The high-risk, high-reward stakes of building a more radical movement.
On an unusually warm, clear day in late September, a dozen progressive activists paddled their kayaks and boats up to to a houseboat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) keeps parked on the Potomac in Washington, DC. For four days, they had been floating around the West Virginia-themed boat named “Almost Heaven” with colorful signs, calling on him to support Build Back Better, the most critical piece of climate legislation considered by Congress in over a decade. Apparently unmoved by their “We want to live” chant, Manchin finally leaned over the railing to acknowledge their presence and talk for a moment.
The bird-dogging campaign to try to change Manchin’s position on Build Back Better was one of the most visible moments of climate protest in 2021, another pandemic year that forced activists to get even more creative. So far, those who targeted Manchin have managed only to get under his skin; he claimed the White House was using them to bully him into voting yes on the bill when he announced he couldn’t support it on December 19. (The activists were representing the Center for Popular Democracy and other advocacy groups.) Since then, Manchin has softened his criticism of Build Back Better’s climate provisions — including his objections to a methane emissions fee and tax credits for union-made electric vehicles — though it’s not clear yet if Democrats will reach a deal on the larger, roughly $1.75 trillion bill.
But the houseboat confrontation was only the tip of the iceberg of a movement that in 2021 became more decentralized and far-reaching, fighting on dozens of fronts. With the goal of slashing fossil fuel reliance and creating a cleaner, fairer future, high schoolers’ student strikes expanded, the college divestment movement grew, and racial justice organizers sank major gas terminals and pipeline projects through lawsuits and public opposition.
Climate organizers are “trying every possible permutation of what we can do,” observed longtime climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben.
But even as the climate movement finds new recruits and builds political momentum, the one thing it seriously lacks is time. If Democrats can’t find the votes for the climate provisions in Build Back Better, then the country misses its best opportunity to marshal the federal government’s power to meaningfully rein in carbon emissions. Even if the federal government steps up, states, cities, and corporations will be just as essential to contributing larger pollution cuts to move the world toward its incredibly ambitious deadline to slash global pollution in half by 2030. The US might not have another opportunity to make a difference before the world warms to a calamitous level.
To beat the clock on climate change, some activists believe they’ll win by refining what the movement is already doing. By finding new levers to push, and new age groups to attract, the movement would build on the momentum of what’s already working to change entrenched institutions.
But others think it’s time for a new movement entirely. That includes Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, a group that’s funding a more aggressive strain of organizing that conveys climate change as a house-on-fire-style emergency requiring more direct action now.
“What we need to do if we have a shot in hell on climate is fight for our lives, and make it clear we’re fighting for our lives,” Salamon said. “That’s a different movement” from what she sees today.
Some of these strategies will clash, and some could even threaten the movement’s unity. But the risks could also be worth it: The stakes are higher than ever to snap the US out of apathy and inertia while the whole world barrels toward worsening climate change.
Climate activism got more innovative, and showed its weight and power in 2021
There’s much more happening in climate organizing than trailing Manchin around Washington. Racial justice advocates have used key laws to stop new permits for fossil fuel infrastructure. Activists have worked to cut investor ties to fossil fuels, have infiltrated the boardroom, and have won a handful of global courtroom victories. These wins have had one big thing in common: The campaigns have found leverage in otherwise intractable, slow-moving institutions.
Many of these campaigns have relied on a mix of pressing for change from the outside and reforming financial and government bodies from within. After the 2018 midterm elections, the Sunrise Movement proved how effective raising hell can be in pushing for change. The then-new group helped to tap into a national network of young organizers to stage sit-ins and protests in the US Capitol staged weeks after the 2018 midterm election.
Relying on a mostly digital strategy to train their recruits for in-person action, Sunrise helped sustain pressure on Democratic leaders and presidential candidates. The avalanche of pressure led to Biden releasing the most comprehensive plan any incoming president had ever had for the climate crisis — a plan that still hinges on Manchin’s vote to enact legislation for clean electricity and electric vehicles.
But raising hell often takes other, quieter forms. In the first year of the Biden administration, another long-simmering campaign to change the financial sector’s relationship with fossil fuels showed it could gain some serious ground. In the 2010s, college students provided the original model for divestment campaigns, urging their institutions to stop investing endowments in fossil fuel companies. Once seen as a long-shot campaign, the divestment movement reached a new milestone in October, after Harvard University and one of the world’s largest pension funds and others pledged to divest $40 trillion in global assets.
Other smaller campaigns have grown into a strong political force that in 2021 flexed to stop new investments in fossil fuel exploration and projects. Climate activists have applied the same balance of pressure from the outside, for example, by demanding Treasury Department regulations forcing bank disclosures on Big Oil loans. And they have balanced this pressure with takeovers from the inside, succeeding with a coup last spring when a climate-focused hedge fund, Engine No. 1, gained three seats on ExxonMobil’s board.
The next stage for activists is finding new pressure points that build on this momentum. Longtime climate activist Bill McKibben, a cofounder of the grassroots group 350.org, predicts one of those pressure points will be involving more older Americans to lobby financial institutions to cut ties from fossil fuel investments.
In November, McKibben launched a new group called Third Act to attract older Americans to climate activism, making the case that they owe it to the young to take action and should use their financial influence to pressure companies. Baby boomers wield a lot of power politically and financially, controlling more than half of the country’s household wealth to millennials’ 6 percent, according to federal data. They’re hard hit by climate change, too: Heat waves are the deadliest natural disaster and are especially deadly for older adults.
Some fights are more local. “There’s really a fossil fuel fight in almost every community, certainly in every region,” said Janet Redman, Greenpeace’s US climate campaign director.
Climate activists have slowed down construction by raising hell over specific projects: After years of delays, PennEast, the developers of the 116-mile pipeline project to carry natural gas from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, abandoned the project in September. Groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace have promised to continue their fight into 2022 against 20 proposed gas export facilities poised to make the US the biggest gas exporter in the world.
Racial justice has become a galvanizing tool for slowing the expansion of fossil fuels
A key obstacle to reaching critical mass has long been environmentalism’s reputation as a “Birkenstock movement,” observes Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the advocacy group Hip Hop Caucus. Yearwood criticizes the overly white makeup of staff and volunteers who’ve historically dominated national green groups and have been less focused on battling racism and pollution, while Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have long linked racial justice to battling back fossil fuel infrastructure.
A focus on racial justice in halting fossil fuels can be a “galvanizing tool,” according to Yearwood. “It helps to get the movement focused on why they need to push back against this pipeline or project.”
This year, the Louisiana St. James Parish community, through local groups like Rise St. James, successfully delayed a permit for a $9.4 billion Formosa chemical plant planned by the Mississippi River, pending a full environmental review. Local groups argued in a brief that the pollution would harm the residents nearby and the plant would be built on Black burial grounds. “A lot of these petrochemical companies are looking to build on former plantations, almost like a digging in the eye. It’s a disregard for Indigenous, Black, or Brown communities,” Yearwood, a Louisiana native, said.
Yearwood saw a parallel to how Indigenous rights activists fought back against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline carrying oil from North Dakota to Minnesota, which completed its construction this year. A resistance camp has been operating there for months despite construction being over, monitoring for leaks and staying ready to assist the nearby protest of another nearby pipeline replacement, Line 5.
Tara Houska, attorney and Indigenous activist, told NPR in June that these fights represented “an incredible groundswell of young people in particular and Indigenous, Black, BIPOC folks who are out risking personal freedom and their bodies on the line to stop this horrible project from exacerbating climate crisis and disrespecting tribal sovereignty yet again in the history of this country.”
Working through the legal, financial, and political system is slow, frustrating work. There are usually more losses than victories. Activists have found success through these traditional lanes, but this kind of change doesn’t necessarily move fast enough.
A “climate emergency” movement wants action to jolt the US out of apathy
Swedish teen Greta Thunberg has become the most famous voice of a growing climate emergency movement. Her goal is to draw attention to the irrationality of acting as if everything is fine when there is assured destruction ahead from climate change. “In an emergency, someone needs to say that we’re heading towards the cliff,” she said in a December 2021 interview with the Washington Post Magazine. “And everyone is just following, saying like, ‘Well, no one else is turning around, so I won’t either.’”
Margaret Klein Salamon and the Climate Emergency Fund she leads are supporting organizers who match this rhetoric. She sees the strategies of groups like Extinction Rebellion, Friday for Future school strikers, and the Sunrise Movement as distinct “from the gradualist, institutionalized environmental and climate movement that has been dominant for decades. The climate emergency movement says what do we need to achieve to avoid an apocalypse.”
The kind of activism that fits this vision, Salamon argues, is more aggressive direct action that could run the gamut from hunger strikes to blockades of streets and pipelines to workplace strikes. Though not common in the US, Extinction Rebellion has staged blockades of pipelines and Amazon warehouses in the UK.
Salamon wonders what that looks like if more US activists adopted similar strategies. That would mean more worker strikes, like what Amazon’s tech workforce did in 2019 for a climate protest.
In November, several Sunrise Movement members participated in the first US climate hunger strike: Kidus Girma was one of the four who gave up food for two weeks and sat outside the White House to draw attention to Biden’s continued fossil fuel leasing, posing the question whether Democrats like Biden and Manchin really do care about his life. His goal wasn’t to win over Manchin: “I’m speaking to Americans and people around the world about what kind of world do we want to create,” Girma said in an interview with Vox.
Just as divestment campaigns and battles against pipelines had many detractors before they gained momentum, observers now question whether tactics like hunger strikes are too polarizing to be useful in the United States. “You want a range of tactics all working toward the same goal, but it also can end up splintering and causing fissures within the movement,” said University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher, who studies environmental protest movements. “You end up with these camps within the climate movement: the sellouts who are willing to put on a suit and go inside, versus those outside, yelling about a capitalist system.”
“In the end, it’s not going to stop an oil and gas lease or to shift this huge oil tanker that is the United States away from all of its reliance on fossil fuels in the kind of time that’s needed,” said Fisher.
Fisher’s skepticism stems from concern that a blockade or hunger strike won’t win the next election, while targeted voter outreach might. She fears that the more radical the tactic, the more divided the public becomes on addressing climate change. Instead of seeing Democratic politicians trying to appeal to climate voters, they could consider it a liability should it become too polarizing.
Even a strong climate movement could splinter over tactics like property destruction
The lightning rod that sociologists like Fisher worry most about is the use of property destruction and perhaps even violence.
The climate movement has closely followed the tenets of nonviolent protest. Leaders regularly cite inspiration from the civil rights-era nonviolence, and the sit-ins and mass protests mirror similar strategies. But it isn’t a given any movement will remain that way.
Already a few prominent scholars have argued that protesters should target property and fossil fuel infrastructure to deliver a global wake-up call. Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm makes this provocative argument in his 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
He argues that the nonviolent tenets of the climate movement have failed to produce the results needed. He makes the case for an escalation, by destroying physical fossil fuel infrastructure to reinforce that humans can control their own fate. “[P]eople tend to perceive fossil fuel infrastructure as a fact of nature, something beyond our control, something that we cannot put a stop to,” he said in an interview with Vox Conversations. “Therefore, those disasters that are destroying our lives are something that we can just try to live with, to adapt to as best as we can.”
There’s plenty of apprehension among climate activists in opening this can of worms. Property destruction is hugely controversial, and violence is the most polarizing tactic that could truly splinter the climate movement’s delicate balance of insider and outsider tactics.
While Malm narrows his argument to targeting property and pipelines — he does not support harming people — science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson took the thought experiment even further in his 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future.
In this imagined near future of climate catastrophe, ecoterrorists bomb power plants, down jets, and target executives to bring about political and economic change. Robinson isn’t advocating for this world in his book, but rather making the case we can still avoid it. In an interview in November 2020 with then-Vox editor and podcast host Ezra Klein, Robinson explained why he considered that the status quo on climate may spur violent advocacy as “in that matrix of decisions we need to make. What methods are going to work to get us to a better place 30 years out?”
The questions Robinson considers in his novel are similar to what the climate movement has to contend with: What happens if the political system fails? What happens if there is never a critical mass for true change? What if entrenched special interests delay meaningful action until it is too late? His novel looks at what happens then as the powerless take drastic action to force a revolution.
“Revolution has often been physical and violent, and then sometimes revolutions have been invisible and peaceful,” the author told Klein. “So one would hope for the peaceful revolutions. … You have to think about revolutions of the past and what they could be now.”
Should the climate movement refine strategies or radically shift?
There’s another fundamental split in philosophies over what it will take to ensure a lasting revolution on climate change.
“When you have lots of different tactics going at once, you have lots of entry points for people becoming engaged in the issue,” said David Meyer, a social scientist at the University of California Irvine who studies climate protest movements. This kind of decentralization helps with one of the biggest challenges facing any social movement: the need to innovate or risk failure. “Movements that don’t diversify their tactics evaporate or get crushed,” Meyer added. “If you don’t innovate tactics, it gets boring and authorities find ways of dealing with you.”
The US is still tinkering around the edges of how to transition away from fossil fuels, instead of moving at the much faster pace necessary to meet global climate goals. Changing this course requires new strategies. Some believe the key is in growing the climate movement to a critical mass of the population, which will usher in political change through advocacy and turnout in elections. Others think more targeted youth strikes and pipeline protests are the key to jolting the US from its inertia.
But growth of a movement for growth’s sake does not necessarily win political victory in a system that is structurally biased against change. Polling from the Yale program on Climate Change Communication shows consistently that a supermajority of adult Americans, 70 percent, are at least somewhat concerned about climate change. The most engaged group are those who describe themselves as “very worried” is smaller than that, though this subset has grown in the past five years from 22 to 35 percent of the population.
What’s less clear is how even a large subset of “alarmed” voters translates into political power. At the national level, politicians don’t reflect these popular beliefs. Congress disproportionately represents climate change deniers and fossil fuel interests — a major reason Congress has yet to pass a single bill that would target carbon pollution across the economy. Now, even as a minority in Congress, Republicans have continued to threaten climate legislation through the Senate filibuster, forcing Democrats to rely on the budget reconciliation process that still hinges on Manchin’s vote.
Putting a single number on how big a movement has to grow to deliver systemic change is hard, to say the least, but Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth has gotten a lot of attention for research that settled on a number after examining 323 violent and nonviolent protests globally between 1900 and 2006. Chenoweth’s research concluded that a movement is effective enough to change the system if it hits a critical mass of 3.5 percent of the population.
It sounds so simple, and newer groups like the UK’s Extinction Rebellion have rallied around that figure. But other researchers question how much of Chenoweth’s work really applies to climate change, since she was studying sometimes-violent regime change in other countries. And there’s another catch: That 3.5 percent has to be incredibly devoted to the cause, willing to march in streets, even at one’s own risk of arrest. These distinctions matter for how to decide when a movement has truly hit critical mass, explained Fisher, the University of Maryland sociologist.
“Who cares about climate change at this point? Well, just about everybody, except for people who consider themselves strong Republicans,” Fisher said. “We do not have 3.5 percent of the population that’s willing to engage in risky confrontational activism, for sure. I’m not sure that we have 3.5 percent of population that’s willing to do more than vote.”
There isn’t much time for the climate movement to figure out what formula of activism will succeed. The next few years will have the highest stakes yet.