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  • Paul Almeida, Luis Rubén González, Sky Kezmoh

The Study of Environmental and Climate Movements at UC Merced


Professor Paul Almeida (left) and Luis Rubén González (right).


In this interview, we talk to Professor Paul Almeida and Ph.D. candidate Luis Rubén González about their work regarding climate and environmental social movements. 


Professor Paul Almeida teaches courses on Environmental Sociology and Climate Action at University of California, Merced and studies collective mobilization as it relates to climate change and environmental movements. He has written five books over the course of his career, examining issues such as popular mobilization in response to state repression, economic austerity, and environmental degradation. Professor Almeida’s recent work focuses on California's San Joaquin Valley and how its residents understand and respond to climate change. He is one of the founding members of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center that supports Central Valley residents through research and education. Professor Almeida is also on the Steering Committee and the Climate Change and Security Subcommittee of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). 


Luis Rubén González (Rubén) has a Bachelor's Degree in History from the University of El Salvador and masters’ degrees in Sociology from the Latin American Faculty of Social Science in Ecuador and UC Merced. He is working toward his Ph.D. under Professor Almeida as a IGCC dissertation fellow, studying the escalation of conflicts around hydroelectric dam projects in the contemporary history of Central America. 


Here, we seek to gain greater insight on their projects and perspectives—what can we glean from their knowledge?  


Sky: First, please introduce yourselves with your name and pronouns, and tell us about what you work on. 


González: I am Luis Rubén González  (he/his/him), an international student from El Salvador. Currently, I am in my 5th year and working as a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC Merced. I work on conflicts regarding renewable energy projects in the Global South, with a particular focus on hydroelectric dams in Central America. I am especially interested in what conditions are necessary for conflicts to escalate, as well as mobilization and the environment overall. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Paul Almeida in his projects regarding labor, climate change, and mobilization.


Almeida: I’m Paul Almeida (he/him), a professor of Sociology and Environmental Systems at UC Merced. My specialty area is social movements, how people mobilize collectively for social change—that's what I’ve spent my career researching and teaching. I have a long history of studying environmental and environmental justice movements. Early in my career, I examined  environmental justice movements and movements against toxic pollution. In the last ten years, I have been focusing on the climate movement at all levels: local, national, and international. 


My big concern now—specifically in the United States–is civic engagement over climate action: How do we get more people involved in addressing the climate crisis? Our current challenge is getting people involved in all aspects and dimensions of climate action, whether it be institutional, climate action planning, renewable energy, or just raising awareness through climate education. How do we get more people involved, as the climate crisis continues to escalate?


Thank you for your introductions. I understand that you both have studied movements in Latin America. Where did you study? 


González: For most of my career, excluding a few projects in the Central Valley, I have focused on Central America and El Salvador; I am from El Salvador, so it makes sense that it is my area of focus. I am also interested in comparisons between other areas of Latin America. My work extends to include Central America, specifically, comparing different countries in Central America.


Almeida: I also started my career largely focusing on El Salvador, which is how I met Luis Rubén, and my first book was on popular mobilization in El Salvador. My second major project, Mobilizing Democracy, was about Central America, investigating the privatization of energy and water systems, which were a big source of social conflict and a major driver of mobilization. There was a concern that social welfare or access to social services, like water or low cost energy, would be taken away from the average citizen. So, my second book analyzed all six Central American nations, from Guatemala to Panama, comparing large campaigns over privatizations and other welfare state cutbacks. That was my gateway into my current projects on climate action. 


So, both of you are researching California and Central America? 


Almeida: Yes, so Rubén has collaborated with me on several projects in California. Currently, I’m more focused on the US, but I am always interested in Latin America and global issues. Rubén, as a researcher, has collaborated with me on several projects dealing with climate change in the US. We wrote “The Forms of Climate Action” with another student, which is a theoretical piece that creates a classification system for the main forms of climate action across the globe. You know, the term climate action is very broad and can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so we wanted to contribute a classification scheme through our paper to bring more analytical coherence to the concept. 


We had a student from El Salvador (Rubén), a student from Cameroon (Eliana Fonsah), and myself writing on the forms of climate action around the world. We tried to reduce it to, “What are the major forms of climate action employed across the globe?” We looked at institutional forms: climate action planning (from the city level to the United Nations), renewable energy programs, and then carbon markets and carbon taxing as another institutional form—how governments, corporations, and institutions address climate change. Then, we mentioned the latest innovations, such as carbon management, climate education, and climate lawsuits, all of which are also institutional.  


And then, we have a second section of the article discussing non-institutional forms of climate action, like social movements: Fridays for Future, 350.org, and similar organizations. We addressed local struggles about oil extraction and pipelines, issues which are very much environmental justice struggles that take place in vulnerable communities. These issues lead into Rubén’s current research. 


We also looked at boycotts and disinvestment campaigns targeting shareholders and companies that continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, which are also non-institutional forms of climate action. On top of all that, we chose to put an environmental justice transition layer over all of these climate solutions, addressing how to incorporate these forms of climate action into a framework of an environmentally just transition. 


González: I just want to add that in my case, I'm more focused on Central America and Latin America. But, I collaborate because I feel that power dynamics are more important than geographic area. Because we have this article with a global view, we are aware of global environmental injustices and power dynamics. That’s also the connection I see between Latin America and the work we are doing in the Central Valley, because both are marginalized, sacrificed areas. I see that as a connection. More than focusing on geographic areas, we try to be aware of the imbalances in power dynamics and inequalities in such relationships. 


That is a really interesting comparison. Rubén, can you tell me a little bit more about your specific research in El Salvador on hydroelectric dams? 


González: I am following the path of my advisor, Paul Almeida. [My research is] about all of Central America, trying to compare campaigns. I am interested in the conditions driving conflicts around large-scale dams to become instances of collective violence. I’m exploring from the 1970s to the 2010s to learn about the global, local, and national drivers of this phenomenon. I’m analyzing the tension between actors, relationships that lead to mobilization and repression. Why do these renewable energy projects drive this violence, in the same way that any other energy or extraction project does? 


It is important to critically analyze power, energy, and environmental dynamics beyond the label we have of renewable energy as something “clean.” It's a broader discussion that includes civic engagement, social movements, grassroots communities, and climate change. 


Basically, that’s the main key driver for this conflict: the marginalization, the repression that can escalate into massacres, and some of the worst examples of political and social violence in Central America have all been related to these dams. I am trying to call attention to the dangers of not considering this conflict dynamic within climate change solutions.  


In terms of the conflicts, generally who is in favor of the dams and who is opposing them? How are these conflicts arising? 


González: That’s kind of a complicated question. Trying to simplify, it’s usually the communities—most of them indigenous, rural, marginalized—that oppose because these projects are imposed upon them, decided without previous consultation. Here, we see the dynamic of environmental injustice, deciding [to build dams] on territory that are the foundation of these communities’ ecosystems. Their ethnicities, their cultural values are centered around the rivers affected by the dams. 


So, we can see there’s an anti-dam coalition, which is the connection between communities and social/environmental movements. On the other side, the pro-dam coalitions are typically entrepreneurs favored by either financial incentives attached to these dams or lower electricity prices. The states usually favor these projects because it gives them power, allowing control over territories that they didn’t have as much presence in, and this coalition includes international financial actors like the World Bank. Other public international banks see these projects as a source of development. So, that is how we can see a pro-dam and anti-dam coalition. 


Of course, there are a lot of cross-boundaries. There are government agencies that can favor community demands, and there are members of the community that are in favor of these projects because they provide some benefit to the community. At least, to the extent that there is some economic distribution, aid that can be critical for marginalized people. So, they tend to support this type of project. This type of division is also a source of conflict, sometimes the most heated because it divides the community. That’s one of the findings of the study: One of the things communities fear the most is not the projects themselves, but rather the division they will bring. Just by asking about the dams and their bringing of contradictory, dividing incentives could sometimes spark violence. 


In your work, have you found any solutions or ways to mitigate the tension and violence in these scenarios? Or is that out of the scope of your work?


González: I’m still collecting data, so I don’t have all the elements to present the results. But, I do want to add policy recommendations, even if they are attached to the politics of previous consultations. 


What is the meaning of and purpose of previous environmental impact studies? Are they just a bureaucratic stage? Or are they an important moment for deciding and evaluating the impacts of a project? 


Although, more than policy, I am interested in working with civil society and organizations alongside Professor Almeida. We support community organizations because this is critical, and I want to take this to the larger panorama of climate change: If we don’t include communities and consider their voices, positive change is not going to happen. 


In the Global South, communities don’t oppose projects of renewable energy because they deny the existence of climate change—NO, they are affected by it and thus aware of its existence. They oppose them because these projects carry other political, environmental, and social threats that are also important, but not considered if we just shrug and decide top-down on climate change. 


Looking at Latin America specifically: Do you think that the government can actually enforce things and create laws that accommodate people’s needs? Or do you think it would be more effective for things to be driven by the people? 


González: Yeah, that’s a complicated issue because it relates to the global power structure. There are environmental protection laws in Central America, and a lot of them are sponsored by both national environmental movements and international institutions (like the UN). At the same time, you have a global power structure that is pushing for this type of project. 


We can see the carbon offset market, which is also imposed by these transnational forces and we analyze that in our recent article, “The Forms of Climate Action,” where they basically buy carbon bonds for reducing their emissions – buying the efforts of others. Basically, companies in the US and Europe will buy bonds to reduce their emissions, but it’s really companies in the Global South that are producing renewable energy. So, while emissions are being reduced on the surface, there is mediation and it’s a powerful financial source supported by a lot of international banks. 


This is not unique to renewable energy direct production. It is present in extractivism for this type of energy, with higher lithium demand (for batteries) pushing for more mining, which means dangerous environmental and social consequences. So, there are contradictory forces, and the Global South is trapped between them. I think it brings opportunities to communities because there is some support, and they can build strength or find support in the laws. However, it does create threats from very powerful actors. 


Thank you. Do you have anything to add, Professor?


Almeida: Thinking about this globally, there are many green projects around the world, and it helps you reflect on the top-down approach vs. involving communities at the local level. I’m focused on the urgency of the climate crisis, where we need to move but there is a hurdle of getting everyday people involved in democratic ways. We are in a democratic backslide globally, so we are challenged as governments become less democratic. 


From public opinion polls, we can gather that roughly 60% of people are aware of climate change (globally and nationally), but when you ask if they’d be willing to come to a meeting about climate change, a much smaller percentage agree. This drops down in rural areas, according to the studies we’ve conducted in the Central Valley. So, that’s my big question: What can we do to move people from general concern to concrete action? I think that there is still more to do in terms of popular education. People on the ground know what it’s like to live through heat waves and be affected by natural disasters, so that local knowledge should be used to inform policy makers. 


But, there’s all this jargon around climate change and new green technologies that needs more work and civic engagement, such as carbon management and sequestration. There is a lot of policy and technological innovation coming down in real time. How do we get more people involved in these dialogues? For me, it’s always civic engagement. What gets people to a local meeting, the starting place and space for these conversations to begin? We find that people already affiliated with organizations or have participated in civic engagement are the groups most willing to attend these climate meetings, including community based organizations (CBOs) and labor unions. This demonstrates where we should be investing resources: trusted community groups, messengers that can bring people out to start the conversation on climate solutions. 


We really need to think about grassroots organizations and where we should be investing to enhance civic involvement in climate education. There are many different ways to participate democratically, learning about issues like carbon management/sequestration, renewable energy, climate action planning, or urban reforestation. By bringing people into local gatherings too—there is a certain awareness that develops from participation. 


From the research you’ve been doing, is there anything that really stands out to you as a way to get people to come out to meetings and get involved? 


Almeida: In Fresno, we found that being a member of a “civic capacity-building organization”, one that builds skills like labor unions or community-based organizations, increased likelihood for civic engagement around climate and air pollution issues. It was a large and representative survey with over 2,000 people, showing that people who were already members of such organizations were most willing to participate in climate action. If you were a member of a labor union or non-profit organization, you were much more likely to say that you would be willing to attend a climate meeting or an air pollution meeting. Participation in climate and air pollution meetings was also associated with the behaviors that those civic organizations encouraged, like going to a city council meeting, meeting with elected officials, and participating in past community gatherings. That would be the starting point for greater involvement in green initiatives, to build civic capacity and bring out more people. 


And it would be interesting to hear what Rubén has to say about that in regards to Latin America, or in other parts of the world. 


González: For mobilization campaigns against dams, it’s not that all dams have opposition. It comes from organizations and local grassroots communities, but they also have important proposals. In terms of dams, they turn the table around and say “We actually work on the climate in other ways: agroecology, protecting the river, and protecting the forest.” That is not accounted for, but it is super important! If we disrupt these communities through mega projects, then the damage can be worse. 


If you could give the public one message from your work, what would it be? One big take away…? 


Almeida: For the general public, I’d like to figure out more ways to bring people into civic engagement over planetary warming. A lot of climate action, despite it being a global problem, is done locally. Even UN initiatives are geared towards the local city level, and so my thinking has also been geared towards the local level. We know that a lot of greenhouse gas emissions come at the city level and so does a lot of climate action planning. How do you get people involved and thinking about that? 


I think it starts with just coming together at local meetings. We can build up to a larger societal level to address the current climate crisis, because it does seem to be escalating and it is quite urgent, but it needs to happen in a participatory way with awareness. Anything we can do to bring in more people, I think that’s the starting point: creating more civic engagement, town halls, more meetings, more events that bring in climate change. 


At the same time, we should acknowledge that’s not the biggest issue for everyone who is struggling. How do you bring in the other issues with climate change? There are other major issues, like the backsliding of democracy, labor rights, progressive immigration reform, institutionalized racism, and neoliberal economic growth strategies, but how do you bring those multiple issues together in an intersectional way—the overlap of issues and identities? There is also conflict when building coalitions, so how do we bring multiple voices together at the local level to start addressing climate change seriously? We need a larger, critical mass of people being involved in climate issues. 


González: The crisis of democracy is parallel, so I want to say that a sustainable future has to be done through a substantially grassroots, democratic process. A sustainable future is not just a technological fix that is decided by top-down forces, but it will require a democratic process so that all the voices and concerns can be addressed—particularly the most affected. It has to be environmentally just, because if not, the consequences will be contradictory and may undermine the whole goal of a sustainable future. 


Almeida: Beyond the things we’ve discussed today, I have documented the global climate movement to some degree and it is fairly impressive. It really got off the ground in the mid-2000s, when there were days of official climate summits and simultaneous climate mobilizations around the world. This is the opposite of local level solutions; this is global. 


They usually target the UN, with the biggest mobilizations occurring around the UN conferences. They got really big around 2009, with one peak around Copenhagen (COP 15) with a lot of major policies at stake in terms of global climate governance. It didn’t go the way the climate activists had hoped in terms of a globally binding treaty. In 2015, the Paris Climate Accords was another high point where a treaty was reached. And then the global movement died down for a couple of years. It had good momentum from 2005 up to Paris, peaking around 2014-15. 


It started to pick up around 2018-19 again with Greta (Thunberg) and Friday’s for Future Movement, building up a lot of momentum all through 2019, when Greta came to New York for a UN conference on climate action. I was there doing a survey of the participants of the New York street demonstration of 250,000 people, and that mobilization reached five or six million people across the world. Then COVID hit, right when we were getting ready for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April of 2020. Everything moved online, and it hasn’t gathered the international level of reach or mobilization since that high point of climate mobilization in 2019. Some things have been done, but not to that level, so that poses an interesting question on the global movement: Where are we now? 


That’s another thing to take away—it’s really impressive the number of people that can mobilize, but it is usually a one-day event. You want to think about strategies other than mobilizing for a big event, such as the day-to-day actions in terms of the climate crisis and climate actions to undertake. And that’s where we go back down to the city level, to having town meetings and to thinking about forms of climate action at the local level. We want to think about how to address climate change in a democratic way. What should be our local contribution in trying to turn back the crisis?


Thank you both for joining me today. 


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Garold Rafa
Garold Rafa
May 15

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