After watching the failures of the UN negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 and the failure in 2010 of the US Congress to pass even weak legislation addressing climate change, former NPR journalist Wen Stephenson had what he calls his ‘holy crap!’ moment on climate change — and he became a climate activist.
Now he has published a book, called What We’re Fighting for Now is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.
“I'm a father of two young children — a 15-year-old son and a now 11-year-old daughter. And when I thought about this situation and the world that they are growing up into, and what this planet may be like within their lifetime, it really lit a fire under me,” Stephenson says.
This happened at a time in his life when he had just left his job at NPR and had the immense luxury of choosing what to do next, Stephenson says. After thinking about it, he couldn't imagine getting up in the morning and working on anything else.
“I had the ability at that moment to decide how to spend the rest of my life. I decided this was the thing,” he says.
Stephenson lives in Massachusetts, not far from Walden Pond. So when he had what he calls his “climate freak-out moment,” he was naturally drawn to the works of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s writings inspired him — but not quite in the way you might imagine.
Stephenson realized, as he reread Walden, that Thoreau, who is an icon of the American environmental movement, was not really an “environmentalist.” “That word would have meant nothing to him,” Stephenson contends.
But Thoreau was, unquestionably, a radical abolitionist, Stephenson says. “He was a human rights activist. He was deeply involved in the underground railroad, along with his mother and sisters,” Stephenson explains. “He personally sheltered runaway slaves, defying the fugitive slave law in the early 1850s. At one point, he even spirited [away] an accomplice of John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid.”
Stephenson says he is not comparing comparing climate change to slavery. That would would be perverse, he insists. But he is drawing inspiration from the abolitionists and from the abolitionist movement.
“I'm saying that our situation calls for a movement that’s every bit as radical and resolute, morally and even spiritually, as that movement and other radical human rights movements in our history,” Stephenson says.
Stephenson believes that many people in the climate movement — particularly policy experts and people working at a political level in Washington — don't really like to talk about justice.
“They don't really want to talk about race or inequality. They don't want talk about the distribution of wealth at the national level, much less at the global level,” he says. “They don't really want to talk about these things because they're politically inconvenient ... because it's hard to talk about structural forms of oppression that are at the root of this crisis and that prevent us from honestly addressing it."
Stephenson says he's calling for “a kind of radicalization of the mainstream.”
“At this late hour, to be serious about climate is to be radical, because it's really a radical situation. It requires us to go to the root of the systems that have created this. That's not going to happen until enough people come to terms with and face up to the radical nature of the situation.”
This is the only way that deep, revolutionary changes have happened in the US, Stephenson notes — “when ideas, principles and demands that were once considered radical and extreme — the freedom of African Americans, for example — became mainstream because radicals forced them into the mainstream consciousness and brought about a kind of moral reckoning in our society.”
The truth, he says, is that “we're still a long way from where we need to be on this.”
“I want an honest, national conversation about what the science says we're really facing, what it would really take to address it, and what the consequences of our failure to address it are likely to be,” he says.
No one in American politics, including President Barack Obama, is talking honestly about how large the the so-called "ambition gap" is between what we are told is politically possible and what scientists say is physically necessary to prevent catastrophe.
“I would love to hear Hillary Clinton, for example, or Bernie Sanders for that matter, really explain to the American people — really spell it out for us — just how far we are from addressing this, and how they envision the United States leading the world in closing the gap,” Stephenson says. “This is an emergency situation, and we need to start acting like it. So what do they propose that we do?” he asks.