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Which Side Are You On?: A Speech Against Climate Science Denial and Post-Truth Politics

By Wen Stephenson

350 MASS BOSTON EVENT 01-09-17
Wen Stephenson speaking at the 350 Mass #DayAgainstDenial Rally, Boston Common. Photo credit: Roberto Farren Photography

On Monday, January 9, activists around the country rallied as part of 350.org’s national #DayAgainstDenial, calling on their US Senators to oppose President-elect Donald Trump’s climate science-denying Cabinet nominees, including former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. In Massachusetts, with Democratic Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren opposed to Trump’s nominees, 350 Massachusetts called on Republican Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration is responsible for enforcing the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, to take a firm stand against climate denial and obstruction. Beacon author Wen Stephenson delivered the following speech to a spirited crowd of more than 200 gathered on Boston Common at the foot of the steps leading to the State House. 


It feels good out here! I like it when New England winter feels like New England winter should. Move in close! Warm each other up. Stomp your feet. OK, now repeat after me:

“Hey, Charlie Baker! Which side are you on?!”

“Hey, Charlie Baker! Which side are you on?!”

That’s good! We’re gonna come back to that in a minute.

So, it’s hard to believe, but Donald Trump’s lies, his outrageous relationship to facts, has only been a dominant feature of American politics for a little more than a year now. Seriously. It’s only been a year. Our long national nightmare is far from over.

But as unprecedented and unrelenting as Trump’s lies are, Exxon’s lies—that’s right, the same Exxon where Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has spent his entire career, and has led as CEO for the past decade—Exxon’s lies are more insidious, and every bit as dangerous, maybe even more dangerous. Because Exxon has been lying about climate science for decades, with impunity, “normalizing” the most cynical distortion of scientific fact.

I know Trump likes to be number one in everything, but sorry, Donald. Exxon was way ahead of you in the post-truth department. Exxon led the way.

And as I argued in a recent piece for The Nation, a political and media and educational culture that can accommodate climate denial and obstruction, in the face of ever more urgent warnings from scientists of an accelerating catastrophe, is a culture that is ripe for Donald Trump; it’s a culture that can accommodate Trump and his lies. Because it’s a culture that has already detached itself from science and physical reality, as well as from humanity. Because it’s willing to treat the majority of the human population as expendable and superfluous. 

I mean, let’s be clear. Some of you have heard me say this before. I’ve said it many times, and I’m going to keep on saying it, because it’s true: Given what scientists know, and have known for decades, about climate change—indeed, given what Exxon Mobil has known for decades about climate change—to deny the science, deceive the public, and obstruct any serious response to the climate catastrophe, is to ensure the destruction, the eradication, of entire countries and cultures; and the suffering and death of untold millions of human beings. There’s a word for this. These are crimes. And they’re not just financial crimes. They’re not just crimes against shareholders. They’re crimes against humanity.

So, Governor Baker, if you’re listening, if you ever hear these words, all I want to know is: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

What we’re fighting for here today is even bigger than science. It’s about more than carbon, more than climate change. It’s about basic human rights. It’s about democracy. It’s about who we are as Americans, who we are as people.

Because the normalization of deceit and denial is a threat not just to science, but to the fundamental values on which our constitutional democracy is founded. Because in a world where facts have been abolished, an Orwellian world where 2+2=5, where the official version of reality changes day to day—where one day climate change is a hoax invented by China, and the next day you’ve got a nominee for secretary of state who says with a straight face that he accepts climate science and the Paris Agreement—in that world, there can be no basis for the kind of reasoned deliberation and rational debate on which democracy itself depends, or for the rule of law on which our basic rights, our human rights, depend.

So, Charlie Baker, which side are you on?

That’s our message for Baker. But I have another message for all of you, as people, as individuals.

This is really happening. Donald Trump is days away from becoming the forty-fifth President of the United States. And I don’t know about you, but I find that fact a little hard to accept. It can be hard to get out of bed in the morning and face this reality. I know how tempting it is to take refuge in cynicism and fatalism, to feel like nothing I do can make any difference. That’s why I have to remind myself, every morning, that cynicism and fatalism in the face of these realities are nothing less than a form of moral and intellectual cowardice. That’s right. Cowardice.

And so I just have one more thing to say to each of you right now, or rather, to ask of you. Of course, who am I to ask anything of you? I’m just one middle-aged white guy. One person, one father, one son, one brother, one friend. One fellow citizen. One fellow human being.

And what I’m asking of you is this: I’m asking you to be brave. I’m asking you to have courage.

Now, courage is going to mean something different for each one of us, depending on our situation. But make no mistake: what this moment in history requires of each of us is courage. Intellectual courage. Political courage. Moral courage. And yes, maybe even physical courage. I’m pretty sure there are going to be times when it will require physical courage.

So I’m asking of you precisely what I’m asking of myself. To be brave. We need to be able to look our neighbors in the eyes, whoever they may be—whoever they may be—and say to them: I promise to be brave. For you. And that’s what I’m promising all of you right now, right here: I promise to be brave for you.

That’s what we’re asking of Charlie Baker. To show some courage. Some political courage, some moral courage. For this Commonwealth, for this country, for humanity, for all of us.

But we can’t ask it of Charlie Baker if we’re not asking it of ourselves. So that’s why I’m asking you: Can you, will you, be brave? Will you stand and fight for the person next to you? Will you? I know that you, that we, can. And I believe—I believe—that we will. And that we will win.

God bless you.


About the Author 

Wen StephensonWen Stephenson, an independent journalist and activist, writes for The Nation and is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.