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Protests, activism, the NYC climate rally, and why big greens can't stop climate change

The trouble with letting television tell the story of our recent history is that it tends to overemphasize events designed for the camera. For example, the made-for-TV version of the civil rights struggle highlights a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial as the turning point and defining moment of the movement.

While it was an important event, it was less visible organizing efforts across the country that did more to produce change, such as sit-ins, boycotts, protests, voter registration drives, electoral campaigning, and many other actions that disrupted local power structures.

I fear too many activists believe the TV version of how change happens. Much of the anti-Iraq war movement never learned this lesson. Or at least they didn't act as though they did. UFPJ set strategy for most of the movement by deciding they were going to maintain their 501c3 tax exempt status, which meant swearing off electoral politics and any aggressive civil disobedience tactics that might actually disrupt the process of waging war. Or in other words, the two types of action most likely to stop the war.

They got stuck doing one protest after another, some of which I attended and helped organize. Protest is useful but when a large majority of the public are already aware of the issue and agree with you then it's time to move beyond “raising awareness” mode and use other tools in your belt.

I wonder if the climate change movement is making the same mistake. There's no harm in having a big climate march in New York City, other than the event's carbon footprint. It may give a burst of motivation and camaraderie to the movement. Perhaps it will be noticed by world leaders. But is it going to get much more press coverage than the largely ignored 200,000+ people I rallied with in DC right before the Iraq War started? Will it have any more impact on the direction the world is headed, which is to say, none at all? Isn't it passed time to move beyond “raising awareness” tactics with climate change? And is the big green focus on this rally motivated by the fact that 501c3 tax exempt funds can be utilized?

Let's face it, at least half the reason there was so much focus on the Keystone XL pipeline is that 501c3 grant funds could be used since approving the pipeline is an administrative decision by the state department, as opposed to non-tax-exempt activity like lobbying Congress to pass a decent energy bill. That, plus somebody's desire to make Obama the main target because, goodness knows, the President is an all powerful figure who can make everything happen if we just convince him to. Now the oil industry has found other ways to move tar sands without Keystone XL and it turns out that Congress is an even bigger barrier to progress than Obama.

So have fun in NYC but if you expect a rally to be a singular moment that will change the world then you're going to be disappointed. What's going to stop climate change is hard work back home. Especially in extraction regions like downstate Illinois, which big greens have largely turned their backs on.

The first Liberty Brew & View movie screening I arranged was the fantastic documentary, Sir! No Sir! It told the story of resistance by American soldiers and draftees during the Vietnam War. By the end of the war, the military couldn't depend on whether a large portion of their soldiers would obey if ordered into battle. That's why there will never be a draft again. The war ended partly because resistance by soldiers took away the ability of American leaders to continue waging war.

The climate fight will be won the same way. We'll win by taking away the ability of the fossil fuel industry to continue destroying a habitable climate. We accomplish that by making it more expensive and more difficult to extract and burn fossil fuels.*

The movement made some progress on the burning side by stopping Dick Cheney's evil plan to build new coal power plants. We succeeded by driving up the cost and trouble of building new plants through a variety of legal maneuvers, delaying tactics, discouraging financing, and applying political pressure. Shutting down existing coal plants is more difficult, but increasing their costs with half a dozen new EPA rules plus local pressure is a viable strategy.

But on the other side of the process, there's very little investment by big greens and their major grant donors to help front line communities keep fossil fuels in the ground, as scientists have warned we must.

Instead, we've got situations like Illinois where a Democratic Governor is dramatically increasing coal mining and launching fracking. And the big green groups respond by kissing the Governor's ass and calling him a “climate champ” because they hope it will produce a better state Clean Power Plan. That strategy may eventually close some coal plants over a period of years if they aren't given more waivers, and probably to be replaced by natural gas. Meanwhile, Illinois will continue increasing coal mining for export to foreign nations, and fracking will increase carbon emissions as well.

Rallies and greenwashing politicians who make climate change worse will not solve the crisis. Focusing on a strategy that slowly closes down coal plants in America over many years, while coal for export and fracking increase, is not going to solve the crisis. We have to take away the ability of industry to continue the crisis by increasing the cost and difficulty of getting fossil fuels out of the ground.

We can do this with direct action that obstructs extraction activity, banning fracking, passing laws to increase the cost of mining coal, organizing opposition in impacted communities, electing our own candidates at the local and state level in extraction regions, and generally being a pain in the ass of the fossil fuel industry in any way that ups their cost of doing business.

Currently, none of those activities are a priority for the national green groups who have their regional offices in Chicago. Hell, southern Illinois is a six hour drive away and the grant-making foundations of rich white people think the Clean Power Plan and a timid legislative agenda pushing renewables is the way to go. If anything, they repeatedly undermined the efforts of those trying to stop fracking from coming to Illinois in favor of passing weak regulation that funders like Bloomberg prefer.

How much more expensive will it be to frack or mine coal the day after the New York climate rally? Not a damn penny.

Those of us in coal and fracking country are the ones who will have to solve the climate crisis. We have the most skin in the game. The battle lines are in rural areas, not New York City. And at least for now, we're going to have to do it on our own.

*Just so I'm not misconstrued or intentionally misrepresented, this blog post is not advocating violence to people or destruction of property.

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