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The Desperate Search for a Strategy to Defeat Climate Change

The most significant and irreversible threat that our generation poses to the future is marked by an almost complete political incapacity to act.

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Lessons from the Front Lines

The good news is that there are important climate-related action campaigns underway all across the globe, some winning impressive victories and all offering up valuable lessons. The Democracy Center recently took an in-depth look at seven climate-related action campaigns around the world, from California to Kosovo, to capture some of that wisdom. 

One key lesson is about the importance of moving these fights to the fields of battle where citizen action stands the best chance of winning, and on climate issues the more local we make those battles the stronger we are. Nationally in the U.S. forward action is stalled by a combination of corporate cash and deep polarization. As these fights become more local however, something changes. Instead of being a set of divided interests we become neighbors battling a common threat to local water and to our air.

The coalition fighting coal export plans in Washington State, for example, runs from environmentalists to fisherman to wealthy homeowners all of whom oppose the prospect of eighteen contaminating coal trains a day passing through their communities. The fossil fuel industry needs complex infrastructure – pipelines, trains, and ports – to move its product across the world, and that infrastructure has deep local impacts. Campaigning for the right of communities to decide their own environmental fate can also be one of the most important battles for the planet's environmental fate as well.

A second lesson is about how we talk about climate issues, speaking both global and local at the same time. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy offer 'teaching moments' where public officials in particular (as in the case of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo) can and should help the public connect the dots between local devastation and the dangerous human-caused transformation of the atmosphere. Climate activists need to always combat the voices of climate change denial and work to educate the public. But in the meantime, what is winning climate battles right now is talking about issues that have a much more immediate impact on people's lives.

In 2010 in California, the billionaire Koch brothers and a pair of Texas oil companies launched a ballot campaign to kill the state's climate law ( Proposition 23). Environmental and social justice groups beat them by more than two-to-one by talking about issues such as child asthma and air pollution created by dirty power plants as well as the need for new 'green jobs' in a tough economy. Activists in India stopped construction of a new coal plant by focusing on the threat to local livelihoods in fishing and farming. As we work to spread word about the larger threat to the planet, climate activists need to build political strength by talking about what people already care about now.

Finally, we need to start connecting climate issues to what really matters to us most: our children and grandchildren. Far too often the climate debate descends into discourses about data and exchanges of ideological rhetoric. When I think of climate change what I think of most is my ten-year-old daughter and all of the other fourth graders around the world. Are we really prepared to hand them a fearsome future of ecological unknowns, where Sandys become commonplace and where drought and food shortages spread across the planet? As climate activists we can surely make a case as compelling about this threat to their future as others make about the threats posed to them by national debt.  Groups such as UNICEF and others are already showing us the way.

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