Copenhagen Reflections

Activism is dead. Long live activism!


By now, we’ve all heard conflicting reports on what was or was not accomplished in Copenhagen at the December climate summit. Know this: The U.N. convention on climate change in Copenhagen resulted in zero meaningful progress on global emissions reductions. Whoever tells you different is selling something. Read the spin, but don’t get caught in its spokes.

Despite this, I left Copenhagen inspired by the arrival of new leadership. People like Beka Economopoulos and Ben Margolis of TckTckTck, Avaaz’s Ricken Patel and’s Jamie Henn. These are just a few of the faces of the movement I had the chance to meet, watch and learn from. Where once the face of our movement was the polarizing Al Gore, we now have a new crop of activists whose ideas and charisma surpass Gore’s and are free of two-party taint.

In Copenhagen, many of us met in person to unite our respective organizations. When we assess COP15 in the future, the long lines, the NGO access revocation, even the world’s refusal to act will be of secondary importance next to this fusing of new leaders who will fight with the cunning and fury required of a mission as epic as maintaining the habitability of a planet.

Remember It lives on, but as a part of the machinery it once railed against. More mature organizations, like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund, once served a truly radical purpose, but those days are years behind, their ranks and coffers swelled by members whose centrist positions keep these NGOs from taking all but the most measured steps. The organizations are built for protracted battles, not for the type of “win now or die” fight we have on our hands. Too, their dedication to self-preservation seems to outweigh a commitment to world-saving. This was evidenced quite clearly by the rapidity with which they fell all over themselves to plant copious kisses upon Obama’s cheeks.

Online petitions are worthless—we must show elected officials we mean business. We can do this by moving the fight to where they live and not leaving until they get the message thousands of times over, hand-delivered by their neighbors, their children’s teachers and their grocery clerks. As an armchair activist, here’s what I’d do: I would make it personal. I’d prove to every U.S. politician that a burning planet is a top priority by organizing daily gatherings outside each of their homes across the country. I’d weld the aggressive tactics of Eugene Debs and early union agitators with the enormous, activated networks built by the new leadership. Confronted by local resistance and recognizable faces, they will be moved to action. Can you picture groups of relentless activists camped out across the country? I can. I know the dedication is there. We need only provide the talking points and flip the switch.

I said “armchair activist” because I don’t work for an activist organization. The work of the Fellows at Post Carbon Institute is to provide practical, replicable solutions to the intertwined challenges created by climate change, resource scarcity and irresponsible economic policy. Our work and the work of many other NGOs provide the meat of the activists’ message. To get anywhere at all, we’ll need to work with one another much more closely. And we’ll need to learn a new language.

In the States, the climate-change community really enjoys talking to itself. We’ve honed our talking points in endless online forums, through millions of pages of blog posts and op eds. When we spot one another’s words in the Huff Po, we’re both thrilled and jealous (admit it!).

I propose that as we gather our forces and plot our post-COP15 strategy, we reassess what we have in common with the conservative elements of our nation. Localized food and energy production, for example, square firmly with the bedrock Republican ideal of local decision-making. An activated minority can move the ball down the field, but we’ll need a strong majority to get it up the mountain.

COP15 was a terrible blow, but not an unexpected one. Let’s not readjust our expectations downward. Instead, let’s go against the grain and call for a moon shot. How about 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2020? Or funding G77 efforts with a robust Tobin Tax while introducing a steady-state economy in the United States? Or all of the above?

Will any of these be easy? Or course not. But they are possible. And can you think of more rewarding endeavors to lend oneself to?

Tod Brilliant is a writer and message producer who currently works as communications director at the Post Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa. For the complete essay and other observations from Copenhagen, visit

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