How The Climate Movement Is Poised To Create Change

Systemic change is integral to climate change mitigation—but what role can individuals play in these important conversations?

The following is an excerpt from The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming by Eric Holthaus.

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Book cover for The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus

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The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What's Possible in the Age of Warming


For the first time in the history of humankind we live on a planet where all our daily actions have immediate and permanent physical ramifications for every other living thing we share this world with. For the first time we live on the doorstep of a truly intersectional, interconnected world. For the first time we have to build a world that works for everyone.

Our task this decade, and in all the decades that follow, is to make a future that is radically inclusive, equitable, and just. The near-simultaneous emergence of the harrowing IPCC special report and a vibrant youth movement calling for climate justice at last makes it possible for us to imagine what a near-future global society could look like that truly works for everyone.

While researching for her book Why Civil Resistance Works, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth discovered a surprising and empowering truth about the science of revolution: throughout the twentieth century, every single nonviolent movement to create political change that received active participation from at least 3.5 percent of the population succeeded. Every single one.

And many succeeded with many fewer people.

What’s more, Chenoweth and her colleagues found that nonviolent movements tend to help foster democracy. That’s a clear sign that what the climate movement is doing is already working—they just need your help.

Of course, we will still need people working on technical solutions. Like Greta, I’ve vowed to stop flying, and I follow a mostly vegan diet. I’m also in the process of converting my entire front and back yards to garden space. But these are just things I’m doing to help motivate me toward bigger changes.

Demanding systemic change from those in power is by far the most important thing any of us can do to help the climate movement, and what that looks like in practice is having conversations with anyone who will listen about how important this moment is. The technical solutions are important, sure, but they will be encouraged and fed faster by an uprising that demands more.

In 2017, Katharine Wilkinson led the ambitious Project Drawdown, which systematically quantified the most effective ways to stop and reverse greenhouse gas emissions globally. The book she wrote about it, Drawdown, became a New York Times bestseller. Finally it answered the question: What are the most important things we can do to fix the most important problem in history? Tops on the list: valuing, empowering, and caring for women and girls. That may be surprising to some, but not to Wilkinson. For too long, she said, we’ve taken a technocratic approach to climate change, expecting the right mix of taxes and regulations to move the invisible hand of the market to prioritize solar power over coal. The time for that approach is over.

Wilkinson told me the biggest success of Drawdown was “the very ability to begin bringing more emotional content into a conversation that is fundamentally about what it means to be human, and who we are and what we’re doing and why any of it matters. I don’t know any way to come to those conversations with just science and some tech solves. To me that feels like a real sort of escapism from the questions that the Earth is asking us to wrangle with. This idea that the best means and frameworks for problem-solving are coming out of business. Which is just freaking nonsensical. There are so many truths that are not even making it to the table for consideration as we think about what to do and how to do it.”

That leaves the emergence of a resilient, relentless global movement to demand that these plans turn into reality. 

Going forward, the climate movement will continue to morph into a social movement and ally itself with other social movements—that’s the only way the necessary deep changes will persist long enough to be effective. The values that will bring us to a sustainable future are consistent with the shared values across cultures and the core of what makes us human.

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These are examples the climate movement can follow to imagine a better future. By recognizing race and gender as social constructs, we can start to imagine aspirational futures—prophecies of a better world. When we forget that, we end up with things like cities that aren’t built for people with disabilities, a justice system that’s discriminatory, and a global economy that’s systematically destroying the ecosystems that make it possible.

It’s true that we’ve come much further toward climate catastrophe than we should have, but it’s also true that change is finally starting to happen on the scale that’s necessary to change everything.

In the US, the country with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change, youth took Greta’s lead and went to the streets starting in 2018 to demand a Green New Deal, with the idea that only a total reimagining of the social contract—including jobs, health care, and housing for all—would allow citizens to unleash their creativity and work together to build the world we need. Voters are inspired by their leadership—some polls show that climate change has become the number one issue in the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign. At last the US is ready to talk about radical change.

Because women and people of color are leading the development of the Green New Deal, informed by surviving centuries of existential threats, there’s a much better chance that such a policy change will result in a better future for everyone. On her first day in Washington, DC, as a newly elected member of Congress, during a youth-led sit-in in the office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that only a bold reaffirmation of the basic social contract in the US could avert climate catastrophe. A few months later, she expanded on this vision: “Our extractive, wasteful, fossil fuel economy is posing a direct threat to our own lives. There is a better way: one that’s conscious, just and prosperous. We will not be able to save our planet without first changing ourselves. That is the task before us.”

Her words became fuel for a youth-powered movement to help advance a Green New Deal—one of the boldest visions of the future in US history.

As the Green New Deal evolves, one thing is for sure: its vision is the best chance we’ve ever had to lay the groundwork for an ecological society that puts justice, consent, and equity at the center of a flourishing new stage of human civilization. Drawing from long-standing demands of the environmental justice movement and the Movement for Black Lives, and from American values dating back as far as the Constitution, the Green New Deal has become a clarion call for real change.

Similarly, the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led organization at the forefront of championing a Green New Deal, is boldly optimistic that its vision is achievable. If they’re right, we’re at the

dawn of a new era. We’re going to have a cultural wake-up call, and things are going to be flipped on their heads. So far, the group has delivered. In less than a year, the Sunrise Movement—led by a diverse group of young women and men and championed by Ocasio-Cortez—has been able to influence the entire national conversation, and has almost single-handedly pushed climate change to the heart of US politics.

Varshini Prakash, cofounder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, is almost an embodiment of the movement’s values. She’s smart, idealistic, and expects to win. Her enthusiasm is infectious.

“We’re not just putting out a Green New Deal to be shocking,” she told me. “We’re putting out the Green New Deal because literally thousands upon thousands of extremely smart climate scientists told us that unless we make unprecedented changes to every part of our economy and society over the next twelve years, we’re screwed.”

She also is blunt, swears a lot, and—increasingly—wields a lot of political power. Prakash may not have set out to be this successful at her job, but in the midst of a political moment when almost anything could happen, she and the Sunrise Movement are well positioned to have great influence on the direction the US—and the rest of the world—takes over the next decade.

“What we’re actually doing is, we’re preparing. We’re preparing for what’s happening rather than acting like it’s not gonna come and acting like it doesn’t exist. That’s what the Green New Deal is all about.”

Prakash is a visionary at a time when visionaries are needed in multitudes. The main difference is, she’s making it happen, and people are listening.

Excerpted from The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, HarperOne, an imprinted of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Holthaus.

Meet the Writer

About Eric Holthaus

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and climate journalist and author of The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming (HarperOne, 2020). He’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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