It’s In Our Hands Now: Localizing Resistance to Fight Climate Change

By Oakley Hill

As the climate crisis becomes more prominent and imminent, the world has looked to the top echelons of global power to save us from ourselves. Too often, we look for top down change when problems so profound and systemic must also be addressed from the bottom up. Everyday citizens can slash emissions and move the planet toward environmental sustainability—especially if they leverage their power at the community and city levels. Around the world, this is already a growing reality as hundreds of communities take matters into their own hands to resist the climate crisis and build alternative institutions.

The problem of climate change

In a special report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, we were told that to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change we must keep global warming below 1.5ºC. To do that we will have to cut emissions by 45%.[1] This was a daunting message given that, even with the advent of the Paris Agreement, nations are struggling to keep their commitments to even 3ºC of warming.[2] However, our issue is not one of capability, but of will. As Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, said, “We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can—and that is the governments that receive it.”[3]

Failures and derelictions of governments around the world should send a clear message to average, everyday citizens: It is up to us to disrupt business as usual, decrease emissions, and keep temperature rises below 1.5ºC. Such a daunting task may leave us to wonder just how much ordinary citizens with seemingly no extraordinary power can really accomplish in fighting climate change.

It’s a fair question given that individuals acting alone can do very little to address such a large problem. For example, even if everyone in the United States went on a carbon diet by driving less, weatherproofing their homes, changing to energy efficient light bulbs, cutting hot water usage, etc., total U.S. emissions would only decrease by 11%.[4] Regardless of where on earth one happens to live, individual efforts will simply not be enough. Cutting enough emissions to stay under 1.5ºC will require macro-level, institutional changes in transportation, energy, and waste management—changes that only government can enforce and, it seems, only collective action can demand.

A call to resistance at the local and community levels

Hundreds of cities around the world are moving to power their grids with 100% renewable energy. The divestment movement is nearing $8 trillion in divested fossil fuel funds, and single use plastic is diminishing as hundreds of cities and over a hundred countries are working to limit or ban it completely. Even so, only two countries—Morocco and The Gambia—have committed to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

The failure of national governments to limit emissions and the necessity for collective action is a recipe that calls for more than a pinch of nonviolent resistance. Luckily, activists are getting the message and beginning to pressure their local institutions to decrease emissions. City governments are, by nature, more accessible and beholden to their constituents. Cities and municipalities are big enough to emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) but small enough to be swayed by a local coalition or a few hundred unified and disciplined activists. This is why some of the most profound changes are occurring at the city and community levels.

Holding businesses and corporations accountable

While business interests often cripple our ability to mitigate GHG emissions, everyone shares in the power of the consumer. Some companies such as Aldi, Ikea and Tesla are already taking huge steps to limit their environmental impact. As consumers, we can ensure other companies follow in their footsteps. Because their economic power depends on our willingness to consume, we can persuade other companies to limit their environmental impact.

We can also help to create alternative institutions which do not rely on fossil fuels and other polluter industries. For people who live in carbon-heavy economies, every flip of a light switch or commute to work contributes to climate change. Yet using or creating alternative institutions is not just about decreasing emissions, it is an act of liberation from the systemic violence that forces us to contribute to our planet’s instability. Arcadia Power is one example of a large alternative institution, but such initiatives can range from local Facebook carpool pages to community gardens.

Thinking local but also big picture

Gene Sharp has argued against fighting where an enemy is strongest. Rather, he suggests finding the Achilles’ heel, or “the vulnerable part of a person, a plan, or an institution at which, if attacked, there is no protection.”[5] In the fight to reduce GHG emissions and prevent climate disaster, the Achilles’ heel might just be nonviolent action directed at cities, companies, and other institutions at the community level.

We have less than 12 years to make systemic changes that will dramatically decrease our output of GHGs. A localized strategy does not require us to wait for the next election, neither does it depend on one unlikely piece of legislation or a change in the mind of one stubborn president. Rather, local activism consists of hundreds and thousands of small victories; it allows us to bypass the federal government to make change now. It is a strategy congruent with the nature of GHG emissions, which are released everywhere, by everyone—not just from seats of government.

When we think of nonviolent resistance, images of Zuccotti Park or Tahrir Square often come to mind. But when it comes to decreasing emissions, it may be more effective to pack a city council meeting or leave our favorite stores empty. This will require more groups of students demanding that their universities divest in environmentally unfriendly enterprises, and more citizens pressuring their cities to power grids with 100% renewables and consumers demanding more of the companies they patronize.

[1] When the report says we need to cut emissions 45% it means 45% below 2010 levels.
[2] See “Countries.” Climate Action Tracker. retrieved May 20, 2019
[3] The Editorial Board, “Wake Up, World Leaders. The Alarm Is Deafening.” The New York Times, October 9, 2018.
[4] See Monica Aufrecht’s “Climate Change and Structural Emissions: Moral Obligations at the Individual Level.” International Journal of Applied Philosophy25, no. 2 (2011).
[5] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy, (New York: The New Press, 2002), 38.

Oakley Hill is currently pursuing a masters degree in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University, USA. His research interests include peace education in divided societies, using political science data to inform nonviolent resistance strategies, and systemic violence in the United States.

This article appeared on July 23 at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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