October 04, 2017
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‘It Can’t Just Be a March. It Has to Be a Movement.’ What’s Next For Climate Activists?

By Brady Dennis


“Okay, so what’s next?” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, on Sunday morning as he looked out at the nearly 100 women gathered inside a meeting room at Union Station.

Less than 24 hours earlier, they had joined tens of thousands of demonstrators on a sweltering day in the nation’s capital for the latest mass protest of the Trump era. The Peoples Climate March had been a chance to push for action on climate change and to oppose what activists see as an unprecedented assault on environmental protections during President Trump’s first 100 days. Protesters had chanted and sung, carried clever signs, Snapchatted and tweeted their way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

Now, the streets of Washington were quiet. The crowds had mostly gone home. Trump was still in the White House. Republicans still controlled Congress. And the entire climate movement, which had seen the Obama era as a time of progress in combating global warming and prioritizing environmental safeguards, faced the question Karpinski had posed: What’s next?

Part of the answer, they hoped, was in this room. The women, most in their 20s and 30s, some looking weary from the previous day’s protest, had followed signs through Union Station that read, “Run to Win. Environmental Candidate Training.” They would spend the day learning the ins and outs of running for office at every level of government, from fundraising to organizing to connecting with voters.

The gathering was a reminder that while marches can make for good pictures and serve as an energizing force, the fight over the Trump administration’s energy and environmental policies will unfold on many fronts and over months and years, not days.

“It can’t just be a march. It has to be a movement,” the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit civil and human rights group that tries to foster grass-roots activism among younger Americans, said in an interview. “A march is one day, but a movement is really what we need to be successful.”

He noted that a key theme of Saturday’s march, which followed a demonstration in New York in September 2014 as world leaders gathered for a climate summit, was not entirely about resisting Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulation — although that certainly was a central goal. Rather, he said it also was intended to jump-start the building of a stronger, more diverse, more strategic environmental movement.

That includes training candidates for office at the local, state and national level. It also includes amplifying the voices of people in minority and indigenous communities who have been disproportionately affected by pollution and global warming. And, ultimately, it includes persuading elected officials that their constituents care deeply about environmental issues.

“We clearly know that demonstration without legislation leads to frustration. We understand that,” Yearwood said. But he added that change is possible, even during an administration that is less than friendly to environmental causes. He pointed to the Richard Nixon era, when widespread anger over pollution, smog and unsafe water prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. “When people are fired up about issues, politicians do pay attention.”

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said simply trying to stop Trump’s environmental agenda in the courts and on Capitol Hill won’t suffice.

“The urgency of climate change demands that we do much more than play defense for the next few years,” Brune wrote in an email. “Fortunately, there’s an emerging consensus on climate action outside the Beltway. We intend to get dozens of mayors to commit within the next several months to move their cities to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. We’ll also accelerate our successful efforts to replace coal with clean energy in the electric sector. And we’re investing more than $1 million this year to train the hundreds of thousands of new activists that have become a part of the Sierra Club since the election, to build enduring political power.”

They certainly have their work cut out for them.

In his first 100 days, Trump has moved swiftly to wipe out large pieces of his predecessor’s environmental record and to cripple regulators, with the stated goal of freeing fossil fuel companies from onerous regulations so that they can grow and hire workers. He has signed executive orders aimed at rewriting key rules to reduce U.S. carbon emissions, lifting a moratorium on federal coal leasing, expanding offshore drilling and removing a requirement that federal officials consider the effect of climate change when making decisions. The administration has announced it will reconsider stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. It has approved two major oil pipelines, Dakota Access and Keystone XL, that President Barack Obama had halted.

Trump also has proposed slashing the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and cutting more than 20 percent of the agency’s workforce. If enacted, his budget would sharply reduce money for the Superfund program and cut the budget for the EPA’s prominent Office of Research and Development roughly in half. It would eliminate more than 50 programs, including grant programs that help cities and states combat air pollution and infrastructure aid to Alaskan native villages and towns along the U.S.-Mexico border. An office that focuses on environmental justice issues would vanish. So would the Energy Star program.

The White House has yet to say whether it intends to pull the nation out of the Paris climate accord, under which almost every country agreed in 2015 to begin slashing emissions of carbon dioxide to slow global warming. Even if the United States technically remains part of the international agreement, it almost certainly will no longer play the leading role it did under Obama.

Back inside Union Station on Sunday, the talk was more of local action than global action.

There’s often a feeling “of being stuck, of being bogged down, of looking at what’s happening on the national stage and feeling helpless,” Stephanie Garcia Richard, a state legislator from New Mexico, told the group of potential female candidates. But she added, “You don’t need to be in Congress to make environmental change.”

Rather, she argued it was important to work on “the most important policy question of our time” at any level. But that remaining on the sidelines was no longer an option.

“Please, please consider doing this very hard but necessary thing of putting yourself out there,” she said. “We need more of you.”