Before I say another word, I should make it clear that activism on behalf of serious climate policy is needed at every level, from global summits down to your own neighborhood. One level does not take the place of another; we need all of them.
The misconception that bothers me, however, is one that has become rather widespread in the grassroots climate justice movement. It opposes political action at the top and puts all its faith in direct action, hoping to end fossil fuel use one pipeline, rail line and mine at a time.
The problem is not the direct action, but the illusion which some have that this action is the policy itself and not just the politics to get there.
The first counterargument is the obvious one that there are simply too many pipelines, rail lines and mines; there aren’t enough local movements in the world to shut them all down. Even if you could, the process would be driven by which fossil fuel operations are the most vulnerable to mass demonstrations, and the phaseout would be extremely disruptive from an economic point of view. It will take decades to slowly turn off the carbon tap, and which sources continue to operate, for how long, and where the fuel goes are matters that should be subject to economic rationality, not the ups and downs of local politics. (That said, the very high-carbon energy sources, like the Alberta oil sands, are candidates for immediate closure, and if direct action can bring this about, fine.)
Second, there are many sources of fossil fuel supply and a global demand to be served. If you shut down one source, demand is likely to shift to others. Unless direct action encompasses the whole system, the result is more likely to be displacement than an actual reduction in extraction.
Given the time frame available to us to meet carbon goals, there is no way to come close except through stringent laws at the highest possible levels. Direction action can help create momentum to enact these laws and hold them accountable to environmental and social objectives, but they can’t substitute for laws all by themselves.