At 8am on a sunny Sunday in June, around 40 people are gathered at a beachside carpark in Charlestown, in the US state of Rhode Island.
Former senator and state governor Lincoln Chafee blends in with town councillors and concerned citizens in jeans, fleece vest and baseball cap. Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts fuel warm greetings and a handful of speeches, flanked by Keep Rhode Island Beautiful banners.
These early risers have come to show their opposition to a gas power station planned for Burrillville, on the inland edge of the ‘Ocean State’. In a low-key, congenial protest, three men from Burrillville are setting off on a three-day, 78-mile hike along the wooded North-South trail that links the two communities.
The campaigners say Invenergy’s Clear River Energy Centre – the 900MW plant in question – will blow Rhode Island’s carbon budget, and only community pressure can stop it.
Since US president Donald Trump nixed federal action on climate change in order to go all out for American coal, oil and gas, local resistance like this has taken on a national dimension. In the absence of a federal plan to shift from dirty to clean energy, states are now stepping forward to claim leadership.
Rhode Island was one of 12 states to sign up to the US Climate Alliance after Trump declared his intention on 1 June to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement. A further ten states have subsequently aligned with the pact’s pledge to uphold the US’ commitments to the deal. Collectively, they account for 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions.
But realising state-level targets depends on decisions about fossil fuel infrastructure, which often face local opposition based on local concerns. With a vacuum at the top, the US contribution to global carbon-cutting efforts is set to play out through a thousand more community battles.
History shows that the cumulative effect of these small movements that often fail to grab national headlines is nonetheless significant. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which builds coalitions of community actors to oppose new developments, has blocked construction of 189 proposed coal plants. Through this, they claim to have averted 538m tonnes of carbon emissions over the past decade – that’s five times the decadal emissions of Rhode Island.
“Caring about climate is not just for the activists, it is not just for the liberal professors and scientists, it is for average, ordinary citizens,” Jason Olkowski, Burrillville resident and MC for the event, tells Climate Home. “If the ordinary citizens don’t get involved, the vested interests that want to preserve the status quo, they will win.”
Local activism is less entrenched along party and ideological lines than the national politics of climate change. A believer in small government and fiscal conservatism – Republican values – Olkowski is not your typical eco-warrior. When Invenergy announced the project in August 2015, he was inclined to give them a hearing and sceptical of groups waving homemade protest placards.
“Some of these environmental activists began to come up and at first, we didn’t really pay any attention to them. We thought ‘oh, they oppose all stuff like this’. But they were trying really hard to engage the community, so we started to listen,” he says.
Local factors allowed Keep RI Beautiful to take off, transcending partisan politics. The small town of 16,000 people already has a gas power plant and compressor station. The prospect of razing 200 acres of trees for another major bit of infrastructure caused consternation.
Olkowski’s wife was raised in Burrillville, catching frogs in the wetland and hiking the forests with her brothers. They moved back as a family to give the same kind of upbringing to their daughters – who, he apologises, could not be mustered out of bed in time to attend the morning’s demo.