The future of our species and planet depends on creating a mass social movement motivated by moral arguments, not statistics.
Humankind is in a race between two tipping points. The first is when the Earth’s ecosystems and the life they contain tip into irreversible collapse due to climate change. The second is when the fight for climate action tips from being just one of many political concerns to becoming a mass social movement. The existential question is, which tipping point will we hit first?
The recent UN report showing that around a million species are at risk of extinction demonstrates how close we are to the first. The report, by 145 scientists from 50 countries, surveyed 15,000 studies and documented how on average 25 percent of all species assessed were threatened with extinction, and 75 percent of the world’s ecosystems had been severely altered by human activity and were in danger of collapse. The bad news stretched from amphibians to corals, fish, insects, birds, mammals, and the agricultural crops that human life depends on. Earth has experienced five mass extinction events since life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. It is now abundantly clear that humans have triggered a sixth.
Bleak as that sounds, there is hope: In the United States, the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the group New Consensus, and their 29-year old ally Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have firmly injected their Green New Deal proposal into 2020 presidential politics; in March the School Strikes for Climate saw over 1.4 million children in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries from Argentina and Australia, to the United States and India, walk out of school; in April the Extinction Rebellion protests shut down large parts of London and many other cities for days; and in May the European Parliament elections saw Green parties gain large numbers of seats and emerge as a powerful political bloc. These and many other developments suggest that we may at last be approaching the second—the social and political—tipping point. The next question then is how do we dramatically accelerate these efforts and actually tip?
For nearly four decades, scientists and activists have pounded their heads against the wall ringing alarm bells and trying to get political systems, business elites, and international institutions to take meaningful action. It hasn’t worked. Two centuries of fossil capitalism have created powerful vested interests, systems inertia, and mental frameworks that blind us to the dangers and prevent us from seeing alternatives. Our only hope is creating countervailing political power. Only when politicians lose power and businesses lose money by being on the wrong side of the issue will things change. To create that kind of power we must have a mass social movement, and the developments above are potentially the first stirrings of such a movement.
History tells us that mass social movements always have a moral argument at their core. The anti-slavery movement only took off once white people in Europe and America began to see people of African descent not as property but as people. The argument that won wasn’t over the economics of slavery, or whether slavery was in the self-interest of white people or not. The argument that mobilized the abolition movement, and eventually gave it political power, was that enslaving other human beings is evil and had to be stopped. The end of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment did not end racism, and from the nineteenth century Jim Crow laws through the twentieth century civil rights movement to racist mass incarceration and voter suppression today, the fight continues. But one cannot deny the huge moral shift that took place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the abolitionist movement. Pre-abolitionism, most white people viewed slavery as part of the “natural order,” the great success of the abolitionists was exposing it as the moral abomination that it is. Other social movements, e.g. ending child labor, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, democratic revolutions, and anti-war movements, have also had moral arguments at their core: The way things are is wrong and must change.
Yet despite this history, climate change has largely been litigated on technocratic rather than moral terms. The core argument has been that we should act because the costs of acting are less than the benefits of avoiding climate damage in the future. We should act because it is in our rational self-interest. This framing has been promulgated by economists (William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel Prize for developing this argument) and institutions like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the argument is not technically wrong, I can think of no mass social movement that was sparked by a cost-benefit analysis.
If your theory of change is an inside game working through regulatory bodies, legislative processes, courts, and businesses, then you need to speak their language, and cost versus benefits is part of that language. Environmental groups have a history of success in that game, including victories on clean air, clean water, acid rain, and land conservation. But climate change is too big. It is a fight against an entire system, and that system fights back. We need to continue the inside game, but we need an outside game as well. And that means moral arguments. A raft of psychological research shows that our moral emotions are among our strongest motivators, even stronger than narrow self-interest. That is why women went to prison to get the vote, people of color risked beatings and lynchings to get their rights, and people throughout history have given their lives fighting tyranny and oppression. People will in fact make incredible sacrifices for the greater good to correct a wrong and make it right.
For example, the UK’s Extinction Rebellion, a grass-roots group founded in 2018 by activists who took inspiration from the suffragettes, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders of non-violent social movements, has shrewdly framed its arguments in moral terms. Rather than fighting “climate change” they are fighting “mass extinction.” The term “climate change” emerged as the consensus language of the scientific community around 1990 with the publication of the first major UN assessment, because it was factual and emotionally neutral. But people don’t care about climate change; they care about life. First and foremost, human life, but we are also capable of expanding our moral circle to include other species. The Extinction Rebellion’s motto is “Fight for Life, Rebel for Life.” They have thus framed themselves as the people fighting mass extinction versus the fossil fuel interests, their financiers, and the politicians in their thrall who are leading us to this catastrophe. That is moral clarity.
The kids who took part in the School Strikes also understand moral power, and that they have unique moral standing. People have long argued that we must act to protect future generations. But to date, “future generations” has been a nice-sounding abstract concept, more rhetoric than reality. Now the future generations are here, protesting in the streets, and telling our generation that they will view us as criminals unless we act. The most sacred duty of adults is to protect children. We have failed in that duty and should be ashamed. Shame is among our most powerful emotions—it is hard not to choke up watching videos of 16-year Swedish student Greta Thunberg shaming the so-called adults at Davos and the EU Parliament. But shame can also lead to defensiveness and resentment unless people see a way to correct the wrong. Thus the hopeful vision of the youthful Sunrise Movement in the United States and its Green New Deal proposal have galvanized progressives and forced Democratic presidential candidates to dramatically raise their level of ambition.
So it is no accident that these movements are growing, and that fossil interests are getting worried and are fighting back (witness the disgusting right-wing attacks on Thunberg, which have included Murdoch-owned papers making fun of her Asperger’s, Koch-funded websites going after her parents, and being on the receiving end of intense cyber bullying). We are at a critical moment where these movements could either blossom into something transformative or stall and flounder, just as the optimism of the first Earth Summit in 1992 gave way to decades of inaction and accelerating emissions. Lessons from other mass social movements show that it is critical to have a clear, compelling demand that focuses diffuse energy and unites people on specific action: e.g. abolish slavery, give women the vote, give us democracy, or stop the war. The lack of such a focal action is one reason why the Occupy movement fizzled out. Again, “stopping climate change” is too abstract, too emotionally dry, and too far removed from concrete action.
But science has given us a clear, specific rallying point. We must make emitting carbon illegal in every country in the world by no later than 2050. We must abolish carbon.
For some time now there has been a strong scientific consensus that the only way to prevent the worst impacts of climate change is to reduce emissions globally to “net-zero” by mid-century or sooner. Net-zero means that any future emissions would need to be offset by capturing and sequestering an equal amount of carbon. But capturing carbon is costly, and while some amount of capture will inevitably be necessary, it alone won’t save us (contrary to the propaganda of the “clean coal” lobby). The British Royal Society estimates that scrubbing and disposing of carbon costs around $200-$650 per ton. As the Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen notes, this means that every year that goes by where we aren’t cutting emissions to zero is another 40 billion tons that we are expecting today’s teenagers to clean up after us at a cost of around $10 trillion per year (to put that in perspective, U.S. GDP is about $20 trillion).As Allen puts it, kids today should start asking their parents to put $250 for every ton of carbon they emit into a trust fund for the mess we are leaving them. So, the brutal math of net-zero means cutting carbon, as much as we can, as fast as we can, starting now. The principle of net-zero was enshrined in the Paris climate agreement, and so at least in theory, 179 countries have committed to it. But few countries, businesses, or investors have fully grappled with its implications. Eliminating virtually all emissions over the next 30 years requires a wholesale transformation of the global economy starting now. The shift is at least as big as the Industrial Revolution that created the fossil economy in the first place.
Achieving such a transformation will require actions in every sector of the economy, from shutting down coal plants, to stopping oil exploration and fracking, building large-scale renewables and storage, creating a twenty-first century grid, electrifying transport, greening buildings, creating circular economy industries, making agriculture sustainable, re-foresting and re-wilding, changing consumer behaviors, and so on. Doing this will require every policy tool at our disposal, from carbon taxes, to public investments, creating incentives to go zero-carbon, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, new regulations, and outright bans on certain things. And we will also need to address the inequities that such large-scale transformation will inevitably create, from coal miners in West Virginia, to farmers in Bangladesh, providing support, jobs, and opportunities to those whose livelihoods and lives will inevitably be affected by both the transition and the climate damage already done. But standing above all of this critical detail is the imperative to achieve net-zero no later than 2050. And the best way to do that is through law.
Recently, the UK took an important step in that direction. The government’s Committee on Climate Change recommended that the UK enact a 2050 net-zero target in legislation, joining most Nordic countries, France, New Zealand, California, who have adopted or are in the process of adopting similar targets. In addition, 19 cities around the world have adopted net-zero targets for buildings, transport, and other infrastructure. The EU is also considering a 2050 net-zero target. But rather than “targets,” these leading cities, states, countries, and regions should enshrine net-zero in law. Such laws would clearly state that, after 2050, emissions of carbon in these places will be illegal unless verifiably offset by equal amounts of captured carbon. Enacting such 2050 carbon bans would send the strongest signal yet to business, the financial markets, and consumers that the carbon economy has a finite life—it will come to an end by 2050.
While some will howl in protest that 2050 carbon bans would be catastrophic for the economies that enacted them, causing businesses to collapse or flee, and jobs to disappear, in fact the opposite would happen. Enacting such laws would trigger a wave of innovation and investment on a scale not seen since the Industrial Revolution. The great strength of markets is their adaptability and capacity for innovation. Such a clear and unambiguous signal would say: “You’ve got 30 years to wind down our fossil infrastructure and products and replace them with zero carbon alternatives. Go!” Does anyone seriously think that entrepreneurs, engineers, businesspeople, and investors will say, “Sorry, we’d rather just sit on our hands and go bankrupt”? Instead they will say, “There is a huge new market coming into life right now and we’d better race to be first.” Action would start immediately—any investments made today, especially in assets that last over decades, would need to take that deadline into account. Of course, other policies, intermediate deadlines, and public investments would be needed to manage the transition. But a deadline fixed in law would provide a huge motive force that is absent today.
Naturally, if a few countries, states, or cities did this alone it wouldn’t solve the climate problem and some businesses would simply go to places that continue to allow carbon pollution. So abolishing carbon by 2050 would need to become the law eventually in all countries. But someone must lead. Again, the abolition movement provides inspiration for what is possible. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, followed by France in 1848. In the United States, abolition started with five states in the 1780s, spread to 19 by 1861, and then the whole country (after a devastating Civil War) in 1865. Numerous other countries followed in the mid- to late 1800s, followed by the 1890 Brussels Conference Act, 1926 Slavery Convention, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and 1957 UN Abolition of Forced Labor Convention. While, sadly, slavery still hasn’t been completely eliminated, it is illegal in every country and universally morally abhorred. The same global cascade must happen with carbon abolition—but on a far faster timescale. A good place to start would be the G20 countries, which represent around 80 percent of global emissions. Getting the G20 to pledge that each country will enshrine net-zero by 2050 in domestic law may seem a political impossibility now, but making that a political reality must be an urgent priority.
The climate change movement must become a Carbon Abolition movement. There will inevitably be a diversity of views on what a zero-carbon economy looks like and how to get there. But there must be absolute unity and clarity that the current carbon economy is immoral and must end, and that net-positive carbon emissions must be illegal in all countries by 2050. Those who abolished slavery did not just want to reduce slave numbers, free some slaves, make slave lives better, or have a slave-tax to reduce incentives for slave ownership. Instead they saw slavery as a moral wrong that had to be abolished, which meant making it illegal.
It is important to note that in looking to the abolition movement for inspiration, I am not claiming a moral equivalence between slavery and climate change. Slavery was a unique moral horror. There are clearly important differences between one set of humans directly enslaving, beating, raping, and killing another set of humans, versus humans going about their daily lives, emitting carbon in a system over which they have little individual control. Yet, both systems are built on an immoral core, where one set of humans benefits by harming another. Under slavery, white people benefitted economically and socially by harming people of African descent. Under the fossil economy, people alive today benefit economically and socially by harming, and perhaps even extinguishing, future generations. Pre-1970s we had an excuse, we didn’t know; and perhaps even as late as the 1990s some could argue that we didn’t know for sure. But now we do know. Carbon emissions are a moral wrong, they are destroying life on Earth, and must be abolished.
In 1785, Thomas Clarkson, a young Anglican deacon, won a prestigious prize at the University of Cambridge for an essay on the moral evils of slavery. He later wrote about a summer day in June when “Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Clarkson then helped found the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and his focused determination helped catalyze what had been a diffuse anti-slavery movement into a potent political force that eventually swept the world. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later called Clarkson a “moral Steam-Engine.”
It is time for the climate movement to become a moral zero-carbon engine and “see these calamities to their end.” I am a Carbon Abolitionist. Are you?
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.