If we fail to talk about climate change when we’re talking about Sandy, then we’ll have failed in our mission
It's hard to say whether Barack Obama owes any part of his victory last night to last week's torrent of memes showing footage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy juxtaposed against Mitt Romney's quip at the Republican National Convention about his opponent's promise to "slow the rise of the oceans." Climate activists may be breathing a small sigh of relief, but they don't harbor any illusions that Obama will act on climate change without a popular movement forcing him to do so.
Phil Aroneanu, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is a lifelong climate change activist and one of the founders of 350.org, one of the most dynamic organizations in the environmental movement. 350 has decried what it calls "climate silence," the fact that, despite some polls showing that over seventy percent of Americans now believe in anthropogenic global warming, the words "climate change" went unuttered through all three presidential debates, with each candidate claiming that he would drill more oil and frack more gas.
I met with Phil Aroneanu five days before the election, in an office building which had been flooded two days prior by Hurricane Sandy, to talk about what that unprecedented storm meant for the growth of a movement to keep those fossil fuels in the ground.
Q: So what’s your hurricane story? How bad was it in your neighborhood?
A: After the storm subsided, I went outside and walked around. New Yorkers were out in force. Everybody was out in the streets, and everybody was inspecting, repairing. It felt like this great cathartic release, and everybody was like, “thank god it’s over, we’re back outside, we’re a working city, we’re not going to let this storm kick our asses.”
At that point, I felt super empowered, and not just empowered but also angry, because our whole analysis is that the fossil fuel industry has been blocking clean energy progress for twenty years and is responsible for these kinds of storms. That’s the connection we’re making.
In that moment, when I walked outside after the storm and I saw a bunch of people playing soccer in Fort Greene park, and people going to get coffee at the local coffee shop, it was like, these folks are really strong, they’re new Yorkers, they’re going to bounce back, but you know what? Fuck the fossil fuel industry because this is their responsibility. They should be paying for this cleanup. They should be held responsible for this storm.
Q: The 350.org website is saying that the storm should be called Hurricane Exxon or Hurricane Shell. It seems like your strategy is to really take the fight to the fossil fuel companies themselves. What are some ways to do that?
A: At 350, we’re not ideologically attached to any particular strategy. We’re pragmatists. If we thought that working the inside angle was going to work, if we thought lobbying would work, we would be doing it. But we don’t think it would work. We think that building a movement is what needs to happen, because the cards are stacked against us.
If we fail to talk about climate change when we’re talking about Sandy, then we’ll have failed in our mission
The fossil fuel industry has dumped billions of dollars into the political space. Just this last year they dumped 153 million dollars into the presidential race.; at least 153 million dollars. And that’s just the money we can track, not the funds we can’t track. That’s what bought them climate silence. We think that if we can build up enough of a movement, enough citizen power, in a whole variety of different ways, we can beat that back.
You probably saw that mayor Bloomberg endorsed Obama, and the entire endorsement was about climate change. He wouldn’t have done that if there wasn’t a movement behind it. I don’t think that Obama would ever move without us moving him, but I think that a high profile politician endorsing another politician specifically because of his stance on climate is unprecedented. Hasn’t happened, ever.
We’re going to use political tactics. We’re going to hold politicians accountable. We’ll use economic tactics; we’re launching a divestment campaign. We’ll use media. We’ll do big actions like the one we did in Times Square the other weekend, got lots of people and did an aerial shot and used media to spread awareness. And we’re going to continue blocking specific projects, whether it’s blockading the pipeline where it’s being built, or blocking it in Washington, or blocking fracking in Albany, or blocking fracking where those wells exist.
We’re not attached to any one strategy, but we’re lucky to work in a movement with very skilled people who know how to use all these different strategies.
Q: In Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone Piece, he calls Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, the most reckless man on the planet. It got me thinking that nobody knows the names of these fossil fuel CEOs. Nobody knows who they are. Is one of the tactics to make these people infamous in some way? Or is it more about the brand? Taking away their “social license,” as you’ve said before?
A: I think it’s an interesting tightrope to walk. Because from an activist perspective, you don’t want to give these companies an out. They could easily just fire a CEO, right? Focusing on the specific faces and names has some pros. People want a real villain, and these guys are pretty good at being villains. But I think you also give up a little bit. You can build a campaign around Rex Tillerson, spend a year or two really tarnishing his image, and you might get sued for defamation, and they might just ditch Rex Tillerson and bring in a new fresh-faced guy who would do the exact same thing.
Same thing with the brands; we don’t want to pick on Chevron because they’re the worst and say “Chevron can be better” because we don’t think Chevron can be better. We think that Chevron needs to keep 80% of what its business is about underground. And so does Exxon and so does BP and so does Shell. What we’re saying is that the entire industry is a rogue industry. It’s sort of like the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry isn’t going to like “get better”. They may put filters in their cigarettes but they’re still causing cancer.
Q: You’ve been in NYC about a year and a half now, so were you involved in Occupy Wall Street at all?
A: Yeah, I was. I went down there a couple of days after it started. It was actually really interesting. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know very many people there. I just brought my point and shoot camera, and I started talking to folks and just asking what they were about.
I didn’t want to talk about my institutional affiliation, with Occupy being so anti-institutional. But as soon as I started talking about 350 and Tar Sands Action, people were like “oh, I love 350, I love Tar Sands Action! We were involved, we got arrested outside the white house, we’ve been to a Moving Planet event, or a day of action that you organized,” and it struck me that the people who were out there were climate activists. But they were also economic activists.
These are people who understand how systems work. They’re systems thinkers. A lot of folks in this country are systems thinkers. You don’t just make a decisions based on economics or how you’re feeling that second. You take into account all of your contexts and make your decision that way.
I think people understand the connection between climate and the finance industry. And that’s partly why we’re launching this divestment campaign, because we were inspired by Occupy Wall Street to really take on the financing, to really go to the root of the problem, which is the fact that these companies have a social license to continue to operate and exploit people and exploit the atmosphere. They’re dumping thousands of gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere for free.
Q: What did the occupy movement mean for you? What did it change about the way you thought about activism?
A: The brilliance of the Occupy Movement was the messages that they got out there, and I think that the ways that they got them out there were also really brilliant - but following a great tradition of direct action; occupations and these kinds of things. I thought that the tactic was not particularly innovative, but very useful, but that the messaging was very innovative, and the way they made it possible for activists of all shapes and colors who are working on multiple issues to talk about inequality again in this country was one of the biggest window’s that we’ve had.
Occupy was happening simultaneously as we were fighting this Keystone pipeline, and I don’t believe we could have made the case against the pipeline as well and as strongly without the bodies that Occupy bodies folks turned out to protest in Washington D.C. and elsewhere around the country, plus we had the their message around inequality.
We were able to show that TransCanada was this huge oil company that was rigging the system in its favor. Before Occupy we could have said that but it wouldn’t have had the same resonance. I honestly think that, without Occupy, we probably wouldn’t even have won the short reprieve that we have won.
Q: Right now, the city is still reeling from the storm. Lots of people are without power, the transit system is hobbled and they’re even letting people on the subway for free. People are pretty distracted right now – but once things get back to normal, do you think there will be an outcry? Do enough NYers associate Sandy with climate change?
A: It’s hard to say. We’ll see how it shakes out. I think there’s a chance that this is an opening for people like Bloomberg, who is a republican, people like Chris Christy or governor Cuomo - conservatives or conservative democrats - to talk about climate change.
We’re already seeing that. The cover of Bloomberg Businessweek this morning was “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”. Big block letters. We haven’t seen anything like that before. So I think the media is getting into it now that gale force winds have hit the biggest media outlet of the entire country.
In some ways it’s more important that elite folks talk about it than Americans. All the polling shows that something like 70% of Americans believe that climate change is real and that it’s a critical issue. What’s really happening is not that Americans don’t care about it, it’s that the politicians aren’t giving thought to what most Americans care about.
Q: A couple of months ago I was joking that once the sea levels rose and flooded Wall Street then maybe the 1% would pay attention to climate change. I didn’t expect it to happen this soon, but do you think that it will finally bring the discussion to those elites?
A: I don’t think it’s inevitable. We’ve been spending the last few days putting together action plans, talking to media, trying to frame the narrative, trying to mobilize people and give relief to people that need it. Getting people food and shelter and water is the absolutely primary goal over the next few days and weeks. But if we fail to talk about climate change when we’re talking about Sandy, then we’ll have failed in our mission.
I think that I am fairly – I wouldn’t say “happy” with the way the media is talking about it – there are still too many question marks, like “did climate change cause Sandy?” and way fewer articles that say “how much did climate change cause Sandy?” or “this is how climate change caused Sandy,” but this is the most media around climate that I’ve seen since we started 350.org.
Q: How do we know that Sandy was caused by climate change?
A: There are a few different ways that scientists think that Sandy was impacted by climate. Obviously the storm brewed itself. That’s part of natural systems. What wasn’t natural was the one-foot of sea level rise which translated into many more feet of storm surge. That wasn’t normal. Another thing that wasn’t normal was that the Atlantic was five degrees warmer on average than it has been in the past. That means that the jet stream was changed, which pushed the storm further north and inland which doesn’t normally happen, and that changed jet stream also fueled the storm itself because warmer water means higher winds. It also picked up more water vapor so once it slams into the land, it drops a lot of water. Those are the ways that Sandy was impacted by climate change. Obviously to say “what percent of Sandy is climate change and what percent is natural” is really tough to do.
Q: In talking abut Sandy and climate change, are you worried that climate activists will be accused of politicizing a natural disaster – even if it wasn’t really natural?
A: I think that natural disasters are political events. Here’s why. Natural disasters occur, and if there are no people around, then nothing happens. If there are people around and different kinds of structures in place, it’s automatically political. If there are housing projects without proper windows, that’s a political issue. They didn’t get the money they needed. If FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is underfunded, that’s a political issue. That impacts how people get rescued. And finally, that Sandy was impacted by climate change and in some ways caused by climate change, systematically, is absolutely a political issue.
Sure, we need to be careful in terms of making sure we’re doing right by people who are suffering right now, but I think it would be irresponsible to not talk about the systemic issues like climate change and inequality that impact people on the ground.
We’re working with Local New York and a few other grassroots poverty groups who are going to go out to Redhook and do some cleanup but also to do a press event and talk through how climate change impacts poor people more. We’ll highlight the need for better infrastructure for housing projects, social services for folks that who don’t have what they need most. We’ll also talk about the need to deal with climate change and reduce carbon emissions, because these folks who are on the margins of society, in housing projects, in low-income communities – this impacts them more than anybody.
Q: Do you have anything else coming up?
A: We’ve got a bunch of stuff going on. We’ve got the Do The Math tour, which comes through New York on November 16th. It goes to 22 cities, starting today (Wednesday, November 7th), the day after the election. It starts in Seattle and moves through the West coast, and then across the country to the East coast. Most of the dates are already sold out, between 800 and 3000 people. It’s basically a mix between a TED talk, a campaign rally and a multimedia presentation. We’ve got some luminaries like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu, by video, and Josh Fox, who directed Gasland.
The tour takes Bill’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” and expands it into a multimedia presentation. Along with that, we’re also launching this college and university fossil fuel divestment campaign, asking colleges and universities to freeze all fossil fuel investments that they have, and to divest within five years. Students are taking that and running with it already. We already have a dozen, two dozen campuses on board. We’re calling that “Fossil Free.”
We’re hoping to do some trainings after the tour. We’re calling it “The Aftermath.” We’re going to follow the tour over the next few month, conducting trainings in some key cities and probably some campuses as well, geared towards what that community needs. If, you know, a campus is planning to occupy an administrative building, we’ll do a direct action training with them. If we find, like in New York for example, that everything is kind of fractured and there isn’t a lot of community alignment on what they want to work on, then we may do an organizing training or a strategy session.
We’ll also be working to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. We’ll be working with our allies to stop fracking in places like New York where it isn’t happening yet. We’re going to be doing a lot of rapid response actions around climate, around other extreme weather events and things like that. And it’s possible that Sandy may have opened the door for some kind of climate legislation. But we’ll have to see about that.
Who’s Eric Moll? Eric Moll is a gainfully unemployed freelance journalist and organic farmer. He has worked as a wind energy salesman and an invasive species awareness educator. His articles about travel, sustainability and activism can be found in The Free George and on NationalGeographic.com. Eric earned a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and even gets to use it once in a while.