New Hope for Climate Activism

By Chie Togami and Suzanne Staggenborg

Climate change is an unprecedented threat to our planet, a catastrophic emergency that is happening now – glaciers are melting, coral reefs are bleaching, and countries all over the world are experiencing extreme weather events such as devastating floods, fires, and storms. It is both maddening and puzzling why we did not take more action much sooner to save the planet. Scientific consensus about the unsustainable release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the dangerous impacts of climate change first emerged nearly forty years ago. Since then, the United States has failed to pass major legislation aimed at slowing climate change, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, and sustained one of the highest rates of climate denial in the world. Political will – especially among leading producers of greenhouse gases such as the U.S. – remains virtually nonexistent. Many of us who are frustrated with the lack of government action on climate change hope that social movement opposition to fossil fuels and our carbon-based economy will have an impact. While climate change has not yet spurred the kind of extensive grassroots activism needed (McAdam 2017), recent developments in grassroots activism on climate change provide reason for optimism. In response to political intransigence, grassroots activists are marching in the streets, boycotting fossil fuel corporations, halting pipeline projects, and lobbying elected officials for comprehensive climate change legislation.

We see a need for multiple approaches to the massive problem of climate change at local, regional, national and international levels, and we recognize that climate activism can accomplish a variety of objectives.  Perhaps most importantly, collective action can lead to movement building, which is critical because the more people who are mobilized, and the more allies found, the greater the movement’s strategic capacity and impact.  For example, many local activists traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March in September 2014 and to Washington in April 2017 for the second People’s Climate March, which marked 100 days of resistance to the Trump administration. In Pittsburgh, where we live, these demonstrations were extremely inspiring to grassroots environmentalists and some of them spoke together about the issues on the long bus rides to Washington DC and New York.  As a result, activists began to have conversations about how to address climate change more directly and they eventually launched a Pittsburgh chapter of 350.org, which has been pursuing a divestment strategy. In addition to building the movement, climate activism can produce shifts in public opinion and concern, mass media attention, political party positions, public policy, and institutional commitments to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Two recent efforts to combat climate change in the U.S., the Sunrise Movement and Rising Tide North America, have the potential for achieving some of these outcomes.

Sunrise Movement

The Sunrise Movement first catapulted to national attention after the mid-term elections in 2018, in large part due to publicity generated by a series of sit-ins targeting the offices of Democratic Leadership. Architects of the “Green New Deal,” (a proposed package of policies that would lay out a U.S. path to carbon neutrality through cessation of fossil fuel subsidies, expansion of public transportation, strict reductions in carbon emissions, and creation of green jobs), the youth-led Sunrise Movement is pushing to make climate change a central issue of the 2020 presidential campaign. One of the group’s important early victories included gaining the endorsements of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey, who introduced the Green New Deal Resolution in both chambers last month. Sunrise’s combination of direct-action tactics and navigation of institutional politics, combined with a savvy social media presence, signals an offensive shift in the climate movement – a movement which has directed a lot of energy towards fights to stop fossil fuel infrastructure projects, but has thus far been unable to compel Congress to pass comprehensive and meaningful climate change legislation. Ten years after the Waxman-Markey climate bill failed, the Sunrise Movement is charting an approach that goes far beyond carbon taxes – one that links climate change to a host of other issues (such as economic and racial inequality). In so doing, this collection of Millennials and members of Generation Z are helping to mainstream a badly needed intersectional approach to the climate crisis.

Rising Tide North America (RTNA)

Rising Tide North America, which operates as a decentralized network of activists unified by a number of key principles, is another noteworthy group dedicated to moving the dial on the issue of climate change in the United States. Among these principles is the belief that climate change can only be addressed by exposing intersecting oppressions and a conviction that climate change “amplifies injustices inherent in a capitalist, racist, and patriarchal society” (RTNA principles). Originally formed in the year 2000 by activists attending the UN Conference of the Parties climate talks, Rising Tide now has chapters across multiple continents. In the U.S., activists associated with RTNA have participated in localized struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure projects such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline resistance in West Virginia and the Energy Transfer Partner’s Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana. While RTNA eschews any form of violence and the sabotage or destruction of property, it encourages “autonomous actions” by groups or individuals that align with its principles. Oftentimes this includes the use of direct-action tactics such as sit-ins, long-term tree sits, and other forms of disruptive protest. Last month, RTNA announced the kick-off of a cross-country tour (the “Scale Resistance” tour) held in conjunction with representatives from a radical German climate group, Ende Gelände (“Here and No Further”). By sharing the story of how a grassroots movement in Germany has succeeded in pressuring the German government to phase out coal, RTNA and its allies in the international climate movement hope to lay the groundwork for larger and more effective direct-action campaigns in the U.S.

These are just two examples of inspiring developments in climate activism, which are significant in attracting new generations of activists and, potentially, a diverse coalition concerned about climate justice as well as preventing the destruction of our planet. Social movement scholars can contribute to studies that assess the movement-building potential, strategies, and outcomes of these and other forms of climate activism around the world.

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