These seem like truly dismal times for those seeking aggressive political action on the climate change crisis. As historic droughts sweep the U.S. and Arctic sea ice melt hits record extremes, governments across the globe still seem frozen in their tracks. The U.S. election features one political party in denial that there is a crisis and another seemingly unable to win support for even minor action. Internationally we have borne witness to a decade of global summits that deliver little more than disappointment.
Yet there is good news. Around the world, citizens are organizing and winning urgent local battles against oil barons, the coal industry, and other powerful interests hell-bent on blocking meaningful environmental and climate action. Their struggles and their victories offer critical lessons for others waging similar fights elsewhere.
To capture the wisdom and lessons of these efforts, the Democracy Center recently looked up close at seven important climate-related citizen action campaigns. We went behind the scenes to learn how California groups beat the billionaire Koch brothers at the ballot box, and how activists in India, Kosovo, Washington state, and Oregon are taking on coal, among others.
While some of the ingredients in these victories are the universal elements of effective advocacy strategy — skilled media efforts, strong community organizing, etc. — there are others that speak to the unique ways in which the issue of climate change interacts with democracy and politics. Our campaign profiles identified a half dozen of these lessons, but here are three that stand out.
1. Think globally, speak locally
While it remains urgent to make climate change a priority concern, in the meantime the campaigns that are winning are doing so by focusing their messages on issues and concerns that are more local and more immediate. In California, the victory over an oil-industry ballot measure (Proposition 23) to gut the state’s climate law was won not by talking about climate but about local air pollution and local green jobs. Opponents of a new coal plant in India did the same, highlighting the threat to local livelihoods. While we must continually work to build public awareness about the climate crisis, it is often linking that crisis to local concerns that wins the day.
2. Go after oil, gas, and coal infrastructure
The Achilles’ heel of the fossil-fuel economy is its dependency on a complex web of key infrastructure projects. Large plants, pipelines, rail lines, and seaports are all vital components of the energy system that most threatens our climate. By targeting these critical elements, campaigners can slow down, complicate, increase the costs of, and ultimately block fossil-fuel projects. The Power Past Coal campaign in Oregon and Washington state has taken aim at the dirty coal trains that are a vital link to ship U.S. coal to China. This is also the strategy of opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, a major outlet for oil from the climate-devastating Canadian tar sands.
3. Build broad and unusual alliances
Climate politics, especially in the U.S., has become deeply polarized, pitting citizens who demand action against large segments of the population still in denial or allied with the corporate sectors that profit from inaction. Breaking through that polarization is essential if we want to make change, and is achieved by building alliances that cross the usual boundary lines of ideology and geography. No on Prop. 23 campaigners in California joined together Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and grassroots activists in the Latino community. Anti-coal activists in Kosovo formed alliances with U.S.-based NGOs to target U.S. and World Bank coal promotion policies. In climate politics, drawing together “strange bedfellows” is key.
These are just a few of the lessons we found in our examination of the strategies and tactics at work in these campaigns. But the overarching lesson was this one: The struggle to win action on climate change is not just one global battle but many, many smaller ones. The governments of the world are never going to surrender some portion of their national sovereignty (on energy policy, for example) to a binding global agreement. The struggles to win real political action on climate will remain at the national and local level.
What climate action needs most is strategic and wise campaigning in every corner of the world — citizens ready to take on the battles, together as neighbors, everywhere the fight must be fought. As we do so we can learn important lessons from one another’s work and take much-needed inspiration from one another’s victories.
The Democracy Center’s full set of climate campaign profiles can be read here.