In September 2012 the Democracy Center published a series of seven in-depth profiles on successful and ongoing climate campaigns taking place across the globe. We looked closely at the strategies they have employed and analyzed how and why they were effective in order to share this wisdom with others taking action on climate change. This builds on our earlier case studies in Beating Goliath on anti-corporate campaigns, many with a particular focus on climate-related activism.
Getting Action on Climate
By Jim Shultz – Executive Director
For two decades and across five continents, the Democracy Center has worked to help social and environmental activists make their efforts as strategic and as effective as possible. Citizen activism is one of the most essential ingredients of real democracy and we can never afford to let our activist energies be squandered.
Today no issue is more urgent and more in need of strategic and effective citizen action than the crisis of global climate change. This summer the Arctic sea ice cover reached a new record low and the U.S. has been in the grip of a record drought. At stake is the health of the planet we will leave to our children and grandchildren and the planet’s environmental future is looking more and more ominous.
Much has been written about the threats of the climate crisis and much written about what, in an ideal political world, we should do about it. But we do not live in an ideal political world. We live in one where serious political action, in the U.S. in particular, seems at a virtual standstill. For decades people focused on international summits and the hope for a meaningful global deal that never came. The most powerful governments in the world have no intention of surrendering some piece of their sovereignty (on energy policy, for example) to a binding international agreement.
The fact remains that the action we need must be fought for and won country-by-country and community-by-community and the citizen efforts to fight those battles must be strategic and wise. The good news is that there is real wisdom and there is smart strategy out there, in citizen action campaigns on the climate crisis all over the world. There are powerful and urgent lessons to be shared.
To understand and share these lessons the Democracy Center took an up-close look at seven citizen action campaigns on climate, from California to Kosovo to India and beyond. We looked at (and interviewed) climate activists beating powerful oil companies on the ballot, at fourth graders challenging Hollywood, and at efforts around the world to stop the climate’s most serious enemy, coal.
In the end, we are indeed one people on one planet all in this together. When generations hence look back on how we acted in this time, they will judge us not by the eloquence of our rhetoric or the depth of our knowledge, but on whether we made a concrete difference while there was still time.
The Lessons: Wisdom from the Front Lines of Climate Action
Certainly, effective activism on climate issues must rely on the same basic elements of effective strategy as most any kind of activism: know what you want to achieve, identify who you need to move to get it, develop effective messages and use the media to amplify them, get the right people on your side, and take action in forceful but smart ways. But there are also ways in which effective action on climate has its own rules. Not every one of these lessons drawn from the Democracy Center’s campaign profiles applies to every situation, but it is worth thinking about these and applying those that can help make a real difference.
1. Think Globally, Speak Locally
Many people and organizations have already made the crisis of climate change a priority concern and we need to do all we can to expand that concern among the world’s population and convert it into demands for action. In the meantime, while direct concern on the climate crisis builds, many campaigners are winning important battles by focusing their messaging on issues that are more local and more immediate. In California the victory over an oil industry ballot measure (Proposition 23) to gut the state’s climate law was won not by talking about climate but about local air pollution and local green jobs. Opponents of a new coal plant in India did the same, highlighting the threat to local livelihoods. While we must continually work to build public awareness about the climate crisis, in the meantime it is often linking that crisis to local concerns that wins the day.
2. Go After the Oil/Gas/Coal Infrastructure
The Achilles’ heel of the fossil fuel economy is its dependency on a complex web of key infrastructure. Large plants, pipelines, rail and road capacity, marine ports and terminals etc, are all vital components of the energy system that most threatens our climate. By targeting these critical elements campaigners can slow down, complicate and increase the costs and ultimately block fossil fuel projects. The Power Past Coal campaign in Oregon and Washington State has taken aim at the dirty coal trains that are a vital link to ship U.S. coal to China. This is also the strategy of opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline (a campaign we previously profiled here), a major outlet for the climate-devastating Canadian tar sands oil.
3. Defend the Rights of Local Communities to Decide
Many of the most urgent climate fights feature large corporate interests (coal companies, oil companies etc.) being challenged by local activists. We see this in the No on Proposition 23 campaign in California, anti-fracking efforts in the US and Europe, in the campaigns in Kosovo and India to block coal plants, and in the uprisings in Washington State against coal trains. Corporations, unsurprisingly, are working to undermine the ability of local communities to decide their own fate, pushing those decisions up the political ladder (to the U.S. Congress, to the World Bank, and other institutions) where corporate power is more secure. Protecting the rights of local communities to make their own choices is essential.
4. Build Broad and Unusual Alliances
Globally climate politics has become deeply polarized, pitting citizens who demand action versus an array of interests stuck in denial or allied with the corporate sectors that profit from inaction. Breaking through that polarization and getting action requires forming alliances across the usual boundary lines of ideology and geography. No on Prop. 23 campaigners in California joined the voices of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State and one of the founders of the United Farmworkers Union. Anti-coal activists in Kosovo formed alliances with U.S. based NGOs as well as local farmers to target U.S. and World Bank coal promotion policies. Setting the stage for renewables in Thailand involved bringing state bureacrats together with pig farmers. More so than with many campaign issues, on climate drawing together ‘strange bedfellows’ is key.
5. Fight Corporate Power with Kid Power
Children and young people are those whose lives are going to be most affected by the impacts of climate change, yet they often have the least say in climate issues. Children and youth have a moral authority on climate issues that can resonate strongly with the media and the public. Supporting children in voicing their concerns and developing their own campaigns can be a very effective way of both increasing advocacy and gaining wider public support. The potential activist power of children is illustrated by the campaign led by a group of fourth graders in Massachusetts who forced a Hollywood movie studio to step-up the environmental message delivered by the Lorax, a beloved book taken to film.
6. Mixing New Campaign Tools with the Old
The internet now offers an abundance of new tools and methods to help campaigners reach an ever-larger audience. These tools have revolutionized approaches to campaigning and are a key weapon in many of the battles we explore here. While making good use of online tools is clearly critical, mixing them with old-fashioned face-to-face approaches remains key. Anti-fracking campaigners in Bulgaria won public support with street petition stalls while their counterparts in the UK called local meetings to raise opposition to planning decisions. Anti-coal campaigners in India organized trips to existing power stations to show locals first-hand their pollution and health impacts. Each fight requires a blend of approaches tailored to specific circumstances, and campaigners should make use of both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’.