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The Climate Activists Fighting Off Cane-Wielding Country Club Members

On Thursday, fresh off a major policy victory, organizers and activists from Climate Defiance confronted Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan at an event at a country club in his home town of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Moynihan was there to participate in a fireside chat about the economy and the finance industry. A Rolling Stone reporter was there to document the action.

As soon as Moynihan started speaking, he was surrounded by protesters from the climate group. An activist loudly demanded that the CEO commit to stop financing fossil fuels; behind him, activists unfurled several banners, including one that read “Bank of Atrocities.” Soon, they started shouting: “Off fossil fuels, Brian! Off fossil fuels!”

Bank of America has been identified as one of the top four financiers of fossil fuels globally. From 2016 to 2022, Bank of America was responsible for nearly $280 billion in fossil-fuel financing — with projects stretching from the Arctic to the Amazon, and partnerships with oil companies Occidental and ExxonMobil, according to a report commissioned by the Sierra Club and other prominent environmental groups.

The Rotary Club crowd did not want to hear about Bank of America’s financing of fossil fuels. The audience loudly booed. Some in the crowd got violent. Two audience members ripped a banner away from the activists, causing one of them to fall. One of those audience members shoved a Climate Defiance staffer who was attempting to de-escalate. An older man tried to hit that same staffer with his cane; he subsequently appeared to hit a woman staffing the Rotary Club event with his cane as she walked by, perhaps under the impression she was part of the climate action (she was not). A man pushed another activist down to the ground twice.

Skeptics may question the value of the confrontational, direct actions from Climate Defiance. The climate group uses nonviolent, disruptive protest to popularize its unyielding demands for action to address global warming — targeting politicians, civic leaders, and corporate titans whom they consider complicit in promoting, or profiting from, the fossil fuel industries that are destroying our livable climate.

“We’re not just trying to have moving, heartfelt conversations with people in power,” Michael Greenberg, executive director of Climate Defiance, tells Rolling Stone. “What we really want to do is shake society awake.”

The guerrilla tactics of Climate Defiance turn quiet gatherings of the rich and the powerful — fundraisers, roundtables, and fireside chats that otherwise might proceed with little notice — into viral, video confrontations that travel widely on social media, racking up millions of views. The people in the room are often not necessarily the intended audience — clicks and media coverage are top-of-mind — though there’s growing evidence that some officials targeted in Climate Defiance’s actions are listening.

The group claimed what may be its largest victory to date on Wednesday, with The New York Times reporting that the Biden administration will pause a decision on whether to approve CP2, a liquid natural-gas export terminal that would be the largest in the United States, capable of moving up to 20 million tons of year to the global market.

“This is monumental — this shows the power of direct action,” says Greenberg, 30. He underscores that his group held multiple actions targeting top Department of Energy officials over natural gas exports and CP2, and “heavily emphasized” the project in meetings with the Biden administration.

The group’s allies in Congress are also tipping their caps. “Climate Defiance has been a game-changing organization,” says progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I give them the most credit for the recent administration decision to delay the natural gas export terminal.”

President Joe Biden went a step further on Friday, announcing his administration will temporarily pause pending decisions on liquefied natural gas exports. “This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time,” Biden said in a statement, adding: “We will heed the calls of young people and frontline communities who are using their voices to demand action from those with the power to act.”

At the Moynihan event, the Bank of America CEO did not seem to appreciate the activists’ calls for climate action. He fled the stage within roughly one minute, and 18 Climate Defiance activists and organizers followed him out of the ballroom. The activists continued to tail Moynihan down the stairs and down a hallway, while the CEO took refuge in a private room. The activists chanted in the hallway for about 10 minutes before following an order from police to leave.

Afterwards, the activists gathered at a local supporter’s home. Some of the volunteers were shaken up by the violence they saw from members of the audience, though none appeared deterred. One activist mused that the Moynihan action may have been “the first time he’s ever felt pushback in his wealthy life.” A Climate Defiance organizer told the group, “I’m really happy that we made a fucking big bank CEO hide — that’s insane.”

It was an important event for Climate Defiance, according to Greenberg. “The banks have the power to pretty much cut off the flow of money to the fossil fuel industry, and they refuse because they are trying to squeeze every last ounce of profit off of our ailing ecosystems,” he says.

A Bank of America spokesperson said the firm is “one of the leaders in financing renewable energy,” and pointed to materials highlighting the company’s interest in sustainable finance.

“The Rotary Club of Wellesley hosted Bank of America chair and CEO Brian Moynihan for a fireside chat, and some questions and answers from the audience,” said the club’s president, Patrick Hayden. “While this would have been a good opportunity for anyone in the audience to pose questions, a small group briefly disrupted the event and shouted at our guest. They left and we resumed the event and attendees asked questions. We appreciate the opportunity to interact and hear from Brian.”

Greenberg, a Columbia University graduate, launched Climate Defiance last year. He had a history of staging successful, one-off protests, including a 2021 action against the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota that drew celebrities like Jane Fonda, and got buzzed by a low-flying DHS helicopter. But Greenberg admits he was frustrated that such isolated protests weren’t building “long-term power.” They earned “24 hours of viral coverage” he recalls, but then you “disappear” again and have “to start from zero.”

He launched Climate Defiance with support from the Climate Emergency Fund, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that makes grants to organizations leading disruptive climate actions. Its board of directors includes Hollywood director and screenwriter Adam McKay and Succession actor Jeremy Strong. “Climate Emergency Fund is a bridge between funders and activists,” says Margaret Klein Salamon, the nonprofit’s executive director, describing CEF as a safe, legal way for donors to “support disruptive climate activists.”

She says groups getting her nonprofit’s support are driven by “brave volunteer-activists” and that CEF’s primary role is to “enable these groups to support some staff so that they can coordinate large amounts of volunteers.” CEF made about $5 million in grants in 2022 and roughly $3.5 million last year, Klein Salamon says.

Such support, Greenberg says, enables Climate Defiance to combine the flash of viral protest events with “fundraising, list building [and] nonprofit infrastructure.” According to Greenberg, Climate Defiance gets about half its funding from the CEF. He says Climate Defiance now employs roughly a dozen staffers, and can count 100 affiliated activist volunteers.

For such a small group, Climate Defiance has mastered the art of the uncomfortable — calling out fossil-fuel industry allies in Congress, face-to-face.

In a mid-January example, the group disrupted a “listening tour” being led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose fortune is staked in a family waste coal company — and has consistently blocked bold action on climate policy while greasing the skids for fossil-fuel infrastructure like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, which would move massive amounts of natural gas through his state.

A right-of-center Democrat, Manchin has left the door open to mounting a third-party presidential bid in 2024. And as Republicans barnstormed the state in advance of the New Hampshire primary, Manchin visited the old school MaryAnn’s Diner in the town of Derry, inviting the public to grab a “Cup of Joe with Senator Joe.” When the restaurant meet-and-greet started, however, a Climate Defiance activist who had blended into the crowd began heckling the senator with a chant of: “Off fossil fuels, Manchin! Off fossil fuels!” Rather than endure these jeers, Manchin cut the event short, and beat a hasty exit through the kitchen. A video of this action has gotten more than 1.2 million views on X, formerly Twitter.

In response to a report by Fox News on the protest, Climate Defiance tweeted: “We are explicitly and unapologetically committed to making life MISERABLE for every person in power who stands between us and the solutions we so desperately need.”

Climate Defiance targets small events that are easy to hijack, particularly clubby D.C. confabs that are not well attended. The group disrupted an earlier Manchin media event with Semfor last June, that saw the media org’s founding editor at large, Steve Clemons, growl at young activists to “Get off my stage!” Climate Defiance also targeted a Punchbowl News gathering with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who also supports the MVP. “When we shut down Shelley Moore Capito, we were half the crowd,” Greenberg says. “We shut that down real hard.”

The point of these actions is not always to influence the target’s thinking about climate change. Speaking of the more-recent Manchin confrontation, Greenberg says: “We’re not just trying to move him. We’re really trying to target the public,” to demonstrate, he says, that this is “a big issue that you need to be paying attention to.”

In an age of viral videos, Greenberg insists, “This stuff really works.” He highlights the million-plus views the Manchin stunt got in just 24 hours on X. A similar direct action against ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, in which activists unfurled a banner that read “Eat Shit Darren,” quickly “got like 5 million views,” Greenberg says.

Greenberg believes that the benefits of this kind of direct action far outweighs the downside of turning some people off. Climate activists, he insists, “need to be somewhat polarizing to be effective.” The direct actions of Climate Defiance, Greenberg insists, are motivating to a dedicated environmentalist base, as well as a “periphery” of the base — “people who haven’t yet signed up or gotten involved to decide to make the leap.”

Academic data backs this up. Dana Fisher directs the Center for Environment, Community, and Equity at American University, and has studied environmental protests for decades. She sees Climate Defiance as part of an emerging “radical flank” of the climate movement, and following a deep tradition — from suffragists to the Civil Rights movement — of splinter groups that embrace civil disobedience when politics-as-usual aren’t delivering needed change.

Fisher classifies Climate Defiance as a “shocker” group — one that embraces tactics of “disruption to get attention, particularly media attention.” Research shows, Fisher insists, that shocker groups are often disliked by normies, but that the attention they garner can galvanize support that lifts up moderate parts of a movement. “It’s all about trying to get those people who are what we call ‘sympathizers’ to take action.”

Greenberg acknowledges that the visuals of confrontation also reach conservatives and “solidify them in their opposition. But that’s OK.” He also hears the tsk tsks from folks in the center “who inevitably will say something like, ‘Oh, I agree with the cause, I disagree with the tactics.’”

“That’s fine, too,” Greenberg says, adding that Climate Defiance has “made our peace” with those he dismisses as “the white moderates” of the environmental movement. (This line is an allusion to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose Letter from a Birmingham Jail says the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” is perhaps the greatest stumbling block towards equality.)

But Climate Defiance’s critics, it must be noted, have occasionally included liberal lawmakers. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and vice chair of the House Progressive Caucus, criticized a Climate Defiance action after the group disrupted a congressional charity softball game last July that was raising funds for breast cancer prevention. “Climate shouldn’t be in conflict with breast cancer,” Bowman insisted, warning that the action risked spreading “screw climate activists” vibes — including to members of Congress who may then decide to “not support climate legislation.” (Months later, Bowman headlined a Climate Defiance fundraiser.)

Ultimately, what motivates Greenberg is the ability to move “the Overton window” of what passes for acceptable debate of the planetary peril we face. “Obviously, we don’t like to do things that are too unpopular. But you don’t always need to be popular to be effective. A lot of movements are unpopular, but actually achieve results.” He says he takes inspiration from the confrontational activists who forced Washington to pony up real resources in the fight against the HIV/AIDS crisis, with slogans like SILENCE=DEATH. “I think ACT UP is honestly like the most similar group. They played the outside and inside really well. We have a similar energy and vibe.”

Outside of the Beltway, Greenberg’s group counts powerful allies, who’ve tired of sclerotic politics when it comes to the climate crisis. “I love Climate Defiance,” says McKay, the filmmaker behind Don’t Look Up, who sits on the Climate Emergency Fund board. “They’re one of the most energetic, loud, and focused activist movements in the last 30 years.”

He touts Greenberg’s group for “tapping into a positive populist anger with our corrupt government, our corrupt news media.” He says he particularly admires their dedication to dogging Manchin, who manages to get held up as a very serious person in Washington, despite looming in the popular imagination as “almost like a Dick Tracy villain.”

McKay also praises Climate Defiance for helping to expose the vacuousness of a Democratic Party that has promised serious change on climate, but, he argues, delivers the “bare minimum” when entrusted with power. McKay talks up less celebrated Climate Defiance confrontations with moderate Democrats like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey.

“Those are the Dems that are dancing with the money, acting like they care, but the amount of delay they have caused, and the lack of seriousness about the climate [is] every bit as destructive as the more extreme Republican version,” McKay says, “when you’re dealing with — literally and without exaggeration — the collapse of the livable climate.”

McKay insists the actions from Climate Defiance targeting moderate Democrats are important because these figures are so rarely exposed to such criticism. “The idea that people are coming into the room and just saying, ‘No, you’re not doing enough, you’re too beholden to the money,’ I’m guessing those people never hear that,” McKay says, speculating that many of these politicos “can go a whole year, two years, three years, without anyone ever saying ‘You’re full of shit.’ And they are.”

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