Is the Climate Movement For Real?

Several weeks ago, after Tim DeChristopher received a two-year jail sentence for climate monkey wrenching, the outrage in various quarters was palpable. Some, like Jeff Goodell at Rolling Stone, saw a potentially historic moment in the making:

For climate activists, this is a Rosa Parks moment.  Or should be.

In other words, the jailing of DeChristopher should be a similar kind of epic spark, one that would launch a movement of protesters rallying to the climate change cause.

But equating the DeChistropher episode with a seminal event in the Civil Rights movement is problematic, because as sociologist David Meyer noted yesterday in The Washington Post, “anger doesn’t make a movement “” organizers do.” Meyer’s essay is not about climate activism, but he provides an instructive history lesson for budding climate activists:

Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren’t choreographed, but activists had spent years building the infrastructure and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.

As best as I can tell,  climate activism remains a disorganized amalgam of national and local groups. Ironically, there seems to be a bigger grassroots uprising against one of the highly touted solutions to climate change, if Robert Bryce is correct when he asserts that

the backlash against industrial wind is real, it’s global, and it’s growing. The U.S. has about 170 anti-wind groups.

If the climate movement in the U.S could claim it had 170 separate chapters, that would be a notable sign that it too is growing. Absent that, what will it take for the climate cause to catch on? A certain famous climate activist, in a speech several months ago, laid out the challenge, in terms that evoked the kinds of sacrifices made during the Civil Rights era:

Where is the point when our movement is going to say that stopping this injustice is more important than my career plans, is more important than my comfort and convenience?

I’m sure we’ll know when the climate movement arrives at that point.

14 Responses to “Is the Climate Movement For Real?”

  1. Ken Green says:

    A quick count here: ( lists over 350 environmental organizations worldwide, and doesn’t count state and local chapters. I’m sure some of their agenda is about climate change (I presume that not all the anti-wind groups share the exact same motivations either). 

    Sierra Club ( lists about 70 chapters in the US alone.

    Greenpeace looks to have more than 10 offices:

    NRDC has 7 offices:

    My guess would be that if you counted college campus branches of environmental groups who had a major focus on climate change, you’d easily top 1,000 organizing nodes in the “climate movement.” 

  2. Keith Kloor says:


    Thanks for the quick metrics. I’m aware that there is a deep well spring of climate activism on college campuses, but I don’t see this being transferred to communities or to any sustained actions, like protests. That said, this event starting next week should provide a barometer.

  3. Jarmo says:

    stopping this injustice is more important than my career plans, is more important than my comfort and convenience?

    Stopping this injustice is hard because (like Jim Hansen noted in the Easter Bunny piece) there are no ready alternatives, some of them are on the environmentalist no-no list (Nuclear, gas) and the problem is global. The Indians and the Chinese consider binding emission cuts for themselves as an injustice. They expect the West to cut emissions and also pay for the emission mitigation in the developing world:

  4. Keith Kloor says:


    Yes, agreed. The planned tar sands protest I referenced is also indicative of the climate/energy pickle. That oil will be shipped somewhere, just not to the U.S. if the White House nixes the pipeline.


  5. Sashka says:

    Had he been trying to protect Utah’s priceless national parks from pollution I’d call his actions legitimate. But climate change has very little to do with this lease. Same goes for energy industry profits. His heart may be in the right place. His rhetoric is not.

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    I suppose that would have been closer to the actual spirit of monkey-wrenching, too.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    “Deep wellspring of climate activism on college campuses”
    When I see them refusing to take classes in air-conditioned class rooms and refusing to eat in air conditioned dining halls and refusing to live in air-conditioned dormitory’s and refusing to shop in air-conditioned shopping malls then they’ll have had their ‘rosa parks’ moment.
    A ‘bus boycott’ meant walking in sweltering heat instead of riding the bus. It involved personal inconvenience and sacrifice.

  8. Jarmo says:


    So, unless there is a game plan of global dimensions, individual acts are bound to be Quixotic? 

  9. jeffn says:

    #7 Harry,
    It gets worse- these are the “kids” who own every possible gadget that plugs into the wall, get their news from Comedy Central cable channel and are also “flocking” to study “sustainability” for a mere $10,000 to $20,000 a year at universities ( )
    Note the quotes from the advocates who are excited about the kids going over $100k in debt because of their bright prospects of securing a job managing windmills. Those are going to be some very disappointed kids. Luckily there are organizations on campus to tell them which political party to blame

  10. Tom Gray says:

    Is the climate movement an elite driven one? Is the reason that there is no bus boycott equivalent because, it is not a mass movement of aggrieved people but a movement of elite activists from universities and politics.

    I have just finished reading a description of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign. With Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal, Kennedy’s main opponent in the primaries was Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy gained his strength from the college campuses. College students campaigned for him and cut their hair with the motto “Clean for Gene”. McCarthy won in the highly educated wealthy areas. MCarthy’s main point was his opposition to the Viet Nam War. Kennedy, like McCarthy, also opposed the war but also campaigned strenuously for aid to the poor and powerless. He directly confronted the issue of poverty among blacks and Indians. However he also directly confronted the issue of violence which was current due to teh race riots and crime. As a result his appeal went across racial lines and across all portions of the population who were poor and powerless. He took his support from both blacks and what were supposed to be “backlash” whites. Kennedy tapped a genuine mass movement among people who had been ignored by the politically and economically powerful. Kennedy received votes from supporters of both the Black Panthers and George Wallace.

    To put the climate movement in this context, it looks to be issue of a Eugene McCarthy. it is the issue of the college campus, of the educated, wealthy and politically active. It is not a mass movement of the people who have been injured by the economy. It is the issue of the comfortable for whom any dislocation will be tolerable. it is teh issue of eh New York Times. It is not a mass movement

  11. Tom Gray says:

    Has people read the current articles on the creation of a global elite? I have seen articles on this in the Atlantic , the Economist and Business Week. This would be an elite that is divorced from the day to day lives of the less advantaged. As these people get richer in the knowledge economy (especially financial intermediation), the rest of society gets poorer.

    So for this elite, an AGW solution would mean a modest carbon surcharge on their business or first class tickets. For the less advantaged, this would mean that they would lose the ability to travel. This appears to be the policy of the EU. So AGW mediation effects would fall disproportionately across society. The comfortable elite would notice fewer of the less wealthy cluttering up airports. The less wealthy could take spiritual comfort in the virtue of their sacrifice to AGW.

  12. Jack Hughes says:

    “ONE of David Cameron’s key Cabinet advisers has sparked fury after sneering: “We don’t want more people from ­Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays.”
    Multi-millionaire minister Oliver Letwin’s outrageous outburst came during a row with London Mayor Boris Johnson over the building of new airports.
    The mayor, who wants a new airport for the capital, said: “I was absolutely scandalised the other day to hear a ­Government minister tell me he did not want to see more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays.”
    His comment, made during a “blazing row” with Mr Johnson, came despite a string of foreign trips by Cabinet ministers including Letwin who, like Cameron, was ­educated at Eton. <b>Letwin had an 11,400-mile round-trip to Brazil to give a speech on saving the ­rainforests</b> in 2008 when his “fare and other ­expenses” were all paid by late ­billionaire financier James ­Goldsmith’s charity ­foundation.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    The eco-demographic was lampooned mercilessly at last year’s UK #climatecamp 
    “Someone has stolen my ‘all property is theft’ banner from #climatecamp. My mum gave me that for getting 3*A’s at Winchester”
    “Moonbeam says she never wants to come to another #climatecamp and hopes the job at Barclays Private Banking is still open and her ponies are ok”
    pwned by denialist bloggers. 🙂

  14. mark says:

    The issue of climate change is not a “high class” problem, it’s a human survival on the planet problem. Many of the world’s poor are on the parts of the globe expected to be impacted the most by the first effects of climate change.
    Probably the biggest PR problem facing a climate change movement is the fact that you can’t see it happening (though the results are starting to pile up it would seem).  Humans are notoriously bad at changing habits or giving up “comforts.” We’re good at demonizing, which is why we are willing to take off our shoes and belts every time we fly. But it’s hard to demonize the planet’s weather system.
    The other problem of course is we can’t go cold turkey off oil, and it starts to get messy when you need to invent an ethical scale for various fossil fuels. If we looked at climate change as aliens invading the Earth and turning it into a Crockpot, we might get together on some serious actions and solutions.
    Meanwhile I will be heading to Washington this week at some inconvenience to me, my career, my family, and my finances. Stop the Keystone Pipeline. Yeah!

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