I earnestly hope we create a new history that more resembles the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and not the crude and massive violence of the 1850s and 1860s.

    I have great hope for and support their approach.

  66. john c. wilson says:

    James Lovelock. Paul Watson. Jeremy Jackson.

    The Guardian list is too skewed towards corporate Big Green. The abolitionists were radical.

  67. J4zonian says:

    I’ve seen a subtle but admirable shift on this site recently, a willingness to confront the necessity of radical change in order to accomplish the climate goals it’s always had. I don’t, and never have expected it to be a left wing political site and hope you continue to focus on the science. I’m sure you will. But science in this world of Republican attack on information and in this time of ecological, economic, religious, social, and political unraveling is inseperable from politics. Thanks for helping with the connection between the 2.