“The climate movement needs to have one hell of a comeback.”
The energy was there. It was an overcast spring morning in April 2011 in the nation’s capita1. Thousands had shown up to take action on climate change. The earlier march led us to the Chamber of Commerce, BP’s Washington D.C. offices, the American Petroleum Institute and other office buildings associated with oil spills, coal mining, carbon emissions and more. We heard speakers. We saw street theater. It was all very tame and managed. It lacked confrontation.
It was almost a year to the day after the Gulf oil spill, yet offshore drilling continued as usual with little consequence for oil giant British Petroleum. Out west, the Obama administration had just opened up thousands of acres for coal mining in the Powder River Basin. Appalachia’s mountains were still under attack by the coal industry. Natural gas extraction, also known as “fracking,” was spreading like an epidemic through the countryside.
Over 15,000 youth, students and climate activists had gathered at Powershift for weekend of education, networking and keynote speakers. There were keynote speeches by Al Gore and Bill McKibben, yet little was offered in the way of taking action against Big Oil and Big Coal. We are faced with the greatest crisis in the history of the world, so we were told, yet the Beltway green groups had only produced failure in Copenhagen and Washington.
Globally, we had watched the Arab Spring throw out dictators; anti-austerity movements in Iceland and Greece rise up against corrupted regimes and massive protests in the Wisconsin state house fighting for labor rights. We were only a few months away from Occupy Wall Street.
Needless to say, the North American climate movements wanted in on the action.
As the morning march ended that day at Lafayette Park, the unofficial march, spearheaded by Rising Tide North America, formed and headed into the streets of Washington D.C. Tim DeChristopher of Salt Lake City, who had become something of a folk hero to climate activists after derailing a federal land auction and protecting thousands of acres of southern Utah wilderness, announced on the microphone that it was time for more drastic action. Anyone that wanted to take that step should join the Rising Tide march that was heading down 17th St NW to the Dept. of Interior.
The crowd quickly swelled to over a thousand, both singing “We Shall Overcome” and chanting “Keep It in the Ground” and “Our Climate is Under Attack, What’ll We Do? Act Up, Fight Back!”
As we approached the Dept. of Interior, the small group of twenty that had been pre-organized to occupy the lobby began to more towards the doors. Then to much our surprise and shock, a crowd of over 300 stormed in after them and joined the sit-in. As they sat in, they chanted “We’ve got power! We’ve got power!” It was scary. It was exhilarating. It was powerful.
Direct action is supposed to push a person’s comfort zone, but even veteran direct action organizers felt their comfort zones pushed when many in the march joined the occupation.
In the end, 21 were arrested as part of the sit-in. The Dept. of Interior action began a shift for the youth and grassroots activists with the North American climate movements. Soon, they would become a force to be reckoned with.
Corporations and Politicians Stall, Nature Doesn’t
The clock is ticking and the science is not just a theory, its science. Yet, corporate and political decision-makers continue to ignore these warnings for short term profit.
A new scientific report put out by the United Nations on the second day of the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP18) in Doha this week reports that thawing of the Arctic permafrost will “significantly amplify global warming.” Permafrost emission spurred by rising global temperature will contribute up to 39% of global emissions. On the third day of COP18 negotiations, the World Meteorological Organization warned the delegates that the Arctic ice melt had reached an alarming rate and that “far-reaching changes” would from climate change would impact the Earth.
Despite these dire warnings from the scientific community, wealthy industrialized nations continue to stall any sort of climate progress in Doha. The top topic at COP18 has been an extension of the Kyoto Protocol –up for renewal this year—to 2020. The Associated Press reports, a number of wealthy nations including Japan, Russia and Canada have joined the ranks of the U.S. and “refused to endorse the extension.” The U.S. has never endorsed Kyoto and continues to block any progress on agreements to reduce global emissions or pass legislation to regulate its own emissions.
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel holds a chokehold on the American political system. In 2012, oil and gas industries combined with Big Coal to spend over $150 million elections to both parties.
U.S. deputy climate envoy Jonathan Pershing told the media in Doha that the Obama administration plans to stick to its 2009 goal of reducing emissions by 17% by 2020. Pershing went on to say that U.S. efforts to curb emissions are “enormous.”
Yet, Obama recently signed into law a bipartisan bill to shield the U.S. airline industry from a European Union carbon tax. Furthermore, Obama’s top candidate to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Dept., UN Ambassador Susan Rice, has been revealed to be a major investor in companies developing Canadian tar sands and building the Keystone XL pipeline.
While the politicians in Doha and Washington stall, Mother Nature has thoughts of her own. Global warming is no longer an abstract notion. Rising temperatures and extreme weather are spreading at unprecedented levels. 11 of the past 12 years are among the hottest since 1850. This summer in Colorado, wildfires brought on by scorching heat, high winds and drought conditions killed four people, displaced thousands and destroyed hundreds of homes.
In late Oct., Hurricane Sandy battered the Atlantic seaboard from the Caribbean to New England. It took over 100 lives and cost tens of billions of dollars in damage. Millions were displaced while politicians scrambled for photo ops and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s finance network declared “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”
Harnessing Rebel Energy
Presented with these stark facts, it begs the question: Why haven’t governments and corporations been forced to act on climate change?
To begin with, the mainstream strategy, which controls large portions of resources to fight climate change, is too rooted in working within the existing political and economic system. In 2009, the environmental establishment comprised of small grouping of donors and environmental non-profits primarily based in Washington D.C. (aka the Beltway Greens) placed its faith in the Obama administration. They hoped that his ability to regulate emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency, combined with lobbing Congress to pass meaningful climate legislation in 2010 and pressuring world governments to secure a unilateral agreement on climate at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP15) in Copenhagen would turn the tide on global emissions. These strategies are fraught with compromise on a global crisis that pays no heed to politics as usual.
Second, the environmental establishment was completely unprepared for the power that Corporate America, particularly Big Oil and Big Coal, wielded in Washington D.C. In 2009, oil and gas companies spent $121 million to dispatch 745 lobbyists to Congress in 2009 to influence the climate bill. Before the 2010 election, Big Oil put $19,588,091 into the U.S. election cycle. Big Coal put in $10,423,347. The Beltway Greens were outgunned, outspent and outmatched.
Finally, turning the tide on the most powerful industry in history requires more than lobbyists and policy people. It requires rebel energy fueling people power and non-violent direct action. In the 1970’s when activists were doing battle to end the war in Vietnam and stop the proliferation of nuclear power, author and activist George Lakey wrote in the pamphlet “The Sword that Heals:”
“You can’t pull off powerful nonviolent direct action without rebel energy. You’ve run this campaign as a conventional lobbying operation and you can’t — at the last minute — switch gears and become a nonviolent protest movement!”
Political parties and non-profits did not drive the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia or Iceland; it was People Power that had been organized for decades. In Egypt, the established opposition groups only joined in after the masses took over the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In North America, Corporate America, the political establishment and the media has convinced us that national politicians and well paid non-profit staff are the change agents we’ve been waiting for. Thus far, they’ve only delivered epic failures in Copenhagen and Washington D.C. We mustn’t let the priorities of big well-resourced institutions trump planetary or community survival.
The momentum to stop climate change is going to come from the rebel energy that challenges not only the established order, but the established opposition as well.
Know Your History
As daunting as it sounds, climate rebels wouldn’t be re-inventing the environmental movement’s wheel in building a grassroots mass climate movement. Far from it, in fact, greens have threatened corporate power with non-violent direct action and people power for decades.
During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, emerging from the anti-war and burgeoning environmental movement, the anti-nuclear, or “No Nukes,” movement rose up to challenge the Nixon administration’s plant to build 100 new nuclear power plants by the year 2000. In 1976 and 1977, thousands with the Clamshell Alliance used non-violent direct action to occupy the site of a proposed nuclear plant in Seabook, NH. Similar mass actions followed Seabrook. The Three Mile Island disaster was a watershed event that by the early 1980’s put millions into the streets against U.S. nuclear power. While Seabrook and few other plants were built, the vast majority of plants proposed remain halted.
Similarly, in the early 1980’s, a group of disgruntled redneck tree-huggers fed up with constant compromise on wilderness protection in western states by the Beltway Greens formed the radical ecological movement known as “Earth First!” Their politics of “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth” manifested into the direct action tactics of road blockades and tree-sits that strengthened and emboldened the environmental movement. Their campaigns and tactics targeted corporate logging and development companies, but also created much needed political space for grassroots activists on environmental issues
Former Sierra Club director and Friends of the Earth founder David Brower remarked “I thank God for the arrival of Earth First!, they make me look moderate.”
A third movement that challenged corporate power for the betterment of the environment was the global justice movement. This grassroots street wing of anti-austerity, human rights and environmental movements emerged from the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in 1999. Rooted in direct action, direct democracy and anti-capitalism of movements both in the U.S. and abroad, the global justice movement undermined global trade talks set to privatize labor, environmental and human rights protections across the globe.
In the laboratory of resistance we call “social change,” the “No Nukes” movement, Earth First! and the global justice movement all had at least one strategy that set them apart from the establishment: they did their most important work out of Washington D.C. The anti-nuclear movement didn’t organize their massive rallies in Washington until they had built power on the highways and byways of the country. Likewise Earth First! and the organizers coming out of the WTO protests rejected Beltway politics as usual to build and embolden their own anti-establishment movements.
Hope & Climate Change
Fortunately, the rebel energy is alive and well in today’s climate movement. Outside of Washington D.C., grassroots activists, direct action organizers, smaller environmental, faith-based and student groups, rank and file Sierra Club members and environmental and climate justice groups have mobilized a very different climate movement from the air conditioned offices of the Beltway Greens.
Climate activists, the youth climate movement in particular, are fed up and hungry to make some real change and take real action. Just this summer, numerous actions from a mass civil disobedience in West Virginia at the Hobet Mine to a week of civil disobediences opposing the western coal exports in the Montana state capitol to community-led direct actions against fracking in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have created space for groups to make meaningful progress both on their issues and internally within the movement. While this work has been complimentary and cumulative, it’s not always necessarily collaborative, nor should it be.
The fight over tar sands development and the Keystone XL pipeline has galvanized climate activists of all ages. Over the past year, we have witnessed people from the Lakota nation in South Dakota and from Moscow, Idaho putting their bodies in roads and highways blocking large transport trucks carrying oil refining equipment to develop further tar sands extraction.
In Texas a young marine veteran named Ben Kessler returned from the war in Afghanistan to witness oil and gas companies ravaging North and East Texas with fracking and the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. He got involved in environmental and climate organizing, and with friends, formed a student environmental group at the University of North Texas. In April 2011, some of them attended Powershift in Washington D.C. At the Dept. of Interior, Kessler took his first civil disobedience arrest. But more importantly the group went back to Denton, TX and transformed their group into an anchor for a grassroots direct action campaign called the Tar Sands Blockade. The Tar Sands Blockade joined with Texas landowners to form the Tar Sands Blockade which has organized dozens of actions and a two month old tree blockade to stop the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.
People are hungry for climate action that does more than asks you to send emails to your climate denying congressperson or update your Facebook status with some clever message about fossil fuels. Now, a new anti-establishment movement has broken with Washington’s embedded elites and has energized a new generation to stand in front of the bulldozers and coal trucks and, in the words of Naomi Klein to make “one hell of a comeback.”
Scott Parkin is a climate organizer working with Rainforest Action Network, Rising Tide North America and the Ruckus Society.