Climate Action, Part 3: Taking it to the Streets

This is the third in a multi-part series by William Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

Several years ago, I organized a conference of 30 experts in sustainable development. Our purpose was to brainstorm about how to put sustainability back on America’s agenda.

Among the participants were some of the old soldiers of the environmental movement, among them former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart; Gus Speth, the recently retired dean of environmental studies at Yale; educator and author David Orr; and Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day back in 1970.

The new generation of environmentalists was represented, too. One of them was the mother of two teen-agers. On the subject of global climate change, we old-timers asked: “Why aren’t kids today taking to the streets and demanding action?”

“Kids today don’t march,” the woman replied. “They network.”

Actually, kids today are doing both.

They are part of what Paul Hawken brilliantly identifies as “blessed unrest” and TIME magazine calls the “responsibility revolution”. Protest in new media and in the streets has not reached the intensity of the social and antiwar movements of my generation. But they could, and they should.

The impulse is here. In 2007, author and educator Bill McKibben led “Step It Up”, a project that resulted in 2,000 rallies across the United States to push for climate action.  Last October,, an organization founded by McKibben, catalyzed a kind of open-source world uprising — 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, called by CNN the most widespread day of political action in history.  Earlier this month, followed up with a “global work party” that resulted in more than 7,300 projects in 188 countries. The projects ranged from planting trees and fixing bicycles to installing solar panels.

Alec Loorz, the California 16-year-old who founded Kids vs. Global Warming, gets standing ovations at his speeches about the stake that young people have in global warming.  In the latest issue of the journal Solutions, Alec tells of a talk to 700 high school students in a conservative community. Several interrupted him early in his speech, yelling “Al Gore is a liar”.  After Alec’s presentation, 500 of them signed up to participate in climate action.  Some 50,000 young people have signed a “Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels” Alec wrote last November. Now, he’s organizing a “million kid march” on Mother’s Day next year.

Old-fashioned civil disobedience, peaceful protest and street theater are coming back.  Last year, 12,000 mostly young people participated in “Power Shift”, a massive march and teach-in in Washington, D.C., said to be the largest in American history on global climate change. Environmentalists staged large protests outside the Royal Bank of Scotland to draw public attention to its financing of oil sands development in Canada.  In Appalachia, demonstrators have chained themselves to mining equipment and blocked roads to call attention to the shockingly destructive practice of mountain top removal coal mining. On Sept. 30, NASA’s top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, was arrested at one such demonstration, his second arrest for that cause this year.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace International held a demonstration in Montreal in which participants covered themselves in “oil” (actually molasses) to protest Canada’s energy-, water- and carbon-intensive production of oil from tar sands. The demonstration drew attention to a study Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council issued days earlier, offering an alternative energy strategy for Canada.

Greenpeace has shown the protest-power of good research combined with creative social media – a weapon not available to the activists of the 1960s and 1970s.  The organization found that some of the palm oil Nestle used in the Kit Kat candy bar came from an Indonesian company that created plantations by cutting down forests. The practice destroyed orangutan habitat and the forests’ carbon sequestration services.

Greenpeace posted a video on YouTube with protestors wearing orangutan suits and holding placards in which the words on Kit Kat’s logo were changed to “Killer”.   When Nestle forced the video off YouTube on grounds of copyright infringement, Greenpeace responded by posting it on Vimeo and other social media.   Within hours, Nestle announced a commitment to switch exclusively to sustainable palm oil by 2015, when sufficient supplies are expected to be available. Greenpeace says its Nestle campaign has been seen by 1.5 million viewers.

On Grist, Jonathan Hiskes tells the story of  ForestEthics, a group pressuring U.S. companies to drop vendors that use oil from Canadian tar sands. ForestEthics ran a full-page ad in USA Today to publicize the issue. Hiskes reports:

This year ForestEthics petitioned 30 companies to explain the high environmental and social costs of tar-sands oil (which carries three to five time the greenhouse-gas footprint of conventional drilling). The group persuaded 16 of them to boycott shipping companies that use tar-sands oil, or to at least give preference to ones that don’t, U.S. campaign director Aaron Sanger told me. They include Walgreens, Timberland, The Gap, Levi Strauss, Bed Bath & Beyond, and several that haven’t yet announced their shift.

Soon, consumers will have more information than ever about product footprints.  The Federal Trade Commission has just issued its proposed new “green guides” for product labels. They aren’t ideal.  Among other shortcomings, they fall short of life-cycle accounting on product labels (the Commission said its research showed only 15 percent of consumers consider life-cycle costs).  They don’t clearly define what qualifies as “renewable energy” and they don’t have the force of law.  But Advertising Age estimates that most of the 300 environmental seals of approval manufacturers use today could be rendered obsolete by the new guidelines, and the FTC has started getting tough on companies that engage in deceptive green labeling.  (The FTC is accepting public comment on the guidelines until Dec. 10.)

As I mentioned in Part 2, Walmart took the first steps last year in a labeling program that would far exceed the transparency recommended by the FTC. It asked its suppliers to assess the environmental footprints of their products to help Walmart create a new sustainability index for all the products it sells.  If Walmart is successful, other retailers are likely to follow suit.

“Historically, there has always been a vast information asymmetry with consumers knowing next to nothing about the true ecological impacts of what they buy,” writes Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What we Buy Can Change Everything.  Commenting on Walmart’s plans, Goleman wrote:  “Such eco-rating systems exemplify a coming wave of radical transparency that could culminate in products competing not just on price and quality, but on their total ecological impact as assessed in life-cycle assessment ratings.”

Radical transparency in the marketplace would be a potent weapon for a responsibility revolution by consumers, but to play a part in avoiding the worse consequences of climate change, it’s a revolution that must occur soon on massive scale.  Climate change isn’t waiting for better product labels. Nor can the revolution wait for more government mandates. Consumers must become committed to demanding transparency and sustainability in corporate products and operations.

The Obama Administration is trying to do its part by setting new standards for the $500 billion in goods and services the federal government procures each year.  Executive Order 13514, signed by the President last fall, directs agencies to purchase products that are energy-efficient, water-efficient, bio-based, environmentally preferable, non-ozone depleting and made from recycled materials. Federal Acquisition Regulations set a number of green standards for government purchasing and EPA operates an Environmentally Preferred Purchasing Program that provides green product information useful not only to government agencies at all levels, but also to private businesses. (For a roundup of other ways companies are being pressured to become more sustainable in their products and operations, visit here.)

With resistance to an effective climate bill likely to continue in Washington, the  question is this: How do we spark a revolution that takes to the streets, the media and the marketplace, in huge and persistent numbers? Can the moral obligation to fight climate change be as effective a motivator today as it was in the civil rights movement? Can the threat of climate change become as personal and immediate a motivator as the draft was in the Vietnam era?

In Part 4, I’ll write about President Obama’s remaining opportunity to build an historic legacy with bold climate leadership.

– William Becker

Parts 1 and 2 are here — Climate Action: Down to Business.

17 Responses to Climate Action, Part 3: Taking it to the Streets

  1. GFW says:

    Does anyone have a link to the story behind that image? I know it’s something about a tar sands protest, but I’m curious about some details.

  2. neot says:

    I think the movement will keep growing as awareness grows. So many people are frustrated by the cynical and delusional disinformation campaigns waged against science, but the fossil fuel industries are like a cornered animal. The writing is on the wall, the issue now is how to handle the situation with entities willing to pursue a literal “scorched earth” campaign to squeeze the most carbon out of the earth before the blinders become too uncomfortable for most people.

    Change is not going to come in one fell swoop, the carbon economy can only be replaced with a million small steps. I think it’s encouraging the momentum that climate awareness has maintained even in the face of such strong opposition and phony scandals. The move to bring down Prop 23 in California is very interesting… it shows that once the fight is out in the open, people want change. We need to keep getting this fight out in the open. We don’t need to convince the troglodytes that they are wrong, we need more public referenda where the issues are clear. With the stakes so high for the younger generation, I don’t see the fight diminishing at all. We will have change, though there’s no guarantee that it will be soon enough. May you live in interesting times.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Great stuff, Bill, thanks, and I loved that photo.

    It was heartening to learn that plenty of young people are leveraging networks to spread information, and continue to engage in peaceful protests. The big difference between now and the 60’s is media coverage. The media used to be all over protests in our youth, including a few teargas soaked events I attended while at Berkeley, but as you know this is no longer the case, due to orders to media from corporate and advertisers. An important component for change will have to be the establishment of one courageous and scientifically honest media outlet- we shouldn’t have to wait for weekly midnight humor (Maher) or allegory (Avatar).

    The Nestle candy bar campaign was excellent, and we need a lot more like them. I recently proposed a Koch products boycott, but in spite of my pestering a few green organizations, nothing came of it. This could have multiple benefits: Koch Industries needs to have a brighter light shone on it, since not enough people read Mayer’s great New Yorker article. Products made from tar sands oil (refined by Koch), paper towels made from old growth clearcuts in Canada, and highly toxic consumer products such as Koch subsidiary Georgia Pacific’s formaldeyhde laced OSB, Lycra, and Stainmaster could be targeted. This would put a dent in Koch’s income, and put pressure on companies that operate with their basic plan, which is to bribe Congressmen and feature products with the worst environmental impacts that they can find.

    Another avenue is lawsuits, something Sierra Legal Defense did well for a while, but which is now mostly being done by Kieran’s Center for Biological Diversity, largely with part time volunteer staff. Much of the damage being caused by oil, coal, and timber companies is actionable, and legal redress is underutilized.

    Keep up the good work. I lot of us, including oldsters like me, are ready to do whatever it takes- except violence, of course.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    It “was the deepest low pressure in the United States outside of tropical depressions and hurricanes,” Weisser told NPR.

    The town of Big Fork, Minn., northwest of Duluth, saw a barometric pressure reading equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane, he said.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    The Big Fork numbers –
    954.96 Millibar ….. 28.20 inches

    The old Minn state record was set Nov 10, 1998 set at Albert Lee and Austin

    962.60 Millibars

    I find it interesting that 2010 is breaking 1998 records in measurements other than just temperatures.

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    One wonders what these pressure readings will be like in 10 years , and just how high the wind speeds we will be seeing from them.

  7. Wit's End says:

    I’m hoping to take the Koch Kills climate zombies act as many places as possible. I think it’s critical that people understand the obscene profits that are being turned to manipulate public opinion, and the Koch brothers are a prime example. Zombie auditions available by appointment! Suggestions always welcome.

  8. Colorado Bob says:

    One more bit of numbers from yesterday –

    Daytime record highs vs lows :

    97 to 18

    Nigh time record highs vs lows :

    256 to 2

    This thing wasn’t very cold.

  9. Wit's End says:

    Also people might be interested in signing up for this conference with Hanson and McKibben as speakers, in Connecticut:

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    “Can the threat of climate change become as personal and immediate a motivator as the draft was in the Vietnam era?”

    No, I just don’t think so. Think about what was shown EVERY NIGHT on network TV news programs during the Viet Nam conflict. You just do not have images of climate disruption as profound as a war can produce. And it was every night. Almost like the coverage of the Iraq war a few years ago but much more intense. Also, it took years to bring the war to an end. The current crop of young folks might be upset by our lack of effort in addressing climate change but the threat of death is just not there. So far the images of Katrina’s devastation, fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan or Tennessee, have not raised a mass movement.

    The civil rights movement took decades to produce any results that would help the average American, we are still not finished, and some would like to reverse many of the changes that have taken place. Thank God the lunatics who speak of reversing some of the 1964 Civil Rights Act can’t take us back to Nam.

    If we can get young folks motivated and active they may show up to vote but we all know most do not.

  11. dp says:

    the koch family throws money at arsonists for arson’s sake.

    greens have the clear argument — that ‘creation care’ or ‘planetary gardening’ or ‘an economy of flows’ is what the future wants — but there are no big capitalists willing to shake things up by backing green campaigns w/ real money and just letting the campaigners go at it.

    i think this is because multinational corporations have two conflicts of interest:

    1) if they accept responsibility for anything, it weakens their position in court, where they go early & often.
    2) if they cede authority to localities (i.e. ‘countries’), it becomes harder to play those localities against each other for profit, a very lucrative core competency of international enterprise since its legal inception oh so long ago.

    and #2 is really really key: THE CORPORATION WAS CREATED FOR THE SPECIFIC PURPOSE OF ABUSING POWER — to monopolize the avenues of trade and wield that monopoly power in imperial war.

    i was a kid when a pop star sang “i hope the russians love their children, too” during a time of high anxiety about nuclear war. what we have now is the same dilemma: do corporate investors, VIPs & employees love their kids? will they take individual responsibility for the destruction that pays their dividends & wages by financing the birth of a safer future?

  12. JEB says:

    Is there a website where we can identify the disinformation companies?

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    “But they could, and they should.”

    These are the best lines in this piece. And thank you, Bill, for the helpful post and for raising this subject.

    A philosopher — whose name, if I list it, will confuse matters and cause many people to miss the point — once said:

    “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    We must keep in mind two different things: It’s one thing to observe, optimistically, small and gradual changes taking place in society. It’s another thing entirely to actively encourage them, call for them, boost them, grow them, speed them up, facilitate them, prompt them, and insist on them. To cry out for them! To make the case for them! To FUND them!

    (I’m not being critical of Bill here: He’s obviously doing a great deal. Thanks, Bill. And there are other Bills and Jims and Joes to thank, too. But the rest of us need to do more, including me.)

    Here is the situation: Let’s be honest: When you consider the present situation, and when you consider the size of the problem, and the changes that need to be made, and the momentum and forces that are trying to prevent or delay change, you see (or should see) that the magnitude and nature of present activism activities amount to whistling against a 90-mph wind. They amount to a ten-year-old in a swimsuit trying to stop the Titanic. The sooner we see this — and change it — the better.

    I went to the Step It Up day long ago, at Stanford. I went to the 350 day last year, at the main San Francisco event near the Ferry Building. I went to the Global Work Day recently, to several events in Santa Cruz. As much as those were helpful and fun — and I applaud them — we’d be doing a disservice to them and to ourselves and to future generations if we think that we are on the right track in terms of thinking about the levels and sorts of activism needed. We need MUCH MORE, and that’s putting it mildly.



  14. Mike Roddy says:

    From David Ormsby Gore, a Conservative who despised the oil industry, friend of JFK, and late British Ambassador to the US:

    “It would indeed by a tragedy if the history of the human race turned out to be nothing more than the story of an ape playing with a box of matches on a petrol dump”.

    Thanks for the Network clip, too. Memo to scientists: you are being called liars and whores for research money every day on talk radio and at teabagger rallies. Fight back!

  15. DRT says:

    It might help if all 40,000+ readers here sent a letter at the Million
    Letter March.

  16. Bill Becker says:

    GFW (Comment 1): You’ll find the photo at

    Its caption is: “Protesters gather on Parliament Hill to demonstrate against the Alberta oil sands ahead of a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 8, 2010.”

  17. Mike Roddy says:

    jeb #12: is a good blog about paid PR disinformers, but there’s lots of good information in this blog’s archives, too.