Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

Green movement embracing more radical tactics as desperation grows

Organizers say climate change crisis narrowing divisions between traditional green groups, reformist factions

Hundreds of thousands of people marched recently in the biggest climate-related demonstration ever. The slogan of the march: “To change everything, we need everyone.”

A day later hundreds of people were arrested in downtown Manhattan for blocking traffic as part of the Flood Wall Street demonstration. The protesters' slogan: “Stop capitalism. End the climate crisis.”

The two events, within 24 hours of each other and just a few miles apart, juxtaposed what have been two factions in the larger climate movement. The climate march highlighted the big-tent approach to organizing. Groups with widely differing and often conflicting ideals came together to broadcast a message that climate change is important — which they accomplished — but offered few solutions.

On Wall Street, the protest was a tiny fraction of the march’s size and garnered much less attention, but the demands were much clearer: Hold the financial industry and the politicians who support it accountable for propping up the energy industry.

While the protests had different aims and supporters, organizers and participants from each event said they showed that the divide between them is narrowing. They say that as more and more people become aware of the severity of the climate crisis and as serious political action on climate issues stagnates, lines are blurring between reformists and radicals. Radicals are becoming aware that in order to have a big tent, not everyone has to agree on every issue, and reformists are becoming more open to using once-shunned tactics like nonviolent civil disobedience.

“The public is all over the place in its awareness of climate change, so the march was for those people,” said Sandra Steingraber, a professor at Ithaca College and an environmental activist.

“And then there are the people who have accepted climate change as a fact long ago and are really ready to carry a manifesto to those who are responsible and nail it to their doors,” she said, referring to the Wall Street protesters.

Social and political movements have almost always seen divisions between factions that are more militant, operating under the belief that the ends justifies the means, and those that believe in reforming existing practices as a solution.

The animal rights movement, for example, divided in the 1960s between supporters of the Animal Liberation Front, which illegally broke into farms and labs to free animals, and supporters of more mainstream groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Civil rights groups have split along the lines of whether breaking the law is justified to get a point across.

Similar debates have also flared up within the green movement. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), one of the nation’s largest green groups, has been chastised by other environmentalists for working with the natural gas industry to reduce methane emissions, as opposed to campaigning directly against the industry.

The EDF’s strategy was on display at the U.N. last week when its director, Fred Krupp, met with oil and gas executives during a breakaway session at the Climate Summit and praised the voluntary measures that the industry had taken to reduce pollution.

“We’re fairly well known for working with nontraditional folks,” said Keith Gaby, climate communications director for the EDF. But he said the EDF has the same interests as groups taking more extreme action to fight climate change. “We also protest and sue companies. We might not block traffic on Wall Street, but we might sue Wall Street.”

Participants said that at the march earlier this week, there were no divisions to be seen.

“It was really organized in a new way for the climate movement,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, another prominent national environmental group. “It was a coming together of partners that all have a stake in combating climate change but who haven't always worked side by side. That collaboration is only going to gain momentum.”

Organizers and marchers said the success of that approach might be a sign of the future of the climate movement — but rather than groups like Flood Wall Street pulling back on their tactics to fit into the mainstream movement, some say it seems that large environmental organizations are starting to use more radical strategies.

“I think the march represented a mainstream-ifying of a different kind of social movement,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, one of the primary organizers of the Flood Wall Street protests. “The march represented a fundamental shift. There’s been a popularization of the ability to debate the climate and capitalism.”

National green group the Sierra Club, which discouraged its members from using civil disobedience, changed its policy last year before an action outside the White House, where dozens were arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

David Schlosberg, a professor of environmental politics at the University of Sydney in Australia, said it makes sense strategically for previously disparate movements to work together. He said as climate awareness grows but significant international action on the problem stalls, groups are recognizing that they must work side by side.

“The difference [between the groups] is not really a split in the movement but a recognition that many tactics and approaches are needed,” he said.

For environmentalists, the question now is how to combine efforts to combat climate change.

“The climate march was a way to highlight the climate crisis, but we need to do something about it,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. “Highlighting the problem is a good thing for a day, but now we have to get down to the details.”

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