Climate Activism: 3 Steps to Build Movements that Will Change Our World
The World We Want to Build
It’s hard to get through a reading of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax these days. On my last attempt, my nephew looked at me with concern as I blubbered through the final pages, succumbing to full sobs. Nothing like reading about the destruction of the natural world to young ones to really get you thinking about what could happen if we fail to change course on climate. According to The Fifth IPCC Assessment Report, we are zeroing in on our 10 year window to keep the degrees of global warming below the 1.5°C level. More specifically, “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels…global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (high confidence)” (IPCC, 2019).
At this point, if we don’t stop greenhouse gas emissions, the next generations will never know the natural wonders of this world. They will not live with the ease and assurance we have taken for granted. Clean air that allows us to play outside, water at our fingertips, sweet, naturally grown berries. We are the ones holding the axe, poised at the last of the Lorax.
Things are dire, but there is still so much room to make change. We can build anew, we can protect what we still have, we can re-imagine our futures. There is so much good that can be done, must be done. All this requires action, individual and collective.
With time running out, our actions need to have the biggest impact they can. Climate activism — engaging in direct, vigorous action to support or oppose one side of a controversial issue (Allan & Hadden, 2017) — is happening in spurts throughout the United States. The United States needs to be a leader in climate change mitigation and carbon reduction, and to increase impact and involvement, there are certain proven steps we can take. For example, the US is the world’s largest oil producer, extracting 19% of the world’s oil much of which comes from fracking. Activism within the United States has the power to put direct pressure on local governments to stop this production and shift to more beneficial economic solutions. People within the United States have the power to push for a shift away from oil extraction and towards renewable energy. With activism we can turn off the toxic tap within the United States.
This article outlines what methods are proven to build impactful and sustained movements. For smaller movements, these steps can help gain traction and influence. We can use these methods to create a ground swelling and unified voice in support of positive systemic change towards renewable energy, climate resilience, and more regenerative and equal economic choices.
3 Steps to Impactful Activism
- Frame the Issue
- Build belonging and inspire self-efficacy
- Be Dutiful, Disruptive, and Dangerous
Frame the Issue
The first step to creating impactful activism is Framing. Climate crisis messaging determines whether or not the public engages in action or becomes passive and disengaged. The climate crisis is best framed through the lens of environmental justice. It’s important to center social justice in environmental activism, as social justice and environmental justice are one and the same. Each determined by the other’s fate, each affected by the same factors. Environmental threats also disproportionately affect those with lower incomes, rural areas, and BIPOC communities (Malin et al., 2017). We cannot have healthy systems if we ignore social justice and the health and sovereignty of the land.
Within activist spaces, there is a systemic silencing of Indigenous voices by white dominated activists that favor academic, or settler knowledge, even if and when that knowledge is directly taken from Indigenous practices (Allan, 2017). It is important to be aware of these implications and to actively work to amplify marginalized voices. By including and amplifying the voices of communities most impacted by social and environmental justice issues, the climate movement is able to make more legitimate progress (Allan & Hadden, 2017).
As we see a ground swell of environmental outrage across Europe, through the Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future, there is a still a need for more socially, racially, and economically integrated movements in the United States (Bomberg, 2012). Some of the best examples of this come from Indigenous lead movements. Within the United States, Indigenous voices helped to reignite the national environmental movement. The Standing Rock protests were one of the more public displays of this increase among environmental activism (Widener, 2013). The Sunrise Movement is beginning to step into this space within the United States as well, and has recently risen to push forward the Green New Deal. This movement is led by youth and centered on intersectionality and social justice (Prakahs, 2019). Although these movements highlight different approaches to activism, one thing is clear, centering environmental justice, increases impact and staying power.
Shifting the focus away from one-sided conservation framing, towards social and environmental justice, acknowledges the disparities in climate change and results in more drastic political shifts. Integrated framing is more expansive, true to actual experiences, and inspiring. Communicating through an environmental justice lens assists in shifting public perception to be more favorable to climate action in both the political and business sectors. Framing and amplifying matters because it center the voices that are being affected the most. We still need more of this re-framing within the United States.
Belonging and Self-Perception
The second step to creating impactful activism is Belonging and Self-Perception. Certain approaches to this are proven to build political climate activism, communication, and interpersonal action around the climate crisis. People must have a strong belief that climate change is an issue and they must have a strong belief that they can make a difference (self-efficacy) (Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Zhao, 2014). The Roser-Renouf study found that education and a sense of belonging are the strongest distinguishing factors determining the level of self-efficacy and motivation to get involved in activism. Once people feel aligned through communal belonging, they’re more interested in pushing forward changes that encourage positive environmental outcomes. Interpersonal dialogue, or person to person information sharing, is extremely helpful and when studied showed to be significantly beneficial to action oriented change (Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Zhao, 2014). This means that having a direct conversation with someone about climate has a higher impact on their decision making then passive interactions such as social media. We need to educate, welcome, and celebrate small wins. We must own the movement for ourselves and witness the difference we can make. Our movements need to create a social aspect of belonging. Belonging can take different forms, such as community support, direct activism, and boosting communication. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is a perfect example. Their widespread sustained movement was only possible because people took the message on as their own. It was personal and communal. When members internalize a message they can use this value to guide their one-on-one conversations, influence life choices and have energy to participate in direct action. This is an example that climate activism can use as they build their networks and movements within the United States.
The third and final step is to engage in Dissent. Within dissent, there are three types: dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous. All three approaches are shown to be instrumental in making an impact on the issue the group is trying to influence.
- Dutiful dissent is when concerns are voiced in institutional spaces and constituents work through the existing structure in ways that uphold their legitimacy.
- Disruptive dissent is when those involved seek to modify or change the existing political and economic structures. Activists challenge power relationships and those who keep that power structure in place.
- Dangerous dissent includes political activism that disrupts business as usual. These ideas present a threat to established power norms and structures.
All forms of dissent require individuals to imagine a different future and to be encouraged and motivated to act upon their ideals (O’Brien, Selboe, & Hayward, 2018).
As the Sunrise Movement develops they are using some of these elements to build their influence and are engaging in Dutiful and Dangerous dissent as they work to pass the Green New Deal. The frequently stage sit-ins and protests that target certain political leaders. To see good examples of Disruptive dissent we can look towards the Black Lives Matter in the US and Extinction Rebellion in the EU for practical guidance.
Why and How to Measure Effectiveness
In order to be most effective in targeted areas, activism would benefit from being measured and tracked.
Tracking Lead and Lag measures will give an indication of what kinds of actions are working and when it is time to focus more energy on specific issues. Lead measures are what we measure in the short-term to ensure that our Lag metric (the goal) will change. An easy way to think about this is with weight change. Our overall weight is our Lag metric. Our Lead measures are the calories we consume and burn. If our calories and activity don’t change, then neither will our weight. In terms of environmental policy, votes on a certain issue could be our Lag measure. Choosing good Lead measures is critical to being able to accurately see if we will meet our goal (Lag measure). Having data allows us to change course quickly when things need to shift. The data can tell us where to pull back and where to put in more effort.
Suggested Lead Measures for climate activism:
- Local surveys related to public perception of different projects and regulations
- Number of group memberships
- Participation numbers in person and on social media
- Engagement with certain topics in person and on social media
- Purchasing decisions for the area in question
- Local enrollment in education programs (example: Environmental and Social Justice programs)
- Permits submitted and permits granted, government records
- Funding, monetary investments, scholarships
- Tracking of corporate involvement and environmental regulatory boards
- Investment in socially responsible infrastructure and organizations
We are at a point of flux. When movements, and people, are unified we hold incredible influence. Using these researched steps, we can build more structured and powerful movements. With focused activism we can mitigate climate breakdown and begin building a more equitable, healthier world. How we act in the next few years will determine how our Earth and future generations are able to live. Let’s heed the lessons of The Lorax so that generations to come can grow up to experience all the wonderful things our Earth can offer. It’s our turn to be good ancestors.
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