Can Astroturf Campaigns Reverse Climate Change?

Originally published in Free Press Houston on September 22, 2014. By Perry Graham.



Yesterday, over 300,000 people gathered in New York City for the People’s Climate March. Organizers for the march billed it as an “historic” event and “the largest rally about climate change in human history.” But don’t be fooled: although filled with people from the grassroots, this was not a grassroots-led event. And that matters, because it determines what possibilities are open to the movement going forward.

From the outset, and Avaaz dominated the march organizing. Despite the rhetoric of “participatory, open-source” planning and “being led by frontline communities,” these big NGOs kept their hands firmly on the wheel (and on the pocketbooks with millions of dollars to spend). They had the most to gain from large numbers of people turning out to the march – in the form of personal advancement and increased organizational funding from private foundations – and so the call for an inclusive, apolitical (no clear demands or political targets), “family-friendly” march is better seen as coming from a place of self-interest rather than a place of mutual respect for and solidarity with all the people and organizations involved.

The political logic behind this approach is that demonstrating broad and diverse support for climate action creates space for politicians to support it. The practical effect is that the NGOs have managed to constrict and contain dissent to the point where there is no interruption to business as usual for the UN. The more radical Flood Wall Street action is planned for Monday, the day before the UN meets, out of logistical necessity (that’s when people will still be in town after the march), yet has received not a word of acknowledgement, let alone support, from the big green groups. The NGOs prevent the UN Summit from being disrupted, and in return, is one of four US-based NGOs that is even allowed to sit in on the summit. While I’m sure this arrangement was not reached in such a cut-and-dry manner, it is impossible not to notice how convenient this arrangement is. Furthermore, there is no incentive for the UN to do anything differently than they might if the march had not happened.

Activists "Flood Wall Street" day after People's Climate March

Activists “Flood Wall Street” day after People’s Climate March

To further understand the disconnect between the NGOs and grassroots communities, let’s consider the theme of the march: “Action, Not Words.” Not all climate action is created equal, and the only action the UN seems prepared to work towards this week are carbon pricing schemes. While there may be some people claiming to be environmentalists who support these “market-based solutions,” climate and environmental justice advocates have long known that these false solutions only serve to allow corporate profiteers to continue business-as-usual while making an extra buck off “climate action.” These schemes have the unfortunate tendency of giving the biggest polluters the most credits, which they can sell for profit, as well as creating perverse incentives for corporations to pollute more just so they can be paid to reduce emissions. In the context of the vague, apolitical “demands” of the Climate March, the UN Summit could announce a commitment to a carbon pricing scheme and the NGOs would find cause to celebrate, while frontline communities realize that they would continue to suffer under such a policy.

Finally, let’s look at where these organizations are going with their strategy. Both Avaaz and have already started making noise about the UN climate change meeting happening in Paris in 2015 (called Conference of Parties, or COP-21). COP-21 is ostensibly important because it is where the world is expected to commit to a legally binding agreement on climate action, although the details of the agreement are not yet written. However, anyone who knows the history of UN climate negotiations realizes there is an odor of futility to them; a similar agreement was supposed to be made at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009, but that failed to happen. Why, then, would the big NGOs be echoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in putting all of their hopes for decisive climate action into this one meeting?

Perhaps more importantly, why are the NGOs ignoring COP-20, scheduled for this December in Peru? Could it be because of the People’s Summit on Climate Change, scheduled to run concurrently to the COP as a grassroots alternative?

If the COP negotiations carry the scent of futility, then the People’s Summit and related efforts (such as the Social PreCOP, scheduled for this November in Venezuela) are a breath of fresh air. This alternative track of meetings, which trace back to the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, represent a global grassroots organizing effort of environmental and climate justice communities struggling to “change the system, not the climate.” They understand that climate change is the product of social relations of domination and exploitation, and that coordinated grassroots efforts on a massive scale are the best antidote to a system hell-bent on destroying people and the planet in the pursuit of profit.

To, Avaaz, and the other big green NGOs: here is the frontline grassroots leadership you profess to care so much about. It’s time for you to step back and follow their lead if you really want to see global action on climate change. Climate justice demands it.

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Beyond the People’s Climate March: Where Were You During the #Flood?

This piece was written by a Boston-based group of 13 young people who were arrested in #FloodWallStreet. The Tar Sands Blockade collective did not write this piece, but we believe this is an important conversation.


Recognizing this crucial moment in history, people, especially privileged youth, came out in droves from across the country to the People’s Climate March. They were there to tell a story en masse: that change will come if enough of us demand climate action from our leaders. Yet when it came time to tell the more honest story, that those at the root of this crisis are the corporations and Wall Street profiteers making fortunes off of the suffering of billions, we lost almost everyone. We went from 400,000 at the People’s Climate March to 3,000 at #FloodWallStreet. When it finally came time to stand our ground, to sit on Wall Street and put our bodies on the line, our numbers dwindled from 3,000 to 102.

102 were arrested at the intersection of Broadway & Wall Street

We do not aim to devalue what was accomplished at #FloodWallStreet. We have so much love and gratitude for the organizers that put tireless work into the action, and everyone that showed up. It was incredibly powerful and effective to shut down a major intersection in the heart of the most important financial district on the planet. But it’s too easy to walk away from this patting ourselves on the back and waiting for the next big mobilization. This isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. Our intent is to push everyone, including ourselves, to think about what it will take to really live up to Frederick Douglass’s oft-quoted truth: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

We feel frustrated that #FloodWallStreet fell short of its potential to be a game-changing moment in the climate justice movement. We felt that it was a mistake for the organizers to declare the action a success a few hours after taking the street, telling folks: “feel free to go home. We did what we came to do.” But we hadn’t — the action was about disrupting business as usual at the NY Stock Exchange, or if that was not possible, escalating through civil disobedience. Instead, much like the People’s Climate March, folks were ready to call it a day after a couple of hours of chanting in the street.

One reason people actually stayed is because some of us and others mic-checked to the crowd: “from the looks of it, we’re now flooding Wall Street. This is our target. Let’s stay until we are forcibly removed!” When the dispersal order came shortly thereafter, most of the remaining folks left. When the arrests started, only 3% of the original 3,000 of us remained. The crowd of spectators was three or four times larger than the bloc actually risking arrest. Many protesters who soap-boxed with mic-checks abandoned the fight when they were called upon to match their words with actions.

We understand that there are critical support roles for arrestable action, that it takes privilege to voluntarily risk arrest, and that there were many who could not afford to do so. But #FloodWallStreet was framed as a direct action against climate profiteers, and over 1,000 people specifically signed up to commit civil disobedience. It happened between the biggest climate march in history and a major UN Climate Summit, in a city that was, at that moment, hosting a historic number of climate activists. We were in the belly of the beast, the epicenter of global capitalism, at a crucial moment to indict Wall Street for fueling the climate crisis and environmental racism. Could there be a more appropriate moment for thousands of people to put their bodies on the line for climate justice?

While being processed in jail, some comrades next to us were a 17 year-old high school student and woman of color, and a 63 year-old man from Chicago, IL who missed his flight as we sat over-night in jail. We shared cells with women who would have to fly back from Oakland, CA and New Orleans for their court date. Where were the thousands of privileged college students from the Northeast who work for “climate justice” on campus? Where were the devoted organizers of dozens of climate nonprofits who claim this to be the final window for climate action? Where were the local NYC organizers who called for this action and prompted so many to risk arrest? Standing on the sidelines or watching the livestream from home at those key moments won’t cut it. Proclaiming our solidarity with frontline communities and denouncing capitalism is meaningless if we are not willing to make sacrifices for those beliefs. Particularly when those who’ve faced the most devastation have been at the frontlines of resistance for years.

We’re saddened by the dramatic dissonance between the magnitude of the climate crisis and the level of radical resistance on the ground, particularly from activists who we know care deeply. As we spent all day at the People’s Climate March handing out fliers and spreading the word about #FloodWallStreet, we heard the same excuses from our allies: “I can’t miss class.” “I have work.” To our privileged peers who know they can take a day off and survive: do we really think we will ever get the change we need by conveniently fitting protests into our weekend plans? If we are not willing to give up a single day of class or work to take action against the global profiteers of injustice, how the hell do we expect to change anything?

Over the coming decades, as frontline communities continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis, as cities drown and droughts leave dinner tables empty for the most vulnerable, how will we look back at our role in this crucial moment? The days of work and classes missed will mean nothing. Our only regrets will be our failures to act courageously when we had the chance.

So let’s recognize those rare moments when we’re in the right place at the right time and we have power–and seize them. If the 3,000 people that came to #FloodWallStreet had stayed when the time came to face consequence, there would have been too many of us to arrest. Imagine if thousands of us continued to hold Wall Street through the UN Climate Summit. Only then would the story grow beyond the scuffle with the cops and that one polar bear who got arrested. Only then would the story of how capitalism = climate chaos be pressed onto the world stage.

If our generation wants to see climate justice in our lifetime, we need to step it up. We must work together to take advantage of high impact moments, and be willing to make real sacrifices when the opportunity is ripe. Coming home from NYC, let’s continue to organize, to build deep relationships and resilient communities to weather the storm. But let’s also remember that to end this madness it’s going to take privileged people putting their bodies on the line, again and again and again.


Emily, Martin, Abbie, Noah, Marisa, Shea, Evan, Bobby, James, PJ, Andrew, Kristina, Naveh



Note: After publishing this piece, others have voiced their own perspective. If you have a response, let us know on twitter @kxlblockade.

Floods of Courage, Floods of Vision – Maypop Collective for Climate and Economic Justice

I appreciate all those arrested at #FloodWallStreet, and the points made in “Where Were You During the Flood,” for prompting us to think about these important questions. I unequivocally agree with you that we need a deeper level of personal sacrifice if we hope to succeed. My addition is twofold: (1) Supporting each other to make sacrifices will require a lot of skilled emotional work, and (2) Many more people will be willing to sacrifice if their sacrifices are in the service of a viable long-term strategy.


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Protesters Surrounding Pipeline HQ Say “Nooo KXXXL Pipeline!”

NOOOOKXXXL memeresize

Houston, TXDowntown Houston was total mayhem this afternoon* at the U.S. headquarters of Canada-based pipeline giant Enbridge. When this reporter arrived, the scene was highly congested; nearly a hundred Houstonians protesting the “KXXXL Pipeline” were surrounded by an almost equal number of HPD officers on foot, horseback, bicycle, and Segway™. Just outside the lobby doors, CEO of Enbridge Energy Management Mark Maki was animatedly interviewing with at least four local TV News affiliates. When he finished the interview, I asked Maki to explain what was happening.

According to Maki, a member of Enbridge’s Board of Directors, ever since TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline became a household name, the engineers and executives at the competing Enbridge Corporation have been feeling left out. “Every time I turn on the TV, I see [TransCanada CEO] Russ Girling on CNN, on MSNBC, on Fox News!” he said, “Enbridge operates the longest petroleum pipeline system in the world, and KXL gets all the attention! It’s a downright injustice.”

In October, Enbridge will activate a tar sands pipeline system to bring 880,000 barrels/day of tar sands bitumen from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The system, which includes the re-purposed Alberta Clipper pipeline, the newly constructed Flanagan South, the repurposed Seaway Pipeline, and the new Seaway Loop, follows a similar route as KXL and will carry more product.

At first, Maki explained, he and the other Enbridge executives didn’t understand why national environmental groups were paying so little attention. “We kept hearing about KXL being the ‘fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet’ and getting all the hype, and here we are, building a bigger fuse and doing it faster, and I can’t even get airtime on Sean Hannity!”

All that changed this week, with Enbridge’s announcement that it will re-brand its piecemeal system as one super-pipeline called “KXXXL.” As news of the name change disseminated, local Houstonians became enraged by the prospect of KXXXL and have taken to the streets.

Photo by Elizabeth Brossa

Photo by Elizabeth Brossa

When I asked Mark Maki if he had any response to the protesters’ claims that KXXXL will poison Gulf Coast refinery communities and destabilize the global climate, he quickly ended the interview, apologizing that he had to go prepare for an appearance on Anderson Cooper 360.

Meanwhile, a protester with a megaphone urged the crowd to resist Enbridge’s media showboating. “Enbridge can call its river of poison whatever it wants, our message remains the same,” she said. “We are facing a global ecological crisis, and we need a solution that addresses the roots of the crisis. Gulf Coast communities are already living in industrial sacrifice zones, so although we will continue to fight new toxic infrastructure like K triple-X L, the root of the problem goes deeper. We need to change the system that allows sacrifice zones to exist in the first place.”

The crowd responded with a resounding cheer and a sea of twinkle fingers. I approached a group holding a banner reading “NOOO KXXXL” and asked why they were protesting. “We’re here today,” one of them responded, “to affirm that the tar sands flowing through Enbridge’s pipelines are just as criminal as those flowing through KXL. The same can be said for the thousands of bomb trains transporting tar sands by rail! Or the expansion of dangerous dirty energy infrastructure in every port city along the Gulf Coast – Freeport, Houston, Port Arthur, New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola – where we already face a vast crisis of environmental racism!”

The crowd dispersed shortly after five, after most Enbridge employees had left the office. Rush hour was in full swing. Though the protesters followed regulations and kept to the sidewalk, HPD had brought a large enough force to cause extreme congestion, including an incident at the intersection of Lamar and Louisiana. Police Chief Charles McClelland later said “[The officer] piloting the Segway™ briefly lost control of his vehicle. Neither he, nor the officer on horseback, nor the horse, nor the civilian, sustained anything but minor injuries.”

More On Enbridge’s Tar Sands Pipelines:

Line 6b (active construction) is the pipeline that spilled in Kalamazoo in 2010 and is currently being expanded to double its capacity for tar sands oil transportation. Enbridge hopes to have this new line up by 2014 and construction has already begun in parts of Michigan. This line runs through the southern part of Michigan and will connect to lines in Canada and the east coast for oil export. See Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI-CATS) for more information and ways to help out.

Lakehead Line 5 (operational) is a 53-year old re-purposed pipeline, currently pumping over 540,000 barrels per day of tar sands bitumen underneath the Straits of Mackinac in The Great Lakes. The Coast Guard says they could not adequately respond to such a spill.

Line 9 (partially operational) Enbridge is also planning to re-purpose and increase pressure on the 500 mile, 38 yr old natural gas “Line 9” to carry tar sands through the territory of dozens of indigenous nations, through Great Lakes ecosystems and near major cities like Montreal and Toronto. Part of the line has already been re-purposed for tar sands; the remaining section was given regulatory approval in March, 2014 but is not operational. For more information, follow Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP) on Twitter and Facebook.

-Northern Gatway (proposed) would carry 525,000 bpd of tar sands bitumen to the British Colombia coast – as well as 193,000 bpd natural gas condensate for burning at the tar sands mines themselves. Both projects have faced powerful opposition in Canada from First Nations.


* Not really, though nearly 100 Houstonians did march through downtown Houston, stopping to call out some of the worst perpetrators of climate injustice: Enbridge, LyondellBasell, Kinder Morgan, Shell, Anadarko, and the U.S. Military. No horses or cops on scooters or anyone else were harmed during the making of this satire – not even this oil-rich Marie Antoinette who showed up to rep the 1%.


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