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Interview with Food and Water Watch Director Wenonah Hauter – connecting Fracking struggles internationally.

The US fracking experience, according to Food and Water Watch Director Wenonah Hauter, should be a cautionary tale for movements on the other side of the Atlantic. In a recent short interview before the presentation of her book in Ireland, we spoke with the internationally renowned expert on the importance of connecting struggles in different places and learning from examples of successful resistance in order to strengthen the anti-fracking movement in Europe and internationally.

More on Fracking in Europe:

Fracking with the Happy People


Creative Coalitions – A Handbook for Change

A useful handbook for activists, including chapters on How to Choose Where to Put your Efforts, Staying Behind the Scenes, Creative Tactics, and A Culture that’s Hungry for Impact.

This is a Handbook for people seeking to work with others to change the world. In today’s world, the injustices we’re trying to overcome, the progress we’re trying to realise – they’re too complex to bring about alone: you need other actors in your ecosystem to work well together; you need to overcome vested interests; you need to spark innovation.

This Handbook is to help you unlock effective collective action and secure the systems change that’s needed.’

On The Ground And In The Boardrooms – Strategies For Connecting Frontline Struggles With Corporate Capture Of Climate Policy

Thomas Mc Donagh and Philippa de Boissière report from Lima as the Democracy Center launches its new report: Climate Conquistadors – The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Destruction.

After spending many months focusing on how to make the most strategic use of the arrival of the UN climate negotiations to Latin America in 2014, the Democracy Center team finally arrived into Lima, Peru last Friday.

Members of the Democracy Center team in Lima

Our arrival coincided with two pieces of tragic news from the region.

Reports came in of the murders of indigenous environmental activists defending their communities and natural resources both in Ecuador and Peru (Peru is now the fourth most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists).

The Peruvian government, meanwhile, continues its push to ‘reactivate the Peruvian economy’ by cutting back environmental regulations for extractives projects.

The connection between the resistance of communities in Latin America to extractive industry expansion and the national and international policy spaces that facilitate this expansion has been a major focus of our work recently.

It was sad to see such a vivid demonstration of the same dynamics we’ve observed during our research over the last few months playing out on the ground in the region just as the COP20 has been getting started.

Although the media has covered the deaths of the indigenous community leaders, the headlines for the last week have mostly been dominated by the inflated promises of national governments seeking to maintain ‘Business As Usual’ in the official negotiation spaces.

You really have to push past the barrage of spin and PR to hear the voices of those on the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice. But once you do, what you hear are strong calls for restrictions on extractive projects such as large-scale mining and oil and gas expansion; demands for full and effective participation of affected communities in decisions that affect their territories; calls for accountability for the abuses by the corporations that profit from these destructive industries; and inspiring stories of communities bravely resisting the encroachment of climate change-causing industries in to their territories.

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These are also the stories of the communities featured in our new ‘Corporate Conquistadors‘ report.

In the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, indigenous communities have been making some of these same calls for justice and accountability for many years. As the negotiations take place within their nation’s capital, these communities are witnessing first hand the consequences of the expansion of the fossil fuel industry into ever more vulnerable and remote regions of our planet.

Communities in the Espinar region of the southern Peruvian Andes are also on the frontlines. In a region that is already witnessing its glaciers melting at accelerated speeds, toxic chemicals used in mining processes are destroying their remaining fresh water sources, putting the very survival of these communities in question.

The struggle of farmers and fisherfolk of the Colombian province of Huila is also representative of many of these same dynamics. Community members from across seven municipalities are taking on a planned large-scale hydro electric dam, drawing on a mix of direct action tactics and legal challenges to force the corporations responsible out of the region.

Although the communities at the frontline of these projects struggle to have their voices heard in national and international policy spaces, the same cannot be said for the foreign corporations profiting from such destruction.

We have teamed up with Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute to use the COP20 as an opportunity to shine an urgent light on how three European multinational corporations – emblematic of corporate misconduct the world over – avoid accountability for the social and environmental destruction that they cause in Latin America. This new report aims to show how corporate activity, across three sectors, is exacerbating the climate crisis while the multinationals responsible manipulate political decision making spaces and profit from a lack of real progress on climate change.

How does Glencore-Xtrata steer international policy spaces towards its interests? While the Swiss-based conglomerate causes severe human rights abuses in southern Peru, what are the mechanisms it uses to ensure no decisions are made that would affect its existing destructive business model?

While Repsol likes to present itself as a “global company looking out for the well-being of all people”, what it doesn’t let on is that it is investing in future fossil fuel reserves at the highest rate in the industry. Its insatiable thirst for oil and gas is resulting in expansion into ever more remote and vulnerable parts of our planet. In its wake it is leaving destruction of indigenous peoples’ territories and Amazon rainforest. How does this dirty energy giant make sure it has a seat at the top table when we set our climate policies?

Contributors launch the ‘Corporate Conquistadors’ report in Lima during COP20

The third of these corporate giants featured in Corporate Conquistadors – the report we are launching today – also presents a clean and responsible image to the world while causing human rights abuses and blocking progress on the climate crisis. Italian-based Enel-Endesa, through its Colombian subsidiary Emgesa, is using a lucrative big hydroelectric project called ‘El Quimbo’ to provide a “green” veneer to its operations and to allow it to earn carbon credits for its European dirty energy business. Far from being “carbon neutral”, these mega-hydroelectric projects are high in emissions and provide cheap energy to ramp up fossil fuel extraction elsewhere. How does Enel-Endesa’s international web of political influence ensure that these false solutions to the climate crisis are included in international climate policy?

The lines have clearly been drawn in the international climate movement. Frontline communities and activists all over the world can see more clearly than ever that the interests of these corporate giants and those of climate justice are in direct conflict.

However, if we are to begin to take them on, we need a much clearer understanding of the ways in which they accumulate and exercise power. By exposing and denouncing the connections between corporations and our decision makers we can begin to delegitimize their seat at the negotiating table on climate change policy. If we can do this while lifting up the voices of marginalized frontline communities, we have a much stronger chance of broadening and strengthening international solidarity.

What we’re doing here in Lima is just the beginning of a longer-term process to connect struggles on the frontlines with efforts to keep dirty industry away from our policy makers. On Thursday we will be running a two-hour planning session with community members within the People’s Summit to think through how to build the stronger links of solidarity that are needed to form the basis for international action.

We hope to ramp up this strategy in the next year, with the aim of building citizen power toward, and beyond, COP21 in Paris. This way, we can start to tip the balance of power away from the vested corporate interests that currently have a stranglehold on international climate policy.

Read more about the report and download Corporate Conquistadors: The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Change

See/hear/read Amy Goodman interviewing Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory about the report for Democracy Now!


Democracy Center team at the COP20 and the People’s Summit in Lima this week

Almost the entire Democracy Center team will be present in Lima all this week, reporting from the People’s Summit, and inside the COP20. Scroll down this page for daily news and reports.

You can follow us on Twitter @DemocracyCenter for live reporting. You can also subscribe to a list of all staff Twitter handles here.


This week six members of the Democracy Center are in Lima for the UN COP20 summit and the social movement events around the city on the climate crisis. We come from four different countries, are participating in different actions, and bring a range of different perspectives. In the Blog this week we will be posting daily reports from Lima, snippets of what we see and hear, and our reactions to a diverse gathering focused on a common, planetary crisis that impacts us all.

Thursday 11th December

Inside COP 20

Jim Shultz

jim-120wHere is my new article on COP 20 in YES! Magazine: UN Climate Negotiators Drop the Ball in Lima—Now It’s Up to the Grassroots to Pick It Up

Today was the last day that I will attend the official COP summit and I want to try to offer up a glimpse of the strange culture that occupies this space of negotiation and self-promotion.  During the quiet midday, when the main plenary sessions are suspended so that delegates can stand in long lines at the COP 20 salad bar, I paid a visit to the official U.S. information center.  I walked in during the middle of a set of presentations about new technologies the U.S. government has developed to help countries more closely track their local climate change impacts.  These include new, advanced weather projection systems and a nifty set of high resolution satellite images of climate destruction.  The cheerful young woman who presented these, told us at one point, “And here are the Andean glaciers, the ones that are still left…” with not a hint of irony in her voice.  A whole culture is on display here at the summit of proud and eager professionals who are quite excited about the creative possibilities offered by the planet’s biblical-level decimation, and I find that chilling.

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Young people at COP20 reminding John Kerry that action on climate cannot include development of tar sands.

Later in the afternoon the COP seemed to almost come to a full stop with the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for a brief in and out visit to Peru to make a statement in the COP media center.  I heard his voice booming down from upstairs as I watched it on a wide screen below.  He blasted climate deniers; encouraged developing countries to envision their futures based on clean energy instead of coal and oil, and warned that the world was on a “course leading to tragedy.”  He was also silent on one of the most significant climate decisions the Obama administration faces soon, on whether to allow construction of the carbon supercharged Keystone XL pipeline.  A group of young people from the U.S. was banned from unfurling a protest banner at the summit until they agreed to remove both Kerry’s name and Keystone’s.

Finally, I have to just say how much everyone back home in the U.S. owes to the amazing staff of Democracy Now!, including Amy Goodman, Denis Moynihan, Mike Burke and the rest of the production staff.  From protests to the voices of the indigenous, these would all have been almost invisible abroad but for DN’s relentless efforts to give them a pulpit from which to share their messages.  They are great people, fabulous journalists and a source of inspiration at these events.

How the Criminalization of Protest Impacts on Women

Leny Olivera

leny-120wThe extractivist model currently being promoted in Peru makes the country amongst the worst affected by the negative effects of mining. For decades Peruvian communities have been resisting and struggling against mining companies. In the last 12 years, 57 environmental and land defenders have been assassinated. The cost of this resistance is high, especially in indigenous communities.

Just as climate change impacts are not the same between the genders, the risks and potential impacts of resisting corporations is not the same for men and women in the affected communities. Many women like Máxima (see post below ‘Máxima’s struggle against the mining company Yanacocha’) or Nina Mendoza Bazan have had legal actions brought against them by mining companies. Many more face other forms of violence principally because they are women.

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Women march in Lima.

Corporations operating in countries like Peru often employ heavy handed security services – or indeed often enjoy the protection of state police forces at the taxpayer’s expense. Much of the work of this ‘security’ involves keeping a physical and psychological barrier between the foreign companies tearing up the earth and the local people who live on that earth. Maintaining that barrier can involve many forms of intimidation and (illegal) violence – and women often take the brunt of this.

One of the worst forms of violence is rape. Often it is not spoken of because justice in rape cases is hard to pursue. Following the workshop ‘Women in the Face of Extractivism and Climate Change’ compañera Nina Mendoza Bazan, of the World March of Women and President of the National Council of Women from Cajamarca, spoke of the violence which women in communities like hers are facing:

“We are entering the phase of criminalization of protest [by women]. Women are not seen; they hit us, they attack us, they have violated our bodies – and really nobody cares. Nobody pays attention to victims of sexual violence. The most unfair is hearing the police say: ”Did you see his name?” when they themselves know who it is. But when we react [to the mistreatment] with a slap or a push, they use this against us.”

Legal processes re-victimize the survivors, and it is worse if the aggressors are in a position of power: these cases often go unpunished.

For Nina, even though not all women share a feminist vision, the struggle for autonomy over our bodies and our territories is enough to stand in solidarity with other women:

“Not all of us participating [in the People’s Climate Summit] are feminists but our struggle for our bodies and our territories is already a feminist revolution…We shouldn’t be afraid, we stand and face it; we don’t have arms like them but we have the wisdom of women.”

Strategising on the Road To Paris

Nicky Scordellis

nicky_smallOn the last day of the Peoples’ Summit, I participated in the session on planning for COP21 in Paris. I expected to be faced with the usual debates between slightly nuanced factions of the movement, distracting us from the deeper questions at hand, but I was very inspired to hear instead a series of strong proposals that very much complement each other. It was clear that the climate justice movement has come to a broad consensus that the negotiations are not working and that climate change is a systemic issue that requires us to integrate with other struggles. A friend who is closely involved with the international process commented: “this would have been impossible four years ago”.

When talking about mobilizing around Paris, groups are already talking about “how we will reject the text”, and the two main actions are being planned for before the negotiations even start and after they finish, breaking away from the usual practice of holding a march during the negotiations to put pressure on the official process.

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People’s Climate March – “System change not climate change!”

The messages proposed for actions in the run up to and at COP21 also showed a strong level of alignment, with people focusing on three key issues: stopping fossil fuel extraction, resisting the mercantilization of nature and lifting up genuine alternatives. Around this last point, people particularly emphasized food sovereignty and decentralized energy, and proposed actions to reflect these ideas, such as the Alternatiba initiative from France.

I walked into the room expecting to stand up and share the ideas from our recent “Movement Strategies to Move Mountains” report, but in the end I was very happy to discover that it wasn’t necessary after all, as all the proposals shared in the session already broadly reflected the strategies set out in our report. It would seem that the collective consciousness is shifting in the right direction, and that to me is a very positive note on which to end our time in Lima and a great source of hope as we look towards Paris next year.

The Lima Experience Via Satellite Up-Link

By Anders Vang Nielsen

As one of a few from our team who stayed at home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, my experience of these weeks’ climate buzz in Lima was not at ground level, but from the extraterrestrial perspective of Twitter-feeds and Democracy Now!’s daily hour of broadcasting. So what did that look like?

Keeping an eye on news from the actual Conference — via UN officials, journalists, and an array of tweeting flies-on-the-wall — the invariably dull experience was like having a script to a play you have already seen 19 times leaked in tiny bits of 140 characters apiece. First, a swarm of wishful thinking and calls for #ClimateAction; Christiana Figueres kept hooraying at pledges, however minor, to the #GreenClimateFund; typhoon #Hagupit again cast a dark shadow both on the summit and its complementary digital spaces; then, as the negotiations rushed into the second week, disappointments started piling up, Evo made his #AntiCapitalist remarks that seem to only really count on foreign ground, and in what could be called the summit’s “Keynote XL” speech John Kerry prepended his demands for ‘#action’ with such manyfold adjectives that they would hardly fit into a tweet. Yet despite a concerted storm of infographics and urges to pass the #ClimateTest he did not say #noKXL.

And in the very end… a fancy new acronym: #INDCs!

Meanwhile, from the @DemocracyCenter account, we did our best hunting for re-tweets among the steady stream of report launches and event announcements that spotted the less official sphere. On Wednesday, things took a visual turn as colourful photos and videos rolled in from +15,000 people converging in #YoMarcho10D — but that only really took off the day after when Leonardo DiCaprio gathered near 300 re-tweets (still counting) and double as many favourites within half an hour of saying what everyone else was already saying.

And so it went on at the digital front-lines of #ClimateAction. The reality is, of course, that nothing really happened. And more to the point, that no part of the fundamentally transformative processes that the current rush towards apocalypse demands that we go through, will ever be achieved by means of keystrokes and re-tweets. Instead, what has stayed with me the most from the river of words of these weeks, are the first-hand accounts (see below) by some of my colleagues (who during the last few months have spent the vast majority of their waking hours behind laptops, getting things ready for Lima) of the humbling, eye-opening encounters with those truly engaged in climate struggles: the people and communities directly affected by — and directly taking action against — the unforgiving ventures of the extractive industry. These battles take place all the time and everywhere but inside climate summits (while a lot goes on outside). They constitute what Naomi Klein would refer to as a whole as Blockadia, meaning the areas and instances of confrontation between, effectively, the perpetuators of climate destruction and the defendants of communal land, social integrity, and sustainable ways of life.

Climate negotiators, when doing their thing (they negotiate, after all…), are evidently cut off — this year by the very effective means of a military establishment — from where the real battles over the fate of the Earth are being fought. Meanwhile, they seem to believe (at least so their tweets suggest) that what they are doing is meaningful and will eventually get us where we need to go in terms of public policy to avert a planetary wipeout. But however evidently magical this thinking seems to those of us who count ourselves as parts of the climate movement, we all too easily tend to replicate a similar story in the deceptive spaces of social media and digital publishing.

Just like climate negotiators, we are very often all too caught up in the tactics we know the best. At the Center, despite attempts to diversify our actions, we still spend a disproportionately big part of our time producing and publishing reports, NGO-style. But all those words will not even be intelligible to a single living being once the planet has gone through the scale of climate change we are currently headed towards. For many of us, it is high time to leave the habits of sticking to laptop-tactics, just because we have laptops. At the core of any meaningful strategy on climate action, lies engagement and solidarity with the communities of Blockadia. It is them who know the true stories of climate destruction, and them who have the best clue at how to fight back.

I want to end with a contrasting case: in-between everything #COP20 and #ClimateAction, what dominated Twitter these weeks was of course the tragic reality of #ICantBreathe, #Ferguson, and #EricGarner. But whereas the former worked mainly to persuade audiences to follow hyperlinks, the latter were largely to testify that at least as many people had taken to the streets as to the tweets. Social media (and other media) does have a role to play in fighting for social and climate justice, and so have reports and infographics. But that role has to do with communicating and reinforcing what is taking place on the real-life battlefields of those struggles, not with staging artificial struggles online. An example to follow is that of Democracy Now! who in their coverage of the COP20 (all available on-demand) have given considerable speaking time to affected and under-represented groups (though, admittedly, not devoid of analyses delivered by the typical white, ready-for-conference-dressed male).

What matters, is not the moments — considered fateful — when delegates and mediators get together for another round of blabbering at climate summits, nor the replications of that blabbering on social media. What matters is everything that goes on in-between these inflated events: among those resisting extractive industry projects; those standing up for their rights and those of Nature; and those organising to build cross-community solidarity and support. For them, the struggle is not for X number of re-tweets or X dollars worth of pledges to the Green Climate Fund. Instead — in the words of Lourdes Chomanda, President of the Association of Women in Defence of Life, whom my friend met in Lima (see below) — it is “for the children who are the future of the world.” And so it ought to be for all of us.

Justice for Peruvian territories!

Aldo Orellana López

aldo-120wDuring the last two weeks there has been an unusual and intense gathering of movements in Lima. Hundreds of people arrived to participate in the COP20 and the People’s Climate Summit, and now everyone returns home to begin thinking about COP21 in Paris next year, and the work that must be done before then.

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Gilber Rengifo Sifuentes and Reyder Sebastián Quinticuari, Asháninkas leaders. Adelina Vargas Santillan and Lita Rojas Pinedo, widows of two of the murdered leaders.

One of the things that most impacted me in Lima was the persistent criticism from Peruvian communities of state policies that criminalize protest, and of the assassinations of indigenous environmental leaders. Only two months before the COP20, four Asháninkas leaders were assassinated in the Peruvian Amazon, among them the leader of the community Alto Tamaya Saweto, Edwin Chota. The leaders were killed for denouncing the illegal deforestation of their regions, and calling for land titling of their territories. The news travelled around the globe and the Peruvian government promised that they would investigate the murders and give land titles to the community. However none of that has happened. During the COP the widows of the murdered leaders travelled to Lima to condemn their abandonment by the Peruvian state, and the threats they still receive from the illegal loggers.

These murders of environmental leaders are an endemic problem in Latin America. A recent report from Global Witness states that Peru is the fourth most dangerous country in the world in which to be an environmental defender, after Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines. The report shows that at least 57 environmental and land defenders have been killed in Peru since 2002, more that 60% of those in the last four years. The provocations of most of these deaths revolve around land rights, mining, and deforestation.

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Poster of Edwin Chota, the murdered leader of the community Alto Tamaya Saweto in the Peruvian Amazon – “they killed him for defending our forests”.

On December 2nd, the day after the COP inaugurations, the body of Amazon leader José Isidro Tendetza Antún, leader of the Community Yaanuakim, was found on the banks of the river Zamora tied up in a noose. Tendetza was a well-known leader who was opposed to mining in the Cóndor mountain range, and had spoken out against the mining company EcuaCorriente S.A. The company was trying to kick Tendetza’s and other families off their lands. Tendetza was planning to come to Lima to participate in the People’s Climate Summit and highlight the destructive mining activity in his territory, but he was assassinated.

This is what’s happening in Latin America. While at the COP summit governments argue how to ‘protect’ forests, indigenous leaders that actually protect the land are being killed every day. The governments don’t act to stop this: on the contrary they allow illegal activities and promote extractive industries in these areas.

Now that those of us who identify as climate defenders return to our countries and cities, it’s important not to forget that there are people in these communities that live on the frontlines and face climate change every day, and they’re dying because of it.

Listen to Aldo’s podcast on Free Speech Radio News: Indigenous leaders face risks for environmental defense of Amazon Basin

And a related podcast on FSRN: Murders of indigenous forest defenders highlight illegal logging in Peruvian Amazon


Wednesday 10th December

People’s March in Defence of Mother Earth!

Aldo Orellana López

aldo-120wTens of thousands of people marched in Lima on Wednesday to demand real solutions from the governments convened at COP20. During the march you could hear slogans calling for climate justice, real solutions to the climate crisis, and renewable energy. However, most of the slogans were not directly related to climate change, but to the community struggles against corporations and mining projects, deforestation, and for the protection of water. Communities marched in defence of their territories. Many of the people marching came from the frontlines of the climate crisis: they are struggling against mega-corporations, and suffering the direct effects of the climate crisis in their environment and health. These local struggles are inextricably linked to the global fight against climate change.

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Communities from the region of Espinar, struggling against mining corporations and state criminalization of protest, at the People’s March in Defence of Mother Earth.

Social organizations also questioned the ‘double discourse’ of the Peruvian government: on the one hand it is the host of the COP20 and discusses solutions to climate change, on the other hand there is a major shift towards aggressive extractivist policies in Peru, that are affecting communities in the Amazon and the Andes alike. Groups protested against measures recently adopted in the 30230, known as the ‘Environmental Paquetazo’, which weakens environmental legislation and institutions in favour of foreign investment. According to Peruvian campaigners this law and others like it deregulate environmental protection in order to protect the industrial activities of corporations.

People also protested against the assassination of environmental leaders, and against new policies that criminalize social protest in Peru. They say that the government is bringing in these policies because communities acting to protect their territories and their environment are a nuisance for mining companies, deforestation projects, dam construction, and all the other extractive activities that invade their lands.

Photo: Cumbre de los Pueblos ‘Ni Conga ni Chadín’. Conga is one of the biggest mining projects in Peru, situated in Cajamarca, and local communities are resisting the project. Chadínes is a hydroelectric project, also in Cajamarca, and is also being resisted by local communities. Energy produced here is destined for the Conga Project. Some people from Cajamarca walked up to 1,000km to Lima to participate in the People’s March in Defence of Mother Earth.
Photo: Cumbre de los Pueblos. ‘Ni Conga ni Chadín’ – Conga is one of the biggest mining projects in Peru, situated in Cajamarca, and local communities are resisting the project. Chadínes is a hydroelectric project, also in Cajamarca, and is also being resisted by local communities. Energy produced here is destined for the Conga Project. Some people from Cajamarca walked up to 1,000km to Lima to participate in the People’s March in Defence of Mother Earth.

During the March organizers spoke of ‘territory’, a space that they perceive as not only a physical space where they interact with Mother Earth, but also a space where communities self-organize and develop their culture. It is their territories that Peruvian communities defend – hence they are demanding a system change, as the current system and development model is hostile towards their existence.

Lastly, people on the march spoke of resistance, and the deep meaning of this struggle – for them it is not a choice but a question of survival.

Watch a short video of the March here.

Colours of Resistance – In Pictures

Thomas Mc Donagh

The World Climate March in Defence of Mother Earth brought tens of thousand of people on to the streets of Lima today for what was dubbed the largest climate change march in Latin American history. Delegations of indigenous groups, campesino organisations, women, students, trade unions, artists and performers from Peru and all over the world snaked through the streets of the capital in a brilliant carnival of defiant celebration. The messages on the placards and from the speakers at the major rally in San Martín Square denounced the multinational corporations causing environmental destruction and human rights abuses across the region, government complicity by means of the criminalisation and repression of public protest, and the false solutions to climate change being negotiated in the official COP20 negotiations. Speakers rejected the commodification of nature involved in mechanisms such as REDD and called for food sovereignty, autonomous community control over forests and for support and solidarity with resistance struggles against extractive projects across the region.

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In terms of our own work today, we spent the afternoon with members of two of the communities that feature in our recently published report, Corporate Conquistadors. We wanted to ask the communities what messages they had for the CEOs and the shareholders of the corporations – in these cases Glencore-Xtrata and Enel-Endesa – that are profiting from the destruction wrought in their communities. Some of the messages included “come visit us and see what the human and environmental costs of your profits are. If you want to continue with your operations after that, fine, but I don’t think you will”, and, “I want them to understand that the harm that they are doing to our water is actually harm against themselves; all of our water is one; some day they will need fresh water and there will be none”.  We will be using the video testimonies for further campaign work on the cases and corporations featured in the report.

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It’s Our Climate, Not Your Business!!

I finished off the day today at a rally outside the Hilton Hotel just down the road from our accommodation in Miraflores. There we joined colleagues from Europe as well as members of the affected communities from our new report Corporate Conquistadors to protest outside the World Climate Summit – the “premier business conference during the UNFCCC COP” i.e. a major opportunity for big business, including major mining and fossil fuel interests, to rub shoulders with political leaders and influence climate policy debates. Although the strong police presence prevented us from getting close to the hotel, it was an opportunity to raise our voice in protest at the corporate capture of policy spaces.

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Tuesday 9th December

Inside the COP, Day Two

Jim Shultz

jim-120wIt is important to understand what the COP process is and what it is not.  What it is not is a forum where the leaders of the world discuss and debate what should be done about the most dangerous environmental crisis in the history of humanity.  It is not a place where terms like ‘climate justice’ enter into the discourse or where the lives of those most deeply impacted are placed at the center of discussion.  What it is, is a gathering of technicians who accept the narrow political limitations at hand as the price of entry and discuss issues such as “how to encourage capital flow into low carbon energy projects in ways that will scale them up quickly to reduce costs and expand reach.”  But it should also be said that those conversations, mind numbingly technical as they might be, are also important.  Because whatever global agreement is ultimately approved, it will need to be implemented and implementation is a technical enterprise more than a philosophical one.

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That said, there were moments when the speeches of the day soared above the detail to the larger issues at hand.  Bolivia’s President Evo Morales flew in with an entourage to address the ‘high level’ session reserved for heads of state or their ranking replacements. “I would like to ask the governments of the world to listen to the indigenous peoples and follow the wisdom of life,” Evo told the chamber. “They can provide a solution on climate change.”  Still an international rock star in summits like these, the President was followed as he walked through the complex by a bank of TV cameras larger than those following UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon. Then after a quick lunch in the COP cafeteria he left before being asked more inconvenient questions about his plans to construct a nuclear energy plant near the Bolivian capital or national mining practices that are destroying local water supplies.

Earlier in that plenary I listened to Mexico’s representative as he recounted the story of being in a meeting with a high level international delegation to Mexico City when the city’s earthquake alarm system sounded, signaling a quake less than a minute away.  “Our visitors joined us quickly to leave the room for safety,” he noted, adding that not a single one delayed or stopped even to bring along their laptops.  His message was clear, the global alarm on climate has already sounded and still the governments of the world linger as if the quake is not coming.

Linking local resistance to extractivism with corporate capture of climate policy spaces

Thomas Mc Donagh

thomasMy day at the Cop 20 in Lima today was all about the launch of our new report. After several months of hard work, Corporate Conquistadors: The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Destruction –a joint project between the Democracy Center, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute- was finally published. Featuring three case studies of communities affected by the industries driving climate change in Latin America, the report connects the frontline struggles of these communities with the manipulation of policy spaces at national and international level by multinational corporations to ensure that the destructive business models are not affected by action on climate change.

thomas pic 1The report, an accompanying Getting Action blog post to mark the launch, as well as a video clip of our presentation at the Peoples Summit are all available at this page on our website.

Promotion was the focus of my work for the first half of the day. We spent the morning writing blogs, sending out promotional emails and promoting the report via social media. Our promotion efforts were helped by the appearance of our colleague from the Corporate Europe Observatory, Pascoe Sabido, -one of the report’s authors- live on the Democracy Now! news program this morning. (The clip is available here.) His message -and that of the report- was crystal clear: we urgently need to expose the links between dirty energy corporations and our politicians and decision-making spaces. Delegitimizing their place at the negotiating table on climate policy is a crucial step toward the radical energy transition that we now require.

Pascoe and other activists from around the world delivered this message in more ways than one. At this action inside the COP on Monday, oil giant Shell was directly targeted at a side event in which its corporate representatives were giving a talk on the role of dirty energy in the world’s energy future.

thomas pic 2This afternoon, I was back at the People’s Summit where I had the privilege to attend a workshop focused on the criminalization of protest in Espinar in Southern Peru. Espinar is one of the case studies featured in Corporate Conquistadors. It was a humbling experience to hear first hand the testimonies of the community members -mostly women- regarding the devastation being caused to their fresh water sources by mining giant Glencore-Xtrata. Just as melting glaciers due to climate change is putting pressure on local water sources, these communities are also seeing their water sources polluted by toxic chemicals from local mining projects.

It was an honor to meet such brave community activists who, just like the Mapuche woman I wrote about yesterday (see below), are consistently putting their lives on the line in the face of corporate expansion and brutal police repression. It will be an honor to walk alongside all of these brave women through the streets of Lima in the People’s March tomorrow.

 Living in the shadows of Glencore’s extractivist megaprojects

Philippa de Bossière

philippa_smallAmy Goodman’s voice reverberated across the room, delivering her live daily run down from the COP20, a few short miles from where we are based. Today’s guest, Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory, was giving an overview of three months worth of collective research with ourselves and the Transnational Institute into corporate activity in South America and internationally. Cut back to our makeshift Lima office, Thomas, Aldo and I were knocking back refills of coffee while tweaking press releases, editing blog articles and steadily working through lists of contacts to share that research and get the message out on the strategies that corporations are using as widely as possible.

When, some hours and a couple of hundred tweets later, we finally stepped away from our laptops and mailing lists, it was to zip over to a session on how criminalisation of protest is playing out across the region in Espinar, Peru. The case of Glencore Xstrata and its copper mining operations in the Espinar province feature as one of the three case studies into corporate destruction in the Andes and the Amazon that we treat in our ‘Corporate Conquistadors‘ report. Not only did we want to meet with session speaker Oscar Mollohuanca, report contributor and former Mayor of Espinar, we also wanted to hear from indigenous women organising within their communities.

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The testimonies, some delivered in Quechua, some through rousing tones and others through tears, spoke to the heart of what corporate activities look like on the ground in South America and what that means for those living in the path of these megaprojects. The speakers painted a picture of destruction and impunity; of agricultural livelihoods that have been obliterated, of traditional knowledge that is being lost and of community members who have paid heavily for defending their lands against an entity which has been proven to be poisoning water supplies.

Glencore Xstrata, whose revenue in 2013 exceeded that of Peru’s entire GDP for that year, has engaged in a sophisticated campaign to systematically weaken any opposition to their mining operations in the region. Oscar spoke of a resistance that waned following the violent repression of protest in the region in 2012. Yet, the convergence of affected peoples in a crowded room in Lima attests to communities who refuse to take matters without a fight.

It was mentioned during the session that Glencore has been nominated for a “Life Award” by Public Eye for the widespread gravity of its wrongdoings. A “win” for Glencore could play a part in an international push to help connect and rebuild local movements across the world living in the shadows of Glencore’s extractivist megaprojects.

Shifting the narrative on climate change

Nicky Scordellis

nicky_smallEarlier this year the Democracy Center asked 45 activists from across the world how we could take advantage of the opportunities presented by the COP20 to strengthen citizen action on climate and build conditions for structural change. One of the three main ideas that we heard from people during this process was the need to shift the narrative on climate change, moving towards a narrative that helps to transfer power away from the corporations and powerful governments and towards the people.

To probe deeper into these ideas, today the Democracy Center ran a workshop at the Peoples’ Summit, focusing on the question of: How do we shift the narrative to reflect reality and build power?” Martin Vilela from the Bolivian Platform on Climate Change and Carlos Bedoya from Latindadd kicked off the conversation with interventions about the importance of taking a wider systemic perspective rather than treating climate change as an isolated issue, and the reality in “progressive” countries like Bolivia which is showing that governments across the board continue to replicate the existing system rather than promoting genuine change in response to the multiple global crises.

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These ideas led on to a lively exchange between the workshop participants, including activists from Peru, Mexico, the UK, the Philippines and the US, focusing on how the international climate movement could act to respond to these situations. Two powerful and complementary conclusions came out of this conversation: firstly, the importance of the role of international movements in building stronger solidarity networks around grassroots resistance struggles, and secondly the huge potential that the international movement offers to join the dots between diverse alternatives growing from the ground up and hence spread the belief that a different way of functioning as societies is possible.

The criminalization of protest in Peru

Aldo Orellana López      

aldo-120wThis Tuesday, under the banner of the People’s Summit on Climate Change, the organization Derechos Humanos sin Fronteras (Human Rights without Borders) organized an event ‘Criminalization of protest in Espinar’, with the objective of highlighting the Peruvian government’s persecution of human rights and environmental defenders in Peru.

Present at the event were people affected by the actions of the mining company Tintaya (Espinar Province, Cusco), owned by the multinational Glencore Xstrata. The affected communities told of the suffering the company has caused them during the last three decades of its operation. Oscar Mollohuanca was also at the event: he was the mayor of Espinar during the worst conflict between the communities and the company in May 2012, that resulted in cruel political repression leaving two dead and several injured.

This conflict shone a light on the excessive protection given to Glencore Xstrata’s infrastructure by the police, amongst other problems. Later secret deals for protective services between the Peruvian police and at least 13 extractive corporations in Peru were discovered. Glencore Xstrata was among them.

Glencore 5 police

At the event participants denounced the restriction and repression of free speech, mobilization and social protest in Peru. As a consequence of these policies, community leaders and members have been harassed by the authorities for protesting against the mining pollution and the repression of their rights. Organizers also highlighted the laws of impunity that prevent police officers from being prosecuted if they kill a person during a social protest.

In the specific case of Espinar, Human Rights without Borders decried the legal actions against former mayor Oscar Mollohuanca, who is facing a possible 20 year jail term and a fine of 5 million soles, for his defence of the Espinar community’s rights and environment.

During the event we were able to talk to Oscar and the Human Rights without Borders representatives, and present to them the report Corporate Conquistadors, a collaboration between the Democracy Center, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute. In the report we cover the case of Espinar, and how Glencore Xstrata uses its national and international influence to maintain its privilege – a privilege that results in destruction of the rights and environment of Espinar’s community.

Watch the short documentary: Peru – Mining & Human Rights Defenders

Read more on Glencore and why the company has been nominated for a Public Eye award.


Máxima’s struggle against the mining company Yanacocha

Leny Olivera

leny-120w“This democracy is a democracy no longer – they impose laws upon us at gunpoint. Water yes, gold no – water is worth more than gold.”

This is the refrain sang by people marching on Tuesday in Lima. After the workshop ‘Indigenous Women on the frontlines of extractivism and climate change’ – a march of indigenous women from several countries like Ecuador, El Salvador, Uruguay and others began. At the Park of the Exposition, site of the People’s Summit, demonstrators met another march who walked all the way from Cajamarca.

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I interviewed Lourdes Chomanda, President of the Association of Women in Defence of Life, who told me the story of Máxima and her legal challenge against the mining company Yanacocha. The Association is supporting Máxima in her struggle.

The company wants to take over Doña Máxima’s lands that she built up and cultivated with her own hands. She received death threats from the company and the police; she was violently attacked in her own home with her family present; and subjected to an unannounced arrival of the company’s machines on her land. At the moment she is officially under three year’s house arrest. Máxima and her supporters are hoping that her court appearance on the 17th of this month will result in a verdict that the land belongs to her, and the company must desist in its oppression. More information on Máxima’s story can be found here (in Spanish).

leny pic 2Despite the oppression and violence it means for her and her family, Doña Máxima decided to fight against the Minas Conga Project of the mining company Yanacocha. Like her, many women fight every day against violence in their lives. Many women suffer at the hands of the state, corporations, and their partners. Despite it all, many women say that it is worth the fight, as the struggle can improve their lives, a point made by Lourdes:

“The struggle is not only for us, but for the children who are the future of the world. Luxuries don’t matter, but water does, that is the best ‘development’ they can have. We’re going to keep fighting no matter what, even if we lose our lives – five of our compañeros have already died.” – Lourdes Chomanda


On the Ground and in the Boardrooms

Thomas Mc Donagh and Philippa de Boissière report from Lima as the Democracy Center launches its new report: Climate Conquistadors – The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Destruction.

Corporate_Conquistadors English cover image-EN-coverAfter spending many months focusing on how to make the most strategic use of the arrival of the UN climate negotiations to Latin America in 2014, the Democracy Center team finally arrived into Lima, Peru last Friday.

Our arrival coincided with two pieces of tragic news from the region. Reports came in of the murders of indigenous environmental activists defending their communities and natural resources both in Ecuador and Peru (Peru is now the fourth most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists).

The Peruvian government, meanwhile, continues its push to ‘reactivate the Peruvian economy’ by cutting back environmental regulations for extractives projects.

The connection between the resistance of communities in Latin America to extractive industry expansion and the national and international policy spaces that facilitate this expansion has been a major focus of our work recently.

It was sad to see such a vivid demonstration of the same dynamics we’ve observed during our research over the last few months playing out on the ground in the region just as the COP20 has been getting started. Although the media has covered the deaths of the indigenous community leaders, the headlines for the last week have mostly been dominated by the inflated promises of national governments seeking to maintain ‘Business As Usual’ in the official negotiation spaces.

You really have to push past the barrage of spin and PR to hear the voices of those on the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice. But once you do, what you hear are strong calls for restrictions on extractive projects such as large-scale mining and oil and gas expansion; demands for full and effective participation of affected communities in decisions that affect their territories; calls for accountability for the abuses by the corporations that profit from these destructive industries; and inspiring stories of communities bravely resisting the encroachment of climate change-causing industries in to their territories.


Monday 8th December

Inside COP 20

Jim Shultz


The 20th annual gathering of nations to seek a global agreement on the mounting climate crisis is being held behind the barriers of a sprawling military base here that shares the name of its Washington counterpart, El Pentagonio.  Those connected enough to have secured an official UN entry badge walk through the guarded entrance into a sort of International Summit version of Wal-Mart, a roughly organized, rambling assembly of pretty much everything.



In a pair of cavernous halls filled with stuffy air, long rows of country delegates speak to one another in formal tones, their faces filling the huge wide screens overhead.  To the untrained ear the dialog sounds like a long stream of multi-lettered acronyms occasionally connected by a verb.  The session I sat in on had something to do with Luxembourg and financial markets.  Smaller rooms play host to side events, where eager young people from China, Japan, Korea, Peru and elsewhere try to entice passersby to enter and listen in as their governments wax enthusiastically about their supposed climate achievements.  Other buildings have long lines of tiny booths where bored-looking representatives of various organizations wait for someone to show interest in their brochures.  Peppered in between is the occasional light protest, such as the banner unfurled outside one of the main buildings criticizing a workshop inside in which fossil fuel companies sought to present themselves as the solution rather than the drivers of the crisis.

The official COP, as opposed to the social movement events elsewhere in the city, is contained not only by the visible walls of a military fortress but the invisible walls of what has been deemed politically feasible.  It is not a place of urgency in the face a whole human species under threat, but an ant hill of calm professionals doing their jobs.  It all seems based on the hope that the combination of many small practical things will combine at some point to be a sufficiently big thing to make a difference.  This was embodied in some of the people I met and heard.

Leny8The representative of California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, was here, forging links for joint action with countries such as China and India.  There was the smart global finance expert, building partnerships to drive private investment into sustainable energy and transportations projects.  UNICEF hosted a workshop on how to protect children in the face of increasing natural disasters.  These are all important and worthy initiatives.  But even those pushing them openly admit that they are pieces of a far larger puzzle of global action that has many, many missing pieces.  Like villagers stuck in year after year of drought, they wait for the rains of a real political breakthrough to come.  And still there is no rain in sight.


Reaching out to People on Violence Against Women and Climate Change

Leny Olivera


The photo exhibition “Resisting Patriarchy and Climate Change” began today at the People’s Climate Summit, in the center of Lima. The exhibition is an excerpt from a newly-published Democracy Center project, ‘Climate Change is About…Women’. The photos are of the women-led Community María Auxiliadora in Cochabamba, set up as a resistance to violence against women. Luckily the exhibition was outdoors, which allowed us to speak with people moving from one part of the Summit to another.


The majority of the people interested in the photos were women. The photo captions, illustrating the lives of four women in the community, drew people in as they began to read. Some men also stopped to look at the exhibition.

People were surprised by some of the principles of the community: that the land is collectively owned by women; that only women hold the top elected leadership positions; and that there is no division of the home when a couple decides to split up. This collective organizing in the face of challenges seeds a resilience that is also relevant in the context of climate change.

It was clear that people are inspired by a community that addresses women’s needs and rights in such a fundamental way.

View the micro-site ‘Climate Change is About… Women’, comprising over 100 photos with accompanying interviews and contextual writings here.


Somos nosotros que ponemos el cuerpo” – “We’re the one who put our bodies on the line”

Thomas Mc Donagh

Festival Buc 2011This quote from a Mapuche indigenous woman in a conversation on community resistance to hydro-electric dams in Latin America is what stuck in my mind most from the People’s Summit in Lima today.

She was describing the many lives lost in the decades long struggle of the Mapuche people in Argentina and Chile against mining, gas exploration and most recently fracking – she joked that she has had to become three different types of industry expert over the course of a life-time defending her community’s land and water.

foto casa 1

She was criticizing the role of NGO’s that come in to her region supposedly to help, but that end up hijacking local processes and then leaving when their funding runs out. She described the white, well-spoken outsiders that she has had to deal with in the past. I bristled at first. But when I listened more closely and heard her talk about how few NGOs are self-critical in terms of how they interact with local communities, it reminded of my colleague Leny and how adamant she has been in pushing for us at the Democracy Center to be self-critical and reflective when we interact with communities in Bolivia.

I like to think that I’m aware of what’s at stake in frontline struggles against the industries causing social, environmental and climate destruction. But there was something about that woman’s phrase and what it implied that struck an unexpected chord.

It’s our bodies, our lives and our children’s bodies and lives that are at risk in these struggles.

It will stay with me for a long time to come.


Third Space

Nicky Scordellis


While governments at the COP20 negotiate the full stops and commas of a global climate deal that accepts the prospect of 4 degrees warming as a given and the Peoples’ Summit gets off to a slow start, there is a third space operating in Lima, full of life and colour. The TierrActiva Convergence Space is bringing together activists and collectives from all over the world and has already been host to a vast array of activities, including everything from workshops on resistance strategies against fossil fuels, climate justice assemblies, art workshops and rituals to Mother Earth, to live hip hop, mural painting and yoga classes.

foto casa 4

While its main purpose is to provide an autonomous space for different groups to come together for meetings, workshops, blogging and action planning, it has also become a hub of creative activity, with a vibrant art space incessantly producing materials for Wednesday’s march, a community radio station and regular outbreaks of spontaneous music making. The space is also a living example of its principles, seeking to build a temporary community, with horizontal organising processes and a collective kitchen creating “conscious food” i.e. locally-sourced, vegetarian meals for a solidarity-based contribution for both those working at the house and visitors.

The groups behind this initiative are the TierrActiva movements of Peru and Bolivia, which grew out of the Global Power Shift replicas in both countries, and work to bring together activists and groups working on diverse initiatives and projects which are united by the vision of system change as a response to climate change. They have been joined by independent activists from across the world and the Caravana Climática which has travelled all the way from Mexico to Lima by bus, visiting communities in resistance across the continent, as well as the Yasunidos collective which defends the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador.

Over the last 10 days, this space has proved to play a vital role in creating a space for alternative initiatives to flourish, for ideas to be exchanged and for creativity to flow, against the drear backdrop of the COP20.


The People’s Summit begins!

Aldo Orellana Lopez


The People’s Climate Summit is a space for ­­­encounter and dialogue between diverse social organizations: citizens’ groups, unions, environmentalists, students, campesinos, indigenous peoples, women and youth. The objective of the Summit is to gather the proposals of civil society as an input to the official climate gathering – the COP20 – which has been meeting in Lima since the 1st of December.

According to the organizers, the Summit came about as a response to the twin crises of humanity and climate change, caused by the current “development model” that destroys the environment and nature through its high dependence on endless extraction of natural resources, without considering the planet’s natural limits. This crisis has a severe impact on the pueblos of the world, especially indigenous communities. For this reason the People’s Summit calls upon governments present at the COP20 to listen and respond to the voices, demands and proposals of social organizations.

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The discussions at the Summit revolve around seven themes: Civilization Change and Development Models; Causes and Impacts of Global Warming and Climate Change; Energy; Agriculture, Food Security and Sovereignty; Sustainable Land Management; Finance and Technology Transfer; Women and the sustainability of life.

The People’s Summit began on Monday 8th December and will continue til Thursday 11th December. On Wednesday the Peoples’ Climate March in defense of Mother Earth is being organised. Organizations present here on the ground are expecting a large turnout from both Peruvian and international groups.

More information in

Podcast at Free Speech Radio News – UN climate talks open in Lima, activists prepare for parallel summit


Democracy Center Events @ the People’s Summit in Lima

Corporations and Climate 1: The reality on the Ground in South America / Corporaciones y Cambio Climático 1: La realidad en Sur América 

Strengthening the climate movement: How can we shift the narrative on climate change to reflect reality and build power? /  Fortaleciendo el movimiento climático: ¿Cómo cambiar la narrativa sobre el cambio climático para reflejar la realidad y ganar poder? 

Global Investment Rules as a Tool of Corporate Power, & Climate Change /  Reglas de Inversión Global como Instrumento de Poder Corporativo y Cambio Climático: dónde estamos y hacia dónde queremos ir!

Corporate COPs – dirty corporations and their influence on international climate policy (with Corporate Europe Observatory) / COPs Corporativas – corporaciones sucias y su influencia en las políticas internacionales de cambio climático (con Observatorio Europeo de Corporaciones)

Exposición fotográfica/Photoexhibition:

Photoexhibition: Resisting the Patriarchy and Climate Change in Photos / Exposición fotográfica: Resistiendo al Patriarcado y el Cambio Climático en Fotos 

International Climate Activism: The Second Coming

The Democracy Center has just released our report on the first phase of a project looking at the opportunities which renewed energy in international negotiations – and renewed activist energies – can provide for strategy-building within the climate movement.

Download the report: Movement Strategies for Moving Mountains

In NYC for Climate Week? Catch Jim Shultz speaking at three events: Download PDF for details

Listen to Mario Murillo at WBAI speaking to Jim Shultz about international climate action.

A version of the article below was also published in Yes! Magazine

by Jim Shultz

The citizen movement for action on the global climate crisis has, over time, developed a love-hate relationship with international campaigning.  For years the vision of people from all over the planet joining together across national boundaries to address a crisis that knows no such boundaries had an appeal that was both romantic and strategic at the same time. The high point for this ‘one planet, one people’ activism was in 2009 in Copenhagen when activists descended on the Danish capital by the tens of thousands to push for action at the UN’s annual COP (Conference of the Parties) summit, with hopes for a global deal as serious and real as the climate threat (some activists dubbed the meeting “Hopenhagen”).

Demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House
Demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House

Those activist hopes crashed, however, against the unchanged political realities of narrow national interest, powerful corporate resistance, complex issues, and a lack of political will. Many climate campaigners reacted by returning to their countries and focusing their energies instead on political battles closer to home, such as the fight over the Keystone pipeline in the U.S. and anti-fracking efforts in Europe. By the time the most recent COP negotiations were held in Warsaw last December, the process had become almost completely ignored by the larger public.

Now, in a three-step dance that begins on the streets of New York in September, the climate movement is stepping hard back into the international arena once again. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has made climate change a main issue of his tenure, has called the planet’s heads of state and other “world leaders” to a special Climate Week summit aimed at increasing the pressure for coordinated international action. Climate advocacy organizations in the U.S. have been mobilizing for months to seize the opportunity with plans for a massive march through the streets of Manhattan on September 21. In December this renewed energy for international action will turn southward to Peru, where the COP negotiations will convene in the political shadow of melting Andean glaciers. Then in December of next year the COP negotiations will move to Paris for what is supposed to be the deadline for a new international climate accord.  European activists are already meeting to organize a mobilization in the streets there to match or surpass the multitude expected in at the UN next month.

As the climate movement steps forward once again into the arena of international politics it suffers no shortage of demands and proposals. Climate groups can offer up a diversity of ambitious and passionate plans for how to reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels, protect the world’s forests, and move money from the rich countries that have caused the crisis to the poor ones least equipped to deal with what’s coming. But knowing what you want and knowing how to change the political equation to make that possible are two different things.

cover_English_webThe Democracy Center recently interviewed more than forty key climate activists from across five continents to seek their views on how to use the Lima summit and these other global gatherings as an opportunity to alter the political winds around the climate crisis and make real action more possible. What we heard, from people ranging from local indigenous activists to staff at well-known NGOs, were three important strands of collective wisdom.

First, change the global narrative about the climate crisis. Climate activists have bounced for a decade from one way of talking about the crisis to another. We have heard about polar bears and sea rise, mutant storms and parts per billion of carbon in the atmosphere, none of it sufficiently connected to people’s daily lives to gain hard and lasting traction. But there are lessons from the grassroots about how to do better. In California, climate activists successfully fought back a political assault by the Koch brothers by talking about local fossil fuel plants and their connection to child asthma. In South America the crisis is about water – the disappearance of it in some places causing drought and displacement, and too much of it in other places causing flooding and destruction. In Asia and Africa people talk about climate’s role in a worsening food crisis. The common thread in the messages that are winning support is to speak locally and connect the climate crisis to real issues of life, survival, and the diminished and more dangerous planet we are getting ready to leave to our children and theirs. Just as important as the message is the moral authority of those who deliver it. “We can’t talk about the impacts unless the main message comes from the affected communities,” says Juan Carlos Soriano, a Peruvian activist with

Second, use this trilogy of global actions to build the long-term power of the climate movement. Getting real action on climate is not just about raising consciousness, it is about political power and how the climate movement can build muscle. In New York and Paris the focus will be on getting multitudes into the streets in the hope of convincing governments that they ignore a rising demand for action at their political peril. “What we most need to do as a movement is move the conversation and build power, not lobby global leaders,” observes Sean Sweeney of the Global Labor Institute. In Latin America, Africa and Asia that citizen power resides in long-established movements on the ground tied to indigenous rights, territorial rights, natural resources, and other battles that are now impacted by climate change.  Sandwiched in between the higher profile, Northern-dominated events in New York and Paris, activists we spoke with said that the COP in Lima must stand out as the ‘COP of the South’ and make the link between the climate crisis and these movements.“The local struggles seem to be in compartmentalized spaces that don’t connect to this big issue that affects absolutely everything. One of the challenges is to connect the local struggles and demands with activism on climate change,” says Elizabeth Peredo Beltran, a well-regarded climate leader in Bolivia.

Third, directly confront the powers and forces blocking serious action on the climate crisis.  Fossil fuel companies, international agribusiness, car makers and other corporate interests have a huge stake in international climate negotiations and have used their political muscle to embed themselves in the UN’s COP negotiations process. During the COP meeting in Warsaw last year the Corporate Europe Observatory documented all kinds of techniques used by these corporations to become official sponsors of global climate negotiations the way they might make themselves official sponsors of the Olympics or World Cup. Corporations furnished government negotiators with everything from free cars and drivers to logo-emblazoned drinking cups, all the while pushing their agendas on issues such as coal capture technology and corporate-driven carbon markets. Activists say it is urgent to put a spotlight on this corporate capture of the UN negotiations and on the false solutions being promoted by these corporations using the access they’ve gained. “We need to go in with an offensive strategy and communicate the message that the negotiations are focusing on the wrong issues – the real solutions are about redesigning the economy,” says Nathan Thanki of the European group, Earth in Brackets.

Sun Tzu wrote in ‘The Art of War’, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It is good news in the world of climate activism that movements and organizations are taking up anew the demand for serious action at the international level. While it is highly doubtful that countries like the U.S., China, India and others would ever bind their domestic policies to a global agreement; international action can increase the pressure on these governments to act. As with all successful citizen movements, that begins with building a solid, committed, and mobilized base among those already committed to action, a based being mobilized now into the streets. But the climate movement must also win support from the corners of citizenry that are not yet engaged and not yet persuaded behind a common agenda for what needs to be done.

The path through New York, Lima and Paris offers a chance to do that – if we speak about the crisis in a way that connects with people, if we use every opportunity to gather as a chance to build power and not just blow off steam, and if we unmask, challenge, and undermine the larger forces that stand in the way. With so much at stake for the generations who will follow us on this planet, it is essential that the next round of global climate action be something far more than just “the noise before defeat.”

Download the report: Movement Strategies for Moving Mountains

Getting Action at Rio+20: Asking Hard Questions in the Marvelous City

We are very happy to repost an excerpt here from a blog by Kylie, a Democracy Center associate who was at the Rio summit in June and wrote this in response. The piece was first published by mutiny zine and we encourage you to read it in full (with references) on their site.

Of countersummits and COPs

We’ve known for a while the limits of what Tadzio Müller called “countersummits-r-us.” The brightest sparks in environmental justice organizing have long said that the UN negotiations are a dead end – as early as 2009 climate justice activists were urging each other not to pin their hopes on a good deal. After Copenhagen, Rising Tide stopped a coal train in Australia, declaring that after the world’s governments had failed, “now it’s up to us.”

And yet we keep devoting time and energy to the UN process. It seems as long as the world’s decision-makers keep gathering, we will keep stalking them. This is to a certain extent inevitable, and necessary. Playing a defensive or blocking role in negotiations remains important, if we are not to see new swathes of resources handed over to privatisation, or (in the case of the Australian government’s policy agenda) large sums of foreign aid money handed over to mining companies. But we need to make sure it’s not taking up so much of our time, resources and energy that we can’t do other work.

If we accept that the countersummits will continue, let’s get the most we possibly can out of them. Even when we’re shunted far away from official spaces, we can still do effective actions. We saw this in Rio, when 3000 people turned up to Vale’s HQ in downtown Rio, listened to spokespeople of communities affected by the company, then projected a target onto the building and left it covered with blood-coloured paint.

And beyond the summit spectacle? Certainly, we can educate each other and reinforce movement ties through actions and workshops “for us, by us” (to borrow a phrase.) But despite a significant degree of randomness at these gatherings – who has funding to travel, who self-selects – they are still an opportunity to strategise internationally. People used this opportunity in Rio, but perhaps not as much as we could have. We should take every opportunity to figure out the nuts and bolts of how we get strong enough to win against fossil fuel profiteers – what messages, what targets, what timelines. And maybe, in the end, less summit-hopping and more door-knocking where we live and work.

The front line is the fenceline: where we’re already winning

This last point brings us to the good news: that struggles under the umbrellla of the ‘global climate movement’ are actually winning, on several fronts. But they’re not always being won as struggles primarily about climate change. In the US, anti-coal activism has brought city-based allies to work alongside communities living in the shadow of mountaintop removal. “Fracking” has become a household word, not because of its climate impacts, but because people are speaking out about their drinking water catching on fire. Communities in California and Chiapas are campaigning against climate legislation that would allow oil companies to buy offsets from Mexican forests, instead of cleaning up the Californian air they are polluting. In Bolivia, indigenous groups have forced the government into a bitter battle over a proposed highway through the middle of a rainforest – and while they have mobilized support from climate activists and others in the cities, they have framed the issue around their right to decide what happens on their land. In Australia, for all the foreboding that leftists may feel about such an alliance, a coalition of farmers and environmentalists is proving to be a formidable enemy for the gas industry. In the UK, climate justice activists are organizing around “fuel poverty”- the inability of people to heat their homes.

All of these struggles are anchored in organizing where people work and live their lives. For those in the climate movement afraid of giving up momentum and power of the larger climate change frame: it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Making the case to nonprofit funders last year, Sarah Hansen argued “[i]t’s not merely that grassroots organizing wins change at the local level but, in case after case, builds the political pressure and climate for national change as well.” Holly Creenaune has argued convincingly that we can support and escalate frontline struggles against fossil fuels as well as strengthening community organizing on climate change in Australia.

We can keep using the climate change frame when it works. We can keep going to summits when it works. But we should make sure that we don’t do either of those things at the expense of building power on the front lines. Because it’s there, ultimately, and not at the negotiating tables of the UN, that the larger struggle is going to be won.

This is just an excerpt – read the complete article at


Getting Action: Talking About My Generation

Dear Readers,

Those of you who receive our Newsletter will already know about the work the Democracy Center in engaged with to make the case that climate change is, most urgently, about our children. As Jim Shultz wrote in our latest edition

“It is a given now that our children will become adults and will raise their children in a world where draught threatens food supplies, where floods destroy communities, and where more and more extreme weather patterns claim lives (see the Democracy Center’s new multimedia site on climate change in Bolivia here).  We are set on a course toward a devastating environmental future.”

But children and young people cannot afford to be passive observers to their fate, and across the globe the younger generation are using their passion, energy and creativity to challenge the status quo and campaign on issues local and global, large and small, for a safer and more just future. We witnessed this recently in Bolivia making a film with teenagers about the impacts of climate change here and their role in confronting it (more on this coming very soon…).

Chloe Maxmin has been a committed environmental activist for many years – and she is still only 20. Now a Harvard student, and the founder of an organization connecting young activists worldwide, she took a few moments to share with us some of the important lessons she has witnessed in the struggle so far for her generation’s climate future.

Maddy Ryle – Communications Director


Talking About My Generation: Lessons from a Young Life in Activism

by Chloe Maxmin

Climate change is the defining issue of my generation. My peers and I are the ones who will face the major effects of rapid climatic shifts, and we are the ones who must find solutions. This may seem like an unsolvable challenge, but we have the tools to mitigate climate change and provide a healthy, safe, socially just future for all.

The environmental movement is vibrant and growing rapidly across the world. I personally began my environmental activist journey eight years ago, when I was 12. I joined a campaign in my home state, Maine, to oppose a massive development proposal for Maine’s North Woods. I brought this campaign to my high school and founded the Climate Action Club. Our mission was to provide opportunities for people in our school and community to be green. We began with basic projects like an energy audit and recycling. We applied for grants, and slowly our projects grew. We expanded into the community and worked with local schools and organizations. The CAC distributed 3800 reusable bags throughout our town, and we won a large grant that enabled us to install solar panels on our high-school. We were even featured on the Sundance Channel and won national and international recognition.

The CAC started out as a small eco-club in the middle of Maine, and our work spread around the world. This was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I wanted to share this message of empowerment with other youth, and so I founded First Here, Then Everywhere. The goal of FHTE is to unite young environmentalists and spread the message that one person can make a difference, and one person can change the world. Youth-led initiatives are featured on the site to show the many ways in which our generation is working to mitigate climate change.

In retrospect, I think that there are a few reasons why the CAC grew quickly and completed so many successful campaigns. These strategies can be summarized with a simple acronym:








First, convenience: we provided opportunities for people to be green. We made it easy, affordable, and fun. People did not have to go out of their way to recycle batteries or cartridges, acquire a reusable bag, or save energy. We put recycling buckets in convenient locations, and we brought those buckets to the recycling station. We designed, purchased, and distributed reusable bags throughout our town. We installed energy-saving devices in our school.

Love: Each person in the CAC was committed and deeply passionate. We were willing to sacrifice our time in order to help our school and community. We also approached our campaigns with empathy towards each stakeholder and group that we worked with. We sought to find common ground in everyone’s pursuit to save our planet.

Innovation: Our campaigns and strategies were built for and with our community. For example, we originally wanted to tax the use of plastic bags in our town, modeling on other effective campaigns around the world. But merchants in our town did not like this approach because they regarded the logo on their plastic bags as an important marketing tool. Instead of threatening what the merchants valued, we created a viable alternative: a unique reusable bag for our town that featured the logos of local sponsors.

Meaning: We held many community forums so that people could lend their input. This way our campaigns could be the most compelling and effective in our town, having real meaning and value for the local community. People felt invested in the campaigns – they were a point of pride. By including everyone, a green movement spread throughout our community.

Action: The CAC provided opportunities for people to be green so that they could act easily. Action creates sustainable change and lasting habits.

Timeliness: our campaigns were pertinent and relevant. Our reusable bag campaign built off the momentum of other anti-plastic bag movements around the world. We initiated a “No Idling” campaign after we heard of other local schools adopting similar policies.

Education:  All of our campaigns maintained education at the core. We did extensive research, created fact sheets, and pamphleted outside of local stores. With our “No Idling” campaign, we talked to drivers who were idling and handed out educational materials. People understood why it was important to alter behaviors and habits.

Chloe and fellow activists from the 'No Idling' campaign

I am now a sophomore at Harvard College. I have opportunities here that I never had in Maine. I have met more leaders, activists, educators, and scientists that have inspired me to work even harder and explore new areas of activism. I have been able to join different protests – something I had never done before. I learn about environmental policy and the legislative process, working with Senators and Representatives in the Massachusetts legislature to organize a Green Economy Caucus. I learn an enormous amount from interacting with the political world and understanding different perspectives on climate change. Yes, I want renewable energy now. But what are politicians thinking? How do they perceive environmentalists? I have realized the importance of being exposed to these many facets of environmentalism. It has enabled me to understand different interests and motivations, which are the key to more effective and engaging campaigns.

Anyone can get involved and make a difference. The climate movement depends upon individual actions. We should be mindful of our impact on the Earth, educate ourselves and our neighbors about climate change, and join local environmental groups. People in the US can call on elected officials to fight for meaningful effective environmental policies. Politicians will act when they know that their constituents want change.

A current campaign is focused on cutting fossil fuel subsidies. There are a few organizations that are working on this campaign, including It has also recently become a big news topic. Many of the campaigns are just starting to pick up steam because there has been an emphasis on education: organizations are gathering data about fossil fuel subsidies and why Americans must oppose further federal support. The campaign is also dependent on individuals taking action and people collectively using their voice to call for change.

People all around the world are working to ensure a healthy planet and social justice for all. But we are far from achieving this goal. As each individual on Earth feels the effects of a changing world, humanity will turn to me, to my friends, to my peers, to my generation to find solutions for the future. The seeds of these solutions lie in the effectiveness with which we learn to engage the public right now.


About the author: Chloe Maxmin’s goal is to make climate change the defining issue of her generation. She is currently a Freshwoman at Harvard College pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy, but she deferred a year to travel and study in South America and China to learn about environmentalism in those regions. She founded the Climate Action Club at her high school. The club galvanized and led a green movement in her school and the surrounding mid-coast Maine community. She also founded First Here, Then Everywhere. FHTE connects young environmentalists around the world and provides tools and platforms for youth activism on environmental issues.


















Getting Action: Climate direct activism – Just Do It!

In March I spoke with Emily James, an award-winning documentary maker from the UK who has been making films with a conscience for several years. She had just returned from the San Francisco Green Film festival where she had been promoting her new feature-length documentary Just Do It. This ‘tale of modern-day outlaws’ takes us into the world of the UK’s climate change direct activists. Here she tells us about the film, and the difference that documentary can make.

Enjoy – and don’t forget to let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Mads Ryle – Democracy Center staff

If you know of a campaigning creative we should talk to, get them to write to us at


Interview with Emily James: Doing It Justice

by Mads Ryle

Borrowing and subverting one of the most famous brand no-logos of our time is an appropriate move for Just Do It, a documentary that features people dedicating themselves to overturning the status quo. Along with its clever use of animation and the ironic outlook of several of its main personalities, this gives a necessary playfulness to a tale of people who are essentially struggling for our collective survival. It reflects the sense of humour that has been gainfully employed by the UK climate movement to garner support and attention, as well as making the film incredibly watchable and engaging.

Emily James at work. Credit: Amelia Gregory

Just Do It is the result of a year (2009-10) spent filming with people in the UK – most of them young – who carry out direct action on climate change, often by targeting those most responsible for causing it. The film follows this community as it attempts to shut down a power station, locks itself onto bank headquarters, lobs food to striking workers at a wind turbine factory, or takes part in various actions (and gets put in police cells) at the UN COP-15 in Copenhagen. Getting such prolonged access to a community of people who are by necessity secretive is no easy proposition, but director Emily James was able to point to a roster of previous projects that included films such as The Luckiest Nut in the World – an animated analysis of the injustice inherent in so-called ‘free market’ globalization economics – as well as production work on the climate feature film The Age of Stupid. Making Just Do It as an independent, partly crowd-funded project also made a big difference. “That was a real turning point,” says James, “because [the activists being filmed] were like ‘Oh. You’re not even getting paid to do this. Not only that but you’re taking risks yourself’.  It just became clear that I was doing it for the same reason that they were doing it. And I wasn’t an outsider in as much as I understood the politics, and not only that but I shared the politics.”

James was invited to film the shut-down of Stansted airport in east London by the direct action group Plane Stupid in August 2008. The footage she took on that day was all over the news for 24 hours – and then the story disappeared. It was this experience that motivated her to make something more long-lasting: “I was so impressed by what the people that I met were doing. And I was also very aware that their story wasn’t being documented in any kind of comprehensive way.  So [after Stansted] I went back to them and said ‘look if we filmed the planning around an action like this then I could make  a much longer film and that would have a longer shelf-life and reach a wider audience’.” The film opens with a critical glance at how climate activism is reported in the mainstream British press – a characterization that generally ranges from the doings of pathetic hippies to violent extremists – and this was something that the film sought to challenge. As James says, “When I did the action with them the thing that struck me was how these guys were nothing like you would assume that they were if all you did was watch the news. There’s something much richer and much deeper to what they’re doing. So I wanted to amplify their message and paint a portrait of them that I thought was more accurate than the one they were getting.”

James sees documentary as a medium uniquely suited to telling these kinds of stories, and getting meaningful responses from those who see them. “There’s a special thing about documentaries”, she tells me, “because they’re able to move you emotionally and intellectually at the same time. So you can have informational content and learn about the world – in the case of an observational film like Just Do It you have a window into a world you might not yourself be able to ever see first-hand. And in doing so you have a growing empathy with the people that you get to know there and so that changes your perspective on what they’re doing.”

UK Climate Camp activists find another use for a police van at a protest in central London. Credit: Kristian Buus





James rejects the idea that she’s trying to ‘radicalize’ people with this film – because she rejects such a framing of what is or isn’t ‘radical’. “I do think the film is trying to reposition culturally the things that are happening in the film,” she says. “We’ve kind of bought into this idea that these people are ‘radicals’ and that they’re extremists… I don’t want it to push people to the margins of our political debate.  I want to pull those people who have been pushed to the margins back into the centre of the debate.”

At any rate there’s no doubt that seeing the people in Just Do It following their ethical instincts and taking the risks that they do has a very strong effect on the viewer. “They’re heroes,” James asserts, “and the funny thing is that I didn’t have to over-egg that to make that the case. I just had to show them as they are and do a relatively straight-forward portrait and it’s incredibly inspiring and makes you want to go and join them.”

James has made a number of television commissions which automatically received audiences in the millions – including people who haven’t necessarily “come to you”. With an independent production like this things are somewhat different, and finding and reaching an audience necessarily depends on exploiting the networks of those close to the issue. But James doesn’t see this as a problem. “Even if someone is a left-leaning liberal who already believes that climate change is happening and something needs to be done about it, this isn’t not the film for them – this is exactly the audience.” She looked for “that sweet spot in between” an already committed activist audience, and people who still need convincing about whether climate change is even real. “It is a film for people– and I think this is a very large group – who understand that climate change is happening, who have probably already done most of what they can easily do to change their own behavior. And who most likely have got to the point of feeling quite un-empowered and depressed about the scale of the problem and what we can do about it.

“A lot of people’s response is to put their head in the sand and just try and get on with their lives. And the thing that really inspired me about the people in Plane Stupid, Climate Camp and Climate Rush was that they didn’t do that. Their response was to go out and get really engaged and do something really bold and dramatic in order to try and create a real shift in the situation. And to do that against all odds, whether or not it was going to work. And I think that’s really important – to do things because they’re the right thing to do, not just because you’re going to get the desired effect at the end.”

In terms of getting results, Just Do It finishes by highlighting a number of campaign successes achieved over the period – including the halting of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. But in the film when James asks Marina and Rowan – two of the featured activists – whether what they do is ‘doing any good’, it is their attitude that she feels to be just as important as these tangible wins: “At that point in the filming none of those successes had happened, and they were doing these things anyway. And the answers that they gave, that’s what I was looking for – essentially a statement of: if you do nothing, then you’re definitely not gonna win. So you have to try.” Seeing the tenacity of the activists she worked with was inspiring: “Being unwilling to give up the fight…The people in the film, it was almost like they knew they were fighting an unwinnable battle. They were OK with that on some level. They would rather go down fighting than be the people that just stood by and watched it happen. And those are incredibly important core values…that I think as a society we’ve lost sight of to a really harmful extent.”

When I ask James what she saw as being strategically effective during her time with the movement, she tells me that she’s “not a direct action purist”. In other words, she does think it’s “totally valid to do stuff in order to get media attention or political attention.” And from that point of view, “what you do is important if it’s bold and arresting, but I think the tone with which you do it is almost more important. So I really like the Climate Rush stuff because it’s always very playful. And I like that Marina [another central character in the film] always stays polite and always keeps her tongue in her cheek a bit. And I think that makes it much more palatable for people to come to. It’s important for the individuals involved as well to get a sense of community and have a sense of play and a sense of fun about what they’re doing.”

Lily, one of the documentary’s featured activists, helping set up Grow Heathrow. Credit: Kristian Buus

That sense of community is one of the overriding impressions that Just Do It leaves the viewer with, one of the key ingredients in making you want to get out your seat and head down to join the squatters and local residents in their community garden at Grow Heathrow. As James says, “We can’t underestimate the personal and psychological value of participating in these kinds of things. Once you see what’s going on, sitting back and doing nothing is more psychologically damaging than going out and working with other people. There’s something so rewarding about being surrounded by people who share your values and who are engaged in a common effort to try and do something to make the world a better place.”

Visit to find out more, watch the trailer, read the accompanying blog and newspaper, or get involved with helping to organize a screening where you live.

Feb 2012: The Tricky Activism Politics of the Keystone XL Pipeline

Dear friends:

If you follow the news in the U.S., by now you have most likely heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. You may have read news of the spirited protests against it last summer and fall at the White House. Or you may have heard the Republican Presidential candidates denouncing President Obama for “caving in” to those protests. Either way, Keystone XL has now become both the leading environmental campaigning cause in the country and a major issue in the 2012 campaign.

How did this happen and where is all this likely to go? Today the Democracy Center offers a pair of special features on the battle against Keystone XL. The first is an inside look at the campaign, interviews with its most visible leaders and with some of the young people who have given the effort its fire. You can read that report here. And below, in this issue of the Democracy Center Newsletter, we offer an analysis of the campaign: The Tricky Activist Politics of the Keystone Pipeline.

Today also marks an important moment to take action yourself. We urge all our friends to join the Democracy Center and dozens of other organizations in flooding the U.S. Senate with a 24–hour barrage of 500,000 messages calling for rejection of legislation that would force immediate pipeline approval. You can add your voice to the fight here. As always, thank you for your interest and please pass this along to others who might wish to read it as well.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

Credit: Emma Cassidy for tarsandsaction

The Tricky Activism Politics of the Keystone Pipeline

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over. – NASA Climate Scientist, Dr. James Hansen

“People are looking for ways to express their sense of urgency about this crisis. People want to take action to show that the Earth is in the balance.” – Author and activist, Naomi Klein

He [President Obama] seems to have confused the national interest with his own interest in pleasing the environmentalists in his political base.” – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney

“The decision by the Obama Administration is another capitulation to the radical environmental fringe – and in turn puts our national security and economy at risk.” – Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum

Last September more than 1,200 environmental activists were arrested at the gates of the White House. The arrests were part of a weeks-long protest aimed at persuading President Obama to block authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. In November those numbers swelled by thousands, as activists returned to Washington to form a human chain around the White House, complete with a black inflatable replica of the pipeline. On January 18 the President handed them a victory, a temporary one at least, announcing that the administration was denying the permits required for Keystone’s construction.

How did citizens turn a proposed 1,700-mile steel tube into a national cause? How did it suddenly take center stage in the U.S. Presidential campaign? And what is ahead in the tricky politics of Keystone XL?

Targeting the Tar Sands

The ‘tar sands’ of western Canada are a complex underground stew where sand, clay and water mix with a form of thick black oil – enough to produce more than a million barrels a day of sought-after petroleum. When global oil companies and the Canadian government look at Alberta’s dark soil they see a fortune. U.S. boosters of the tar sands project see a new source of needed energy from a friendly government just across the border. But climate scientists see something else – a carbon time bomb.

Dr. James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sounded some of the first climate change warnings in the early 1980s began sounding a new alarm about the Canadian tar sands project early last year. He warned that if the massive and dirty petroleum supplies buried in the tar sands are fully released into the atmosphere it would in essence be “game over” for carbon reduction, and in turn the effort to slow the lethal path of global climate change. Climate activists, dedicated to lessening the world’s addiction to oil, saw in the tar sands the petroleum equivalent of an alcoholic finding a refrigerator full of six packs in the basement. [Read more about the tar sands.]

Native American groups in Canada (First Nations) have been fighting tar sands excavation for years. The strip mining operations involved leave behind ruthless contamination of the water and land and lasting damage to fragile ecosystems. But their battle is a hard one. “You have twenty of the world’s biggest oil companies operating in the tar sands, just about every single major banking institution on the planet invested,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.

In 2011, First Nations groups found a new set of allies among U.S. environmentalists and others who set upon a new strategy for slowing the project – turning off its main southbound tap.

The Keystone XL Leveraging Strategy

Central to the Canadian government’s tar sands development strategy is the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile, 36-inch-in-diameter steel tube that would take the rough crude mined in Alberta southward through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to Texas for refining and then sale to global markets. That’s 1,700 miles worth of communities that might have enough power to say no. Opponents understand that cutting off the project’s key Texas-bound tap won’t stop tar sands development, but it could slow it and buy some time.

Nebraskans have been leading the charge against the pipeline for years. BoldNebraska, a coalition of farmers, ranchers, labor unions, environmentalists and other communities, has hammered on state officials to refuse the pipeline the required state permits. Ben Gotschall, a cattle rancher and BoldNebraska leader explained to us, “For what looks to be maybe 100 or 200 jobs for Nebraskans for maybe 18 months, we’re going to endanger the Ogallala aquifer and tear up a portion of the Sand Hills, which has taken 10,000 years to become the way it is? When you weigh those two things together Nebraskans – in typical conservative, common sense logic – just say ‘well that’s not worth it.'”

In the summer of 2011 Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate action group, thought he found another leveraging point to block Keystone XL – the White House. In order for Keystone XL to be built the administration had to grant its blessing, a move it could refuse without any authorization from Republicans in Congress. Environmental groups decided that the time was ripe to make Keystone XL a green political test for the President on the eve of his re-election campaign.

In September they brought their anti–Keystone XL demand to the President’s front door. “We used our bodies as a form of currency,” McKibben told us. “We anted up, as it were, to get us into the game. By the time two weeks were over we’d taken a regional issue and made it a national and even global one.” On November 6th, a symbolic year–to–the–day before the day the President would be seeking their votes, concerned citizens returned to the White House and surrounded it with an enormous human chain.

Four days later President Obama announced he was delaying a decision on the Keystone XL permit until after the 2012 vote. Congressional Republicans, eager to force Mr. Obama to choose to between the environmentalists on one side and labor backers of Keystone XL on the other, piggybacked a 60-day decision deadline onto a December stopgap bill on the payroll tax. The President responded in January by denying the Keystone XL permit, blaming the Republicans for rushing the decision.

McKibben and others were jubilant. “The victory is of course a tribute to people who set aside their natural cynicism about the possibility of change and instead went to jail in record numbers, wrote public comments in record numbers, surrounded the White House shoulder to shoulder five deep.”

The Republican Empire Strikes Back

Keystone XL opponents were not the only ones jubilant over the President’s decision. Republican political consultants saw immediately in the pipeline decision the chance for an election year blast at the White House that tied together almost every issue they dreamed of – Iran, China, energy prices, jobs, and the President’s loyalties to “the radical environmental fringe.”

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched the new Republican narrative in a Presidential debate less than a week later. Noting that the Iranians were threatening a cutoff of U.S. oil supplies in the Middle East, he declared:

This idea of vetoing the Keystone pipeline is wrong on every possible grounds. It would have led to 20,000 to 50,000 construction jobs while it was being built. We would have made money for 30 to 50 years processing Canadian oil. Then the ports of Galveston and Houston would have made money actually shipping the oil. Instead because Obama wanted to have a handful of San Francisco extremists happy, he vetoed it, which means that Prime Minister Harper, who’s a conservative and pro-American, is now talking about working out an agreement with the Chinese to build the pipeline due west across the Rockies to Vancouver, more expensive but doable.

Soon the other GOP candidates were piling on as well, signaling to a nervous president that the Keystone issue is going to hang around his neck to defend all the way through the fall.

Public Opinion Bats Last

Why is the battle against the Keystone pipeline so urgent? If there is one thing we have learned from the fight against coal (by far the single largest U.S. contributor to climate change) it is that once corporations have made big investments in infrastructure, they will fight tooth and nail for decades to squeeze the last return possible out of that investment, environmental concerns be damned. Another 50-year infrastructure investment in petroleum in the U.S. means another 50 years of political battle to wean our economy off oil.

Converting Keystone XL from being an invisible issue to being a global cause is a major achievement, as was convincing President Obama to reject permits for the pipeline. But in politics, on issues this big, leveraging can work in the short-term – but in the end public opinion bats last. Now that actions at the White House have made Keystone a major national issue, we are going to have to win not just the protest game but public opinion as well. That won’t be easy. Keystone backers have a far bigger megaphone and have already spent millions in donations to Congress to buttress their case.

It is in the nature of strong advocacy to expect a backlash. Ultimately winning depends on your ability to meet that backlash head on and defeat it. To ultimately win, opponents of Keystone XL need to make the case on the merits to the public, not just on the politics to the President. We need to make clear that the jobs estimates are wildly overblown; that the winners from all that environmentally reckless oil transport will not be families and communities but corporations; and that those who oppose the pipeline are all kinds of Americans not just one kind. Finally, we are going to have to make and win the most fundamental case of all on climate – that the environment we will bequeath to our children and their children matters so deeply that this time we need to leave the oil right in the ground where we found it, even if someone has to sacrifice a hefty profit in order to do so.

Join the effort to stop Keystone XL today by signing the petition to the U.S. Senate here..

Jim Shultz
Executive Director, the Democracy Center