Why the Climate Movement Should Get Political in 2014

01/04/2014 02:56 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2014

If there was one thing to say about the climate movement in 2013 is that it started to reveal itself as a powerful political force. Elections notwithstanding, climate activists, aided by a series of unprecedented weather events and manmade disasters, began to change the political winds in Washington and capitals around the country. Just scratching the surface, here's a list of accomplishments the fossil fuel resistance movement can hang its hat on this year:

  • A wide coalition of national, state and local groups, joined by a mass movement held off the construction of the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline for over a year.
  • Concerned New Yorkers were able to cast enough doubt on Governor Cuomo's proposed gas hydrofracking plan that he punted it to his health commissioner, delaying it and continuing a de-facto moratorium on fracking in the state.
  • In Maine, a wide coalition of groups delayed a dangerous proposed tar sands pipeline project, and in Minnesota, climate activists joined with indigenous allies to force another proposed tar sands pipeline project to conduct a lengthy impact study, delaying construction
  • In Maryland, our friends at Chesapeake Climate Action network helped lead a statewide movement to pass a powerful new law giving a big push to offshore wind development on the Atlantic coast.
  • Despite a million-dollar ad blitz from the coal industry, Boulder, Colorado became one of the first cities in the country to successfuly municipalize its energy contracts, effectively letting the city choose its own energy future.
  • In the Pacific Northwest, organizers and local citizens defeated three proposals for coal export terminals.
  • Across the country, students and others have succeeded in pushing 9 Universities and dozens of cities like Seattle and San Francisco, to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies, helping stigmatize the industry and reducing its political power.
This list is far from exhaustive. Climate movement successes from 2013 could fill dozens of pages, because it's the year the movement joined together and began to use it's political muscle more powerfully than ever before. We should celebrate these wins, while recognizing that there are no permanent victories in this movement -- each is tenuous because the science and politics are so thoroughly stacked against us. From a movement-building perspective, analyzing how they were accomplished, and who they left behind is nearly as important as the wins themselves.

Think about the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline that now runs through thousands of back yards in Oklahoma and Texas, putting farmers, ranchers and refinery communities at risk of air and water contamination. Consider those in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado who continue to struggle against oppressive gas drilling laws that favor fracking companies over human health and climate safety. And don't forget Appalachia, Montana and Wyoming, where over a hundred years after the nasty black rock was discovered, the coal industry continues to blow up mountains and run roughshod over community and worker safety, all in the name of a quick profit.

Most of the successes the climate movement has celebrated come from the dedication and tireless work of ordinary people, facing terrible odds and doing extraordinary things. But these successes also have something else in common: many were won using a whole toolbox of tactics, including smart political campaigning. In some climate movement circles, the word "political" is treated like a four-letter word. In the Obama era, where progressive politics is tied up with Democratic electoral efforts, the desire to keep "politics" at arms length is understandable.

But what if the climate movement created its own politics, not by shying away from elections or reflexively criticising the lawmaking process, but by carefully considering its strategic pathways, and leaning in with its strengths? The fossil fuel resistance speaks with moral clarity, turns out hundreds of thousands of people to push back on the fossil fuel industry around the country, continues to escalate its level of commitment and action, and has largely won over the general public (or, at least those paying attention) on the question of climate change. Now is the time to lean into politics, not push it away. To be sure, there are many pitfalls, perhaps most importantly avoiding getting co-opted by the Democratic electoral machine -- but as a famous populist President once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Engaging in politics matters for the climate movement, and here are a few reasons why:

Political battles have real impacts on key fossil fuel projects. Direct action gets the goods, but decisionmakers still get to call the shots. The movement can and should use every strategy at its disposal to convince elected leaders like President Obama, Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper and New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio to build the clean energy economy rather than propping up the dinosaur fossil fuel industry. That means the courageous activists locking themselves to tar sands pipelines or blocking rail lines need to be met with equally ardent legislative campaigns and get-out-the-vote programs. In the past few months, the burgeoning fossil fuel resistance in Maine has blocked tar sands oil trains from coming through the state, and at the same time, run a powerful door-to-door campaign in South Portland to convince the city council to ban tar sands transport through its seaport (they won a moratorium). Most fossil fuel projects require some kind of approval from an elected leader, which means that there are thousands of opportunities to pressure decisionmakers directly to make the right choice, while keeping the public heat on.

Political stories and politicians drive the media cycle and get climate the attention it deserves. When Bill DiBlasio began his Mayoral run in New York City, discussions about inequality in the City were largely relegated to former Wall Street occupiers, labor unionists and a handful of  groups representing low-income communities. They joined together and backed Bill DiBlasio, giving him a base and a platform to talk about the issues that mattered most to them: education, racial profiling by police, housing, healthcare and more. With their support, DiBlasio won in a come-from behind victory that attracted national attention not only to him as an individual, but to the critical issue of inequality. Because DiBlasio is now on the hook for following through on campaign promises, those same groups have much more leverage to hold him accountable. We know Americans across the country care about climate change and our destructive energy system. Partnering with politicians to drive these issues into the mainstream consciousness is a critical tool in the movement toolbox.

Stopping climate change means passing local, state and federal legislation and getting an international deal. To change our energy system we need to change politicians, but we also need to change laws. Just as a small band of Mainers went up against ExxonMobil and won, the climate movement can push for legislative change at every level. In 2013, the atmosphere's carbon dioxide level rocketed past 400 parts per million, loading the dice for more superstorms like Sandy and Haiyan, and more drought and fire like those that ravaged the American west this past summer. Studies by the International Energy Agency, the IPCC and Carbon Tracker Initiative, among others, confirm that we must keep 60-80 percent of the coal, oil and gas in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change -- the kind that would wash millions of Bangladeshis underwater, make the oceans so acid that they wouldn't support life, and much, much worse. Stopping one pipeline or one fracking rig is critically important, but we can't play whack-a-mole with the climate because the numbers just don't add up. Keeping all that fossil fuel underground means using the power of governments at every level to cap carbon and keep it in the ground, and and getting robust international agreements to make sure the rest of the world can do the same.

Political fights can help fuel the movement. Politics can be a slog. Who wants to fight for a crappy piece of legislation or get a centrist, equivocating congressional candidate elected? It doesn't have to be that way. One need only to look back to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, to see how his candidacy and the movement that grew around it inspired thousands of young people to drop out of college to work for him and millions of Americans to go to the polls and believe that something greater than themselves was possible. Whatever you think about Obama's leadership and choices, the campaign engaged many people for the first time, raising their political consciousness and paving the way for them to be involved in activism for life. If designed properly and connected to other kinds of strategies, political fights can be incredibly useful onramps for new people to join the movement, especially if the movement wins those fights.

Our opponents are politically vulnerable. A new report by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle tracks how ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, two of the wealthiest and most renowned opponents of climate change legislation, moved from publicly funding climate denial in 2008, to obfuscating their deep involvement in the anti-science crusade in recent years. Why? Because recrimination from a public that is beginning to understand the costs of delaying action on climate became a serious liability to ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and their lobbyists in Washington. Even the typically centrist, risk-averse Democratic National Committee, has publicly called out climate deniers -- being bad on climate is a liability for politicians, too. No doubt the climate movement's opponents are still massively powerful -- the American Petroleum Institute, the largest Big Oil front group, spent over $22 million lobbying for Keystone XL and even hired former top-level Obama aides as lobbyists -- but the climate movement has them on the defensive, and they continue to be morally, politically and economically vulnerable.

Political fights can help pull movements together. We've seen it happen before: politicians use hot-button issues to foment splits between labor unions and environmentalists, or LGBTQ advocates and religious people, even though they might be on the same page 95 percent of the time. But politics can pull movements together, too. In New York City, superstorm Sandy brought climate advocates, labor unions, environmental justice and community groups together to push for a more just, transparent recovery. In Nebraska, indigenous people, ranchers and environmentalists, who don't often find themselves on the same side of key issues, have come together to oppose the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. With careful relationship building and honest, constructive conversations about past transgressions, seemingly intractable splits can be mended, and movements can join together to create a more powerful force strong enough to win key political victories.

Some might say that the political process is stacked against regular people, those of us who don't have millions of dollars in the bank or powerful friends. That may be right, but decisions that politicians make impact us, whether we like it or not. Though it may be dysfunctional, we still live in a democratic country where we can weigh in with our votes as well as our feet. We owe it to those on the front lines of this climate battle -- people living in the shadows of oil refineries in Houston and between mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia, indigenous peoples struggling among the Tar Sands mines in Alberta and along pipeline routes crisscrossing the continent and low-income New Yorkers still homeless a year after superstorm Sandy hit. We owe it to future generations to take politics seriously -- to build the movement strong enough to push back against the fossil fuel industry and to win real, lasting change for communities around the country and the world. In 2014, the growing climate movement will not be afraid to use all the tools at its disposal to hold fossil fuel companies and recalcitrant politicians to account, building its own politics on its own terms. Politicians, lawmakers and CEOs would be wise to keep an eye out.