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Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama

Obama already has it in his power to slash greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the damage climate change inflicts in the years ahead. But will he exercise that power?

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Of course, protest marches are a dime a dozen in Washington. Even so, the Obama Climate Legacy campaign seems worthy of attention, if only because it is being sponsored by two groups that have accomplished something rare among environmental organizations over the last four years: they won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org, its partner on the Washington demonstrations and the Climate Legacy campaign, scored major victories in the climate fight during Obama’s first term.

It was 350.org, a group co-founded by writer Bill McKibben, that galvanized grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, the construction of which would light “a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” in McKibben’s words. Days after 350.org brought more than 10,000 people to literally surround the White House in November 2011, the Obama administration reversed course and delayed a decision on whether to approve it. 

As for the Sierra Club, while most big green groups were demanding that all environmentalists stand and salute the god of cap-and-trade—the Obama-backed legislation that went down to ignominious defeat on Capitol Hill in 2010—the club was collaborating with grassroots activists across the country to impose a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. As I described in  Mother Jones, the Beyond Coal campaign helped prevent 174 (and counting) new coal plants from coming on line, thereby limiting America’s future greenhouse gas emissions nearly as much as the cap-and-trade system would have done (and that assumes the system functioning as well as its proponents had claimed—no sure thing considering how badly the bill was weakened in the congressional horse-trading). 

As important as the victories themselves was how they were won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org eschewed the inside-the-Beltway focus and top-down political strategy of big mainstream environmental groups, as exemplified by the cap-and-trade campaign. Instead, they emphasized grassroots organizing at the local level on behalf of far-reaching demands that ordinary people could grasp and support. Their immediate goal was to block a specific pipeline or power plant, but their strategic goal was to build a popular movement and accrue political power. Without power, their thinking went, the best policies in the world were doomed to defeat, for a policy’s intellectual merits alone could never persuade politicians to cross the richest business enterprise in history, the fossil fuel industry.

This same conviction—that political power is built from the bottom up, in local communities and congressional districts, and then brought to bear on Washington—also underlies the new Obama Climate Legacy campaign, says Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “One of the lessons [from Obama’s first term] is that there is no silver bullet for…tackling climate change. Dozens of organizations are addressing the issue from various angles—litigation, state and federal legislation, EPA rules—and we are all building upon our success in moving America beyond coal.”

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The fight for climate survival may also benefit from a related initiative that environmental groups helped launch. In December, the leaders of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, along with their counterparts at the NAACP and the Communications Workers of America, convened a meeting with three dozen other progressive groups to create something called the Democracy Initiative. The assembled labor, civil rights and environmental organizations agreed to share their resources and staff and collaborate in pursuit of objectives that will further both their individual agendas and the progressive cause. The Democracy Initiative has three initial goals: reforming the rules of the Senate to halt abuse of the filibuster; fighting voter suppression efforts so that all eligible Americans can vote; and reforming campaign finance laws to break the stranglehold of corporate money on government. “The current Senate rules blocked a climate bill from passing—there was no way to get sixty votes for a bill that was any good,” says Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace. “Voter suppression keeps people out of politics who don’t share the right-wing corporate agenda. Campaign finance reform is critical because the only way to win on the environment is for people to have more voice than the corporations that are getting rich from polluting the planet.”  

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