See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire
This chapter provides an overview of various protest techniques, including basic how-to information, and a discussion on the the role of art in protests. It describes what makes a successful campaign, and reviews some of the most impactful climate protest efforts in the United States.
Organizers should always be clear about what is the purpose of a protest. What is the demand you are trying to win? How does this particular protest contribute to the effort to win that demand? What is the next step?
Protests should empower their participants. Humor, creativity and art help make protests more successful and impactful. A picture is worth a thousand words. Many climate groups utilize art buildout teams for their events.
The use of civil disobedience has become more prominent in the climate movement in recent years as the world’s governments and businesses delay taking the necessary steps to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C. Extinction Rebellion in England has taken a lead in elevating the use of this tactic. When I turned 65, I decided to get arrested three times during the coming year at various climate protests. Unfortunately, COVID has dampened the entire climate movement but especially the use of civil disobedience.
This chapter ends by profiling some of the major climate protest campaigns in the U.S.: the effort to ban fracking in New York State; the Keystone XL, DAPL, and Line 3 pipeline fights; and divesting the New York City and State pension funds from fossil fuels.
Art of Protest
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes a protest as “an event or action where people gather with others to publicly express their opinions about something that is happening in society. There are a variety of potential goals for a protest: influence public opinion, draw attention to and share information about a perceived injustice, gain a wide audience for the cause, push public policy or legislation forward, learn more about an issue, connect with others who feel passionate about the issue, speak one’s truth and bear witness. Protests can also provide inspiration and a sense of being part of a larger movement. The overarching purpose of protests is to demand change.”
As with all advocacy, protests should be part of a campaign plan that has a clear goal. How does the protest fit in with the rest of the plan? Organizing plans can utilize escalating confrontational tactics as your initial efforts fail to provide the desired results. Traditionally, groups have moved to using civil disobedience only after other pressure activities failed to produce the needed response.
Pulling together any event can make organizers nervous about how well it will go, how many people will show up, what will the weather be like, will the media be interested, etc. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone to challenge yourself and your organization, while making sure you do the organizing steps to make the event successful. My experience has been that climate protests usually draw more people than expected if they are well-publicized and their reason is clear.
Some ways to protest include: organizing a picket line; holding a rally or march; organizing a sit-in or die-in; blocking traffic; disrupting a meeting or public hearing (have people stand up and speak or hold a banner); holding signs at events; engaging in performance art; hanging a banner from a building or overpass; organizing a call-in; leafleting; hunger striking; blocking an entrance to building or work site; dressing up as polar bears and other animals threatened by climate change; using music or pother performance; organizing a festival, vigils and readings; putting up posters; banging pots and pans; sidewalk chalking, and more.
Protests are normally nonviolent. Be clear with participants ahead of time as to whether the event is committed to nonviolence (which also requires participants commitment if they’re participating).
This book focuses on nonviolent protests. Violent protests can involve destruction of property (like disabling a bulldozer) or even harm to individuals. Some dispute whether destruction of property is inherently violent. Some believe that movements can be effective when they a variety of property destruction and nonviolent protests. In The Ministry for the Future, a well-regarded 2020 climate fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, the author envisions a world where climate activists employ terrorist acts, including assassinations of fossil fuel executives and shooting down airliners. The use of violence is often more acceptable to the public when it is in response to systemic oppression by the government.
Also be clear with participants about whether there is a chance of arrest. In most cases, police officers are not interested in arresting nonviolent protestors (they like to avoid the paperwork) and usually will provide several warnings before arrests are made. The police however can be more aggressive and confrontational when dealing with people of color or if they have a close relationship to a local business being protected. (See the section on civil disobedience)
The COVID crisis and the need to isolate was a major impediment to climate protests, especially during the first few years, leading to the need to think of new creative ways to protest and organize.
The Right to Protest
The right to protest is one of the fundamental guarantees in the U.S. Constitution. That is not true for every country however, and can be met with violent repression. Despite our right to protest, people of color and other marginalized people in the U.S. can face physical and other repercussions from protests.
The American Civil Liberty Union states: “Your rights are strongest in what are known as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for… You do not need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers do not obstruct car or pedestrian traffic.”
The courts have allowed governments to impose “reasonable” time, place, and manner restrictions on protests, especially when sound amplification is used. Large rallies and marches with lots of people and a sound system normally require a permit.
Your local National Lawyers Guild or American Civil Liberties Union chapter can help provide you with information about protesting in your community. They may also provide a legal observer to monitor the behavior of police. For larger events, recruit experienced people to act as liaisons with the police to negotiate what you can or cannot do during the protest. There may also be prior local court rulings that detail how the police and government should respond to protests.
Fossil Fuel Industry Seeks to Curtail Protests
Many states are seeking to crack down on protests in response to climate and Black Lives Matter activism. These crackdowns tend to be aimed at larger direct action and civil disobedience events.
As of 2021, eight states had passed laws cracking down on protests and twenty-one had pending laws. New Arkansas, Kansas and Montana laws increase penalties for protesting near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Republican bill sponsors and police groups say increasing penalties for crimes committed during a protest (such as blocking traffic), will help prevent violence and protect law enforcement officers.
In 2019, the National Lawyers Guild reported that in the prior two years, twelve states had considered bills to designate fossil fuels as critical infrastructure and allow greater latitude in prosecuting those who protest against fossil fuel infrastructure. Lawsuits are also routinely brought against protestors by private companies with the goal of keeping them occupied in long and expensive lawsuits.
Mother Jones reports that many states are considering anti-protest “legislation…based on a model bill that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing policy shop funded by corporations and conservative billionaires, drafted, and began promoting to Republican state lawmakers in the wake of the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline project. State disclosure records routinely show lobbyists for companies such as Enbridge, Exxon Mobil Corp., Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum consulting lawmakers on the legislation.” Louisiana’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill in May 2022 that would have imposed mandatory three-year prison sentences for trespassing on fossil fuel facilities, but it was vetoed by the Democratic Governor.
In 2016, Jessica Reznicek, a member of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Movement, sought to stop the construction of Dakota Access Pipeline. Jessica attended public comment hearings, gathered signatures, and participated in civil disobedience, hunger strikes, marches and rallies, boycotts, and encampments. When all of that failed to stop the pipeline, she began dismantling construction equipment and pipeline valves. In 2021 she was sentenced to eight years in prison with a “domestic terrorism enhancement” that more than doubled her sentence.
The treatment of protestors in other countries, especially those with authoritarian governments, can be far more brutal, with beatings, assaults, long jail terms, or even killings. For instance, more than 320 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Columbia over the last decade. Certainly, many countries suppress dissent. The U.S. falls out of the top ten in worldwide ranking for human freedoms (measuring both personal and economic freedom.) China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter, ranks 150, although it has become slightly more tolerant of environmental protests in recent years.
Globally, nations are cracking down on protests. A letter signed by more than 400 scientists, including more than a dozen with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated “around the world today, those who put their voices and bodies on the line to raise the alarm are being threatened and silenced by the very countries they seek to protect. We are gravely concerned about the increasing criminalization and targeting of climate protestors around the world.”
In June 2022, Human Rights Watch said the Australian state of New South Wales was disproportionately punishing climate protesters in violation of their basic rights to peaceful protest. Proposed anti-protest laws in the states of Victoria and Tasmania would also invoke harsh penalties for non-violent protest. The courts threw out a 2019 ban of protests by Extinction Rebellion in London. In 2017, Poland, the host of COP24, passed a law to curtail the rights of environmental activists to protest at the United Nations climate talks and subjected them to government surveillance. During the climate talks in Paris, protestors were placed under house arrest and had to report to police three times a day.
Organizing a Successful Protest
The short-term focus of most protests is to draw media and public attention to an issue. Optics matter. A photo (or short video) is worth a thousand words. Protests that utilize humor are often effective.
The long-term focus of any protest should be to win a particular demand or action, usually as part of a larger campaign. A direct-action protest (discussed later) is when you directly confront the decision maker seeking agreement.
There are many good organizing guides for protests. Different types of protests have different needs. Some, such as civil disobedience (covered separately), require a high level of commitment among the participants.
While some protests are spontaneous, most involve planning. Be inclusive in the planning process. The most successful protests have a number of people who agree to help with the coordination. Committees can be established to accomplish various tasks. Draw up a timeline for the event and assign various people to coordinate the various aspects. Develop an outreach strategy for the event and set goals for the number of participants. If you ask other groups to co-sponsor (always a good idea), ask them to help mobilize people by sending notices to their members, allies, or the media.
Be mindful of diversity. Recruit speakers that are dynamic, inspirational, and can help impact the decision makers you are targeting. You want speakers to represent both important constituencies and those who can tell the personal stories of average people most impacted by the issue. Develop an outline for the event and be clear who is doing what and when. For major events, you’ll want to at least have a few people to do a walk through the site beforehand to identify possible problems (or opportunities).
If it’s a march, assign peacekeepers to help with traffic safety. They should have some form of marking, like an armband, to make them visible to the organizers and participants. Agree how sudden decisions will be made in the event of emergencies or last-minute changes, for example, if police bar you from part of the route. Be mindful of time. Even the most active people will begin to drift away if the event (or a particular speaker) is too long. For marches and rallies, have designated chant leaders and chants distributed to participants.
Large events require sound systems, which can require a permit (especially if you need electricity). You know a local musician who can donate the use of their sound system and assist with assessing your sound needs. Battery-operated sound systems can work for a crowd of a few hundred. Bullhorns are good for chants, but not great for speeches. Check batteries ahead of time and bring extras.
Like other advocacy, protests must communicate clearly about why you are protesting and what changes you desire. Demands can be spelled out on your signs. Have a press release explaining the issues and the demands to distribute to the media. Have people assigned to deal with the media, even as others may be designated to speak to the press. It’s often helpful to have leaflets for curious onlookers.
Plan to publicize your protest digitally. You can livestream your event on social media. Make sure someone is responsible to get photos and have participants take pictures (or videos) and post them to their own feeds. Develop social media hashtags.
Call-ins that target decision makers is a common tactic. Some large groups set up toll-free numbers that people can call to hear a short message and then get connected to the target; this enables you to keep track of the number of calls. Some campaigns have different organizations take responsibility for different days of the week, so the target gets calls throughout the week. Others have people sign up for the time slot they will call, plus ask them to text the next person on the list once the call is completed. Such call-ins provide the caller with a sample message as well as some short background (and possibly a link for more info).
Petitions are not an effective means of protest, because politicians know it requires a low-level of commitment to do it. Petitions this days are mainly a way to generate names for future contacts.
Be creative in your protests. Interesting events, especially ones that incorporate humor, tend to draw more media coverage and interest by the general public. Many climate groups incorporate colorful images and performance art into their protests.
In May 2015, five hundred climate activists took to kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and even a solar-powered party barge at the Port of Seattle to swarm around a huge drilling rig that Shell had brought there. The company planned to use the port as a staging ground for oil drilling operations in the Arctic over the next two years. Climate groups around the country were inspired to organize similar protests against climate targets.
The Civil Rights Movement utilized creative protests to highlight the unfairness and brutality of segregation. Sit-ins at lunch counters brought national attention to the movement. The South American tradition of protesters taking to the streets banging pots and pans, dates back to the early 1970s in Chile, when food shortages led people to turn their empty utensils into instruments of mass mobilization.
When I was working for the Iowa Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), one of our neighborhoods had a noxious meat rendering plant. We discovered that the publisher of the local paper, the Des Moines Register and Tribune, was on the board of the company. For Valentine’s Day, we brought to his office a four-foot valentine that said, “Roses are Red / Violets are Blue / We are Sure Tired / Of Smelling You.” The head of the company was outside our office at 8 a.m. the next morning.
When cotton farmers were spraying their fields near a low-income Mexican American neighborhood in South Phoenix, killing animals and making people sick, we brought some children and their parents to the neighborhood of the Chair of the State Pesticide Control on Halloween. Going door-to-door trick-or-treating, they handed out onions (which is what the pesticide smelled like) to his neighbors and said that if they did not like the smell, call him. They did, mainly to say “I don’t know what this is about, but deal with it so they don’t come back”).
When we were protesting high utility bills, activists brought bags of pennies to the utility’s office to pay their bills. When a park superintendent was slow in cleaning up a neighborhood park, the residents presented him with the Slow Turtle award. He was so slow that it took him a few minutes to realize what was going on. The park cleaning crew was out the next day.
For April Fool’s Day a few years ago, I played Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson in a press conference the climate group 350NYC held outside of their publicist office. We announced that Exxon was stopping the use of fossil fuels. Groups often go into the busy offices of banks financing fossil fuels and perform plays and musical skits about the climate crisis until they are thrown out.
In Europe in November 2022, young climate activists began throwing soup on the glass coverings to famous artwork. It generated a lot of attention and eventually a fair number of people took the time to figure out why they were doing it. Others disrupted major sporting events.
Art and Climate Activism
A picture is worth a thousand words. Protestors have always used creative signs and props to illustrate their concerns about climate change – and hopefully to get their sign in the media. Art is multi-media and includes songs and music, posters, and plays or skits.
Climate change has inspired artists to create works that express anything from people’s fears to the scientific consensus around the issue. Art provides a way for people to connect with these emotional and personal aspects of climate change. Studies have found climate change art is capable of changing people’s opinions, especially if the message is hopeful, and provides ideas for change. One role of art is to make scientific data more accessible. Art is also participatory, giving people more ownership of an event. There is an increasing trend for scientists and artists to co-create work to help communicate climate change research.
The group Artists and Climate Change observes that art and culture “provoke and encourage us to think bigger and beyond ourselves, it strengthens community and empathy, and, most critically, it connects us to our common humanity. In all its diverse expressions, culture belongs to everyone, and it is a tool for social change.” As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Many climate groups and coalitions establish art committees and organize art building volunteer gatherings to generate signs, banners, puppets, and props for major events. Sane Energy, a leader in the art building community in New York, explains that “Art speaks faster than words. Art is a way to quickly explain an often-complicated story: what the issues and solutions are. It starts conversations, engages the public, and changes consensus. Art builds community.” They added, “we know getting the word OUT is a big part of all of our work. More people will read our message if it is designed with an attractive, eye-catching image.”
Art was a major component of the 400,000 person People’s Climate March in 2014 in New York City. Their toolkit explains that making art is a way to bring people, spread the word about the event, and make clear why your community is organizing. Bringing people together to create art provides the opportunity to: invite coalition partners and potential allies to a fun event to deepen relationships; bolster interest in the event; recruit volunteers to support your outreach and longer-term work; and, tell your community’s stories through powerful and inspiring images. They suggest that the best way to ensure that your art communicates the full power of the people you are organizing with is to have a planning meeting first (see their Telling Your Story page for suggestions on how to lead a “Visioning Session” to plan your art.)
Performance art is designed to be acted-out in front of an audience. It can encourage the viewers to become participants. It seeks to touch people emotionally. It is very visual and usually provocative, thought provoking, urging viewers to think about the issue being addressed. It includes plays, often short humorous ones designed for public places; musical skits; and/or dancing. Some performance art may seek to provide viewers with the information needed to take political action; others focus directly on mobilizing the audience to take specific advocacy steps.
The Red Rebel Brigade, which grew out of the Extinction Rebellion protest in London in the spring of 2019, is “an international performance artivist troupe dedicated to illuminating the global environmental crisis and supporting groups and organizations fighting to save humanity and all species from mass extinction…. These ethereal otherworldly beings came from a slow-motion mime show called Blanco that Invisible Circus toured for many years as a street show in the 90’s. Red Rebel Brigade is an evolution of these ghostly all white characters that first processed for the Anti-Iraq war demonstrations in 2003. This show had a very powerful mesmerizing effect on audiences with slow motion movements synchronized and performed in static tableaux, utilizing existing architecture and reclaiming public spaces.” They are an example of how political art often transcends the barrier of language.
Civil disobedience means breaking the law to protest injustice. Such acts can be intended to protest the overall lack of effective action to curtail climate change, or it can be directed at a specific action or target, such as the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.
The use of civil obedience by climate groups was significantly curtailed during the Covid crisis as a precautionary health measure. (below – Mark Dunlea getting arrested at climate protest outside the Governor’s office, NYS Capitol)
As outlined earlier, Extinction Rebellion relies on historical research that shows that nonviolent revolutions are more successful than those that utilize violence and that the critical mass is participation by 3.5% of the population. “Civil disobedience is the active, non-violent refusal to accept the dictates of governments,” they say. “It informs them that unjust actions will be opposed, and the people will act illegally if pushed to do so. Civil disobedience causes disruption and focuses attention, while forcing debate with the aim of bringing about fundamental and progressive changes within our societies and our world.”
Just Stop Oil is another United Kingdom-based group that takes direct action (civil disobedience) to get the government to halt fossil fuel production. While this has included various blockades, occupation, and stunts like climbing bridges to halt traffic, they received international media attention in October 2022 when two of its members threw soup on the glass protecting a Van Gogh painting.
In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote that there is a higher law than civil law which compels the obedience of the individual. In cases where there is conflict, the individual must follow his conscience and, if necessary, disregard human law.
Civil disobedience, also called passive resistance, is the refusal to obey the dictates of a government or a ruling power, without resorting to violence; its usual purpose is to force concessions from those with power. Civil disobedience has been a major tactic and philosophy of nationalist movements in Africa and India, in the American Civil Rights Movement, and of labor, anti-war, and other social movements in many countries. Civil disobedience is usually a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law. The protestor, finding legal avenues of change blocked, ineffective or nonexistent, feels obligated by a higher, extralegal principle to break the law.
Famous successful acts of civil disobedience include Rosa Park’s bus boycott; the Civil Rights sit-ins at lunch counters; Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march in India; the women’s suffrage movement in the United States; and the Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to win independence from the Soviet Union. Civil disobedience arrests at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., New York City, London and other cities played a role in the overthrow of Apartheid.
Climate change threatens the quality of life on this planet, even threatening the extinction of humans and other species. Saving life on the planet is viewed by many as a greater need than accepting decisions by governments and corporations to continue to allow the burning of fossil fuels.
Some advocate that the threat from climate change is so great that it justifies uncivil disobedience. There is debate however whether the targeted destruction of property (for example, destroying equipment used in building fossil fuel infrastructure) qualifies as violence if no one is hurt. Many protestors argue that damaging property should not be considered violence, saving that label for harm to individuals.
Civil disobedience is normally an intensification of an ongoing campaign, after other activities and protests have failed to achieve the desired goal. There are numerous books and how-to-guides on the use of civil disobedience. It normally requires participants to undergo training to ensure there are agreed upon standards of behavior for events. This might include a commitment to nonviolence; deciding whether and at what level participants will resist when arrested; how to react to the misbehavior of police; and how decisions will be made during the event if needed. Protests with a lot of potential arrestees usually divide into smaller affinity groups to provide mutual support. Participants should fully understand what is likely, or possible, to happen at events in which civil disobedience is employed. They can be quite stressful, especially for those who have not participated in civil disobedience before.
Some civil disobedience protests inform the authorities beforehand about the event and negotiate how it will unfold, including how individuals will be arrested and what charges they will face. Such events can be tightly scripted. Other civil disobedience actions take place without prior notice to the authorities, especially if the intent of the event is to shut down the operations of the government or fossil fuel project, at least temporarily. Lawyers need to be lined-up to represent the protestors, particularly when they appear in court. Jail support is usually organized to assist arrestees after they are released, including helping with transportation and food.
Since many civil disobedience arrestees in the United States avoid jail time, with the charge stricken if they stay out of trouble for a set time period, the police can make arrests and time spent in criminal justice facilities an unpleasant experience. Groups have responded to such down time as an opportunity to hold training sessions and sing alongs while waiting to be released.
How-to Resources for Civil Disobedience
There are many books and manuals on the theory and practice of civil disobedience. One of the best know theoreticians is Gene Sharp, who has been called the “dictator slayer,” and the “Machiavelli of nonviolence.” Sharp sought to “correct common misconceptions about nonviolent action: that people have to be pacifists or saints to undertake it, that strategic nonviolence somehow involves avoiding conflict, and that it can only be used in democracies. He set out to show that nonviolent action is “a technique of struggle involving the use of psychological, social, economic, and political power,” and that it can be used even against viciously repressive regimes.” “How to Start a Revolution” is a 2011 documentary about his theories.
ACT UP, which used civil disobedience to force an adequate public health response to the AIDS crisis, has a manual for civil disobedience, which it developed from the Handbook for NonViolent Action by the War Resisters League. “The purpose of training is for participants to form a common understanding of the use of nonviolence,” it says. “It provides a forum to share ideas about nonviolence, oppression, fears, and feelings. It allows people to meet and build solidarity with each other and provides an opportunity to form affinity groups. It helps people to decide whether they will participate in an action. Through role playing, people learn what to expect from police, officials, other people in the action and themselves.”
(I was one of several dozen arrested at Cricket Valley fossil fuel plant in Dover Plains, NY.)
The Climate Disobedience Center was organized to provide logistical, legal, and spiritual resources, on the ground assistance, and advice to climate activists engaged in civil disobedience. “Our trainings go well beyond skills and tactics to help your community identify the principles that ground you and help you think through how to use those principle to guide your efforts,” they say. “Unlike other direct action trainings that assume an action ends at the point of arrest, our trainings are designed from the beginning to help activists strategize actions that extend into successful courtroom confrontation and long-term campaigns.”
The Center embraces the climate necessity defense, which asserts that protestors are acting in the public interest, which the law protects. Defendants using the climate necessity defense admit their criminal conduct but argue that it was necessary to avoid greater harm. The impacts of climate change are so serious that breaking the law is necessary to avert them. The defense allows activists to call attention to and explain the reasons behind their actions. By presenting a necessity defense — describing the dangers of climate change, the lack of effective legal remedies, and the importance of individual action — activists seek to put the government on trial. The necessity defense also seeks to empower juries.
To date, there have been a few climate cases where a judge has allowed the defense, with a few leading to acquittals (though not directly on the defense). In the past, activists have been found not guilty by reason of necessity for protesting issues like nuclear weapons, CIA recruitment, and Apartheid.
One of the Center’s cofounders is Tim DeCristopher. As Bidder 70, he disrupted a federal Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in December of 2008, by outbidding oil companies for parcels around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. He received national attention for the action and spent 21 months in prison. Claiming they had been rushed into auction with insufficient environmental and scientific review, the Interior Department canceled many of the leases shortly after the auction and a subsequent court injunction.
The Fierce Vulnerability Network, which describes itself as a “constellation of direct action teams positioned at the intersection of racial healing and climate justice,” also has published an organizing manual which has a large section on civil disobedience and direct action.
The treatment of protestors engaged in civil disobedience in the United States has been relatively restrained in recent decades, especially when compared to the response to the civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and before that, to labor organizing. In the U.S. people of color and low-income individuals find civil disobedience more threatening than others, with a higher likelihood of negative consequences. The police have long been an instrument of racism and the oppression of those in poverty.
Some Successful (Impactful) Climate Action Campaigns
There have been many inspiring climate action campaigns and protests. Several campaigns in the United States are outlined below: the successful effort to ban the hydrofracking on natural gas in New York State, led by grassroots activists who challenged the leadership of the big green groups; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which highlighted the leadership role of frontline Indigenous communities; and the recent Line 3 pipeline struggle. The Keystone XL Pipeline was one of the most visible and longest campaigns.
The last and longest campaign overview is of the one I played a major role in, to successfully divest the New York City and New York State pension funds from the fossil fuel industry.
Although this book primarily covers climate action in the United States, similar protests are happening worldwide. Students in recent years have emerged as major leaders in the climate movement as they realize that adults are failing in their effort to ensure a future for them. The September 2019 Global Climate Strikes, inspired by Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, attracted an estimate 4 million people, the largest climate protest ever.
In India in 2021, millions of farmers and their allies protested new laws that benefit large agribusiness at the expense of small family farmers. The government responded by cracking down on climate activists who joined the farmer-led protests. In Sydney, Australia, climate activists in June 2022 blocked streets and the critical Sydney Harbor Tunnel. Extinction Rebellion has repeatedly disrupted life in the UK, though it recently announced it would utilize that tactic less often.
Ban on Fracking in NY
The fight against fracking in New York State was a multiyear campaign that used a diverse mixture of tactics to win a ban on fracking.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a method that uses high pressure water and chemical cocktails (often toxic) to break up deep shale formations in order to extract gas. The United States has become a leader in fracking. Many politicians of both parties, including some major environmental groups, have promoted gas as a cheap bridge fuel to a clean energy future. While the burning natural gas does produce carbon dioxide, it produces about 30% less than oil and 45% less than coal. Plus, natural gas does not produce ash particles like coal and oil do, which adds to air pollution.
However, natural gas is primarily methane, which is more than 80 times more potent in the short-term (20 years) as a greenhouse gas than carbon. The proponents of natural gas have largely ignored or downplayed the problems created by the leakage of methane in the process of producing and distributing gas.
Fracking presents a host of other environmental problems, far too many to detail here. Fracking involves blasting huge volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand deep into the earth to fracture rock formations. About 25% of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, scientists say. Others harm the skin or reproductive system. The need for wastewater disposal and shrinking water supplies are major problems. Each well consumes a median of 1.5 million gallons of water, according to the EPA, adding up to billions of gallons nationwide every year.
The International Energy Agency estimates that the U.S. oil and gas industry emits 16.9 million metric tons of methane every year, though some scientists believe that is a significant underestimation. Fracking can lead to the rapid industrialization of rural landscapes, with significant increases in noise from the fracking operation and truck levels.
Grassroots community groups, particularly in Central New York and the state’s Southern Tier, where most of the state’s fracking would take place, called for a ban on fracking from the start. It was, after all, their communities that were directly threatened. They were joined by the most progressive climate groups, such as the statewide Green Party, which understood that natural gas was just another fossil fuel contributing to global warming and therefore should have no role in a clean energy future.
The larger, more mainstream climate groups with funding and staff initially tended only to support a moratorium on fracking, arguing that the state should take the time to study the issue and evaluate the potential impacts on water and public health. Some of the larger groups, including the Sierra Club, were supportive of gas as a replacement for coal plants they were trying to shut down. Ling Tsou, co-founder of United for Action, a New York City-based grassroots group that fought for a ban, noted, “The mainstream environmental organizations thought the best we could get were good regulations and thought we were crazy.”
In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s lead environmental staff person, Judith Enck (my wife) persuaded him to impose a defacto short-term moratorium on fracking to give the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) complete a generic environmental impact study even though the rest of the Governor’s staff and the DEC opposed a halt. That initial moratorium was extended for several years. In December 2010, Spitzer’s successor David Paterson issued an Executive Office shortly before leaving office that imposed a six-month moratorium instead of signing a moratorium bill that had already passed the state legislature.
The grassroots pressure was sufficient to keep having the moratorium extended until the next Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decided to halt fracking permanently in December 2014, following his re-election.
The grassroot groups employed a wide range of pressure tactics – petitioning, picket lines, phone in, rallies, press conferences. A key decision was to get local governments to pass laws – not just resolutions – that prohibited fracking within their jurisdiction. While many questioned the legality of such an approach, in 2014 New York State’s highest court ruled 5 to 2 upholding the right of municipalities to ban fracking in their jurisdictions.
The legislative strategy, including the push for a moratorium, kept the issue in front of lawmakers while also providing opportunities such as public hearings. Hundreds turned out to speak at public hearings, such as the one the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held on fracking in Binghamton, N.Y. in later 2010. EPA’s Region 2 also submitted strong anti-fracking comments to DEC’s environmental review.
Due to the sustained efforts and passion of the grassroots organizers, eventually most of the larger environmental groups came around to support a ban. More than 250 groups eventually joined together to form New Yorkers Against Fracking to support a ban.
New Yorkers Against Fracking (NYAF) was able to put organizers on the ground across the state, from Long Island to Buffalo, who helped mobilize people for actions, such as bus trips to Albany for rallies at the Capitol. The rallies in conjunction with the Governor’s annual State of the State address in January were especially massive, with thousands of people participating. NYAF also organized networks of key fracking opponents – health professionals, businesses, local elected officials, chefs, and faith leaders – that lent additional visibility and credibility to the effort.
The groups heavily focused on doggedly pursuing  the Governor by turning out fracking opponents to picket, chant, and hold signs wherever he showed up. They also targeted the Governor outside of New York State, such as placing an ad during his appearance at the Democratic National Convention in May 2013 as he tested the water for a possible future presidential run. They showed up when he went to vote. Finding the public schedule of such public officials is generally not an easy task. It requires a considerable monitoring of news media and announcements by politicians or sponsoring groups, and/or tips from friendly media professionals.
Another key factor was “Gasland” by Josh Fox, a documentary film about the fracking fight. Fox had received an offer of $100,000, which he rejected, to allow drilling on his property in Pennsylvania just south of the New York border. This led him to visit residents in two dozen states to discuss their experiences with fracking. One key visual was of homeowners living near fracked wells lighting their water taps aflame as water came out of their faucet due to the presence of methane. The film was a great tool to show at local organizing events.
Electoral politics also played a role. During his 2014 re-election campaign Governor Andrew Cuomo was looking to surpass the vote total his father, Mario Cuomo, had received in his own re-election effort. In addition to fracking, many liberal-leaning voters were not happy with the Governor’s push to expand standardized testing and curriculum in schools as well as his negative comments about public employees, particularly teachers. A relatively unknown law professor and public campaign finance expert, Zephyr Teachout, pulled an unexpectedly high vote total in the Democratic Party primary.
In the general election, the Green Party candidate for Governor, Howie Hawkins, who had been campaigning for both a ban on fracking and a Green New Deal since his 2010 campaign, pulled 5% of the vote, the highest total for a progressive third-party candidate for governor in New York State in a century. Hawkins pulled double digits in the Capital District, which had the largest concentration of public employees, as well as in parts of Central New York where the opposition to fracking was strongest.
The disappointing 2014 election, the realization that the strategy of passing local laws banning fracking had already removed most of the best potential fracking sites from development, and the constant pursuit of the Governor and protests, led Andrew Cuomo to have the Department of Health finally release its long-awaited health study on fracking. A month after the election, Cuomo said that the documentation of the health problems required him to ban fracking. The New York Times noted that his action was likely a way to help repair his position with the Democrat’s left wing, especially after the one-third vote that Teachout received.
Keystone XL Pipeline
The decade long campaign to defeat the Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline was a not only a monumental climate victory but a turning point in climate movement strategy. It was the first national pipeline fight with high visibility both among activists and the mainstream media. Inspired by the Indigenous-led resistance against the Canadian tar sands and growing opposition along the pipeline route, the national climate movement led by 350.org and Sierra Club in 2011 seized on Keystone XL as the place to up the ante in opposing President Barrack Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
The campaign had powerful protests nationwide, 1,200 arrests outside the White House, legal battles, tens of thousands rallying in Washington, D.C. shortly after the 2012 election and putting up solar panels and doing tree occupations along the pipeline route. In April 2014, farmers, ranchers, and Indigenous leaders formed the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and assembled tepees and a Conestoga wagon on the National Mall for a “Reject and Protect” action.
The ultimately successful struggle against Keystone XL had dramatic sudden twists and turns, with flip-flopping executive orders over three presidential administrations turning victory into defeat and then back again.
Canadian TC Energy abandoned the project in June 2021 following President Joe Biden’s denial of a key permit on his first day in office. The fact that the pipeline crossed international boundaries gave the President more unilateral power to halt it than otherwise would be the case. Expanding an existing pipeline, it planned to transport 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The DAPL Fight
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight thrust the role of frontline opposition from Indigenous communities into the leadership of the climate fight and the national limelight.
Grassroots protests began in 2014 to the construction of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners’ 1,172-mile-long underground oil pipeline. The pipeline runs from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, as well as under Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
The protests were led by the Indigenous community, which has increasingly become an important factor in fights against pipelines. In North Dakota, the pipeline route was diverted by the Army Corps of Engineers away from the more developed Bismarck area toward Standing Rock, partially to track an existing pipeline. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other local residents view the pipeline as a serious threat to the region’s water, including the Missouri River which is the tribe’s main water source. The construction also threatened ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of historic importance.
The struggle led to the largest gathering of Indigenous nations in over a century. It garnered international attention and raised awareness of the dangers of pipelines and the continuing mistreatment of Indigenous people by the U.S. Government. The #NoDAPL movement was one of the most inspiring environmental events of the last few decades and a critical moment for Indigenous sovereignty.
Protests against the pipeline route began in 2014 in Iowa, including by local Native American groups. In April 2016, youth from Standing Rock and surrounding Native American communities began organizing to stop the pipeline. Sacred Stone Camp was founded by the local tribe historian as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline. The water protectors’ camp became a center for direct action, with a strong social media presence. By September, members of more than 300 federally recognized Indigenous nations were residing in three main camps, alongside 4,000 additional pipeline resistance demonstrators.
ReZpect Our Water is an Indigenous youth group that formed to oppose the pipeline. In April 2016, ReZpect Our Water organized a 2,000-mile cross-country “spiritual run” from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to protest the construction of the pipeline. Upon their arrival they delivered a petition with 160,000 signatures to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As an independent nation, Standing Rock sought support from the United Nations. On September 20, Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, urging them to support the protests and support their land rights. The following April, Standing Rock member Brenda White Bull spoke at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
In September 2016, construction workers bulldozed a section of privately owned land which the tribe claimed as sacred ground. The protestors responded by establishing a winter camp. Joined by many Native Nations, the Standing Rock Sioux asserted the land rightly belonged to them under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. When protesters moved into the area, security workers used attack dogs. In October 2016, police cleared an encampment which was situated on the proposed path of the pipeline. As of mid-October, there had been over 140 arrests. Some protesters who were arrested for misdemeanors and taken to the Morton County jail reported harsh and unusual treatment.
In late October 2016, police from several agencies, including North Dakota State Troopers, the National Gurad, and other law enforcement agencies from nearby states, began to clear out a protest camp and blockades along the state highway. In November 2016, police used water cannons on protesters in freezing weather, generating significant media attention.
Amnesty International spoke out against the use of strip searches of arrestees. Protesters were blasted with high-pitched sound cannons and were held in cages that appeared to be dog kennels. Dakota Access LLC hired the firm TigerSwan to provide security during the protest. In May 2017, internal TigerSwan documents revealed a close collaboration between the pipeline company and local, state, and federal law enforcement as they carried out “military-style counterterrorism measures” to suppress the protests.
Continued conflicts and resulting attention on social media led to increasing national and global support for the protesters. High profile activists, celebrities, and politicians spoke out in support of protest.
As her campaign manager, I helped get Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein out to DAPL in the fall of 2016 for the encampment and protests. She was charged with a crime after she had left the site. She had spray painted the words “I approve this message” on the blade of a bulldozer to protest that it “had been used to destroy sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. I had to scramble to find a legal team to represent her since there were a lot of arrests from the protests combined with a lack of progressive criminal justice and National Lawyer Guild attorneys in North Dakota.
Demonstrations were held in numerous cities to show support for the DAPL protests. In November, a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock formed to participate in nonviolent intervention to defend the demonstrators from what the group has called “assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force.” On November 15, hundreds of cities held protests against the pipeline in a coordinated protest which organizers called a “National Day of Action.” Thousands joined the protests in North Dakota over Thanksgiving,
One way Energy Transfer Partners fought back against the protests was with a lawsuit against Greenpeace, the Netherlands-based international NGO support group BankTrack, and surprisingly, Earth First! (which was far more active several decades ago.) The company, belittling the leadership of the Indigenous community, made the wild unsubstantiated charge that every group opposed to the pipeline were “terrorists” involved in a “secret underground enterprise” that purposefully misleads the public about the dangers of pipelines and other environmentally dangerous projects in order to profit from the panic that ensues.”
In December 2016, at the end of President Obama’s administration, the Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. This decision however was reversed the following month by the administration of President Donald Trump.
In March 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux led a four-day protest in Washington D.C., culminating in the Native Nations Rise march on March 10. The protesters marched through the capital, pausing to erect a tipi at Trump International Hotel, and rallied in front of the White House.
The pipeline was completed by April 2017 and operations began shortly afterwards.
In March 2020, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the government had not adequately studied the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment,” and ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental impact review. In July 2020, a District Court judge ordered the pipeline to be shut down and emptied of oil pending a new environmental review. The temporary shutdown order was overturned on appeal court on August 5, although the environmental review was ordered to continue. In February 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the review must continue, which leaves open the possibility that that the pipeline could be forced to close.
Legal fights also continue over the right of the public to see documents related to the security firm hired by Energy Transfer, following a $175,000 fine paid by TigerSwan to resolve an investigation by state officials as to whether they were illegally operating in the state.
Line 3 Pipeline
Sustained, continued protests employing a multitude of tactics are taking place against many other pipelines, building upon lessons from DAPL, Keystone and elsewhere.
The Line 3 replacement project received considerable national attention as the major pipeline fight following DAPL, with opposition from Indigenous people and climate justice groups. It first began operation in 1968 and has been the source of millions of gallons of oil spills, including a 1991 oil spill in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, that was the worst inland oil spill in United States history.
The expansion will bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. Proposed in 2014 by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, it sought to build a new pipeline corridor through untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of Ojibwe and Anishinaabe peoples, through the Mississippi River headwaters to the shore of Lake Superior.
Stop the Line 3 Pipeline coalition reported that “We are holding events in our homes, community centers, churches, schools, and online. We are talking to our politicians, speaking up at hearings, marching in protests, taking nonviolent direct action together, and reporting Enbridge’s activity along the proposed route… Hundreds of water protectors are currently facing criminal charges in Minnesota for standing in defense of the water, the climate, and the treaty rights of the Anishinaabeg people… Police forces – directly funded by Enbridge – have responded to this massive movement with surveillance, harassment, physical torture (“pain compliance”), and trumped-up charges, including felonies.”
Court challenges continued after its completion. In October 2022, Enbridge announced that it had reached an agreement to pay $11 million in penalties to various Minnesota regulators and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, including to fund multiple environmental and resource enhancement projects.
Fossil Fuel Divestment from NYC and NYS Public Pension Funds
The first major public challenge to the financing of the fossil fuel industry came with Bill McKibben and 350.org launched the campaign to get college and church endowments to divest from fossil fuels. McKibben’s Do the Math Tour in 2012 showed that to keep global warming at manageable levels we need to leave 80% of the existing fossil fuels in the ground.
Divestment was a conscious effort both to duplicate the campaign successfully used against Apartheid in South Africa and to give groups local targets that they could mobilize around (think globally, act locally). It was a tremendous success in launching a grassroots movement.
350NYC took the lead in initiating the largely successful campaigns to divest both the New York City and New York State pension funds from fossil fuels, the second and third largest public pension funds in the country. In 2020, the NYS Fund, with assets of $210 billion, had approximately $13 billion invested in fossil fuels.
The initial focus of the campaign was to argue that it was morally wrong for pension funds to seek to profit from investing in fossil fuel companies that threatened life on the planet. As the campaign progressed it also highlighted that fossil fuel companies over the last decade were the worst performing part of Wall Street – a trend that would get worse as the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accords to move away from using fossil fuels.
The fact that the New York divestment effort was part of a large national and international effort was a major contributing factor to our success and our willingness to continue organizing over the years. Stories of the organizing and progress being made elsewhere, starting at college campuses, were inspiring. We were amazed as the value of the funds being divested grew from the billions into the trillions (and is now more than $40 trillion).
Since I had spent several decades working with legislators through my work with the Public Interest Research Group and then Hunger Action Network, I volunteered to help coordinate both the New York City and State campaigns.
Even though in both cases the pension funds were largely controlled by a comptroller (initially John Liu in the city and then Scott Stringer, with Tom DiNapoli state comptroller), the New York City pension funds give a major role to other public officials and labor unions, while the state operated on a “sole trustee” model. New York City has five separate public pension funds – general, teachers, fire, police, and the board of education – each with their own board of trustees divided between city and labor representatives. The Mayor and Public Advocate both had representatives on the two largest (general and teachers) along with the Comptroller.
It was helpful that none of the Comptrollers or other key officials were climate deniers. They did not have the sense of urgency that was needed, but we did not have to spend time convincing them that climate change was real.
New York City Divestment Campaign
Much of our work initially focused on getting the City Council to support divestment. This was unproductive. Unfortunately, our initial choice to lead the effort in the Council (Brad Lander, who get elected City Controller in 2021) felt he was too busy with other matters and kept suggesting other council members take the lead, all of whom failed to follow through. Eventually Council member Helen Rosenthal stepped up and worked very hard and effectively for several years to promote divestment. Unfortunately, the powers of the City Council are fairly limited (the city uses a strong mayoral system), and their legal authority over the management of the Public Pension was debatable.
350NYC and other groups held numerous public forums, rallies, petition drives, call-ins, letters, and demonstrations over several years to drum up interest and educate people on the issue. Monthly coordinating committee meetings were held at the Society for Ethical Culture next to Central Park to develop strategies and divide up workload. Divestment was one of the first organized climate campaigns in the city and even the forums would draw well over a hundred people.
We also held informational meetings with the staff in the City Comptroller’s office. The staff were less than enthusiastic, as they felt that the comptroller’s fiduciary responsibility to manage the pensions meant that only financial returns should be considered (ignoring both the long term financial and life challenges posed by fossil fuels.) We did not get meetings with the Comptroller themselves other than when we would approach them in public when they would appear at rallies (usually at labor sponsored events).
In the long run, the support of the Mayor and Public Advocate as well as several of the unions (especially DC37, the largest municipal union) was instrumental. Bill DeBlasio was a progressive City Council member (and later Public Advocate) from Park Slope in Brooklyn (the most progressive neighborhood in the city) who replaced Mike Bloomberg as Mayor. His staff person on pensions, John Adler, was quite helpful. The massive People Climate Movement march in the city in the fall of 2014 (estimated at 400,000), followed by the visit of Pope Francis after his strong encyclical on climate, pushed the mayor to do something in 2015 on climate and divestment was his choice.
When Scott Stringer was first elected to the State Assembly, I worked with him through my role with Hunger Action Network on various corporate accountability issues. I assumed that he would be ready to stand up to the fossil fuel industry once elected Comptroller, which he reinforced when I talked to him several times during his campaign. But once elected, he resisted divestment, citing his fiduciary responsibilities. (One problem at both the city and state level was that the financial advisors on staff strongly opposed divestment, being unconcerned about climate change.)
Stringer reluctantly agreed to join the mayor in his announcement that the city was moving towards divestment. However, the city decided to show “due diligence” by setting up a study process on how to move divestment forward.
This resulted in a major split within the divestment campaign. One segment felt that we had won the issue and should just step aside and allow the process to unfold. I and others however, pointed out that it was clear that Stringer was a reluctant participant, and the study process gave him enough wiggle room to delay it for a long period of time and the opportunity to derail it at a later date. I reached out to the former Deputy State Comptroller, Tom Sanzillo, who supported divestment to get his input into what a real “study process” should look like. I argued that we should intervene to make sure the long-delayed request for proposals process incorporated his recommendation. The key point was that the study should focus on the mechanics of how to actually divest, rather than spending years studying whether to divest and then subsequently do another study on how it should be done.
Unfortunately, we wasted a year sitting on the sidelines debating this issue. It finally became clear that Stringer was still a strong opponent of divestment and that we had to resume active advocacy efforts. Some key people departed the campaign at this point.
There were a number of key developments that eventually caused Stringer to support divestment. One, 350NYC, its many coalition partners, including NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, resumed their organizing and education efforts. We began to focus more on the trustees of the individual funds. Jon Forster, a former vice president of DC37 and chair of their climate committee, was instrumental in building union support. The Professional Staff Congress, a progressive union representing City University of New York (CUNY) professors and part of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), helped push them. (Though the leadership of UFT weakened the resolutions advanced by the locals, which we also saw at the state level.) 350.org also began to provide some staff support to the city and state efforts.
Two, New York Communities for Change (NYCC, formerly ACORN), a multi-racial low-income community group, became active in the divestment campaign. NYCC was part of a broader community and labor coalition that had cachet with elected officials. The coalition was active in calling for the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy to target jobs and assistance to the low-income and communities of color most harmed by the storm. NYCC was able to get the divestment issue included as a key demand in several of the coalition’s major events and efforts, which increased its visibility and support.
Third, Public Advocate Tish James was a strong advocate for divestment, including in her role as a trustee on the two largest funds. She organized a major hearing in November of 2017 on divestment. With de Blasio limited to two terms as Mayor, Stringer and James were considered the two front runners to replace him.
Fourth, at the state level, in December 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo came out in favor of divestment. He had been slow to support the need for climate action, but began to change after the long campaign to successfully convince him to ban fracking. After fracking was a major factor in his disappointing 2014 election results, he began to be more supportive of climate action. He said he would divest fossil fuels from the various funds that he controlled, and he got State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to agree to set up a panel to study how to “decarbonize” the pension fund.
At this point, Stringer saw the handwriting on the wall and used Cuomo as a cover to announce his support for divestment. He was worried that the boards of at least on some of the funds would vote for divestment. And he didn’t want James to own the climate issue in the upcoming mayoral campaign. He called up the divestment staff of 350.org on the day that Cuomo’s released his call for divestment and asked what he needed to do get 350 to publicly praise him. They spent the next few hours negotiating the wording of a release supporting divestment.
In January 2018, Stringer, DeBlasio, James and the trustees of three of the funds (not the police or fire funds) formally announced a commitment to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuels within five years and an intention to sue the industry for climate damages and costs. In December 2021, they announced that $3 billion in fossil fuels had been divested.
At one point during the campaign, we began to highlight how pension funds could better be invested to help society (create jobs, speed up transition to renewables) while providing a higher rate of return. This led to additional opportunities for lawmakers to debate such investments however, so we dropped that focus in order to simplify the effort.
Campaign to Divest from NYS Pension Fund
At the same time that they kicked off the New York City campaign, 350NYC and others launched the effort to divest the state pension fund from fossil fuels. The campaign held its first divestment meeting with the State Comptroller’s office in December 2013. In March 2014 held a rally at DiNapoli’s New York City office to deliver 3,500 petition signatures. In February 2015, as part of Global divestment day, the group held a press conference at the State Capitol and a rally at the Comptroller’s Albany office. The N.Y.S. Nurses Association, one of the first unions to support divestment and overall climate action, spoke.
In the first years of the campaign, the focus was on convincing DiNapoli to divest. As he made his opposition clear, we decided to add legislation to ramp up the pressure. We always doubted that the State Legislature would pass a bill to require DiNapoli to divest. DiNapoli was an Assemblymember when the legislature agreed to appoint him – over the objections of then Governor Spitzer – to replace Alan Hevesi who has been forced to resign as Comptroller. The assumption was that the Assembly would seek to protect him. We felt however, that if we could get 50 legislators to co-sponsor the divestment bill, it would be enough of a signal to DiNapoli that he should divest on his own.
In the end, we were almost at 100 legislative sponsors before DiNapoli finally agreed to divest – with a helping hand from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Senator Liz Krueger had been a long-time colleague of mine in the anti-hunger movement. When the Democrats finally got a majority in the State Senate, she became chair of the Finance Committee. She agreed to be the lead sponsor (and main legislative strategist) in the Senate. Her staff person, Justin Flagg, was an invaluable participant in the campaign.
On the Assembly side, Felix Ortiz of Sunset Park in Brooklyn was chair of the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy when I first began working for Hunger Action Network. He readily agreed to become our first legislative sponsor. The first version of the bill was drafted in 2015. (Subsequent versions were amended to address concerns raised by legislators and the Comptroller.)
In addition to the usual argument about fiduciary duty, DiNapoli (as well as Stringer) argued that divesting would undercut their ability to engage in shareholder advocacy, introducing resolutions in fossil fuel companies to force them to be better on climate. While shareholder advocacy has value, it is also very limited in what it can do and has not had much success, especially on climate, over decades of efforts. Security Exchange Commission rules prohibit shareholder resolutions on the core business of the company. Thus, you can pass resolutions to add more women to the board and to adopt statements against discriminations against gays (something that DiNapoli was unsuccessful in getting Exxon to do) but you can’t tell Exxon to stop developing fossil fuels.
DiNapoli did finally get a resolution passed to have Exxon examine the risk posed by climate change but even had to admit the so-called study they produced was not very informative. And some of his shareholder advocacy partners such as the Bank of England finally admitted that it was not working and began to move towards divestment instead.
The state divestment campaign developed fact sheets, sign on letters, and rallies, as well as trying to bird dogging DiNapoli when he made public appearances. It was a slow though steady process of adding additional legislative sponsors. Senator Kruger agreed to organize several well-attended legislative hearings and roundtables on the issue, including getting the Comptroller’s staff (but not him) to testify.
At the end of 2016, 350.org’s national office made New York divestment a key strategic priority, helping launch the DivestNY coalition. They eventually decided to allocate significant staff time to the effort, particularly Richard Brooks, their North American divestment organizer. 350.org had long provided critical staff support, both with the global campaign effort and with financial analysis. They also helped obtain funding for a part-time organizer in the months before DiNapoli agreed to divest. 350.org also contracted with Corporate Knights, a financial investment firm in Canada, to analyze how well the pension funds in fossil fuels were doing. (Both the city and state campaigns spent considerable time documenting how many billions were invested in the various fossil fuel companies). A second study that Corporate Knights did on their own found that if the state had divested when DiNapoli first became Comptroller, that value of the pension fund would have had more than $22 billion higher.
For years, DivestNY met semi-monthly to coordinate the campaigns. Ruth Foster and then Jordan Dale stepped up to provide coordination of the effort. Considerable resources were devoted to lining up bill sponsors. Lobby days were organized in Albany several times a year. DivestNY probably held New York’s first virtual lobby day ever on March 17, 2020. The state had gone into COVID shutdown a few days before a scheduled DivestNY lobby day with more than 40 legislative visits scheduled; DivestNY was able to turn almost all of them into virtual meetings.
DivestNY maintained a shared legislative spreadsheet online for use by participants. The spreadsheet identified who were already sponsors and the targets for new sponsors. Anyone meeting with a legislator was asked to enter that information into the spreadsheet (date, name, who actually met with, response, what follow-up was needed). That was invaluable in tracking the legislative push. Meetings were held both in Albany as part of organized lobby days and back in local district offices with local constituents. Facts sheets, bill memos, and talking points were provided to participants.
DivestNY solicited organizational endorsements, including asking the groups to provide memos of support that DivestNY collected and distributed to key legislators and staff. For instance, in June 2017, 220 elected officials from 50 counties across New York State released a letter urging DiNapoli to divest. It also targeted the faith community.
One disappointment was that many of the groups who were active in the New York City divestment campaign were less active in the statewide effort after Stringer announced his support, though several of the groups moved on to the Stop the Money Pipeline Campaign to focus on banks and others in the city investing in fossil fuels.
One major addition was New York Youth Climate Leaders, a statewide group mainly of high school students. For several years, they made divestment their key focus and had a high energy level. They brought a much-needed level of optimism and passion to the effort. Their lobbying efforts helped bring in several dozen new sponsors. Legislators also took the young activists seriously, sometimes more seriously than older activists whom they have gotten used to meeting with and then politely ignoring. The youth leaders were also more willing to confront recalcitrant legislators.
I decided to run for State Comptroller in 2018 as the Green Party candidate to focus on the issue of divestment. I got the endorsement of 350.org and Food & Water Watch. While the media – and public – paid minimal attention to the race, it did bring some additional attention to the divestment issue. Also, a number of reporters, especially those based at the state Capitol, included divestment in their interviews with DiNapoli. I also organized a weekly phone-in to the Comptroller’s office in the last two months of the campaign and also distributed 10,000 postcards with information about divestment.
As noted earlier, DiNapoli had agreed with Governor Cuomo to establish a decarbonization advisory panel. In April 2019, the panel released its recommendations urging overhaul of the fund’s investment strategy and new standards to reduce climate risk. While DiNapoli had stuffed the committee with supporters of shareholder strategy, its recommendations pushed a ten-year decarbonization plan that aligned with many of the principles of divestment, although on a slower timeline. It did call however, for an immediate divestment on coal.
In February 2020, Extinction Rebellion held a sit-in in DiNapoli’s office, with eleven people (including me) arrested. The protest did receive some national attention and reportedly irked DiNapoli.
The decarbonization report along with increased attention to climate at the state and national level did push DiNapoli to look at how to reduce the carbon footprint of the pension fund. In July 2020, he announced that he was divesting from 22 coal companies. This opened to the door in the summer of 2020 to DivestNY to start discussions with the Comptroller how about to “make him a climate champion.”
A few months later New York State Senator Liz Krueger took over the negotiations, saying she would withdraw the bill (even though it was now close to having a majority in both houses) if an agreement supporting divestment could be reached. In December 2020, the Comptroller announced a plan to decarbonize the fund by 2040 and divest from the riskiest oil and gas companies.
As a result, the fund has divested from a number of companies, although a decision is still pending related to major oil and gas companies such as Exxon. The Comptroller had more than a billion dollars invested in Exxon when the campaign started.
Despite the large number of sponsors for the state bill, it never moved out of a committee, let alone passed either house. The major problem was the opposition, often behind the scenes, of the statewide public employees’ unions. They were concerned about giving the governor any role overseeing the pensions, since prior governors had on occasion sought to raid the funds to deal with budget emergencies. They were also asked to oppose the bill by DiNapoli, who was the sole trustee, and whose support they courted.
The unions opposed it even though their pensions were not at risk. New York is unique in having a constitutional requirement that public pensions are treated as contracts, so even if there was a shortfall, taxpayers would have to make up the difference. The campaign did get the AFL-CIO central labor councils in the Capital District, which represents many state workers, to pass resolutions in favor of divestment.
The DivestNY campaign is now focusing on getting the N.Y.S. Teachers’ Retirement System to divest.
Some additional perspective and insight on the New York divestment effort is provided by Clara Vondrich, who was Director of Divest/Invest Philanthropy (and previously a 350NYC steering committee member). There were many key individuals and organizations that participated throughout the campaign, with quite a few marathon runners along with a strong relay team.
 https://www.forbes.com/sites/evaamsen/2019/09/30/climate-change-art-helps-people-connect-with-a-challenging-topic/?sh=19a4345375d0; https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/new-virtual-magazine-art-climate-action
 https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/how-do-we-end-racism-in-policing; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/07/black-lives-matters-police-departments-have-long-history-racism/3128167001/
 https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/fracking/index.html; https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/08/study-fracking-prompts-global-spike-atmospheric-methane; https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/011915/what-are-effects-fracking-environment.asp
 https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline; https://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/thousands-rally-in-washington-to-protest-keystone-pipeline-087745; https://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/thousands-rally-in-washington-to-protest-keystone-pipeline-087745
 Much of the overview of the DAPL fight is from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_Access_Pipeline_protests