Occupy Wall Street Movement Energizes Climate Protesters, But Also Highlights Contradictions

“Occupy” protests in cities around the country are increasingly featuring environmental themes, particularly climate change. Protesters contend that inaction on climate change only benefits the top 1%, while hurting the other 99%.

Earlier this month, Climate activists built on the Occupy movement to raise awareness for a major protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the State Department. Drawing connections between Wall Street activist demands for political and financial equality and their own call for environmental justice, climate leaders stood in solidarity with the movement.

In New York earlier this week, Occupy protesters staged an anti-coal protest outside Bank of America — one of dozens of protests focused on different themes over the weekend. In order to step up the environmental messaging, one activist has created an Environmentalist Solidarity Working Group. ClimateWire had a nice piece on the evolving climate-related protests this week:

“We need to understand it’s all a priority, because it’s all connected. You can’t have social reform without natural resources and the environment. It’s a snowball, and it all affects each other,” said Stephanie, who received her master’s degree in environmental sustainability from Columbia University and spoke on the condition that she withhold her last name over concerns she would be targeted for arrest.

Climate change mitigation and the total abandonment of fossil fuels figure prominently in the working group’s agenda. However, Stephanie acknowledged that unlike the larger aim of banking reform, these issues are difficult to mobilize on.

While there’s evidence of pollution in the air, water contamination and topsoil being eroded, global warming and climate change are ambiguous terms that Americans have difficulty trying to grasp, she said. “People say, ‘It’s not going to affect me’ or ‘I’ll be dead by then,'” said Stephanie. “So we do need to be radical in order to stop climate change or to stop it where it’s come so far.”

While the scientific evidence of climate change gets more dire each day, America moves further away from addressing the problem. The gobs of money spent on lobbying and disinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel industry have been the single-biggest contributor to stalling action. Speaking out against this strong corporate influence is a central part of what the Occupy movement is all about.

But this messaging also comes with some inherent contradictions. Addressing climate change requires taking multi-trillion dollar action — and that means harnessing the support of the world’s biggest energy companies and financial players.  How can this circle be squared?

Simply labeling all major investors part of a culture of “corporate greed” neglects all of the folks who are actually deploying capital to solve major environmental problems.

For example, this week a group of 258 top investors representing $20 trillion in assets signed a letter calling for immediate and aggressive carbon-reduction targets, explaining that good environmental policies “yield substantial economic benefits including creating new jobs and businesses, stimulating technological innovation, and providing a robust foundation for economic recovery and sustainable long-term economic growth.”

Some of the nation’s top investment banks that are targets of the Occupy movement are also the leading investors in renewable energy projects. Bank of America has committed $8.4 billion to the sector; Citigroup has committed $30 billion; and Wells Fargo has invested $2.2 billion. Many of the leading Wall Street firms were also supportive of Cap and Trade (which made a lot of people in the environmental community suspicious.)

With that said, many of these same firms are pouring even greater amounts into building out new fossil fuel infrastructure — often negating investments in clean energy and exacerbating the climate problem. Occupy protesters are rightly trying to hold them accountable.

Stephanie, the Occupy Wall Street participant organizing environmental protests, explained the frustrations among demonstrators:

“The solutions to the demands that are being talked about [at Occupy] are superficial and don’t address the core issues that are causing our planet to undergo a massive wave of extinction and put us on the brink of total destruction,” said Young.

Even with the billions of dollars going into the clean energy sector, we’re only beginning to make the type of investments needed to slow climate change. In order to get us there, it’ll take a healthy blend of business savvy and good-ol’-fashioned activism. We should recognize the value of both.

What do you think?

21 Responses to Occupy Wall Street Movement Energizes Climate Protesters, But Also Highlights Contradictions

  1. prokaryotes says:

    BREAKING: Student Activists Risking Arrest Inside University President’s Office

    This afternoon, seven student activists marched into President Simon’s office at the Hannah Administration building at Michigan State University to ask MSU to transition to 100% clean energy.

    Real Patriots

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Protest of campus coal plant leads to 3 arrests

    EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A protest seeking to close a coal power plant on Michigan State University’s campus has led to the arrests of three students.

    The Lansing State Journal reports ( ) that the students refused to leave school President Lou Anna Simon’s office Thursday at closing time.

    They are part of a group supporting clean energy.

    Greenpeace member and Michigan State sophomore Jordan Lindsay says the students made their own decisions on whether to face arrest or leave Simon’s office. Lindsay says the group has been trying for two years to get the university to switch to cleaner energy.

    Simon did not meet with the students Thursday.

    School spokesman Kent Cassella says the university has created an energy transition committee that students were invited to participate in

  3. Raul M. says:

    I have only heard of the one secure storm shelter in DC, but that it will hold 144 thousand seems a way far fetch. Those kids need to get aboard the train to the groundbreaking of the new storm shelter. 350 ppm is in the rear view mirror and mass action to deal with reality of the climate is sweet talk while ppm climbs higher. Choo Choo that train left years ago.

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    Here’s What I Think (for now)

    In order to address a problem well, wisely, and sustainably, you need to understand it down to its deep roots. And when you have two or three deeply interrelated problems (e.g., economic justice, economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and etc.), you need to understand them all down to their deep roots, including the interrelationships among them. What are the root causes of our problems? What paradigms of ours are incorrect? What bad assumptions have we “received” from earlier generations that are simply incorrect or are not applicable and helpful anymore?

    Although I applaud the current state-of-affairs, efforts, and progress of the Occupy movements — after all, this is a time for what is in essence a moral movement, to welcome people, expand, and persevere — I don’t get the sense from what I’ve been reading that enough people are going deep enough to understand the causal roots of the interrelated problems. Too much of what I’ve been reading, written by outsiders to the movement anyhow, seems superficial. Unless the movement goes deep, to understand the roots and bases of the problems, it will end up suggesting or falling for superficial partial treatments: band-aids and slings.

    Hopefully some people in the movement are reading, or have read, such things as (just as examples): Small Is Beautiful (E. F. Schumacher); Supercapitalism (Robert Reich); The Value of Nothing (Raj Patel); Collapse (Jared Diamond); Walden (Thoreau); A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold); The Second Treatise of Government (John Locke); and On Liberty (John Stuart Mill). I’m not saying that I agree with every point in all of these books, of course. But reading them, and others like them, will help us comprehend the deep roots of our main problems, how they interrelate, and the sorts of new paradigms and solutions that will be necessary to put things on a better and more sustainable path.

    Who — what organizations or leading thinkers — are actively working to try to help the informal Occupy Wall Street leaders understand the problems as deeply as possible and generally try to “figure things out”? Who is trying to help, without trying to co-opt the thing?

    Cheers and Be Well,


  5. Laurie Dougherty says:

    Hello Jeff,

    Go. Participate. Engage. Bring your ideas and resources. Be the change you want to see in the Occupy movement. You also are among the 99%.

    Stephen Lacy’s point is well taken. The big financial institutions and corporations have money, infrastructure and talent and infrastructure to invest in renewable energy and we should demand that they do. The questions the Occupy movement raise have to do with the enormous influence corporations and financial institutions have over our economic and political system to define an agenda that privileges profit over people and our environment

  6. caroline says:

    I see no contradiction between the two. The principle that the financial sector should be structured to serve society rather than society be structured to serve the financial sector covers both sets of issues.

  7. Ernest says:

    Lots of good points, Stephen. I see OWS as a blunt instrument. They can highlight issues. They are unlikely unite behind specific policy measures. Not all will be “anti-captitalists” or “environmentalists”. Also, climate and energy is much too complicated to unite around a simple slogan. Environmentalist and climate hawks need to be their own voice, while sharing some common themes with OWS. It is the job of the politicians, lawmakers, try to cater to the concerns of the electorate, which is now in part represented by OWS. No policy will be perfect. What OWS is put differential pressure given the alternatives in politics.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    What is ambiguous about ‘global warming’? And by saying things like ‘climate and energy are complicated’, you are being your own worst enemies. That is the best way I know of to turn people off.

    Try and get the basics through- CO2 traps heat and the more there is of it in the atmosphere, the hotter the world is going to get. If people understood this one basic fact, they would start to understand the problem, ME

  9. Ernest says:

    You’ve answered you own question by quoting ‘global warming’. (I prefer the term “climate disruption”.) There’s droughts. Then there’s record rains. There’s record hot temperatures. Then there’s record low temperatures. There’s positive feedback loops. There’s negative feedback loops. There’s uncertainty about the “non-linear” effects, also know as “climate sensitivity”. There are time lag effects from ocean mixing. The aggregate effects and long term trend sides with warming. (But try convincing a bunch of people during the winter season.) Then there’s the myriad of issues mentioned by Stephen regarding the *solution* to dealing with the problem given the current economic system which still has to rely on business, banks, and the investment community. Then there’s short term politics (jobs, economy) and long term politics (environment, climate). The former tends to get priority. Then there’s other countries (e.g., China, India) who already believe in climate science, but still build coal plants because they feel they don’t have any other alternative for living themselves out of poverty, and need to get their energy from coal plants. There’s a complicated nexus between economic, energy, and climate issues. Then there’s the technology issue. Wind and solar are not “baseload” even assuming the costs might reach “grid parity” in many regions in 10 years. There’s NIMBYism even coming from environmentalists regarding transmission lines. I could say a lot more …

    I understand the need for simplicity in political messaging, and in other posts have actually taken this position myself. But my other side actually prefers to deal with the issue by looking at all aspects of the problem, including aspects that are not so straightforward, and at first may seem discouraging. This is in service of the truth, and hopefully, ultimately, in service of finding effective solutions.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Ernest, with all respect, the world is warming and I know you know that but what you are discussing above are the symptoms and the possible technical solutions. The population needs to understand the disease, the fact that it is warming and WHY. I know from some of my work here that some people don’t know that heat is energy, some people don’t know why CO2 is called a greenhouse gas.

    What I am discussing is the reason so many people over there fall for the deniers’ claptrap that there can’t be warming because there was record snow. If they understood the basic science, they wouldn’t fall for that nonsense.

    It’s time we stopped treating climate change as just a physical or technological problem and started treating it as a human behavioural problem. To start addressing that, we need to start redressing basic scientific illiteracy, trying to do the job the schools failed to do.

    Making public statements about ambiguity and ‘complicated’ simply provides fodder for the deniers who are exploiting the scientific illiteracy big time. I see it and hear it everyday, ME

  11. M. Virtanen says:

    How is anyone, 1% or 99, benefiting from climate mayhem, potentially wiping out all life on the planet permanently, as James Hansen says?

    I think this x benefits only the elite talk is counterproductive: makes the elite think they are doing well and the rest (counting out a few activists) envy them.

    Environmental destruction and oppression is not benefiting anyone. If a billionaire thinks it’s to their benefit to make themselves a monster while chacing such empty things as money & power, they are wrong. Happiness is somewhere else.

  12. Sarah says:

    The OWSers are represently all of us who have responded to any news story during the past 10+ years by shouting “this is outrageous! Why aren’t people taking to the streets?”

    While many of us have demonstrated at largely underreported and often single issue events, the OWSers have found a way to gain traction and staying power. Of course there are contradictions and simplifications. By definition a group of people large enough to have a significant effect can’t represent a single unified opinion. Indeed, it’s far better that it doesn’t; only by intense debate among people who don’t already agree with each other can progress be made. I can hardly imagine a better venue than a street camp for people to dig into the cores of their beliefs and understandings about how society functions and could change for the better.
    Climate issues emerged very early in the OWS movement, proving that demands for a better life cannot be disconnected from the need for a viable planet to live on.

  13. Leif says:

    Ernest also states that renewable energy is not “baseload”. I would point out numerous studies that all “baseload” energy producers have unscheduled as well as scheduled down time as well. Need I point out the Fort Collins Nuclear plant in the Midwest this last summer? Fukushima?

  14. Ernest says:

    Nice reflection. In it’s mention of “war among appetites” at work in (the perversion) democracy, it’s cause me me to think one way OWS and the environmental movement can succeed together and be more than another “political movement demanding it’s share of the pie”. It would appeal to the “better angels of our nature”. It would offer a vision of the world with a fairer system for ALL people, a system for the people, by the people. Central to this vision, is a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for future generations since democracy cannot flourish when minimal resource needs are not met for each of its citizens. Like the civil rights movement, and the founding of this nation, it would have a “spiritual” appeal, a calling greater than one’s individual welfare, a calling for the welfare of all.

    (This is opposite is the current system based on the soul-less parasitic machinery of monopoly corporate capitalism, where “winner takes all”, sustaining itself on the “false needs” of consumerism, emphasizing excessive individuality, leading to the eventual destruction of the world. Some dystopian Sci Fi already depicts such a world as in “Blade Runner”, “Avatar”, “Terra Nova”, …)

  15. Chris Winter says:

    The interests of OWS and are linked in fundamental ways.

    First, as everyone here undertands, there is a clique of corporations with vested interests in the status quo, and they have successfully deflected all major efforts in the U.S. to address climate change at the policy level.

    Second, the current form of capitalism in America (what Robert Reich calls “Supercapitalism”) operates to prioritize short-term benefits, to shrug off external costs, and to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands — with a corresponding increase in the number of people who are unemployed or barely scraping by. People who enter this category lack the means to implement energy-saving or CO2-reduction measures on a personal level.

    Thus, not only is progress toward mitigating climate change impeded on both levels, but increasing burdens are thrown on the federal government to support the rising numbers of unemployed and working poor.

  16. Chris Winter says:

    Jeff Huggins recommended some books. Let me add two more:

    Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy
    Charles Derber
    Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, February 2010

    Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy
    Marjorie Kelly
    William Greider (Fwd.)
    San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, October 2001

  17. nosoyyo says:

    This is a multi-trillion dollar problem. Bank of America had profits of $6.2 billion in just the last quarter and has “committed” only $8.4 billion (over some future number of years) to renewables. Just in the past 2 years they actually invested over $4 billion in coal (doesn’t count any other dirty investments), and we should be concerned about calling them greedy?

    Bank of America has foreclosed on an untold number of homes without even holding the mortgage, just dumped $75 trillion (yes with a T) of risky derivatives from Merrill Lynch into FDIC-backed subsidiaries, and there’s an implication that the occupiers are naiive for saying this system is unsustainable? Between corporate culture and the law, the banks cannot take climate change into account when making decisions. They are required to think only about their shareholders. And that’s without taking into consideration the corporate control over government.
    If B of A holds $1 trillion+ in deposits (with actual dollars, vs. trillions in swaps, etc.) I would rather it not go to shoring up their fraud, folly, and executive pay — I would certainly prefer it actually get invested in saving our species and planet. Saving the climate will not, and almost by definition can not happen with the current system in place.

    I’d suggest people go check out the occupations — esp. in NYC if you can. Teach-ins are happening all over the country at the occupy events — literally often several a day in NY — in addition to having thousands of participants with a wide variety of knowledge-bases and abilities, and “libraries” at most of them. An incomplete list of “teachers” at teach-ins just in NY that were held by the occupy movement (they just changed their website so I can’t find the older ones, so these are from Google and memory):
    — Joseph Stiglitz
    –Bill McKibben
    –Chris Hedges
    –Naomi Klein
    –Richard Wolff
    –Noam Chomsky (via satelite, in person in Boston)
    –Zlavoj Zizec

    There have been other key people leading “teach-ins” esp. in NY, SF, DC, and Boston. And that’s not to mention literally hundreds of professors and other leaders that aren’t famous but are also highly knowledgeable that have participated and given advice. I’m not sure that “Stephanie” is much of a representative for what’s going on at, least in terms of the sophistication of many of the participants.

  18. Mitigation is change.

    Adaptation is hospice.

  19. debora says:

    I think all those investers should use the money to a real cause to something realy important like saving the world stop doing things we realy don t need!!! we need peace and a a worl where we can live not more money we need the right to live with the basics in a nature world in a pacific society!!
    Stoppp pleas and be quiet if you really not consient about it

  20. Ernest says:

    Another resource in explaining OWS goals, process, structure

    The closest analogy may come from the “open source movement” in software development. There may be “centers”, but no centralized organization. (However, I do wish they’d have a centralized web site that can act as a clearinghouse and resource …)