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The Fossil Fuel Resistance: Meet the New Green Heroes

Students, scientists, reverends and more are on the front lines of the most pressing environmental issue of our age

fossil fuel

Time is running out for our future on this planet, but the human race isn't going down without a fight. In recent years, a bold new wave of environmental activists has stepped up to stop the fossil fuel industry before it's too late. This movement "has no great charismatic leader and no central organization," writes Bill McKibben in his latest Rolling Stone feature, "The Fossil Fuel Resistance." "It battles on a thousand fronts. But taken together, it's now big enough to matter, and it's growing fast."

Meet the leaders of the new green revolution – from college students to reverends to high-finance investors.

Chloe Maxmin

Marti Stone

Chloe Maxmin: The Divestment Nerd

Raised on a farm in rural Maine, Chloe Maxmin, a 20-year-old "social-theory nerd," has been active in environmental campaigns since she was 12. In high school, she founded a nationally lauded climate-action club and an online network of young environmentalists. Now, she's taking on two of the world's most powerful forces: Big Oil and Harvard.

"There is an increasingly shrill refrain of 'Don't just sit there – do something!' " says Dr. Kevin Caffrey, Maxmin's Harvard adviser. "Chloe's one of the voices that says, 'Don't just do something – sit there and think about it first.' "

As one of the coordinators of Harvard's student-led divestment campaign, Maxmin, a sophomore, has become a national key player in the rapidly growing movement. "The fossil-fuel industry has a stranglehold on the system, so we're going to bypass it," she says. Last fall, Harvard students passed a referendum demanding the university untangle its $31 billion endowment from the fossil-fuel industry. Maxmin refuses to be daunted by the administration's chilly response. "My life has been taken over by divestment," she says, "and I can see it succeeding."

Cherri Foytlin

Daniel Haefner

Cherri Foytlin: The Angry Mom

Not long after the BP oil spill, Cherri Foytlin, a part-time journalist in a small Louisiana town, hitched a ride with a fisherman into the Gulf of Mexico to see for herself the damage caused by one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. As they pushed farther out from shore, Foytlin started to notice gooey brown sludge bubbling up along the surface of the ocean, and then she saw something that changed the course of her life: a pelican, covered in oil, gasping for its life. Foytlin yanked the bird from the water, and it died in her arms.

"When I pulled that pelican from the water, I realized I couldn't stand on the sidelines any longer," Foytlin says. As the wife of an oil worker who has spent most of the last decade on the Gulf Coast, Foytlin speaks from a position of authority, noting that for all the money Big Oil sops up every year, precious little ends up in the communities that are the backbone of the industry. "We're a battered woman that keeps going back to the aggressor," Foytlin says. "We still have oil in our marshes, fishermen are out of work and it seems like everyone knows someone with cancer. It's time to take the blinders off and see what this industry is doing to us."

Fed up with Washington's feeble attempts at clean-up, Foytlin walked from New Orleans to D.C. to raise awareness about the ongoing environmental problems related to the spill. Since then she's expanded her activism, chaining herself to the gate of a Keystone XL pipeyard to delay the project and organizing protests and rallies from Texas to Florida. She's been arrested four times, had a brick thrown through the window of her car and listened to death threats against her and her husband. She blogs about her experiences on a website called Bridge the Gulf Project. "When I introduce myself to people, I say, 'I'm a mom with six kids,' because the message I want to put out there is that normal, everyday people have to take up this fight," Foytlin says. "It's too easy to think someone else will do it for you."

Danny Kennedy and Andrew Birch

Sungevity

Danny Kennedy and Andrew Birch: The Solar Mavericks

Longtime activist Danny Kennedy nearly died from malaria while documenting the abuses of oil companies in Papua New Guinea and has gotten himself arrested on three continents. Now, he's teamed up with former investment banker and BP Solar executive Andrew Birch to reinvent the home solar-energy business. Their company, Sungevity, harnesses high-tech tools like satellite imagery to shepherd homeowners through a full conversion remotely, and allows them to lease, rather than buy, their photovoltaic setup,  eliminating the upfront investment. "We're trying to make it as easy as possible – think Netflix," says Kennedy. So far, they've converted more than 5,000 homes. "I'm overly trained as professional opposition," says Kennedy. "As climate activists, we have to start telling the world what we're for and fight for that."

Billy Parish and Wahleah Jones

Will Klein

Billy Parish and Wahleah Johns: The Crowd-Funders

Can we crowd-fund our way to a solar revolution? That's the vision of Billy Parish, the co-founder of Mosaic, an Oakland start-up that enables individuals to invest collectively in solar projects. So far, the company has channeled more than $1 million into solar panels atop housing complexes and community centers. The idea that crowd-funding could catalyze the shift to green energy was inspired by Parish's wife, Wahleah Johns, a founder of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which advocates for a transition to renewables on the impoverished Navajo Nation in the Southwest. Decades of dirty-energy production on Navajo lands have left a legacy of pollution, even while thousands continue to live without electricity. "Solar can generate revenues for communities," Johns says. "But we have to find ways of financing these projects. Tribes don't have the capital." At current rates of traditional, top-down investment, a worldwide change to renewables will take about 400 years. Parish, who dropped out of Yale in 2002 to become a full-time activist, thinks his financing model could supercharge that process. "We're trying to find new capital but also get people invested in clean energy, literally."

Jeremy Grantham

Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images for ReSource 2012

Jeremy Grantham: The Financial Crusader

74-year-old investor Jeremy Grantham's firm manages more than $100 billion in assets thanks in part to his legendary knack for identifying and profiting from market bubbles. Over the last 15 years, Grantham has been ringing the alarm about the carbon bubble in the atmosphere, whose bursting threatens more than a temporary economic downturn. The former oil analyst entered the energy debate fray in 1997 when he co-founded the Grantham Foundation For the Protection of the Environment, which is to climate change what the Gates Foundation is to malaria. The foundation supports major environmental advocacy organizations from the World Wildlife Fund to the Nature Conservancy, as well as two London climate-research institutes bearing his name. Grantham also uses his widely read newsletter as a platform for warning the investment community about the limits of growth and the looming dead-end of profit-driven, short-term planning. Sometimes he speaks in the language of investment advice, explaining profits will be hard to turn in a future of soaring commodities prices, food scarcity and wild social, climatological and geopolitical instability. Other times, he'll make direct appeals to investors to free their minds, hoping their portfolios will follow. "We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability," wrote Grantham in a 2011 newsletter. "The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable."

Last year, Grantham took to the pages of the scientific journal Nature to call for bolder public involvement by the scientific community – including acts of civil disobedience resulting in arrest – to counter the climate-denialism machine lavishly funded by his fellow billionaires in the fossil fuel industry. "Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement," wrote Grantham. "These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species' existence."

Sandra Steingraber

Mike Groll/AP Photo

Sandra Steingraber: The Toxic Avenger

Sandra Steingraber had plans to attend medical school when she received a diagnosis of bladder cancer at age 20. Her suspicion that the illness was linked to contaminated water in Tazewell County, Illinois, where she grew up, set her on a path to understand the public health impact of common carcinogens released into the environment – first as a biologist, now as one of the most celebrated writer-activists-ecologists of her generation. Her trilogy of books about environmental health – Having Faith, Living Downstream, and Raising Elijah – wraps complex science lessons in finely drawn memoir and has earned her comparisons to her hero, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson.

In 2011, she received a Heinz Award worth $100,000 and used the money to seed New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of anti-fracking groups in her current home state. By then Steingraber had made opposing fracking her life's work. "My anti-fracking work has absorbed my toxic chemical work," she says, "because the road to chemical reform runs straight through energy policy – green energy solves both toxic chemicals and climate change."

In March, Steingraber was arrested during a road blockade to stop the construction of a gas compressor near her home close to Seneca Lake. "New York has a temporary fracking moratorium, but the infrastructure is getting fast tracked," she says. "To see this happening so close to my home, I needed to let my body speak."

Rev. Sally Bingham

Bill Bradlee/The Regeneration Project

Rev. Sally Bingham: The Church Lady

Since launching the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign in 2000, Rev. Sally Bingham has organized 15,000 churches, synagogues and mosques into a formidable national network of faith communities who see climate change not as a policy or technical challenge, but as an issue of spiritual dimension. "In this country, we've never had the kind of cultural and social change climate change requires without religious involvement," says Bingham. "Anti-slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights – all of these movements succeeded because of their moral foundation." IPL started like most environmental networks and institutions: small and local. Bingham began with 60 California episcopal churches that agreed to purchase a portion of their energy from the renewable energy provider Green Mountain. The group's ranks multiplied fast. But in 2001, rising wholesale costs sabotaged California's fledging renewable market. "That's when I realized we had to get involved at the policy level," she says. IPL joined the fight for a California energy standard requiring utilities to derive a fifth of their energy from renewables by 2017. The bill passed in 2002 and has since been expanded twice, now mandating a third of the state's energy to come from renewables by 2020. Bingham, meanwhile, has taken her policy work to Washington. Each spring, she leads a delegation of 80 IPL state leaders to Capitol Hill for meetings with Congressional delegations. "We're trying to maintain a unique voice based in theology so we can have more Republicans within our community," she says. The strategy appears to be working. "We're starting to get some traction in red states like Oklahoma, Minnesota, Arkansas, Kansas," she says. "Eyes are opening in faith communities across the political spectrum that climate change is about values and a duty to protecting God's creation."

Kevin Grandia

Kris Krug

Kevin Grandia: The Muckraker

When "climategate" first surfaced, blogger Kevin Grandia knew journalists were missing the real story. The trumped-up controversy was based on over 1,000 stolen emails between the world's leading climate scientists that seemed to suggest global warming was a hoax, or lacked evidence. But Grandia had spent three days reading all of the emails, which totaled 20,000 pages, and he knew that the supposed scandal was nothing more than a few quotes taken out of context. Eventually the story would be debunked by six separate investigations, but its immediate results were disastrous: The release of the emails came weeks before the 2009 global climate summit at Copenhagen, where world leaders were poised to agree to binding emissions reductions. "Unfortunately, most journalists didn't have time to read the emails, and they just ran with the story," Grandia says. "To this day, climate-gate lingers in people's minds, and continues to sow doubt that global warming is real."

Grandia hopes something like that never happens again – which is why he now helps run DeSmogBlog, a Canadian website that does daily battle with climate change skeptics, aggregating the best research on global warming and dissecting misinformation campaigns backed by right-wing think tanks. He's traced much of the money that funds anti-global-warming research back to the fossil fuel industry and found that some of the most outspoken skeptics once worked for Big Tobacco. "They're using the exact same tactics they used to convince people smoking doesn't cause cancer," Grandia says. "It's a tactic that's been around forever. You can muddle up a debate for a long time just by creating doubt."

When DeSmogBlog started seven years ago, Grandia says he had to call reporters to get them to pay attention to his research, and many hung up. "Now we've got staffers in D.C. calling us, politicians in Canada, the UK, looking for information. We have producers at ABC News and the BBC asking for help on research," he says. "There's still a lot of work to do, but we think the tide is turning."

Tar Sands Blockaders

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tar Sands Blockade: The Monkey-Wrenchers

Last year, when president Obama approved the southern leg of Keystone XL – which will run 435 miles from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries near Houston – he unwittingly unleashed the Tar Sands Blockade, a loose but relentless coalition of environmental activists and landowners angered by TransCanada's seizure of their property. "We see ourselves as people who are acting in an emergency capacity," says Ramsey, a 29-year-old Texan and former Green Party organizer with indigenous roots who interrupted a pipeline conference in January by locking himself to the stage. "This fight will be very intense, and it will be very polarizing."

Dedicated to disrupting 'business as usual,' the Tar Sands group does not shy away from putting their bodies on the line – members have locked their necks to excavators in Oklahoma, sealed themselves inside pipe segments in Winona, Texas, and stormed TransCanada's Houston offices. In one of the group's most dramatic operations, activists staged a tree-sit in a forested piece of private property in east Texas that had been claimed for the pipeline route over the objections of the landowner. After a three-month standoff, TransCanada re-routed the pipeline around the blockade.

The group has raised enough of a ruckus to draw a legal attack from TransCanada, and the activists are now barred from company property in Texas and Oklahoma. So they've shifted their attention to training other groups and to action against partners like TD Bank, one of TransCanada's top shareholders, and Valero, a petrochemical giant that plans to refine bitumen transported in the pipeline.

Beyond, blockaders are drawing attention to the environmental racism they say is endemic along the pipeline route. "The communities that bear the brunt of pollution caused by oil sands development are poor people of color," says a blockader called Rue, who organizes in Manchester, a predominantly Latino Houston neighborhood ringed by refineries. "We need people power, and that's why we're using direct action," Rue explains. "I'm sick of people trying to appeal to the President's moral compass on Keystone – it's not going to happen."

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