From journalist to climate crusader
Wen Stephenson moves to the front lines of climate movement
IN 2013, WEN STEPHENSON sat down with his son and daughter to explain why he might end up in jail. “How do you explain to your children that climate change is so serious, so urgent and scary that Daddy’s going to go risk getting arrested to try and do something about it?” says Stephenson, a journalist and climate change activist.
But after three years on the front lines of the climate movement, it seems that Stephenson’s kids understood how passionate their father had become about his new and unorthodox career: fighting to get people to think differently about what he views as a major threat to human existence. His decision to participate in a sit-in against the Keystone XL pipeline at the Tip O’Neill Federal Building in downtown Boston did not faze them. Stephenson says his son, then 13, and daughter, 9, took “it in stride.”
Though Stephenson and others were threatened with arrest by federal officials, Homeland Security eventually “just waited them out,” at the protest, he says. He saw that as a strategic shift by the US government on Keystone. “Maybe we were actually getting powerful enough that they didn’t want to arrest us and give us the publicity,” he says.
At the time, the Copenhagen climate talks had collapsed. In Congress, the Waxman-Markey climate legislation passed the US House of Representatives, but failed to make any headway in the US Senate. Meaningful change, Stephenson concluded, would only come with sustained pressure applied from outside the system. After he left WBUR and started writing about climate full-time, Stephenson, who lives with his family in Wayland, also committed to helping to build, in his words, a “genuine grassroots movement” to tackle the issue.
Stephenson’s new book, What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other: Dispatches From The Front Lines of Climate Justice, explains his transition from journalist to activist. It also introduces some of the country’s best known climate activists, including 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben and Bay State activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara, who gained notoriety several years ago when they blocked a coal delivery to Somerset’s Brayton Point Power Station with a small lobster boat.
I spoke with Stephenson recently by phone about President Obama’s Keystone XL decision, a Boston-area fight against another pipeline, and why US policy still comes up short of what’s needed to confront the climate crisis. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: What did you make of President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline?
WEN STEPHENSON: The conventional wisdom for maybe as much as a year was that he was going to reject it, so it doesn’t come as a huge surprise. It still is a huge historic moment in terms of climate politics and the climate movement because it’s apparently the first time that a world leader has blocked any kind of major new fossil fuel infrastructure project explicitly because of the effects on climate change. People figured that if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right before going to Paris [to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change]. His decision sends this very strong signal that game is changing. Somewhere you have to draw the line in investments in the fossil fuel economy and, especially, in major new long term investments.
CW: Is the Keystone XL pipeline really dead?
CW: Did Keystone XL protests affect Obama’s decision?
STEPHENSON: It’s reasonable to think that they have had some influence. No new pipeline capacity to expand [production] out of the Alberta tar sands has been completed in recent years. Pipelines in the west and east coast of Canada have been stopped. The Keystone has been stopped. One the major factors in preventing new pipeline capacity has been the climate movement. But it is a bittersweet moment for people in East Texas and along the Gulf Coast because Obama didn’t stop the Keystone XL southern leg [from Oklahoma to Texas]. The pipeline is cutting right though East Texas communities that have been all but forgotten in this national conversation. It has been pumping tar sands crude since 2014.
CW: What do you expect out of the Paris climate talks?
STEPHENSON: We’re a long way from the breakthrough that we need. That doesn’t mean that Paris doesn’t matter. There’s been a diplomatic breakthrough on Obama’s watch: China is coming to the table in a way that it never has before. That is encouraging. Major countries like Brazil also are coming to the table in a way they haven’t before. What I hope is that what comes out of Paris is some kind of more open conversation about the situation that we’re in.
CW: Why do you call the West Roxbury protests against the Algonquin natural gas pipeline “a Keystone moment for Massachusetts?”
STEPHENSON: Because even though it seems like it is just one small pipeline expansion, this pipeline issue really gets to a fundamental principle. The Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project is an extension of the Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline. It’s part of this fracked gas network of pipelines coming up into the Northeast. There’s good reason to believe that this massive pipeline expansion is meant for export of fracked gas onto the global market.
You’ve basically got this company exercising eminent domain right through Boston to build a very high-pressure gas pipeline right through a residential community, right past an active quarry on the Dedham-West Roxbury line. You have residents who are up in arms about that just from a safety perspective and the not-in-my-backyard perspective. But you also have climate activists saying to increase our natural gas infrastructure capacity at this point basically means that Massachusetts will not be able to meet its legally-binding greenhouse gas emission reductions under the Global Warming Solutions Act.
This network of activists in Dedham, and, especially in West Roxbury, is drawing in people from all around Boston and the region who are now engaging in a sustained wave of civil disobedience protests on the construction route. I’m not one of the organizers. But I know them, and I have been very supportive.
The funny thing is, the city of Boston is on their side. They actually sued to stop this pipeline, arguing, I think, legitimately that the permitting process was kind of a joke. [Boston lost its lawsuit.] We’ve got several state legislators, not to mention city councilors, on the side of the protestors.
CW: What are the chances of this action succeeding?
STEPHENSON: There is no way I could handicap it. It is an uphill fight at this point because it has been permitted, it has been approved, ground has been broken, and construction is going forward.
CW: You are very insistent that the US is way behind in trying to deal with this problem.
STEPHENSON: In terms of our mainstream political conversation about climate change, we are simply not facing up to it yet.
CW: What do you mean?
STEPHENSON: One of the most insidious things about the wildly successful campaign of climate science denial and misinformation that has been waged by the right, funded by the fossil fuel industry, and essentially bought into wholly by the Republican Party virtually unanimously, is that it allows the mainstream Democratic candidates and policymakers to get away with setting the bar far too low themselves: All they have to do to sound progressive on climate change is not be a climate change denier.
This first line of my Nation cover story about Pope Francis and climate change is, “It must be a little disorienting, as a Democrat heading into primary season, to wake up one morning and find yourself to the right of the pope.” The pope emphasizes the global equity part of it, that the vast majority of the world’s population is in the developing world and did little or nothing to cause the problem. Yet they are already bearing the brunt of the impacts.
Hillary Clinton has been saying some good things lately. She came out against Arctic drilling, the Keystone XL pipeline, and she did frame it terms of climate. Mostly recently, she has come out and joined the chorus calling for an investigation of Exxon for its fraud of historical proportions. [Exxon Mobil faces an investigation by the New York state attorney general into its possibly erroneous statements on climate change to the public and to investors.]
The climate movement now represents a very serious part of the Democratic base. When 300,000 to 400,000 people come out on to the streets of Manhattan like they did a year ago [for the People’s Climate March], people notice. But the mainstream of the Democratic Party is still to the right of the pope.
CW: Why do you call out mainstream environmental organizations?
STEPHENSON: They have been politically compromised. They’ve tried to work within the limitations of the existing political system, which is often very influenced by corporations and [they say] what would be palatable instead of just laying it on the line. Some are doing much better now, such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. Others not so much. Some of the Big Greens are just big Washington lobbying organizations. People on my end of the spectrum would name a group like Environmental Defense Fund among those. I’ve never been an environmentalist.
STEPHENSON: No! No! I care a lot about the environment. But I’m not an environmentalist. Most of the people in the climate movement that I know are not environmentalists. They are young people who didn’t necessarily come up through the environmental movement, so they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They think of themselves as climate activists and as human rights activists.
The terms “environment” and “environmentalism” carry baggage historically and culturally. It has been more about protecting the natural world, protecting other species, and conservation of wild places than it has been about the welfare of human beings. I come at from the opposite direction. It’s first and foremost about human beings. Maybe mobilizing human beings to fight for themselves and for each other to save humanity is the surest way of saving most other species as well.
CW: You are very alarmed by the scientific evidence.
STEPHENSON: At the end of the summer of 2012, what used to be called the permanent floating Arctic sea ice, 80 percent of it was gone. At the same time, the scientists who study the melting of the great Greenland ice sheet [say] it seems to be accelerating beyond the pace that was predicted. There have been reports of alarming rates of permafrost melt on land in the Arctic, across Alaska, across Siberia. This melting is happening faster than scientists predicted, and it is releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
In the Antarctic, people believe that the west Antarctic ice shelf and the huge glacier in East Antarctica may now be in irreversible decline. James Hansen, probably the leading climate scientist in the country, if not the whole world, is saying that there are signs that the rapid warming of the oceans is actually causing land-based Arctic and Antarctic glaciers to melt faster than we thought was possible.
MIT climate scientist Kerry Emmanuel, who, by the way, used to be a Republican, explained to me that climate scientists tend to be very conservative. Scientists in general tend to be conservative in their public comments. They don’t like to go out on a limb. So when you hear them saying things, and they really sound alarmed, you should really sit up.
CW: Some of the people you interview in your book live in low-income communities. Is there any push to link issues like income inequality, which probably resonates more broadly, with climate justice?
STEPHENSON: We should be careful. Polling shows that in communities of color there is strong support for climate action. It’s kind of myth that poor people and people in communities of color aren’t interested in climate change.
CW: Low-income people and minorities are indeed interested in climate change. But they are probably more interested in economic issues.
STEPHENSON: Which is totally understandable because it’s the day-to-day reality. Communities that are struggling the most are the most vulnerable to climate change. I decided that if I was serious about engaging at this at the level of climate justice, I needed to report on what we call “frontline communities” that have been grappling with this for decades. So I went to places like Houston, Port Arthur, Texas, and New Orleans. It’s communities like that where the most toxic and polluting industries’ facilities have been disproportionately sited.
CW: How has the news media done on the topic?
STEPHENSON: Mainstream media coverage of climate has improved since the 2012 presidential campaign. We are seeing far, far less of what was called the false balance on the issue of climate science versus climate skepticism or climate denial. Almost across the board, all the major news media are now treating climate denial in the way it should be treated, as a kind of fringe, and often times, corrupt position. But there’s this need on the part of the mainstream media not to appear too left. Since the right succeeded in politicizing climate change, aggressive positions on climate are viewed as inherently left.
What I would really love is for my old colleagues in the mainstream media to emphasize that it is science that prescribes more aggressive policy approaches rather than ideology. I am not saying that ideology doesn’t come into it. For me to talk about climate justice, that is an ideological position.
CW: There is definitely ideology at work there.
STEPHENSON: Of course. But in the mainstream media the term “ideology” is always and everywhere a bad word. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with ideology per se.
CW: Are your former media colleagues supportive or skeptical?
STEPHENSON: It’s hard to generalize about that. I had an inkling that I wanted to do more than just write about it, I wanted to get engaged as an activist. I joined the board of Better Future Project, which was very young at that point, and I helped start 350 Massachusetts. At that point, I realized that I wasn’t ever going back to WBUR or any of those places. In some cases, they have really been supportive. I definitely have friends in some pretty high places in the media who’ve been really supportive. I haven’t really heard from [the skeptics]. I don’t know who those people are or what they think.
CW: In Massachusetts, there are clear signs of climate change. There is coastal erosion up and down the state, and the Globe recently reported on the cod population crisis. Yet it’s difficult to find common ground on these issues to begin to resolve the problems. What has to happen to make some progress?
STEPHENSON: I wish I knew. First of all, most people aren’t paying attention to what the Boston Globe is reporting about climate change. It’s just too politically inconvenient to actually address it. That is the fundamental problem. We’re always told by President Obama how “tough” the politics of climate are. How are you supposed to build the political will necessary if our political leaders and our media aren’t really acknowledging that the emergency exists? They aren’t really leveling with the American people about the true scale and urgency of the situation.
CW: So why focus on grassroots activists?STEPHENSON: What we need now is a bottom-up, grassroots-driven, social movement to fundamentally change the politics on the issue. When you look at our history, the only time when really deep, fundamental, even revolutionary changes have occurred politically and socially in our country, it’s been precisely when ideas that were completely radical—abolition of slavery, women voting, gay people getting married, driven by activists who are considered radical at the time—were forced into mainstream political conversation to bring about a kind of moral reckoning in the society.
Photos by Brad Johnson, Wen Stephenson, Kayana Szymczak, and Elijah Zarlin.