Timeline of the Climate Movement: How Direct Action Took Center Stage

How can we understand a movement as global, complex, and diverse as the one that's trying to stop climate change? As a start, we've used this timeline to gather events that took place over the past 10 years. Let us know in the comments if you see something we missed!
Kristin Moe

I noticed an interesting trend while reporting recently on #Fearless Summer—three months of direct actions targeting the fossil fuel industry, with more than 50 events and almost 500 arrests. Every person I interviewed said that direct action was on the rise. They couldn't necessarily quantify it, but they felt it.

Increasingly, direct action is seen not as a fringe tactic but as the next logical step when other avenues fail.

There's a clear trajectory, too: away from "Big Green" groups who placed their hopes in electoral politics, and toward creative, high-stakes actions in the communities that have the most to lose. Increasingly, direct action is seen not as a fringe tactic but as the next logical step when other avenues fail. "When people see each other confronting power, their fear goes away," says Joshua Kahn Russell, a campaign strategist and direct action trainer with the Ruckus Society and 350.org. "People are willing to take risks when they know their community has their back."

I wondered if we might be on the verge of a Montgomery Bus Boycott moment—one where a movement comes into its own. I decided to put the question back out to movement leaders: How has grassroots direct action transformed the climate movement in the United States over the last 10 years? This timeline reflects those stories and the ever-present hope that, this time, we're on the cusp of something big.

We're used to seeing history as written from a distance. This is a little different, an attempt to tell a story as it unfolds. What this timeline offers, I hope, is a chance to look up from our frenzied Twitter feeds and take a broad look at the past decade; not only to appreciate how far we've come in a relatively short time, but also to help us think about how to steer the course of the future. A little perspective can be pretty useful.

I'll admit right now that there's a lot missing. I tried to get input from lots of different sectors of the movement—frontline organizers, direct action trainers, volunteer activists, Big Greens. I realized pretty quickly, though, that it would be a lot more complex than I'd thought. Case in point: What is the "climate movement," anyway? It's more a worldview than a single entity, an ethos that links Brazilian rainforest campaigns with fights over coal plants in poor Texas neighborhoods and oil drilling in Alaska. It unites them all under a common language and a shared threat.

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But what about parents in the refinery towns who are fighting a coal plant because it gives their kids asthma? Yes, the coal plant contributes to climate change. But that's not their immediate concern. Do those parents consider themselves part of the climate movement, too?

What's clear is that this movement goes way beyond NGOs and tree-sitters.

A visual like this is most useful for the big stuff—events that can have their own notch on the line—but it leaves out the smaller stories: the sustained direct actions, the ones in poorer communities that maybe aren't as well-publicized or aren't seen as having a big impact. Or maybe it's just easier to wrap our minds around big, single events than more sustained and subtle trends.

What's clear is that this movement goes way beyond NGOs and tree-sitters. It includes frontline communities, labor groups, healthcare workers, and immigration activists. I'm still not sure how to define it—much less how to tell its story—but I do know that it's big and getting bigger.

So I put the question out to you: What's not on here that should be? What stories are untold? How do we tell this story in a way that does justice to how broad and varied this climate movement—whatever that means—really is?


Erin Sagen and Nur Lalji contributed research for this feature.