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Ingredients for wins: lessons from successful climate justice campaigns in North America

Using case studies and interviews with organizers and land defenders, this article explores factors that contributed to the success of 14 intersectional climate justice campaigns.

In 2023, a group of McGill University student researchers conducted a research project supervised by Dr. Jen Gobby. The students included Cassandra Ciafro, Anna Henry, Frida Sofia Morales Mora, Thomas Nakasako, Dafne Ozcan, Nico Serreqi and Lea Vadez Reyes. The project supported the work of the Climate Justice Organizing Hub. This organization provides support and educational content for social justice activists.

The researchers sought lessons from intersectional climate campaigns across Turtle Island (North America) over the past 20 years. Using case studies, 4 interviews and 1 survey, they identified factors that contributed to the success of these campaigns. The campaigns researched were:

  • Campaign 1 – Stand LA
  • Campaign 2 – Stop Cop City
  • Campaign 3 – Keystone XL Pipeline
  • Campaign 4 – Grassy Narrows
  • Campaign 5 – #RightToBreathe/PES
  • Campaign 6 – 13 Pueblos
  • Campaign 7 – Trans Mountain Expansion Pipeline
  • Campaign 8 – Atlantic Coast Pipeline
  • Campaign 9 – Public Power New York
  • Campaign 10 – Mi’kmaq Resistance
  • Campaign 11 – GNL Quebec
  • Campaign 12 – Standing Rock
  • Campaign 13 – Athabasca Tar Sands Resistance
  • Campaign 14 – Nitaskinan60

The report includes a summary of the 14 campaigns analyzed and the tactics they used. It also includes key factors that contributed to the success and challenges of these campaigns. For the majority, success was defined by the cancellation of a project or practice. Others defined success through the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and/or policy change. About 1 in 3 of the campaigns explored are still ongoing.

Drawing on the researchers’ conclusions, this article describes a recipe for success, plus further observations. Direct quotes from interviews with successful organizers/land defenders are included for further context and examples.

Access report

To read the full report, see the following: How We Win! A Qualitative Review of Successful Climate Justice Campaigns in North America in the Last 20 Years.

You can also read the Climate Justice Organizing Hub’s summary of the report, case studies and key takeaways here.

Ingredients

Base Ingredients

1. Direct Action

All of the campaigns participated in a form of direct action (i.e. physical disruption). Tactics varied, including protests, marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience and blockades.

Direct actions that increase project costs and delays are cited by companies as a factor of project cancellation. For example the Mi’kmaq resistance, led by Indigenous communities, used blockades which led to the cancellation of a fracking project.

Mi’kmaq women from Elsipogtog First Nation. Credit: Miles Howe

 

Power

Power mapping can help focus your action.

“Without defining what needs to happen for the project to be stopped, we can’t tailor our actions to target the right people. And I think that’s been a challenge, is figuring out who is an effective target… We need to actually target the people and the entities that have the power to change what we’re trying to change.”  -TMX pipeline organizer

 

Solidarity

Tie solidarity with other movements into your narrative.

“At the time of the shutdown Canada movement… when the entire world was watching what was going on [with Wet’suwet’en Nation defending against the CGL pipeline, there were narratives], built between what was going on out west and what was going on here, tying it to basically being the same colonial projects that were being forced down the throat of Indigenous communities.” – GNL Quebec pipeline organizer

 

2. Diverse Social Movement Participants

Climate justice campaigns that have been successful in the last 20 years across Turtle Island (North America) have been initiated and led by impacted communities, most of which were Indigenous communities.

Allies

When locally impacted communities and activist allies are supported by environmental NGOs, the chance of success increases.

Examples of this include the Athabasca Tar Sands campaign against Shell, Grassy Narrows campaign for reparations, and Keystone XL pipeline campaigns. Alliances with NGOs, in these cases, resulted in international media attention. The key is to let impacted communities lead. The campaign against the GNL pipeline in Quebec, for example, had NGO’s follow the leadership and guidelines of two citizen collectives.

2013 Athabasca Tar Sands Healing Walk procession. Credit: Zack Embree, The Narwhal. May 20, 2014.

“Knock on all these doors and find out key organizational and individual levers that can help you. I think it’s critical to find a way to get the big green NGOs on board. They have a lot of mobilization power, and when they actually show up, they can be instrumental, and then you need to find political allies as well… all the opposition parties were with us… and the mobilization needs to be grassroots-led… that is a prime example of how local grassroots organizing, amplified by others, can become the most powerful tool in the world.” – GNL Quebec pipeline organizer

Structure

Develop an explicit structure for your leadership to avoid co-option and burnout.

For example, the 13 Pueblos held a campaign against a housing development in Mexico. They developed a council for members from each pueblo (community) to meet every Sunday. They exchanged about one another’s concerns, devised strategies, and found alternative solutions together.

“When you see Canada geese fly, they fly in a V shape… and there’s a leader at the point of the V, that goose is the one that is setting the direction of where the flock is going. But they get tired, and they swap out. So when the lead goose gets tired, they swap positions with another goose that’s in the V, and they just swap over like that. [Otherwise,] no one is responsible for anything, and everyone is responsible for everything at the same time. And it’s so cumbersome. It’s restrictive in terms of using our time and our energy and resources in an effective way. And that leads to burnout.” –TMX pipeline organizer

3. Community Engagement

Tactics included canvassing, community meetings, workshops, teach-ins, reading groups, focus groups, speak-ins and public events.

One to one Conversations

One-to-one conversations can be helpful to shift the narrative on local issues.

For instance, for Stop Cop City’s campaign against a police training facility, and Stand LA’s campaign against local oil drilling sites, the organizers used door knocking/canvassing to connect with people directly.

“When we went door to door talking to people, what we found was that for a lot of people, the people who live farther away from the forest, the mayor’s narrative was winning in so many ways, because people were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a training facility like what are you mad about?’… But when you began to talk to people about the nuts and bolts of it, when you began to tell people ‘what do you think about a Blackhawk helicopter landing pad?’ People like we’re like, ‘what do we need that for?’” – Organizer for Stop Cop City

Art

Use art to grab attention and initiate conversations.

“[We used] genderless, ageless wig stands, and assaulted each one of them with one symptom… a nosebleed… asthma [with a] puffer, [an inflamed] thyroid, a congested nose with a clothespin. We had several others. My self portrait was a headache that I described by putting two barbecue skewers from the nape of my neck through my forehead… And we set that up on a table with a big boombox with a black tablecloth… just as kids and parents were walking home from school, and they would walk by and say, “hey, hey, hey, what’s that with the nosebleed? I had to take my kid three times to the emergency room last week with nosebleeds”… All of these symptoms began to come together and we use that event and events like it to tell people, we want to talk more with you.” – Organizer for Stand LA

Credit: Nancy Halpern Ibrahim 2023

Connecting on the land

Connecting on the land, and bringing community members together, strengthens commitment to the cause.

For example, Standing Rock’s campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Grassy Narrows have hosted Relay and River Runs.

“When I went back, what I saw was that the community had come in and began to use the land, the community had really started to make it our park. And people were doing teachings there about how to live off of the land, showing you what mushrooms were growing that you could eat, what type of moss you could use to make a poultice for cuts or to any types of wounds, you know, then there was like a weekly potluck that was happening. And people were talking to us about that area of land and what the South River Forest meant to this community.” – Organizer for Stop Cop City

 

4. Mass Engagement

Tactics included petitions and letters. Mass engagement involves community members who do not have the same time, ability, privilege or proximity to take part in direct action or community events.

 

Add-on Ingredients

5. Coalition Building

The creation of a new entity or partnership supported the exchange of diverse knowledge and perspectives. It also increased the size and strength of campaigns, and provided knowledge and resources as challenges arose.

Note: A common challenge when forming coalitions is navigating diverging opinions and perspectives.

Knowledge/resources on navigating conflict can be found here, and you can learn more about building coalitions here.

Finding Other Groups

Consider what other groups can help you.

Union participation can be a ‘turning point’ for campaigns, as was the case for Public Power New York’s campaign for a just renewable energy policy. Academics, businesses, legal groups, health groups, and student groups can also be supportive. For example, students made up the largest fraction of supporters in the GNL Quebec pipeline campaign. The involvement of academics or well-known experts helped some campaigns gain wider media attention (i.e. David Suzuki for GNL Quebec).

Diversified Knowledge

Use knowledge from the coalition to connect to issues concerning community members.

“One of the things that I started to do was talk to people about how cop city affected the state of childcare… when you’re talking about childcare, you are talking about health care. And when you’re talking about health care, you have to talk about economic justice and environmental justice together. And you cannot have a conversation about childcare without talking about reproductive justice. Because according to the pillars of reproductive justice, I am supposed to be able to raise the children that I choose to have in a clean, safe environment that is free of state sanctioned interpersonal violence… So when you looked at… what that intersectionality was, and how we could get people to understand.. everybody has a stake in this.” – Organizer for Stop Cop City

 

For project delays and public attention, engagement with political and legal processes was used. Political tactics included call campaigns, attending public meetings or consultations, running for office or organizing election campaigns. For instance, Public Power New York’s campaign benefited from strong political alliances.

Legal challenges using lawsuits, legal court appeals, course cases, referendums and legal advocacy often delayed projects, but did not always result in material gains (i.e. project cancellation). Legal aid and financial support for direct action arrests is critical to support those on the frontlines of resistance.

A successful example of effective legal action is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was legally recognized as a part of the National Parks System. This meant the United States Forest service did not have the authority to issue construction permits, which was cited as a factor when the pipeline was canceled.

 

Optional Ingredients

7. Mass communication

Social media campaigns, banners, magazines, press conferences and documentaries help to engage the wider public. Alternative media and social media helped to counter mainstream media messaging, which often aligns with government and industry perspectives. Several campaigns leveraged social media, such as Philly Thrive’s  #RightToBreathe campaign and Standing Rock’s #NoDAPL campaign.

Credit: Philly Thrive

“We have a number of different news crews that work with us; independent journalists, local magazines and newspapers. And then we were able to get NBC to come here to do a short documentary about cop city… and also the documentary done by Al Jazeera. Those have been like the mainstream media documentaries that have really opened people’s eyes.” – Organizer for Stop Cop City

Involve the Media

Contact press and hold press conferences at strategic times to control the narrative.

For example, a press conference held by Stand LA got the attention of a senator. They had the Environmental Protection Agency perform an investigation that resulted in the campaign’s success.

“At one point it was really like a back and forth of, we’re sending a press release, and then a company has to answer that we’re sending a press release under industry… so we kind of became masters of the narrative, where they had to always answer our communication.” – GNL Quebec pipeline organizer

 

8. Independent Research

A smaller portion of successful campaigns used community data to convince of the issues importance and enhance credibility.

Stories

Seek the stories of people who can describe how their community has been impacted over time.

“The elders are also important, because they will be the quickest ones to notice that the air has changed… What’s making that happen… being privileged to share the community with people who’ve lived there for a very long time. I think that’s really the greatest asset for change, just listening to the community.” – Organizer for Stand LA

Conclusion

Intersectional campaigns led by local communities, with the support of other groups, are the most likely to be successful. Local communities are best situated to organize effective direct actions (e.g. blockades, sit-ins etc), and mobilize effectively through community engagement (e.g. canvassing, community events, teach-ins etc).

Solidarity from activist allies through direct action, mass engagement (i.e. letters/petitions), and mass communication (e.g. social media) support the success of campaigns. NGOs, following the leadership of the grassroots, can provide support with mass communication (e.g. media). They can also support legal and policy processes, including by providing legal aid and funding for direct action arrests.

Forming coalitions between these and other groups (unions, academics etc.) can build a strong, resourceful force for winning climate justice.

 

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