My new piece in The Nation!
America’s new political uprising and its leader offer invaluable lessons for climate activists.
A few months ago, I woke up with a “berning” need to join the Bernie Sanders campaign. I had followed the evolution of the revolution because of Bernie’s outstanding climate platform, and I wanted to do more. I canvased in New Hampshire ahead of the primary and interned with the campaign, immersing myself in the “Feel the Bern” movement’s theory of change.
As Bernie’s campaign marched into my life, I could not help but compare its strategies to those of the other cause that dominates my world: the climate movement. Climate organizers have worked for decades to build a mass movement, an effort that produced the largest climate event in US history in 2014 when 400,000 people marched in New York City. Yet within six months of launching his campaign, Bernie had drawn that many people to his rallies. As the climate movement struggles to build electoral power, Bernie has inspired more people than ever to vote and engage with the political process. Up close and personal, I learned that America’s new political uprising and its leader offer invaluable lessons for climate activists.
1. Shared vision: The Sanders campaign revolves around a unified, concrete, and identifiable vision defined in the platforms on Bernie’s website. People can easily understand the values and objectives of Bernie’s political revolution. When it comes to climate change, for example, the Senator envisions a country in which we “reclaim our democracy from the billionaire fossil fuel lobby.”
In contrast, the climate movement does not have a unified vision for the future other than a general imperative to avoid climate catastrophe. This makes it confusing for outsiders and even those within the movement to understand exactly what we are fighting for. Some organizations, including a few of the “Big Greens,” support natural gas as a bridge fuel. Yet more and more groups reject natural gas, citing health and environmental risks. Each approach represents different values and futures. Can the climate movement create clarity by rallying around a common vision?
2. Beyond human-as-usual: Bernie understands that there is no room for human-as-usual compromise when it comes to climate change. He is the only Democratic candidate to oppose fracking and reject all fossil fuels. He is not afraid to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, famously saying: ‘To hell with the fossil fuel industry. Worry more about your children and your grandchildren than your campaign contributions.” Bernie also condemned the international COP21 climate agreement when he declared that it “does not provide” the “bold action” required. Rather than succumb to the status quo and its acceptance of endless compromise, Bernie Sanders’ climate policy stems from a fact-based insistence on climate justice.
Many climate organizations stand with Bernie’s strong positions. Others are willing to compromise and settle for weaker action. The reaction to COP21 shows the range of opinion. Both the heads of the Sierra Club and Avaaz hailed the Paris agreement as a “turning point.” The head of Greenpeace said: “The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned.” Yet many youth climate activists consider the agreement profoundly unjust, condemning youth and frontline communities to a future of climate chaos. One of the major climate justice delegations to COP21, It Takes Roots, wrote after the talks concluded: “The COP21 agreement is a failure, condemning humanity to a slow and painful death.” How can these perspectives be reconciled?
3. For, not against: The first thing that popped up when I visited Hillary Clinton’s website was an ad that read: “Republicans should do their job and fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.” Donald Trump’s home page features an attack on John Kasich. But Bernie’s website opens with: “This is your movement” amid a backdrop of human faces. He spends little time attacking his opponents or differentiating himself from Hillary. Instead, he relentlessly focuses on what he stands for: climate action, healthcare, affordable education, equality. He is just anti-Hillary or anti-Republican than he is pro-people and pro-planet.
The climate movement can learn from Bernie’s steadfast and consistent commitment to engaging our better angels. Too much of our messaging reflects what we are against: the fossil fuel industry, political capture, coal, oil, natural gas… We don’t tend to focus on what we stand for. As Cam Fenton, a Canadian climate activist, wrote earlier this year: “We have too often based our vision on opposition to our opponents, and that’s left us unbalanced.” Why? Perhaps because we lack that unified vision. As a result, the climate movement is more a reaction against what we fear than it is a movement for a better future.
4. Meaningful easy engagement: The Sanders campaign knows how to engage people. Have you seen map.berniesanders.com? It shows all Bernie events, offices, and volunteer opportunities in your area. Anyone can learn how to get involved and contribute to the political revolution.
How does someone “join” the climate movement? There is no movement-wide infrastructure for action or a map with all the climate organizations and actions in your area (as far as I know). Most generic ways to participate, like changing lightbulbs or joining a march, writing your Congressman seem futile in the face of implacable climate upheaval. Groups like 350.org are working at it but the climate movement has not yet figured out how to engage masses of people with its work.
5. The view beyond: Despite these successes, Bernie Sanders and the political revolution have ––so far–– failed to do one big thing: see past the current campaign. Right now, Bernie’s call to action is focused on his Presidential bid. How do people join the revolution? They get out the vote for Bernie. But will Bernie and his team build the leadership and infrastructure to transform the campaign into a movement –– a real political revolution? What lies beyond Bernie 2016?
Long-term mobilization is also a problem for many climate campaigns. Take the movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Organizations devoted enormous resources to block its construction. There were huge marches in DC. Over 750 communities across America organized actions against the pipeline. As a result, Keystone XL was rejected. But what happened to all those folks who sat on a bus for 10 hours to march against the pipeline? Where was the post-campaign plan to help these activists pivot and engage with local contests over fossil fuel infrastructure? We must look beyond what’s right in front of us if we want to build and maintain power,
I am 23 years old and have lived in Maine all my life. I can already see that the Maine that raised me is different from the one I live in today. Winters are warmer. Ice melts sooner. Buds bloom earlier. The local economy reverberates with the impacts of an unstable planet. My heart breaks to see all that I love most fall prey to climate change. That is why I work towards a climate movement that can truly protect all that we love. The Bernie Sanders revolution holds lessons that we can learn from right now. Learning from the Bern can help us avoid a future of burn.