In the last From the Front Lines piece, we talked about Missoula's efforts to unite its community around climate action. I maintain that acting locally is the key to spurring systemic change, but as many of the issues driving the climate crisis have global impacts, are tied up in federal law or involve multinational corporations, they can seem too large for local communities to address. Take for example the task of curtailing the amount of fossil fuels that our global society burns. As demonstrated by the Paris agreement, 200 nations agree upon the need to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels,” which inherently involves reducing the amount of CO2 we emit. However, globally, nearly $14trillion is being lined up for new fossil fuel extraction and transportation in the next twenty years. Anyone could intuit that increasing the rate at which we extract and burn fossil fuels would be counterproductive to meeting the goals established by the Paris agreement, but just how much more can we extract? Well, according to George Monbiot, we can’t afford to explore for new hydrocarbon resources at all, full stop. Of course, Monbiot is not alone in this prescription; many climate scientists and leading voices of the climate movement have been straining to make sure this message is heard.
So where do we begin? If hastening the transition to renewables and leaving fossil fuels in the ground will take a globally cooperative and concentrated effort, what can individuals or local communities do? We can look to Missoula for inspiration.
In conjunction with supporting initiatives to lower the city’s impacts on the planet and bolster the city's climate resilience, many folks in Missoula (and across the globe) have taken up the responsibility of reminding the world’s governments just what they agreed to when they signed the Paris agreement, and they’re getting creative in their tactics for doing so.
A local chapter of the international non-profit, 350.org, 350 Missoula “works to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350ppm by implementing strategic actions and advocating policies to end fossil fuel burning with the greatest urgency.” (Full disclosure: I’ve got a soft spot for 350, as it was through this organization that I cut my teeth on environmental advocacy. In college, I helped form a fossil fuel divestment campaign for my university as part of 350’s global divestment campaign, and I’ve participated in many of 350’s non-violent communications and direct actions.) 350.org is devoted to building a global grassroots climate movement united in the fight for a just and rapid transition to a 100% renewable energy system
I had the privilege of speaking with a couple members of 350 Missoula who have been particularly active within the organization: Lee Metzger and Cate Campbell. Lee is a retired professor of wildlife biology and proud grandfather of three. He moved to the Northern Rockies in 1968, fell in love with the wilderness and couldn’t help but stick around. After decades of advocating for wild places and their respective ecosystems, he has spent the last three years focusing his energy on climate change activism. Lee cites his grandchildren as the main motivation for his involvement with the climate movement: “I look at the way they’re growing up and moving forward into the world with joy, enthusiasm, curiosity and energy and they embrace the world that they’re entering. And then I think about the world they will inhabit, 20 or 30 years from now as they’re raising their children, and it’s not going to be the world they expect. That world will be hotter and more extreme, less productive and less diverse, and they will not have the realm of economic possibility that I have enjoyed and that they have enjoyed thus far.”
Cate Campbell is a retired railroad brakeman who worked on freight lines in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. She grew up in a “very science rich family environment,” raised by a teacher and a geologist to appreciate the beauty and diversity of the great outdoors. Two days after retiring, Cate decided to focus her newfound free time and energy on climate change activism: “What caught my attention when I began to read climate change literature was the increasing use of superlatives by scientists who normally employ language that is very restrained and cautious. That sense of their urgency was not lost on me, and my activism began to emerge and expressed itself in the form of joining a group of like-minded individuals who were really ready to hit the streets on this issue.”
Lee, Cate and their fellow members of 350 Missoula believe that a grassroots social movement is needed to generate the political will necessary to address the climate crisis in time – this means mobilizing people to advocate for policies that will bring about a transition from the burning of fossil fuels to renewable energy with the greatest urgency. Of course, generating the sort of political pressure necessary to affect such rapid change is no easy task. Members of 350 Missoula engage in lobbying and they testify before city council hearings as well as state and federal panels; they host rallies and produce communicative art pieces; they canvass and phone-bank to inform their community about climate and energy policy initiatives. They also occasionally engage in direct action in order to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis.
“For me direct action is synonymous with non-violent civil disobedience – it means going public with your ideas in very strategic and planned ways that do not involve property destruction or violence,” Campbell says. Non-violent civil disobedience has been employed by the climate movement for years now, and actions are happening regularly all over the world – for example, ongoing still, today, is the #NoDAPL Standing Rock Sioux Resistance in Cannonball, North Dakota.
“Direct action normalizes protest. Dissent and disobedience express what citizens are no longer going to put up with from corporations and some politicians. Protest amplifies similar actions being taken by people all over the world who have decided that it is time to hit the street and it strengthens coalitions of activists – our coalitions of Native Americans and urban folks and others – who are working hard to safeguard our air, our water and our civil rights. Protest really strengthens our Constitutional right to free speech, to assemble, to petition for redress of a grievance – all those things we learned about in our civics class in high school,” says Campbell.
Metzger likewise he sees direct action and grassroots activism as the path to a livable future: “It’s incredibly hard to look ahead to the future and see how devastating this crisis can be, but that has to be balanced by understanding that we can solve this problem; that there is nothing mysterious or prohibitively difficult about finding solutions to the problems associated with climate change; that we have all the technology we need and there’s more, better technology just down the road. But we do have enough now; we know all that we need to know; we have enough money to institute those technologies and we still have time in order to do it. What we lack is the political will,” he says. “If we can stand together and go to our politicians and simply insist that they make appropriate changes, institute the known technology and begin a just transition to renewable fuels, this can be done. All that it takes is to leave the fossil fuels in the ground and work for justice in the transition. We have all the tools, all the knowledge we need. We have to do it and we have to do it now, because waiting only makes it more expensive and more difficult. We need everybody watching us to become engaged. By being engaged, we can come together with other people who feel similarly and share that and find joy and sustenance and encouragement in that fellowship – to me, that’s the solution. It’s the personal solution and it leads to the global solution.”
Missoula is located along freight lines that are arterial for the export of fossil fuels, and extraction is a large part of Montana’s economy, so the activists of 350Missoula have found themselves in an influential position over energy initiatives on multiple occasions, particularly amidst the successful effort to block the Otter Creek Mine and Tongue River Railroad from being permitted.
“I’ve been involved with three different [direct] actions and in two we blocked railroad trains. The coal mines in eastern Montana ship through Missoula so we suffer all the detrimental effects, both real and potential in the case of spills, derailments, etc. We believe it’s an issue that can appeal to people locally because it’s something real and threatens our community and so that’s been successful; we have blocked train traffic and drawn attention to the movement,” says Metzger.
“The biggest success we celebrated was the defeat of a proposal for what would have become the largest open pit coal mine in North America,” says Campbell. “We sat in on the railroad tracks in two different cities and literally stopped coal trains as they were coming through and we worked in a coalition with other Montana activists, notably the Northern Cheyenne nation, to make sure that the proposal did not get permitted.”
As a result of the first action on the tracks, seven activists, including both Metzger and Campbell, were cited for disorderly conduct. The two were arrested for blocking train tracks in Helena, MT, and on a third occasion, with citations for criminal trespass, for occupying the office of Montana Senator Daines for a day. Daines is a denier of climate change and is not supportive of the changes 350Missoula advocates. “We were able to shut down his office and send a clear message both to him and the people of Montana that politicians need to become more effective in addressing climate change issues,” said Metzger.
But how can we know that direct action and activism in general were instrumental in the denial of Arch Coal’s proposal for the mine? Campbell says, “There was activism throughout the Pacific Northwest. The export facilities were shut down, there were activists working in four different states. What was interesting was when you read the corporate response to the defeat, they made direct reference to public opposition – that was us.” Clearly more than just political representatives are paying attention.
Direct action and civil disobedience are not exact sciences. There is often a great deal of intersectionality with messaging and goals, as often comes with the territory of grassroots organizing, and it is challenging to quantify the success of any given action or protest. That being said, civil disobedience does have a rich history of demanding attention and sparking awareness, and many who have participated in direct actions will attest to experiencing profound impacts upon their lives and roles in activism.
Campbell, on getting arrested the first time, says, “I was surprised by how solid it felt, and that there was this inner consolidation of purpose in why I was doing it. Direct actions are very empowering and for me they kind of quieted the agitation I felt about addressing the threat of climate change. It reminded me what it looked like to be an engaged citizen. The first amendment is only strong if we use it and when we use it we conjure up a long tradition of free speech.” She says, “[the movement] is not one big success – it’s a series of successes by a coalition of people who say “we’re not going to take it anymore; we’re going to hit the streets; we’re going to hold our policymakers responsible and we’re not going to stop until they do the right thing by people’s health and the health of the planet.’”
Metzger says, “Engaging in civil disobedience and being part of that community that feels so intensely and is willing to make that kind of commitment is a source of great hope for me and joy, so it’s a way for me to deal with the despair of the threatening disasters related to climate change and to mix that with hope that we can grow this movement, that the movement can grow to be effective, and just with the joy of being with other committed individuals.”
For more of my interviews with Lee and Cate, stay tuned for Hike the Divide’s first documentary short, coming in early 2017. For more on the story of how a bunch of Northern Cheyenne nationals, Montana ranchers and an Amish community defeated the proposed Otter Creek Coal mine, keep an eye out for the next installment of From the Front Lines.