The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Hope in a Lost Election
Less than a month ago, I wrote that I found hope in the frightening new climate change report from the IPCC . There were two central elements in the report that fueled my positive reading. 1) Yes, it is possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 2) It is easier to limit warming when we also take sustainable development and social justice seriously as a parallel goal.
I was also honest that my hope was not an indicator that limiting warming would be easy. As one of the authors of the report said, "Limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes."
Today, I once again point to hope in the face of daunting challenges. This time, my thinking is guided by the failure of a Colorado ballot initiative that would have put big constraints on fracking. That news provides fodder for reflections that go far beyond my home state or technical matters of oil and gas drilling.
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Several times in the last few months, I described Proposition 112, and encouraged Colorado citizens to vote yes. The ballot initiative would have required about a 1/2 mile "setback" between new oil and gas wells and almost anything -- homes, schools, stores, lakes and streams. Eco-Justice Ministries was one of the first groups to endorse the measure, because it fits well with our "keep it in the ground" stance on fossil fuels.
The fossil fuel industry has an opposite stance, since their business depends on "take it out of the ground." The industry fought hard to defeat 112, pouring over $30 million into the opposition campaign and its carefully crafted advertising. The grassroots group fighting for increased setbacks was outspent by an overwhelming ratio of 40 to 1.
Neither major party candidate for governor endorsed the ballot issue. I think only one prominent newspaper came out in favor of 112. By all of the normal political measures, passing the ballot initiative looked like an impossible task. And, indeed, as the results came in on Tuesday night, it was clear that 112 failed.
So why do I see good news? Going against a powerful and well-funded industry, Proposition 112 lost with a remarkable 43.88% of the vote. Outspent 40 to 1, with no TV ads in favor of the initiative and a relentless barrage of ads saying no, an impressive number of people voted yes. For comparison, the Republican candidate for governor pulled in 43.99% of the vote in that race. The under-funded, largely volunteer effort to dramatically curtail the oil and gas industry generated an astonishing level of support. (There's a Colorado footnote to this issue below my signature.)
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The big and hopeful lesson that I want to get across today goes beyond Colorado politics. There is a positive message about breaking away from business-as-usual and the possibility of dramatic social change. I see encouraging signs for climate action that dovetail with the movement to divest from fossil fuels. I see evidence of the theological notion of "prophetic imagination."
The movement for divestment emerged about six years ago when it became clear that 80% of all known fossil fuel deposits need to be left in the ground. Those resources are already in the financial portfolios of the oil companies, and the financial world is committed to reaping profit from those resources. In 2012, Bill McKibben told us that putting a high price on carbon is the only way to make the extraction of coal, oil and gas unprofitable. Getting that price on carbon will require moral outrage leading to a broad movement for change. McKibben and others pointed to divestment as a way to focus and embody that moral outrage.
A leader of the divestment movement said, "The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change now."
Divestment uses a financial tool to stimulate a public conversation. The goal of divestment, as some say, is not to bankrupt the coal and oil companies financially, but to bankrupt them morally. It is about revoking the social contract that has given legitimacy to their deadly pollution.
That moral movement continues to gain power. As the Guardian reported this fall, "The funds committed to fossil fuel divestment now total more than $6tn, with almost 1,000 institutional investors having made the pledge." The nation of Ireland and major cities such as New York -- not to mention major religious institutions -- have decided that investing in the companies that are at the heart of climate destruction is morally and strategically wrong.
The vote in Colorado this week, I think, had a similar message. Yes, oil and gas provide for a lot of jobs and a lot of tax money in this state, but over 43% of the people said that the big and powerful industry needs to be reined in. We, too, voiced a simple message: "We have had enough." Drilling rigs in suburban neighborhoods are not acceptable. As much as anything else, Proposition 112 was a challenge to the moral legitimacy of fossil fuels. The move to limit fracking was a way to revoke the social contract of the industry.
Walter Brueggemann gave a name to the important biblical theme of "prophetic imagination." In his book of that name, he wrote about the role of prophets in lifting up an alternative to the dominant reality. Knowing that we are all steeped in the culture that must be changed, he says, "We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is IMAGINABLE."
The divestment movement has made it possible to imagine that oil and gas can be bad investments -- both morally and financially. Proposition 112 launched a conversation in Colorado that made limits on a powerful industry imaginable. (The industry could imagine those limits, too, and they were very frightened.)
As the recent IPCC report made clear, taking the steps to keep climate change within any manageable bounds will require "systems transitions [that] are unprecedented in terms of scale." While the experts generally know what has to be done, and while many of the technological questions have viable solutions, there are big and hard changes to be made. Powerful vested interests will fight hard against many of those changes.
The changes needed are big and hard, and yet, prophetic imagination offers the revolutionary idea that another way of structuring our world is possible. The path to climate chaos is not inevitable.
The opposition to change is strong, and yet, the divestment movement has empowered major investors to pull more than $6 trillion out of fossil fuels, and much of that money has been re-invested in businesses and initiatives that are climate-positive. The opposition to Proposition 112 outspent proponents 40 to 1, and yet almost a million Colorado citizens voted to put dramatic limits on that industry.
In the face of Earth's great climate emergency, I find hope in the creative and prophetic imagination that it doesn't have to be this way. With hard work and big visions, we can shape a global society that lives within the planet's carbon budget.
In the face of powerful interests that are committed to business as usual, I find hope in movements that revoke the social contract of the institutions doing us harm. It is possible for moral and ethical considerations to drive social change.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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