Collective Action on Climate


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Lack of public support is typically cited as a primary reason for the failure of domestic climate legislation in 2009, which in turn undermined international agreements. In this analysis, aligned environmental NGOs were unable to overcome the financial, lobbying and marketing prowess of the fossil fuels industry. The outcome? We continue to unabatedly burn fossil fuels for energy and watch the impacts of a warmer atmosphere and oceans become steadily more evident.

The clarion call for solutions that address the program will sound again. The two big questions are when – and can we achieve different outcome in the next round?

New outcomes require new strategies and tactics. How do we build the broad public support that leads to effective public policy? How can we expand climate change from an abstract, niche issue into one that an overwhelming number of Americans see as personally relevant to the nation, their communities, their livelihoods and their families?

People power is the only thing that can offset the financial power of the fossil fuel industries. Americans recognize the growing reality and consequences of climate change. We cab use these local and regional impacts to shift attitudes and behaviors toward preparedness that leads to effective mitigation. These realities provide a new advantage in the climate solutions debate. But how do we capitalize on them?

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Climate solutions advocates continue to press the case on a number of fronts. Activists have demonstrated a new effectiveness in shutting down coal plants and delaying the Keystone XL pipeline. Other environmental NGOs are supporting new engagement on climate by the Obama administration in the form of regulation and other non-legislative solutions.

Still others are advancing technical solutions including smart grids, reducing climate accelerants (short-lived GHGs) and the extraction of less polluting natural gas.

It’s important work, but in some respects all this action may end up undermining the public support needed for much broader action, including meaningful legislation at sub-national and national levels, and international agreements. Traditional activist tactics do not appeal to many Americans. Regulations themselves are polarizing, and the technical work not universally engaging or easily understood. The positive impact that it all generates may lead some to think we are making adequate progress on climate solutions.

How do we make the case to Americans that they need to act? Efforts to get the message out in the media are important and increasing. These include Climate Central’s work on using extreme weather to build awareness, Climate Nexus’ media outreach, and Climate Reality’s cultural and broadcast outreach efforts. These efforts reach Americans through traditional and online media in targeted ways, and help offset climate silence and opposition media efforts. Most mainstream Americans are tuning out the debate.

In a conversation last week, a New York businessperson said to me, “All we need to do is get 1% of American leaders to get active on climate change.” She may well be right. When you look at the numbers, the amount of American institutions acting in a meaningful way to address climate change and spread the word is almost ridiculously small.

Americans, though, can’t tune out their churches, schools, hospitals and workplaces. They engage in activities in tangible ways on a regular basis. If the messages on climate risk and opportunity come to them through these channels, they become part of their daily lives. Their leaders shift, their tribes shift, they shift their awareness, attitudes and behaviors in fundamental, durable ways.

Through Second Nature and ecoAmerica’s work on the American College and University’s Presidents’ Climate Commitment, we discovered that making institutional commitments to climate change solutions can have a huge impact. University leaders who had already made a commitments reached out to their peers at other institutions – a social-network effect that grew from 12 colleges and universities to 678 in a few  years.  So far, these colleges have produced more than 322 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy, with hundreds on the way to being carbon neutral.

We need that kind of leadership across the board.

That’s what the MomentUs initiative is about ( We’re working with dozens, soon to be hundreds, of nationally recognized leaders within their sectors to activate them and their organizations as pillars of support for climate solutions. Their work, in individual institutions and then together in collective action, can provide the basis for needed social change on climate.

It’s time to take action and build this mainstream support. If you’re interested in participating in MomentUs in an active way, please go to the website and log on, or contact any of us at ecoAmerica. We welcome your questions, your ideas and your support.

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