In the three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump, climate change was an afterthought. After Trump’s victory, environmental issues are now a significant concern.
Trump has stated that he wants to abandon the landmark United Nations Paris Agreement; reverse President Obama’s climate initiatives, most notably by removing limits on emissions from coal power plants; and bring back the U.S. coal industry.
After his election, Trump appointed Myron Ebell to oversee appointing a new head and senior staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency which the President-elect has previously said he may abolish. Ebell, who dismisses the scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused and an urgent problem, is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The institute according to the Huffington Post is “funded by some of America’s biggest polluters” and once notoriously ran a commercial assuring viewers: “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.”
This month, Trump named Oklahoma Attorney General (AG) Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. Pruitt is one of several conservative state AGs suing the EPA to block the proposed limits on emissions from coal power plants. He has argued misleadingly that, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” A 2014 investigation by The New York Times found that energy industry lobbyists had drafted letters that Pruitt’s staff had copied onto state stationary with only a few word changes, and sent to the EPA and other federal agencies.
Under Trump, it is obvious that the federal government will not be leading the way on the fight for climate change. Across the U.S., states, cities, communities, and individuals are now charged with the task.
“Barn raising, creative actions in street theater, testifying at Public Department of Utilities hearings, educational forums, home energy use workshops – these are the actions we have to do,” says Mike Prokosch of the Boston Climate Action Network (BostonCAN), a local grassroots climate justice organization.
Prokosch and his colleagues at BostonCAN are concerned about what the upcoming Trump administration means for the climate change movement, but they are not overwhelmed. Environmental activists know that their job just got more difficult and more important, and they must meet the challenge head-on.
Local leadership and action
May Boeve of 350.org expressed this sentiment in a press release following Trump’s victory. She called the election of Trump “a disaster” before ending the statement by saying, “Our work becomes much harder now, but it’s not impossible, and we refuse to give up hope.”
The message is comforting for those worried about climate change in a time when such anxieties are heightened. The question is whether such fear and concern can be channeled into environmental activism with real results.
Environmental activists know that their job just got more difficult and more important, and they must meet the challenge head-on.
An essay on the environmentalism movement published in Sociology Compass notes that its history has been characterized by periods of fervor disjoined by lulls of disinterest.
The mass movement environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by demonstrations and public protest. But the movement transitioned from such strategies and became more institutionalized “with paid staff and bureaucratic structures,” a change decried by grassroots groups who felt such institutions hindered progress.
The 21st century thus far has been a turbulent one for environmental activism. Described as a “sunshine” issue, meaning it garners public support when economic conditions are good, environmentalism was overshadowed by the global recession and the threat of terrorism, but saw temporary surges in concern after events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill in 2010. The essay notes that interest and activism “may have waned during Obama’s presidency because many activists supported the administration’s environmental goals.”
That is no longer the case. There can no longer be an assumption that the federal government is doing all it can to preserve the environment. Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University, argues that cities and their mayors must be willing to take on the task.
“There never has been a lot of support (in Congress) for anything that President Obama has attempted to do, including the Paris agreement,” says Fitzgerald, who has written a number of books on urban sustainability, “but this has gone on at the state level because it makes so much sense.”
Fitzgerald argues that mayors across party lines have the opportunity to be leaders on environmental issues, and many have already begun to do so. The mayor of San Diego has pledged to move the city entirely to renewable energy in two decades. Jim Brainard, the republican mayor of Carmel, a city in Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana, is also taking a hands-on approach in addressing climate change through a carefully planned city design.
Mayor Walsh of Boston is also carrying the torch, according to Fitzgerald, by “continuing on Boston’s leadership and even accelerating it” as he pushes “towards zero net energy in buildings and building disclosure of energy usage.”
Smart budgetary politics
Cities both left- and right-leaning have proven themselves to be far more proactive on this issue than government officials at the national level. This is caused by, as Fitzgerald explains, a number of factors including the influence of the fossil fuel industry which doesn’t have the same hold at the municipal level as it does at the national or state level. But, perhaps most importantly, these initiatives are saving and even making money for cities.
Brainard said in an interview that his city of Carmel saved money through sustainability efforts, describing it as “low-hanging fruit.” California, a leader in environmentalism at the state and city level, had its appliance efficiency program met with resistance from the industry, but they were eventually able to make money off of it, according to Fitzgerald. San Diego meanwhile looks like an increasingly attractive destination for tech companies that are interested in renewable energy.
The pairing of environmental actions with economic rewards has enormous potential, and it is at the local level that this are being explored and carried out. Local activism, therefore, is more important than ever. The average citizen can make a meaningful impact.
“Write to your legislators at the state, local level. Find your arena of activism,” Fitzgerald says. “For me, the lesson of this election is this has got to be a bipartisan agenda, so look for ways of reaching out and find common ground.”
BostonCAN seeks to fill one of those arenas of activism, but it must contend with a troubling trend regarding the popular support of their efforts. A study published in Environmental Politics looked at data collected by the International Social Survey Program in 1993, 2000, and 2010 and found that political action on environmental causes and personal willingness to spend money to protect the environment are both declining.
A generational comeback for local activism
The study comes to a similar conclusion as the essay in Sociology Compass: a national movement that has become too professionalized and hierarchical in its approach to politics has limited direct public involvement. With a generational changing of the guard approaching, as new leaders come to the helm, now is the time for direct involvement to make a comeback.
“Clearly there’s going to be more effort at the local and state level because that’s where we can make a difference, where policy makers aren’t going to be totally opposed to us,” says Prokosch.
He and others at BostonCAN have begun to see increased attention since the election.
“Twenty-two people have contacted us since the election saying, ‘I want to get involved.’ That’s never happened before,” he says. The organization’s December 8th event in Jamaica Plain had higher than typical turnout as well.
BostonCAN formed in the early 2000s and has been working to educate people on the issue of climate change via workshops, forums, and events. The group is part of the Mass Climate Action Network, the Green Justice Coalition, and Mass Power Forward, working with like-minded organizations to meet their goals and improve the environment and the daily lives of those in their community.
Prokosch joined the organization about 10 years ago. When asked what motivated his doing so, he answered bluntly: “Knowing what was going to happen.” A Harvard graduate and former newspaper editor, he spent time in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s after being angered by what he saw was happening there. He is a man driven to act.
“Most of my activism has been in the peace movement and community organizing,” says Prokosch, who is particularly motivated by the displacement of people and communities that climate change could cause.
He and others at BostonCAN have been working across economic and ethnic lines to decrease emissions, build resilient communities through their weatherization campaigns in low neighborhoods, and increase knowledge and awareness of the issue.
The organization’s gas leak campaign has been particularly successful. BostonCAN attempts to draw attention to what is often an overlooked facet of the environmental debate. Prokosch recalls organizing a birthday party for one of the city’s oldest gas leaks, many of which are over 30 years old. BostonCAN and partnered organizations went to the location of the leak with a birthday cake — with no candles, of course.
“They fixed that leak pretty fast,” Prokosch said.
BostonCAN is continuing its work in the city and its surrounding neighborhoods. The fight, for them, is now and was then a local one. Nothing has changed, and yet, at the same time, everything has.
“I think there’s a lot of work for the environmental movement from top to bottom, from the large environmental NGOs to grassroots groups like ours to change our way of operating so that it’s about ways of reaching out and making it a bigger movement,” he says.
At a time when many are divided on so many issues including climate change, reaching out and growing can be difficult. Some are dismissive, some are concerned. Others are anxious but feel that they cannot make a difference. Grassroots organizations like BostonCAN must try to reach out to all of these people.
Prokosch insists upon ensuring that Trump voters do not feel attacked, stressing one-on-one, person-to-person interaction. It is important, he argues, to avoid a “jobs versus environment” perspective and instead find a way for economic and environmental concerns to be solved simultaneously, as is being done by Brainard in Indiana. Finding solutions that are mutually beneficial to these areas is how mayors and cities have moved forward, and grassroots organizations must do the same.
At a time when many are divided on so many issues including climate change, reaching out and growing can be difficult. Some are dismissive….others are anxious but feel that they cannot make a difference. Grassroots organizations like BostonCAN must try to reach out to all of these people.
Under the Trump administration, Prokosch fears, however, something similar to what he experienced in El Salvador, where the government drove a wedge between leaders and their base. He hopes that the same does not occur to the environmentalist movement, whether by the Trump administration or the fossil fuel industry or some other influence.
The way to overcome these obstacles and divides, whether caused by our own beliefs or an outside force, is by building relationships between people, organizations, and interests. A collaborative, multi-faceted, individual-driven approach.
“We’ve got to be a closely integrated part of a much larger movement for good jobs, democracy, justice,” says Prokosch, “Because otherwise wedges are going to get driven between us.”