The politics of climate change are shifting. After decades of halfhearted government efforts to stop global warming, and the failure of the “Big Green” NGOs to do much of anything about it, new voices — and new strategies — have taken the lead in the war against fossil fuels.
Jeremy Brecher, a freelance writer, historian, organizer and radio host based in Connecticut, has documented the environmental movement’s turn toward direct action and grass-roots activism. A scholar of American workers’ movements and author of the acclaimed labor history "Strike!," Brecher argues that it’s time for green activists to address the social and economic impacts of climate change and for unions to start taking global warming seriously.
His latest book, "Climate Insurgency: A Strategy Against Doom," which will be released early next year by Paradigm Publishers, examines the structural causes of our climate conundrum and calls for a “global nonviolent constitutional insurgency” to force environmental action from below. Brecher spoke to Salon about his vision for dealing with global warming, the changing face of environmental activism, and why he thinks the People’s Climate March in New York on Sep. 21 is so important.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First, let’s unpack the book’s key term: What is a “global nonviolent constitutional insurgency”?
Around the world, we’re familiar with insurgencies where an armed group resists the government and says that it does not legitimately have the authority to make law and govern some area or some group of people. And the characteristic of an insurgency is that it denies the legitimacy or legal right of those who claim to be the legitimate authorities to rule.
The concept of nonviolent insurgency is of a kind of social movement where the same basic claim is made: that those who claim the right to rule actually don’t have the right to rule, but where the means of challenging their power is not an armed insurgency but is rather what’s come to be called “people’s power,” or mass civil disobedience or civil resistance. And so a nonviolent insurgency may sound paradoxical, but in fact it is quite a common thing around the world and happens a lot and has happened a lot in the past.
Now, “constitutional” insurgency: That also sounds paradoxical. But when you look historically at certain social movements, they make a claim that the existing rulers are not legitimate because they are violating fundamental aspects of their own constitution — that is, the constitution that they claim gives them legitimate rule. And that’s come to be known [by legal historian James Gray Pope and others as] a “constitutional insurgency.” It denies the legitimacy of those who claim to be legitimate rulers, but it does so in the name of the very constitutional principle that they claim gives them their authority.
Some notable examples would be Gandhi’s Great Salt March and in general the Gandhian insurgency in India, where they violated English rule and said that it was legitimate to do so because they were representing the underlying principles of English constitutional law. The civil rights movement did not call itself a constitutional insurgency but if you look, say, at the movement in the South, essentially the participants engaged in civil disobedience said that they were upholding the law, that they were representing the fundamental constitutional principles of equality and justice.
So that’s a long way around to saying that if the president of the United States authorizes the Keystone XL Pipeline to be built, he is claiming that he is acting under legitimate authority. I would say he’s not acting under legitimate authority, he’s violating a fundamental constitutional duty of the president of the United States and the United States government: to protect the common property of the people that’s represented by the atmosphere.
[Finally,] climate change is a “global” problem, obviously, and we know that the solutions have to be global. If some countries protect the climate and all the corporations run away to the countries that are not protecting the climate, we won’t have any climate protection. We’ll just have a shift in where the greenhouse gases that are destroying our planet come from. So ultimately it has to be a global solution.
In your book, you speak a lot about the “public trust doctrine” as motivating force for such a solution. What is the doctrine, and why do you think it’s important for the climate movement?
The public trust doctrine is a fundamental principle of American law. It’s explicit in many state constitutions, [although] not all of them. It’s a principle of constitutional law at the state level and at the federal level. What the public trust doctrine in its various forms says is that certain aspects of the world are so important, we all depend on them so much, and they are so inappropriate to be private property, that they are universal common property. They belong to all, no one has the right to exclude others from them, no one has the right to destroy them; as they say legally: to “waste” them or “lay waste” to them.” They are a common property of all people.
The other critical point about the public trust doctrine is that the governments are the trustees for the people, both the current populations and for posterity. What is a trust duty? That’s when one person or one institution holds property in the interest of another, and they have a responsibility to protect the interests of the other. In fact, they have what’s called a “fiduciary” duty, and that means that it is the highest level of duty, that they have a duty to pay no attention to their own personal interests and no attention to the interests of some third party that might like to have the use of those trust assets — they have to act entirely in the interests of the beneficiary owners of that trust.
This is actually a relatively new idea. It was developed primarily by Mary Christina Wood, a law professor at University of Oregon. But it has taken legs to a great extent primarily because of the credible threat posed by climate change and the failure of other government institutions to address it. All the attempts to apply those to climate change have so far not succeeded. So the idea of using the public trust doctrine was taken up as another possible route to deal with this overwhelmingly desperate problem for which there seems to be a dearth of ways — especially law-based ways — to deal with.
You’re a historian of labor and social movements, and your book looks at bridging the divide between environmentalists and workers’ rights campaigns. Why have those two strands of social movements been so distant from each other and why do you have hope that now that gap can be bridged?
The first thing to be aware of is that there has been a massive effort by those who want to go on polluting to play labor and environmental groups off against each other.
Let’s take the example of the Keystone Pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline has pitted a number of unions against the people who want to prevent the pipeline and it’s been a very, very divisive issue. That situation started when the pipeline companies did something that they don’t normally do: they went to four unions and said, “Hey, we’ll give you a labor contract agreement giving you preference on the jobs for the pipeline and we’ll just agree to that.” They don’t normally agree to that, these are normally anti-union companies. But they knew that if they did that, then when people attacked the Keystone Pipeline it wouldn’t just be the companies standing to make money out of their greedy efforts to do things that are going to be incredibly harmful to the people and the environment, it’s workers who desperately need jobs and who are looked at as the backbone of the nation and people who have been the victims of the Great Recession — they are the ones who are put into the role of being the spokespeople and the advocates for the KXL pipeline. Same story happens when there are moves to regulate coal-powered power plants. The companies deliberately create a situation where unions become the spokespeople for pollution, on the grounds that preventing pouring this crap into the atmosphere is going to lead to the loss of jobs. So that is a fundamental part of the story of why it has happened.
The second reason is that unfortunately our society allows workers who haven’t done anything wrong, who just happened to be producing something that we’ve decided is not good to produce, we allow them to be thrown on the scrap heap. We allow them to be the victims of the policies that we adopt for protection of society as a whole. This means that people who are threatened with, say, closing the coal-fired power plant, they’re likely to spend years without finding another job. Their communities are going to be devastated because a large part of their working population is going to be unable to find another job, and when they do it’s likely to be a job that pays half as much as before. Their families are devastated. Many people are forced to migrate and leave to find jobs elsewhere. And we tolerate that as a society. It’s an outrage. A central part of what’s needed to counter this is what is called a plan for a just transition. Something that provides for the livelihood and well-being for the people who lose their jobs when it’s necessary to, for example, shut down a coal-fired power plant.
You provide a pretty comprehensive and broad view for what the constitutional climate insurgency could force governments to do to finally start toppling global warming. What are the most important steps we can take immediately?
The first thing that is right on our radar screens right now is the People’s Climate March in New York in September. I think the very name of it is significant because it says this is not something for governments. You know there was a saying, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” I think this is a message that “Climate change is too important to be left to the politicians and business leaders.” The people who are being affected by it, the people who are now or soon to be the victims of it, can’t leave this to anyone else to look after: We have to look after it. It think that is actually the spirit that will animate and will lead to the kind of climate insurgency that I talk about.
The other thing [about the march] is that it’s tremendously varied in who’s participating in it. People have an image of bird-watching, polar bear-fancying environmentalists. This is a very different kettle of folks. I’d say it’s environmentalists in that, if you are against having our world destroyed by climate change, if you’re against environmental degradation from having your food and your water poisoned by the crap that’s being put in it, you’re an environmentalist. In that sense, everyone in this march is an environmentalist. But in Connecticut where I live and I’ve been working on the march, we actually have a coalition that includes a whole slew of unions, it involves wide participation of religious organizations, community groups, as well as what are known as environmental organizations, and it’s really a people’s movement, not an environmental movement. And I know that similar things are happening in other places.
To me, that’s a great next step. I personally think that the growth of the use of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience has been a very important development in the climate protection movement. So that’s the next stage. As that develops, an important piece of this will be to begin to identify what we’re doing when we commence civil disobedience or even just when we have a demonstration or an action or whatever we do — that this is necessary because the government is not meeting its constitutional obligations and we are demanding that it do so, and as part of that, we’re recognizing they’re not, therefore we do not accept their legitimacy. If they want our allegiance, they have to provide the protection that we need and that they have an obligation to provide. So I see mass movements and civil disobedience very naturally flowing into the idea of a climate insurgency.