Today, climate activism is everywhere. It is in every corner of the planet — led by young people, Indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities. The opportunities to support that movement are more accessible and numerous than ever, and that has not just happened by chance .
Before 2009, there had never been a global day of action focused solely on climate change. That’s how 350.org was born — a group of eight college students and our mentor, Bill McKibben, helped to organize the first global day of action ahead of the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen. People from 181 countries across the globe took to the streets in both small and creative ways, to demonstrate that people everywhere cared deeply about tackling the climate crisis. Unfortunately the negotiations did not result in a binding deal in Copenhagen. However we had set the stage for a new kind of movement: one that didn’t simply wait for politicians, but instead one that was focused on activating citizens around the world.
We can look back over the last decade and see setbacks and defeat, not least in the hard numbers of carbon in our atmosphere, the global increasing average temperature, and devastating extreme weather. Nonetheless, we can also see moments of inspiring citizen activism.
This is because we have seen a shift in what climate activism looks like. It’s no longer an expert at an NGO demanding percentage reductions on target years Instead, it has the real drivers of climate breakdown in its sights. Today, after ten years of learning and evolving, the part of the climate movement that is generating the most interest and people-power is the one tackling the fossil fuel industry head-on. Across many organisations, not-for-profits, think-tanks, and local groups the target of climate campaigning has become the fossil fuel industry’s projects, their funders, and the politicians who do their bidding.
"If we persist, if we don’t cede ground and keep pushing to pry open the doors, people-power can truly make what in the past seemed unthinkable, and give a new shape to the future."
This shift has taken ten years but there are moments we can look back on now and see as pivotal and catalytic in changing the landscape of climate activism.
One of the first iconic moments in that shift was Keystone XL — which NASA climate scientist James Hansen had said could be ‘game over’ for the climate if it were built. It was little more than a regular pipeline approval process until 2011, when, with leadership from Indigenous Nations and ranchers, it became an iconic fight for climate activists around the world. With little funding from traditional sources but plenty of determination, organisers gathered 10,000 citizens outside of the White House. It took another three years to (temporarily) win this fight, but it became the most salient environmental issue facing President Obama, who rejected Keystone XL on climate grounds in 2015.
This shift from focusing on lobbying and single-laws to individual fossil fuel projects has its limitations. We saw that banks and other lenders continued to invest in the industry, fueling the fire, and we asked: why? One answer was that the existing reputational risk of fossil fuel investment was not enough — so we set out to change that. We also saw that for many citizens climate change felt very far away – in Washington DC, at the UN – and therefore not something they could tackle in their everyday lives. It was this thinking, catalysed with a roadtrip of college-campuses to explain it, that led to the Fossil Free divestment movement being born. Today that movement has shifted over $14 trillion USD out of coal, oil, and gas companies. These divestment commitments come from every continent, and everyone from the coal industry to the big bankers have recognised that divestment is not only a reputational risk but a material risk to the cost of capital for the fuels that are burning our planet.
How it will be paid and who will pay for the climate losses and damages on a burning planet will be a defining question for the 2020s. The foundation for this discussion can be traced back to a shift in climate activism during 2013. That year the world experienced several extreme weather events, including Typhoon Haiyan, which caused more than 6,000 deaths in the Philippines. Haiyan made landfall during another UN summit, and for the first time the intersections between climate activism and human rights and justice activism took centre stage. Over 1 million people signed a petition, and made small donations to successfully increase pressure on the negotiators in Warsaw to establish a “loss and damage” mechanism to deal with such climate disasters. Defining how such a mechanism actually works will be a key site of climate activism in the decade to come.
This thinking of intersecting rights, climate, and economic development issues was the foundation for the coalition that came together in New York in 2014, where 400,000 people joined the game-changing People’s Climate March. This was the largest single rally on climate in any one place (until September 2019). It was finally one that looked like, and was led by, people as diverse as the city that hosted it. Rallies such as this are essential for bringing in new people to grow the climate movement, putting pressure on decision-makers, as well as for driving mainstream media coverage.
"The Paris Agreement reinforced that pressure from citizen activism worked, but due to its limitations, also sparked a fire for bigger and bolder action."
That momentum continued into 2015 when, on the eve of the UN climate summit in Paris, over 700,000 people around the world took to the streets to create enough pressure to see the Paris Agreement signed. The Paris Agreement reinforced that pressure from citizen activism worked, but due to its limitations, also sparked a fire for bigger and bolder action — from ourselves and from our politicians.
In 2016, the hottest year on record, tens of thousands of people on six continents took bold, courageous stands against fossil fuel projects directly. The “Keystone XL” approach was taking off. From the coal fields of Germany, to the oil wells of Nigeria, to defiant actions against new coal power plants in Indonesia and the Philippines, local resistance supported globally was growing to confront the fossil fuel industry at every turn.
We were chasing them in the Courts too. In 2018, after five years of tireless campaigning, New York City initiated legal action against the top five fossil fuel corporations — ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips — for hiding evidence that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. The legal, regulatory, and financial landscape had already shifted and will shift further.
The changes we will see in the financial, regulatory, and liability environment for fossil fuels will not be linear. They will accelerate just as the ‘school strikes for climate’ did going from 1 person in 2018 to over 10 million in 2019. Again citizen-led, self-funded (or supported by organisations like 350.org), these school strikes put ‘climate’ in the news at the highest levels since we began tracking in the 2000s.
The school strikers are evolving their strategies and targets, and just like the climate movement more broadly, they are looking straight at the fossil fuel industry. A few weeks after the massive September 2019 Global Climate Strike, students in Germany left their schools to focus on the world’s biggest public bank — the European Investment Bank. Shortly thereafter, the bank announced it would stop its half-trillion dollars of annual investments from going to fossil fuel projects.
Sadly, this decade has been rounded off by another disappointing UN climate summit. The 500,000 people marching in Madrid could not counter the fossil fuel industry lobbyists on the other side. However, it is what is happening outside the UN that is most telling about what will happen in the 2020s. Citizens will continue to march, advocate, lobby, campaign, occupy; and their focus will be on the fossil fuel industry. Banks and financial institutions will feel the heat as enablers of the industry burning the planet. Human rights and the ways climate impacts are already changing our world will only become more important. The rise of “Trumpian” nationalist politics in the US, as well as Brazil, and India – all major emitters – demonstrates our need for resilient citizen activism which can also work in tandem with broader civil society efforts to protect human rights and democracy.
None of the marches, protests, lobbying campaigns, nor any of the other approaches happen by accident. Their heart and soul is the power of volunteers working tirelessly in every corner of the globe. Organizations like 350.org provide the backbone for this work by convening coalitions, training organizers, and providing online tools and other infrastructure. People-power can be the engine to maintain momentum on climate.
Our foes are formidable and have been influencing the way decisions are made and conversations are framed around energy, democracy, human rights and the future. If there is one lesson to be learned over the past ten years however, is that if we persist, if we don’t cede ground and keep pushing to pry open the doors, people-power can truly make what in the past seemed unthinkable, and give a new shape to the future.
May Boeve is Executive Director of 350.org, the global grassroots campaign for climate action. She is one of the founders of 350.org, together with author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. 350.org works on grassroots campaigns across the globe, leveraging people power to dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry.