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Climate Change Movement Shifts to Convey Urgency

(Photo: NoKXL / Flickr)

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NoKXL.(Photo: NoKXL / Flickr)As summer winds down, the climate justice movement is just getting stoked. Nationwide actions protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands mining and fracking were key components of the #FearlessSummer campaign and’s Summer Heat campaign. Representatives from the climate justice movement say they are looking to ramp up the effort and effectively leverage the engagement of activists already involved in the climate change fight.

On September 16, 2013, activists from CREDO Action, Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98% organized a sit-in at the Houston headquarters of TransCanada, the Canadian energy company that intends to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. This demonstration was a part of the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance, whose more than 75,000 supporters agreed to risk arrest for their acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in protest against the pipeline’s pending federal approval.

More than 50 activists and supporters participated in the sit-in, 13 of whom were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges and could face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 if convicted.

Vice President and Political Director of CREDO Action Becky Bond said the 13 were trained in preparation for their actions and were prepared to face the consequences. Among those detained were former oil industry employees, teachers and a great-grandmother who wrote the names of her great-grandchildren on the sign she held.

Bond said the police tried to dissuade the activists from being arrested and that the officers seemed surprised the activists were regular Texans, just like their own parents or neighbors. But the participants would not move and were taken to jail overnight and had to pay $500 bail.

“This is just the beginning,” Bond said. “There are people in all 50 states that are concerned about the Keystone pipeline and climate change. The president needs to see this; these are the very people that voted for him.”

Bond points to the Pledge of Resistance as an effective use of the threat of civil disobedience, aimed at the Obama administration. “The threat is a really important part of this tactic, because our hope is that we’ll never have to roll it out. But we know that we have to be ready to do it, in the event that the State Department does recommend to the president to approve this pipeline.”

CREDO CEO Michael Kieschnick actually informed the president in person about the pledge and how many people signed. “I can tell you the president was not happy to hear about it, but it’s more important to be effective than to be liked by those in power,” Bond said.

The Future of the Climate Movement: Shifting Tactics and Strategy

On a conference call organized by the Climate Reality Check Coalition on September 12, 2013, movement leaders Tim DeChristopher of Peaceful Uprising and Bond fielded questions from environmental activists about the state of the movement and nonviolent civil disobedience.

DeChristopher served 21 months in prison for disrupting a 2008 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City, outbidding industry representatives on 14 parcels of public land, for a total of $1.8 million. DeChristopher went to trial and on March 3, 2011, was convicted of two federal felonies: one count of false representation and one count of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. In July 2011, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison, fined $10,000 and ordered into immediate custody.

DeChristopher said the defeat of the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009 was the turning point in the strategy of the climate movement. Activists began shifting toward confronting power structures instead of appeasing them, i.e. nonviolent civil disobedience was embraced by the mainstream of the movement against climate change.

“We’re changing into more of a climate justice perspective instead of just an emissions reductions perspective,” DeChristopher said. “We’ve made a lot of changes in who our allies are. We’ve by and large rejected a lot of corporate alliances over the last few years that were always promoted beforehand. And in place, we’ve made a lot of allies with a lot of social justice movements – people who have been traditionally locked out of that traditional power structure. And now we’re in this position of grappling with what that means.”

Bond agreed with DeChristopher, saying that when the climate bill came out of the House in 2009, it was too compromised by industry ideals and CREDO couldn’t support it. “At CREDO, we have an outside theory of power: we don’t think change comes from lobbying, we think change comes from the outside rather than the inside. We decided to work with other groups that shared this view of how change is made, to work and fight for what we really need to do on climate change.”

Bond outlines her organization’s five operating principles:

1) Start out asking for what we want (not what you are willing to compromise), and then fight for it. If we start out with a compromise, then we’re almost always going to end up in a worse position than when we started.

2) Attack “villains”; don’t try to align with or partner with them. Half measures are not the action on climate change that we need. False bipartisanship for the public eye and letting energy companies help us write climate legislation that we endorse is not going to get us to where we need to be.

3) We can’t give our friends a pass, even if they’re in the White House – hold them accountable even when it’s uncomfortable.

4) We need to get bigger – get more people involved. We’re never going to win with just 10 “professional activists,” but we also need to ask people to do bigger things. People are waiting to be asked to do something big.

5) We need to step back often and ask what it means to go all-in to win and then go all-in, not continue with business as usual. “What would this campaign look like if we were all-in on a campaign that really matters?”

Tim DeChristopher said that the first step in nonviolent civil disobedience has been what he calls “photo-op” civil disobedience – where the actions are staged and arrests symbolic. He said these “safe” actions are one step on the road of actually challenging power structures in more confrontational actions.

“People are pushing boundaries, engaging in civil disobedience that carries more risk and going through the legal process that comes with it,” DeChristopher said. He said that the reason activists know his name is because of his trial; if he had wrapped up his actions the day he disrupted the auction, no one would have heard his story and all of the opportunities that arose with the founding of Peaceful Uprising would have been lost.

DeChristopher said civil disobedience was one of the best tools for education. “A lot of folks either deliberately shrug off or simply don’t understand the facts and figures that we might throw at them … [but] when they see a personal story of someone putting themself in harm’s way, there’s a natural inclination to try to understand it. And that opens people up to hear why somebody would be taking risks like that.”

DeChristopher said that some groups, like the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, were embracing the idea of pushing boundaries but haven’t enjoyed a national platform to tell their stories.

One challenge DeChristopher said the movement is facing is acting like a social movement instead of a lobby group. He referred to direct actions to fight the expansion of the Enbridge pipeline taken by members of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands at the beginning of the summer. Activist Chris Wahmhoff wedged himself into the pipeline, shutting it down, and was followed by four other supporters, who were charged with felonies and are facing trials. “We’re going to need more of these actions to confront power for a long time,” DeChristopher said. “If we expect the next wave of people to take those risks and to engage in those sorts of actions, they need to see right now that the people that took those actions this summer are being supported and not being left behind.” He called on the movement to support these activists through the legal process.

“A Crisis of Language”: Communicating the Urgency of the Climate Crisis

In a recent interview with Earth Island Journal, author and activist Naomi Klein suggested that the climate movement is facing a crisis of language, because activists are not really speaking about climate change with the language of urgency the issue deserves.

Bond said that now, more than ever, was the time for the movement to effectively leverage its power. “We need to call each other out when what we say is lacking urgency,” she said. “It’s not ‘either/or’ on any of these fights; we have to win all of them. It’s an ‘all of the above’ strategy on reducing climate change, and so we have to fight and win on Keystone and we have to fight and win on the carbon role, and to suggest that we can let any of this stuff go while working on something else and still make progress is being in denial.”

DeChristopher said the shift to a more engaged civil disobedience is reflective of the urgency of the climate crisis: “We’re talking about the greatest crisis humanity’s ever faced – and then asking people to change their light bulbs in response,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people that make their decisions based on the way they see other people responding to things, and that response from us, I think, undermined the effectiveness of some of our own arguments.”

Most people in the climate movement – and especially most organizations – don’t know how to talk about the fact that it’s too late for any amount of emissions reductions to stop catastrophic climate change, DeChristopher noted.” We’re at a point where we’re struggling with honesty as a movement,” he said. “Most frontline leaders that I know, most people that spend a lot of time working on climate change – whether scientists or activists or whatever – privately, they’ll tell me that they know that it’s too late. But they’re unwilling to say that publicly. Yes, there is somewhat of a risk of people going into despair. Personally, I think that’s necessary that people come out of the other side of despair more committed and bolder.”

It is too late to preserve our industrial economy, DeChristopher asserts. “Maintaining the status quo is really no longer an option, so it’s a futile strategy to try to appeal to those who are currently at the top of the power structure. We’re on track for such rapid and intense change anyway that we might as well focus on steering that rapid and intense change toward the kind of world that we want to see.”

Activists within the movement coming from positions of privilege are beginning to organize with traditionally oppressed groups that in many ways are farther along in their own efforts for change: “The old strategy of working within the system for a ‘cleaner, greener’ world actually alienated oppressed groups,” DeChristopher said. “With this shift from working toward what is politically feasible, we’re going to work toward what we actually want to see, and that’s a healthy and just world.”

DeChristopher is in Harvard Divinity School, loosely pursing the goal of becoming a Universalist Unitarian minister. “We now have this question of ‘How do we maintain our humanity as we go through this period of intense change, and how do we connect through our shared values to create a society more in line with those?’ I see this as an extension of my previous activism – certainly not a change in direction.”

It is time to look at things on a longer-term scale, DeChristopher maintained. “I think the left in general, for the past 30 years, has been in a technical type of mindset and not really articulating a worldview and not really articulating our values or our vision – and only being focused on the task at hand and using whatever kind of rhetoric is going to get this bill passed or get that bill passed or get this person elected. I think we’re in a position now where we really need to get more in touch with that vision of where we want to see society go. That’s the work I’m now pursuing. I see that as kind of building up the social and spiritual resistance that we’re going to need to navigate this path that we’re on now.”

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