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How Do We Take Effective Citizen Action on the Climate Crisis? A Debate Across Three Continents

In December, I wrote an article that appeared in Climate Progress, Yes Magazine, AlterNet and elsewhere, which took a hard look at citizen action on the climate crisis.  The article raised some pointed questions about the value of global summitry and the strategic wisdom of other current climate campaigns.  I sent the article to friends in the climate and environmental movement in different parts of the world with the aim of helping spark a deeper debate over our approaches to climate activism.  Three of my colleagues, Jeremy Brecher of the U.S., René Orellana of Bolivia, and Paul Kingsnorth of the UK, wrote back with thoughtful replies that are important to share with others concerned about the most effective ways for citizens to tackle this planetary crisis. We begin publishing those exchanges with the conversation below with Jeremy Brecher.   We’ll publish the others shortly.  We hope that they provoke the thinking of our readers here and we hope these exchanges deepen the larger debate over strategy and the wisest course for citizen action.

Jim Shultz

The Democracy Center

Is the Climate Battle Global or Local?

An exchange with Jeremy Brecher, co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability and author of more than a dozen books on the history and prospects of social movements, including Strike! and most recently, Save the Humans?: Common Preservation in Action.

Dear Jim,

I completely agree about the crucial role of local response to the threat of climate change. I recently did a short book called “Jobs Beyond Coal: A Manual for Communities, Workers, and Environmentalists” ( to help local campaigns against coal-fired power plants address jobs and labor concerns. I’ve also helped initiate a Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and am working with folks who are trying to close a coal-fired power plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. So we are in complete agreement on the importance and appropriateness of such work.

I also share your concern about the effectiveness of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. While I support the campaign as a moral and educational endeavor, I agree that it will be very difficult for such a campaign to affect the incentive structure of the fossil fuel corporations and thereby lead them to change their policies. As an attempt to support constructive local engagement with this initiative, Brendan Smith and I have proposed that such divestment efforts be combined with local investment initiatives that combine energy alternatives, job creation, and meeting local community needs with divestment from fossil fuels. (See “Do the Math: Invest While We Divest.”)

I also think we are in agreement that at present “global summitry” is a “dead end.” The strategy of influencing major governments to take effective cooperative action on climate change is not currently an effective option, though it might become so if public opinion and social mobilization reached a qualitatively different level. (In the closest parallel we have, the cold war anti-nuclear movement faced periods in which international cooperation for nuclear arms limitation was out of the question, and other times when the global movement was able to play a major role in forcing a “bidding war for peace” among the great powers. See the monumental three-volume study of “The Struggle Against the Bomb” by Lawrence Wittner.)

I think there are two areas where we are not yet in consensus.

The first is around various assertions you make concerning the global aspects of climate protection. I believe it is a mistake to counterpose local and global efforts, or to say that one can effectively address climate change without the other. Instead of counterposing them, I think we should say both are absolutely necessary, and that the problem cannot be solved without both. However, since there is bound to be “uneven development” between them (and also national level development), at any one time we should push on the levels where we can be most effective, while treating our efforts as laying groundwork for progress at the others. So I advocate closing of coal-fired power plants (and seek to integrate this with a “just transition” for those who work in them), but see that as a building block for a global climate regime that requires such transitions worldwide.

Without such a global framework, I don’t see how reducing fossil fuel use in any one industry or part of the world is anything but an incentive to corporations and governments to move/expand such operations to other industries and parts of the world and profit thereby. In short, without a global framework for fossil fuel reduction I don’t see how local efforts avoid the kind of futility you criticize in global efforts.

You state: “A truly binding commitment on carbon emissions would require that the major carbon polluting countries in the world – the U.S., China, India and others – effectively surrender some measure of their sovereignty, over energy policy for example. To believe that they will ever do so is, unfortunately, a fantasy. Their domestic politics would never allow it.” That may well be the case, but if so, we are truly doomed to an unlimited rise in greenhouse gasses. What this says to me is that unlimited claims to sovereignty are incompatible with human survival. Therefore, limiting such claims is a necessary part of a movement for human survival, and that eschewing such a goal is to collude with the sovereignty-based destruction of humanity. We must instead say that, if national sovereignty is incompatible with human survival, it is national sovereignty that must go.

Actually, though, I think this is too extreme a way of posing the problem, because national sovereignty is a much more variable thing than its more radical proponents would admit. For example, from the perspective of the anti-nuclear movements of the 1950s through 1980s and the nuclear test ban treaty, the various nuclear arms reduction treaties, and the end of the cold war by nonviolent transnational political change in the Communist bloc would have looked like unimaginable infringements on the existing system of national sovereignty. In fact they happened, and to paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, what happens is possible. I think we should argue for what is necessary for human survival, and if some people say “but that would compromise national sovereignty,” we should say, well, sometimes we have to modify the way we do things because the alternative is suicidal.

The second area where we need more discussion to reach consensus is around the question of whether campaigns should address climate change directly or focus instead on other consequences of fossil fuel production and use. My impression is that there is a tension, or even a contradiction, within your approach to this question. On the one hand, you propose focusing on issues other than climate change because “what is winning climate battles right now is talking about issues that have a much more immediate impact on people’s lives.” On the other hand, you urge focus on the impact of climate change on our children and grandchildren. That sounds like the opposite emphasis — we need to insist that people grapple with the real implications of climate change, even when our insistence may “turn people off” to immediate proposals. In fact, if they look realistically at the impact on their children and grandchildren, they will grasp the necessity for climate protection. I get the impression that you are divided in your own mind about this question.

I believe this question has changed radically in the past couple of years worldwide and especially in the US from the impact of extreme weather events and other direct impacts of climate change, and that it will change even more in the next few years as these events intensify. I think that from that changed response we need to and can develop a global movement that challenges the complicity of governments and corporations in climate change and uses the methods of nonviolent direct action globally to threaten their legitimacy if they do not change (see here).  That may not be the most likely course for history to take, but I believe it is a possibility not a fantasy.



Reply from Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center

Dear Jeremy,

I agree that we agree on several important points. One of these is the importance of local action. I am increasingly convinced that the balance of power between corporations and people is much better for people the more local we make our battles. Your work with labor and community activists as well as the case studies that we produced and published last year seem to bear that out. I also agree with you, as you noted, that the current campaign for divestment launched by is a great chance to build the moral case and to increase involvement of new people but also needs to draw that energy toward local actions, including local investments that can have an actual impact as opposed to a symbolic impact. It’s a pity that we don’t have another few decades to put our efforts behind symbolic impact, but obviously we don’t.

You are certainly right that my thinking on this is evolving and probably divided so let me respond to the things that you identified where as you so kindly put, we are not yet at consensus. I think that I am becoming radically pluralistic in the way I think about climate change strategy – meaning that I think we don’t have any choice but to do a whole lot of things all at the same time. That means that I think we have to simultaneously make the case for change based on issues like public health, green jobs, etc. and at the same time make the case for action based on the climate crisis itself. It is still hard to figure out what it is in the United States in particular that will wake people up and motivate them to support the kind of actions that are required. Maybe extreme weather will sound the alarm but I am also hopeful that reframing the issue as a children’s issue, which it most certainly is, might also be a way to get people to pay attention. So I agree with you that we have to pursue both approaches at the same time. I also think that radical pluralism on the climate crisis also means that those of us who come to it as political activists need to take seriously a whole other culture taking aim at the same crisis through the eyes of new technologies and entrepreneurship to promote them. We have a lot of brethren in that crowd and we need to see that as well.

I do also agree with you will that we cannot abandon will the search for a global agreement. I’ve had a very interesting set of e-mail exchanges with another friend in response to my article, René Orellana who serves as Bolivia’s chief negotiator in global climate talks. As you might imagine he also believes that we need to keep up the pressure to make sure that those talks deliver the goods. My point here remains that we can’t rely on global agreements to alter the policy choices that the United States and other governments will make. They will make those policy choices based on domestic politics. I remain convinced of that and haven’t seen any evidence to make me think otherwise. But I think your parallel to the nuclear arms debate in the 80s is actually a genuine piece of wisdom here. National campaigns like the nuclear freeze did create pressures on the United States to enter into agreements to reduce nuclear arms. So that is what I think we need here, national campaigns and local campaigns that can simultaneously make changes in domestic policy and increase the pressure on governments to agree to changes in international policy.

I also think that it is vitally important that we not only think about where the debate on climate issues is now but where it’s going. I just listened this week to a pair of interviews with a Republican member of the House of Representatives and a Republican in the U.S. Senate, ominous previews of coming attractions of where the politics of this is going. One of them said essentially – well maybe climate change is real and maybe humans are causing it but none of the things being proposed would actually make a difference but they would cost us so why do them? In other words abandon mitigation and focus all of our energy on adaptation (I’ll get to that in a minute). You might call this the “doomsday approach” and I suspect it is going to develop a pretty good following. The second Republican had a slightly different take. He said, well maybe climate change is real and maybe human activity is causing it, but the United States can’t take action on its own. That has to come through an international agreement that other countries would be bound to as well. On the one hand we might actually like that argument but it is coming from the very same political corners that will certainly do everything in their power to make sure that the United States is never a party to such a binding agreement. Call this the Catch-22 approach.

Which brings me to my new fear about where the politics of all this is headed. Here’s a metaphor. No one I know under the age of 35 has ever owned a landline telephone and most likely never will. They skipped directly from not having a phone to having a mobile phone. I think the politics of climate in wealthy countries is increasingly going to jump from not thinking very much about it or taking any action on it at all to jumping right to large-scale multibillion dollar infrastructure projects like the ones being talked about for New York City following Hurricane Sandy. What gets left in the dust as a result are two things, both of which are very bad news for countries like Bolivia. The first is the abandonment of mitigation. We’ll give up on that and start building concrete walls and tougher electric grids. Second, the massive price tag for all this will basically freeze out the funds needed to support adaptation in high-impact countries like Bolivia. I would also imagine that from a corporate perspective mitigation is a threat, but large-scale adaptation will be a serious money maker.




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