I was arrested on the steps of the US Capitol a few weeks ago, demanding government action against climate change. It had been 60 years—or 1.8° Fahrenheit (1° Celsius) worth of global warming—since my last arrest. I’ll get back to that, but first, something more recent, and definitely more important: A team of prominent scientists has published a report showing that we may be on the brink of nine climate “tipping points.” The report warns that these tipping points, including losses of Amazon rainforest and polar ice sheets, are likely to produce a domino effect that would amplify the climate disruption our planet is already experiencing.
The scientists concluded that “this requires an emergency response.” And so, civil disobedience seemed warranted. Plus, Jane Fonda asked me to do it.
Moving from science to activism
As a leading non-profit organization combating climate change, we at the Union of Concerned Scientists have long used economic and scientific analyses to craft and advocate for legislative initiatives that will bring about the political shift we need to successfully confront the most daunting threat humanity has faced. More recently, we at UCS have also taken to the streets in events like this past summer’s Climate Strike, joining the youth climate movement to demonstrate to business and political leaders that there is public demand for climate action.
This fall, Jane Fonda has also substantially upped her activist game, temporarily relocating to Washington DC to lead a “Fire Drill Fridays” campaign, with weekly events to call the attention of elected officials to the urgency of the matter and the magnitude of public clamor for bold political leadership. So, when the opportunity came to join Ms. Fonda for a teach-in on the ways that better farm policy and practices—and support for family farmers pursuing sustainable farming—could serve this end, I jumped at the privilege.
At the teach-in, I talked with activists about the tremendous potential for the 1 billion acres of farmland to help forestall the worst effects of climate change. Through changing current practices, farmers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in soil. Many farmers want to do this, but they need public policies that support them. Our own polling shows that, by a two-thirds majority, voters across five rural farm states are more likely to support a presidential candidate who commits to supporting farmers to manage soil as a tool to protect against climate extremes.
The next day, I joined Fonda and others in an act of civil disobedience at the Capitol. After a series of speeches, thirty-eight of us were arrested (for trespassing on federal property), including many prominent activists and the actor Paul Scheer, commercial fisher Sarah Schumann, and Wisconsin dairy farming veteran Jim Goodman.
As Fonda prominently put it on the pages of the New York Times: “We Have to Live Like We’re in a Climate Emergency. Because We Are.”
As the chorus of voices grows, are leaders listening?
We live in a strange world. Where all the united science tells us that we are about 11 years away from setting off an irreversible chain reaction way beyond human control that will probably be the end of our civilization as we know it. Where politicians say it’s too expensive to save the world, while spending trillions of euros subsidizing fossil fuels. We live in a strange world where no one dares to look beyond our current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.
To our collective misfortune, the recently concluded iteration of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Madrid (“COP 25”) affirmed Ms. Thunberg’s assessment, as the globe’s political leadership decided to do nothing substantive and to defer hard decisions for later meetings. UCS Director of Policy and Strategy and Policy, Alden Meyer, well summarizes the state of affairs:
World leaders have a clear choice: stand by the blockers of progress such as the United States and Brazil that prioritize the profits of the fossil fuel polluters and big agribusiness over the well-being of their citizens, or listen to the voices of their people; the scientific community; and youth, indigenous, labor, business, environmental, social justice, faith and other leaders working hard to create a better world for current and future generations. It’s time to choose.
Clearly, too many political leaders are not listening to—nor acting on behalf of—their citizenry. Tactics in addition to conventional policy advocacy are required to impress upon our elected “representatives” that they have a more crucial and existential responsibility than to pander to their fossil fuel industry and stock market patrons.
To save ourselves, we must risk something
The science of climate change is indisputable. Human activity has accelerated global warming through increasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by 30 percent over the past 6 decades. This hits home for me because it’s the same span of time I’ve been on the planet.
These past 63 years, a fleeting moment in geological time, have been a period of smug resource extraction and “economic growth” that cannot be sustained. Many political “leaders” are willfully refusing to respond to the need for action and to acknowledge that there are perfectly viable alternative courses for our “civilization” that would not lead to suicidal destruction. For an example of the obtuseness and futility of our political “leadership,” consider that the United Nations climate change meetings kicked off with the “Río Earth Summit” in 1992, when CO2 concentration was 350 ppm, that the Kyoto Protocol, which set targets for greenhouse gas emissions, took place in 1997, when CO2 concentration was at 364 ppm. Compare with present CO2 levels at the conclusion of COP 25, of 410 ppm. Our climate-altering behavior is blithely accelerating, not shifting.
In 1961, the British philosopher, peer, and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell (aged 89), protested against the existential threat of his era, which was the mad proliferation of nuclear weapons. After Russell was arrested for taking part in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in London, a sympathetic judge offered to exempt Lord Russell from a jail sentence if the wizened gentleman would promise to behave himself. Russell tersely responded: “No, I won’t,” and went to Brixton Prison to serve a 7-day sentence.
It is that time those of us who can risk arrest to consider doing the same. Jane Fonda, who has previously fought against unjust war, for women’s and Native People’s rights, realizes this, and has taken leadership in the ways available to her. As she stated to The Guardian: “If I weren’t who I was, Fire Drill Fridays wouldn’t have taken off the way it did. It’s just that simple. I don’t ask to meet with the Senate task force on climate change. They ask to have me come. I have a platform. And why not use it.”
We at the Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to work for policy change through conventional and formal political channels, but we also have the privilege of being encouraged to choose to take to the streets. In my case, I decided that is what the present global political situation demands. I’ve lived through the planet’s fossil fuel age, and long enough to see a US political administration that openly embraces that industry’s interests against all scientific and policy evidence that its days have passed. We’re living at a time when all options, from formal policy advocacy to civil disobedience, are imperatives for all those in a position to do so. In my case, risking arrest for this is more than justified when compared with the stakes.
When I was two years old, my dad took me on an errand through the streets of downtown Mexico City. In that era prior to seat belts, I was sitting unrestrained in the front seat when a city bus rammed us and sent me flying through the front windshield. Under Mexico’s legal “Napoleonic Code” system, both dad and I ended up in a jail cell while authorities figured out what had happened and who to charge, all while I had shards of windshield glass in my forehead.
It was to be another 60 years before authorities detained me again, though this time with my full intention. Interestingly, dad, the fundamentalist evangelic minister, approved. He told me that in the 60s he admired Jane Fonda’s valor in taking a stand against her own powerful government for its unjust war against a small, impoverished country. And, at age 90, he realizes the time for such collective valor is upon us all.
Jane Fonda will turn 82 years of age this weekend. And, while most of us will be preoccupied with year-end festivities, she’s chosen to spend the weekend in jail over political inaction on climate change. Her priorities have been sharpened, as she’s stated, by having more years behind her than ahead of her. She put things soberly for the New York Times: “I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me. I will not look back on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the election, and wonder what more I could have done.”
If more people thought with such clarity and acted with conviction—in any of myriad ways, including protest, supporting advocacy, and reducing personal carbon footprints—we’d have a better democracy and a better future. Happy birthday, and thanks, Jane.