We develop a new approach to local nonlinear effects in cosmic microwave background anisotropies, and discuss the qualitative features of these effects. New couplings of the baryonic velocity to radiation multipoles are found, arising from nonlinear Thomson scattering effects. We also find a new nonlinear shear effect on small angular scales. The full set of evolution and constraint equations is derived, including the nonlinear generalizations of the radiation multipole hierarchy, and of the dynamics of multi-fluids. These equations govern radiation anisotropies in any inhomogeneous spacetime, but their main application is to second-order effects in a universe that is close to the Friedmann models. Qualitative analysis is given here, and quantitative calculations are taken up in further papers.