When people ask me what I do for a living, sometimes I like to answer literally: I get people to hold signs and walk around in circles. I persuade people to shout at buildings where politicians or CEOs work. I’m the dork intercepting you on your morning commute, waving around a leaflet to tell you to call your elected representative.
When you strip activism down to its component parts, it can seem a little silly. Why bother with the kabuki theater of public demonstrations—especially when the public is overwhelmingly in favor of climate action? And anyway, New York is run by Democrats top to bottom—aren’t they on our side already?
In fact, having public opinion on your side and electing Democrats isn’t nearly enough. For one thing, you’re up against a gauntlet of lobbyists defending corporate profits and executive compensation. They hire ex-governors, ex-legislators, and Albany insiders.
Especially if you don’t wield a giant checkbook for campaign contributions and Super PACs, there’s only one reliable way to overcome this resistance. You have to make the issue so publicly prominent that politicians know that if they don’t act, they might lose their jobs.
When climate and environmental activists and their groups do this at scale, they break through and win major campaigns. When they don’t, they lose.
Don’t get me wrong — good climate lobbyists can win incremental gains. Currying favor within the state Capitol can persuade politicians to concede some points. But the inside game will never work on issues that seriously threaten deep-pocketed corporate interests. For major change, you need relentless outside mobilization.
Right now, that isn’t happening.
The 2021 legislative session concluded this week with a whimper. For another year, legislators slinked out of Albany after failing to take climate action. They didn’t pass desperately-needed legislation to stop carbon pollution. They failed to put money or enforcement power behind existing on-paper commitments to reduce emissions, or invest in climate action in disadvantaged communities. In fact, the state may have gone backwards: the legislature confirmed the governor’s polluter-supported nominees to the Public Service Commission, the state utilities regulator.
It doesn’t have to be this hard. In the last decade, environmentalists have won massive victories, building bone-crushing political pressure on the Governor and Legislature through focused campaigns that reached the scale of involvement needed to either demonstrably affect primary elections or force politicians to accede to activists’ demands. To push those elected officials to move urgent climate action through the legislature in future sessions, we need to look to big victories in recent years as models for building a movement—and winning results.
Far from being idealistic or silly, getting enough people to march around holding signs and chanting rhymes is the best tactic for realists.
Environmentalists Win When They Act Like a Movement
Activists in New York have won major climate victories against powerful, deep-pocketed opposition. Recent large-scale successes include:
- Banning fracking. In 2010, Cuomo was poised to permit fracking on a large scale. But grassroots activists mobilized to push the governor back. They educated the public, building a fierce, statewide effort. By 2013, Cuomo was engulfed by the campaign, yet still pushing fracking. After another year of growing pressure, activists forced Cuomo to throw down a full moratorium on any fracking in New York. In late 2014, Zephyr Teachout’s primary results showed the movement had traction, since she clobbered Cuomo in places where the movement was strongest (at that time, Cuomo was ducking the issue and Teachout was the anti-fracking candidate). Last year, the legislature enacted and the governor then signed a ban into law that makes it formal: no fracking, ever, in New York state.
- Stopping oil and gas pipelines. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access battles are better known, but right here in NY, activists have stopped massive projects, including the Constitution, Pilgrim, and Williams NESE pipelines. Until recently, pipelines faced no public resistance and were almost automatically approved. But activists changed all that, pushing Cuomo into protecting the water and air, and crimping fossil fuels. Now, pipeline developers are likely scared to propose another major interstate oil or gas pipeline in New York, which is helping to force a transition to renewable energy.
- Divesting New York’s pension funds. A powerful activist campaign successfully pressed NYC’s Comptroller to end the massive city pension fund’s investments in fossil fuels. Three years later, the movement won over State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. Now, nearly half a trillion dollars worth of pension funds have already dumped or are about to dump many billions in oil, gas and coal company stock and bonds. NY’s divestment has propelled a snowballing global divestment movement, which in turn has put major shareholder pressure on the fossil fuel industry. Coal divestment, further advanced, is now causing serious financing problems for coal companies. Oil and gas finance is next.
- NYC’s “Green New Deal” law. The city’s climate activists, organized into a forceful campaign that pushed, prodded and threatened, defeated the powerful real estate lobby to enact climate-heating pollution limits for large buildings, whose energy use is the city’s top source of climate pollution. NYC Local Law 97 of 2019, the first of its kind nationally, is well on its way to creating tens of thousands of jobs in energy efficiency design, renovation and construction. Unless it’s rolled back by a right-wing Mayor and Council, it will slash the city’s top source of climate pollution by over 40% by 2030 and over 80% by 2050.
These campaigns were not won in dingy backrooms. It took yelling at buildings, handing out leaflets, holding signs as backdrops for press conferences, blocking entrances to government offices to draw attention to the issues, lobbying and calling representatives to carry the day. Grassroots activists—normal people who became motivated to act on their concerns—won these fights.
All this seems fairly obvious. Behind the scenes, though, in almost all these cases, mainstream environmental groups were MIA, undermined, or even outright opposed grassroots activists.
Fighting Big Environmental Fights Often Means Fighting Corporate Environmental Groups
In 2021, fracking is a dirty word, well-understood to be devastating for the environment. But a decade ago, fracking was still very new and no one had heard of it. The oil and gas industry was salivating at the prospect of drilling into New York shale formations.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at that time, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other “big green” groups actually supported fracking, arguing that increasing gas supplies would help reduce reliance on coal power (a now thoroughly discredited idea). Big Green groups merely wanted fracking regulated. But front-line communities, faced with the direct effects of fracking on their land, air and water, were not so sanguine. They organized.
Groups like Food & Water Watch, NYPIRG, Frack Action, Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Sane Energy Project jumped into the fray, supporting local activists and taking the fight statewide. Though they also have lobbying strategies, these organizers rely on grassroots activism as the primary motive force to win campaigns.
Behind the scenes, as the anti-fracking movement grew, the bigger, deep-pocketed foundations that fund large “big green” environmental groups kept their distance from “fracktivists.” Smaller, nimbler foundations, closer to the grassroots, on the other hand, did help fund opposition to fracking.
The activists and the grassroots-oriented groups working with them weren’t deterred by either their corporate opposition or swayed to take a softer line by the well-funded green groups undermining them. They kept their eyes on the prize: preventing Cuomo from ever permitting the practice. Over years, they ground it out, and won.
Today, the EDF launches satellites to track the massive plumes of climate-torching methane now being released from fracking operations in other states. These methane leaks are now widely understood to be imperilling the country’s chances of cutting climate pollution—just as grassroots activists warned.
Each of the big wins listed above, like over fracking, was powered by unrelenting grassroots pressure on elected officials. Yet today, not a single climate campaign is operating at the scale or ferocity needed to push through major action—which is what left us with another wasted state legislative session.
New York’s Housing Movement is a Model to Follow for State-Level Action
In 2019, New York’s housing activists slayed their dragon: undoing the real estate lobby’s successful weakening of the state’s rent laws back in the 1990s. The movement unabashedly criticized Governor Cuomo, the real estate industry’s key ally. Crucially, activists did not pull punches at the Senate and Assembly, or individual Legislators, either. Instead of pushing smaller, relatively easily “winnable” items, they unified around a maximalist agenda that resonated with housing and tenant groups across the state.
The victory came from a sustained statewide mobilization, including rallies, direct actions, protests outside legislator’s homes, and lobbying. In response, the Legislature effectively restored rent regulation downstate and allowed its expansion throughout the state through local opt-in. The Governor, who had publicly scoffed at the possibility that the Legislature would buck the real estate lobby, was then forced to act as if he supported the legislation that they passed.
That same year, the Legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was a weakened version of legislation supported by the New York Renews coalition. The CLCPA, at first glance, is another major climate movement victory. The law sets pollution reduction targets into law that, if met, would cut emissions at the pace and scale of the Paris climate agreement. That’s great—but the law is unenforceable.
The CLCPA’s success depends on subsequent action through a consultative process controlled by Cuomo. The governmental sub-groups making recommendations in this process are already failing: they’re not proposing to implement the pollution cuts that are nominally mandated by the law. More worrisome still, the multi-year, drawn-out exercise the law set up for the state to make a plan for climate action is now being used as an excuse by legislators to avoid passing urgently-needed budget items, programs, laws and regulations. The jury is very much out on the law’s success.
Still, the CLCPA was a hard-won accomplishment for many climate and justice activists. In 2018, at the peak of the grassroots push for the legislation that later became the CLCPA, about 2,000 fracktivists and NYRenews coalition groups’ members marched on Cuomo. Earlier events had put 500 people at a church for a rally. A penultimate protest in 2019 inside the State Capital involved hundreds.
In 2019, there was also a 700-person march across Brooklyn Bridge and a 600-person town hall style event organized by the Stop the Williams Pipeline Coalition — key events as part of a multi-year campaign that convinced Cuomo to stop the Williams NESE pipeline. Actions at that scale are inspiring and win results if they’re part of a larger, focused campaign—but lately, they’ve been few and far between. Since those events in 2018 and 2019, climate activists have failed to mobilize at scale.
Finally, last week in New York City, the Democratic Socialists of America and allies rallied hundreds of protesters for public power outside Assembly Speaker Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ offices, closing down Broadway to traffic. It was an energetic and militant show of support for public power. Yet the effort, which is currently the liveliest climate campaign in the state, also hasn’t yet reached the scale needed to crack Albany’s hacks.
At hundreds of people, that public power rally was also the largest climate action in New York state since 2019. Granted, we lost a year of organizing major events as a movement to COVID. And various efforts to stop proposed fossil fuel infrastructure around the state also generate grassroots heat on Cuomo that, if sustained, is likely strong enough to stop him from approving those huge new pollution sources. Still, too many campaigns, even ones that enjoy substantial financial support, have been limited to some lobbying and a smattering of sparsely-attended events.
As a movement, we’ve got to do much bigger and better. Otherwise we won’t meet even the bare-minimum pollution reduction targets and goals for environmental justice set by the CLCPA. Those goals will be remembered by only a few, just like many previous highly-praised climate pledges, targets and processes set by Governors, including Cuomo, which years later, the state failed to achieve.
Behind the Curtain: This Takes Money (Which Mostly Flows to the Wrong Places)
The vast bulk of foundation funding and donor money on climate and energy issues flows to groups that provide policy analysis and recommendations. They take their proposals to elected officials, agencies, commissions and various regulators, and urge them to adopt them.
It’s very hard for these groups to criticize elected officials, particularly Democrats, because then those elected officials won’t grant them meetings or work with them. If their access is cut off, they fear, they’ll lose their influence—and the foundation and other donor funding it attracts.
In order to maintain their access, groups like these will praise politicians despite their failures to take action. Cuomo is a perfect example. He’s stymied renewable energy development in New York even as wind and solar has taken off in other states, like California and Texas. This year, climate pollution will probably rise in New York, as fracked gas power plants fire up to replace the recently-shuttered Indian Point nuclear plant. On this governor’s watch, sixteen times more utility-scale fracked gas power plant capacity has been built over the past decade than renewable energy capacity; New York is at only about 5% wind and solar.
Yet access-based national environmental groups still praise Cuomo to the skies on climate, apparently reasoning that if they don’t, he will cut off access and refuse to work with their staff on even incremental proposals.
The limited number of smaller foundations and individual donors willing to fund transformative, aggressive, multi-racial campaigns and organizing is dwarfed by funding for policy concepts and access-lobbying. As a result, you can find a flood of white papers on almost any topic—but few rallies.
If we want to stop losing, we have to flip the ratio of white papers to rallies. When organizers build movement power, politicians like Cuomo bend to popular demands, even if—especially if—you’re saying mean things about them.
Like many people, I’d love to be paid to think about climate policy and crank out reports and recommendations. (I enjoy writing columns!) But at the end of the day, the state doesn’t lack for well-reasoned policy proposals. Rather, the key decision-makers lack the political will to act. We need more investment in movement pressure on Albany from outside.
Take fracking. At the height of the fight in New York 10 to 12 full-time organizers were working with groups and activists across the state. They helped mobilize grassroots opposition and focus public attention on the key decision-maker: Governor Cuomo. A moratorium on fracking was set in place in part because there were some foundations willing to fund bad-ass groups that maximized organizing.
The same level of staffing in a fierce and targeted campaign sustained over several years could win a Green New Deal at the New York state level. Instead, money pours into policy analysis and “stakeholder engagement” (read: lots and lots of meetings).
It won’t be cheap to fund hard-core groups with a real grassroots base to deploy 10 to 15 staff organizers and mobilize activists across the state into a fearsome climate justice campaign. But it’s a pittance, comparatively. One or two million dollars per year, well spent, would be transformative for New York’s popular climate action.
We have seen over and over again that even with very limited money and resources, organizers working for strong groups with an involved membership have delivered big, against-the-odds wins through grassroots action.
That’s a replicable proof of concept, to lapse into foundation-speak. There is a strong “value proposition.” Funders should stop defaulting to supporting insider-focused groups or low-threat efforts that engage in “stakeholder engagement,” or gussied up grassroots support that, in effect, just pays non-profit staffers to attend meetings.
If big foundation funders don’t change their priorities, the organizing-focused groups will continue to grind it out on a pittance. We’ll win some, we’ll lose some. But there’s too little time to delay building a mass movement for environmental justice. Climate funders should shift money into kick-ass organizing and accountability work that doesn’t depend on access lobbying.
We need a whole lot more marching around in circles and holding signs outside elected officials’ offices. Until then, governments and corporations will keep putting off climate action.