Near the top of President-elect Trump’s priorities for his first 100 days in office is undoing some of the signature environmental policies of the Obama administration—though recently, he’s said he’ll keep an open mind when it comes to the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, his plans have been met with alarm by environmentalists, and we’ve been talking to people inside the movement about what the election results mean for their future plans. Most recently, we spoke with May Boeve, executive director at 350.org. The ‘350’ in the climate group’s name refers to 350 parts per million—the upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say will sustain life on earth as we know it. And with the concentration of atmospheric CO2 now at 400 parts per million and rising, Boeve says there’s no time to waste.
The Allegheny Front: One of the goals of 350.org is keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and President-elect Trump has specifically talked about reviving the coal industry and opening up federal lands to more fossil fuel development. So how is your organization responding to that?
May Boeve: Well, we’re very clear that his policies are a disaster for the climate and he’s planning a radical attack on our communities and the environment. He wants to put everything we care about at risk. So we have no illusions about how serious a threat this is, and we are going to fight back like the world depends on it—because we believe it does.
LISTEN: Where the Climate Movement Goes From Here
AF: Climate change barely made any headlines during the presidential election. So how are you looking to engage people on this issue?
MB: There’s an opportunity to be speaking to a much wider audience about how serious climate change is and how Trump is opposed to action. Climate denial has gotten some new life because of this election, and because Trump has nominated Myron Ebell—who is famous for only one thing, which is being a climate change denier—to head the Environmental Protection Agency. I think it has [given] a lot of people who weren’t even thinking about climate change very much a new sense of urgency. One of the challenges that we face politically is a sense of despair and a sense of giving in and being cynical about politics. And we actually think that what [Trump] intends to do about climate change will jolt people out of that, because it will have an impact that will be experienced for generations to come. So we think that speaking to people about the impacts of climate change that have already been experienced and what is likely to change if a Trump agenda goes through will actually bring more people into the movement.
AF: With likely little or no support for federal climate policies, how much influence can state or local government have?
MB: It’s a great point. We’re not just going to fight harder as if nothing has changed. We’re going to be building our power on the local and state level through local elections; through city and state organizing; through smart local policies to protect the most vulnerable people and keep fossil fuels in the ground and reduce emissions; and through fighting for a new economy that works for people and the planet. This is the agenda that we know we need at every level of government, but it is very much an agenda that a mayor, city council or state legislature can enact. And we will be supporting local leaders who can push forward that kind of agenda.
AF: Is there enough power on those levels to achieve real results?
MB: We don’t know yet. And right now, the answer is probably ‘no.’ But we can build it, and this is power that we know how to build. This is how movements have fought back against threats over many years. At 350.org, we worked on the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which gave students, union members and church attendees a tool with which to organize and learn how to hold meetings, create goals, hold protests and ask decision makers to make change. These kinds of tools help build leaders. So there are many leaders currently active, but we know we’re going to need more if we’re going to counteract an agenda as fierce and dangerous as the one that’s being suggested.
AF: Do you think 350.org has been effective, and how specifically can you be more effective in this new political climate?
MB: We’re trying not to take anything for granted right now. While there was a lot of momentum on climate in the past few years, there was also a tremendous amount of terrible news coming out of the scientific community about just how serious the problem had become—from the Arctic ice melt, which was happening at a pace that no one expected, to the testimonies of people whose homes are being destroyed by typhoons and hurricanes. So with this election, it feels like we have crashed into a ditch in many respects. This is much more than hitting a speed bump. And we have to be very serious about opposing the Trump agenda and know that we are going to have some losses. And we have to be able to build back stronger even knowing some of those losses are inevitable. We have always sought to be very honest—both about the scale of the problem of climate change and the relative scale and power of our movement. And it’s clear in this moment that we are not strong enough. We have to try things we haven’t tried before. We have to do organizing in ways we haven’t tried. And we have to be reaching an audience of people who haven’t been convinced that their public actions are worthy and make a difference. We need to be convincing to people that they are essential. And I think that may be more possible now, but we’ll have to see what happens.
May Boeve is executive director at 350.org.