'Hottest Month on Record' by Adam Zyglis, The Buffalo News, NY

In politics today, “woke” is a popular though often misunderstood slogan. Many Republicans use it disparagingly to label what they consider progressive or leftist ideas. While its origin, and core, have to do with racial justice, it is now widely used to criticize anything that promotes tolerance, fairness, compassion, and due regard for the well-being of others. Being woke means waking up our sensitivities to injustice and inequality. It means recognizing and claiming the moral values that guide us in deciding what’s right and wrong. Understood as a moral imperative, “woke” is exactly what’s needed in a climate emergency.

While more and more people are waking up to the dangers that the climate crisis presents, the time for mitigation is running out. A woke person sees the absurdity of how the world is dealing with the crisis. Carbon pollution from burning coal, oil and gas is over-heating our planet. The devastating evidence is everywhere. At the same time, clean affordable alternatives, like solar and wind power, are increasingly available, affordable, and promise huge benefits, like a healthier environment, cheaper energy costs and millions of good jobs.

Yet, despite scientists’ warnings that delayed action will cause irreversible and catastrophic impacts, governments are slow walking the transition away from fossil fuels. Allowing the greed and intransigence of fossil fuel companies to jeopardize the lives, livelihoods, and very future of human civilization is a moral wrong. Recognizing this existential threat, a woke person demands that governments phase out these polluting fuels and transition quickly to a clean energy future.

Woke sensibilities should inform climate actions. Since climate change is a global phenomenon, it can only be solved through the cooperation of all nations. No nation can mitigate climate change just for its own citizens. Regardless of where carbon pollution enters the atmosphere, its harm will impact the entire planet.

In a moral world you don’t get to protect your backyard at the expense of others. When toxic smoke from climate-induced Canadian wildfires choked American cities, we learned that many people, particularly in Africa, Asia, and South America, contend with similar air quality daily because of global emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas. A woke person recognizes the huge inequities between affluent nations who burn the most fossil fuels and poor nations who have contributed the least to the problem yet suffer the most from climate impacts.

In a moral world, intergenerational inequities also call for woke sensitivities. The current generation’s use of fossil fuels has contributed the most to climate change yet, because of the lag in impacts and continuing use, future generations will suffer the most. Much of the moral outrage at government inaction on climate has come from young people (the school strikes, the global climate strikeExtinction Rebellion).

For more than eight years Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit public interest law firm, has been challenging the federal government in court to secure for future generations the legal rights to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate. While their efforts in federal courts continue, they recently represented 16 Montana youth in a climate lawsuit to protect their rights to a healthy environment. They are suing because the Montana government continues to promote fossil fuel extraction and use despite overwhelming evidence that these fuels disrupt our climate and harm lives.

Human-induced climate change is a moral wrong. Governments have allowed coal, oil and gas companies to pollute Earth’s atmosphere for free. The air pollution alone from burning these fuels cause more than 8 million annual deaths; their heat-trapping emissions are over-heating of our planet, resulting in devastating droughts, wildfires, floods, heat waves, sea level rise, and other extreme weather events.

Although woke is mostly employed as an insult, we should claim it as a rallying force to awaken moral sensibilities. Until recently, climate change has not been argued as a moral issue. Many consider it a technological problem, hoping that some new technology will make the problem go away. Fossil fuel interests want us to believe that the pursuit of untested, uneconomic, and dangerous carbon capture technologies will allow them to keep producing their polluting fuels. Others want to frame it as a cost-benefit problem, or an economic growth or jobs problem.

Not identifying carbon pollution as a moral wrong has resulted in decades of inaction, denial, and delay. When something is a moral wrong, we generally don’t waste time debating how to make it a little less immoral; we stop it. After decades of study the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the only obstacles to quitting fossil fuels and transitioning to a clean energy future are fossil fuel companies and their political allies.

People who bring basic moral values to climate action, those who are woke, understand that the solution to the climate crisis is simple: stop burning fossil fuels; deploy clean energy as fast as possible. They support policies such as ending fossil fuel subsidies, restricting fossil fuel production, powering the national grid on clean energy sources, providing economic justice to those who are most vulnerable, reforming permitting processes to speed electrification, investing in healthier forests and sustainable agriculture, and taxing fossil fuel companies on their carbon pollution.

A groundswell of wokeness would provide a powerful remedy to the current climate emergency. It would break the grip of Big Oil, elect more responsible government leaders, and restore hope for a livable and just future for all.


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