Q&A: ‘Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action’

Democracy professor Dana R. Fisher says we cannot ‘keep kicking the can down the road.’
Michaela
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Climate activists rally outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels in September 2023. Credit: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

What will it take for the world to finally rally around rapid, sustained climate action? 

Professor Dana R. Fisher answers this critical question in her new book, Saving Ourselves: Climate Shocks to Climate Action

Building upon years of research on activism, democracy, and climate politics, Fisher explores the state of the climate movement today to understand how radical direct action is evolving as the climate crisis worsens. 

In an interview with DeSmog’s Michaela Herrmann, Fisher outlines why she thinks “severe, durable climate shocks” will be required to shake the world out of the fossil fuel status quo once and for all. She draws upon years of data gathered from climate protests as early as COP6 in 2000 and lessons from the world’s response to COVID-19 to understand how civil society has responded to 30 years of ineffectual international climate negotiations.

Fisher – who is director of the Center for Environment, Community, & Equity (CECE) and a professor in the School of International Service at American University – talks about the power of “moral shocks” to inspire people to take part in climate activism; how young and retired people are coming together at climate protests; what climate activists have learned from the U.S. civil rights movement; and how tensions may rise between protesters and the increasingly repressive governments and climate countermovements that are pushing back against the public’s demands for climate action.

This interview was conducted on February 1, 2024, and has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Saving Ourselves is available February 13, 2024.

Michaela Herrmann:

One of the core things you talked about in the book is a “climate shock.” You mention how only a climate shock that is severe and durable is likely to push society to wake up and really address climate change rapidly. What do you think that shock might look like? And are there any historical parallels to what we’ve seen in other movements?

Dana Fisher: 

A climate shock is a deviation from normal environmental patterns in the form of drought, flood, heatwave, or other extreme events that have been exacerbated by climate change. And when I talk about the durability of shocks, it’s because I use the example of how society responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as a lesson. Basically, what we learned from the pandemic – I quote Greta Thunberg here – society can change quickly, but it only changes quickly when people are really personally afraid. So it’s about the personal experience of risk motivating change. 

But what we also learned from the pandemic is that people can change, and then they shift back because they either become desensitized, or they decide that the change was not worth it. In the case of COVID-19, people may have felt it was not worth losing so many personal freedoms, or paying so much more for resources. 

The durability and severity [of climate shocks] could be one huge disaster like in a disaster movie. When I teach about this, I always show the Day After Tomorrow. It’s very dramatic – which, you know, Hollywood – but the deal is that it’s this huge disaster of storms and a tsunami hitting New York City. 

Now, those are unrealistic, but [a climate shock] is that level of extensive disasters hitting simultaneously. And in some ways, the Secretary General of the United Nations has talked about this – specifically, when he spoke about what happened in Pakistan last year, with the severe flooding where a third of the country was displaced. That’s a great example of the extent to which we need to see climate shocks. The deal is that it has to happen in multiple locations simultaneously.

One of the things I thought was interesting about summer 2023, is the way that we saw people become desensitized, for example, to wildfire smoke. I remember the first time that we had it here in Washington D.C., all the schools canceled recess, and they canceled baseball games. And then by the third time – and it was the same level of bad by the third time – everybody was like, “we can just do it, and if it bothers you, you can wear a mask.” We became desensitized. 

That gives us a sense of the degree to which a climate shock has to be severe. And it has to really give people the sense that it could be life threatening. 

Herrmann:

I think there was a point where there was wildfire smoke in a couple of sections of the country, and there was flooding in the middle of the country – it does feel like things are starting to happen [simultaneously], even just in the United States. 

Fisher:

In the summer of 2023, a number of activists and other climate groups were posting on various social media being like, “see, it just goes to show that disaster can motivate change.” And we know that – that’s basically what my book is about. We know that it opens up windows of opportunity. 

These kinds of changes that worked at a society level, at least in our country, can be seen in the Great Depression, which was triggered by the Dust Bowl, and severe drought and farming practices. Some of my colleagues in sociology long ago wrote all about how, during the Depression, there was a huge move from labor towards America going more socialist. 

In a lot of ways, Roosevelt’s New Deal was a pushback, the final “hail Mary” for the American state before it got overturned. And if there hadn’t been a New Deal – which was a whole bunch of socialist-style packages, including developing the Civilian Conservation Corps – it is very likely that the United States would have shifted its regime. 

Herrmann:

As a follow-on question that you touch on in the book: What does the protest movement look like today, demographically? And is there a difference between who’s participating in the more mainstream climate movement, versus this more radical flank that you talk about?

Fisher:

What I found in my research is that the climate movement tends to continue to be highly educated and predominantly white. This is if we look at the people who are engaging in large scale protest events, but also in these kinds of actions that are part of the radical flank where I’ve collected data. 

WIth some exceptions, people protesting in the streets tend to be middle aged, more female than male. But when we look at the radical flank, we see a lot of young people, and then we see a lot of retirees. 

When the media talks about climate activists – particularly ones who are engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience – they often tend to fetishize young people. Young people tell a great story about the future, and about anxiety. They are building off of a lot of the messages that Greta and many other young people have pushed for. 

But what I think is often really overlooked is the way that older people in the United States are also playing a role. Many of them are providing really interesting experiences from previous movements where they were active and are coming back into activism, now that they’re retired, or now that they’re older, and that they don’t have kids at home and they have more flexibility. 

As a sociologist, we talk about availability during different times in a life course, and we know that people have a lot of time when they’re students. Then time goes down, once you start having kids, and then you start having time again. 

But what we do know from research is that people who get engaged when they’re young stay engaged over their life course. And when they have kids, they may vote more and do more local stuff in their schools and their religious associations. And as they get older, and they have more free time, they can become climate grandmas. They could join Third Act [a campaign group of people over the age of 60] to become part of the rocking chair rebellion.

Herrmann:

You mentioned the media in that response a little bit, and in the book you talk about how even the Economist – which typically has a more central leaning – before COP27 published a piece about 1.5 degrees, that that target is maybe gone. It was a big moment for a publication like that to say that. 

What role do you think the media has played in covering this new era of more radical protest? And what do you wish it would cover?

Fisher:

I have been told by journalists that newsrooms have been resistant to thinking about covering climate protests, because they think that it will inspire copycats, which I think is weird. 

When I asked about it, we were told, “well, a lot of folks think it’s bad, because it’s going to inspire other people that do it because they get media coverage. So we’re not giving them media coverage.” I think that’s an absolutely terrible idea, to not report on what’s happening in the real world because they’re worried that it’ll happen more.

There’s no question that the media is an actor. A lot of these groups are specifically doing it for attention and to get the word out to the general public. Take, for example, the soup that was thrown at the Mona Lisa. And the Washington Post, when they showed the video, they also put up the protesters’ demands. I mean, that’s great advertising for a movement, no question about it.

The other side of the media stuff that I find it increasingly difficult to take is, I’ll write a piece that gets published in the media or I’ll do media stuff, and it might say, “brought to you by the American Petroleum Institute.” The way that fossil fuel money permeates, there’s no question that it will play a role at some level in the ways that media get produced. That is a real problem. I am a strong and avid supporter of “fossil free” everything.

I have experienced and seen how colleagues end up being a little more open-minded to certain things that they wouldn’t likely otherwise be if it wasn’t going to turn off the money that funded their research. But it’s not just the research, though. It’s also like, how does fossil fuel money affect advertising money and affect media? And I think there’s no question that it does. 

Folks like journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt and other people have been tracing some of that. But I think there’s more to be done.

Herrmann:

I think that’s a great point. One of our editors published a story with Westervelt on the media’s fossil fuel ties a couple months ago. 

Fisher:

That was the story that I was specifically thinking of, which was a great story. 

For example, if I’m talking about something climate-related and then you see, “sponsored by big oil company” next to it, it suggests to the reader that the oil company is supportive of climate action and supportive of the things that I’m talking about. This basically enables them to greenwash themselves without actually having to do anything that involves climate action. 

Herrmann:

It makes it weird working in media, scrutinizing your colleagues, ultimately, but I think it’s necessary as well.

Fisher:

It’s the same thing with research. There was a time when I would not have made such comments about people who take fossil fuel money, but it’s a real problem. 

It’s also petrochemicals – a lot of universities subsidize startup funds for faculty by taking money from specific companies. I was just thinking about people who take oil company money, but it’s so much more than that.

The natural progression of a social movement, when it doesn’t achieve its goals, is it either demobilizes, or it radicalizes to push harder to get what it wants. 

Dana R. Fisher

Herrmann:

Speaking of that, and how that’s affected international negotiations and discussions about climate, you talk about the long slog to climate progress – which I think we’re probably still in the middle of – and how we’ve collectively been let down by 30 years of climate talks that have been ineffective, essentially. What would a different international process look like? Especially as civil society increasingly has less access, and lobbyists increasingly have more access?

Fisher: 

My friends at the UNFCCC [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] are not going to like this, but I guess I would say that I think that we need to re-envision decision-making in a way that first of all is not privileging interests. It’s not just fossil fuel interests that are being empowered. We really need to take the money out of governments. All around, I think that’d be better. Because money can – it takes away people’s interest in thinking about serving their publics. 

Obviously, you want your country to be economically successful, but the greater good also needs to be the priority. And right now the way that this regime is working and functioning and the way that they’re empowering – it’s like they’re saying the quiet part out loud now, even while there are murmurs about maybe phasing out fossil fuel. It’s just crazy talk. 

From my time working as a contributing author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I saw the way that these countries also push back against the science and really limited the way the Summary for Policymakers could talk about some of these things – we had to call them “vested interests” rather than “fossil fuel interests” – I mean, come on. 

It has to walk away from these specific privileged interests, many of which are fossil fuel connected, that are pushing for their bottom lines and their personal dollars, rather than the collective good.

Herrmann:

I think, especially with climate, some of these things are working at cross purposes. Like, sure, economically, maybe it’d be good for your country to develop more fossil fuel infrastructure – but that’s completely at odds with having a future that we can live in, that’s not too warm.

Fisher:

We’ve set up this system where we reward and we subsidize fossil fuel extraction in so many different ways. We subsidize it in terms of basically renting it for nothing on public lands and extracting it. We subsidize it in terms of how it’s sold, how it’s consumed, and so forth. 

Basically, the system means that there are these environmental externalities that they don’t pay for – the people who are causing the problem. And instead, when there’s a huge crisis that’s driven by climate change, exacerbated climate shocks, we all have to bear the brunt of it, and the government and our tax dollars all go together towards it. 

Herrmann:

Yeah, absolutely. This is a slight pivot, but I wanted to touch on this because I thought the comparison you made of the climate movement now and the civil rights movement in the past in America was really interesting. You wrote about how some of the more radical climate protesters today are often working in anonymity, and they have to mask their identities, and how that sort of keeps them separate from a larger community. Do you think that trend will continue? Or do you think maybe they’ll have to stop being anonymous to reach a different level?

Fisher:

It’s a really good question. I think it’ll become increasingly difficult to stay anonymous, if you are continually protesting. Right now, you mobilize, you do a little something – even if you’re doing it with Climate Defiance, and bird-dogging elected officials, or you’re doing it with XR, or Third Act, you can do it in a way where you’re not known because it’s a temporary thing. But I think that the more the climate crisis worsens, the more people will be protesting consistently and will have to create community there. 

I also think that Third Act is a really good example of creating community because they’re doing it through these hubs in states and regions, where these people are working on broader campaigns. They include civil disobedience, but it’s known as part of a community activity. And I think that that is probably a really great model for thinking about how to embed it more. 

People have also experienced the ways that we lost a lot of social norms during the pandemic, and through social media – people get doxxed, they get harassed online, and as a result, they want to stay anonymous. But the civil rights movement could not have worked the way it did if it had been anonymous. It also wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been embedded in the community of Black churches. And I think there are some really interesting reasons why the climate movement needs those kinds of real, tangible, local, community-embedded infrastructure. 

Herrmann:

Is there anything else that you really want people to take away from the book about direct action and where it’s at at this moment in time, and the topic of saving ourselves? 

Fisher:

One of the things I talked about in the book is how direct action and the “radical flank” – I’m using my air quotes here – is absolutely not very radical right now. But we know that the natural progression of a social movement, when it doesn’t achieve its goals, is it either demobilizes, or it radicalizes to push harder to get what it wants. 

Given climate shocks are coming more frequently and with more severity, there’s no reason to think that even if some people burn out and decide to leave the movement – and we’re certainly seeing that – many more won’t come in their wake, because they’re starting to feel the squeeze of the climate crisis. There’s no way that the climate movement is going to go away anytime soon.

I think it’s worth mentioning here the value of “moral shock” and the role that moral shock played in mobilizing people during the civil rights period. And that is through law enforcement and counter movements becoming really repressive, and escalating violence. 

There are many accounts about how it was seeing young Black men and women who were sitting non-violently, unarmed, blocking something or sitting somewhere and refusing to move, and getting beaten up and harmed physically on national television, that motivated others to join the movement in solidarity. 

I think that we need to recognize that moral shock may be a really important tool for mobilizing. We need to recognize that the further along we get in the movement, the more likely it is that there will be activists met with violence and with larger penalties because the state is going to try to maintain its legitimacy by cracking down however it has to. 

It’s not a fun process. It’s not an easy road. But I think that it’s the most likely road given historical examples of other movements. 

Herrmann:

Why did you want to write this book now?

Fisher:

I felt like I needed to try to make a coherent case for understanding what we need to do and how we need to think about how we’re going to save ourselves. Because if we keep waiting for somebody to do it for us, be it Bill Gates, or whoever is the President of the United States, we are going to be sorely, sorely disappointed. And we are going to watch what we think of as the world probably crumble quite substantially. 

As unfair as it is, the future is up to us. I felt like having studied these things and seeing the puzzle pieces come together, I just felt like I had to get the word out and write it for the general public so they could really understand it – rather than writing another paper. I needed to get the message out to everybody so that we don’t just say, “Oh, well, this next climate negotiation, this is going to be the one!” 

We’re just kicking the can down the road. And we need to at least recognize what that can looks like if we’re going to keep kicking it.

Michaela
Michaela is the Lead Researcher at DeSmog, with a particular focus on agribusiness and the livestock sector.

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