12/11/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Fight of -- and for -- Our Lives

The fight is not the fiscal cliff, the manufactured and overhyped battle to rein in our deficit. Though it is certainly economic. "It's Global Warming, Stupid." Yes, while the Businessweek headline is impolite, it is also appropriate. Our big fight is against global warming, and we're losing badly.

Let's set the stage in this theater of war. The backdrop is both anecdotal and analytical. On the one hand, there are Superstorm Sandy, a worsening drought of already epic proportions, and the rapid loss of Arctic Sea ice. On the other is the recent report by the World Bank pointing out conservatively that we are on a path for 4 degrees Centigrade of warming by 2100 with the conclusion that such a future must be avoided. Chris Hedges' synopsis of the report is less phlegmatic in detailing the apocalypse that losing this fight will entail (read it and despair): "The picture it paints of a world convulsed by rising temperatures is a mixture of mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the worst of the Black Plague, which in the 14th century killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population."

It's no longer esoteric. Scientists are no longer telling us that the climate is going to run amok. Experience is telling us that it is running amok. Sandy and the drought combined to cause more than $100 billion in damages and killed untold thousands through destruction and ongoing famine and disease. This is just the beginning.

Where is the hero to lead us to victory in this existential struggle? Onto the stage, let's bring our hope, the last candidate standing. During his post-election press conference, President Obama was asked about the climate crisis. This is what he said (emphasis mine): "I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it."

Hmm, and his qualifier:

There's no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that.

Reading between the lines of what Obama said and looking at his business-friendly cabinet, we should be very concerned. Susan Rice, who is the favorite to be secretary of state, has millions of dollars of her personal wealth tied up in Canadian dirty energy industries, and if she is appointed she will be overseeing the decision of whether to permit the completion of the Keystone XL Pipeline that would bring Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, Congressman Langevin (RI-2), who is considered a good environmental vote and rarely strays from the position of House Leadership, said during the campaign season that he would approve the pipeline given the chance. In other words, the fix is in, and we should expect Keystone to happen.

The leading climatologist in the U.S., James Hansen, deems that the burning of the tar sands oil that the pipeline will make possible means "game over for the climate." As such, the current political consensus is irresponsible, bordering on criminally negligent. Thus we are losing this fight of/for our lives and our hero doesn't seem particularly interested in doing anything about it. Where do we go from here?

As an environmentalist, I spend a lot of time thinking about that question, particularly the we part, because it should be obvious that no one else is going to do it for us. We must build our own agency to mitigate global warming, and then we must use it.

When in doubt, Pink Floyd usually has some sage perspective and adds cheer:

"Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?"

To a greater or lesser extent, each of us has accepted the cage that is our debt-fueled consumption economy. We are resigned that given a choice between economic growth and a habitable planet, we must choose the growth and cross our fingers that it won't be that hellish outside. It's understandable. Our excessive materialism makes for a luxurious cage, and the "the economy, jobs, and growth" rationale is seductive despite its flimsiness. Our excesses and our current notion of economic growth are all predicated on the availability of cheap fossil fuels (petroleum foremost). We procrastinate and satisfy ourselves that incremental progress is the best we can do.

It'd be great if turning off the lights on the way out of the room, recycling, and screwing in energy-efficient bulbs would take care of this problem, but the truth is that it's going to take a lot more than that. Although it would be nice to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, it's going to take more than that, too.

Bill McKibben, founder of, has struck on an easily understandable campaign that promises to tackle the climate crisis which doesn't rely on political leaders. Rather than focusing on the amorphous target of reducing carbon emissions, he identifies the Fossil Fuel Cartel as a renegade industry, willing to harm the public welfare in pursuit of shareholder profit. He points to the fact these energy companies are sitting on reserves of fossil fuel equal to five times what our atmosphere can safely absorb and that their business plans and stock values are based on the combustion of those reserves. Furthermore, these companies are desperately exploring for more.

So we have a villain to target, and we know that all this villain cares about is its bottom line. All we have to do is find a way to throw sand into the gears of the industry's business model and we'll have a chance to win. If the fossil fuel industry, the most powerful industry in the world, is vulnerable at all, it is in the fact that they are publicly traded and widely owned by institutional investors like university endowments, foundations, unions, investment funds, and municipal and state pension funds. Institutional investors like these can be convinced by grassroots divestment campaigns on behalf of their member individuals, the communities they serve, or their constituents to dump their holdings in these companies.

Students are currently leading the way
, as they did when divestment initiatives were so successful at battling South African Apartheid in the late 1980s. But this movement doesn't have to be confined to campuses. All of us are members of at least a couple of institutions that are currently invested in destroying our planet. In the long term (and that's how institutions should be planning), it's in our and their best interests to invest in enterprises that are compatible with a higher moral value than maximization of short term return on investment.

It's time to trade our cages back in for the walk-on parts in the war. Let's divest from fossil fuel and start winning the fight of our lives.

A good place to start is bringing the movement to your campus/institution with a petition. Also, mark your calendars for Feb. 18, 2013, when there will be a day of massive convergence and action to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington, D.C.