‘Saving Ourselves’ author says we can’t wait on global leaders to save the climate » Yale Climate Connections


Sociologist Dana Fisher used to attend all the big climate negotiations.

In 1998, she traveled to Kyoto, Japan, where the first agreement to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions was adopted. At the Hague in 2000, she interviewed protesters building a dike of sandbags around the conference hall to symbolize the need for aggressive action on climate change. And in 2015, she was in Paris when the world’s governments laid out their most ambitious climate goals yet in the Paris climate agreement. 

But Fisher, the recently appointed director of the Center for Environment, Community, & Equity and professor in the School of International Service at American University, now questions the point of these meetings. 

“They are all just smoke, green mirrors, and a bunch of hot air. No longer do these meetings seem like opportunities to save the world, rather, they are exercises in greenwashing and elaborate games to kick the can down the road until it’s too late,” she writes in her new book.

“Instead of waiting for a slow and ineffective climate regime to save us, we need to identify and acknowledge our power, then figure out how to harness it effectively so we are prepared to survive what’s coming.”  

In other words, we must accept the responsibility for saving ourselves. 

Alternatives to waiting on the world’s leaders 

What’s needed, Fisher argues, is an AnthroShift, a broad-based and yet deeply ingrained change of perception and behavior. But AnthroShifts only occur when society perceives a risk to be imminent and significant. “Without a sustained shock that has tangible consequences in terms of social costs to people and property, the subsequent change will be ephemeral.”

Our collective experience with the COVID-19 pandemic provided one example of an AnthroShift. The threat of the virus shocked the system into new actions and configurations. People changed their behavior and, coincidentally, those changes resulted in measurable reductions in carbon pollution, proving that rapid climate action was possible. But these unprecedented reductions did not survive the recovery. When the pandemic ended, emissions soon equaled and then surpassed their pre-pandemic levels. 

System-shifting shocks can come in other forms. Much of “Saving Ourselves” is devoted to interpreting the findings from Fisher’s decadeslong study of activists, especially in the women’s movement — the focus of Fisher’s previous book, “American Resistance” — and in the climate movement. The moral shock of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 brought millions across the United States and around the world out into the streets for the first Women’s March. Climate shocks, like the devastating floods in Pakistan, wildfires in Canada, or the record-breaking heat waves in the South- and Northwest, to name but a few recent examples, brought out marchers in comparable numbers.

These protests made a difference. The women’s and climate marches, the marches for science and gun control, and the Black Lives Matter protests, Fisher argues, contributed to the election of Joe Biden in 2020, to the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act in 2021 and 2022 — both laws poured federal money into climate efforts — and to beating back an expected red wave in the 2022 midterm election. 

As with our experience with COVID-19, however, activism can be undermined by its success. Trump’s constant provocations spurred action throughout his presidency. When he left office, the overall level of action subsided. Then as Democrats scored successes in Congress, many Democratic activists seemed content to let their representatives do their jobs. Until the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade brought them out again.

Enacting the deep and durable change of an AnthroShift will require repeated prompting. One reason for Fisher’s “apocalyptic optimism,” as she dubs it, is that this is exactly what climate change promises to deliver: an escalating cascade of climate shocks. 

Harnessing these shocks for effective action, however, requires more organization than marches quickly assembled over social media. The fortuitous connections fostered by overlapping alerts must develop into durably supportive communities. And these communities must incorporate other voices and concerns to complement those of the highly educated, predominantly female, white, and middle-aged activists who have so consistently shown up at the protests Fisher surveyed. 

Communities of action and radical flanks

Protests grounded in communities that have suffered the injuries and insults of fossil fuel pollution — or have been devastated by climate impacts caused by the ongoing burning of fossil fuels — can deliver moral shocks of their own, shocks whose reverberations can prime other social groups for an AnthroShift. Fisher writes that activists must target the fossil fuel companies that have so relentlessly pressed their case in the media, in state and national legislatures, and even in international climate meetings. For far too long, they have confused the public, coerced decision-makers, and, thereby, delayed meaningful action. Breaking their grip on the mechanisms of political power may entail more radical action. 

To explain this point, Fisher turns to the history of the Civil Rights movement. Fisher argues that the more confrontational tactics of younger activists changed the public perceptions of what was possible — and reasonable — in the pursuit of racial justice. Similarly, activists on the “radical flank” of the climate movement are experimenting with more extreme tactics — disrupting meetings and workplaces, blocking traffic, symbolically attacking cultural icons — in their efforts to direct and keep public attention on the issue. So long as any damage is directed at property rather than people, Fisher defines such tactics as nonviolent. 

Nevertheless, more extreme measures can elicit violent, even lethal responses from authorities or their proxies. This happened during the Civil Rights movement and is happening now to Indigenous environmental protesters around the world. The moral shocks created by violence against legitimate protest can also build momentum for an AnthroShift. But only communities bound by tested emotional ties can manage this feat. “Scrolling alone,” Fisher observed in an exchange with Yale Climate Connections, won’t cut it. 

Fisher opens her closing chapter with a gritty assessment: “It’s bad, it’s getting worse, and nothing we have done comes anywhere close to what is needed.” Therefore, she continues, “We need to focus our collective efforts on (1) creating community, (2) capitalizing on moral [and climate] shocks, and (3) cultivating resilience.”

There are places in this program for everyone concerned about climate change. “Cultivating resilience,” she notes, could take the form of projects at local, state, or federal levels to redesign and remake landscapes so that they are less vulnerable to climate impacts while preserving natural resources and absorbing carbon. Completely avoiding risk is not an option. Fisher’s sober analysis of the climate crisis can help readers determine how much risk they can manage in meeting it.

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