The Climate Movement Goes to War with Trump

But to save the planet, we need to remake the Democratic Party

Kate Aronoff February 27, 2017

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Art Tanderup’s Farm has been busy place these last few years. In 2012, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the oil giant Trans-Cana­da showed up at his door, offer­ing a hand­some check to let the com­pa­ny build a pipeline across his land, which sits atop Nebraska’s Ogal­lala Aquifer. He said no. Since then, Tanderup Farms has become a base of resis­tance to the Key­stone XL pipeline, host­ing every­thing from a music fes­ti­val (guests includ­ed Willie Nel­son and Neil Young) to sacred corn plant­i­ngs by Pon­ca elders. 

We need a Democratic Party that eschews the politics of compromise and embraces a low-carbon populism that is unafraid to take on big business.

But the mood at the farm has been less than fes­tive since Novem­ber 8. As soon as the elec­tion was over, we had a feel­ing,” says Tanderup. We didn’t know how soon, but we knew [Key­stone] was prob­a­bly on Trump’s agenda.” 

Tanderup is speak­ing with me by phone from his home in Ante­lope Coun­ty. We last talked in ear­ly 2015, dur­ing the height of the fight against the 1,179-mile pipeline exten­sion, which NASA sci­en­tist James Hansen has dubbed the fuse to the biggest car­bon bomb on the planet.” 

Fol­low­ing years of fierce oppo­si­tion from Native tribes, cli­mate groups and landown­ers like Tanderup, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion reject­ed per­mits for Key­stone in Novem­ber 2015, stop­ping the pipeline in its tracks. 

Then Don­ald Trump arrived at the Oval Office. Just four days after his inau­gu­ra­tion, Key­stone was back on the table by way of exec­u­tive mem­o­ran­dum— along with the Dako­ta Access pipeline (DAPL), halt­ed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers late last year. 

The first days of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion can only be described as a full frontal attack on the cli­mate. With­in an hour of Trump being sworn in, the new admin­is­tra­tion scrubbed all men­tions of cli­mate change from the White House web­site. Instead, the site is now home to An Amer­i­ca First Ener­gy Plan,” which promis­es to repeal Obama’s Cli­mate Action Plan, ramp up oil and gas drilling on pub­lic land and revi­tal­ize the coal industry. 

Then, on Feb­ru­ary 1, a career oil­man, for­mer Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tiller­son, was con­firmed as sec­re­tary of state, effec­tive­ly putting U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the hands of an indus­try that threat­ens civ­i­liza­tion as we know it. 

Judith LeBlanc, direc­tor of the Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance and a mem­ber of the Cad­do Nation of Okla­homa, was on the ground in Stand­ing Rock, N.D., when Trump resus­ci­tat­ed the pipelines. She has been a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the encamp­ments that water pro­tec­tors set up to block DAPL in spring 2016, and she says few there were sur­prised by the news. Peo­ple here,” she told me, see Trump as a clear and present dan­ger to everyone.” 

That same night, orga­niz­ers around the coun­try staged emer­gency anti pipeline ral­lies. The two largest, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and New York City, drew thou­sands of pro­test­ers. LeBlanc and oth­ers are heart­ened by these rapid respons­es. But accom­pa­ny­ing protests, she argues, must be a dri­ve to trans­late grass­roots lead­er­ship into gov­ern­ing power. 

WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW 

One thing is clear: A Trump pres­i­den­cy pre­cludes any real hope of decreas­ing U.S. car­bon emis­sions lev­els. The task at hand, sci­en­tists say, is to rapid­ly decar­bonize the econ­o­my and keep some 75 per­cent of known fos­sil fuel reserves under­ground in order to avoid a 2 degree Cel­sius glob­al tem­per­a­ture rise. Right now, the White House and GOP are mov­ing at break­neck speed in the oppo­site direc­tion. The plan­et can’t wait this out for eight years: Trump must go, and soon. 

So the cli­mate move­ment needs to make sure a Demo­c­rat defeats Trump in 2020. But even that won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be enough. Democ­rats, unlike their GOP coun­ter­parts, clear the low bar of acknowl­edg­ing that cli­mate change is real. But giv­en the chance, cen­trist Democ­rats tend to opt for indus­try friend­ly mea­sures like cap and trade, whose com­plex, tech­no­crat­ic frame­work leaves plen­ty of wig­gle room for pol­luters and fails to inspire pub­lic enthu­si­asm. To beat Trump — and stave off cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe — we need a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that eschews the pol­i­tics of com­pro­mise and embraces a low-car­bon pop­ulism that is unafraid to take on big business. 

How do we get the par­ty we need? We build it from the ground up. At the local lev­el, pop­ulist plat­forms ani­mat­ed by a con­cern for the cli­mate are already win­ning at the bal­lot box and chang­ing local and state poli­cies — even in the face of strong oil indus­try and Repub­li­can oppo­si­tion. This down-bal­lot insur­gency can build the momen­tum need­ed for both a fight­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and real cli­mate action. 

AS GOES ARVIN… 

Take the small town of Arvin, Calif., where grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal­ism is already win­ning elec­tions. In Novem­ber 2016, the town elect­ed as its may­or 23-year-old Jose Gur­ro­la, who ran on a plat­form of ban­ning new frack­ing wells and reg­u­lat­ing exist­ing ones. Gur­ro­la defeat­ed two oppo­nents, both Demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­cil­men unwill­ing to take on the oil and gas industry. 

Arvin is fer­tile ground for this com­bi­na­tion of pop­ulist and cli­mate-focused pol­i­tics. Nes­tled in California’s Cen­tral Val­ley, the town was home to the first migrant labor­er hous­ing built as part of the New Deal, immor­tal­ized as the Weed­patch Camp in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Today, Arvin is home to just over 20,000 peo­ple, many of them undoc­u­ment­ed farm­work­ers. Gas and oil wells dot the town. Because of Kern County’s unique geog­ra­phy — sur­round­ed on three sides by moun­tains — the tox­ins spewed out by extrac­tion and agri­cul­ture remain trapped in the air above the small city. 

As a result, Arvin faces a mount­ing pub­lic health cri­sis, with air qual­i­ty oscil­lat­ing between the worst and sec­ond-worst in the nation, depend­ing on the month. Frack­ing-relat­ed flares spout flames and tox­ic chem­i­cals into the air. Some res­i­dents have already been dis­placed as the result of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water. 

In 2015, the Cen­ter on Race, Pover­ty and the Envi­ron­ment (CRPE), a Cen­tral Val­ley envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice group, tried to ban frack­ing in Arvin via a city ordi­nance. When that failed, CRPE orga­niz­er Lupe Mar­tinez and his col­leagues real­ized that the only way to stop indus­try from pulling the strings of local pol­i­tics was to elect their own advocate. 

Through its elec­toral arm, the group became the force behind Gurrola’s cam­paign. Using a tex­ting app bor­rowed from the Bernie Sanders cam­paign and going door to door, Gur­ro­la and CRPE staff talked to vot­ers about the air pol­lu­tion ram­pant in Arvin and the need for clean energy. 

But Gur­ro­la and CRPE also under­stand that envi­ron­men­tal issues can’t be addressed in isolation. 

Trump’s embrace of the oil and gas indus­try rep­re­sents a clear and present dan­ger to res­i­dents of Arvin, but so, too, does his dra­con­ian immi­gra­tion agen­da. Arvin is one of 12 towns in Cal­i­for­nia where few­er than half of res­i­dents are U.S. cit­i­zens, and many are already report­ing an uptick in ICE raids since Trump’s inauguration. 

Our com­mu­ni­ties are so scared of what’s hap­pen­ing nation­al­ly,” says Mar­tinez. We need to take care of the fear first.” For many, he says, the stakes are sim­ple: If I’ve got a prob­lem with my green card … I can’t help you with the oth­er things you’re doing on methane or on water. It can’t be just one is sue that we’re focused on.” 

So as Gur­ro­la works to ban frack­ing local­ly, he’s also search­ing for ways to defend his con­stituents against depor­ta­tion. The city has begun draft­ing a res­o­lu­tion that would lim­it local police coop­er­a­tion with fed­er­al immi­gra­tion authorities. 

Mean­while, CRPE is also think­ing about how local cli­mate fights can serve as a launch­pad to pro­pel grass­roots lead­ers into pro­gres­sive­ly high­er office. At some point,” says Mar­tinez, Gur­ro­la is prob­a­bly going to get the expe­ri­ence to become a [Cal­i­for­nia] assem­bly­man. And I hope he does … I’m hop­ing that’s what we’ve start­ed here.” Mar­tinez, who worked for years with the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers, also hopes that Gur­ro­la will be the first of many green can­di­dates to run in Kern County. 

It’s not hard to imag­ine this brand of inde­pen­dent pol­i­tics tak­ing root in oth­er towns like Arvin. A 2014 In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion found that frack­ing wells in Cal­i­for­nia are most like­ly to be sit­u­at­ed in low-income com­mu­ni­ties. That such com­mu­ni­ties are already bear­ing the brunt of gas and oil drilling may help explain why a Novem­ber 2015 Pew poll found that 37 per­cent of Amer­i­cans mak­ing less than $50,000 annu­al­ly were con­cerned that cli­mate change would harm them per­son­al­ly, com­pared to just 21 per­cent of those mak­ing more than $50,000 a year. 

WHAT’S THE MAT­TER WITH DAVOS? 

At last year’s UN cli­mate talks in Moroc­co, a for­mer cli­mate advis­er to the British gov­ern­ment issued a pre­scient warn­ing: If [mit­i­gat­ing] cli­mate change is labeled as an elit­ist, glob­al project, which is what UKIP and [Marine] Le Pen want to do, then it’s dead.” 

Like the cli­mate cri­sis itself, Trump­ism is a glob­al phe­nom­e­non, tied to an upris­ing against the impacts of neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic poli­cies that have con­cen­trat­ed glob­al cap­i­tal in a few hands and left whole coun­tries and com­mu­ni­ties dev­as­tat­ed. Le Pen, Trump and oth­er right-wing pop­ulists have suc­cess­ful­ly cast this as a con­flict between a lib­er­al cul­tur­al elite and a belea­guered work­ing class, obscur­ing the role of unfet­tered cap­i­tal­ism. That Davos reg­u­lars like Al Gore, Elon Musk and Leonar­do DiCaprio are some of the cli­mate movement’s most rec­og­niz­able faces should be deeply trou­bling to any­one invest­ed in a liv­able future. If cli­mate change is con­sid­ered a trendy, elite cause, the plan­et is doomed. 

Part of the prob­lem is that even the most pas­sion­ate of cli­mate activists would be hard-pressed to find an emo­tion­al stake in poli­cies like cap and trade, usu­al­ly nego­ti­at­ed behind closed doors to offer few, if any, ben­e­fits to ordi­nary peo­ple. Nav­i­gat­ing the path toward a low-car­bon future in the era of Trump, then, means giv­ing ordi­nary peo­ple a stake in cli­mate pol­i­cy, and mak­ing it about much more than science. 

That’s exact­ly what People’s Action hopes to do. Root­ed in Saul Alin­sky style com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, the nation­al orga­ni­za­tion has in recent years adopt­ed cli­mate change and the envi­ron­ment as cen­tral issues, along­side local and state efforts to beat back aus­ter­i­ty. Mak­ing these two fights one and the same has led to the group’s great­est suc­cess­es, says Jor­dan Este­vao, one of its senior strategists. 

In late 2016, for exam­ple, People’s Action helped to pass the Illi­nois Future Ener­gy Jobs Bill — which funds renew­able ener­gy, as well as job train­ing and ener­gy effi­cien­cy pro­grams tar­get­ed at low-income com­mu­ni­ties — through its two affil­i­ates in the state, Illi­nois People’s Action and Fair Econ­o­my Illi­nois. Key to doing that, says Este­vao, was empha­siz­ing how much these mea­sures could bring down ener­gy bills and dri­ve local eco­nom­ic growth in areas that need­ed it most. 

Until we’re affir­ma­tive­ly nam­ing how these changes are going to ben­e­fit our com­mu­ni­ties, folks are going to be dis­in­ter­est­ed, if not opposed,” says Estevao. 

A sim­i­lar mea­sure is now being pushed in New York state by NY Renews, a coali­tion of labor, cli­mate and racial jus­tice groups aim­ing to hold Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo to his promise to act as Trump’s pro­gres­sive foil. 

Cam­paigns like those in Illi­nois and New York can pres­sure Democ­rats to line up behind pro­gres­sives’ plans, dri­ving a greater wedge between the par­ty and the GOP. As state-lev­el efforts mul­ti­ply, they can change the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about what cli­mate action looks like, attract­ing a diverse group of sup­port­ers and dis­man­tling the image of envi­ron­men­tal­ism as the prove­nance of elite pol­i­cy wonks. Designed well, cli­mate leg­is­la­tion can deliv­er real jobs and sav­ings, pos­ing a tan­gi­ble alter­na­tive to Trump’s fab­ri­cat­ed job claims. 

In addi­tion to orga­niz­ing and pol­i­cy work, People’s Action serves as a lead­er­ship pipeline. The pro­gram grooms orga­niz­ers who get involved in its cam­paigns to run for office, first at the hyper­local lev­el and then for high­er posts. 

The Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance, a People’s Action affil­i­ate, has a sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy. Found­ed out of the strug­gle to extend the Afford­able Care Act to Indi­an Coun­try, it has been build­ing up a net­work of grass­roots lead­ers across Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties on a num­ber of fronts, includ­ing cli­mate. There’s a frac­tur­ing of the GOP and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty,” says Judith LeBlanc, who serves as the alliance’s direc­tor. That opens up oppor­tu­ni­ties for more inde­pen­dent pol­i­tics root­ed and based on val­ues and issues.” 

The kind of pol­i­tics she envi­sions is one led by grass­roots orga­niz­ers who pos­sess a deep under­stand­ing of how fed­er­al and state poli­cies impact their communities. 

NEBRASKA’S PAR­TY CRASHERS

This might look some­thing like the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion under­way in Nebras­ka, where pipeline fight­ers and Sanders Democ­rats have tak­en con­trol of their state Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Thanks to Sanders’ win in the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus in March, his sup­port­ers made up the major­i­ty of del­e­gates to the party’s June con­ven­tion. These del­e­gates helped vote a slate of pro­gres­sive reform­ers into the party’s top positions. 

Jane Kleeb, the new chair of the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, was a Sanders sur­ro­gate dur­ing the cau­cus fight. She now serves on the board of Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the offi­cial next phase of the Sanders cam­paign, which works to elect can­di­dates in down-bal­lot races nation­wide. But long before that, she spent four years criss­cross­ing Nebras­ka as one of the most vis­i­ble faces in the state’s fight against Keystone. 

After found­ing the pro­gres­sive group Bold Nebras­ka in 2010, the self described mom in a mini-van” (she and her hus­band, Scott, have three daugh­ters) embarked on a quest to end what she calls emi­nent domain for pri­vate gain.” That entailed recruit­ing ranch­ers and farm­ers like Art Tanderup, whose land the pipeline threat­ened, to join law­suits aim­ing to slow or stop the project. Some of these suits are ongo­ing, she notes, which will mean a lengthy legal process for Tran­sCana­da if it wants to con­tin­ue construction. 

We were able to cre­ate this real move­ment in Nebras­ka against Key­stone XL, not because of the sci­ence behind cli­mate change, but because of the emo­tion­al tie to the land and water,” says Kleeb. 

Kleeb also hopes to use her posi­tion at the helm of the state Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty to test out a more blue-col­lar approach to decreas­ing Nebraska’s car­bon emis­sions. Democ­rats should talk about why we need a hard-hat rev­o­lu­tion of clean ener­gy — not only to tack­le cli­mate change, but to bring steady, good-pay­ing jobs to our rur­al and urban com­mu­ni­ties,” she says. That is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent frame than talk­ing about elec­tric cars.” 

For exam­ple, she hopes to pitch green jobs to the state’s vot­ers as a dri­ver of both eco­nom­ic growth and emis­sions reduc­tions, with a heavy empha­sis on the for­mer. The state party’s plat­form on ener­gy oppos­es frack­ing, fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and Key­stone while sup­port­ing renew­ables — the near-oppo­site of Trump’s.

So while the pipeline’s specter once again haunts the heart­land, vet­er­ans of the fight against it are on stronger foot­ing than ever. 

The kind of bot­tom-up, move­ment dri­ven pol­i­tics tak­ing root on Nebras­ka ranch­es and Cal­i­for­nia oil fields is anti­thet­i­cal to the way the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment oper­ates. But if the par­ty hopes to stop its slide into obliv­ion and pose a real chal­lenge to Trump’s right-wing pop­ulism, it will have to take its cues from local lead­ers who are try­ing a dif­fer­ent way of doing things. This is not a mat­ter of chang­ing mes­sen­gers in an attempt to recruit peo­ple to the same old pro­grams,” says Jor­dan Este­vao. Top Demo­c­ra­t­ic oper­a­tives will have to learn to lis­ten to and fol­low the lead­er­ship of non-elite, diverse work­ing-class people.” 

Out of peo­ple who under­stand the link between move­ments and pol­i­cy change,” LeBlanc says, I think we’re going to see, across the board, more work­ing-class peo­ple, peo­ple of col­or and Indi­ans who see this as our time to turn.” 

Our last best shot at curb­ing cli­mate change, in oth­er words, is hand­ing over the reins of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the peo­ple capa­ble of build­ing the kind of low-car­bon democ­ra­cy we need. 

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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