How far would you go to get the message out about climate change? Recently at The Commonwealth Club, Climate One founder Greg Dalton was joined by two guests who put the “active” in “activist.”
In 2008, college student Tim DeChristopher heard Stanford professor Terry Root deliver a chilling lecture on the irreversible impacts of global warming. “After her talk, Terry sort of was honest with me in a way that she wasn't honest with the audience,” he remembers. After sharing with him the worst-case consequences of climate change, “she literally put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I'm so sorry my generation failed yours.’”
Those words haunted DeChristopher, setting him on a path first to despair, and then to activism. “It really motivated me to a new level of commitment and willingness to make sacrifices.”
That commitment led him to infiltrate an auction for oil and gas leases on public lands in Utah near Canyonlands National Park, where as “Bidder 70” he bid on – and won – several auctions. When organizers realized he had no intention to pay, he was prosecuted and sent to prison for two years. But instead of being deterred, DeChristopher found his passion for the anti-fossil fuel movement strengthened by an inside view of the prison system.
“So it was actually my understanding of the struggle against mass incarceration in the prison system that helped me to be able to stand by a position of saying that I'm a fossil fuel abolitionist.” On his release, DeChristopher and several other activists founded the Climate Disobedience Center.
Last summer, Greenpeace’s Georgia Hirsty and twelve other activists suspended themselves off of a Portland bridge on ropes for over 24 hours to protest an oil rig bound for the Arctic.
“Knowing that Shell couldn't drill as long as we could prevent the Fennica from leaving Portland was a pretty inspiring moment,” she told the Climate One audience. “And fortunately it was dark and I couldn’t see how far away the water was.”
As the ship steamed towards them, Hirsty hailed it by radio, ordering it to stop. There were long moments of tension as the activists waited to see what the captain would do.
“Eternity passed,” she recalls, “and then the Fennica slowly started to turn around…you could hear the uproars of cheering from the quayside and from the water.
“And then it turned all the way around and went back to its port.”
Former Mobil Oil Executive VP Lou Allstadt said recently that such protests “upped the ante” on Shell’s decision to pull the plug on drilling in the Arctic, although Shell denies that the Portland protests factored into their decision.
Activism as an extreme sport gets headlines, and in some cases, results. But wouldn’t it be more effective to try to change things from within? Brendon Steele thinks so. He believes working collaboratively on the inside of companies is a better way to influence their behavior than confrontation and villainization. His non-profit, Future 500, works closely with energy corporations to encourage more sustainable business practices, through shareholder engagement and other methods.
“We always aim to find common ground in that process,” Steele says. He’s concerned that activism campaigns and civil disobedience can antagonize oil and gas companies, closing them off to ideas like carbon pricing.
“There’s a sense that the advocacy community is coming to them with an ask of to cease to exist anymore,” warns Steele, “and that's not going to open up the room for dialogue.”
Nevertheless, DeChristopher maintains that civil disobedience is the best tool for educating the public to the plight of the planet. “We can throw out lots of facts and figures about how serious the climate crisis is, and generally those kind of bounce off people,” he says.
“Civil disobedience is a way of saying that the climate crisis is so serious that I am going to put myself in a vulnerable position to do something about it. And I think our vulnerability has a tremendous power to open people up, to rattle them out of their everyday, lethargic apathy of their consumer lives. And create a strong desire for them to connect to that vulnerable person that they see in front of them.”
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography by: Ellen Cohan