Don’t Let David Buckel’s Death Be in Vain

As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures—and when it comes to the climate crisis, we are indeed living in desperate times.

It’s hard to overstate the passion and principle of pioneering attorney David Buckel, who died one week ago today at the age of 60. He did not pass away from a dreadful disease; he died in protest of a dreadful disease—our national and international addiction to fossil fuels, which contaminate our climate and imperil our very existence.

In the name of climate justice, Buckel embraced a noble and powerful protest tradition:

Protest by self-immolation is powerful in terms of messaging the strength of purpose and self-determination. To chose to send a message with a conscious choice for the last few minutes of your life to be excruciatingly painful is one that has to penetrate the emotions of all but the least empathetic among us…

TV screens around the world saw Vietnamese Buddhists burn themselves in protest over repression during the Vietnam War. Five US citizens committed suicide by self-immolation in protest over the War. A key spark to the Arab Spring was a self-immolation. “Since March 2009, more than 140 people are known to have set themselves on fire inside Tibet to protest against the repressive Chinese occupation.” And … Self-immolation protests are not brand new. And there are 10,000s of suicides that might be linked to climate change, in India alone. Yet, Buckel’s might be first one as a call to the world to #ActOnClimate.

Regretfully, the world’s efforts to address climate change are falling short (and being worsened by science denying, pollution enablers like Donald Trump who hold too many positions of power) and the imperative for drastic action to reduce climate catastrophe risks and impacts will only will only strengthen. That suggests the external environment in which Buckel made his choice will only strengthen the case for such action.

Some will say that Buckel selfishly abandoned his family in the name of protest politics. Nonsense. Buckel took this action in the name of his family—and in the name of all families who will be harmed severely if we don’t finally commit to moving away from coal, oil and natural gas. Buckel clearly felt, shall we say, a higher loyalty to future generations—and his death should inspire all of us to do better by, and for, our planetary home:

Again, reaching the point of seeing self-immolation as the right path forward is almost beyond my personal comprehension. And, that — likely shared by most of us — is what can make it such a powerful tool of messaging about desperation and seriousness of purpose.

With that in mind, no matter of what I think of the state of the climate crisis and the desperate need for massive global action to mitigate and adapt to climate change to provide any hope for a vibrant and prosperous global society and human civilization, I certainly am not at the point of endorsing Buckel’s action.

I am, however, strongly of the opinion that Buckel’s choice merits respect in terms of acknowledging and understanding his reasons for acting.

David Buckel made the choice to burn himself to death with fossil fuels to call our attention to the damage that burning fossil fuels is creating for humanity and for the world’s ecosystems.

As we consider Buckel’s action, think too of those who are killed every day by climate polluters without notice. Those who died of fossil-fuel related cancers or asthma, those dying due to damage to their local environment / climate, those dying in (at least partially) climate-driven conflicts (like Syria), and those dying in fossil-fueled catastrophes (like the US the 2000 people, overwhelmingly poor and black, killed by Katrina, and the uncounted thousands killed by Maria in Puerto Rico). There are few, even within the environmental / climate movement, who are doing a sufficient job to recognize and honor those people’s (not chosen) sacrifice.

May we heed Buckel’s death with attention and action to reduce those damaged and dying due to climate disruption and, in doing so, so that we might successfully dissuade others from following his course.

David Buckel sacrificed himself in the name of a noble cause—galvanizing the world to act on climate. Buckel was reportedly outraged by the savagery of Scott Pruitt and the other fossil-fuel fiends in the Trump administration: we should all share Buckel’s outrage, even if we disagree with the form of protest he chose. It has been 30 years—30 years!—since James Hansen implored America to act firmly and boldly on climate. What has America done since then in terms of climate leadership? Not nearly enough. This is what Buckel was protesting. This is what, in death, he called upon all of us to change. We must heed his words—because if we do not, our children and grandchildren will be silenced.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.