Community Organizing 2.0: 'Climate Community Activism'

The Cambridge, Massachusetts Climate Emergency Congress (CEC) is more than a grassroots group of out-of-touch leftists. Rather, it is a casebook study of a new movement of "climate community activism" that pushes sustainability issues in municipal governments. It is a worldwide movement that bears watching.

The largest player in this movement was founded in 1990 to fight ozone pollution under the name "International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives." It is now known as the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a global organization of 1,124 municipalities and regional organizations. The Clinton Foundation's Climate Initiative is also a major force in organizing municipalities through their C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Through the ICLEI, Cambridge is a member of the Copenhagen Catalogue of City Commitments to Combat Climate Change (CCCCCCC? C7?) and a member of Local Agenda 21 (LA21), an initiative created "with support of the UN Secretariat for the World Summit on Sustainable Development and in collaboration with the UN Development Programme Capacity 21." The LA21 survey reveals that "6,416 local authorities in 113 countries have ... made a formal commitment to Local Agenda 21."

The first step the Cambridge City Council (CCC? C3?) took, in May 2009, was the declaration of a Climate Emergency. At the time it seemed a bit melodramatic, but it was actually an ingenious move. Consider this quote from the CEC Final Proposal.

That where the city lacks the necessary legal authority to exert such preferences, it attempts to obtain this authority as justified by the city's emergency powers in accordance with the law.

"Emergency powers"? The declaration of emergency powers has been used legitimately in times of war, but frequently it is a pretext for petty tyrants like Hugo Chávez to suppress democracy. I doubt we'll see martial law in Cambridge, but the declaration of a climate emergency served the important role of justifying every action taken afterward, as is apparent in the opening of the Final Proposal:

Whereas The Cambridge City Council has recognized a Climate Emergency ...

Whereas There is now a global Climate Emergency that requires urgent action ...

The next step taken was the formation of the Climate Congress. The LA21 literature describes this strategy precisely:

Establish a multi-sector stakeholder group to oversee the LA21 process, consisting of representatives from all sectors of the community, that will be formally involved in the development and implementation of all actions aiming at the achievement of the LA21 Campaign milestones.

Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons followed this playbook by issuing the following announcement:

While world leaders delay on taking serious action on climate change, the City of Cambridge, along with other cities world-wide, is weighing in. We know that time is short to deal with the climate crisis, and we know that we can take actions that will ... reduce our contributions to global climate change...

I am inviting organizations of all kinds, community groups, businesses, institutions and faith-based organizations, to nominate representatives to participate in the Congress. Individuals are also invited to apply. Up to 100 delegates will be selected to represent the full diversity of Cambridge's population, institutions, and organizations.

Again, this is an ingenious move. The City Council wishes to pass a sweeping set of legislative changes, but rather than holding a series of public hearings discussing whether action should be taken, they created a "stakeholder" group with the explicit purpose of responding to the agreed-upon climate emergency.

This group will be self-selecting in that only someone with ardent beliefs will volunteer to spend three or four Saturdays at City Hall in global warming meetings. Secondly, in order to be admitted to the group, you have to go through an application process. Delegates have to be nominated by organizations interested in dealing with the climate emergency. If an individual like me applied, stating that I hoped to join the CEC in order to defeat its objectives, the nomination could easily be refused on the basis of the existing climate emergency. Even if a climate skeptic were named a delegate, he or she would be in an extreme minority. After a four-word declaration -- "I hope you fail" -- the remaining Saturdays would be a waste of time. A recent letter to the editor by a CEC delegate John Pitkin responded to my criticism of the process: "If Mr. Wilson has any ideas for what we should do other than stick our collective heads in the sand, please let's hear them."

The problem is that sticking our heads in the sand and going on with life as if the world isn't going to end by 2030 is precisely what I would propose. The situation is analogous to the health care dispute, where the debate has been framed so that the only legitimate input is one that moves ObamaCare forward.

The CEC then proceeded to hold three daylong meetings, which gave the appearance that a robust debate had been undertaken. In fact, the debate was entirely one-sided, beginning from the proposition that "[w]e know that time is short ..." and "we know that we can take actions."

The Climate Emergency Congress approved a final proposal on March 6th. The centralized municipal kitchen with meals delivered on bicycles did not make the final cut, but a number of radical measures remain: meatless Mondays, increased climate fees and carbon taxes, expansion of city government (including the hiring of a new "Chief Sustainability Officer" and staff for the new Climate Emergency Response Board), residential thermostat restrictions through a "Temperate Zone" program that mandates minimum heating and cooling in spring and fall, environmental justice programs, elimination of parking, mandated locally grown food, heated and cooled public spaces to lower the carbon footprint of occupying a private house in the daytime -- and numerous new building codes, regulations, and regulators to enforce them.

The final proposal was presented to the City Council for consideration. The Cambridge Chronicle reports in a front-page story on March 11th: "City Councilor Sam Seidel said the Council would look carefully at recommendations to determine which could be adopted quickly, and which would take more time to put in place." It appears that the Council will reject none of these Orwellian recommendations. The process is in reality a charade that attempts to give the appearance of a grassroots group of citizens requesting action from the City Council. The Congress, however, was created by the City Council, and the mayor and the entire City Council are members of the Congress. Is it surprising that the Council views the proposals favorably?

Climate negotiations at Kyoto and Copenhagen are largely among nations, but this global warming movement among local governments is gaining momentum. When our Cambridge City Council sends delegates to Copenhagen or passes one of its resolutions on international matters, residents might chuckle that our Council ought to pay attention to potholes and stop opining about things they cannot control. This is to underestimate the potential power of this movement, which, although nascent, represents a challenge to the vertical structure of local-state-federal organization outlined in the Constitution. A horizontal global organization of municipalities parallel with the United Nations nibbles away at our national sovereignty and is a step in the direction of global government.

Peter Wilson is a writer who blogs at walkingdogcapitalist.