Iowa’s ‘Agitator in Chief’

Activist and author Ed Fallon has been pushing for climate action for more than a decade. Now he says it's time for a 'full-scale mobilization.'

In 2014, Ed Fallon walked 3,100 miles from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. He, along with about 35 others, spent eight months marching across the nation to sound the alarm on climate change.

photo of ed fallon
Ed Fallon's advocacy and organizing work has spanned decades. Photo courtesy of The Great March for Climate Action.

“I always look for something big to do and really try to find a way to make a big impact on climate conversation,” says Fallon. “In 2013 I got the idea to organize a March across the country. I spent a year organizing that and most of a year doing it.”

The former Iowa legislator chronicled his long journey in the book Marcher, Walker, Pilgrim  A Memoir from The Great March for Climate Action.

Fallon’s advocacy and organizing roots have spanned decades. In 1984, he was a peace activist involved with the Iowa Action Citizen Network. “What I really wanted to address was the biggest problem I could find, which [back then] was the threat of nuclear war. So I became involved with the Iowa Freeze campaign [advocating for global nuclear disarmament]. Then I directed the [Iowa stretch of the] Great Peace March, which was what introduced me to the power of the march.”

He traces his climate activism back to February 2007, when he met with Bill McKibben, author, environmentalist, and founder of the anti-carbon campaign group 350.org. McKibben was at Iowa State University in Ames to give a talk on climate change, and his comments inspired Fallon to think long and hard.

“Climate change is the existential crisis our species has been forced to deal with through our own poor behavior, our own greed, our decision to ignore the evidence of what we're doing with fossil fuels is wrong,” Fallon says.

There have been other climate-motivated marches as well. In March 2015, Fallon spearheaded a 400-mile hike along the length of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, protesting the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure. He is “Agitator in Chief” of the non-profit group Bold Iowa, which was founded in 2016 to fight the pipeline, and helped build a rural-urban coalition dedicated to environmental and social justice. (Yes, that’s his official title.)

Fallon’s commitment to these causes has often resulted in acts of civil disobedience, which have occasionally landed him in jail. “I’ve always believed that if you challenge someone to do something hard, you have to do it yourself. So when I say, ‘We should get arrested protesting this pipeline,’ I’m the first to get arrested.”

It’s no surprise that he was named “Iowa’s No. 1 Hellraiser” in 1995 by the Des Moines newspaper Cityview for making a name for himself as “the Legislature’s premier street politician and agent provocateur.” Fallon was elected to the Iowa Legislature in 1993, where he served until 2006, and in the past, he has thrown his hat into the political ring as a contender for gubernatorial and congressional races.

Now, through his long-running weekly radio show, “The Fallon Forum,” the former lawmaker focuses on pushing for political mobilization on climate change and environmental challenges.

Recently, he’s had his eyes on the 2020 race for the White House, which boasts a lengthy roster of mostly Democratic candidates who have been campaigning in early-primary states like Iowa in the lead-up to the caucuses.

In August, the Democratic National Committee officially voted against allowing candidates to participate in a climate-specific debate during the Democratic primary, a decision that has angered many within the party as well as voters outside its membership. Fallon, however, is still urging presidential candidates campaigning for the Iowa caucuses to adopt a more ambitious approach to the climate crisis.

“In Iowa, we have a chance to convince every presidential candidate that they need to make it their priority,” he says. “We need to convince them if they don't pass this litmus test, they’re not going to win Iowa.”

photo of great march for climate action
In 2014, Fallon — along with about 35 others — walked 3,100 miles across the United States to agitate for action on climate change. The march began with a big launch event in Los Angeles (pictured). Photo by Jonathan H. Lee / The Great March for Climate Action.

After all, climate change is not just another issue anymore, it is a crisis. The latest scientific findings have been unsettling, to say the least. A report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) grabbed headlines around the world in October last year, predicting a grim future if the global citizenry does not act immediately to curb the devastating effects of climate change within a decade.

At the current rate of emissions, we have only until 2030 to avert a catastrophic 2-degree rise in temperature.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, many people are hesitant to accept the science of climate change, let alone grasp the urgency to act. According to Fallon, there are a few reasons for this. “It’s partly because they’re scared about what it really means in terms of the destruction of our way of life, and partly because there’s a really powerful denier-industry funded by special interests with connections to gas and coal that would rather be filthy rich than see the rest of us survive.”

However, he believes there has been a shift in public opinion toward climate change, with more people becoming concerned and active. For example, in March, over one million students in 125 countries skipped school to partake in over 2,000 demonstrations as part of a "climate strike" to protest government inaction on climate change “The problem is we’re not active at the level we need to be. This is like the final warning before the asteroid is about to hit, and we’re still going about our daily lives. We should be in full panic mode right now.”

Fallon is clear that incremental approaches will no longer suffice. “There was a time and place where it made sense to do a carbon tax or increase fuel efficiency standards or other tweaks and small steps. But we’re beyond incrementalism. We need full-scale mobilization and The Green New Deal embodies that.”

The 14-page resolution, introduced by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), calls on the United States to “take a leading role in reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions through economic transformation.”

While appreciating the resolution, Fallon expressed skepticism as to whether it would be accepted and implemented, not just by Republicans but by “Establishment” Democrats as well. After all, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi disparagingly referred to the resolution as “the Green Dream or whatever they call it.” Co-sponsored by US Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), the resolution was shot down in the Senate in March this year by a margin of 0-57, with 43 Democrats voting “present.”

Fallon had a kind of political premonition and saw this coming. “I’ve been involved in politics long enough to know that even if it was to be accepted by the leadership of the House and Senate, it’s never going to pass as it is now. It’s going to go through various amendments and changes. I don’t know what's going to come out of it, but it needs to come out soon. Hopefully the main principle will be preserved,” he says.

Amendments notwithstanding, the comprehensive emergency mobilization we need to eliminate our fossil fuel footprint as much as possible is going to involve a significant amount of public investment, says Fallon. “Collectively, we need a transformation on the direction of this country. It has to be led by government, but also by the business community, academia, and the media. All four of those branches of influence are not taking it seriously. We have to keep fighting and try to put everything we have into it.”

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