A woman holds an anti-fracking sign as a group of demonstrators gather for a rally for a Global Climate Treaty Dec. 10, 2014 near the United Nations in New York.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

The state of the climate movement in America

This column is part of “The State of America,” an msnbc.com series leading up to President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Jan. 20. This is the state of the issues you care about, as told by organizations promoting social change and other policy experts.

As we enter 2015, the state of the climate movement is strong. Over the last year, we have grown in leaps and bounds. Together, we turned out over 400,000 people into the streets of New York City during last September’s People’s Climate March. It was the largest demonstration for climate action in history – and the largest march on any issue for over a decade in New York.

“Even in a world rapidly falling apart, there is hope that the movement to save our planet is finally coming together.”
In 2014, the fossil fuel divestment movement kept spreading like wildfire, with more cities, religious groups, and universities signing up to the cause. New York State banned fracking and momentum is growing for a ban in California. Meanwhile, President Obama is sounding more skeptical about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with each passing day. Even in a world rapidly falling apart, there is hope that the movement to save our planet is finally coming together.

With so much leadership on climate coming from the people, now is the perfect time to demand more from our politicians. For this year’s State of the Union, we here at 350.org hope that President Obama fully takes up the mantle of climate leadership. The president has taken a number of important steps to protect the environment over the years. He pushed forward record investments in clean energy as part of the stimulus package. New fuel efficiency standards helped Americans save money at the pump, while keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. The administration’s Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 40%, spelling the end of the dirty coal industry as we know it.

Related: 2014 was the world’s hottest year on record

But it’s not all good news. The Obama administration has also opened up record amounts of the United States for oil and gas drilling. The fracking boom that has taken place under the president’s watch continues to endanger our air, water and climate. While we’re cutting coal use at home, the industry is now trying to export it abroad, where it will be burned with even fewer pollution controls.

At the international level, the United States has refused to commit to legally binding emissions reductions targets. Our voluntary target of reducing CO2 emissions 27% below 2005 levels by 2025 isn’t nearly enough to put us on a safe pathway to keeping global warming below 2°C, above which scientists say we risk utter catastrophe.

The Arctic's devastating transformation
There was no snow, no sea ice anywhere to be seen. These would be my last days in Svalbard in August of 2011.
We don’t need to wait for the most devastating impacts of climate change to realize that our current addiction to fossil fuels is a problem. Across the country, millions of people, especially in low-income communities, are living with the daily injustices that come from a pollution based economy: high asthma rates, a lack of quality infrastructure, manifold threats to drinking water or other critical natural resources. From the mountaintop removal coal mines of Appalachia to the fracking wells of California, the fossil fuel industry has been ruthless in its pursuit of profit, putting our children and communities at risk.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Today, the promise of 100% clean energy has never been in closer reach. Take the booming American solar industry. In 2014, solar companies added 31,000 new jobs as employment grew at 20 times the rate of the overall economy. We’re now seeing the same sorts of leaps in solar technology that we saw in cell phones and microchips.

The pace of growth is even more astounding abroad, where the industry has benefited from consistent regulations. There were days last summer when solar provided over 50% of the electricity demand in Germany, a country not exactly known for its sunshine. Other renewable technologies are just as promising: there were days last November when 100% of Norway’s electricity consumption was provided by the wind.

This is the political dilemma we find ourselves in here in the United States. While President Obama has done a good job saying “yes” to clean energy, he’s done a bad job saying “no” to dirty fossil fuels. It’s like he’s started eating his vegetables, only to binge on donuts for dessert. He’s pledged to quit smoking, and then sucked down an entire pack on the sly. “All of the above,” may make for a good soundbite, but it’s not going to solve global warming. You can’t fool physics and chemistry with fancy rhetoric and false commitments.

Infographic: Visualizing CO2 emissions by country and state

The only way to solve the climate crisis is by keeping fossil fuels underground. As the saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Scientists have made it clear that we need to leave roughly 80% of known coal, oil and gas reserves underground to avoid catastrophic global warming. The numbers are even more striking for the more carbon intensive fuels. A study published in Nature concluded that over 90% of Australian and U.S. coal, and nearly all of the Canadian tar sands, would have to remain unburned. That’s why fights like the Keystone XL pipeline are so critical. They’re emblematic of the decision we face as a nation. We can continue to binge on fossil fuels or we can protect the future for our children and grandchildren. You can’t have it both ways.

Above the oil: A view of Alberta's oil sands
Renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky explores the landscape of the Alberta’s oil sands.
During the last two year’s of Obama’s term, there’s lots that he can say no to. He can reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of it’s disastrous impact on the climate. He can say no to more fossil fuel development on public lands. He can protect the Arctic by banning oil drilling in Alaska and working with our Northern allies to safeguard the entire region. He can direct the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen their regulations on fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, and other dangerous fossil fuel extraction. He can say no to perverse fossil fuel subsidies that siphon off billions of taxpayer dollars to the richest corporations on the planet. And he can certainly say no to efforts by climate deniers in Congress to roll back the environmental initiatives the administration has already put into place.

Leadership isn’t just about what you do, it’s about what you don’t do. We try to elect leaders who will protect our nation, but resist the rush to war. Leaders who will stand up to corporate interests that try to corrupt our democracy. Leaders who show the restraint necessary to protect our natural resources. This State of the Union, we don’t want to just hear about what President Obama will do, we want to hear about what he won’t do. The pipelines he’ll refuse to approve, the fossil fuels he’ll refuse to burn. This year, we need more than yes we can. It’s time for no we can’t.

Jamie Henn is the Strategy & Communications Director at 350.org.

Climate Change, Environment, Environmental Policy and The State Of The Union

The state of the climate movement in America