- 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Julien Vincent shares his thoughts on the power of people to make change, even against the most entrenched of forces like climate change denialism.
- “From my vantage point in such a wealthy and privileged part of the world, I get frustrated by in-activism…But I remind myself that it’s in the interests of our opponents to keep the public in a state of apathy, confusion and disempowerment.”
- “There is one thing I want to impart more than anything: the power people have to create change is mind-blowing, and that power is our greatest asset,” he writes in a new op-ed.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
If you can read, hear or feel this, you have power.
It was as if I were being let in on a secret. Obviously, I’d already heard of global warming and knew a bit about it. But there, in 2001, in a cold lecture theater on the outskirts of Melbourne, scientists who worked on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports were giving us the unfiltered—and scientifically detailed—version of events.
Never before in human history had the energy balance of the Earth been altered so rapidly. Not in hundreds of thousands of years had carbon dioxide levels been so high. And without rapid action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, we were about to inflict some profound changes on the Earth and the people who inhabit it.
The science was scary enough. But there were two other factors that gave me no choice but to spend the next two decades working on this issue. First was the fact that, even though the impacts of climate change would be global and devastating everywhere, those who had contributed the least to the problem—and whose contribution to the problem largely came in the form of making products for people in wealthy nations to consume—were going to face the worst impacts.
Whether we’re talking about the tens of millions of people in developing Asia who are forced to retreat inland as rich river deltas are washed away, or people and cultures that have existed for thousands of years facing sea-level rise inundating their island nations and poisoning their water tables, or subsistence farmers for whom water is a scarce resource that becomes increasingly unavailable. These people didn’t ask for their lives to be turned upside down and they certainly don’t deserve it.
Where do the people who are most responsible live? Comfortable mansions.
This was the other factor: how this problem was being driven by a small subset of the population that was not only happy to keep burning fossil fuels, but actively trying to profit from it at the expense of everyone else. Maybe decades earlier, when we weren’t so aware of what billowing CO2 into the atmosphere was doing to the planet, we could spread the blame around a little more, but decades of increasing public awareness, combined with plenty of fossil fuel industry-funded denial of climate science, meant that the ones truly responsible for worsening global warming were a handful of politicians and business and industry leaders.
So that was it. I was in. I might as well have been strapped into the world’s scariest rollercoaster and the ride had just begun; there was no chance of getting off. Since then, my life has been devoted to being as effective as I can be at fighting the climate crisis. I’ve learned a lot along the way but there is one thing I want to impart more than anything: the power people have to create change is mind-blowing, and that power is our greatest asset.
It helps that people agree with us and want a healthy environment and safe climate. The challenge for us campaigners is to find and tap into the power that those people who agree with us have. When that happens, magic happens.
I’ve seen a few dozen members of a multi-billion-dollar pension fund succeed in changing the fund’s policy to divest from coal, simply by combining their passions and organizing together. I’ve seen engineering companies walk away from coal mining projects because their staff—who typically want to work on new, innovative projects that create a better world—have revolted at the idea of working on more polluting fossil fuels. I’ve seen a tiny fraction of a company’s shareholders band together to force an issue onto the annual general meeting agenda and affect a change in policy. And it was bank customers that led to Australia’s biggest banks all committing to get out of coal by 2030.
Often, especially from my vantage point in such a wealthy and privileged part of the world, I get frustrated by in-activism on issues like climate change. But I remind myself that it’s in the interests of our opponents to keep the public in a state of apathy, confusion and disempowerment. We’re up against well-resourced companies with close ties to governments and it’s our job to counteract that by making people hopeful and empowered to take action.
We’re winning. Just not fast enough. We need more people involved, learning how to tap into the power often lying dormant within themselves. The same goes for you—you are also powerful. I hope you can see the many ways you can have an influence in your work, home, community, workplace. Just opening your wallet reveals a host of companies who have or want your business. Tell them what changes you expect them to make to protect the climate and then hold them accountable.
Let us continue to harness and express that power and change the world.
Banner image: Julien Vincent. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Bill McKibben and Trebbe Johnson respond to the failures of the most recent global climate change summit, and suggest ways forward, listen here: