You’re sweltering in the summer heat. Or maybe you saw photos of the giant chunk of ice that broke off Antarctica. Or you read about the climate Armageddon as described in a recent New York magazine article, and wrapped your mind around hot, belching seas, famine, massive waves of climate refugees, and even the possibility of human extinction. But climate change is a global crisis, and only national and international leaders can do anything about it, right?
Actually, some of the most powerful work to combat global warming is happening close to home. With the fossil fuel industry exerting so much power at the national level, much of our strength is in taking a stand together, where we live.
Here’s a success story that convinced me of this. I visited a quiet valley in southeastern Montana on the road trip that resulted in my book, The Revolution Where You Live. The Otter Creek Valley is made up of ranches, a small river, and the rocky outcroppings of the Custer National Forest. Nearby is the reservation of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. The area is also rich in coal, and Arch Coal and its partners wanted to dig the largest strip mine in the state to get at it.
The estimated potential take was huge: 1.2 billion tons. The coal would be shipped in open train cars to the planned Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal in northwestern Washington, which was to be the largest in North America, located on land the Lummi people have called home for thousands of years. From there, it would be transported to Asia.
However, Montanan ranchers and the two tribes, one in Washington and one in Montana, wouldn’t have it. They fought the project for years, and eventually won. Arch Coal abandoned the permitting effort in 2016. On the coast, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed that the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights give them the authority to reject a project that threatened their fisheries and intertwined way of life, and all permit applications for the Gateway Pacific Terminal were withdrawn in early 2017.
Across North America, activists are risking arrest to stop new fossil fuel development.
When I tell people this story, they are surprised to learn that these relatively powerless groups—two impoverished tribes and several ranchers—prevailed over a giant coal company and Burlington Northern Railroad, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett. But there is power in acting on behalf of the planet, beginning where you live.
The Otter Creek Mine and Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal are just two of a growing list of fossil fuel infrastructure projects that have been stopped by place-based activism. On July 25, Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas canceled its plans for a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The Lax Kw’alaams First Nations had been occupying nearby Lelu Island in opposition to the project for months, and the newly elected government in British Columbia has been deeply skeptical of new fossil fuel projects.
Across North America, activists are risking arrest to stop new fossil fuel development. Some are putting their bodies on the line, chaining themselves to pipelines and disrupting official meetings. Others, who can’t be full-time activists, are supporting those who can via a new sort of CSA: community supported activism, in which several people each contribute a set amount each month toward a stipend to allow someone to be a full-time activist.
We the People aren’t surrendering to the fossil fuel industry.
While it is true that climate change is a global problem, when we act where we live, we have power. We can claim the moral authority to say no to dirty energy and yes to renewables, reforestation, and regenerative farming. This means more than our own rooftops or backyard gardens. It means mobilizing our communities in campaigns like those that have now pushed more than 700 institutions worldwide to divest more than $5 trillion from fossil fuels, according to 350.org.
Will all this locally based activism be enough to stop the sort of climate catastrophe David Wallace-Wells lays out in New York magazine? The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was a huge setback. But We the People aren’t surrendering to the fossil fuel industry or their paid-for representatives in Washington, whose actions threaten our future. With or without the help of elected officials, we are taking action where we live.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.