The Power of the People

“Hi there! Can you take a quick photo to help stop climate change?”

Most people smile apologetically. Others say they’re in a rush, a flat “no”, or nothing at all as they pick up their pace to walk past me, my poster, and my clipboard in the Boston Commons.

Every once in a while, I’ll rope a person into listening to my spiel. I’ll tell them that I’m with the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign, and that other members on the campaign are at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany right now. I’ll point to the list of wealthy governments on the top of my poster and denounce them for siding with Big Polluters at the ongoing conference for climate policy. Then, I’ll explain how climate policies that benefit Big Polluters simultaneously force the worst effects of climate change on people around the world. Yes, delegates from the E.U., New Zealand, Australia, USA, and Norway are siding with lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry against critical climate action. No, it’s not the conference where the Paris Agreement is discussed, but it leads up to that conference and is just as important. No, it’s not in the media, so no wonder you haven’t heard of it.

Kick Big Polluters Poster
The poster used in the Kick Big Polluters Out photo petitions.

Once I start my spiel, everything goes smoothly until I ask my audience to take a picture with the poster in my hand and post it on social media. Half of the time, I take the picture and successfully persuade them to tweet it with a pre-written caption and hashtags like #PollutersOut. Other times, I face resistance. How does taking a picture do anything? What good does activism on social media do? Why would a government care that a guy like me knows what they’re doing at the negotiating table?

I am quick to respond because the answer is written into my script. What I say is true – participants at the climate talks are checking hashtags like #PollutersOut, seeing people around the world posing with a poster that criticizes their cozy relationship with Big Polluters, and feeling the pressure that comes when one is caught doing what they should not. But I understand their concerns because I share them as well. Although I fail to think of a better way to mobilize people to protest the presence of Big Polluters at climate talks between governments, I nevertheless harbor doubts about how Twitter can save global climate policy.

Days afterwards, Corporate Accountability circulated an email encouraging us to attend the Wayfair Walkout. The week before, Wayfair employees discovered that the company sold $200,000 of furniture to migrant detention facilities along the Mexico-United States border with unsafe conditions. When they protested, Wayfair refused to cease business operations with the contractor that operates the facilities. In response, some Wayfair employees began to organize a walkout on Twitter. The @wayfairwalkout Twitter account quickly gained momentum  in a wave that other Corporate Accountability interns and I joined. 

Standing in Copley Square among hundreds of other protesters , I shouted protest chants and witnessed fiery speeches from both community organizers and undergraduate Wayfair interns. As I looked out at the sea of people skipping their lunch break, taking time off work, or traveling from out of town to stand with the Wayfair employees blatantly challenging the decisions of their superiors, I found it funny how I had doubted the power of social media. Organizations and other entities – like the protesters at Wayfair – place their eggs in the social media basket because it is one of the purest forms of people power.

By recruiting people to join the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign through social media posts, Corporate Accountability is creating impact that is two-fold. As we unveil the conflicts of interest that prevent the development of effective climate policy, we are simultaneously empowering people to challenge the coalition of governments and fossil fuel industry lobbyists through social media. Although we aim to bring about a campaign that will start trending and produce policy changes, it is equally important to inspire people to simply get involved in the first place. Questions like “why would a government care that a guy like me knows what they’re doing at the negotiating table?” reflect a persistent culture of hopelessness that only help powerful interests get away with unacceptable actions. Such questions do not reflect the reality that once instigated, people power can snowball into a formidable challenge to powerful interests. In fact, fossil fuel industry lobbyists and the governments that stand with them heavily rely on the severely limited coverage of the U.N. climate talks in Bonn to altogether avoid opposition fueled by people power. Just imagine the policy that can come out of the U.N. climate talks if a civically engaged society voiced their opinions on climate change. Just imagine the impact of protests and walkouts if more people were confident in their ability to achieve change.

Now, my answer to the questions I received about the impact of Corporate Accountability’s #PollutersOut social media campaign would veer off the script. I’d say that by acting on your power to bring about change in any way is a victory – and that by sharing what you’ve learned from my spiel and the ways you can protest against injustices at the U.N. climate talks on social media, you’ve helped bring us closer to change than we were without you. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Carter Teng, placed with Corporate Accountability, is a sophomore from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is pursuing a major in Political Science, a minor in Cultural Anthropology, and a certificate in Markets and Management Studies. She is passionate about intersectionality in social justice issues and mobilizing vulnerable communities to fundamentally change the institutions that disenfranchise them. At Duke, Carter is the Director of Communications for the Center for Race Relations and the Marketing and Publicity Chair for Sophomore Class Council. 

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