Can Grassroots Campagins Boost the Climate Movement?

Recently, an environmental youth summit called Power Shift was held in Pittsburgh, PA. The event is held every two years and brings together youth leaders and other activists to mobilize around issues related to clean energy and climate change. 7,000 people registered to attend the four-day summit, which entailed an environmental conference held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and direct actions (e.g., marches and other demonstrations) throughout the city.

The Energy Action Coalition (EAC) sponsors Power Shift. The EAC was founded in 2004 to build a youth clean energy and climate movement and is composed of 50 youth-led environmental and social justice groups from across the country. The EAC also maintains a professional staff located in Washington, D.C. where the first Power Shift conference was held in 2007. This conference drew over 5,000 attendees and subsequent summits, also held in the capital have garnered increasing numbers and high profile speakers such as Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader.

The fact that Power Shift 2013 was held in Pittsburgh is telling for it shows that unconventional natural gas (UNG) development has become an important issue for the clean energy and climate movement. Since the mid-2000s, new technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) have led to oil and gas booms across the United States. Pittsburgh is located at the heart of one such boom associated with a massive natural gas reservoir called the Marcellus Shale. Since 2007, the city has become an important center for oil and gas companies operating within the region as well as a key site for mobilization against UNG development. In 2010, Pittsburgh made national news when it banned natural gas drilling within city limits. Over the past four years, the anti-fracking movement has gained momentum both within the Marcellus Shale region and nationally. Power Shift’s move from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh suggests that the clean energy and climate movement has taken note.

There are other advantages to Pittsburgh as a location for a clean energy/climate change summit. Historically, this region was known as coal country and it remains a close neighbor to the coal of fields of West Virginia where mining practices have also been transformed by technology, those of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). Mobilization against MTR has been occurring for many years in states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky and this issue was also represented on the Power Shift 2013 program.

Power Shift 2013 raises interesting questions about the evolution of the clean energy and climate movement. Can locally based grassroots campaigns such as those against fracking and MTR provide new momentum to the climate movement in the United States?

The event should also be of general interest to social movement scholars since it raises important questions about coalition building, movement interactions and the evolution of social movement fields overtime. For example, how does coalition building across social movement fields occur and what accounts for more or less effective linkages across organizational fields? How does grassroots mobilization shape the evolution of historically durable and professionalized social movements like the environmental, civil rights, or feminist movements? These questions offer potentially fruitful paths for future inquiries.

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