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The Year in Review: Popular Efforts to Combat Climate Change in 2011

Last year saw a significant increase in popular efforts to combat climate change. From protests against the Keystone XL pipeline to campaigns that pressure businesses to engage more sustainable practices, people are standing up in support of efforts to combat climate change. Last year, we also saw an unprecedented number of people getting involved with environmental events, protests and social activism. Although the Occupy Movement may have lacked a clear environmental focus, it did underscore the growing popularity of grassroots protests.

Keystone XL Pipeline

According to the Guardian, the Keystone XL pipeline protests that took place from August 20th to September 3rd were, “the largest act of civil disobedience for the climate in US history.”  Thousands of people, including 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben and NASA’s Dr. James Hansen protested at the White House, demanding that President Obama reject the tar-sands oil pipeline.

On Monday August 28th, more than 60 religious leaders made their voices heard in front of the White House. Nine recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, including Popular efforts to fight global warming increased in 2011Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, also joined the protest against the Keystone XL.

Weeks of protest and the arrests of 1,252 peaceful protesters did not deter people from opposing the pipeline in Washington. McKibben reportedly said the pipeline galvanized U.S. action on climate change.

On Sunday, November 6th, another protest was held to stop the tar-sands pipeline. As many as 15,000 Americans encircled the White House to tell President Obama to reject the Keystone XL project. This was described as a historic defining moment in the push to move beyond oil.

On November 10th, President Obama announced that he would put the future of the planet ahead of Big Oil. Citing climate change, Obama sent the Keystone XL pipeline project back for review until at least 2013.

Even though Republicans are resorting to blackmail to get the Keystone XL pipeline back on track, the success of the anti-pipeline protests represent an important victory for those involved in the struggle against climate change.

Arab Spring

Corruption and misuse of natural resources were some of the factors that fueled the uprisings in Arab states. The Arab world is facing numerous environmental problems including air pollution, water scarcity, desertification, waste management, loss of arable lands and marine degradation. Popular movements in the Arab world succeeded in changing the political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. There are early indications that the environment could benefit from the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring has attracted a $550 billion investment that promises to bring sustainable energy to the region. The world’s most ambitious solar project could start producing energy as early as 2015 in the region.

Paul van Son, the managing director of the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), told Reuters that interest in the project to turn sunshine into energy has grown with the spread of democracy across North Africa and the Middle East.

Before the Arab Spring, there were concerns about the political stability in the region. “We like the Arab Spring because it has opened up a lot of ideas and generated support for the project,” van Son said. “We’re very supportive. The democratic structures fit very well with ours.”

Renewable energy projects could help the economy and create jobs in the country and throughout the region. van Son said he hopes Desertec can help bring Mediterranean nations closer together. “I believe large infrastructure projects like this can contribute to stability. It’s about the development of new industries in the region, investment, job creation and the transfer of knowledge and know-how,” he said.

The first 150 megawatts power plant will be built in Morocco and it could be generating power by 2015 or 2016, with further projects planned in Tunisia and Algeria.

COP 17 

On Saturday December 3rd, 2011 in what was called the “Global Day of Action,” about 20,000 people from all over the world took to the streets calling for action in Durban. Protests, marches and rallies around the world demanded “climate justice.”

“We march today to show our outrage. We want to give the ministers…a clear message: You cannot continue to make excuses,” said Action Aid international climate justice coordinator Harjeet Singh.

“We demand urgent and strong action on climate change. We can’t just keep talking and keep wasting time,” Singh said. And Greenpeace said, “it is time to listen to the voices of ordinary people not polluters.”

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the protesters in Durban: “You know where we stand, here with you.”

Although expectations for COP 17 were low, people came together and helped to force governments to sign-on to a binding agreement.

Local Protest Goes National

Michigan State University (MSU) students have been protesting the fact that they have the largest on-campus coal plant in the nation.

“Coal is harmful to our environment and us, but not everyone knows. I think it is important to raise awareness of the problem so it can be fixed and the damaging effects of coal can be stopped,” said student activist Kendra Majewski.

Even though three students were arrested at a sit-in, MSU activists have indicated that they are going to keep demanding clean air for their campus. In October, hundreds of campuses across the nation joined in on the demonstration against the university to show support for the Quit Coal campaign known as 100 Actions for 100% Clean Energy.

Students across the country are now engaged in telephone protests directed at the MSU president’s office. They are requesting that the president reconsider her position and commit to using 100 percent clean energy at Michigan State. This campaign illustrates that local issues can quickly gain national support.

Although MSU has not yet agreed to close its coal plant, the university has taken other steps to become more sustainable, including plans to have all new buildings become LEED-certified.

Environmental Events

There have been a number of environmental events in 2011, which were supported by an ever growing number of people. Global Green’s I Am Fighting Climate Change video contest asked people to document their individual actions to fight climate change. Global Green asked people to come together to help stop climate change and demand that leaders invest in green technologies and green jobs.

The League of American Bicyclists sponsored an event in the US and Canada that promoted the bicycle as an option for commuting to work. In 2011, Bike to Work Week was held on May 16th through the 20th. On June 5th the annual World Environment Day (WED) event became the largest and most widely celebrated WED event ever.

On June 15th, Global Wind Day raised worldwide awareness about wind energy. Thousands of public events were held in the US and around the world.  On Saturday June 18th, Canada, the US and the UK (November 19th in Australia) celebrated SolarDay. The 2011 SolarDay events were held by cities, non-profits, companies and the solar industry.

On August 15th through the 19th, the EDF led a campaign titled Voices for Clean Air to help remind political leaders that clean air is something that the majority of Americans support. The EDF sent a message to political leaders in the U.S. in support of strong clean air standards.

Beginning on September 13th, the Climate Reality Project hosted a live streaming event. The event was known as 24 Hours of Reality, it involved a global broadcast about the reality of the climate crisis. This global event was designed to help people make the connection between extreme weather, climate change, and the need to push the planet beyond fossil fuels. ZeDay was an event that took place on September 21st, it was a day for people all over the planet to strive for zero emissions and encourage the use of renewable energy.

On September 24th Bill McKibben and the 350.org team launched the “Moving Planet” campaign. It inspired over 2000 events in more than 175 countries. In South Asia, the 350.org coordinator indicated that their goal was to encourage grassroots activism against coal fired power emissions, as well as redefining development. African initiatives urged people to take to the streets to demand climate jobs. All regions including, the Pacific and Europe, pushed for renewable energy laws and sustainable transportation.

On October 26th, college campuses across North America celebrated the 9th annual Campus Sustainability Day (CSD), a day which highlighted the green accomplishments and initiatives of staff, faculty and students.

On March 26th, 134 countries and turned out their lights for WWF’s Earth Hour. In 2011, Earth Hour called on businesses and other organizations to show leadership by committing to lasting action for the planet beyond shutting off their lights for one hour. Climate Care Day is an event that takes place on the same day as Earth Hour; however this initiative is intended to encourage global businesses to replace all corporate travel with remote meetings.

On Earth Day (April 23rd), the Billion Acts of Green® campaign becamethe largest environmental service campaign in the world. In 2011, it included an increasing number of commitments from businesses to measurably reduce carbon emissions and support sustainability.

On Monday, April 18th, thousands of people came together for a rally outside the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC. The rally was the culmination of Power Shift 2011, which took place between April 15th and 18th. 350.org launched a campaign entitled “The US Chamber of Commerce Doesn’t Speak For Me,” where more than a thousand businesses abandoned the climate denying Chamber, including corporations like Apple, Nike, Microsoft, Levi-Strauss, Best Buy, and General Electric.

Businesses are Listening

Businesses are increasingly reckoning with the power of popular pressure. Individuals are pushing corporations to cleanup their supply chains, which are causing some businesses to change the way they source commodities. Public pressure has forced companies like Nestle, Unilever, Nestle, Kraft, Burger King, and General Mills to adopt more sustainable business practices.

In 2011, it became increasingly obvious that the risks associated with unsustainable business practices are a serious threat which cannot be ignored. Rather than incur such risks, an increasing number of businesses are cooperating with environmental groups. For example, Xerox has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to promote sustainable forestry, preserve biodiversity and help minimize forest loss and degradation that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Non-profits are putting their expertise to work guiding businesses on sustainability. Carbon Trust has published a Green Guide for SMEs, the WWF-UK has launched its Green Game-Changers initiative and the EPA’s Green Power Partnership program has yielded impressive results.

People around the world are increasingly united in their demand for action on environmental issues. The events of 2011 demonstrate that the public can influence decision making at the highest level. This is a testament to the power of citizens to effectuate meaningful change.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Sky News

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