Actor and activist Jane Fonda spoke at a National Press Club Headliners Luncheon earlier this week on her movement to push for political action on climate change.
Inspired by young climate activist Greta Thunberg, Fonda has held a “Fire Drill Friday” climate change protest on Capitol Hill every Friday since Oct. 11, 2019. On Thursday nights, before each protest, Fonda hosts a “teach-in” with a panel of experts.
Fonda made an impassioned plea to join her in the fight against climate change during her speech.
“I lie in bed at night searching for the right words that will galvanize people into action around the climate emergency, show them why it’s too late for moderation.
“I try out conversations about what the fossil fuel industry has done to us and I get so worked up I can’t sleep.
“I tell my imaginary Senator how, back in July 1977, James Black, a senior scientist at Exxon, told Exxon’s management committee that the burning of fossil fuel was influencing global climate, that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase global temperatures by two or three degrees and that mankind had a small window of five to 10 years before they would have to make hard decisions about new ways to get energy.
“Exxon knew! 40 years ago!
“I tell my listener that a decade later an internal report by Shell projected similar effects but also found that the warming effects of their carbon emissions could double even earlier than previously predicted causing ecological calamity such as the disintegration of West Antarctic ice sheets that would inundate entire low-lying countries and would cause the disappearance of specific ecosystems, destructive flooding and inundation of low-lying farmlands and that new sources of freshwater would be required, that global changes in air temperature would “drastically change the way people live and work and that the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.” Exxon’s scientists concurred, adding that the American Midwest and other parts of the world could become desert-like. That was in the mid-1980s!
“And you know what Exxon’s officials said: and this is a quote: “this problem is not as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine” close quote. And they continued to drill. "Exxon, Shell, Mobil and the others knew that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so they used the same consultants that the tobacco companies used to launch a huge communications effort to develop strategies on how to fool us. The difference is that the tobacco companies were primarily harming people who smoked. The fossil fuel companies are harming the entire planet and all its inhabitants.
“The companies not only hid what they knew, a coalition, together with the Koch Bros and other billionaires, spent many tens of millions of dollars on think tanks like the Heartland Institute that promote false science, sowing confusion about global warming so that people won’t try and stop them.
“Their line was and continues to be that ‘the science about climate change is not clear and, even if it were true, the fault lies with governments and consumers not with them.’
“The thing is, see, these oil companies have played a big role in actively stopping governments from enacting clean energy policies, with Exxon leading the way.
“For example, Exxon helped prevent the United States from signing the international treaty on climate known as the Kyoto protocol in 1998 to control greenhouse gases. Exxon’s tactics not only worked on the United States but also stopped other countries such as China and India from signing the treaty.
“This year saw atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases hit the highest level ever recorded in human history. While our window of opportunity to do something is quickly closing, fossil fuel companies are frantically expanding new drilling, mining, fracking, and exporting.
“And then there’s plastic: Fearful that their oil and gas explorations will be curtailed and wanting to maintain profits, Exxon proclaimed recently, “Our future is in Plastics!”
“Really? They feel okay about saying such a thing when we’re facing the horrendous damage plastics have wreaked on our oceans, our Arctic ice sheets, our waterways, and entire species?
“Their newest attempts to counter efforts to halt new fossil fuel production and infrastructure, includes The American Petroleum Institute’s just-released video called “America’s Energy Security: a Generation of Progress at Risk?” Really, they call it progress? The video shows American flags and the Statue of Liberty, in an attempt to make fracking and drilling somehow patriotic and bans on them somehow weakening this country.
“The oil and gas industry likes to say that natural gas is a ‘bridge energy’ that has a role in reducing carbon emissions. But they deliberately ignore fracking’s contributions to increases in the highly dangerous, global warming methane emissions. And they deny the seismic dangers of fracking and the pollution of precious underground aquifers that provide drinking water to millions.
“A coalition called Pennsylvanians Against Fracking is advocating for a fracking moratorium in their state and, following visits from families of rare cancer patients, announced nearly $4 million in funding for studies on the health impacts of fracking.
“The fossil fuel industry has gotten a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is paid for by fossil fuel money, to warn of a global recession should the US ban fracking.
“The Manhattan Institute also says that Democratic presidential candidates’ climate claims are quote “pure fantasy and moving to clean renewable energy is not possible given today’s technology and basic physics” unquote and they reference notorious climate science-denying organizations like the Empowerment Alliance.
“Several Republicans, notably Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, have introduced resolutions prohibiting a unilateral moratorium on fracking by a president, just in case a pro-climate president is elected next November. By the way, Toomey’s re-election a few years ago against a progressive Democrat, was largely financed by Michael Bloomberg.
“Officials like Senator Toomey tell us that American oil and gas production is the only path to energy security but this narrative is at odds with the fact that we export so much gas and oil. If we need it for “energy security,” what are we doing shipping it overseas? This narrative also ignores the fact that 100 percent renewable energy, which over 100 US cities have already committed to, also creates energy security and independence, for a comparable or lower price.
“Climate scientists are very clear: We can transition to clean, renewable energy. We have the technology which is fast becoming more than competitive. Economists say that quote “climate action should not be viewed as an impediment to economic growth but as an impetus for decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource extraction, and a catalyst for a green economic transition, labour rights improvements, and poverty elimination efforts.” unquote.
“We just have to break the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on our political process.
“Will we continue to allow these executives who have committed crimes against humanity and the earth to keep on doing it, not just with oil, gas and coal but with plastics, dangerous fertilizers and pesticides?
“And do most Americans even realize that we’re paying them to do this to us with subsidies of more than $16 billion a year! Our taxpayer dollars! Oil Change International says that 45% of their existing drilling would not be profitable without these subsidies.
“We can’t allow this to continue. The fossil fuel industry has controlled the U.S. government and too many other governments for far too long.
“This is the last possible moment in history when changing course can mean saving lives and species on an unimaginable scale.
“Last year the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change published its report stating that given the worsening disasters we’re already seeing and the additional warming that is already baked in because we didn’t act 40 years ago, we don’t stand a chance at changing course in time without profound, systemic economic and social change. And they say we have, at best, 11 years before the tipping point is reached. 11 years to reduce fossil fuel emissions roughly in half and then reduce to net zero by 2050.
“We are facing a climate crisis, but we’re also facing an empathy crisis, an inequality crisis. It isn’t only earth’s life-support systems that are unraveling. So too is our social fabric.
This is going to take an all-out war on drilling and fracking and deregulation and racism and misogyny and colonialism and despair all at the same time.
“Some say that we can’t deal with everything all at once. But history has shown that whenever we try to solve problems without addressing the issues of inequality and injustice, it never works.
“Besides, the problems we face now require every one of us to join the fight. It is a Herculean task and why would people join it unless they see something in it for themselves. Fossil fuel workers must see that they will continue to earn good union wages in the new energy economy. People of color and Indigenous peoples have to see that they and their communities won’t continue to be viewed as ‘sacrifice zones’ where cancer causing wastes from the oil industry get dumped and pipelines and fracking pits pollute their lands and waters; That there will be a plan to invest in their communities to rebuild and restore.
“All you have to do is look at what happens when there is no plan that centers workers. Look at how people have been treated in former coal country…laid off workers, suffering from black lung, many too old to be retrained for new jobs and with health care benefits and pensions cut.
“Science dictates that the fossil fuel industry leave $11 trillion dollars of fuel in the ground in order to guarantee a livable future. These are called “stranded assets.” But their workers must never be stranded assets.
“That is why those who are working to address the climate emergency support a Green New Deal. This is what provides the framework to bring all of us into a sustainable future.
Proposals that don’t center fairness and justice will not pass.
“Yes, it will be a huge, disruptive, super ambitious undertaking and yes, it will cost a whole lot of money.
“But think what inaction costs: Over the last 3 years, the total cost of billion-dollar weather and climate events exceeded $450 billion!
“We can find the money to do this. Remember that this country has kind of been here before.
“In the 1930’s there was a massive financial collapse known as the Great Depression. But it was also an environmental collapse. “Grapes of Wrath” starring my father showed what happened to farmers. And it was a time of huge social unrest, with labor protests, riots in the streets over growing inequality – demanding the government step in with large scale programs to help alleviate the hardship. Roosevelt said to them these important words: “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.”
“So, with the force of public pressure behind him, President Roosevelt launched the New Deal. In his 1st 100 days, largely by executive order, Roosevelt created Government spending programs that put many millions of people to work in hundreds of public projects all across the country.
“The Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million young men to restore the Great Plains; Thousands of farmers could move away from places that could not support them onto more fertile land, into towns and cities where, with government help, they became the American middle class. The Civil Works Administration, The Farm Security Administration, The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Social Security Administration that we have today all came into being because of the New Deal.
“This is exactly the kind of brave leadership we need to see from our next president. On Dec 9th, a consortium of policy experts released a plan that urges the next administration to take 10 executive actions, starting day one, to confront the climate emergency without waiting for Congress. By the time of the inauguration, we will have 10 years left to reduce fossil fuels by half. We’re saying to the next president, “We have 10 years; you have 10 days.” 10 Executive Actions to do in 10 days to make history and change course away from the climate cliff.
“The actions include an immediate halt to new fossil fuel leases, infrastructure and exports; significant investment in public renewable energy generation, use the Clean Air Act to slash greenhouse pollution, and a prosecution of fossil fuel polluters.
“The plan urges the next president to ensure a just transition that protects workers and communities disproportionately harmed by the climate catastrophe and affected by the shift to a post-carbon-pollution economy. The plan is intended to work alongside actions taken by Congress, state and local governments as well as international partners.
“The 10-step plan also urges the creation of an inter-agency just transition task force to ensure that impacted workers and communities are protected.
“The rich and powerful hated the New Deal because it set a precedent for the federal government to play a central role in the economic and social affairs of the nation.
“It was criticized as fascist and socialist. Bankers tried to overthrow Roosevelt. Big Business, Big Railroads, Big Banks ranted and raved against it but… there were millions in the streets demanding that Roosevelt do even more because it was helping them and because of that, it succeeded.
The same interests that hated the New Deal are the ones today telling us that the Green New Deal is bad, that government shouldn’t be so involved in economic and social regulation and they’ve convinced a lot of people of this. Big Government is Evil, they say!
“But it’s not the size of government that matters, it’s who the government is working for and for too long it’s been a government controlled by corporations, most particularly the fossil fuel industry. This is why it hasn’t been working for working people.
“Powerful forces are arrayed against the efforts to change this, just like back in the 1930s.
“Already there is a new rash of laws happening across the country that specifically criminalize protests aimed at fossil fuel infrastructure. These new laws are called “Critical Infrastructure” laws since they reclassify fossil fuel infrastructure as “critical” in order to justify harsh penalties against climate advocate exercising their Constitutional Rights to peaceful protest.
“This is a huge problem. Science says we need to cut fossil fuels use in half but protesting the expansion of fossil fuels is being criminalized.
“The fact is, the policies proposed by the Green New Deal are in line with what the American people have done before… when there was no choice.
“Well, there is no choice now.
“Had we known what the fossil fuel industry knew in the 1970s we could have begun an incremental, moderately paced transition off fossil fuel. But they lied, hid the science and as a result we’ve lost decades and our carbon budget, the amount of carbon we can still burn without passing the tipping point, has shrunk.
“Now, because of the fossil fuel industry, it’s too late for moderation. And given the emergency, it’s those who believe in moderation, in pre-Trump-business-as-usual, who are truly delusional. And those who lied and continue to lie about what they’re doing to the environment should be put on trial, not rewarded with tax cuts and made Secretaries of State.
Yes, stopping new fossil fuel now and enacting a Green New Deal will be difficult, but it’s the kind of holistic, far-reaching framework that’s commensurate with the crisis we face when time is running out.
“Scientists and economists who normally try to stay neutral are now saying that the most important factor in whether we can pull off what’s needed will be collective actions taken by social movements on an unprecedented scale.
“So, I beg people to think about how they can rachet up their activism on climate. Not as an individual but in concert with others, in ways that will awaken more people to the urgency and with a focus on changing policy, shifting power, electing brave people who aren’t scared of bold actions in the face of this crisis.
“But, and now I’m addressing the media in the room, it’s hard to get people to increase their activism when only 43% of Americans report hearing about climate change and 23% say they never hear about it. We can’t fix the climate crisis if we aren’t talking about it.
“If we’re going to build the robust mass climate movement we need, we need the media to step up to the plate. The announcement of the global collaboration of news outlets called “Covering Climate Now” was an encouraging sign, but more media outlets need to begin drawing the links between extreme weather events and the climate crisis; need to stop taking ads from the fossil fuel industry which pedal untruths to deceive the public; need to stop giving a voice to climate deniers by saying that “there’s still much debate among scientists.” There isn’t. 97% of climate scientists are in agreement about the crisis, its causes and the time remaining to act yet the two-sides narrative persists.
“If Americans realized the level of consensus among scientists they would want to do something to prevent the worst from happening.
“And while it’s important to write about the tragic impacts of the climate crisis, it’s important to give people a hopeful vision of what can be by reporting on what cities like Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Boulder and states like New York and Maine are already doing to transition from fossil fuels to sustainable, clean energy.
“Write about the young climate strikers globally who are drawing attention to the climate crisis and asking us older folks to take action on behalf of their future.
“This is it, folks. This is the time.”