How Local Activism Points Toward a Low-Carbon Future

By Will Hughes 

If you are looking for it, there is no shortage of bad news on the climate front. President Trump and his appointees, aided and abetted by a Republican-controlled Congress, have begun the swift dismantling of great swaths of federal policy dedicated to fighting climate change. A recent executive order began the process to undo the Clean Power Plan, a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate response, and regulations concerning fuel standards, methane leaks at oil wells, and climate adaptation are being unwound as well. All the while, temperature and ice cover records are being broken and then broken again. In this new reality, environmentalists are readying themselves to fight to preserve existing programs and policies against the new administration with the expectation of a turbulent four years.

But they are not only playing defense. Activists are continuing to fight battles at the state and local level against fossil fuel based infrastructure and in favor of renewable energy. States have balked at many of the Trump climate proposals, and Democratic officeholders, particularly mayors, have restated their commitment to fighting climate change. Although federal power is necessary and must be gained if we are to prevent worst case scenarios, we should think of the smaller scale fights ahead of us as the foundation of an emergent climate movement, not consolation prizes on the way to national power.

While this focus might be one borne out of necessity, it happens to also be one more likely to win important policy victories. While fossil fuel infrastructure can be popular in the abstract, particularly when presented as a way to create jobs, when specific projects are proposed, unlikely allies can emerge in opposition. Take the Keystone XL pipeline. As part of the campaign against the pipeline, tribal groups allied with ranchers and farmers to create the Cowboys Indians Alliance, and staged a week of action, including a march on Washington D.C., in 2014. The name might make the alliance seem novel or counterintuitive, but the formation has roots going back to 1980s battles against uranium mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In that case, the people most affected by fossil fuel extraction and environmental degradation united in opposition despite differences in identities and political views.

In fact, the unlikeliest of suspects can end up fighting fossil fuel expansion when it affects them personally. In 2014, a group of homeowners in Bar RR Ranches, a luxury development outside Dallas, sued to stop the construction of a water tower nearby that was intended in part for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, citing safety and noise concerns. Among the plaintiffs was former Exxon Mobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Or look at the recent move by China’s National Energy Administration to cancel construction on new coal plants and consider a ban on new coal infrastructure. While the Chinese government has expressed concern over future consequences of climate change, such as agricultural failures due to a shifting monsoon or flooding in coastal cities, most observers agreed it was the record-breaking and persistent smog in winter after winter that led to outrage (and exodus) in cities such as Beijing.

What caused the national government to act was direct, current consequences on people’s lives, rather than the specter of future catastrophe. Appeals to people’s immediate, lived reality have an ability to mobilize and cut across traditional divisions in a way that speaking about global targets and worldwide responsibility does not.

There are also cities that are completely reframing the terms of the climate debate: Boulder, Colorado is nearing the end of a protracted process to set up a publically owned utility. Traditionally a leader on environmental issues, Boulder pledged in 2002 to meet the targets for emissions reductions set by the 1997 Kyoto protocol. It tried to do so through a variety of programs, including public education campaigns and opt-in programs that allowed ratepayers to pay a surcharge for power with a slightly higher percentage of renewable sources, but the city ultimately did not meet its goals. A recurring obstacle was Xcel Energy, a private utility that provides power to several Colorado cities, including Boulder and Denver. Xcel’s physical assets and stated plans would have kept Boulder’s energy at least 75% generated by fossil fuels through 2030, and negotiations between Boulder and Xcel repeatedly stalled due to this fundamental conflict.

Activists realized that working only on the demand side would never be sufficient, and began a multi-year campaign to municipalize Boulder’s energy provision, with the idea that a publicly owned utility would be free to pursue emissions reductions in a way that a for-profit company never could.

Although the area is very environmentally conscious, the 2011 campaign on ballot measures to allow Boulder to create a utility focused on the fact that twenty-nine other municipalities in Colorado own their own utilities, and provide electricity at lower rates than Xcel. The campaign combined an appeal to people’s immediate, material needs with rhetoric around the inherent inability of a privately owned utility to provide steep and rapid cuts in carbon emissions. Over the course of the campaign, Xcel outspent municipalization groups more than ten to one, which proponents were able to frame as outside interests attempting to purchase a local election. A canvasser hired by opponents of the measure wrote an op-ed in the Boulder Daily Camera outlining the “expensive misinformation campaign” waged by Xcel, noting that he and some of his fellow canvassers (some of whom quit due to ethical reservations) were not residents. The rhetoric of local control and decision-making was paired with immediate, “kitchen table” issues: a powerful combination that ended up putting the measure over the top by 141 votes. Although the process is currently in its eighth year, the state Public Utility Commission is currently reviewing Boulder’s application to form a utility and is set to issue a decision by June.

Boulder is the first city in the country to municipalize for the express purpose of increasing renewable energy in the past thirty years. Already their example has sparked similar actions in Minneapolis and Santa Fe. In fact, even the threat of municipalization in Minneapolis, helped by activists that had worked on Boulder’s campaign, brought utilities to the negotiating table and won promises of much steeper emissions reductions than were originally proposed.

Taking on smaller-scale, winnable fights does not mean revising expectations downward. Instead, it recognizes that a just transition to a low-carbon society will involve completely rethinking what life and success look like. A transition will also necessarily involve confronting some of the most economically and politically powerful groups on the planet: fossil fuel companies. This is a tall order and one that is achievable only when every level of society is engaged and primed, a process that proceeds from the bottom up.

The policies we need will inevitably produce a backlash from the fossil-fuel industry, climate-change denialists, and other parties invested in the current mode of production. When we have an army of organizations and organizers who have cut their teeth fighting for renewable energy and against extraction, we will be better positioned to withstand this and continue pressing for ever more ambitious measures.

Those measures that must be undertaken by the federal government, including funding transfers to developing nations, national caps on emissions, and moratoria on extraction on federal land are high up on the wish list of most climate hawks. But these will be much easier to achieve with a nation-wide climate movement that has grounded the issue of climate change and the transition from fossil fuels in people’s day-to-day lives and local communities.

Will Hughes is a member of Brooklyn DSA and the New York City DSA Climate Justice working group.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.