It is difficult to know if the climate bill moving through Congress will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some models say it will, even if the legislation ignores scientists’ recent report begging policymakers to halt new fossil fuel development. Some environmental groups are cheering the bill, others are sounding an alarm, and oil companies are celebrating.
Amid all the noise, one thing is clear: Climate change is at least — finally — on the agenda as a political issue. That’s not because of the benevolence of Washington elites, but because a mass movement did the hard work to overcome naysayers and force the crisis to center stage. Indeed, the Washington Post and New York Times admitted this in their coverage of the legislation.
Many of you reading this have been part of that movement — and I’m sure there are moments when you want to give up, because you are sick of being ignored and demonized for doing the work. But that is what happens when you align with the righteous underdog — and if this bill gets signed into law, it will kick off a whole new battle for climate justice where, once again, scientists and activists will be the underdogs.
I recently gave a speech about the life of fighting for the underdog. The speech was delivered to thousands of people at the Tomorrowland festival in Europe. If you have a few minutes, please watch the speech here, or read it in the transcript below, and forward it to your friends:
Thank you for all of the work you are doing to make a better world. And thank you for not giving up.
Rock the boat,
My name is David Sirota. I’m the founder of the investigative news outlet called The Lever, which you can find at LeverNews.com. I also co-created the story of this recent film, which I hope some of you have seen.
Don’t Look Up was the second-most watched film in the history of the world’s largest streaming platform, and it was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. It was literally seen by hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and it resurfaced again this past week when this mash-up went super viral across the Internet. What you’ll see here is a clip from our movie and then a clip from a real news broadcast in the UK.
Many of my friends sent me this clip all last week, and I was both gratified that our movie so perfectly illustrated reality so that we can be appalled by it, but I was also depressed by media outlets continuing to downplay this crisis — continuing to make it so difficult for scientists and experts to inform humanity about the crisis at hand.
That is what our movie is actually all about. It’s not just a tale about government and media’s response to climate change or the pandemic or any other pressing crisis at hand. Our film at its core is about something timeless: the story of the underdog.
The underdog is the person or cause that is righteous and good, but that is unfairly outmatched, persecuted and crushed by those with influence, money, and power. Our film is a story of three scientists who become accidental underdogs in a fight to tell the world an indisputable truth. The comedy and tragedy of the story is that they are underdogs when they shouldn’t be.
I had never expected to work on movies — it’s not the life plot twist I ever expected. But if there would be one kind of movie I’d be drawn to, it would definitely be the story of the underdog.
I’m the grandson of underdogs — my grandfather escaped the antisemitism of early 20th century Russia, crossed the ocean and arrived in America with no money. He scratched and clawed his way to a job helping lead one of our country’s largest naval facilities. My other grandfather fought in World War II, and was there as the United States liberated Europe.
As a child growing up outside of Philadelphia, rooting for the underdog was part of our hometown’s culture. The city is the home of the famous Rocky movies — the story of the working-class boxer who becomes the world champion. Philadelphia is a huge sports town obsessed with its professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball teams.
When I was growing up, I was the world’s biggest 76ers fan, and specifically — the world’s biggest fan of Charles Barkley. And he was always the underdog against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Every year, they would do well and go into the playoffs with high hopes — only to see them crushed. My heart was broken, but that experience forged a permanent affinity with the underdog.
As a kid, there was nothing I wanted more than to be an NBA player. I understood the game, I was super competitive, and I practiced and practiced and practiced. I was the complete package, except for one problem: I just wasn’t very good at basketball.
But as I grew older, I found another outlet for my competitive drive and my obsession with the underdog: the rough and tumble of American politics. When I graduated college in the late 1990s, I sent my resume to offices all over Washington, D.C., applying for any low-level job that was available. Having only a little bit of experience on a few campaigns, I didn’t get many call backs. I was demoralized. But I still hustled. And then finally the phone rang. I was asked to come in for an interview with a lawmaker I’d never heard of from a tiny New England state I’d never been to.
That lawmaker’s name was Bernie Sanders. Yes, that Bernie Sanders, the ultimate underdog. The only independent in Congress, the man who somehow got himself into Congress advocating for the little guy against the most powerful people on the planet.
I went to work as Bernie Sanders’ spokesperson — and I hit the motherlode of the underdog experience.
I got to fight against giant companies like IBM that were trying to cut retirees’ pensions, fight against Wall Street banks fleecing customers, and fight against drug companies ripping off the poorest in our country. Bernie was like the characters in our movie — speaking, yelling, and screaming truth to power inside a system that pretends to be a democracy, but in reality is an oligarchy. And every now and again, we would scratch and claw to a victory.
The entire experience of being inside the power system with the ultimate outsider truly changed my life. I was hooked — and found my way back to the discipline I’d studied in college: journalism. Only I no longer wanted to be a sportswriter covering the NBA, I wanted to take down corrupt politicians of both parties.
Journalism should not be the “keep it light” scene you saw in our movie. At its best, journalism is the job whose entire mission is to speak for the underdog. There’s the old saying that the journalist should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And if you do it that way, it’s a lonely existence because lots of powerful people hate you — and those powerful people have an entire political machine and media machine that get others to hate you.
I spent my time exposing how politicians were helping their corporate donors screw over their voters. The biggest set of stories I ever did was about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — he was seen as the most popular Republican in America, and a likely presidential candidate. Nobody wanted to report on his corruption because he was so popular and he was a bully — the ultimate Goliath.
But me and my team at a small media outlet stumbled onto the story of his administration funneling the retirement savings of teachers, firefighters, and other government workers. We uncovered rampant conflicts of interest in his administration, where his appointees were personally benefiting from investments they were making with workers’ money.
And when our stories hit, Christie held press conferences personally attacking me. Watch this video:
As I said, being the underdog, challenging the status quo, challenging power — it is a lonely existence.
That’s what I warned my wife about a few years later. Our area in Denver was represented by a state lawmaker who had been voting with the oil and gas industry, and she was working with a group of activists to try to find a candidate to run against him. Eventually, they asked her to run. I encouraged it but I warned her — the hardest thing in all of American politics is defeating an incumbent officeholder. It almost never happens.
But she decided that our community needed a change so badly that she would take the plunge and run that underdog race. She launched the campaign at the local bar near our house.
It was a grueling battle — I have a lot of my gray hair from that race. It was endless weeks of door knocking and community events and meet and greets and small dollar fundraising. She was up against the entire Democratic Party machine. There were days it felt hopeless. But in the end, win or lose, it had become the greatest experience of our lives. What started as a campaign of a few people had become a huge army of volunteers. And she ended up pulling off that underdog miracle — she won a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives, where she has once again found herself as an underdog, pushing climate legislation, fair tax legislation, and all sorts of other causes that challenge power.
That’s the thing about the life of the underdog — the battle never ends. There is no one singular victory. There is no instant gratification. The struggle never ends. But after so many years in politics, I have come to believe in an axiom about that struggle: Courage is contagious.
When I go to rallies at the Colorado Capitol to demand that my wife and her colleagues take the climate crisis seriously and halt fossil fuel development in our state, I am frustrated by the lack of action on this crisis and I am frustrated that those of us standing with science are still the underdogs.
But I also know that we the underdogs outnumber the oligarchs, and I know that we cannot let the difficulty of the struggle beat us down and make us give up. That’s what power wants. They want us to give up. They want us to be sick of the toil of the underdog.
And I’d be lying to you if I told you I’m always optimistic. At a moment when my country is facing a poverty and health care crisis, when so many countries are facing a democracy crisis, and when the world is facing the existential climate crisis — yes, there are days when I don’t want to struggle anymore. There are days when I’m exhausted and don’t want to be on the side of the righteous underdog. There are days when I don’t want to look up.
But then on the wall in my office, I look at this photo of my daughter meeting Bernie Sanders before I went to work as his speechwriter for his presidential campaign.
During that presidential campaign, one of Bernie’s most powerful speeches was the one where he talked about the need for solidarity in the battle for justice — the need to “fight for someone you don’t know.” I think about what will happen to my daughter and her friends and every kid her age if we do not do that.
I think about what happens to all future generations if the underdogs give up.
And so my message to you today is this: If you are on the side of justice — economic justice, racial justice, climate justice — then you are going to feel like an underdog all your life. You are going to be shit on and berated and insulted. And the more success you have, the more brutal it will be. But you cannot give up.
You have to keep speaking up, rocking the boat, trying to make change — and you have to expect that when you do, you’ll be vilified, and attacked and demonized because they want you to shut up. They want you to give up.
But if you give up, my daughter’s future is gone.
If you give up, your family’s future is gone.
If you give up, our world is gone.
And that cannot be an option.
But here’s the good news. The human story does not have to end like another Philadelphia 76ers season, and it doesn’t have to end like the ending of Don’t Look Up.
Our movie is not prophecy or destiny. It is cautionary — and we the underdogs have the power to win.
The greatest moments in history are the moments of the underdog’s triumph. Humanity itself is an underdog — a miraculous feat of biology and tenacity that came out of the primordial soup to build civilizations. Each generation has beaten back the worst and seemingly most powerful monsters. We have beaten disease, famine, and pandemics. My own grandfather was here with many of your grandparents defeating fascism right here in Europe when it seemed on the verge of a global takeover.
And now the climate crisis is our generation’s underdog challenge — a battle against the fossil fuel industry and its political machine that may be the greatest and most existential in all of human history. But we are seeing a global movement for change that is emerging. We see it in lawmakers facing more and more pressure to act. We see it in the divestment movement. We saw it most recently in Washington this week, when hundreds of staff in the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill publicly blew the whistle, demanding that Democrats who control the federal government stop surrendering on climate action.
As I said, courage is contagious — and in this battle, we actually have the technology and roadmap to win. Right now, renewable energy is cost-competitive with fossil fuels — and in the case of solar, it is actually less expensive than carbon-emitting energy.
That means, we can create a new energy system that takes us off of fossil fuels.
We can change agriculture and our food system.
We can change our transportation system and our supply chains to make them more sustainable.
In this real-life episode of Mission: Impossible, we don’t get to choose whether to accept the mission. We have no choice if we are going to survive.
We are underdogs because the opponents are so wealthy and powerful. We are the Charles Barkleys of my youth, and they are the Michael Jordans. They have armies of politicians and lobbyists and media outlets that not only block change, but try to make us feel insane for demanding change. They want to do what they did to Jennifer Lawrence’s character in our film — to depict the climate movement as insane for acknowledging the urgency of the threat before us.
But even against these odds, our past tells us we can triumph because the science and the facts and the morality of the cause are on our side.
We can win.
We can make sure the world finally looks up — as long as the underdogs don’t give up.
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