The Occupy movement and the climate movement

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The Occupy movement and the climate movement are natural allies insofar as they both confront the problem of corporate power and its controlling influence on government policy, and the problem of developing strategies and tactics for countering it, changing power relationships, and bringing about equitable solutions.

Post by Katherine O’Konski and Rick Piltz

On December 15, CSW dialed in to a conference call organized by Climate Reality Check Coalition that addressed the links between the Occupy Wall Street  movement and the climate movement.  The call was the last of a series of conferences aimed at strengthening community organizing on climate.  In attendance were Ash Anderson, Director of Peaceful Uprising, Phil Aroneanu of 350.org, and Allison Fisher, Outreach Director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program and moderator of the conference.

Is the Occupy movement applicable to the climate movement?

While the Occupy movement demands changes to the radical inequality within and between nations, the climate movement demands comprehensive global policy change to limit carbon emissions.  Both climate change and economic justice are global-scale problems. Anderson maintains that it’s reasonable to think about how dealing with them could call for similar strategies and tactics.

Aroneanu noted that we can already observe the application of Occupy to the climate movement in similarities between some of their tactics.  Just as Occupiers have committed their bodies to the cause, camping in public spaces and facing sometimes hostile treatment from authorities, a large Keystone XL opposition occupied and was arrested every day for two weeks in the space in front of the White House.

It makes sense for environmentalists to borrow from Occupy’s framing of the problem, Aroneanu continued.  Occupy and the climate movement share a common adversary. Both Occupy and the climate movement are working to overcome corporate wealth and power as a barrier to progress.  Corporate pressure on the political system, which has exacerbated inequalities of income and wealth between the top 1% and the other 99%, also works to block environmental regulation, spread disinformation, and prevent the creation of a comprehensive US policy on climate change.

In addition, the inequality targeted by Occupy has been framed in part as a moral issue, and this, Anderson believes, is also applicable to the climate movement.  Climate change, like income inequality, is a moral issue, with human well-being and biological diversity in danger due to human action.  This is in contrast to the approach of viewing climate change as a technical issue that requires mainly promoting the development and deployment of the right technologies, but no real change in power relationships and the culture.

What can climate activists learn from Occupy’s ‘1% vs. 99%’ framing?

Among the most interesting lessons brought up in the conference was that of language and messaging.  Occupy has brought a set of descriptions that have fostered a discourse of inequality and corporate power.  ‘The 99%,’ as both Anderson and Aroneanu commented, is a powerful message – the phrase suggests there is a profound set of problems with American society, namely, corporate influence on government and its action to further the interests of the 1% rather than the interests of American society as a whole.  That small phrase can convey powerful ideas and simultaneously evoke a sense of camaraderie, of empowerment to create positive change among those not included in the top 1%.

The climate movement, for the moment, possesses nothing as powerful as the 99% message.  For example, take the battle to stop construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  There are radio, television, and even transit system advertisements claiming Keystone XL could provide as many as 1 million new jobs for Americans.  This utterly misleading claim is nevertheless concise, simple, and optimistic.  Environmentalists counter with a long list of concerns, from pipeline leaks to carbon emissions to aquifer contamination to destruction of boreal forests in Alberta.  The concerns are all legitimate, though fairly complex and requiring a certain amount of political, economic, and ecological knowledge to be fully understood.  But where is the bottom-line, headline framing that can shape public opinion in the same way as “1 million new jobs?”

Of course, Jim Hansen’s oft-heard phrase, “Game over for the climate,” comes to mind.  His point is powerful and underpins the most scientifically essential argument for the Keystone opposition. It’s compelling to us. But neither this nor any other framing quite does for the climate movement what the 99% message has done for the Occupy movement. “99%” implies a sense of democracy, togetherness, and positive change against the 1% that holds the corporate interest. The 99% message unites, rhetorically at least, every American that is not in the top 1% of wealth and power (and no doubt even some who are in this group). “Game over” does not hold such positive connotations.  It seeks to convey a sense of urgency, and it may be compelling for those who already see the need for carbon emissions reduction strategies. But what about those Americans who don’t already have a sense of the climate change problem, or who aren’t convinced that human-caused climate change is a real problem, and who may think of Keystone XL as a potential source of economic growth in tough times?  How do environmentalists get the unconvinced on their side?

Can the climate movement learn something from Occupy to strengthen its framing of the problem?  Perhaps the answer lies in greater integration between the two movements – using the 99% message as an essential component of understanding and talking about climate policy, rather than  limiting the focus to alternative energy technologies, carbon pricing, and climate science.  Aroneanu argued that the language Occupy has introduced to re-direct the public discourse can also be used by climate activists to fight barriers to climate progress.

And this is not merely a matter of messaging. Rather, it’s about how the climate change policy problem is most appropriately understood.  Tom Athanasiou, Executive Director of Eco Equity, expands on this subject in his essay “Occupy and the climate negotiations”.  His main emphasis is on the relationship between the wealthy developed nations and the lower-income developing nations – and on the relationship between the 1% and the 99% both within and between nations. Athanasiou posits that radical inequality should be viewed as a cause of global inaction and policy stalemate on climate change.  He views climate change, not primarily as a technical problem of energy technology and carbon pricing that can be dealt with given the current power relationships, but as a problem most fundamentally of fairness and equitable sustainable development.  In order to get the necessary global buy-in for the kind of maximum international effort that will be needed to prevent disastrous global climatic disruption, people must be convinced that the solutions are equitable in how burdens are shared.  Athanasiou says:

The point here is that inequality and its related dysfunctions are critical obstacles to a successful climate transition. They are obstacles within countries, where the 1% are so coddled by their riches that they will not even notice the rising terrors of the warming world, while many of the 99% are so insecure, and so anxious, that they fear, or can be made to fear, even the policy reforms that they need to protect themselves and their families. And inequality is an international obstacle as well, for it greatly interferes with the goal of negotiating a regime that is both practical and fair. The UN’s notion of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capability” tells the tale clearly enough, for as a principle of international law it was obviously intended to apply to nations. But what happens when some nations – like the US – are effectively captured, and crippled, by elites that disdain even the notion of international responsibility?

The problem here is “governance failure.” Or maybe we should just call it “decadence.” The United States may at this point be so weakened by rot and ideology that it is unable even to act in its own interests, let alone the interests of its people, let alone the interests of humanity as a whole. Sort of like Russia. Or Saudi Arabia. If this is the case, and to some extent it clearly is, then the challenge of national renewal, of “taking back America” is even greater, and more pressing, than we had previously believed.”

The role of climate change issues within the Occupy movement depends on the extent to which Occupy wants it to be there and finds a way to incorporate a climate change vocabulary into its framework.  As well, the relationship will depend on whether the climate movement is willing and able to incorporate the 99% message of democratization and equity into its strategies for dealing with climate change.

Earlier post:  On the Durban climate conference, Part 2: The problem of international distributional equity

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4 Responses to The Occupy movement and the climate movement

  1. Janet Redman says:

    Great post. I totally agree that the climate movement has much to learn from #Occupy (and I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago here: http://bit.ly/u4j9Ye).

    I think your question is a good one - how do we rhetorically (and of course substantively) marry inequality and ecological crisis... or equality and ecological sanity? Is it something like "Take back the future"?

    Really interested to know what others are thinking about how not only to message to momentum for action, but to organize to build a climate justice movement.

  2. anon says:

    Isn't the problem with the 1% framing that most people living in the US are the 1%?

  3. Nils says:

    Although this is a good discussion, the 99% vs. 1% framing is another way of avoiding the real issue. By pointing fingers at the 1%, people can pretend that they themselves are not part of the problem. This is wrong in the context of many social issues, and certainly wrong when it comes to the climate. I witness Europeans pointing fingers at gas-guzzling Americans, who are pointing fingers at the richest 1% among them. This doesn't solve it. No doubt growing income inequality and corporate power over politics are critical problems that must be addressed. But this must leave room for a grown-up discussion of how the upper 80% or so in rich countries happily contribute to the problem.

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