Why the Climate Movement Needs a Reboot

February 1, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Until recently, the climate movement has relied on climate denial — be it outright denial of the science or political denial of the need to act — as a major uniting force. For the ecosystem of groups, people and organizations that make up the climate movement, it was a metaphorical sun. Now, though, the era of climate denial as we’ve known it is gasping its last breaths. As a Guardian headline read in December, “The Paris agreement signals that deniers have lost the climate wars.” Without that unifying force, cracks in the climate movement are starting to deepen. Looking forward, our challenge is whether we can see these cracks as a chance to learn and adapt to an era where this movement shifts from the defensive to the offensive. To do that, however, we’re going to need to build the DNA of the climate movement.

In the movie “Jurassic Park,” the main characters are ushered into a theater where a cartoon double helix explains that “DNA is the building blocks of life.” Like resurrected dinosaurs, movements are living creatures; therefore, they need a kind of DNA to serve as the building blocks for how the movement shows up in the world. However, too often the climate movement has skimmed the surface of our challenges, and so instead of building a viable, powerful DNA, we’ve created one that is scrambling and rips along ideological seams.

This need not be the case.

What happened in Alberta?

Imagine if a cat’s DNA simply said, “You’re not a dog.” Or a tree’s DNA was a restatement of the many ways it is not like soil. Of course that’s nonsense — but too often our movement DNA has been made of very simplistic, ideological viewpoints, instead of a rich tapestry of values. We have too often based our vision on opposition to our opponents, and that’s left us unbalanced. In this lack of balance, movement conflicts often remain at a superficial level, and fail to dig to the depths where we can really learn from our challenges. The Alberta climate plan is a case in point.

On November 22, 2015 the government of Alberta announced new climate legislation alongside politicians, oil executives and representatives from a handful of Canadian environmental organizations. Reactions to the announcement ran the gamut. While some appeared to be celebrating bold, once-in-a-lifetime leadership, others expressed tepid appreciation for a decent step forward from a province on the wrong side of the climate debate for decades. Many more chose to point clearly at the policy’s failure to line up with climate science. The legislation was a perfect portrait of the post-denial era of climate politics, where policies can be praised as historic at the same time as they’re condemned for failing to be in line with what the science demands.

In the weeks after the announcement, the Financial Post ran a front page story alleging a “secret deal” between a handful of environmental organizations, tar sands companies and the Alberta government. For some, the story was proof positive of a conspiracy that had been brewing for years. For others, the ends justified the means. Debates raged on social media, on listserves and continue in meetings to this day.

As far as I can tell, there is little actual evidence that any kind of formal deal for groups to back off tar sands opposition exist. In fact, the only writing to really make the case is an article in a brazenly pro-tar sands publication. I don’t say this to defend the Alberta climate plan, nor to abdicate any of the individuals or groups involved in its drafting and announcement for their roles. In fact, it’s crystal clear that the Alberta climate plan fails any legitimate climate test. It’s also clear that indigenous consultation around the process fell far short of what’s required and that the groups involved with bringing it into the world did so in an unaccountable manner.

All of this has been well documented, and yet, while the Alberta plan is all this, it also represents Success. I don’t mean Success in the dictionary sense, but Success with a capital S — the seventh stage of Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan. Looking at it this way, we can be celebratory of what the Alberta plan represents, critical of the way it came together, honest about it’s limitations, and we can learn from it to prepare for what comes next.

Navigating works better with a MAP

The Movement Action Plan, or MAP, is a framework for understanding how social movements grow and how they succeed or fail. In the seventh stage “the long process of building opposition reaches a new plateau in which the new social consensus turns the tide of power against the power-holders and begins an endgame process leading to the movement’s success.” The MAP gets even more specific and identifies three ways that this endgame typically begins to manifest, including one called a “quiet showdown” with some clear commonalities with the Alberta climate plan.

“Realizing that they can no longer continue their present policies, the powerholders launch a face-saving endgame process of ‘victorious retreat,’” Moyer writes. “Rather than admit defeat, they proclaim victory and start a publicly-recognized process of changing their policies and conditions to those demanded by the movement and social consensus. The powerholders try to take credit for this ‘victory,’ even though they were forced to reverse their previously hardline policies, while activists often have difficulty seeing their role in this success.”

This phase brings with it new pitfalls for the movement. Some movement actors may be tempted to compromise too many values and key demands or prioritize achieving minor reforms at the cost of building toward deeper social change. Activists may be led to feel dismayed and powerless because they do not recognize the forward momentum, nor is their role in achieving victories recognized and acknowledged. In this stage, the movement has won some progress on demands, but there remains a long way to go until actual victory. Success as a movement stage, and being able to differentiate it from victory, is crucial to avoiding these pitfalls. In fact, in this stage, especially facing a “quiet showdown,” movements often need to shift back to the tactics of earlier stages to avoid these pitfalls and build the power necessary to move from Success to victory.

In stage six of the MAP, when the movement begins to gain majority public support, the key challenge for the movement is to transition “from spontaneous protest, operating in a short-term crisis, to a long-term popular struggle to achieve positive social change.” This is where the movement needs to be able to articulate a grand strategy, not just a vision of the world we’re trying to get to, but a strategy for how a mass movement can get us there. This strategy, at it’s core, needs to provide a vision for how the day-to-day activities of local activists work together towards the accomplishment of the movement’s highest level goals. To do this, the grand strategy requires a reorientation towards the grassroots of a movement and a shift to understanding the movement as the true source of power in this struggle. Without this, two of the most dangerous pitfalls emerge, what Moyers identifies as “national organizations and leadership disenfranchising grassroots activists by dominating the movement” and “activists becoming stuck in the protest stage, setting the context for a rise in movement violence and macho radicalism.”

Two views of power

The truth is that both of these pitfalls emerge from the same source, and may be the most pressing challenges for the climate movement today. At the root, this tension comes from a conflict between the traditional environmental movement and the growing climate movement, including a tension over the definition of power.

In the 1990s, much of the mainstream environmental movement began to professionalize, and many groups started to enjoy high levels of access to decision makers. As the environmental movement started to work more closely with governments and other powerholders, much of it adopted a monolithic approach to understanding power that looks at power as a triangle with powerful elites on top and a relatively powerless populace on the bottom. Through this lens, there is an unspoken assumption that since the people at the bottom hold little to no power, the best way to make social change is by appealing to the top of the hierarchy, or as close to the top as one can get, to change their policies or action. These appeals happen through traditional channels like elections, lobbying and in the courts.

This approach to power is at the core of the playbook that lays out how most environmental organizations approach their work. It goes like this: First you find a target and present a demand. Then you organize and take action to force that target to pay attention to you and your demand. Eventually, if your campaign is successful, you get to a table with that target, and you negotiate victory — whereby you will stop causing the target headaches, and the target will stop doing something you disagree with, or at least stop doing it so badly.

This approach has been baked into the foundations of most groups working on climate change that come from the mainstream environmental movement. It makes sense to use this as a campaign model, but for a genuine climate movement, it’s a major challenge because by design, movements approach power not as a monolith, but as a social construct.

The engine of the social movement is people power, which is based on the assumption that power ultimately resides in the mass populace. This approach views power as an inverse triangle, where the powerholders lie on the bottom of a fundamentally unstable structure where their power comes from the cooperation, consent, apathy or support of the mass public. With this approach to power, social movements understand that the traditional channels are useful tools, but that they are not the focus of a movement strategy. Instead, movements strive to agitate, educate and mobilize to move enough of the mass populace to move power away from powerholders and into the hands of the people.

Think about the movement’s victory over the Keystone XL pipeline. One way of looking at that is to view the victory as something that happened when Barack Obama officially rejected the pipeline permit. Another way to look at it is that the Keystone XL pipeline was defeated when the climate movement built enough power that it could say to the president, “you can’t approve this pipeline and be taken seriously on climate.” Both of these are true, but the lens of monolithic or institutional power is narrower.

Viewed this way, our capacity to change is limited to the capacity of the powerholder to change. On the other hand, a social view approach to power allows us to understand how campaign victories shift power to the movement over time, and set us up to make bolder and bolder demands — like making the jump from fighting project to project against the fossil fuel industry to transforming our energy economy by keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Unfortunately, in many cases, shifting how we view power is extremely difficult for organizations. When we don’t address this, dramatic political shifts, like the Alberta climate plan, can surface as a potentially divisive tension between big organizations and the grassroots with dizzying speed.

In 2006, the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked one of the most dramatic shifts for environmental groups in Canada. Almost overnight, these organizations, which had spent years working their way up the triangle of power, were cast back to the bottom. Those from organizations that had been close advisers became persona non grata almost overnight. Then, with the election of Justin Trudeau last October, the pathways back up that hierarchy of power were reopened, and these organizations reacted almost on instinct. I don’t think it was a nefarious decision for groups to go to the table with government and industry, but a decision born of a certain approach to power.

The issue now is that this instinct was learned at a time when a bonafide climate movement didn’t exist. Less than a decade ago, big environmental organizations made up a lot more of the mainstream of the climate movement than they do today. If you don’t believe me look at a photo of the front of a climate movement in 2009 and the front of the People’s Climate March in 2014. The former will be dotted with the logos of organizations, the latter looks a lot different. Today, the climate movement has grown into a real social movement with more fluid and distributed leadership.

The MAP describes this tension as stemming from a situation where organizations begin to feel a right to “cash in” on the social and political gains created at the community level, without recognizing that they are only as powerful as the power of the movement’s grassroots. In other words, organizations fail to recognize that as a movement grows and begins to shift power, they too need to shift how they approach power to truly support that movement.

The challenge now is to figure out how to expedite this shift, while also raising the bar of what we’re fighting for.

Where do we go from here?

In 2014, Naomi Klein coined the term “blockadia.” It referred to the burgeoning resistance movement around the world where people were starting to get in the way of fossil fuel expansion. It’s a clever term, and the struggles it serves as a catch-all to describe have been the leading edge of the fight to keep the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Unfortunately, even on our best day, the climate movement is only fighting a fraction of fossil fuel projects around the globe. The truth is that the sheer scale and scope of the fossil fuel energy economy is such that there is simply no way to get in the way of all of it. On top of this, the majority of infrastructure fights take years to play out. The Keystone XL fight dragged on over half a decade, and we don’t have that kind of time to keep fighting project by project. Of course, standing in the way of unjust projects is a crucial tactic, but it alone won’t keep enough fossil fuels in the ground to meet what the science demands.

We need a force multiplier for on-the-ground fights to stop fossil fuel infrastructure. If we take the world as currently exists — because we kind of have to — that’s going to require political action and legislation to lock fossil fuels in the ground. The rub is that much of that kind of legislation is, at least for the moment in most parts of the world, considered politically impossible. Thanks to their endless coffers, the fossil fuel industry has used political contributions, cultural sponsorships, advertising and so much more to build deep influence over governments and other powerholder institutions around the world. To put it another way, we need to recognize that in much of the world, the decision-making table has rotted due to the influence of big polluters. As a result, there are fundamental limitations to what’s possible to win while sitting at those tables. The climate movement has been eroding that power with increasing speed, but with the ticking clock of climate change, we also need to accept a pretty fundamental truth: If Big Oil is sitting at the table, keeping most fossil fuels in the ground won’t be an option on that table.

We can’t physically get in the way of every extraction project, nor can we lobby the problem out of existence, especially when so many politicians are still under the influence of fossil fuels. So how do we meet the scientific imperative to keep fossil fuels in the ground?

When social movements enter the late stages of the MAP, a crucial task becomes developing strategies in which large numbers of people can become actively involved in programs that challenge the current status quo, but also reflect the values of the masses. These strategies also need to promote the alternatives being put forward by the movement and through the implementation of these strategies put mass numbers of people directly in contradiction with official policy. To do this, the climate movement may need to abandon a common trope — the concept of an inside/outside strategy.

The problem with the inside/outside strategy, is that in the climate movement it typically is implemented in a manner where traditional environmental organizations see themselves as the inside, and view the movement as the outside. Rather than support growing people power, this approach instead serves as a barrier to building solid movement DNA. In an inside/outside strategy, the seat of power is still seen to be the inside, where the powerholders retain control, deepening the divide between the monolithic approach to power and the social approach. Because of this, an inside/outside strategy actually serves more to divide movements than to unite them. Instead, we need to prioritize the strategy, and view the inside and outside as tactical streams to achieve a grand movement strategy. This is going to be crucial in the coming months and years as the climate movement makes an important strategic shift from fighting projects to working to keep entire fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The good news is that some parts of the climate movement have already done this and — through making this shift — won some pretty impressive victories.

In 2012, while playing a small part supporting the Quebec movement against fracking, I learned an important lesson about fracking: It’s next to impossible to fight fracking campaigns one company or project at a time. By the time you’ve stopped one fracking well, a hundred more have gone up. Knowing this, the only way to stop fracking is often to force a government to give up or at least back off on a plan to frack an entire gas deposit. In Quebec, a powerful network of community organizations rose up to oppose fracking, helped along by an innovative campaign called Moratoire d’une Generation. Organizers deployed a wide range of tactics, but focused almost across the board on bringing opposition to fracking into the public sphere. They focused on town halls, community meetings, mass public trainings and civil disobedience pledges — along with other tactics — which brought the decision over fracking out of the back rooms and into peoples’ living rooms and community halls. By doing this, they also shifted how the movement viewed power in the context of where the authority to make a decision over the future of fracking in Quebec lay. In 2013, Quebec organizers won their first fracking moratorium.

A year later, organizers in Nova Scotia did something similar. During a public consultation on fracking organized by the provincial government, organizers got to work bringing concerned residents out en masse. Rather than treating the process as simply a forum to engage with decision makers, the consultation itself became a venue where communities clearly made a very public decision over the future of fracking where they lived. Shortly after the consultation process, the government started a process that would lead to a fracking ban in the province.

Similar strategies have been used in other fracking campaigns, fights to stop coal exports, and to win sweeping legislative victories over all fossil fuels in places like Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon. The question is: Could we do this on a larger scale? Can we work to open up spaces that allow the climate movement of an entire nation to bring the fight over keeping fossil fuels in the ground to a public venue, where we can use people power to tip the scales in our favor? I, for one, think we can, but not without good movement DNA.

We no longer have climate denial to rally behind, and with it’s disappearing relevance we’re losing many of our most vicious political opponents. In this vacuum, we need strategies that are grounded in a DNA that is inviting towards many players and reflects the needs of a growing mass movement. We need to interrogate how power is viewed and held, as well as how both power and privilege play out — not just in the world we’re fighting to change, but also in this movement. To hold to this, we need to build a DNA that is responsive and inviting, that grows with conflict rather than cracking and dividing. Fundamentally, we need to understand — and to lay as the cornerstone of this movement’s DNA — the notion that our only hope of solving the climate crisis is trusting, investing in, and dedicating ourselves to the next phase of building a people-powered movement from the ground up.

Photo credit: By Thomas SplettstoesserOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3

Tags: climate movement, social movements