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?