Here is the prompt we had to work with: “December will see an array of blockbuster movies to entertain during the holidays. Two of these, Exodus: Gods and Kings (releasing 12 December) and Unbroken (releasing 25 December), draw on big stories—one ancient and world-shaping, the other contemporary and deeply personal. The tag line for Unbroken is ‘Survival. Resilience. Redemption.’—a line that could also apply to the great epic tale of Moses, Pharaoh, and the escape of the Hebrews from ancient Egypt. The year now coming to a close was also rife with drama and crises, and many have of necessity made ‘survival, resilience, redemption’ their own tacit taglines. In all the stories of 2014, who have been your heroes? Who has given us models of tenacity, unquenchable spirit, and hope?”
This past March saw the release of a grim report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report stated flatly that “throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.” Another report from the organization, issued just a few weeks ago, underscored the critical importance of our immediate response to this news. It warned:
Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.
None of this is new information, which is why, this past September 23rd, the United Nations hosted its 2014 Climate Summit at their headquarters in New York City. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited “world leaders, from government, finance, business, and civil society” to “galvanize and catalyze climate action.” Among other things, he hoped the summit would “mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015.”
Many observers, however, were understandably skeptical that these world leaders would take the necessary steps to limit climate change risks — and, indeed, they haven’t yet. Consider the United States, the world’s second worst polluter in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. On the one hand, there are signs that the U.S. is willing to take steps necessary to address the environmental crisis. During his 2014 State of the Union Address this past January, President Obama said:
The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.
At the same time, however, the President has not yet made a decision about whether to approve or cancel the fourth phase of the Keystone XL Pipeline System, which would see hundreds of thousands of barrels of unconventional petroleum deposits moved from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf Coast for refining. In addition to many environmental groups, Dr. James Hansen, the noted climatologist and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been a vocal opponent of the project and the use of unconventional oil. Among other things, he has said:
To avoid passing tipping points, such as initiation of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, we need to limit the climate forcing severely. It’s still possible to do that, if we phase down carbon emissions rapidly, but that means moving expeditiously to clean energies of the future. Moving to tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet, is a step in exactly the opposite direction, indicating either that governments don’t understand the situation or that they just don’t give a damn. People who care should draw the line.
And the Tar Sands aren’t the only concern. Not long ago, Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental organization 350.org, talked to host Amy Goodman on an episode of the program Democracy Now! about other concerns in terms of the U.S.’s role in aggravating climate change:
If we’re going to do anything about the problem on the scale that the scientists describe it, then we’re going to need far, far more ambitious attempts than the Obama administration has put forward so far. Yes, they’ve put a cap on coal-fired power plants. That’s good. At the same time, they’ve helped expedite the rise of the United States to become the biggest coal and gas producer in the world, passing the Saudis and the Russians, and they’ve watched coal exports steadily grow. That’s not compatible with what the scientists tell us, that we need to keep 75 or 80 percent of the fossil fuel that we know about underground. So the Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down. The only way we’ll change any of these equations, here or elsewhere, is by building a big movement. That’s why September 21st in New York, which all these groups are coordinating, is such an important day.
McKibben was referring to the People’s Climate March, which his organization, 350.org, called this past September 21st, ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit. Billed as “a massive, history-making march in New York City,” the day also saw thousands of coordinated actions in over 150 cities around the world. In New York, more than 400,000 marched, making the event the single largest climate action in world history.
Those who marched — the ones who cared, drew the line, and participated, either in New York or elsewhere — have given us truly incredible models of tenacity, unquenchable spirit, and hope. For these and many other reasons, the participants in the People’s Climate March — from my wife Stephanie to the sizeable Buddhist contingent to the more than one-hundred world leaders who joined the event — are, in my estimation, the Heroes of 2014.
As the calendar year comes to a close and we look to the future of the climate movement, we will have their powerful and affecting examples to guide us long past December 31st. In addition, their ranks can and must grow. It’s not too late. You too can be a Hero of 2014 and beyond. Join the climate movement now. You can start here.
[Some of the above text is drawn from the script of a recent episode of Off the Cushion with Danny Fisher.]