Our Movement Needs Radical Change

Conversation : May Boeve

photo of a woman smiling in a forestAt 33, May Boeve has been a leader in the climate movement for nearly a decade already. She embedded herself in campus activism while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, and in 2006 won the prestigious Brower Youth Award for her work coordinating the Road to Detroit – a summer-long road trip in a veggie-oil-powered bus drawing attention to the need for more fuel efficient cars. In 2008, fresh out of college, she co-founded the international climate action organization 350.org with several friends and author-activist Bill McKibben. And she’s been with 350.org ever since, for the past six years as the nonprofit’s executive director.

In our conversation, Boeve explained that she envisions a climate movement that is truly inclusive, one that makes space for all kinds of people from all kinds of background doing all kinds of work. She sees this broad, vibrant community as key to successfully taking on the fossil fuel industry. And though she admits that it’s a scary time given the urgent need for radical action on climate change, she points to the connection between her faith and her belief in the climate cause: “You don’t have faith because you have evidence,” she says. “You have faith because you don’t have evidence.”

How did you become passionate about the environment?

I was very interested in kind of the broader topic of quote-unquote “making the world a better place” as a kid. I think the earliest experience was when I was about ten and I was working with my mom on a letter to President George H. W. Bush about what he needed to do to make the world a better place for plants and animals. I remember specifically making a caveat that he also include bugs. (Laughs.) My mom typed the letter for me, but I drew pictures of spiders on the margins just to make sure he didn’t forget. So there was something at an early age that prompted that. And it may have been reading the book Charlotte’s Web about a girl who reminded me of me, and whose story really resonated at that young age.

But in terms of how I think about the environment now, which is really different – it’s much bigger than plants and animals, it’s about people, it’s about movements, it’s about politics.

As a relatively young person and as woman, you stand out among the top leadership of big environmental groups in the US. What is that like? How can we improve all types of diversity within environmental organizations?

Our movement is really at an inflection point, because it’s so visible in this country, and around the world, what the politics of exclusion look like – it’s embodied in the president and it’s embodied in the political discourse. And I think the place where the climate movement is trying to go, alongside our sister movements, is radically different. That is a movement that is truly including everyone, that is particularly trying to undue the wrongs of the past in terms of groups that have always been excluded – people of color, women, low-income communities, queer communities – and that is really building this much more vibrant community that we all want to be part of and that we know is needed in this country. That seems to be what everyone is grappling with, and we have a lot of work to do in manifesting that.

But I think because we are in a state of political crisis there is new urgency to the effort of diversifying the leadership of the movement, to changing how large organizations relate to grassroots groups, and also to recognizing that our movement is still very small compared to the number of people who care about climate change and whose lives are being altered day-by-day as a result of it. I think this pathway to a different, broader movement is also a pathway to political power that we all really desperately need if we are going to really confront the political power of the fossil fuel industry.

You’ve had a lot of success building coalitions with those who might be considered outside the environmental movement, such as labor and public health groups. How are coalition-building efforts going within today’s political climate?

I think in this moment, we are all so aware of how much we need each other, and how much we are up against a common enemy. I think the other side of that coin is everyone is fighting on multiple fronts every day, so there is an enormous need for every movement to show up for each other. And I think that the Trump strategy and the politics of distraction have been very effective in making us jump, constantly.

But what I do see happening is a lot of the movement being dogged about continued proactive campaigning, about building political power. There are a lot of organizations that are going door-to-door, quietly, but building bigger groups, building bigger networks, trying to find the people who may have been seduced by the politics of division, and bringing people back into the bigger tent where we ultimately need this country to go. There are organizations that are doing the day-to-day work that isn’t just reactive to Trump.

But the fact is that we aren’t just reacting to Trump, we are reacting to forest fires, and floods, and hurricanes, and this has been a particularly devastating year in this country for climate impacts. So for the climate movement, we’re also jumping and responding and reacting to the devastating tragedy that’s unfolding everywhere. And it’s heartbreaking to have a climate denier in the White House in this record-breaking year for climate impacts.

One of the other strategies that 350.org is especially well known for is its work around fossil fuel divestment. How did how 350.org choose to focus on divestment, and how is the campaign going?

In many ways, the idea came out of the work to try to stop fossil fuel projects at the source, and from some of the victories in the Keystone fight, where one day there would be really great news and then a week later there would be bad news, and Trans Canada and the oil industry would just continue pushing stuff out the door. And [it also came from] really this deep awareness that we can’t stop climate change one project at a time – we need to focus on this industry as a whole. [We knew that] we’re never going to have more money than the fossil fuel industry, but we can impact how they are seen in the eyes of the public.

So we looked at the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa – and this was really the work of Bill McKibben – as an example of a time when a huge part of society turned against the apartheid government and forced people to take sides… and you lined up your choices as a consumer or an investor with that ethical stance.

There’s a need to do the same thing with the fossil fuel industry, because it’s not just another industry. It’s not like they’re producing a product that needs to be adjusted in one way to be less toxic. The entire product is toxic. There’s no way to support its continued existence. Divestment was a way of showing that, and making that very palpable. And on the other hand, it was a way of providing a very meaningful strategy for the many thousands of people around the world who are desperate to see action on climate change. Here was a way they could [take action] in their school, in their church, with their pension fund, with their municipality’s fund. As a movement-building and organizing tool, it couldn’t be better.

What was way beyond our expectations was the degree to which it really changed investor behavior. It helped move this idea of a carbon bubble, which was really popularized by the organization Carbon Tracker, directly into the mainstream of economic thinking so that you had the likes of Michael Bloomberg and the head of the Bank of England talking about the carbon bubble and stranded asset risk as a major threat to all investors, not just those concerned about climate change.

That, in turn, helped create a huge market for alternative-investment vehicles. [There are now] 5 trillion dollars under management with some kind of fossil free commitment, and a whole new set of investment advisors who specialize in helping firms divest. So it also really sent ripples through that community.

Do you think divestment has energized a younger generation? And what do you think it might mean in terms of growing the next generation of environmental leaders.

There are a number of [college] alumni of the fossil fuel divestment movement who are at the forefront of some of the most interesting political organizing happening right now. [People with] the Sunrise project, some of the people running congressional campaigns, individuals running for office themselves – they were part of that movement and made that movement what it is.

I can also speak from my own experience. Having been part of campus activism when it was deeply vibrant and we were winning, there’s really nothing like it. It gives you a sense of possibility about your ability to make change that is an enormous privilege. And I think for a lot of people who have the privilege of attending and graduating college, it really shapes the trajectory of your life, because you realize, I may be able to dedicate my whole life to movement work.

Divestment has an added aspect of putting young activists toe-to-toe with often quite intimidating members of boards of trustees. So you are actually having an experience of speaking truth to power as a student. That is going to come up in your life every time you negotiate for a raise at your job, or go to a job interview, or advocate for something you believe in at your work. So it’s incredible experience at a really important age.

I remember meeting with Middlebury’s board of trustees to get them to approve our carbon neutrality campaign. I didn’t even speak at the meeting, but I remember being incredibly intimidated, and realizing that this was a new era in the work we’d been doing. (Laughs.) We weren’t just hanging posters in the bathrooms anymore.

So in terms of leadership development, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience, and you see that in the set of leaders. They are so sharp and so inspiring and so committed to building a truly diverse, multiracial movement that I’m consistently following their lead.

Climate advocates have struggled to engage across political parties. How do you think we can bridge political divides and mobilize around an issue that is difficult to personalize?

I think after the election, there were a lot of questions about all these voters who bought into a narrative that immigrants took their jobs away, rather than large corporations taking their jobs away. That is so relevant to the climate crisis, because the Republican Party has so effectively told a story about environmentalists stealing jobs in the fossil fuel sector. We have to do so much better as a movement to actually advocate for the kind of just transition and job creation that this revolution in energy is going to require. And for all of our talking about it, it is not reaching the people that it needs to reach. The election was a huge wake up call for a lot of people about that.

But that’s only one part of what you’re asking about. I think there’s another set of people who really don’t see climate as an urgent threat. Because even when there are what you and I would refer to as climate disasters, if you’re learning about them on the TV news and no one is making that connection [to climate change], why would you think it’s anything other than just a bad hurricane or another forest fire in California? So there’s a real need for the major networks to connect dots, because there are people who are in the middle. But those are some of the people we are really interested in trying to reach and engage in local campaigns.

And then there are those who have bought into the ideology that climate change is just an issue for elites and just an issue for the left. And I don’t know if we’re going to reach those people. Because in some corners of the political spectrum – and some of my extended family falls into this category – people don’t want to pay attention. They have a worldview that people who believe in climate change are their enemy. That’s probably not the place where we’re going to make a lot of progress.

But there are a lot of other people for whom this issue is not so polarized, and we need to do a much better job of having a narrative that relates to them and their actual lived experience.

There’s been debate in climate circles recently about how best to communicate the climate crisis, and whether doomsday messaging that focuses on worst-case scenarios is a useful motivating tool, or just gives a sense of hopelessness and fear. What are your thoughts on that?

I think this question about narrative is incredibly important, and I think we tend to navel gaze a little bit about it in our movement, rather than experimenting with different narratives in our organizing. We [350.org] started out by breaking all of the rules about messaging. We took a very wonky scientific data point – [350 parts per million, which is considered the maximum safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] – and asked people to organize a day of action to celebrate it. No marketing specialist would ever recommend doing that, but it helped connect with a wide set of very committed activists who have been able to broaden the movement from where it was.

Some of this is about who you are trying to reach, but some of this is about trying things and seeing what works.

I think when it comes to narratives, there is important work to be done to test and learn about what resonates. But we just shouldn’t take too much time in that effort, because as Bill McKibben likes to say, “Anything that’s slowing down work on climate change, we should be wary of, because winning slowly on climate change is the same thing as losing.”

I don’t want to be anti-intellectual about it – there’s always more that we can learn – but this isn’t like other issues where we have a lot of extra time to do a lot of lengthy focus-grouping. We have to always be moving at the speed of the issue.

Do you think we need to better incorporate the youth voice in the movement?

Yeah. I think wherever you look – and this is true of our entire global network – a lot of the people who are day in and day out engaged in climate-related struggles in their communities are young people. And so it’s really a question of finding the leaders who are already out there and listening to the stories that they have to tell.

There are some beautiful examples of this. I think the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit [by a group of young people against the federal government]… is really an invitation for the rest of us to listen to what these people are living through, and to have them be the leaders in their own story. So there has been some really good progress.

But I think where I maybe feel a little differently than before is, when I first learned about climate change, I thought it was all about young people, because it was about the future. But that was because I was a young person. (Laughs). Now I see much more that it relates to absolutely everyone. It relates to engineers. It relates to young people. It relates to moms. It relates to farmworkers. It’s just a question of how we understand that narrative, and how we involve people in this work through the lens of their own experience.

In the work of helping people understand what climate change is and who is impacted, in some ways youth makes the most sense, just from an intellectual perspective. But the risk there is that you get trapped into thinking climate change is an issue for the next generation, and not an issue impacting people right now.

Do you feel hopeful about the prospects of limiting the amount of climate change?

I feel hopeful about the people who are involved in the movement, and our capacity to win what we know we need to win. There have just been so many examples of communities who stopped coal plants or stopped new mining projects or got their city to go to 100 percent [renewable energy]. I feel like there’s limitless potential in people’s ability to do that. But it’s got to happen at a scale we can’t even really imagine. And that’s the hard part… It’s a very scary time, and a lot of people are justified in real skepticism that we can get there in time.

But sometimes I liken the climate cause to being a person of faith, which I consider myself to be. You don’t have faith because you have evidence – you have faith because you don’t have evidence. So I think that comes to play a little bit in my feeling of hopefulness when it comes to climate change.

Anything else you’d like to add?

This work is only possible because there’s a big team of people that make 350.org what it is. And that’s a microcosm of the movement as a whole – we only are able to do what we do because there’s a much broader movement. [There is] this increasing convergence across the whole climate movement globally on [issues like] “no to fossil fuels” and “yes to 100 percent renewable energy.” That level of alignment in our movement is incredibly significant and will help us win. And this fact that we’re coming together while so much is coming apart in the climate system is really significant. It’s really a question of how broad can we grow, and how quickly can we do it.

Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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