Defiantly Disruptive

Climate Defiance co-founder Michael Greenberg on meeting the moment and why direct action works.

Michael Greenberg is done with trusting politicians of any stripe. He’s done with the United States dragging its feet on the climate front. And, like a growing cadre of climate activists, he’s done with playing nice. So, in autumn 2022, while many environmental groups were focused on working with the Biden administration to direct Inflation Reduction Act spending towards appropriate initiatives, Greenberg, 29, was channeling his rage at the president’s approval of a series of new oil infrastructure projects into starting a new direct-action group: Climate Defiance.

a group in an auditorium, about to unfurl a banner

This past summer, Climate Defiance members, including co-founder Rylee Haught (right, in brown coat) shut down a keynote speech by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (holding mic at the back) at a Semafor event to protest his support of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Climate Defiance.

The youth-led organization has a single agenda: Change the political calculus for Democrats seeking office to make “support for any fossil fuels as unacceptable on the left as opposing abortion or gay marriage.” Its modus operandi: disrupt public events by Democratic lawmakers and Biden administration officials that have high media attendance, “expose their complicity” in continuing fossil fuel extraction, and make it clear that “the youth vote will only deliver for them if they deliver for us.”

Climate Defiance, which Greenberg co-founded with West Virginia youth climate organizer Rylee Haught, officially launched in March 2023 and burst into public view with a blockade of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April. “That,” the group announced on its website, “was merely our warmup.” Indeed, Climate Defiance has grown exponentially since then, amassing tens of thousands of followers on social media, a few thousand dedicated volunteers, well-known supporters — including author Bill McKibben, actress Jane Fonda, and representatives Ro Khanna, Jamaal Bowman, and Rashida Tlaib — and loads of media attention. It has organized numerous actions, with activists either slipping into events unobtrusively before making their presence known or barging in and interrupting talks headlined by Democrat leaders like Senators Joe Manchin and Amy Klobuchar, White House climate pundits Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and others.

This tactic is “so, so clearly,” working, Greenberg — who tends to maintain a low profile but is the key organizing force behind the group — told me when I spoke with him over Zoom in October. We talked about everything from his physician mom, who “helped instill a spirit of activism” in him, to his love for the outdoors, involvement in the Washington, DC, comedy scene (he does standup) and the local Jewish community (he draws inspiration from pirkei avot or Rabbinic Jewish teaching that says: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”), to, of course, the growing role of direct action in the climate movement. An excerpt.

How did Climate Defiance come to be?

Well, I had been passionate [about the climate] for a long time. I was on staff at Mighty Earth for several years doing corporate campaigning, basically putting pressure on companies that are driving pollution or deforestation. But what I came to realize is that the movement really needs a lot more disruptive direct action. So, as a volunteer, I organized people to come blockade the Line 3 [oil] pipeline route up in northern Minnesota a couple years ago. After that, I worked on asking people to come and shut down Joe Manchin’s coal plant in West Virginia. After that, I realized I wanted to do something that both gets a lot of attention in the moment and that builds long-term power. So I decided to found a new group to do that.

We have about 30 people in total, who are active on a day-to-day or week-by-week basis. They are in [Washington] DC, New York, Boston, Chicago. And a few of our supporters are out on the West Coast. But DC, New York, Boston are our most active cities.

Direct action, of course, isn’t a new thing. It has been around for as long as movements for justice have been around. What lessons did you take from past and other current movements when you started Climate Defiance?

There are a lot of groups and people who came before us who we can learn from. Like, ACT UP activists who, you know, fought for better AIDS treatments. There’s so much to learn from their style, because they felt as though the end of the world was approaching for them, because it was. I think that is the spirit and urgency that we must embody [in the climate movement]. There’s a lot that can be learned from the Sunrise Movement, which really did a lot to organize young people and bring climate change to the forefront. The Civil Rights Movement did really amazing work to manufacture political crises and put the State in a double bind. To the extent we can learn from that magic, I think it will really serve us well.

Why do you think the climate movement needs more direct action?

This is honestly my favorite question. [Direct Action] just works so well. I can give three examples. During Climate Week [in New York] in late September, we profoundly disrupted Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who signed the Willow Project. And 15 days later, he resigned from office. (Before joining the Biden administration, Beaudreau worked for Lathan & Watkins, the law firm that counts Conoco Phillips, the company building the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, among its clients.)

Another example: There’s this [environmental] law professor at Harvard, Jody Freeman, who was concurrently earning $300,000 a year from sitting on the board of Conoco Phillips. She’d been there for 10 years. We profoundly disrupted a speech she was giving in San Francisco [in June], presenting her with a “Big Oil Bestie” award. Then we went on to disrupt a climate change conference at Harvard [she was at] a few weeks later, and just a few weeks after that she resigned from the board of Conoco.

a young person speaking, holding a microphoneMichael Greenberg is co-founder of Climate Defiance.

The third example is: Biden, a few weeks ago, agreed to protect 13 million acres in the Arctic. The New York Times reported that some people close to Biden said it was because he was personally stung by the outcry from youth climate activists [over his approval of the Willow Project]. And right next to that sentence (in the print issue) was a picture of us blockading the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

So yeah, this kind of stuff is so, so clearly working. Direct action shows that [climate chaos] is an existential issue. It’s not, you know, sheltering puppies or funding school libraries, both of which are important things, but [climate chaos] is life or death. And it puts our opponents in a real double bind, because, either they crack down [on us], which gives us more attention, or they let us continue doing the disruption, which also gets us a lot of attention.

A climate strategist I spoke with recently argued that it is actually good to have a climate advocates like Freeman on the board of oil companies because they can push the corporations to do better from the inside. What are your thoughts on that?

I disagree. I get that people could think that, but, [Freeman] had been on the board of Conoco for 10 years and not only is the company a climate criminal in absolute terms, it is doing less to invest in renewable energy than, I believe, BP and Shell. So, what were her intentions [in joining the board]? I don’t know. But if, after 10 years, she couldn’t get them to meaningfully move in a good direction in a way that is perceivable, it probably just means that it wasn’t working.

One of the critiques about Climate Defiance’s tactics is that you are not really shutting things down so much as creating a temporary nuisance. For example, your Oct. 10 disruption of US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s interview at a conference in Baltimore only managed to interrupt it for a while. It resumed after the protestors were escorted out. How do you respond to such criticism?

Oh, we get every [kind of] critique — that we’re too disruptive and not disruptive enough. (laughs). In terms of [that particular] issue, Mayor Pete has been rubber-stamping new oil export terminals. He approved the Seaport Oil Terminal, which would move 2 million barrels of oil a day, and he’s in the process of approving the GulfLink Terminal that should move about a million barrels a day. These are both [Texas-based] projects that are worse than Keystone XL. And yet nobody’s talking about them. So, Pete is like, sleepwalking us into disaster.

In terms of what did our action accomplish? I would be 99 percent sure that this brought more pressure and attention to these two projects than they have ever received, and then some. And it showed Pete that if he wants to have, you know, presidential ambitions, he needs to get with the program, because people are not going to accept this stuff. So, what did it accomplish? We’ve brought over 500,000 views in one day to the new nickname “Petro Pete.” I mean, I am pretty sure he noticed that.

In terms of the people that you’re targeting, several of them, like Buttigieg, are considered progressive or moderate politicians who are already working on climate solutions. Why is Climate Defiance going after them instead of the so-called “real villains,” like the oil companies or the climate denying Republicans?

People who approve new fossil fuel projects in the Year of Our Lord 2023 are not moderate.

As opportunities allow, we might raise some hell with [the big polluters and climate-denying Republicans] too. But the moderates are dangerous in their own way. Because the “drill-baby-drill” people can easily be written off as crazy. It’s the so-called moderates who make inaction seem reasonable by talking about, you know, common sense solutions, and 2050 timelines, and pragmatism.

How do you respond to allegations that your group is only interested in disrupting and not open to dialogue?

Yeah, meetings aren’t our main thing. There are a million groups that just do the whole meeting with this or that principal, deputy, assistant secretary. There is limited value to that. For sure, you can get in the room with them, but do they actually care about what you say? So, to the extent we can make [an issue] spill out in public and can kind of create a reputational crisis for our targets, I think that’s a much stronger tactic. But we’re not against meetings. We are willing to have meetings and be firm but polite at those meetings, but it’s not our main focus, because public pressure is the more important thing.

Some of the targets you take on put you in sort of opposition with other environmental organizations that are trying to work with the current administration to effect policy change. How do you work across these differences?

The mainstream environmental groups are, honestly, not really meeting the moment. They have hundreds of millions of dollars in annual spending and not that much to show for it. A really telling example was, a couple of weeks ago when Tommy Beaudreau resigned, there was an article in E&E News about it, and five environmental groups, including us, were quoted, and of the four other groups beside us, three had quotes that were supportive of Beaudreau. If you’re an environmental group and you can’t unequivocally condemn the person who physically signed the Willow Project, why do you even exist? These groups, they don’t inspire people. Like, how many volunteers do they have, despite having hundreds of millions of dollars? How many people organically sign up on their website? How many people engage with their content on social media?

So all the other environmental groups that are not doing direct action, but are working other ways to effect change, don’t they have a role in the movement?

Do I think it’s good to have a variety of groups running in a variety of lanes? Sure. That way, the more radical groups can, you know, do their disruptive stuff, while the more insider groups can actually ride that momentum to have more political space to do what they want. I think that’s great. The thing that is frustrating is that 99 percent of groups are in one lane, and 1 percent of groups — or certainly 1 percent of groups by funding dollars — are in the other lane, which happens to be the more impactful lane.

So while I do in theory think it is fine and good to have different groups running in different lanes, it’s just surprising to me that 99 percent of the funding goes to the less effective lane.

Climate Defiance is now eight months old. What do you think the reception to it has been in general?

It’s been a pretty positive response, honestly, from the environmental world and from the public. I mean, we’re not a group that tries to please everyone. I believe that if we were to try to please everyone, we wouldn’t have the impact that we do. But, overall, the reception has been pretty positive.

Given the huge gap in the scale of change that’s required to fix the climate and what’s actually being done, climate activism can sometimes be soul-crushing. What keeps you going? What sustains you?

Honestly, it’s more depressing to not be doing this, because then there’s more time to stew in anger and sadness. I think the thing that keeps me going is I really feel like this stuff is actually working. Have we single-handedly solved climate change? No. But, is it making a difference? Yeah. I think we played a role in getting Biden to protect those 13 million acres in the Arctic. You know, we got Jody to resign, we got the deputy interior secretary to resign. And now, whoever takes that job next is going to be keenly aware of what happened to his predecessor. And I think with this current administration, we will probably be the decisive factor in [shutting down] at least one more fossil fuel infrastructure project in the next year.

Yeah, so that’s what keeps me going.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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