To put that conclusion in perspective: one of the world's leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson at the UK's Tyndall Centre, has said that 4 degrees C would be "incompatible with an organized global community." The US government's draft National Climate Assessment, released in January, suggests that we're on track for 9 to 15-degrees Fahrenheit warming over most of the United States within this century.
Unless, that is, we drastically change course.
It seems fairly obvious that the reason we don't hear politicians, or the "serious" people in our media, talking (at least in public) about this situation — the true gravity of it — is that to grapple with this in any real way, to propose anything that would actually begin to address it with the necessary urgency at the national and global level, would simply sound too extreme, if not outright crazy. Leave fossil fuels in the ground? You must be joking. Why, that would mean canceling the Keystone pipeline! It would mean putting Alberta's tar sands, the second largest pool of carbon on the planet, off limits! Who are you kidding? Be serious! (Nevermind that a group of 18 top climate scientists signed a letter to Obama last month urging him to reject the pipeline to demonstrate the "seriousness of his climate convictions.")
This is the reality — or the surreality — of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. At this late hour in the climate crisis, with the clock ticking down on civilization, to be serious about climate change — based, mind you, on what science and not ideology prescribes — is to be radical.
In drawing historical comparisons between the climate movement and radical struggles for justice and human rights, Markey is echoing the sentiments of the climate movement itself. And for a good many climate activists and movement leaders, it seems that the most fitting comparison — the one that resonates most deeply — is to abolitionism: the stunningly radical and successful movement, led by a small yet fervent minority first in Britain and then the United States, to abolish the legal institution of human slavery on which a large part of the global economy was based.
The climate crisis "is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln," James Hansen, NASA's top climatologist and a leading advocate (who was among those arrested at the White House protesting KeystoneXL), told The Guardian in December 2009 in the run-up to Copenhagen. "On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50 percent or reduce it 40 percent." Climate-movement elder statesman Gus Speth, advisor to two presidents, writes in 2012's America the Possible that a transformative progressive movement addressing the climate crisis "must capture the spirit of Frederick Douglass," the escaped slave who became the greatest of abolitionist leaders, and quotes the famous 1857 speech in which Douglass said, "If there is no struggle there is no progress." Just last month, Bob Massie of Cambridge-based New Economics Institute, speaking at a teach-in on fossil-fuel divestment at the Tufts Fletcher School, compared the climate movement to the anti-slavery struggle and suggested that addressing climate change would require a political and cultural "paradigm shift" of a similar order.