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McKibben, Hedges, Klein, Sawant and Sanders Speak on Next Steps for Environmentalists

On the night before the People’s Climate March, activists, scholars and civilians gathered at All Souls Unitarian Church in the Upper East Side in New York City to hear leading figures speaking about the environmental movement today and what strategies may work in the future.

The event was hosted by Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio with guests author and journalist Naomi Klein, journalist Chris Hedges, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant. Van Jones was originally set to appear after asking to join, but according to Linda Rousseau of The Peace and Justice Task Force, backed out due to his busy schedule.

With the church overfilled, hundreds of others outside were turned away. The program was live-streamed and later uploaded online for those who could not make it. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont opened speaking to the crowd for a few minutes about the environment, climate change, and what needs to be done now.

What the scientists tell us, most significantly, is if we do not get our act together, if we do not reverse global warming, then our situation will become worse and worse. The timeline is short. We have got to act now.

Noteworthy are the two activists who interrupted him with a banner protesting his vote supporting Israel against Palestine. Sanders did not acknowledge either of them continuing with his speech on the climate.

He elaborated on the importance of urgency and referred to potential storms like Hurricane Sandy and Irene as the future if nothing is done. He advocated for alternative energy to transform society and avoid the worst of climate change.

The obvious question then arises, if everyone knows [about the dangers of climate change] and these guys up here know more about it than I do, [then] why aren’t we [transforming our energy sector]? Well this I know a little bit about because I sit in the United States Senate.  Let me begin by telling you nothing passes Congress without the approval of oil companies, corporate America and Wall Street. Unless we address that issue, we’re not going to address [climate change].

Sanders continued, referring to a tiny group of people with power and money on their side and how important it was for not only the People’s Climate March, but also activism in general to challenge such power.

Bill McKibben followed Sanders making a reference to a possible presidential run for Sanders after his appearance in Iowa. McKibben spoke of the bad news in terms of climate change due to political inaction over the past few decades warning:

The science of climate change is dark and hard. I would be lying to you if I told you we would be sweeping to victory. What really comes next for climate justice is an awful lot of pain and suffering for an awful lot of people. We already raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius and we’re going to go to 2 degree Celsius.

Those who did the least to contribute to global warming would suffer the most, he noted, but did say there was hope since that community is fighting back, inspiring others. The march itself would display emotions of anger and frustration, but would be valuable in uniting voices in the environmental movement. As a result of the urgency of the climate change, protests like the People’s Climate March provided an outlet in aspiring activists.

This is the burglar alarm for people who are trying to steal our future.

After McKibben’s speech, Naomi Klein presented a way forward not only to protect the environment, but also to create another system after quoting Miya Yoshitani from the Asia Pacific Environment Network in her book This Changes Everything.

Recently, Klein was interviewed by a number of outlets about her new book on the relationship between capitalism and the environment. Perhaps it was best said in an interview with Laura Flanders, it’s “not about carbon, but it’s about capitalism.”

Referencing the beginning of a climate crisis, she also noted how neo-liberalism became stronger in the late 1980s. It was a “project” that created a narrative of recreating the values of society and stopping communal action from happening.

This is the ideological project that says, as Margaret Thatcher did, there is no such thing as society. We are nothing more than our most selfish desires that by expressing our desires we do the most good. The biggest problems happens when people do good with other people’s money as Milton Friedman said. So this was the triumphant moment for that ideology.

Just before she ended her speech, Klein highlighted the contradiction presented in the debate today on austerity politics and calls for investments, asking:

How are we supposed to respond to a crisis that requires that we invest massively in the public sphere when all we hear is that we have to cut back?

She expanded this point to the role of climate change deniers who understood the connection between both emphasizing why it was important to resist the deniers’ efforts.

Chris Hedges then followed Klein introducing the topic of power in the narrative of the discussion: The transformation of the United States from a capitalist system with democracy to a degraded system with the elites in full control:

The old liberal class, which functioned as a safety valve and addressed grievances in times of economic and political distress, has been destroyed. Self-identifying liberals, including Barack Obama, who continue to speak in the old language of liberalism in fact serve corporate power.

He went on to speak on the Obama administration’s continuation of policies from the previous administration and how it revealed the failure of the liberal class in modern society. In what he called a “black hole,” energy invested into the Democratic Party to prevent climate change from getting worse would go absolutely nowhere. Therefore, resistance to the system would not start from within. Rather, it was a process where revolution must be placed at the front to ensure a change.

Kshama Sawant was the final speaker of the night focusing on the “turning point” of the movement with history clamoring for a change. It would not start with either major party, but with activists themselves:

Our message on Sunday needs to be clear. If you are not yet organized, there is an urgent need to get involved and stay engaged. Join an environment group, join a labor union, join the socialists, become a part of this struggle.

In contrast to the other speakers, Sawant called for a program to provide jobs for workers in alternative energy, like wind and solar power. She emphasized how the current economic system would continue to fail in providing a solution as its main focus was profits above anything else. She referred to research where 90 corporations contributed two-thirds of the carbon emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, she felt it was best to take major companies and nationalize them for the public.

We cannot be bound by what is acceptable to establishment politicians and the big corporations they serve. Our movement should be guided by the people and the environment.

Referring to the minimum wage increase to $15 per hour in Seattle, Wash., Sawant called for more victories for environmentalists with the same energy. In referencing Hedges’ speech on the failure of the two-party system, she stressed such victories could not be done through the two major parties, but through third parties. It was significant as Gallup released a poll on Wednesday where 58 percent of Americans wanted a third party since they did not prefer either the Democratic or Republican Party.

In following McKibben’s earlier comments, Sawant said a presidential campaign with someone like Sanders, albeit she noted she disagreed on his foreign policy views, would provide a jolt in the American consciousness. It would not be a campaign on the Democratic ticket, but on an independent ticket.

After Sawant finished her speech, Lehrer asked Sanders about the comments of the night on a possible presidential run. Sanders responded on his history in politics in challenging both parties in Vermont and asked what he said was a “simple issue.”

“Given the nature of where we are today as a nation, can we in fact put together an effective, grassroots third-party movement in America?” Sanders asked as the crowd screamed yes. “The answer is maybe.”

He mentioned he was interested in knowing the resources were there in providing an effective campaign. It was noteworthy how careful he was in still avoiding a confirmation on a possible run for 2016.

Regardless, Lehrer proceeded to ask different speakers questions after the four speakers talked. To Bill McKibben, he asked what the unified message was for the People’s Climate March. McKibben replied the press conference presented the best version of what the unified message was—a lineup of people from different backgrounds. He noted how he enjoyed hearing the different strategies offered, including nationalization and divestment. Still, he emphasized a do strategy rather than a talk strategy.

Lehrer asked Hedges and Klein about a potential conflict between Flood Wall Street and People’s Climate. However, after Hedges spoke on how civil disobedience would provide an outlet for change, Lehrer changed the question to the definition of success. Klein again stressed the importance of acting, but worried about potential strife within the movement.

“If we think realistically, are we going to build this movement of millions in a short time? No. But do we have the potential to weave together all of our existing movements and supercharge them with existential urgency? [Yes.]” 

In just one example, Klein spoke on the participation of labor in the event on Sunday, which was praised for dispelling the myth of a contradiction between labor and environmentalists. Lehrer asked Klein a few questions including one on the potential of a carbon tax, which she dismissed as it was impossible in rapidly reducing emissions.

In the last 10 minutes, Lehrer opened the floor for questions from members in the audience. One person asked why some segments of society said avoiding climate change was expense. McKibben, Sanders and Sawant all agreed it was a distraction from the main issue and the alternatives were better.

Another question dealt with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and another dealt with the lack of people of color within the movement. However, the panelists did not answer them, which is concerning, and those who asked a question emphasized their points on what the issue was.

Overall, the panel discussion offered a lot for those who attended, and the long lines outside revealed how interested environmentalists were in discussing next steps. Where the movement will go after the People’s Climate March is anyone’s guess. Perhaps there is comfort in the words of American feminist Virginia Woolf in 1915, amid World War I:

The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.

What follows is the unknown for environmentalists, but it is still a narrative held in their hands. Where that narrative will go is their choice.

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Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.

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