We Can't Wait For the President To Save Us

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week. 

A few weeks ago, Barack Obama unveiled his administration’s plan to address climate change. Much of the inter-movement commentary that followed praised or criticized the president, lauding his leadership or criticizing his support of natural gas. Many students working in the college and university fossil fuel divestment movement celebrated his tepid endorsement: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

After watching the speech, it would be easy to make it all about Barack Obama. After all, it is his plan.

The trouble with painting the president as the arbiter of the plan to address climate change, however, is that we start acting like he actually is, like he alone is holding our present and future climate plan in his hands. Many of us in the youth climate movement have justifiably operated on this assumption. Faced with futures which are uncertain on many levels, we continue to look for a solution from our elected officials despite their repeated failure to address the climate and extraction crisis.

Barack Obama matters. But what matters more is that we remember that the president cannot govern without us.

The president is not America. We put him into office. The climate movement pushed Barack Obama onto the stage; a movement that — whether we realize it or not — draws tremendous strength from the lessons of a long and hardly linear history of organizing that includes everything from the Battle of Blair Mountain to a people’s uprising in Wisconsin only a few years past. The persistent, quiet and almost always undervalued work of those fighting and organizing for people, justice, the environment and the climate, they helped write this speech. As writer and activist Rebecca Solnit posted on Facebook following the Obama speech, “He's just a weathervane ... What I think I saw today is that the U.S. climate movement is so powerful it's pointing that weathervane in our direction.”

We aren’t the only ones with influence, as was made evident by Obama’s shortsighted and highly troubling endorsement of natural gas, which will not only continue to destroy communities but may release more greenhouse gases than coal when the extraction process is taken into account. We must fight to keep people, water and land from being sacrificed by the fossil fuel industry. Democracy, as the old adage goes, is not a spectator sport.

Although it would be quite convenient if those to whom we lend our collective power did with it what we  ask, this is often not the case. The amazing thing about right now, however, is that we seem to be coming to the realization that we can claim our power as our own. We might not agree about how to wield this power, but with the many injustices that exist in our society there are avenues for all of us to make our voices heard. And we need to be fighting on all fronts.

All over the country, all over the world, people are rising. And it matters. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn DOMA was a win. The Supreme Court, however, cannot bring about the most difficult and greatest victories. The cultural shift in support of gay rights has been brought about by those working everyday in their communities to increase understanding, acceptance and equality.

The same court’s decision to strike Section 4, and effectively Section 5, of the Voting Rights Act, one of the civil rights movement’s most hard-fought victories, is an appalling step backwards for our country. However, the Supreme Court justices do not have the final say as to whose voices will be valued in the electoral process. We can demand the final say. We don’t have to accept marginalization and disenfranchisement because it comes stamped with a golden seal.

And when we decide that the government has failed us, we can create our own local and national solutions. Such collective action realizes change on a local level, and builds awareness and power that can be leveraged in the broader movement. Occupy Sandy has mobilized networks of activists and community members to rebuild areas of the East Coast left behind by FEMA and state governments. The NAACP and a coalition of other groups in North Carolina have organized weekly protests to call out the state’s draconian austerity measures. In Egypt and Brazil, people are rising against governments that can no longer meet their needs. In Turkey, people are organizing mass public meetings to reimagine the role of government in their lives. In communities across the country where regulation has failed to protect individuals from the impacts of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, people have come together to fight for their right to clean air, clean water, their health, their humanity.

This summer, students will join them.

At G.R.O.W (Gather Resist Organize Win) gatherings around the country, fossil fuel divestment activists will support frontline organizations’ resistance, showing the fossil fuel industry and the government that the fight for climate justice doesn’t end on campus. Moving forward, we need to be vigilant as activists in making sure that the movement for fossil fuel divestment is doing all it can to support struggles for climate as well as racial and economic justice. We will not allow those most affected by our dependence on fossil fuels to continue to be silenced. We hope through G.R.O.W. to shift the basis of our organizing towards supporting nimble, dynamic networks of resistance that will empower us to leverage the full weight of our collective power.

We have far to go, but what we are doing is working. As student Jimi Patalon remarked after the president mentioned divestment in his speech, “It wasn't a statement of support, it was a response to pressure ... The reference to divestment marks our agency, not his.” Awareness is spreading and things are changing, but we don’t have much time and we have to win. Our lives depend on it. Come out to a G.R.O.W gathering this summer and join your community in taking action.

As we push for an acceptable climate plan and the clean energy future and sustainable economy that must follow it, we can take and expand on the president’s advice: Invest. Divest, and Grow.

This post was co-authored by Greta Neubauer and Kate Aronoff. Learn more about G.R.O.W. Divestment on our website and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on gatherings happening in your area.

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