Climate Activists Debate Over Tactics


Robert van Waarden/

More than 300,000 march in solidarity for Climate accountability, at the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014. (Credit: Robert van Waarden)

More than 300,000 march in solidarity for Climate accountability, at the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014. (Credit: Robert van Waarden)

Robert van Waarden /

More than 300,000 march in solidarity for Climate accountability, at the People\’s Climate March on September 21, 2014. (Credit: Robert van Waarden)

The debate about whether or not humans are warming the planet is essentially over – ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that we are. But the debate over tactics, about how to reduce our carbon emissions, is just starting to heat up.

The 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City was a watershed moment for climate change activists. Over 300,000 people attended the march, and hundreds of small, local groups suddenly saw their work as part of a broad social movement.

The momentum continued to build as climate groups successfully lobbied to shut down the Keystone XL pipeline and helped push the federal government to place a moratorium on new coal leases. In the next two weeks, grassroots activists will be rallying again with a series of protests around the world aimed at convincing governments and industry to limit fossil fuel development.

“We have to keep almost all of the oil and gas and coal that we know about underground. That’s the only place that’s safe for it,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of, an international climate activist group. He maintains the slogan “keep it in the ground” shouldn’t be political:

“The thing of it is that it’s not like a great idea ideological contest or at least it shouldn’t be. It really is just math.”

That math looks like this: if fossil fuel industries develop all their known resources worldwide, three times more carbon will be released into the air than the atmosphere can handle. Those numbers come from a study in the journal Nature, and from a climate change think tank called Carbon Tracker. So, what does emitting the carbon from all those known resources actually mean, according to McKibben?

“If you follow their stated business plan the planet tanks.”

That’s why McKibben and others are demanding that those business plans change. But even among people who agree with that goal, there’s controversy about how to make it happen. Economist Lucas Davis researches energy and environmental markets at UC Berkeley. He doesn’t see the need for all the marching and the chanting — instead he believes there’s a more efficient choice.

“I feel like we could just get together and pass a carbon tax,” Davis said.

Davis is concerned that the current tactics of the climate change movement divert attention away from something more effective and realistic -– putting a price on carbon. Rather than pushing governments and industry to limit fossil fuel supply, Davis says we should just decrease demand by making fossil fuels more expensive. That would reduce emissions and generate revenue.

“We could raise money with a carbon tax and put that towards education, or technology R & D,” said Davis, “or a infrastructure investments or any number of investments that would make our economy stronger and make people better off.”

But getting a new tax through Congress is difficult. Previous attempts have gone nowhere, including one last June. Davis thinks we should keep trying — but he admits that the carbon tax has an image problem: “Who’s the idiot who decided to call this a carbon tax? That was the first mistake.”

He says the concept needs a new name, such as carbon fee:  “And boy, we’ve got a lot of good people who do marketing – get some of them working on how to pitch this to a general audience. This is much more important than selling toilet paper.”

Much more important perhaps, but also much more difficult, according to Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign. The Sierra Club is another leading organization in the climate change movement, and like, they support a carbon tax. But Moffitt says the choice is not smart legislation or mass protest. She thinks we need both.

“If we’re not out there making a whole lot of noise, and demanding this action and saying that we’re willing to disrupt our daily lives get out in the streets get arrested and do something pretty dramatic the other side is definitely going to win,” Moffitt said.

While the movement continues to debate its tactics, the chant “keep it in the ground” will be heard in at least twelve countries over the next two weeks, including Turkey, Nigeria and the Philippines. In the United States, Los Angeles will be the focus point, with smaller demonstrations planned in cities across the country.