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We Cannot Stop Climate Change With Laws Alone

When our trust and faith is placed in each other rather than the government, we gain more power than we may think possible.

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This October in New York, thanks in part to ongoing local activism, two proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects were denied permits by the DEC. It seems like—maybe—the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, our state’s landmark climate law passed in 2019, is finally beginning to take effect.

Time will tell if these rulings indeed mark a turning point in the trajectory of New York’s climate change response. But time, as we know, is running out, and a larger question looms: Should legislative action be our main metric for measuring climate progress?

In August, the United Nations released its sixth IPCC report, intended to “provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.” Causing a stir on social media, the report further normalized the collective sense of doom and anxiety that is just a part of life now.

People are feeling climate anxiety on a daily basis and seeing the devastating effects of extreme weather patterns. We don’t need to be reminded of the urgency. It’s governments that apparently need more reports, statistics, and planning.

In August, a Center for American Progress article put hope in the budget reconciliation bill in the US Senate. The bill would mean investments in clean energy incentives, which account for a large part of Biden’s Build Back Better Plan, with the goal of 80 percent clean electricity and 50 percent carbon emissions reductions by 2030. Noble goals, but it has already been criticized for not going far enough.

It seems like every month, new numbers are thrown out—goals for emissions reductions, dollar amounts to be invested, all of it at some point down the line. New committees are established to discuss and plan and allocate. New acronyms are created, new reports are published.

World leaders recently gathered once again at the COP26 conference—which, activists are pointing out, is sponsored by big oil and infiltrated with fossil fuel lobbyists. Polluters Out posits that “the UN has had the monetary and political resources for decades now to put in place policies that could stop the Earth from heating at the fast pace that it is, but they have not. Instead, they’ve resorted to politics and empty promises.”

What Is the Holdup?

A piece in The Conversation this August frames the lack of sufficient progress as a fundamental conflict of interest, not simply a need for more legislation. The author writes that due to the effects of colonialism and the immense influence of corporate interests in finance and energy sectors, the only climate action has been:

A slew of measures to address climate change which rely on making emissions reductions profitable. But the quickest ways to reduce emissions aren’t always the most profitable. And what is profitable for some can be harmful for less powerful people and communities.


It is tempting to think public and private investment in renewable energy might allow governments, businesses and civil society to pull together and fight climate change. But there remain significant obstacles…shifting to fully renewable energy sources would require mineral extraction on a truly massive scale to supply the materials for batteries, wiring and other components of solar panels and wind turbines. Recent estimates suggest that meeting current global energy demand with 100% renewable energy would take more cobalt, lithium, and nickel than is known to exist on earth.

BBC News recently obtained a document leak showing the efforts of countries to amend the IPCC climate reports. And a recent op-ed from Foreign Policy criticizes “green colonialism”—wealthy, oil-dependent countries like Norway lobbying the World Bank to stop all financing of natural gas projects in Africa and elsewhere.

It’s the rich world telling the global south to stay poor and stop developing, which under no scenario is possible without a vast increase in energy use…Norway is effectively telling Africa: We’ll stay rich, keep you from developing, and send some charity your way as long as you keep your emissions down.

It’s not just Norway: “U.S. President Joe Biden has set lofty targets but just called on major energy suppliers to ramp up production to meet U.S. demand for oil.”

To transition to clean energy globally, resources need to be allocated to the global south. Wealthy countries had pledged $100 billion by 2020 in such climate financing, but as of this September that goal is short $20 billion—and most funding has been through loans, indebting rather than empowering its recipients.

Oil and Water

So, countries lobby for their own economic interests first, and the climate second. That’s not a surprise, nor is the fact that the US and China both failed to join 40 countries in pledging to phase out coal at COP26.

Speaking of pledges and legislation, a recent study which looked at the effect of climate legislation on global greenhouse gas emissions found that all climate change legislation passed between 1999 and 2016, worldwide saved one global year’s worth of emissions, or 38 gigatons.

The research highlights that “the drop in emissions due to the coronavirus pandemic this year has been assessed at 1.5 to 2 gigatons, suggesting climate laws are producing up to three times the impact of Covid-19, annually.” Good, but not fast enough.

The research also uncovered that “countries are less likely to pass climate legislation during economic downturns—a conclusion that should be of concern to countries attempting a ‘green recovery’ from the severe damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Here in New York, some activism has taken the green recovery angle. Biden champions this narrative as well, with his Build Back Better plan, emphasizing jobs. While it’s true that renewable energy is capable of creating jobs, the economy and the climate are like oil and water. Market-based solutions are predicated on the goal of preserving an economic system that is built on inequality and exploitation. By framing climate solutions as legislative, economic, or even technical, the left is catering to the very structures it wants to dismantle. This capitalist rat’s nest cannot be partially unraveled and remain intact.

If Not Me, When? If Not Now, Who? 

Grassroots movements of regular citizens can hold lawmakers accountable to their promises; we know this. But will it ever be enough? The truth is, it’s never been for lack of data that our governments’ responses have been inadequate. It’s always been a lobbied congress and an economy that rides on and prioritizes the very industries causing climate change. 

In a piece titled “The Potential Pitfalls of a Green New Deal,” John Feffer, the co-director of Foreign Policy at the Institute for Policy Studies, explores the plausibility that legislation can ever usher in the kind of overarching transition needed. “To meet the climate-change challenge will require a transformation comparable to the agrarian or industrial revolutions,” he writes:

Even as richer countries promise to shrink their carbon footprints, however, they still imagine that they can maintain their overall way of life and export that lifestyle to the rest of the world. But this high-energy lifestyle of computers, air conditioners, and electric SUVs depends on the Global South. By one estimate, the Global North enjoys a $2.2 trillion annual benefit in the form of underpriced labor and commodities from there, an extraction that rivals the magnitude of the colonial era. Moreover, the cobalt and lithium necessary for batteries for electric cars, the gallium and tellurium in solar panels, the rare-earth elements needed for wind turbines are predominantly mined in the Global South and their extraction is likely to come at a huge environmental cost.

The high-growth assumptions of the current system reappear under the rubric of “Green growth,” promulgated by old-style industrialists in new Green clothing.

A rising tide, it was once said, would lift all boats: economic growth would lead to general prosperity. But a “rising tide” now has a different meaning in a climate-changing world. The planet can no longer support that kind of growth, whatever its color.

In this sensitive time frame, the fact that leveraging the law to help the planet has been ineffective thus far proves that it never can or will be. As we collectively lose trust in government’s ability to act, climate legislation is increasingly viewed for what it is: lip service to appease public outcry. After all, the data hasn’t changed so much in the past decade. The time for passivity masked with pledges has passed. 

The result of this mass disillusionment, however, doesn’t have to be hopelessness. There is more outrage and action than ever. The challenge comes from where to direct it.

Credit: Earth First!
A protest led by the radical environmentalist group Earth First!

Imagine if activists didn’t have to work through the intermediary of governments that have proven themselves incapable of addressing the scale of the problem? Some don’t: the radical environmentalism movement, characterized by groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, seeks to defend nature by methods that disregard policy, profit motives, and capitalist ideologies—often directly opposing these systems by means of civil disobedience or property destruction. The Extinction Rebellion movement is following in these footsteps, leading civil resistance and disruption efforts internationally.

Legal theorist and libertarian author Butler Shaffer writes:

You and I can bring civilization back into order neither by seizing political power, nor by attacking it, but by moving away from it, by diverting our focus from marbled temples and legislative halls to the conduct of our daily lives. The “order” of a creative civilization will emerge in much the same way that order manifests itself through the rest of nature: not from those who fashion themselves leaders of others, but from the interconnectedness of individuals pursuing their respective self-interests.

Movements fighting for food sovereignty and Land Back are also crucial to redistributing power and shifting focus for what’s to come. No amount of reports, Green New Deals, or budget reconciliation bills will do the work of community organization and diligent resistance. When our trust and faith is placed in each other rather than the government, we gain more power than we may think possible.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.