How local protests are saving the planet


There’s an old saying in politics: Think globally, act locally. But when it comes to the major issues facing our environment, that idea has been largely honored in the breach. The rise of large and well intentioned lobbying groups such as the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council led a lot of rank-and-file voters to assume that someone was off in Washington, D.C., or maybe the state capital, fighting the good fight on their behalf. Activists focused on matters such as electing a president or maybe a few key senators who would be friendly to the environment, or on sweeping (and necessary) pieces of legislation such as the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act.

As an experienced environmental attorney, I know it’s more complicated than that. I’ve worked mostly at ground level — fighting the Big Oil companies in small, economically disadvantaged communities where these large firms tend to dump their radioactive or toxic wastes. That’s where the battle for justice really takes place — and where that battle can be won. When the fracking boom hit America about a decade ago, communities that had once been largely spared from environmental abuses now found themselves suddenly on the front lines. What happened next has been a remarkable thing: The birth of a new generation of local activism:

Nearly 60 protesters [in upstate New York] blocked the driveway of a storage plant for natural gas on March 7. Its owners want to expand the facility, which the opponents say would endanger nearby Seneca Lake. But their concerns were global, as well.

“There’s a climate emergency happening,” one of the protesters, Coby Schultz, said. “It’s a life-or-death struggle.” The demonstration here was part of a wave of actions across the nation that combines traditional not-in-my-backyard protests against fossil-fuel projects with an overarching concern about climate change.

Activists have been energized by successes on several fronts, including the decision last week by President Obama to block offshore drilling along the Atlantic Seaboard; his decision in November to reject the Keystone XL pipeline; and the Paris climate agreement.

Bound together through social media, networks of far-flung activists are opposing virtually all new oil, gas and coal infrastructure projects — a process that has been called “Keystone-ization.” As the climate evangelist Bill McKibben put it in a Twitter post after Paris negotiators agreed on a goal of limiting global temperature increases: “We’re damn well going to hold them to it. Every pipeline, every mine.”

The New York Times examined the growing array of local protests not only around the United States — for example, the so-called “kayactivists” who tried to stop a large Shell oil rig from leaving Seattle’s waters for offshore drilling in Alaska last summer — but around the world. It noted the growing awareness among regular citizens that global warming has dramatically raised the stakes; again and again in recent months, we have seen the monthly modern records for worldwide temperatures shattered. The more catastrophic impacts of climate change may now come in just a few short decades.

Even in Louisiana — where chemical plants belching toxic air were long seen as sources of good-paying jobs and not killer air pollution — we have seen the green shoots of grassroots activism. Over the last few years, the popular local hero and retired general Russel Honore and his “Green Army” of activists have protested community crises like the sinkhole that devoured the little town of Bayou Corne. That’s changed the conversation in my home state, but with a large number of new fossil-fuel facilities coming online, thanks to fracked oil and gas from elsewhere in the U.S., more activism is needed than every before. There’s another old saying that “it takes a village” to solve a crisis — but it may take an army to stop climate change. I hope you’ll consider joining.

Read more about the surge in local environmental protests from the New York Times:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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