What’s the Big Idea?

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness. We’re going to solve them by being the Democratic Party of big, structural change,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren at Tuesday night’s presidential debates in Detroit, Michigan.

 

Warren’s words spoke to what emerged as the principal question of the second democratic primary debates: whether the party should hedge its bets on a leftist or moderate candidate in order to secure the next election. After a back and forth between Warren and Congressman John Delaney—who referred to her policy proposals as a “fairytale” that would ultimately scare voters into sticking with Trump—this question seemed to reach its boiling point with Senator Bernie Sanders on tackling the fossil fuel industry.

 

“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said. “Republicans are not afraid of big ideas. They could give $1 trillion in tax breaks to billionaires and profitable corporations. They could bail out the crooks on Wall Street. So please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry, and nothing happens unless we do that. Here is the bottom line. We got to ask ourselves a simple question. What do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying this planet? I say that it’s criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue.”

 

In Detroit, just south of Flint, where locals are still being forced to drink bottled water, thousands of environmental activists swarmed the streets outside the debate, calling for the party to embrace big ideas and make Detroit an engine of the Green New Deal. Theresa Landrum, a climate organizer at the protest, said: “These candidates see the glitz and glamour of America, but they need to see us—the people on the bottom. White people champion climate change but it’s us, the people, who are suffering the impact.”

 

Let us be clear: big ideas are needed here. Just before the debates came Earth Overshoot Day, an annual marker created by the Global Footprint Network to denote the point at which humans have officially used more resources than the planet can sustain in a year (though there is some debate as to whether or not this is a reliable measurement system). This came off the heels of the disturbing news that Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro has lived up to his campaign promise to roll back protections on the Amazon; the deforestation rate skyrocketed 39% percent higher this July compared to July 2018. Scientists are now warning that if the Amazon reaches a certain tipping point, it will be unable to recover—and could become a savannah.

 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia broke a world record this week when volunteers planted more than 350 million trees in 12 hours as part of its Green Legacy initiative—a clear message to any who might have considered Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s goal to have 4 billion seedlings planted by the end of October overly ambitious. And speaking of ambitious: 16-year-old Greta Thunberg announced this week that she would be sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in order to avoid air travel and still attend the New York climate talks later this year.

 

“Why is aspirational such a bad thing?” asked Aisha Soofi, another activist at the rally in Michigan, in response to those who call climate policy plans like the Green New Deal a long-shot. “Besides, we don’t have time…If we don’t do anything within these next 11 years, there will be irreversible damage to our world.”

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