A protester holding a sign reading, "You will die of old age. We will die of climate change."
A protester at a "die-in" in Bangkok, Thailand, in September. Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty
Environment

The 2010s Killed Off the Polite Climate Change Conversation

The decade that began with the defeat of a relatively moderate climate bill is ending amid calls for capitalism to be dismantled.
December 9, 2019, 5:05pm

In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proved to be false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.

As we lurched into the 2010s, you wouldn't have been crazy for thinking that a solution for the climate emergency was within reach. It seemed it could even be accomplished without profound economic change. All we had to do, the prevailing early Obama-era political logic went, was bring together people of opposing viewpoints (Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and oil companies), hash out a plan to apply the appropriate tweaks on our economy, and voila, watch as capitalism took care of the rest.

But a decade of GOP climate denial, fossil fuel industry obstruction, mounting climate disasters, and the cataclysmic election of Donald Trump pushed the climate fight into a much more radical and confrontational mode, so much so that the optimism of 2010 now seems bizarre, if not delusional. The young leaders demanding an economy-transforming Green New Deal, people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement's Varshini Prakash, along with social movements they help represent, take it as a given that capitalism is not the solution to impending climate doom, it's what's feeding the crisis. The policies held up as solutions in 2010 are today regarded by many as insufficient half-measures, and more people think drastic, society-altering moves are the only way forward. Here's how we arrived at this point.

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July 22, 2010: "We don't have the votes." the Waxman-Markey climate bill collapses and companies avoid shouldering the burden of their emissions

The signature piece of climate legislation that nearly got made into law would have instituted a "cap and trade" system on carbon, forcing companies to pay for the emissions they create. Maybe if the Senate had passed this bill (as the House did in 2009), the U.S. would be much closer to achieving the 50 percent reduction in emissions that the United Nations calculates is needed by 2030 to avoid locking ourselves into environmental chaos. But instead, fossil fuel companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the effort to put a market price on carbon dioxide emissions, Republicans opposed it, and centrist Democrats from coal states defected, leading Democratic Senator Harry Reid to announce on July 22 that "we don't have the votes." And so began years of soul-searching by environmental groups. If cap and trade couldn't pass Congress when it was controlled by Democratic majorities, what was the path forward?

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Autumn, 2011: The Keystone XL pipeline battle becomes an emblem of the fight against the fossil fuel industry

Declaring war on a 1,661-mile pipeline proposed to move oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast was not the most obvious next move for the climate movement. Pundits and journalists openly wondered how opposing a single piece of fossil fuel infrastructure could effectively slow down climate change. But people like Dallas Goldtooth, a campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said "it was more than just a pipeline." Groups such as his, as well as youth-led newcomers like 350.org, which led a Keystone XL protest outside the White House resulting in hundreds of arrests, saw the project as "a symptom of the greater issue of fossil fuel extraction," Goldtooth explained. By late 2011, the Atlantic was referring to Keystone XL as "today's most explosive environmental debate." It was a signal that the days of seeking compromise with the fossil fuel industry were over, even if the fate of the pipeline is to this day still up in the air.

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July 19, 2012: Fossil fuel divestment arrives

At the height of summer in 2012, the climate author and activist Bill McKibben described oil, coal and gas companies in Rolling Stone as "Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization." He concluded the essay, which promptly went viral, with a call for people to start pressuring institutions to divest from fossil fuels, the same way activists had done against companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa. Students at schools like Harvard and Swarthmore soon took up the challenge, and within a few years the fossil fuel divestment campaign had spread to hundreds of schools around the world. Today, institutions representing $11 trillion in assets have committed in some way.

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December 4, 2013: We wake up to the reality of a looming $674 billion loss in the form of abandoned energy projects

Up until this point, few people in the political or business mainstream questioned the financial logic of companies and governments committing billions of dollars to fossil fuel projects that could destabilize the natural systems on which human life depends. But that began to change with a 2013 report from the U.K. think tank Carbon Tracker, which warned that global efforts to limit carbon emissions could render $674 billion worth of climate-destroying energy projects worthless. This concept of "stranded assets" has since then wormed its way into the agenda of major institutions such as the Bank of England, whose governor Mark Carney has warned that "If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist." This was an important truth coming into focus: The fossil fuel industry doesn't just cause climate change, it is exposing investors to massive financial risks as well.

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September 2014: Naomi Klein's blockbuster 'This Changes Everything' pins the blame for the climate emergency on capitalism

With the subtitle "Capitalism Vs. The Climate," this international bestseller from author and activist Naomi Klein was anything but subtle in its diagnosis of the climate emergency. The book's arguments—that incremental steps like putting a price on carbon are woefully insufficient and instead we need massive social movements to push for an overhaul of our entire economic system—were not exactly novel, either. Many of these arguments were drawn, as Klein herself acknowledged, from the experiences of frontline groups, many in the Global South, who for decades have fought against corporate encroachment on their land and way of life. But This Changes Everything nonetheless helped reframe the terms of the climate change debate and influenced future climate leaders like Sunrise's Prakash, who's called the Canadian writer "a personal hero of mine."

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December 12, 2015: World leaders negotiate the Paris climate treaty

After two weeks of frenzied and sleepless negotiations in the French capital, world leaders, business executives and other global power brokers burst into tears and applause upon the signing of a major international treaty to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. "History is here," declared then-French President François Hollande. But the tens of thousands of activists on the Paris streets were far less stoked about a voluntary agreement that in the best case would only limit climate destruction at 2.6 degrees. "All the people who were on the outside were saying basically that the state negotiators sold out the planet to the highest bidder," said Angela Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, which formed in 2013. Even at a moment when the world finally seemed to be taking climate change seriously, there was a growing sense that actions endorsed by global leaders were too little, too late.

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April, 2016: Indigenous people put their bodies on the line to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock

In the spring of 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe set up a camp to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they saw as a direct threat to their water supplies and sovereignty. The standoff eventually became "the largest indigenous mobilization in living memory," Goldtooth said. Shocking images of police blasting protesters with water cannons went viral, revealing to millions of people, some for the first time, that "the economic system that rules our lives is predicated on the oppression and depletion of life," he said. It wasn't the first time a pipeline had been protested, but the widespread media attention made it a symbol for the conflict between Indigenous rights and a planet-ravaging fossil fuel industry. Trump approved the pipeline after it was stalled under the Obama administration, but the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is still fighting it.

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June 1, 2017: Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty

The news of Trump withdrawing the U.S. from a climate treaty the nation played a major role in negotiating was obviously terrible. Still, many observers tried to put a positive spin on the damage. "The American government may have pulled out of the agreement, but the American people remain committed to it – and we will meet our targets," said former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Though individual states and cities have made efforts to stay on track, two years later, U.S. emissions are still far from under control. And Trump's decision may have so badly undermined international confidence in an agreement based on good-faith voluntary reductions that "in the 2020s it could break down or even fall apart entirely," David Roberts wrote recently on Vox.

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November 13, 2018: Activists and AOC launch the Green New Deal from Nancy Pelosi's office

The 2018 midterms initially did not seem all that promising for climate change. Voters in the state of Washington rejected an attempt to put a price on the state's carbon emissions after the oil industry spent $31 million opposing it. But only days after the elections, hundreds of young activists with the Sunrise Movement occupied incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office calling for a Green New Deal, and when newly elected congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez showed up, it helped launch the concept—as well as the idea that we can only fix climate change by radically altering our economic system—into the political discourse. This inaugurated a new, more ambitious era of climate activism, one in which leaders were unafraid of being branded radicals. "To me, capitalism is irredeemable," Ocasio-Cortez argued earlier this year.

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September 23, 2019: "How dare you?" Greta Thunberg addresses the United Nations after millions of teens skip school for climate

This was the year teens around the world collectively freaked out about climate change, skipped school in the millions, and threw down a heavy guilt trip on all the older leaders standing in the way of progress. "How dare you?" growled 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to Presidents and CEOs at the Climate Action Summit in New York. They have good reason to be pissed off and mobilized: Global emissions continue to get higher and higher, and the effects of climate change are glaringly obvious, with fires, floods, and hurricanes all becoming more common and severe. Especially for young people, global warming now feels like an apocalyptic threat, in the face of which something like going to school seems pointless. Despite all the terrible news these days, however, climate veterans like Adrar feel a cautious sense of hope. "Today we're much closer to systems change than we were in 2010," she said. "The next couple years are really going to be indicators of how much power we've been able to build in this decade."

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change_. Follow him on_ Twitter.