American Climate Artists: For the Next Fifty Days, We Must Work on the Election

As I write this on the morning of Saturday, September 12th, the Air Quality Index for Berkeley, California, the town in which I grew up and which friends and family call home, reads 183, on the high end of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “unhealthy” category. This is the best air quality Berkeley has seen in days.

In many places across California, Oregon, and Washington, the AQI is above 400. The EPA describes any reading above 301 as a “health warning of emergency conditions.” More than four million acres have burned in Oregon and California, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate, hundreds of thousands more may follow, and at least 17 people are dead, with dozens missing. We are facing the climate emergency, it is happening now, and it is happening everywhere. If this is what one degree Celsius of warming looks like, imagine two or three.

In fifty days, on November 3, 2020, several thousand votes in a couple of these United States will have a decisive impact on the course and extremity of the climate crisis, not just as experienced by American citizens, but by billions of people worldwide who nevertheless have no say in this election.

In the words of the climate journalist David Wallace-Wells,

it sounds like hyperbole to say electing Joe Biden, and defeating Donald Trump, is of planetary significance, but the rate at which global warming has accelerated shows it is also true: one third of all carbon emissions have come since 2008, 40% since 2000, half since 1992.

David Roberts writes in Vox that

if Donald Trump is reelected president, the likely result will be irreversible changes to the climate that will degrade the quality of life of every subsequent generation of human beings, with millions of lives harmed or foreshortened.

The stakes are extremely high. We Americans cannot inflict another Donald Trump presidency on the world.

In dramatic contrast, Joe Biden is running on “the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee,” as described by Sam Ricketts, co-author of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s trailblazing climate plan. Marine biologist and climate activist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson recently offered an accessible walk-through of some of the key points of the Biden climate plan. (If you are considering the Green Party, I’d encourage you to read Bill McKibben’s explanation of why, though he advocates for Green parties in other countries, US election laws make it impossible to do so at the federal level here without perversely benefitting climate deniers.)

Passing any of these critical and urgent policy measures requires not only defeating Donald Trump, but also winning the Senate. If Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell continues to control the body, he will, in his own words, be “the Grim Reaper when it comes to things like the Green New Deal.” Democrats must win at least five of the twelve competitive Senate races this fall if we are to have any chance at passing necessary climate legislation.

As American artists concerned about the climate crisis, we have a moral imperative to do everything we can to win the presidency and at least five of those Senate seats. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the billions of other people in the world who have no say in this election but who will nevertheless suffer the consequences.

We artists are powerful and creative communicators. We must put those skills to work strategically for the next fifty days. Turn out environmental voters. Make phone calls or write letters. Donate if you can. Make climate propaganda. Become a poll worker. Make sure your friends and family are registered and have plans to vote. I’m organizing on the must-win, tossup Senate race in Colorado – email me if you’d like to join me, I’d love to work together.

Let’s make these fifty days count. We will never have this opportunity again.

(Top image: Sun against wildfire smoke in Sumner, Washington on September 8th. Photo by Ted S. Warren of AP, overlaid with the words “VOTE CLIMATE.”)

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Thomas Peterson is an organizer, writer, and director whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, with whom he co-organizes Climate Change Theatre Action, and a field organizer with Green Corps. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was a Williams-Lodge Scholar in Paris. He has written about theatre and locality, climate propaganda, the aesthetic of the sublime in climate theatre, and about the cultural history of the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn. He is currently developing The Woods Avenge Themselves, an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

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