A dozen progressive activists paddled their boats and kayaks up to the houseboat Sen. Joe Manchin (D–WV) that is parked on the Potomac in Washington DC, on a clear, unusually warm September day. 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. Manchin has not been harmed by those who have targeted him. Claim 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. (Activists represented the Center for Popular Democracy and Other Advocacy Groups.) Manchin has been a successful entrepreneur ever since. 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.
The houseboat incident was just one aspect of a movement that fought on dozens of fronts in 2021. It became more decentralized, far-reaching and far-reaching. 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.
Even though the climate movement has many new recruits and is building political momentum it still seriously lacks 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 federal government takes action, states, cities and corporations will still be crucial to making larger pollution cuts in order to help the world reach its ambitious deadline for reducing global pollution. In half by 2030. The US might not have another chance before the world heats up to a calamitous degree.
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. This 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 it could be worth the risk: The stakes are greater than ever to free the USA from apathy and inertia, as the entire world continues to worsen climate change.
Climate activism became more innovative and demonstrated its strength and power in 2021
There’s much more happening in climate organizing than trailing Manchin around Washington. Racial justice advocates have used key laws and regulations to stop the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure. Activists have worked to Cut investorHave ties to fossil-fuels Infiltrated the boardroom, and have been awarded a few global Courtroom victories. These victories have one thing in common: They have leveraged otherwise intractable, slow moving institutions.
Many of these campaigns have used a combination to push for change from outside and reforming the financial and government systems from within. The 2018 midterm elections saw the Sunrise Movement prove how effective it can be to raise hell in order to push for change. The Sunrise Movement was founded in 2018 and helped to create a national network for young organizers that allowed them to stage sit-ins, protests and demonstrations at the US Capitol.
Relying on mostly digital strategiesSunrise was able to maintain pressure on Democratic leaders as well as presidential candidates by helping them train their recruits for action in person. 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.
Sometimes, raising hell takes other, less visible 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. College students were the first to advocate divestment campaigns in the 2010s. They urged their institutions to stop investing in fossil fuel companies and provided the model for future campaigns. The divestment movement was once seen as a long-term campaign. However, it reached a new milestone in October. Harvard University and one of the world’s largest pension fundsOthers also pledged to divest $40 Trillion in global assets.
Other smaller campaigns have become a powerful political force that has in 2021 stopped new investments in fossil-fuel exploration and projects. Climate activists have applied the same pressure from outside, for instance, by requesting regulations from Treasury Department that require disclosures of Big Oil loans to banks. They have also balanced this pressure by taking over from the inside. Last spring, Engine No. 1, a climate-focused hedge funds, succeeded in a coup. 1, gained three seats on ExxonMobil’s board.
Activists now need to find new pressure points that can build on this momentum. Bill McKibben is a long-standing climate activist and cofounder of the grassroots group. 350.orgAccording to, one of those pressure points is the involvement of older Americans in lobbying financial institutions to reduce ties to fossil fuel investments.
In November, McKibben Launched a new group called Third ActTo attract older Americans to climate activism, they argue that they owe the young to act and should use their financial power 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 closer to home. “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 construction by making hell about specific projects: PennEast, the developers for the 116-mile pipeline to transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, has finally completed the project after years of delays. abandonedThe project was completed in September. Sierra Club and Greenpeace promised to continue fighting against proposed gas export facilities into 2022. PositionedTo make the USA the largest gas exporter in the World.
Racial justice is a powerful tool to slow down the expansion fossil fuels.
A key obstacle to reaching critical mass has long been environmentalism’s reputation as a “Birkenstock movement,” observes Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is the president of 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.”
Through local groups like Rise St. James this year, the Louisiana St. James Parish community succeeded. A permit may not be granted until it is received.In the midst of an extensive environmental review, the Mississippi River approved the Formosa chemical plant worth $9.4billion. Local groups claimed that the plant would pollute the surrounding residents and 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 with how Indigenous rights activists are treated. They fought back against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline carrying oil from North Dakota to Minnesota, which completed its construction this year. There has been a resistance camp that has been there since the construction was completed, monitoring for leaks, and being ready to help the protestors of another nearby pipeline replacement. Line 5.
Tara Houska is an attorney and Indigenous activist. Telled 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.”
It is frustrating and slow work to navigate the legal, political, and financial system. There are often 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
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager has become the most well-known voice for a growing climate crisis movement. Her goal is draw attention to the absurdity of acting as though everything is fine, when climate change is certain to cause destruction. “In an emergency, someone needs to say that we’re heading towards the cliff,” she said in a December 2021 InterviewWashington 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 her Climate Emergency Fund are supporting organizers who share 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.”
Salamon says that this vision of activism calls for more aggressive direct action. This could include hunger strikes, blockades of streets, pipelines, and workplace strikes. Extinction Rebellion, though not common in the US has blocked pipelines and Amazon warehouses in Britain.
Salamon wonders if there would be more US activists who adopt similar strategies. That would mean more worker strikes, like what Amazon’s tech workforce Did in 2019Protest against climate change
In November, several Sunrise Movement members participated in a 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.
As with the battles against pipelines and divestment campaigns, there were many critics before they gained momentum. Now observers are questioning whether tactics such as hunger strikes are too polarizing for America’s benefit. “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 tactics used, the more divided the public will be on climate change. Instead of seeing Democratic politicians appealing to climate voters, they might consider it a liability if it becomes too polarizing.
Even a strong climate movement can be split by tactics like property destruction
Fisher, sociologists, is most concerned about the use property destruction and possibly even violence.
The principles of nonviolent protest have been closely followed by the climate movement. Leaders frequently draw inspiration from civil rights-era violence, and sit-ins as well as mass protests are based on similar strategies. But it isn’t a given any movement will remain that way.
A few prominent scholars have suggested that protesters should target property or fossil fuel infrastructure to create a global wake-up call. Andreas Malm, a Swedish ecologist MakesThis provocative argument was in his 2021 book How to blow up a pipeline
He argues that nonviolent tenets in the climate movement have failed produce the results required. He argues for an escalation by destroying the physical fossil fuel infrastructure to strengthen that humans can choose their 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 future of climate catastrophe, ecoterrorists will bomb power plants, downjets, and target executives to effect 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?”
Robinson’s novel asks the same questions as the climate movement: What happens if our political system fails? What happens if the critical mass is not there for real change? What happens if powerful special interests delay meaningful action until too late? His novel focuses on what happens when those who are powerless take drastic action in order 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.”
Do you think the climate movement should refine its strategies or radically change?
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 type of decentralization helps to address one of the most difficult challenges for any social movement: the need for innovation or risking 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 trying to figure out how to transition away fossil fuels. Instead of moving at the faster pace required to meet global climate goals, the US is still playing around with the edges. This course must be changed. Some believe the key is to grow the climate movement to an essential mass of the population. This will bring about political change through advocacy and participation in elections. Others believe more targeted youth strikes or pipeline protests will be the key to freeing the US from inertia.
But growth of a movement for growth’s sake does not necessarily win political victory in a system that is Structures biased against change. According to the Yale program on Climate Change Communication, a supermajority (over 80%) of adults support climate change communication. 70%, at the very least, are 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 from22 to 35 percent 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.
It’s difficult to give a single number for how large a movement must grow to achieve systemic change. However, Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard political scientist has succeeded in doing so. lAttentionAfter examining 323 violent protests worldwide between 1900 and 2006, Chenoweth’s research came up with a number. Chenoweth’s research concluded that a movement is effective enough to change the system if it hits a critical mass of 3.5 percentThe population.
It sounds so simple, and newer groups like the UK’s Extinction Rebellion have rallied around That is the 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 are important in determining whether a movement has reached critical mass. Fisher, University of Maryland Sociologist, said that.
“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 stakes are high in the next few years.
Correction: January 18, 3:40 p.m. In an earlier version of this article, it incorrectly stated that the November Climate Hunger Strike was the first in the US.