CONFESSION: summer isn’t really my season. I like soft spring afternoons, and crisp, smoky fall evenings. And I love the snows of winter. When it gets really hot, my instinct is to stretch out on the porch and take a nap. Hibernation, I think the scientists call it, though I may have that confused. Hibernation with lemonade.
But not this summer. This summer’s going to be a little different. And not because of the temperature. It’s been one hot summer after another — every year in the last decade has been hotter than average, and last summer in the U.S. we saw the warmest one yet. The last two weeks of July, statistically, are the hottest stretch of the year. So it’s the right time to be thinking about climate change.
In fact, sweat and sunburn aside, it’s the right time to be doing something about it. Which is what’s going to make this summer different. All around the country those last two weeks of the month, local groups will be fighting against bad energy projects: coal ports and coal-fired power plants, tar sands pipelines and tar sands refineries. Meanwhile, others will be working to connect those fights with people from around each region, swelling their numbers and multiplying their effect.
It’s the nature of local fights that they focus, as they should, on local effects: on the insane rates of asthma that come from living near generating stations and refineries, on the insane danger of spills that come when you pipe corrosive, heated diluted bitumen down pipelines under high pressure, on the insane disruption that comes from running miles of coal trains through small towns and big cities. These are the hazards faced by people in frontline communities, people who’ve been at the forefront of the environmental fight ever since — well, in a way, ever since new arrivals to this continent started screwing up the fairly-well-worked-out ecological practices of the folks who’d been here a few thousand years. (In fact, aboriginal North Americans remain at the vanguard of the battle; if you want to know where the fight is fiercest, just check out where the Indigenous Environmental Network is engaged at any given moment.) These folks constitute a burgeoning movement I’ve taken to calling a Fossil Fuel Resistance, and whether it’s protesting the expansion of the Chevron refinery in gritty Richmond or blocking the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline in hardscrabble East Texas, they’re heroes.
But too often those frontlines get overwhelmed by the shock troops of money and political influence — the fossil fuel industry is the richest industry the world has ever seen. And so the frontlines need reinforcements — they need the rest of us, who normally get to breathe clean air, whose kids are less likely to be carrying an inhaler, whose backyards don’t get taken by eminent domain. We need to join them in solidarity, demand that they have the same rights as us to a safe place to live.
Not only that, but in an age of global warming the frontlines are advancing. When the Pegasus pipeline exploded in April, the videos showed it flooding a suburban street so preposterously typical it almost looked fake. I mean, perfectly manicured front lawns, basketball hoop in every driveway, and then up from the ground comes the bubblin’ crude — tar sands that is, Alberta sludge. Or consider the Jersey Shore, where all of a sudden Hurricane Sandy made people less worried about the height of their hair and more about the height of their dunes. Or the farmland of Iowa where — middle American virtue notwithstanding — you suddenly couldn’t grow anything last summer because it was too hot for corn to fertilize.
And so here comes the cavalry, riding minivans and Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains and Priuses. Maybe some bicycles. (I even heard plans for a horseback contingent to ride along the Keystone pipeline route.) Many of these local protests will become part of a broader effort this summer — one that we’re calling Summer Heat. Because, you know, climate change = long, hot summers. Climate change = turning up the heat. Also, it sounds a little like a Mountain Dew ad campaign, or some new iteration of the X Games. Cool, but hot.
This effort is important because local fights don’t get the national visibility they deserve — we need to get those leaders up on a bigger stage. But also because these fights really are united. Given the fact that the Arctic essentially melted last summer, we pretty much have to run the table from here on out: we have to beat coal plants and oil pipelines and new refineries, here at home and in a lot of other places. Fossil fuel is dirty in particular ways in all the communities fighting these local battles, but it’s dirty in exactly the same way in the atmosphere surrounding our planet. It doesn’t matter where you are on earth right now, the CO2 concentration of the air around you has already passed four hundred parts per million. Which is too much.
Given the physics, not to mention the politics, any local fight has a global component and vice versa. And in an internet age, it’s easier than ever to link them, to make them a single battle with many active fronts. To go on offense, to confuse the opposition a little. To . . . make them sweat.
And the industry is starting to feel the heat. As a fossil fuel divestment campaign has spread to more than three hundred campuses, new reports from Citigroup and HSBC show that any global effort to meet the accords signed at Copenhagen would cut the value of fossil fuel stocks in half. The Carbon Tracker Initiative pointed out in April that pension funds are currently making a $6 trillion bet that the fossil fuel industry won’t ever be effectively regulated; that is to say, the value of fossil fuel companies is mostly dependent on the world deciding not to act on climate change — a bet that they’ll prosper while the planet spirals. That’s why a passel of cities have already begun to divest their stocks; it’s why 340 colleges now have ongoing battles about divestment. In early May, students at Rhode Island School of Design took over the president’s office and dropped a banner out the window: WE MAY BE ART STUDENTS, BUT WE CAN DO THE MATH.
Enlightened fund managers can help, but it won’t be financial pressure alone — it will be the strong work of frontline communities, backed by the rest of us. “Up to this point, grassroots organizing has kept more industrial carbon out of the atmosphere than state or federal policy,” says Gopal Dayaneni of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. That’s why we need more of it. That’s why we need you saving bail money for the end of July.