Peace activists’ best hope? The Sunrise Climate Movement

The Sunrise Movement, now mainly a climate movement, is a potentially an enormous Trojan horse for smuggling the climate-justice-and-peace agenda inside the halls of power.

Image Credit: Citizens' Climate Lobby

Connecting the peace and climate Dots

Let’s start by facing a crucial fact: both major U.S. political parties love war. In fact, they love it so much that they’re completely willing to sacrifice a livable climate – and human existence with it – to their militaristic aims. Manuel Garcia’s incisive, cut-to-the chase article, underlining how U.S. elites’ love of military domination (which both major parties simply reflect) is the death knell for any effective climate action, should be required reading for all peace and climate activists.

At least for all who take these life-or-death issues seriously enough to demand timely, meaningful action. Like, say, before the end of recorded history.

Let’s face a second crucial fact: whether as separate issues – or as properly connected – our elites (and the major parties and corporate media who reflect their agendas) don’t give a flying frack about peace or climate. This fact is clearly illustrated by their deafening silence about the twin apocalyptic threats of nuclear war and climate Armageddon throughout the midterm election campaigns. A silence which Noam Chomsky rightly brands “moral depravity.”

When elites (and their political and media lackeys) wish to bar all policy action on an issue, they simply shroud the issue in silence. And blather endlessly about distractions – like Trump’s purported collusion with Russia – to crowd the far more serious (but taboo) issue out of media space. That the peace and climate issues have been given the silence-and-distraction treatment is compelling evidence they are taboo issues our elites don’t want discussed, much less acted on.

What I hope I’ve established so far is that peace and climate are tightly interconnected life-or-death moral issues, both subject to political and media conspiracies of silence and distraction, that our ruling elites have overwhelming vested interests – contrary to humanity’s interests – in not acting upon. What follows is that peace and climate activists have an overwhelming vested interest in joining forces (and making a huge public stink) on these tightly linked life-or-death issues, now tabooed from mainstream political discourse.

As the real adults in the room, peace and climate activists must play regent to the willful, destructive, “child king” of our ruling elites, overruling their edict that everyone must overlook their unspeakably reckless acts of juvenile vandalism. While the planet literally burns.

The only important strategic question, for peace and climate activists desperately savvy enough to join forces, is whose issue should take the lead as the banner issue. I’ll argue here that it should be the climate issue, but framed not merely as a call for climate action but for climate justice, where world peace is rightly viewed as an absolutely critical precondition for addressing humanity’s climate emergency.

So my case here depends partly on arguing that climate justice – which includes peace – is the master moral and political narrative of our times. But even more importantly, it depends on highlighting a potent news making force for climate action – and latently for climate justice and peace – already on the ground: the Sunrise climate movement.

Sunrise, by its strategically savvy targeting of Democrats, is already modeling for climate justice and peace activists the correct way to make a big, newsworthy stink. And its call for a “Green New Deal” is implicitly not merely a climate but a climate justice program necessitating (by its funding requirements alone) a huge scale back of U.S. militarism. In short, the Sunrise Movement, now mainly a climate movement, is a potentially an enormous Trojan horse for smuggling the climate-justice-and-peace agenda inside the halls of power (where Sunrise has already begun to arrive). Climate justice and peace activists would be foolish – tragically foolish – to look such a huge gift horse in the mouth.

Climate justice: Master narrative for these apocalyptic times

As life-or-death issues ignored by our elites, peace and climate have been in natural – and deeply unfortunate – competition for activist attention and campaign building. After all, hundreds of thousands of people suffer or die globally due to perverse elite policy on both issues, and either nuclear war or runaway climate change alone has the potential to destroy civilization as we know it, perhaps entailing total human extinction in the bargain.

It would be a fool’s errand – and a needless one – to convince peace or climate activists that the competing (but intimately linked) issue is more important. Fortunately, we have a master narrative – climate justice – that leads with the issue with greater promotional “legs” (our climate emergency) while insisting on peace as an absolutely essential precondition for addressing that emergency. Intelligent current activism, in my view, involves supporting the biggest news making movement – the Sunrise Movement – that approximates having a climate justice narrative (its call for a Green New Deal) while nudging Sunrise closer to a full-bore climate justice narrative. Above all, by insisting on a vast scaleback of U.S. militarism as essential to its Green New Deal aims.

(In that regard, journalists Sonali Kolhatkar and, even more importantly, Naomi Klein have performed an immense public service by promoting the Sunrise Movement – and showed penetrating political insight by proclaiming Sunrise “a glimmer of hope on the horizon for climate justice” amidst the uniformly dismal stream of climate news. One can only hope progressive and leftist opinion leaders are insightful enough to follow Kolhatkar’s and Klein’s lead – and mine – in taking up cudgels for the Sunrise Movement. Precisely while nudging it to fulfill its vast climate justice potential.)

But, before further arguing why Sunrise is peace and climate activists’ most promising horse to ride to victory – ultimately, humanity’s victory – I need to explore why the climate issue has greater promotional “legs” than the peace issue. (But please remember, as I make my case, that I’m endorsing the climate justice narrative, where climate leads, but peace follows immediately behind; if Sunrise pushes for its Green New Deal without pushing for peace, its efforts are guaranteed to fail.)

Betting on climate, the horse with natural “legs”

Pretty obviously, the U.S. public is not nearly as concerned with either climate or peace as humanity’s looming apocalypse warrants. Again, most of the blame lies with our ruling elites – especially our political and media elites – and their self-serving, morally depraved conspiracy of silence about these life-or-death issues.

But, amidst our public’s dangerously low concern about peace and climate, there’s strong reason to think the climate issue is growing political “legs” and, compared to peace as a single, isolated issue (which neither should be), will continue to run faster and faster.

First off, there’s the already mentioned news making climate protest by the Sunrise Movement, a miracle of politically savvy timing and great political luck. With the astutest conceivable political timing, Sunrise chose to launch its protest of likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just as both Democrats’ recapture of the House from Republicans and Pelosi’s own contentious quest to become Speaker were making national news.

It’s hard to imagine peace activists finding such a propitious moment for a comparable protest; and even if they had, it’s hard to imagining them offering such an appealing package as the Green New Deal tied up with the ribbon of peace rather than climate. As Naomi Klein’s fittingly titled book and film This Changes Everything amply prove, climate action has an inner logic that points inevitably toward a comprehensive program of climate justice – in many ways, a populist program a majority of Americans already desire. If there’s any current ground to fault Sunrise (and remember, the movement is young in more than one sense), it’s for failing to emphasize how intimately its alluring domestic Green New Deal is linked to a foreign policy of peace.

But beyond Sunrise’s impeccable political timing and the inner climate justice logic of effective climate action, there’s a deeper reason to embrace climate as the horse with stronger political “legs”: nature itself is irrefutably making the climate action case. Whether it’s unprecedented California wildfires or statistically improbable megastorms striking every few years, nature itself has become climate activists’ most effective ally for curing the climate change skepticism of everyday people. As a result, 70% of Americans now believe climate change is happening, and 58% believe it’s caused by human activities.

The case for peace, depending on the purely human whims of war-makers and how successfully they manage public opinion, has no such effective advocate as nature itself. By relying on a professional military for their warmongering – giving a piddling minority of Americans personal “skin” in the peace game – peace activists are at a serious disadvantage compared to climate activists who have increasingly frequent natural disasters as “up close and personal” persuaders.

And peace activists’ serious disadvantage is compounded by not having a professional expert lobby. While social scientists study war-and-peace issues, and there are academic courses called “Peace Studies,” there’s simply no professional field called “peaceology” in the same sense there’s a professional, credential-giving scientific field called climatology. Social science disciplines, however legitimate their aims, simply lack (probably by the more complex nature of their subject matter) the sheer quantity of evidence-based results – and consequent greater credibility – of the hard sciences.

Simply by publishing peer-reviewed papers hardening the existing climate change consensus, climatologists automatically serve as advocates for the climate activist cause. And, precisely because their hard-science studies have such profound human consequences, many climatologists (most notably, NASA’s James Hansen) feel a compelling moral obligation to become climate action activists. Both by the nature of their research and its life-or-death moral implications, climatologists constitute a professional climate action “lobby” peace activists can only impotently envy and will probably never have.

Finally, climate as an activist issue has the overwhelming advantage of an increasingly scary, short-term action timetable. While nuclear war could end human civilization as we know it in just a few hours, there’s no clear timetable for required action, and there is a 70+ year history of humanity surviving the nuclear holocaust threat (though few people are aware how closely we’ve skirted catastrophe).

For all these reasons – the news making success of Sunrise, the popular appeal of a climate justice “Green New Deal,” the superior persuasive power of the climate cause, the scientific “lobby” supporting it, and the compelling urgency of the climate timetable – peace activists should cede the lead role to climate justice activism and back (rather than enviously try to rival) Sunrise. But only conceived as a full-fledged climate justice movement whose success depends absolutely on peace.

Conclusion: Sunrise as history-making spearhead of the REAL resistance

All successful political organizing – whether movement or electoral – is about communicating a narrative, and cognitive scientist George Lakoff is right (as is the Poor People’s Campaign) that the winning narrative needs to be a moral narrative. For me, the climate justice narrative (as sketched, say, by Naomi Klein or David W. Orr) is the definitive moral narrative for our potentially apocalyptic times, the most comprehensive moral “umbrella” for building an activist resistance coalition. One resisting precisely the moral depravity of our pro-war and anti-climate ruling elites.

For me, the best candidate for a real resistance movement – one resisting not just Trump but the corrupt, morally depraved system that gave us Trump – is one with a full-bore climate justice narrative. If no such movement exists (our current case), the best solution is an on-the-ground movement that approximates a climate justice narrative and shows potential to be nudged in that direction. Initially, my prime candidate for the real system-changing was the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), whose moral agenda of fighting poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation (Martin Luther King’s original “three evils” wisely updated with an ecological fourth) makes it implicitly a climate justice movement.

But the collective moral evils produced by politics require a political analysis and not just a moral narrative; theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society – which influenced Dr. King – is especially perceptive in analyzing the collective moral evils produced by political actors not necessarily so evil when acting merely as individuals.

(Almost needless to say, Niebuhr’s analysis has much to tell us about the many surprisingly decent people who follow Trump.) While I had reservations from the get-go about the PPC being the long-awaited real resistance movement, what eventually soured me on the PPC (despite its implicit climate justice agenda) was how it left its moral criticism hanging in a political void, without any analysis fingering the political actors responsible for the collective moral depravity.

Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon framed this criticism well when he upbraided the PPC for its “lack of any political endgame beyond the call to ‘vote like never before.’” Dixon’s BAR colleague Glen Ford brought us even closer to grasping why the Sunrise Movement – and not the PPC – is now the best candidate for spearheading the long-overdue real resistance when he wrote, “The Democratic Party is the primary mechanism that suppresses progressive thought and action in the United States” (boldface emphasis mine).

Yes, yes, a gazillion times yes! – and by targeting specifically Democrats for their climate foot-dragging, the Sunrise Movement has proven itself almost infinitely superior to the PPC as the long-awaited real climate-justice-based resistance. And peace activists – for the reasons previously stated – need Sunrise as much as Sunrise needs them.


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