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New climate activist strategy gains steam this election season

A shifting focus of climate activists: leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Susan Melkisethian/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

New climate activist strategy gains steam this election season

In Tuesday’s primaries in five northeastern states, Donald Trump – who has voiced support for fracking as far back as 2012, prior to his presidential bid – swept the Republican field. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – in favor of fracking under some circumstances – won in four states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

With the front-runners of both parties in support of fracking, even with some conditions, it would seem that anti-fracking activists are fighting an uphill battle.

But on the Democratic side, attention to climate change and fracking during northeast primaries has been prominent, with Senator Bernie Sanders having garnered strong support from anti-fracking activists for his call for a national ban on the technology. And as the primary season has unfolded, Clinton has taken a stronger stance on climate issues, such as banning fossil fuel development on public lands, when pressed by climate activists.

A close look at the political strategies of climate activists reveals a shift in focus to the localized impacts of fossil fuel extraction and a global push to keep fossil fuels in the ground. These changes come at a time of changing views on climate change, energy policy and politics in the U.S. population overall.

What U.S. voters think about climate change

According to new research from the climate change communication programs at Yale and George Mason universities, three out of four registered voters in the United States think that global warming is occurring, with more than half saying they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned.

As in previous studies, there are partisan differences, with Democrats showing higher levels of support for climate action. However, the Yale and George Mason researchers find that liberal and moderate Republicans hold similar views to moderate and conservative Democrats when it comes to climate change.

Three in 10 registered voters have already joined, or expressed a willingness to join, a campaign to pressure elected officials for climate action. More than half of Democrats and about half (49 percent) of independents reported that global warming is among the issues important in determining their vote for president this year.

Targeting the fossil fuel industry

Since climate activists’ success at politicizing the Keystone XL pipeline – and President Obama’s ultimate rejection of the project in late 2015 – there has been a convergence of climate activism with the anti-fracking movement, which I have studied in research published in the journal Social Media + Society.

Controversy over fracking developed rapidly in the United States, following the 2010 film “Gasland” and heightened media attention on safety and environmental concerns, which has since spread internationally.

At the same time, there is a growing frustration on the part of climate justice activists tired of attempting to work within the current international system and pressuring individual nation-states to make meaningful policy changes on climate change. Instead, activists are increasingly targeting the fossil fuel industry directly.

A closer look at digital activism helps explain this evolution. In research on the climate action advocacy group 350.org, communications professor Luis Hestres showed that 350.org sought to support local grassroots organizing, while engaging in coordinated large-scale actions. He finds that by effective use of the Internet and a focus on a specific issue, 350.org has been adept at generating headlines – and thus steer the public discourse – rather than reactively pursuing them.

In new research on anti-fracking organizing, I find that the movement is made up largely of small networked cells interlinked with each other, supported by the loose coordination of national and international social movement organizations and interest groups. Anti-fracking activists draw connections between the localized impacts of oil and gas extraction with global climate change.

Instead of national-scale organizations taking the lead, these environmental movements are local in scale and emphasis. Yet these local groups are networked internationally – what I call a translocal model – and linked through a set of shared goals, such as taking aim at corporate actors on fossil fuel extraction. This type of anti-fossil fuel organizing brings historically environmental justice concerns surrounding the siting of extractive industries together with mainstream environmental activism.

In addition, climate activism is increasingly Internet-mediated, emphasizing local-to-local linkages and aimed at the industry responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions: oil, natural gas and coal producers. In short, the fossil fuel industry.

For example, during the month of May, climate activists are organizing a transnational series of protest actions in 12 countries on six continents – from Canada and the United States to Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia – targeting large-scale fossil fuel projects, to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

The new climate activism?

These shifts in climate activism come at a time when, according to pundits, the oil industry is in “crisis” from oversupply and low prices on the global market and climate scientists “overwhelmingly” agree human-caused climate change is happening.

U.S. registered voters across the political spectrum, in their majority, support increased funding for research into alternative energy development and agree that industry should do more to address climate change.

The next president will set the agenda for future U.S. climate action, and if the United States lives up to its commitments to tackle climate change made at COP21 in Paris. Whether the changing nature of climate activism will lead to more political clout, this election season or in the future, still remains to be seen.

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