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Climate Comeback: A Grassroots Movement Steps Back Into the International Arena

Jim Schultz adapted this article from a report by The Democracy Center, where he is executive director.

Roof with 350.org mural.

A roof in New York City shows a map of the five boroughs after a rise in sea levels. Photo by Molly Dilworth / Flickr.

The citizens’ movement for action on the global climate crisis has, over time, developed a love-hate relationship with international campaigning. For years, people from all over the planet have joined together across national boundaries to address a crisis that knows no such boundaries.

The vision they created had an appeal that was both romantic and strategic at the same time. The high point for this “one planet, one people” activism was in 2009, when activists descended on the Danish capital of Copenhagen by the tens of thousands to push for action at the U.N.’s annual COP (Conference of the Parties) summit, with hopes for a global deal as serious and real as the climate threat itself (some activists dubbed the meeting “Hopenhagen”).

Those activist hopes crashed, however, against the unchanged political realities of narrow national interest, powerful corporate resistance, complex issues, and a lack of political will. Many climate campaigners reacted by returning to their countries and focusing their energies instead on political battles closer to home, such as the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. and anti-fracking efforts in Europe. By the time the most recent COP negotiations were held in Warsaw last December, the process had become almost completely ignored by the larger public.

Now, in a three-step dance that begins on the streets of New York City in September, the climate movement is stepping back into the international arena once again. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who has made climate change a main issue of his tenure, has called the planet’s heads of state and other “world leaders” to a special “Climate Week” summit aimed at increasing the pressure for coordinated international action.

Climate advocacy organizations in the U.S. have been mobilizing for months to seize the opportunity with plans for a massive march through the streets of Manhattan on September 21. In December, this renewed energy for international action will turn southward to Peru, where the COP negotiations will convene in the political shadow of melting Andean glaciers. Then in December of next year the COP negotiations will move to Paris for what is supposed to be the deadline for a new international climate accord. European activists are already meeting to organize a mobilization in the streets there to match or surpass the multitude expected in New York next month.

As the climate movement steps forward once again into the arena of international politics, it suffers no shortage of demands and proposals. Climate groups can offer up a diversity of ambitious and passionate plans for how to reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels, protect the world’s forests, and move money from the rich countries that have caused the crisis to the poor ones least equipped to deal with what’s coming.

But knowing what you want and knowing how to change the political equation to make that possible are two different things.

The Democracy Center recently interviewed more than 40 key climate activists from across five continents to seek their views on how to use the Lima summit and these other global gatherings as an opportunity to alter the political winds around the climate crisis and make real action more possible. What we heard, from people ranging from local indigenous activists to staff at well-known NGOs, were three important strands of collective wisdom.

First, change the global narrative about the climate crisis. Climate activists have bounced for a decade from one way of talking about the crisis to another. We have heard about polar bears and sea rise, mutant storms and parts per billion of carbon in the atmosphere—none of it sufficiently connected to people’s daily lives to gain hard and lasting traction.

But there are lessons from the grassroots about how to do better. In California, climate activists successfully fought back a political assault by the Koch brothers by talking about local fossil fuel plants and their connection to asthma among children. In South America the crisis is about water—the disappearance of it in some places causing drought and displacement, and too much of it in other places causing flooding and destruction. In Asia and Africa, people talk about climate’s role in a worsening food crisis.

The common thread in the messages that are winning support is to speak locally and connect the climate crisis to real issues of life, survival, and the diminished and more dangerous planet we are getting ready to leave to our children and theirs. Just as important as the message is the moral authority of those who deliver it. “We can’t talk about the impacts unless the main message comes from the affected communities,” says Juan Carlos Soriano, a Peruvian activist with 350.org.

Second, use this trilogy of global actions to build the long-term power of the climate movement. Getting real action on climate is not just about raising consciousness; it is about political power and how the climate movement can build muscle.

In New York and Paris the focus will be on getting multitudes into the streets in the hope of convincing governments that they ignore a rising demand for action at their political peril. “What we most need to do as a movement is move the conversation and build power, not lobby global leaders,” observes Sean Sweeney of the Global Labor Institute.

In Latin America, Africa, and Asia that citizen power resides in long-established movements on the ground tied to indigenous rights, territorial rights, natural resources, and other battles that are now impacted by climate change. Sandwiched in between the higher profile, Northern-dominated events in New York and Paris, activists we spoke with said that the COP in Lima must stand out as the “COP of the South” and make the link between the climate crisis and these movements.

“The local struggles seem to be in compartmentalized spaces that don’t connect to this big issue that affects absolutely everything. One of the challenges is to connect the local struggles and demands with activism on climate change,” says Elizabeth Peredo Beltran, a well-regarded climate leader in Bolivia.

Third, directly confront the powers and forces blocking serious action on the climate crisis. Fossil fuel companies, international agribusiness, automobile manufacturers, and other corporate interests have a huge stake in international climate negotiations and have used their political muscle to embed themselves in the U.N.’s COP process.

During the meeting in Warsaw last year, the Corporate Europe Observatory documented all kinds of techniques used by these corporations to become official sponsors of global climate negotiations the way they might make themselves sponsors of the Olympics or World Cup. Corporations furnished government negotiators with everything from free cars and drivers to logo-emblazoned drinking cups, all the while pushing their agendas on issues such as coal capture technology and corporate-driven carbon markets.

Activists say it is urgent to put a spotlight on this corporate capture of the negotiations and on the false solutions corporations have used their access to promote. “We need to go in with an offensive strategy and communicate the message that the negotiations are focusing on the wrong issues—the real solutions are about redesigning the economy,” says Nathan Thanki of the European group Earth in Brackets.

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It is good news in the world of climate activism that movements and organizations are taking up anew the demand for serious action at the international level.

While it is highly doubtful that countries like the U.S., China, India, and others would ever bind their domestic policies to a global agreement, international action can increase the pressure on these governments to act. As with all successful citizen movements, that begins with building a solid, committed, and mobilized base among those already committed to action.

But the climate movement must also win support from the corners of citizenry that are not yet engaged and not yet persuaded behind a common agenda for what needs to be done.

The path through New York, Lima, and Paris offers a chance to do that—if we speak about the crisis in a way that connects with people, if we use every opportunity to gather as a chance to build power and not just blow off steam, and if we unmask, challenge, and undermine the larger forces that stand in the way.

With so much at stake for the generations who will follow us on this planet, it is essential that the next round of global climate action be something far more than just “the noise before defeat.”


Jim ShultzJim Shultz adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jim is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center and lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Center’s new report, “Movement Strategies for Moving Mountains: Conversations with Activists Worldwide on How to Use Latin America’s COP to Build Citizen Action on Climate,” is available at www.democracyctr.org.

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