News Story

June 17, 2013

Social Movements and Climate Change

The world is on track to experience an average increase in air temperature of four to six degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, according to recent analysis by the International Energy Agency. Such warming would pose severe threats to human society: displacement by rising seas of millions of people who live along vulnerable coastlines; increasing frequency and intensity of storms; diminished agricultural harvests; declines in biodiversity; desertification; and more severe droughts and floods, among its effects.
   Carbon-capping legislation, which most climate experts and economists say will be necessary (if not sufficient) if we are to avert the most dire scenarios, and which stalled in Congress in 2010—is unlikely to be revived soon. But the political fight is just beginning.
   Harvard faculty, students, and alumni are actively considering how the climate change issue will move forward. Many do this through their scholarship and teaching, but some are getting more involved, from shaping climate policy inside the White House to engaging in civil disobedience outside its front gate. Their work confronts a wide range of questions. What is the role of social movements in addressing a challenge as complex and daunting as climate change? What kinds of specific actions will be effective in swaying decision-makers, polluters and the public? What mix of tactics, targets and articulated goals are most likely to break political gridlock on the issue, and make a real difference in everyone’s stated goal: dramatically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse pollutants? And most importantly, what should be the goal of activism? That question is at the center of an impending battle for the heart and soul of the environmental movement.

Morality as Motivation
On the climate issue, the problem is that “urgency is not felt by many people,” says Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School. “But one thing that movements do is come up with ways to make the important urgent.”
   Ganz speaks from experience. He left Harvard during his junior year to work with the civil rights movement in Mississippi in 1964. He went on to work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 16 years, before eventually returning to Harvard to complete a Ph.D. in sociology. One of the lessons he draws from his decades working in and studying social movements is that moral urgency—a sense of injustice, or even anger—is often needed to move individuals to act. This is often accompanied by hope, or the sense of the plausible, the possible. Action of this kind may produce change in the participants themselves, as well as in the world around them.
   “If you look at the core of any social movement there are highly committed people who are ready to take risks,” he says. “It’s not just about passing a law—at heart they are movements of moral reform. Take the Harvard living wage campaign back in 2001, when the students sat in the president’s office and said, ‘We’re not going to leave until it gets dealt with.’” This had the effect of turning what the students saw as a morally urgent problem into a practically urgent problem for decision-makers to resolve.
   “How to make that cosmic sense of urgency immediately felt is one of the challenges of this (climate) movement,” Ganz continues. “That’s where civil disobedience and that kind of activity comes in—it’s a way of saying we’re not going to cooperate until you address this need.”
   Ganz met recently with a group of law school students seeking advice on the campaign to press Harvard’s administration to divest from fossil fuel companies. He says he supports the students’ efforts on the merits of their moral argument, but also as a means to stir up and “mobilize the kind of movement it will take to make broader and deeper change.”
   “There is a very strong generational dynamic to this whole thing,” Ganz says. “Generation change is one of the great drivers of cultural and political change. Bill McKibben [’82] gets that, which is why he has this focus on divestment: give the rising generation a strategic focus.” But some scholars question whether McKibben is chasing the wrong targets.

How to Build a Movement
McKibben, a journalist by training and temperament, is arguably the most prominent climate activist on the planet. In 1989, he wrote the first book on climate change for a popular audience, The End of Nature. After decades of covering climate science—and observing the collective failure to create commensurate solutions—
in 2008 he co-founded with students at Middlebury College, where he is a scholar in residence. Their explicit goal was to build a grassroots movement to fight climate change.
   McKibben has become the leader of a fast-growing movement that he dubs the “Fossil Fuel Resistance.” Like Ganz, he sees a need for proven tactics such as civil disobedience and demonstrations. In October 2009, prior to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, orchestrated simultaneous rallies in 181 countries—possibly the largest coordinated protest in history. In August 2011, in one of the largest civil disobedience actions in decades, McKibben was arrested along with more than 1200 others in front of the White House during a protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ferry oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico for export. He spent three days in jail.
   The tempo of McKibben’s campaigning picked up last summer, after he wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. In it he described recent research outlining how, if the world’s governments are serious about their commitments to staying under the two degree Celsius warming threshold, then 80 percent of the estimated carbon reserves held by fossil fuel companies around the world will need to stay in the ground, and out of the atmosphere. The story went viral, prompting McKibben and fellow activists to go on a barnstorming tour to spread this message in packed lecture halls and theaters across the country.
   Their message resonates with students, at least. Since last fall, fossil fuel divestment campaigns have sprung up on more than 300 college campuses. On April 11, almost 200 people gathered in Harvard Yard to deliver a petition calling on Harvard’s administration to divest the University’s $31 billion endowment—the nation’s largest—from fossil fuel companies. Their goal wasn’t only to get the Harvard Corporation to rethink its investment priorities, but to make a statement, and loudly.
   “It was incredible,” recalled Chloe Maxmin ’15, co-coordinator of Divest Harvard, the day after the rally. “We have so many voices calling for divestment. Alumni were emailing President Faust
yesterday as we were rallying outside, and faculty and the chaplain at Memorial Church were with us.”
   Maxmin and her fellow demonstrators persuaded Secretary of the University and Vice President Marc Goodheart to come outside and publicly accept the 1300 signatures on a petition that didn’t mince words: “Although Harvard has been a national leader in institutional sustainability, we find it contradictory and self-defeating that Harvard invests its endowment in companies that threaten the future of its students and life on Earth as we know it.” Many of Maxmin’s peers seem to agree:
in a November referendum held by the Harvard Undergraduate Council, 72 percent of participating students voted to support divestment. “On some level it’s very intuitive,” Maxmin says. “It’s wrong to be investing in these corporations because their business model is incompatible with the future of our generation.”
   But while faculty members laud students for civic engagement, they do not necessarily embrace the aims of the current protest. “It is wonderful to see student activism arise surrounding climate change,” says Hooper professor of geology Daniel Schrag, who directs the Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE).    
   “But what does it mean when students push Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies, but then fly home on airplanes and drive around in cars fueled by petroleum, communicating on their iPhones using electricity generated from coal and natural gas? We need a profound change in the energy systems and infrastructure that underlie our society, and Harvard’s role is to develop new technologies and ways of implementing them, and most of all to educate our students who will lead the world through this transition.”
   These future leaders, some of whom are involved in groups now at the forefront of climate activism, are leveraging their voices through the use of social media such as Twitter and other low-cost and lightning-quick tools for reaching vast numbers of people. “It’s a good thing that we have the Internet—a globally linked way to communicate—just as we hit our first truly global problem,” says McKibben. “It can’t be the only way we proceed (emailing each other petitions has its limits of effectiveness) but it is a huge help. It helps spread the news of older, time-honored tactics like civil disobedience.”
   Still, if climate campaigners are to build a truly broad coalition that can compete with the political clout of the fossil fuel industry, he acknowledges that no amount of Tweeting can take the place of the patient, painstaking work of outreach to grassroots organizations: “Working with partners across the progressive spectrum always takes lots of talk, and lots of respect in all directions.”
   Meanwhile, the Keystone protests gathered diverse support, from college students to Nebraska ranchers to Appalachians opposed to mountaintop-removal coal mining. McKibben compares this burgeoning movement to Occupy Wall Street: they are more interested in creating a national groundswell than in counting votes in the Senate or getting engaged in specific policy fights. “Before we have any real chance,” McKibben says, “we have to change the mood around this issue, building a real movement.”

Forging a Broader Coalition
Theda Skocpol, Thomas professor of government and sociology, has been studying political and social movements for much of her career. She recently conducted a thorough post-mortem on the failed push for cap-and-trade legislation in Congress in 2009 and 2010. Her analysis concludes that mainstream environmental organizations were overly focused on making an “insider deal” with business interests, with little grassroots support.
   “To build leverage on Congress,” she writes, “and to push back effectively against elite and populist anti-environmental forces, global warming reformers must mobilize broad, popularly rooted support for carbon-capping measures that have something concrete to offer not just to big corporate players, but also to ordinary American citizens and to local and state groups.”
   Skocpol is focused on what can shift lawmakers’ thinking on the costs and benefits of climate action. Her answer: strong constituencies for change. “I’m asking people to think not about the science or the urgency of the moral crisis, but the politics,” she said in an interview. “And that’s not easy to separate.”
   “I don’t think people are clear-eyed about any of this,” she continued, referring to “bipartisan fantasies” that the big environmental groups brought to negotiations. “There is romanticism on the far left, too, that all you have to have is some demonstrations, the Occupy Wall Street fantasy”—one which McKibben seems to embrace.
   In preparation for the next round of battles over carbon-pricing or -capping legislation, Skocpol sees potential in persuading both Republican and Democratic moderates that this can be a winning issue for them. “You do need to go well beyond the network of organizations that already think of themselves as environmentalists,” she says. “Environmentalism remains a very upper middle class, coastal movement.”
   Skocpol advocates better-organized outreach to church groups, labor unions, community organizations and groups like the League of Women’s Voters. “I think one has to cast a wide net and prepare to be surprised.” She further argues that any successful alliance pushing climate legislation will have to be built around specific policy proposals that do not impose undue economic burdens on the public. “People have to realize that policy directions and coalitions go together,” she says. “My research shows that the bottom four-fifths of Americans have not seen real income growth, and that creates a real dilemma any time you’re doing something that raises costs. And frankly, it will raise costs.”

Choosing the Right Targets
What are the requisite ingredients of successful social movements? Several scholars identify key components: passionate participants driven by a sense of moral urgency; careful organization; diverse coalitions; and the identification of effective—and sensible—points of leverage.
   On that latter point, Joseph Aldy, an assistant professor of public policy at HKS and former special assistant to President Obama for energy and environment, would encourage activists to focus on those actors blocking action in Congress.
   In 2008, the presidential nominees of both major parties agreed that climate change was a serious problem, and both expressed support for cap-and- trade-based solutions. But after the failure of climate legislation in the Senate in 2010, “cap-and-trade” became a dirty word in Washington, largely thanks to aggressive lobbying by fossil fuel interests and outspoken opposition from the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. “We have too many people who think the earth is just flat again,” Aldy says, referring to Republican lawmakers and their supporters who deny climate change is an urgent, or even real, problem. Social movements need “to mobilize people to impose a political cost on people who say there is no such thing as climate change.”
   “It’s a little peculiar to be targeting those who are already trying to do what they can to tackle this issue,” he says in reference to McKibben’s Washington, D.C. Keystone protests. Citing President Obama’s achievements on fuel efficiency standards and other fronts, he says his former boss has done more than any previous president to reduce emissions. Protesters’ energy would be better spent, he suggests, targeting those politicians who “still don’t think this is an important issue at all.”
Likewise, Aldy thinks activists should target the energy industry more carefully. “Keystone is a very transparent measure of success from a social movement standpoint,” he says, in that the pipeline will either be approved or denied. “But does it affect global climate in the next twenty years? I don’t think so.”
   William Hogan, Plank professor of global energy policy at HKS, agrees that approval of Keystone wouldn’t make big a difference in terms of global carbon dioxide emissions. He is concerned that the “theater” of fights over Keystone and divestment makes it more difficult to have an honest conversation about the costs and benefits of specific policies that would make a difference in global emissions. “The worldview of the people arguing for divestment and so forth often seems to be disconnected from the facts,” he says. “I’m always fundamentally concerned about people who say things that are not true: ‘Keystone is the end of the world. Game over.’ That’s just silly.”
   “I’m in favor of taxing all energy-related emissions and putting a price on them,” he says. “A lot of people would be prepared to pay five percent of GDP” to stay within safe limits on atmospheric carbon levels, “but not everybody would.” He laments that environmental groups’ current tack leaves little room for a “nuanced conversation” about the critical question of “how much we’re willing to pay” to slow climate change.
   William Clark, Brooks professor of international science, public policy and human development at HKS, concedes that activists like McKibben “have a great moral advantage in this, in that they are doing something instead of simply wringing their hands.” He also acknowledges the potential symbolic power of campaigns to make a moral statement about the urgency of reigning in our consumption of fossil fuels. But he shares his colleagues’ skepticism that divestment is the best way to go about it. “It’s not enough to say, ‘This is something we can get people to rally around.’”
   “There’s somewhere between a lack of clarity and a muddle in terms of what the divestment movement is trying to accomplish,” he says. “Divestiture isn’t a goal, it’s a means to some end.”
   If fossil fuel production stopped tomorrow, he points out, society as we know it would collapse. As individuals, we demand fossil fuels, he says. And the world economy is built on them.
   Clark appreciates the need to build momentum on the issue. But he points to Occupy Wall Street as a cautionary example of a movement that had some impact on the national conversation, and then faded for lack of clear objectives. “If you look back at the civil rights movement, one of the pieces of genius was managing to keep the outrage and moral focus of the movement tied to relatively small, achievable steps.” Clark would like to see, instead of a “negative, ‘stop things’ movement,” more emphasis on making proactive, positive investments: “We can preferentially direct our investments into areas with an energy and climate agenda.”
   If opposition is “needed to rally people,” Clark continues, “then let’s target the very worst, obstructionist actors, the ones undermining science and spreading disinformation. I would say, look, we’re a university, we may well have different perspectives as individuals over the right mix of fuels, the right degree of government intervention. But some individuals and firms out there are undermining the center of our existence as a university: respect for the importance and power of efforts to get closer to the truth. Target them.”
   McKibben has heard such criticisms before, and given his goal of “changing the mood” around the issue, he thinks targeting the Keystone pipeline and investments in fossil fuel companies might offer symbolic, rabble-rousing value that goes beyond the precise amount of carbon kept out of the atmosphere. The cognitive dissonance of the investment positions of institutions such as Harvard, he says, are fair game.
   “I don’t think we’re radical at all,” he says. “All we want is a world that works the way it did when we were born. We’re conservatives. It’s oil companies—and the institutions like Harvard willing to profit from them—that are radicals, willing to change the chemical composition of the atmosphere. I don’t think there’s ever been a more radical act in human history.”

A Rational Path?
So where does the climate movement go from here?
   As Marshall Ganz likes to point out, all social movements are “unpredictable, messy, contentious.” Debate over how to push for climate solutions will no doubt continue, and will likely take new, unanticipated directions—but only if these nascent stirrings of energy are sustained through what is sure to be a decades-long struggle to transform the very underpinnings of the modern global economy.
   In 1964, Ganz picketed Harvard administrators to demand they divest from Mississippi Light and Power Company. That effort failed, but “a lot of us who cut our teeth challenging them to divest…went on to play a role in the movement.” Whether or not Maxmin and her colleagues are successful in their push for divestment, there will be a need for continued engagement in the coming years, much as Ganz went on to work for decades to advance civil and labor rights. Says Schrag, “Student activism is exactly what we need, and the exact demands seem less important than the fact that they are actually mobilizing and demanding change. So I applaud their protests to gain attention. I just don’t think the University should follow their specific demands.”
   What is clear is that the University will continue to be a “place of contention,” said Ganz at a recent event in Sanders Theatre. Reasonable people can disagree on the path forward, on the choice of tactics, targets, even goals. But simply doing nothing is looking increasingly unreasonable.

This article originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, the newsletter of the Center for the Environment, in Volume 5, Issue 1. Read the entire issue here.

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