A few minutes with EcoEquity's Tom Athanasiou

Tom Athanasiou directs Brower Center resident organization EcoEquity, an activist think tank (and Earth Island project) that sees distributive justice as a precondition for emergency climate mobilization.  In practice, EcoEquity spends most of its time campaigning for a global climate accord that's fair enough to actually work.  Abstract stuff?  Maybe not. The Hub recently had Tom speak at one of its Brower Center community lunches, and the information he shared was so compelling that we just had to know more. So we asked!


DBC: How did you first become involved in the global climate issue?  What early career experiences or realizations led you down the path you are on now?

TA: My career, such as it is, began when I dropped out of RPI (I was studying physics) and, after a bit of wandering, washed up in Berkeley.  I soon became a member of the Berkeley Recycling Collective, which ran the old recycling drop-off center (now gone) at University and Sacramento.  Later, while working at Sun Microsystems, I wrote Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor, which is, amazingly, still in print.  Later still, in 1999, in the run-up to a milestone climate meeting (the sixth Conference of Parties in The Hague) I was invited to give a talk up at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.  I chose the title “After the Kyoto Protocol,” and at the talk I met Paul Baer. Together, we founded EcoEquity.   

Before we could launch, though, we had to pick an organizational name.  Should it leverage the word “equity” or should we go with “climate justice?”  We used the later term in a few emails, and were immediately approached by a local CJ organizer who told us to desist, that his outfit had already taken the term.  It was absurd, but it was also a goad to reflection.  The CJ movement back then was focused almost entirely on local community self defense, and we were doing something else. 

Since then, of course, climate justice has come to name a global movement that belongs to us all.  That said, we went with “equity” because it’s the language of the scientists, the policy people, and the UN types.  And this was the milieu within which we planned to work.  The climate crisis, after all, is a failure of global governance.  More precisely, it’s a global commons problem – the global commons problem from Hell, actually. 

A word on the current state of play:  We’re now more that halfway between the great Copenhagen anticlimax and the next big climate showdown, which will be in Paris in December 2015.  Why should you care?  There are many in our ranks who don’t think you should, and who respond to any reference to the global talks with sad, cynical dismissal.  As if there was a future in which international climate politics was just a sideshow.

DBC: What are some of the challenges you face in mobilizing communities that have different values, education levels, income levels and so on? In short, how do you get people who are so different from one another to UNDERSTAND and CARE about the ecological plight we face?

TA: This is a big question.  I’m going to focus on your reference to “income levels.”

The core of the climate challenge – and the more you know about the science, the more you see this – is what we might agree to call “Zero Carbon 2050.”  This is where we have to go, or at least try our damnest to go.  And it’s not going to be easy.  Zero Carbon 2050 means zero carbon for everyone.  It means that rich countries have to draw their emissions down to an almost inconceivably small level, and fast, even though economic polarization within their borders is reaching crisis proportions.  And it means that poor countries have to face a future in which their emissions are never going to grow.  And it means that middle-income countries like China have to drive to a more or less immediate emissions peak, and then draw their emissions down to near-zero levels.  And they have to do this even though they’re still home to hundreds of millions of desperately poor people.  How is all this going to happen?  The truth is that we don’t know, not really, and this is the ultimate root of the despair that’s seeping into all aspects of the environmental culture.  Basically, it’s hard to believe that we’re going to make it.

This story gets personal, and it comes up even in the Brower Center’s LEED-certified halls.  Just before her death, Becca Tarbotton spoke at a Post Carbon Institute event in the Goldman Theater.  In her remarks, she called for a new politics of “resistance” and “renewal.”  I piped up from the stands to say that she had forgotten the “third R,” which was “redistribution,” and there would be no hope without it.  She was quick to concur, and added that there wasn't time to say everything.  Later, during a quick conversationg in the lobby, we agreed that time would have to be found.  I am sad to say she won't be helping, but it had best be found soon.    

DBC: Tell me more about our "next last chance," specifically, the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.  What would be the ideal outcome?

TA: An ideal outcome is no longer possible.  The question now is whether we – and by “we” I mean the international coalition of civil-society organizations, researchers, and progressive governments that work the climate talks – can at least manage a provisional win.  We have to try, and if we think about it we can see why.  There’s essentially no chance that we’re going to get anywhere even close to the low-carbon transition we need without a really seismic international shift. 

The good news is that such a shift is possible.  The solar revolution is real, and while it won’t save us, it will allow us to save ourselves, but only if we’re brave enough to act like we’re really in this together.  In practice, this means a new set of norms and institutions designed to ensure that all people have access to the finance and technology and support that they need to embrace very rapid and unprecedented changes.  And this, in turn, means a new kind of environmentalism, and not just in the rich parts of the world. 

This too is possible.  Internationally, and particularly in climate circles, the tone has changed.  Equity really is on the agenda.  And lest you think that I am a fool, I should add that sometimes even I don’t believe it.  It’s always possible that the climate talks will degenerate again into posturing and recrimination.  On the other hand, they may not.  There’s a seriousness in the hallways, and a sense that time is not our friend.  It’s certainly true that the NGOs, or many of them, have shifted their positioning.  Global climate equity used to be a marginal issue.  Now, there’s a rich debate percolating on “Equity Reference Frameworks,” quantitative principle-based frameworks by which nations can effectively evaluate the adequacy and justice of each others' emission-reduction pledges.  We’ll need them when we get to Paris.  This is why the International Climate Action Network, an alliance of over 700 NGOs from around the world, has seen its equity working group grow into one of the most active in the whole network.  And why national delegations, too, are drawing lines.  Critically, the Least Developed Country bloc, the African bloc, and the Association of Small Island States are all pushing to move equity forward. 

This isn’t a matter of abstractions.  In less than 1,000 days, six years after Copenhagen, during the Paris winter of 2015, we’ll face our next last chance.  The days blur in Skype and endless email.  In my own office, we’re gearing up, together with our partners at the Stockholm Environment Institute, to release the new version of Greenhouse Development Rights, an Equity Reference Framework that we’ve been working on for over eight years.  And we talk about emergency mobilization to anyone who will listen.  And we aren't alone.  Every year, more and more people are ready to have the conversation.

DBC: How can people get involved with EcoEquity and spreading your message?

TA: It’s not our message.  It’s a question of our common predicament. 

More than anything else, we need to have a Big Think.  The climate crisis is deadly real, and, realizing this, people hesitate to add more to the agenda.  But global economic injustice is not an elective issue that we can choose to engage with or set aside.  It’s the gateway to rapid change, to a real chance.  It’s as fundamental as the planetary boundaries themselves. 

Taking this on board is, of course, a bit hard.  Lacking a clear sense of a way forward, the climate equity challenge can seem overwhelming.  But, really, there’s nowhere else to go, not unless you want to relax into the old nonsense about how technology is going to save us. 

In the short term, people can start with one of the Summer Heat campaigns, and the pipeline battles, and the divestment movement more generally.  But then they should think big, even bigger than the challenge of facing down the Carbon Cartel.  The Arctic Ice is melting, and soon, it seems, the rate of planetary warming is going to increase.  Bad news this is, but not yet cause for utter despair.  Late as the day may be, we have the money, and the technology, to save ourselves.  It’s just that neither will do so of its own accord. 

We have to save ourselves.

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