To get serious about climate change, we have to be radical.
That’s the brazen idea behind journalist and activist Wen Stephenson’s new book, What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice, released earlier this month. (Read an excerpt over at The Nation.) Stephenson recounts the stories of several radical activists who have risen from neglected or threatened communities to fight climate change. Their heroic actions are blueprints for how climate radicalism and environmental justice can, and must, merge.
In an interview with Audubon, Stephenson explains why he sees climate change as a crime against humanity, and why radicalism is the only way for us to reclaim our fate.
Audubon: How exactly does global warming encroach on human rights and dignity?
Stephenson: The key idea is that it’s a disproportionate burden: The global economic system that’s driving climate change was built on the backs of the people who will suffer the most. Our children, the ones who least caused the crisis, will be hit with the worst of it. And that’s fundamentally the justice issue.
What’s happening now amounts to crimes against humanity . . . it sounds extreme, but things are extreme. In parts of the world, people can’t feed themselves or their children because they have to leave their land. Look at the refugee situation. Some people argue that those fleeing Syria and parts of Africa are doing it because of climate change.
It’s also important to realize that climate justice is very much about the present—the here and now. The perspective shifts depending on where you live, and the color of your skin. This is embodied by the people of Port Arthur, Texas, a city stacked with miles of refineries and described as a "sacrifice zone” by environmentalists. In the book I write: “If you live there and toxic emissions have ruined your health, or your child can’t go to school because she can’t breathe, or you can’t find a job and feed your kids and see no way out of the projects—or all of the above—then you’re probably not thinking about some future catastrophe. You’re living in one.”
A: Why do you say that climate science is a "bloodless language”?
S: There’s this idea that emotion is kind of subversive—that it’s not intellectually respectable. Because of that, science, policy, economics, and technology have created a climate language that’s unemotional and amoral. I understand why it needs to be this way. Yet the definition of an activist is someone who makes the issue so personal that they can’t help but engage. My worldview is still rooted in science, but I think we need to be fully human when approaching this topic. I tend to get pretty emotional about this stuff. My children’s lives and the world are in danger; countless people will die. This isn’t easy stuff to grapple with.
A: You establish the current need for the radical in society. But the radical can’t force the change alone, right?
S: It’s not the climate justice movement’s job to prescribe the solutions. The radical’s lifework is to force those in power to do their job, and to tell the truth, no matter how extreme. And they’re doing that through non-violent, direct action. It’s a mistake to think of radicalism as irrational—it’s based on science.
A: You write, “To change everything we need everyone." But some would argue that it's up to the more developed nations to rectify their ways and reset the equilibrium of the world.
S: Global equity lies at the core of climate justice. This has precisely been the stumbling block to any kind of global agreement: Who bears responsibility? Some people talk about this as a sort of climate debt. That means not only making developed countries slash greenhouse emissions at a much faster pace (faster than anything that’s on the table), but also helping developing nations make the necessary transition to renewables in the necessary time frame. It’s completely unfair to think the more vulnerable nations can do this on their own. If we want to make it a just transition and help civilization survive . . . this is the only way we can get people to sign on.
A: What’s the best, most realistic outcome that can come out of all these actions?
S: We need to be honest with ourselves about how late the hour is in the climate fight. We’ve probably reached the point where the best case is probably the most unrealistic. But I’m arguing that given what’s coming, we need to head into the crisis in a way that upholds our humanity. Our fight for social justice is more important than ever.
Most people out there can engage politically as citizens. And that’s what’s important. Organize. And if you’re not an organizer, show up and convince others to join. It’s a movement and that’s what movements do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What's We're Fighting For Now Is Each Other, by Wen Stephenson, Beacon Press, 256 pages, $24.95. Buy it at Beacon Press.