From the 12th to the 14th of September, the streets of San Francisco and the extensive ranks of the global environmentalist community buzzed with excited anticipation for the Global Climate Action Summit. The summit, spearheaded by California Governor Jerry Brown, aimed to bring together influential environmental leaders from across the world to oppose the Trump administration’s anti-environmental strides and discuss how to best tackle the global crisis that is climate change. Prominent environmentalist politicians gave talks, green corporations put their sustainable practices on display; the event seemed primed for a complete success, if not for one small flaw. A good portion of the very citizens the summit was designed to please–the national and international environmental community–vehemently and publicly protested its agenda.
Protestors took the streets throughout the three-day long summit, blocking entrances to the conference, heckling various speakers, and effectively making their voices heard on a national scale. These demonstrators were not anti-environmentalists with a pro-fossil-fuel mindset. Rather, they were passionate activists from near and far, advocating on behalf of positive environmental change. And yet, somehow, they were protesting a Summit apparently geared towards that very end. Despite the seemingly common goal of the summit and the protestors, the latter found a number of issues with the former. Activists accused numerous summit attendants of hypocrisy and opposed the summit’s general focus on market-based solutions to climate change. Though such environmentalist-on-environmentalist conflict might seem counterproductive to the wider environmental movement on the surface, it instead demonstrates a necessary force in the betterment of the comprehensiveness of the environmentalist platform, ultimately serving to improve its effectiveness.
To illustrate this point, one must consider the particular aspects of the summit that drove demonstrators to the point of public protest, specifically with regards to Governor Brown and his association with the event. Despite marketing himself as a climate activist and environmental role model, Brown’s permissive stance on fracking and seemingly excessively generous restrictions on pollution in California’s cap-and-trade emission regulation system (which arguably gives too much freedom to the large drilling companies) seem to illustrate a far different political character than he wants us to see. Brown’s sister is even a board member for one such fossil fuel company, Sempra Energy, which was under particular scrutiny after one of its plants in California catastrophically leaked a massive volume of natural gas into the atmosphere in Aliso Canyon in 2015. Jane Fowler, a California citizen who lived near the leak at the time, called out Brown for failing to hold companies in this position accountable and taking minimal action regarding the closure of the plant itself. Fowler even went so far as to claim that it was “appalling that Governor Brown would celebrate himself as a climate leader while he sentences my community to suffer from severe breathing problems, rare cancers, nosebleeds and rashes”.
“In an era when politicians overtly ignore environmental issues, there is a propensity for the general public and the media to follow suit. This summit took a brave step in making sure that this does not happen. Because the protestors and the summit shared this common goal, many have claimed that the protests themselves were, as such, counterintuitive, dividing a community that ought to stay united given the severity of the issues at hand. However, I argue that this very same severity ought to propel their protests, not deter them.”
Aside from the opposition to Brown himself, the protestors stood in opposition to the pervasive focus on market-based climate solutions within the Summit and among the delegates it hosted. Market-based solutions are methods of environmental protection that stem from an explicitly economic origin, including carbon taxes (directly taxing businesses based on their emissions) or cap-and-trade systems (which allot each business a set number of pollution ‘units’ that limits how much they might pollute, all the while allowing the businesses to trade and sell the pollution units among each other). They found particular issue in the cap-and-trade policy route to address pollution; as Jihan Gearon, a demonstrator and member of the Navajo Nation in Arizona put it, “We’re not OK with them trading and selling in pollution, and impacts to our communities.” Market-based solutions, protesters continued, contribute to an explicit commercialization of the environmental movement, essentially removing the communities and their voices from the picture. The Summit itself illustrated such a phenomenon as the protestors, representing the diversity of the environmental movement, weren’t even allowed through the gates.
And yet, despite the excess controversy surrounding the event, the goal of the summit was indeed nothing other than environmental progress. Though their preferred methods of response and top priority issues might have differed from those of the demonstrators, the summit was still a valiant stance in defense of environmentalism that was unique in nature and critically important in the current state of American politics. In an era when politicians overtly ignore environmental issues, there is a propensity for the general public and the media to follow suit. This summit took a brave step in making sure that this does not happen. Because the protestors and the summit shared this common goal, many have claimed that the protests themselves were, as such, counterintuitive, dividing a community that ought to stay united given the severity of the issues at hand. However, I argue that this very same severity ought to propel their protests, not deter them.
With the breadth of environmental issues facing the planet today, it is inevitable that some will be forgotten by the mainstream and left behind in the context of summits such as this one. However, this doesn’t make action to mitigate them any less of a priority. The previously mentioned Sempra Energy natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon on October 23rd, 2015 released an incredibly dangerous amount of methane (more than 109,000 tonnes), as well as other hazardous chemicals, into the atmosphere, putting residents at risk for all manner of medical issues from nosebleeds to cancers. Despite the incredible danger of the event, it took Governor Brown until January to call a state of emergency. This type of deadly negligence would’ve been overlooked if protestors didn’t stand up and use their collective voice to bring it into the spotlight and hold Brown accountable. Protestors who bring such niche issues to the attention of the general environmental movement push the community as a whole to pay closer attention to the risk factors and those responsible, and promote more thorough and beneficial environmental action in the future.
Protests of protests in the context of the environmental movement are not a detrimental force, as some may claim. Though the process might slow down the inertia of progress in the movement, it makes up for this by ensuring that the oft-forgotten but crucial, life-threatening environmental issues are not left in the dark and instead brought to light in the general knowledge of the global environmental community. It is in this practice, environmentalists protesting environmentalists, that the movement as a whole becomes more comprehensive, more knowledgeable and more effective at creating a cleaner, safer, greener world.