A new group called Climate Defiance aims to make investment in fossil fuels unpopular with the public and politically toxic. And their members aren’t afraid to shout about it.
During Climate Week events in New York City in September 2023, Climate Defiance members chased down Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau, heckling him on the street and disrupting a speaking event over his role in approving the massive Willow Project, an oil-drilling venture on federal land in Alaska that would generate 9.2 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon pollution a year.
The Willow Project was initially approved under the Trump administration. Despite a torrent of opposition from environmental groups, Indigenous groups, and others, Biden officials told CNN they had determined that legally, their hands were tied: Canceling the venture would expose the government to billions of dollars in fines. And the decision would likely be overturned by the court system.
Not good enough
Climate Defiance members want the Democratic Party to do more, and sooner, for the climate. While acknowledging that Democrats have come far on climate policy — the Democrat-led Senate passed its first-ever major climate bill in 2022 — the group is pushing the party to support a total end to fossil fuels.
In a world where politicians and companies often refer to “all-of-the-above” energy strategies, a commitment to ditching fossil fuels would represent a major shift in the Overton window — the range of policy ideas that are popular and acceptable.
Climate Defiance participants say that activist tactics, including direct action, can push Democrats and the public to make that shift.
Sound unlikely? Climate Defiance doesn’t think so. In October, Deputy Secretary Beaudreau — the man the group pressured over the Willow project — announced his resignation.
This interview with Climate Defiance leader Michael Greenberg, 30, and participant Jay Waxse, 34, has been lightly edited.
Yale Climate Connections: Who is Climate Defiance?
Michael Greenberg: We’re a brand-new group dedicated to using disruptive direct action to resist fossil fuels. We deeply believe in the power of disruptive action to shift the Overton window and make people in power feel the heat. In March, we launched the organization with a party hosted by Bill McKibben, and our first action was a blockade at the White House Correspondents dinner.
The original team came together because we noticed that a lot of direct actions get attention in the moment, but they weren’t building long-term sustained power. So we wanted to start a group that could both break through and get attention but was also built for the long run. We started in D.C., but now have a presence now in New York, Philly, and Minnesota. We’re youth-led, but we welcome all generations of people to join us.
I see three problems right now: The Republican Party is fascist.
Democrats are satisfied enough to go along with the status quo and not push for change at the necessary level. A few examples: the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, is considering approving several liquefied natural gas terminals, like CP2, in Louisiana. [Editor’s note: In December, more than 60 Democrats and Bernie Sanders urged Granholm not to approve the proposed projects.]
Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the Department of Transportation, another Democrat, is considering new oil export terminals like GulfLink in Texas. Secretary Deb Haaland and Tommy Beaudreau at the Department of the Interior, again both Democrats, approved the oil-drilling Willow Project in Alaska.
And honestly, the climate movement is not as large or as hard-hitting as it needs to be. It feels a bit old and stale, confined by the norms of the nonprofit industry.
Sometimes, we go after Republicans, but Democrats are a much better use of our time and energy because we believe they are movable. Democrats want to be viewed as pro-climate, but many of them are complicit in fossil fuel infrastructure. We believe they can and must do better and are not afraid to call them out.
I want to be clear that just because we target Democrats, it does not at all mean they are just as bad as Republicans on climate. I’m strongly opposed to that narrative. Republicans are far worse.
There are a lot of really great and beautiful activist groups out there doing very important work. Climate Defiance is different because of the boldness of our actions, and our resolve in the fact that right now it’s necessary to escalate the conversation beyond what might be comfortable for politicians. We are willing to go into political panels and dinners and conferences, call out hypocrisy, disrupt business as usual, and put our bodies and legal records on the line. We intend to act as the radical flank of the climate movement in the spirit of nonviolence to raise awareness and build pressure on issues that are directly linked to our survival and democracy. We refuse to take no for an answer.
Right now we’re mainly demanding Joe Biden take executive action to stop new fossil fuel projects, namely Willow, Texas GulfLink, and the Sea Port oil terminal. The bigger dream, if the Democrats win in 2024, is sweeping, Green-New-Deal-style legislation.
YCC: Why the strategy of disruption?
Jay Waxse: There is a long history of bold, disruptive, nonviolent direct action in our country, and it has played a pivotal role in our political history, as well as other countries around the world. Obviously here, the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War is a key example. ACT UP is one of my favorite groups and a huge inspiration for Climate Defiance. They were so brilliant and creative in their tactics. They shut down the FDA, [protested at] the New York Stock Exchange, and dumped the ashes of their loved ones who died of AIDS on the White House lawn.
A few disability justice activists threw themselves out of their wheelchairs, climbed up the steps of Congress, and chained themselves to the doors of Congress — and H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Just incredible!
And of course, more recently, the Sunrise Movement has done amazing and disruptive work to put the Green New Deal on the map. You get major wins through more than just the usual channels of policymaking, and in a democracy, people can rise up and demand things that aren’t even on the table. It’s so empowering to know we aren’t limited by what is and isn’t on the ballot.
Especially in our political system, it’s so thick with corruption and our democracy doesn’t respond well to the people. There aren’t too many options left open to us, so we have to disrupt the status quo of this system to be heard and taken seriously.
Greenberg: We’re basically here to serve as the public pressure on the climate criminals, the people in power who serve not us, but fossil fuel interests. We publicly call attention to their corruption and crimes against the planet. We don’t allow them to pretend to care about the common good, and we make their lives difficult until they change their act or step aside. We’re trying to create a culture around political leaders of “respect us or expect us.”
YCC: Tell me more about how you choose targets and how you hope your actions change our course on the climate crisis.
Waxse: So we choose people that are politically prominent, powerful, and guilty of perpetuating climate injustice. We target people like Sen. Joe Manchin [a Democrat from West Virginia], who are obviously heavily invested in and controlled by the fossil fuel industry. Then there are people like Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden who say and do some of the right things on climate, but they just don’t rise to the level of the scale and urgency as made clear by climate science.
We act to hold them accountable and demand they choose the right side. Right now, we are demanding that Biden stop LNG and oil exports and declare a climate emergency.
Greenberg: In September, we targeted the then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Tommy Beaudreau in New York. We confronted him again and again at Climate Week, demanding his answer for this injustice, and then 15 days later, he resigned. Whoever replaces him will know that if they don’t act aligned with climate justice, we will come for them too. A very clear message is sent to people in power. It’s aggressive, but I believe it’s justice.
Disruption gets media attention with the press and online so we’re able to reach the public with our message. Our actions also have helped inspire other people to action, confronting and disrupting their communities.
YCC: I’m curious to hear more about your motivations. Why do this work? And I’m making an assumption here, but how do you exist in the tension between the love and the rage while doing the work?
Greenberg: I always tell myself: Act with the urgency and bravery that the moment demands. In terms of my motivation to organize direct action, I can’t say there was a watershed or light bulb moment for me. My motivation built up slowly over time. I read James Hansen’s “Storms of My Grandchild” and Bill McKibben’s “End of Nature.” I felt afraid, recognized the wrongness, and wanted to do something about it. I started attending conferences and summer programs and then learned more about the history and legacy of movements. I just felt so inspired, so here I am.
I feel like I’m fueled by righteous anger as well as righteous compassion. I want the people we target to understand we are angry at them and the powers at be for this ongoing climate crisis, but I also want to hold space for them to do better and change.
Waxse: I worked as an organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. After that, I was just totally hooked. I also felt very inspired by movements of the past and the movement work happening alongside this moment.
I think a lot about how each time we defeat a fossil fuel project, we’re staving off a little bit more risk to billions of people’s lives. If we can disrupt the policy that makes these projects possible, and in turn, the industry itself, we’re doing our jobs as Earth’s defenders, water and air protectors. It just feels like the right thing to do, the only thing I can do, because if these projects are approved, it means trouble for the whole planet, especially the Global South. I wanted to be disruptive to the system and the status quo, and obviously, there is an incredible urgency to the climate crisis.
I have to say though, what really keeps me going is witnessing the 19- and 20-year-olds standing up, interrupting politicians with bold questions, walking onto the stage, totally disrupting their events, taking climate leadership into their own hands. The folks in their 70s out there with us, throwing their bodies on the lines and exposing themselves to legal risk. It’s just the most inspiring aspect of democracy I’ve ever seen.
I love everything this wonderful planet and all its life brings into being. We’re insanely lucky that in an otherwise cold and dark universe, we live somewhere so life-sustaining and beautiful. It’s all worth protecting. And the people that turn whatever privilege they have into this purpose, defending life on this planet, meeting them and working together and being in community just lights the fire in my heart. I feel a sense of that agape love, like Dr. King said, when I do this work.
On the anger, that’s something we’re always grappling with, but we really do our best to walk into all our actions with love. We’re really not out there trying to cause harm or humiliate anybody, but taking nonviolent action right now gives expression and uplifts the outrage and anxiety we all feel about the climate crisis. It’s so important we give voice and an outlet to those feelings. If a target feels humiliated, it’s not the goal, it’s never the goal, and I do feel a lot of compassion for the person. Sometimes even the people we target, they’ll say to us, “I admire your passion. Democracy can be difficult sometimes, but I’m glad you’re here.”
And some of our actions are very playful. We experiment with humor in many of our actions, like when we presented Jody Freeman with the “Big Oil Bestie” award.
YCC: I haven’t seen those actions! Do you feel like social media rewards the more dramatic confrontation?
Waxse: I don’t think social media is much of a mystery and the algorithm definitely bends towards sensationalism.
YCC: Last question: Tell me how identity and privilege show up in your organizing work.
Greenberg: In Climate Defiance we’re trying to create a culture of celebration and appreciation of all the various identities and lived experiences in our group, and I’ve recognized there is definitely a White man privilege in these confrontational tactics. I can use this privilege to get into spaces where other people might not have access or be safe. By virtue of my identity, people in power think I’m one of them.
Waxse: I think about the Black Lives Matter protests. The people participating experience intense police brutality. White people would form lines between the protesters of color and the police because the police would not exert the same level of violence on their bodies. As a White man, I can absolutely use my privilege as an advantage in these direct action spaces.
At our actions, we have a collection of identities, people of color, Indigenous communities, trans folks, and it’s always so important to consider different levels of protections, to have serious conversations about risk because situations can arise that are much harder for a Black woman than a White man. We want to welcome and encourage everyone in our action spaces and work to plan and coordinate to ensure everyone’s safety.