How to save the world: Everything you need to know about climate activism

"Yes, it's true that you can't solve the climate crisis alone, but it's even more true that we can't solve it without you. It's a team sport."

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What is climate activism?

Climate activism is what happens when people from all over the world come together to put pressure on national and business leaders to take action to safeguard a liveable future. Solving the climate crisis requires making rapid social and technological change for which “there is no documented historic precedent,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it. As individuals, it’s hard to imagine a single action that would shift our energy and transportation systems away from fossil fuels or stop deforestation. But the point of activism is that we don’t need to do it alone. Instead, we can come together as collectives and communities to put pressure on policy makers or model alternative ways of doing things.

This is something that is more effective the more people join in. As activist, writer and self-proclaimed “Climate person” Mary Heglar put it, “Yes, it’s true that you can’t solve the climate crisis alone, but it’s even more true that we can’t solve it without you. It’s a team sport.”

History

Climate activism builds on a long history of movements to protect the Earth and its plants and animals. Human cultures have recorded an awareness of ecology and the importance of living in harmony with nature since at least 5,000 years ago. However, the first environmental activists may be the Bishnoi Hindus of Khejarli in India, who tried to stop the Maharaja of Jodhpur from cutting down a forest to build a palace in 1720 and were murdered for their efforts. The modern concepts of environmental and animal rights grew alongside the increasing exploitation of the natural world during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers like Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir began to argue for protecting parts of the natural world from human activity.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the development of nuclear weapons, the widespread use of chemical pesticides and increasing pollution led to a growing awareness of Earth’s vulnerability. The 1960s and 1970s were especially important decades for the growing environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, was a “watershed moment,” selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries and raising awareness of the connection between environmental destruction and public health. In 1970, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson drew on the tactics of the anti-war movement to organize the world’s first Earth Day. The day drew 20 million people and connected struggles against various environmental ills like oil spills, pollution and wilderness depletion. The growing movement had a major impact on U.S. environmental policy, leading to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In 1973, communities in Northern India drew inspiration from the Bishnoi three centuries earlier to protest rampant deforestation. They formed the Chipko movement, which means to hug or embrace. Community members, led by women, would protect trees from logging by wrapping their arms around them. When the protests garnered international media attention, this led to the spread of the phrase “tree hugger” to describe environmental activists.

Chipko Movement
This was the scene in a village in Uttar Pradesh in 1973, now in Uttarakhand, where the modern Chipko Movement took birth. Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The movement against the climate crisis has grown up alongside awareness of the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on global temperatures. U.S. scientists first warned about the “greenhouse effect” in 1965 and geoscientist Wallace Broecker coined the term “global warming” ten years later. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the media began to make a connection between increasing droughts and heat waves and rising temperatures. In 1988, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to study the problem, and NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the fact that human activity was already leading to more extreme weather events. In 1992, the international community gathered for the Rio Earth Summit, a UN conference on sustainable development that marked the first time that the global climate and economy were considered together. The climate movement we recognize today really began in earnest in the first decade of the 21st century. Despite growing awareness, fossil fuel consumption worldwide has nearly doubled since 1980. The discrepancy between what the science is telling us and what our leaders are doing about it has led to mass protests and the formation of groups like 350.org and Fridays For Future. The first Global Day of Action on climate change took place in 2005 surrounding the UN climate conference in Montreal, and demonstrations have recurred every year since.

Types of climate activism

climate protest in DC.
Demonstrators protest during the People’s Climate March in Washington DC, on April, 29, 2017. Irma Omerhodzic

Climate activists have used a variety of tactics to pressure world leaders to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, from direct actions like blocking pipeline construction to lobbying politicians and raising awareness.

Blockadia

Blockadia” is a term popularized by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything. She defined it as the “roving transnational conflict zone […] where ‘regular’ people […] are trying to stop this era of extreme extraction with their bodies or in the courts.” Essentially, it refers to people, often Indigenous or frontline communities, taking direct action to block fossil fuel projects or extraction. Key examples in the U.S. include the Indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the ultimately successful movement against the Keystone XL pipeline. Internationally, the movement of the Ogoni people of the Niger delta against Shell and the Yasuni initiative against oil extraction in Ecuador are important early inspirations. The Environmental Justice Atlas currently maps 69 cases, from anti-fracking actions in California to protests against coal plants in the Philippines and China.

Divestment

Another way that climate activists try to reduce the use of fossil fuels is through urging institutions and governments to divest from these companies. This movement was really started by university students in 2011, and since then half of the universities in the UK have divested from fossil fuels. Major U.S. universities to follow suit include the University of California system, Rutgers, Brown, Columbia and Harvard. The movement has spread beyond universities to insurers, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds, including New York state’s. According to the most recent figures from advocacy group Fossil Free, 1,497 institutions have now divested nearly $40 trillion from fossil fuels.

Climate Liability

There is also a growing push to hold governments and fossil fuel companies legally accountable for their failures to act on climate change. In 2021, Friends of the Earth Netherlands announced a major victory when a Dutch court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its emissions in line with the Paris agreement, marking the first time a private organization had been held accountable for its contributions to the climate crisis. A Dutch court also held that the Netherlands had to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020, and a Paris court ruled in early 2021 that the French government had not reduced its emissions quickly enough. Our Children’s Trust also works to secure a right to a safe environment for children specifically and uses the courts to force governments to act.

Political pressure

There are a large number of environmental non-profits that work to influence policy through a combination of direct actions, protests, lobbying, lawsuits and awareness raising. Many of these groups pre-date the climate movement, but have added reducing fossil fuels to their work to protect endangered species, conserve habitat, and fight pollution. Internationally, influential groups include Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth. In the U.S., major players include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Defense Fund. There are also groups that focus on protecting particular ecosystems, such as the Rainforest Action Network, Oceana and Ocean Conservancy.

Being the change

Another form of environmental action is to take every day actions to reduce your impact on the environment, either as an individual or as part of a larger community. This can mean making changes to your personal habits, such as installing solar panels, replacing light bulbs with more energy-efficient LEDs or washing clothes in cold water. But there are also actions you can take with others. Litter cleanups are one example that both remove trash and help participants understand the extent of pollution. Guerilla gardening is a way that anyone can plant seeds in neglected public spaces. There are also movements like permaculture and Transition Towns that work to simultaneously make a local community more sustainable and model an alternative way of living that values human and ecological well being over consumption and economic growth for the sake of growth.

Notable activists and organizations

Bill McKibben speaks during Pathway to Paris
Bill McKibben speaks during Pathway to Paris at Le Trianon on December 4, 2015 in Paris, France. David Wolff / Patrick / Redferns / Getty Images

There are several individuals and organizations that have grabbed headlines with their activism in the past few decades. It’s always important to remember that for every high-profile activist quoted by the media, there are countless anonymous organizers, petitioners and marchers that make their fame possible.

Bill McKibben and 350.org

350.org was started in 2008 by university friends working with author Bill McKibben, who wrote one of the first general audience books about global warming. It was named for 350 parts per million, the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (We are now in the 400s). The organization began with global days of action and now is active in grassroots movements around the world. It’s three main goals are speeding a just transition to renewable energy, stopping all new fossil fuel projects and ending money for climate-polluting energy sources.

Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg launched a student climate movement in 2018 when, at age 15, she spent every school day during August outside the Swedish Parliament for the three weeks leading up to elections to call for climate policy in line with limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Her one-person strike soon grew into a global youth movement of school strikes called Fridays for Future. While Thunberg has received a lot of media attention for her activism, she is joined by many other young climate activists from all over the world who deserve equal respect, such as Vanessa Nakate of Uganda and Disha Ravi of India.

Sunrise Movement

Another youth-led climate organization in the U.S. is the Sunrise Movement, which came to prominence in 2018 with a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office calling for a Green New Deal to transition to renewable energy while providing good jobs for all. The Sunrise Movement was also instrumental in getting out the vote in support of climate-focused candidates during the 2020 U.S. election, contacting more than 6.5 million voters towards what became the largest youth turnout in the nation’s history.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched in the UK in 2018 with the goal of using non-violent civil disobedience to push climate action. Specifically, the group called for the UK government to declare a climate emergency, work towards a carbon-free economy by 2025 and create a citizens’ assembly to shape climate policy. The group brought parts of London to a standstill in April of 2019. The next month, the UK parliament became the first legislative body in the world to declare a climate emergency. The group’s key demands have now been embraced by more than 1,200 groups worldwide.

Celebrity activists

There are several already famous people who have used their fame to call attention to the climate crisis. One of the most notable is former Vice President Al Gore, who narrated the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth to raise awareness about global warming. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has decades of climate activism under his belt, having launched a namesake foundation in 1998 with the goal of uniting the best minds to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. Actress Jane Fonda returned to her rebel roots with Fire Drill Fridays, during which she and other famous actors got arrested in Washington, DC over a string of Fridays in the fall of 2019 in order to demand climate action.

How to become a climate activist

Climate Activists Protest Biden Administration's Environmental Response On Earth Day
Activists halt traffic outside the White House while protesting against President Joe Biden's climate change policy on Earth Day, April 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

There are as many ways to be a climate activist as there are to be a person. Heglar put it simply: “Do what you’re good at. And do your best.” That can be anything from joining demonstrations to calling your representatives, to providing childcare and food to other people while they take to the streets.

However, taking the first steps to get involved can still feel overwhelming. Global Citizen offers a guide to 21st-century activism that can be easily modified for climate or environmental activism specifically. The first point is to pick your cause. Is there a particular issue related to climate or the environment that you are most concerned about? Or a local issue like a fossil fuel power plant or pollution hotspot that you want to shut down or clean up? The second is to connect with other people who care about the same issues you do. The websites for the organizations mentioned above will all have forms you can fill out to get more information, and many have local branches you can join. For more groups to join, you can check out this list of U.S. Climate Action Network members and this list for international groups.

The next tip is to use your voice. Social media makes it easier than ever to spread information and opinions. You can even interact directly with politicians or business leaders. Heglar has coined the term “green trolling” to describe the act of publicly shaming fossil fuel companies on social media sites like Twitter. It’s important to remember, however, that you don’t have to devote your life to activism. It’s fine to just do what you can, whether that’s signing a petition or retweeting an article or going to one protest a year. The point of activism is that as many people as possible participate, so that no one person has to do everything. Finally, you can be creative with your activism. For example, 20-year-old climate activist Edgar McGregor spent the pandemic picking up trash in a Los Angeles hiking spot every day for 589 days and posting his progress on social media.

Curbed provides a useful guide to actions you can take on an individual, neighborhood, city and community level to fight climate change. These include removing your lawn and reducing meat consumption, planting trees and removing cars from city streets, reducing nighttime light pollution and attending a town hall meeting, and finding out where your elected representatives stand on climate issues and contacting them if they don’t support necessary climate action.

Problems with environmental activism

Not all climate or environmental activism is created equal. The kind of activism that focuses exclusively on individual actions like recycling or local shopping can make relatively wealthy people feel good about themselves while not actually addressing the structural problems and large corporations truly responsible for climate change. Or, alternatively, an emphasis on individual actions can make people feel ashamed if they can’t manage a perfectly green lifestyle, despite the fact that the true fault lies elsewhere. One analysis found that just 25 corporate and state entities were responsible for 51 percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, while 100 companies were responsible for 71 percent of these emissions.

Author Jenny Price, who wrote a book called Stop Saving the Planet! An Environmentalist Manifesto, pointed out that climate change is the only major issue that people expect to solve with personal choices. “We have to stop believing that we can solve it from our kitchens and start working for big system changes,” she told Grist. Heglar, in another article, argued that the personal consumer choices of people in the U.S., which is responsible for a third of historical greenhouse gas emissions, do add up to make a difference, but that living a greener lifestyle is only the first step towards ending the climate crisis, and you should still push for structural change even if you are too busy or financially strained to remember your cloth shopping bag or buy an electric car. “Start by changing your lightbulb, but don’t stop there,” she advised. “Taking part in a climate strike or showing up to a rally is a personal action.”

Another problem is that the mainstream environmental and climate movements are predominantly white, despite the fact that low-income communities of color are especially vulnerable to climate change and polluting industries. A 2019 study looked at 40 NGOs and found that only 20 percent of their staff identified as people of color, while another study found that media coverage of climate change only interviewed people of color 10 percent of the time. There is, however, a growing awareness of the relationship between systemic racism and environmental injustice, and younger environmental leaders of color are speaking out and working to transform the face of environmental activism.

Part of the problem is related to an idea that Price criticizes: the idea that the planet we want to save is something out there in the wilderness to be protected and not the air we breathe in our cities or the plants wilting in the parking strip. Low-income people of color are less likely to have money for outdoor activities like hiking or camping and therefore may not see themselves as potential environmentalists even if they are living somewhere like Cancer Alley. Early conservationists like John Muir made racist statements and the type of conservation he championed — setting aside wilderness areas for future generations — ignored and excluded the Indigenous people who lived in the areas that became U.S. national parks. Conservation is now changing to emphasize protecting the land rights of Indigenous people, who currently protect 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.

The presence of racism in mainstream environmentalism should not negate the fact that frontline communities have always fought to protect themselves and their ecosystems. The fact that the word “tree hugger” originated with Indian women but came to be used as a put down for white, Middle-Class hippies is one example of how these fights have been historically erased. Today, these environmental defenders face great risk for their actions. A record 227 environmental defenders were killed in 2020, all but one of them in Global South countries. While Indigenous people only make up a fifth of the world’s population, they suffered more than a third of the attacks on land defenders reported by Global Witness between 2015 and 2019.

Why activism matters

In 2012, complex systems researcher Brad Werner gave a talk with the provocative title, “Is Earth F*cked?” The answer, based on a computer model, was a resounding yes, with one important caveat. Our capitalist economic system would continue to deplete the planet’s resources past the point of no return, unless a popular resistance movement arose to “step outside the culture” and point humanity down a different path.

Participating in environmental and climate activism is the single biggest way that we as individuals can play a role in defending and protecting our shared home, as well as the people and ecosystems especially vulnerable to ecological destruction.

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