Operation Pittsburgh: Anatomy of a Climate Action

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By Kristiane Skolmen and Morgan Goodwin, DC Action Factory Fellows

"Ooooh, its hot in here! There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere!" rang loudly over the 10,000-strong protest in downtown Pittsburgh.

With our huge banner reading “Copenhagen or Bust”, the 11 climate activists that are the Climate Action Factory were right in the thick of the G20 action.

Getting to this rally with a banner in our hands and the 300 person strong climate contingent we had helped to organize was the result of weeks of work, dozens of sleepless nights, long planning meetings, and an unbelievably intense drive to get a fair, ambitious and binding global climate treaty.

The Action Factory, or AcFac, is sponsored by Avaaz.org, a global campaigning network advocating for a wide range of social justice causes. We are a group of climate activists who plan and execute actions — anything that will get us a better climate treaty in Copenhagen.

Our work in Pittsburgh was part of Climate Week, the global mobilization for climate action hinging on two major meetings of world leaders: the UN General Assembly special meeting on climate and the G20 meeting on global economic recovery. With both of these events, global civic society hoped for major progress toward the road to Copenhagen and a global climate treaty.

Our home base for Operation Pittsburgh was an old church, rented on the cheap. Thanks to the previous owner, the place was a visual assault on the senses. Stacks of large tupperware filled with clothes and knicknaks teetered against all 4 walls. The space turned out to be ideal. The church was huge — a key criteria for making banners and signs, as well as housing lots of fellow activists. The stuff inside also proved inspirational. A dozen buckets? Great, drums for a march. Stacks of racy posters for an army surplus store? Instant material for all the signs and posters we could ever need.

Day 1: Global Climate Wake-up Call

The Action Factory kicked off the G20 protests in Pittsburgh by hosting a climate wake up call on Monday, Sept. 21, the first major action of the week.

Our Pittsburgh wake up call was one of over 1,800 events held worldwide. The action plan entailed scores of people gathering on the corner of 7th and Penn in downtown Pittsburgh, all with their alarm clocks set to 12:18pm (the last day of the climate talks in Copenhagen). At that time the alarms would ring, and the crowd would rush forward to "wake-up!" the sleeping leaders.

As a rapid-response group, we’re used to plans changing at the last minute. The previous day, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown upped the ante by committing to attend the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen, being the first major head of state to do so. We excitedly amended our action to feature not just President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also threw in Brown. Suddenly our wake-up call was both a big stunt, and a breaking news conference!

As it approached noon, more people gathered on the corner. The media, initially 3 TV vans, had grown exponentially.

At 12:15 a masked Obama, Merkel and Brown laid down in the park with their nation’s flags as blankets. The clicking of cameras in combination with reporters attempting to elicit soundbytes out of the sleeping actors was so great that it almost overshadowed the cacophony of alarms at 12:18 — but not quite!

The AcFac’s Morgan Goodwin led the gathered masses in chanting "Wake up! Climate action now!" as the leaders awoke and sleepily rose to their feet — and to the occasion.

The wake-up call was a huge success. Locally we had a ton of success and globally the impact was huge — leaders of Spain and Australia answered calls with no prior planning, and a London resident talked directly to Brown — on national television! Our own footage of the event was streamed in the global premier of The Age of Stupid that night all over the country.

Day 2: Quit Coal $$$, Fund Climate Renewal

While the pols in New York talked a big game at the UN General Assembly, coal was getting down to work in Pittsburgh. An international coal conference butted right up against the G20 in both time and place. The city teemed with finance ministerial staff and diplomats preparing for the G20 who couldn’t help but bump shoulders with coal engineers, carbon capture and sequestration researchers and other dirty energy enthusiasts. That’s a little too close for comfort.

The Action Factory jumped at the chance to publicly shame the CEO’s and politicians attending the CCS tour through what would be our highest-risk action yet. Considering Pittsburgh spent $30 million dollars to bring in reinforcements, every direct action had an elevated risk, but even more so when involving civil disobedience.

To pull something off at the scale we were aiming for less than 24 hours after the wake-up call, preparation commenced immediately and lasted well into the early hours of Tuesday morning.

At 8 a.m., a group of activist allies began assembling at a nearby park in the rain making banners and signs denouncing the dirty lie of clean coal. The street protest was part of the plan to catch the media and coal enthusiasts before they got on the bus, therefore delaying the tour. Just as reporters and politicians filed onto the bus, we flipped a 30′ banner over the parking garage side to loud cheers from the activists and the embarrassment of the attendees of the international coal conference tour that sent our message loud and clear: "G20: Quit Coal $$$ /Fund Climate Recovery".

The banner unfurled just as TV crews were filming a spokesperson for the coal industry attempting to defend industry practices as activists held a ceremony on the sidewalk to apologize to the coal for extracting it and promise to keep it in the ground.

While the banner drop was no easy feat and was certainly an elevation of our direct action tactics, we walked — or rather, sprinted — away from the experience with more confidence for the rest of the week and for our return to D.C., ready to take on international climate politics.

Days 3 and 4: Climate Solution Plan B: The SurvivaBall

With all the coal hacks running around, and traditional protesters cordoned into official ‘protest zones’ in the militarized downtown, the AcFac decided that maybe we could team up with some corporate partners. I mean, any solution to climate change is a good one, right?

Thanks to our (ahem) partners (ahem) at Exxon-Mobile, Duke Energy, Chevron, BP and Shell, we were able to bring a more reasonable climate solution to the G20.

Six demonstration SurvivaBall Model X7s debuted at the Clean Energy Jobs rally Wednesday night to promote our climate plan.

For those not familiar with SurvivaBall, a project of the Yes Men, you can read all about the product and watch the CNN footage.

Hard working Ac Fac members even infiltrated the belly of the G20 summit to help spread the message: While $150 billion/year isn’t that much money to help the world’s poorest overcome climate change, we could spend so much less money on protecting the world’s richest! And we wouldn’t have to change how we do business either!

Clearly SurvivaBall is not a viable solution for climate change. We need world leaders to act decisively to avoid the sort of future that depends on these "gated communities for one."

Day 5: #G20ClimateFail/Copenhagen or Bust

We were appalled at the lack of ambition on climate from Obama and Merkel, the two critical leaders in the final leg of the road to Copenhagen. The Action Factory organized a climate feeder march all the way from Carnegie Mellon University to downtown, joining up with the People’s March on the way. To convey this disappointment, our huge march banner read “#G20CLIMATEFAIL / Copenhagen or Bust!”.

Of the six publicly scheduled issue-specific feeder marches, the Climate Justice feeder march was reportedly the largest and certainly the most energetic. Our crowd spilled into the streets, to the dismay of the police, and swelled in numbers as we collected people along the route.

Multi-issue mass-mobilization marches tend to be a flood of messages, but our succinct messaging paired with visual cohesiveness broke through the clamor.The New York Times picked up on our precision, featuring our banner in their photo-story on the protests. And the AFP syndicated this story around the world, using Avaaz’s frame of the summit to describe the climate outcomes. Not to mention our quote in Chinese press.

No Sleep ‘Til Copenhagen!

The Action Factory rocked Pittsburgh. For our part, we had significant influence on media framing in the days leading up to the G20 along with Greenpeace (who also pulled off a bold banner drop) and our other allies from the 3 Rivers Climate Convergence.

Despite the fact that Pittsburgh stalled and withheld march and camping permits to undermine mobilizing efforts, the turn-out was impressive: The largest permitted march pushed 10,000, and the largest un-permitted march peaked around 1,500. In the face of massive police build-up, protesters who came to be heard at the G20 counted many tactical victories and left stronger than they came.

The world needs a fair, ambitious and binding global climate treaty this December. We’re not messing around here. And as activists dedicated to the cause, its time to pull out all the stops and keep building this campaign to win. Take action, join the global conversation, and work these next few months like you’ve never worked before. We are.

You can follow Action Factory work on our blog and on Twitter @AcFac


See also:

Greenpeace Takes Mount Rushmore: Why 11 Climbers Were Willing to Risk Arrest

Photos: Police Arrest Climate Protesters in Brussels

Aussie Activists Target World’s Most Polluting Coal Plant

NASA’s James Hansen, 28 Activists Arrested Protesting Mountaintop Mining

(Photos: Avaaz Action Factory)