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11 Million Americans Can Save the Climate

A vigorous US citizen movement can force Congress to pass strong climate laws. Then, the rest of the world will fall in line.

A vigorous US citizen movement can force Congress to pass strong climate laws. Then, the rest of the world will fall in line. Such a US movement can be built to a politically-effective size within 24 to 36 months. US action within 36 months is a “necessary but insufficient condition” to bring about a relatively-benign 2C/3.6F (average surface temperature rise) scenario, avoiding a disastrous 4 to 6C / 7.2 to 10.8F scenario.

Once Congress passes strong laws, there will be plenty of additional work for the movement, whose members will lead implementation efforts to achieve the 2050 Kyoto objective (cut GHG emissions to 20% of 1990).

University of Denver Professor Erica Chenoweth’s EMPIRICAL dataset of past international citizen movements shows that when 3.5% of a country’s population (11 million pro-climate Americans) is actively involved in a movement, 80% of those movements achieve their objectives.

The argument below contrasts California and national politics, concluding that US congress will not pass strong climate laws without a citizen movement. Once the argument is made, a summary of effective citizen movement tactics is provided. Following the tactical discussion, a survey of other strategies is provided.

1. California has adopted the world’s most effective and comprehensive set of laws/regulations to protect the climate (AB32 – 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, Cap & Trade, vehicle GHG standard, low carbon fuel standard, Governor’s executive orders, renewables, solar roofs, efficiency, regional transport, recycle, reduce waste, water, agriculture, forests.) This represents an historic government accomplishment featuring startling cross-departmental state staff collaboration and visionary legislative leadership. A few additional states and Canadian provinces are also doing great work.

2. In contrast, the US CONGRESS IS GRIDLOCKED for the foreseeable future. Citizens United allows the fossil fuel industry to control US climate policy despite majority voter “mild support” for climate protection. Many hope that a pro-climate Congress (similar to California, with both chambers and the executive aligned for the climate) will be elected in 2014, but this UNREALISTIC. (Republicans control more state legislatures than democrats, and republicans gerrymander federal district boundaries to advantage Republicans in federal Congressional races. See articles such as this.) What is realistic, if difficult, is for a bottom-up movement to develop more political power than the opposition.

At best, US congress can enact incremental legislation when it benefits powerful economic actors. Obamacare is an example of incrementalism, where insurers, hospitals, and Big Pharma helped to write the law and saw their stocks increase when it passed. Universal Medicare was impossible to pass, but would have represented game-changing legislation that would have reduced profits of powerful economic actors. Strong climate legislation is similarly game-changing and not incremental, adversely impacting many powerful economic actors.

There are $20 trillion of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. 66% of these need to be kept in the ground. To maximize profits, the fossil industry will strive to extract all 100% of those reserves and will make large political expenditures to secure Congress’s continuing compliance.

3. Applying Chenoweth’s “3.5% rule:” If 3.5% (11 million Americans) participate in a vigorous citizen movement, then there is an 80% chance of achieving game-changing federal climate laws/regulations akin to those in California. And there is then a further argument that the end of US foot-dragging will immediately spur pro-climate policies in the rest of the world.

Folks tend to feel powerless about the climate, so some have welcomed the empirical 3.5% rule as empowering. Further, the pro-climate movement has previously not been able to articulate a credible, well-researched “strategy to win,” and this lack of an “end game” has dampened enthusiasm for the movement.

4. THE OPPOSITION. In this instance, Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism illuminates the gridlocked “opposition” as the US crony capitalism political/economic system. The staunchest members of that opposition are fossil fuel companies that could experience reduced profits as a result of pro-climate policies.

In Chenoweth’s international dataset, the objectives of many of the successful citizen movements were to replace the government. A similar level of citizen movement power is requisite to enact game-changing climate legislation with a gridlocked congress.

5. Books such as Berkeley Professor Andrew Guzman’s Overheated provide a mass-market explanation that climate is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. In Guzman’s optimistic 2C 21st century scenario, his chapter on Africa explains how climate change is a very dangerous 2020 threat multiplier to “precarious, subsistence peoples.” Hence there is a moral case for a pro-climate American citizen movement to overcome federal gridlock.

6. There is a need for a morally-driven citizen movement. Some assume that Californians favor strong climate protection policies, but this is not true. Instead, Californians strongly support climate protection, provided there is no personal impact. A 2009 poll of 600 Californians on Transport Funding by JMM Research found 75% opposed to a $0.25 gas tax increase (similar to a $25 price per tonne of CO2), with 60% strongly opposed. The fossil industry argues against California’s climate policies because they will have personal impacts such as raising gas taxes – hence California’s policies were previously (Prop 23) and are currently under attack. Likewise, people who state “a majority of Americans believe we should do something about climate change” forget the part about “provided there is no personal impact.” Superficial voter inclination to protect the climate is unlikely to result in adoption of policies that produce personal inconvenience.


Erica Chenoweth is Assistant Professor at University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and an Associate Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Erica also serves as an Academic Advisor at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and a member of the board of the International Security and Arms Control section of the American Political Science Association. Erica is coauthor of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

Chris Hedges cites Chenoweth’s work and observed first-hand how eastern European citizen movements reached tipping points to where they rapidly grew into a country’s most powerful political force.

Highlights from Why Civil Resistance Works

  • Non-violent civil resistance has less perceived risk than violent civil resistance. “When communities observe open, mass support and collective acts of defiance, their perceptions of risk may decline, reducing constraints on participation. This contention is supported by critical-mass theories of collective action, which contend that protestors base their perceptions of protest opportunities on existing patterns of opposition activity. Courage breeds courage, particularly when those engaged in protest activities are ordinary people who would be conformist, law-abiding citizens under typical circumstances. Media coverage amplifies the demonstration effects of their acts of defiance.”
  • “Another factor that enhances participation in nonviolent campaigns is the festival-like atmosphere that often accompanies nonviolent rallies and demonstrations – as exemplified by the recent nonviolent campaigns in Serbia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Egypt – where concerts, singing, and street theatre attracted large numbers of people (particularly young people) interested in having fun while fighting for a political cause. Humor and satire, which have featured prominently in nonviolent campaigns (less so in armed campaigns), have helped break down barriers of feature and promote solidarity among victims of state-sponsored oppression.”
  • Erica goes on to state other mass participation advantages of nonviolent versus violent campaigns: a) many who support causes have moral reservations about committing acts of violence, b) non-violence requires less training, less commitment, and less risk tolerance; c) non-violence provides a much larger menu of resistance activities from which to choose.
  • “Numbers alone to not guarantee victory. Quality of participation – including the diversity of the participants, strategic and tactical choices made by the opposition, and its ability to adapt and innovate – may be as important as the quantity of participants. The more diverse the participation – in terms of gender, age, religion, ethnicity, ideology, profession, and socioeconomic status – the more difficult it is for the adversary to isolate the participants and adopt a repressive strategy. This makes an opponent’s use of violence more likely to backfire.” “Further, diverse participation increases the likelihood of tactical diversity, increasing the likelihood of outmaneuvering the opponent.”
  • As mass participation is achieved, thick social networks are formed. A member of the opponent’s security force may have a daughter involved in the resistance. This plays out to the advantage of the resistance over time.
  • “Mass mobilization withdraws the regimen’s economic, political, social, and even military support from domestic populations and third parties. Leverage is achieved when the adversary’s most important supporting organizations and institutions are systematically pulled away through mass noncooperation.”
  • “Sustained economic pressure targeting state-owned and private businesses and enterprises has been an important element in many successful popular movements.”
From this baseline, the efficacy of specific climate movement tactics (divestment, Keystone protests, etc) can be analyzed as to how they contribute to the “end game.” Do these tactics grow the movement or put sustained economic pressure on the opposition?


  • Staffer at a climate advocacy organization: “We won’t pass federal carbon laws without weakening the fossil fuel industry. Our goal is to break the fossil fuel stranglehold.” Bill McKibben from also emphasizes direct actions against the fossil fuel industry – see for example his Rolling Stone article entitled “The Fossil Fuel Resistance.” (DK: This strategy is strong.)
  • One environmental non-profit has the following strategy: “elect a pro-climate US congress with emphasis on 2014 elections, followed by enacting federal legislation.” (DK: This strategy is naïve.)
  • One climate advocacy organization uses polite congressional lobbying of Republicans and Democrats. Volunteers undergo training to increase their expertise. This strategy is based on a successful “polite lobbying” campaign that increased US federal funding for poverty relief. (DK: The poverty lobbying was far simpler. This strategy does not address “lobbying congress under conditions where there is an extremely well-funded opposition that copies tobacco industry dis-information tactics.” Fighting for legislation where the fossil fuel industry opposes that legislation is much different than unopposed lobbying for poverty aid.)
  • Another climate advocacy organization’s strategy is: “Make sure California climate policy (AB32, etc) succeeds. Have other progressive states adopt similar policies. Once AB32 succeeds, then the federal government will respond.” (DK: This strategy is naïve. California has a long history of introducing progressive regulations that are later adopted by the federal government, but none of those CA regulations stood to reduce Exxon’s market capitalization by 50%. In addition, CA policy is being implemented very gradually, because of “job leakage” issues where the rest of the US won’t have a price on carbon. Hence waiting for CA success will take a while and further, a high CA price on carbon will create job leakage arbitrage opportunities.)
  • Yet another climate advocacy organization’s strategy is “a varied grassroots movement:” Undertake many varied and creative grassroots actions with an eye towards increasing the number of activists. The bias is towards doing things. Careful effort should be taken to ensure that new activists have successful initial experiences. The range of actions goes from letter writing to sit ins, so not all actions are “polite.” Grassroots movements have succeeded in the past. There are papers on how grassroots movements succeed. (DK: This is not a fully-developed strategy in that there is no narrative about how this movement eventually “wins.” There has never been as strong and sophisticated an opposition against a grassroots movement. This strategy does not address the tactics employed by the opposition. Nor does this strategy address the nearly overwhelming political power of the opposition. Nor does this strategy address the amount of effort the industry will be willing to put in to avoid a $12 trillion financial loss from keeping proven reserves in the ground.)

Business schools hold “business plan competitions,” where different plans are presented and critiqued/ranked by a panel of expert venture capitalists. One can envision a similar “federal climate political strategy” competition, where various strategies are presented to a judging panel of knowledgeable, skeptical folks. The arguments in this blog post can serve as the basis for the critique of other strategies. For a judging panel, multiple perspectives are desired. Some knowledge of pertinent US political history. Some expert knowledge of how to get things done in DC. Some knowledge of the history of climate legislation. Some critical knowledge of crony capitalism. (The judging outcomes will be a function of the paradigms represented by the panel – professors who are funded by Chevron will vote one way, versus if you have Robert Reich or Noam Chomsky, they’ll vote the other way.) People who question the crony capitalism paradigm are in the minority, so there is the whole problem of “what lens do you run the analysis thru.” It will be nontrivial to come up with a good judging panel.