This is another lesson from the transformative movements of the past: all of them understood that the process of shifting cultural values—though somewhat ephemeral and difficult to quantify—was central to their work. And so they dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible. They were also unafraid of the language of morality—to give the pragmatic cost/benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation.
There are plenty of solid economic arguments for moving beyond fossil fuels, as more and more patient investors are realizing. And that’s worth pointing out. But we will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game—arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation.
The climate movement has yet to find its full moral voice on the world stage, but it is most certainly clearing its throat—beginning to put the very real thefts and torments that ineluctably flow from the decision to mock international climate commitments alongside history’s most damned crimes.
Some of the voices of moral clarity are coming from the very young, who are calling on the streets—and, increasingly, in the courts—for intergenerational justice. Some are coming from great social-justice movements of the past, like Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, who has joined the fossil-fuel divestment movement with enthusiasm, declaring that “to serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.” Most of all, those clarion voices are coming from the front lines of the movement some have taken to calling “Blockadia”: from communities directly impacted by high-risk fossil-fuel extraction, transportation and combustion—as well as from those parts of the world already coping with the impacts of early climate destabilization.