Climate activists wanting to piggyback on the Occupy Wall Street movement have their work cut out for them.

As Occupy Wall Street goes global, questions about its demographic makeup (in the U.S.) are emerging. Organizers for the movement, to their credit, have recognized the lack of black and Hispanic representation among the protesters. Outreach efforts are under way.


Greens and climate activists should take note. Similar diversity issues have plagued the environmental movement for decades. This history is a cautionary lesson for the fledgling climate movement, which in recent years has struggled to catch fire, notwithstanding the publicity generated in August by the anti-tar sands pipeline campaign.

With the Occupy Wall Street movement striking a popular chord (see the eye-opening findings of this recent New York Times/CBS News poll), climate activists have quickly moved to capitalize on the zeitgeist.

Stephen Lacy, a blogger who writes on climate and energy issues, views “this broad-based movement as an opportunity to elevate demands for climate action,” with the potential for climate activism “to become a key piece of the protests.”

That remains to be seen. As Michael Greenberg notes in an article for The New York Review of Books, “the movement’s assertion it is an ally to ‘all people who feel wronged by corporate forces of the world’ has made it a blank screen upon which the grievances of a huge swath of the population can be projected.”

Economic insecurity and outrage over rising inequities (“We are the 99 percent”) are forces underlying the Occupy movement. George Packer, in an essay titled “The Broken Contract” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, argues that “inequality is the ill that underlies all the others.” He notes a paradox that probably makes this moment in time even harder to grasp:

“We have all the information in the universe at our fingertips, while our most basic problems go unsolved year after year: climate change, income inequality, wage stagnation, national debt, immigration, falling educational achievement, deteriorating infrastructure, declining news standards. All around we see dazzling technological change, but not progress.”

The climate movement’s challenge, given the political and economic landscape, could not be any tougher. There will be no federal climate-related legislation to rally around any time soon. Only one of the two major political parties is even willing to accept climate science. Then there is the nature of the problem itself: amorphous and unthreatening in the present, with the greatest impacts diffused and in the distant future.

Good luck galvanizing a movement around that, especially with people most concerned about the next paycheck (or any paycheck) and which bills to pay, and wondering if next month or next year will be any better.

At this point, one wonders if the climate movement might better attain its objective if it were built around a larger sustainability narrative melding the economic with the ecological. It then could speak to people’s visceral anxieties at this moment in time.

Source: USA Today.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.