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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet

Older people like me need to start protesting for our planet | Bill McKibben

Older people like me need to start protesting for our planet | Bill McKibben

The brutal truth is that last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report didn’t have the effect it should have had, or that its authors clearly intended. Produced by thousands of scientists who synthesized the work of tens of thousands of their peers over the last decade, and meticulously drafted by teams of careful communicators, it landed in the world with a gentle plop, not the resounding thud that’s required.

In China, the world’s biggest emitter, official attention was focused instead on Moscow, where Xi Jinping was off to do a little male bonding with fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin, incidentally the world’s second largest producer of hydrocarbons. In America, the historical emissions champ, we were riveted by the possibility that would-be autocrat Donald Trump might be indicted. In the New York Times, our planet’s closest thing to a paper of record, the IPCC report was the fourth story on the website.

The reason, I think, is a disconnect between the dire words of the report and the actions most people feel they can effectively take. If the world has begun to fall off a cliff – due, as the report says, to a lack of political commitment – then installing a heat pump in your basement seems like a useful gesture but also not enough. “The climate timebomb is ticking,” the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said. If a bomb is about to go off, you need to actually do something.

So it feels good to be reading the details of the report while sitting in a rocking chair outside a JPMorgan Chase bank branch in downtown Washington DC – a branch that is hard to get into because there are so many rocking chairs, and so many protesters, thronging the street outside. It’s one of 102 actions across 30 US states and the District of Columbia today; along with the rocking chairs there are cardboard orcas chewing up credit cards in Seattle, a bigfoot on the loose outside banks in Portland, Oregon, bagpipers leading processions in Boston, and Alaskans cutting up their credit cards with chainsaws.

And that’s because Chase – and its brethren in the big four, Citi, WellsFargo and Bank of America – are the largest lenders to the fossil fuel industry on Earth, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to the expansion of oil and gas extraction. As the IPCC report puts it, “private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation.” Companies like ConocoPhillips or Total, which have taken billions from these banks, are still opening new infrastructure fields like the Willow Project in Alaska or the EACOP pipeline in east Africa.

One of the features of the IPCC report is a nifty diagram showing how climate change would affect those born in 1950, 1980 and 2020. Not surprisingly, those of us of a certain age get off pretty easy. We, the lucky ones, will be dead before the heat truly becomes unbearable.

So I’m proud to report that these bank demonstrations were organized by Third Act, a climate activist organization for people over the age of 60; the carbon in the air is our legacy, but we are beginning to rise to the occasion, producing the kind of activism that can help slow the disaster.

We’re following in the footsteps of young organizers who know that their lives are on the line; for those of us who are older, it’s our legacy.

And we know what it takes, because many of us were around for the first Earth Day. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire, and when oil spills covered the California beaches, and when Rachel Carson sounded the alarm, we took to the streets: the first Earth Day in 1970 brought out 20 million Americans.

There aren’t 20 million of us out this week, but there are some, and we are growing a movement that must rival those of the past. The new head of the Sierra Club, Ben Jealous, who’s been a crucial part of the organizing for this day, reminded us in his speech a few minutes ago here in Washington that back in the day there was no line between the movements for racial and social justice and those for environmental progress. Today harkens back to those moments.

The IPCC report shouldn’t be simply a historical document outlining our peril and our failures. If it’s going to mean anything, it’s got to be a manual for resistance. We’re sitting in rocking chairs to resist at the moment, but in a larger sense we’re standing up to fight. Maybe just in time.

  • Bill McKibben is the founder of Third Act, and Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College

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