A new climate for climate change activism
Photo: Pete Souza / Flickr

A new climate for climate change activism

Posted by Lissa Widoff on Monday, January 9 2017


Lissa Widoff

Whether or not your work is rooted in science, we know that uncertainty marks much of our life experience, in both our personal and professional lives. The looming uncertainty we all feel about the unraveling of what we've fought so long and hard for in service of environmental protection, is anxiety-producing at worst and inspiring us at best to reconsider ways to reach across the divide not only in Washington, DC, but in our communities.

As a philanthropic foundation leader, I have the privilege of joining with other funders to learn from colleagues and nonprofit leaders on the front lines of a wide range of environmental concerns, and also to think strategically about how to most effectively partner with foundations, nonprofits and public sector allies for positive systems change.  Jen Sokolove (Switzer Fellow, 2000) recently moderated a webinar for funders concerning the near- and long-term strategies for climate change activism in an era where climate denial and fossil fuel development are core policy signals from the Trump administration. While we all wait for concrete policy action and direction from this new administration, three leaders representing broad efforts to mobilize the public on climate action shared their insights. We heard from May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org; Keya Chatterjee, Executive Director of Climate Action Network; and Angela Adrar of Climate Justice Alliance about their strategies for the future.

The conversation echoed a general direction I heard in Marrakesh at COP 22, and more recently among colleagues in New England and within my own community. Here are some of the take-aways from the presentation that perhaps can inform and inspire your actions as well.  The Switzer Foundation looks forward to supporting communication and coordination among Fellows on climate and other issues in coming months and years, and also how we must look at the intersection of our environmental issues with social justice and community economic needs.

  • In the past, the environmental movement has been successful at passing laws through public engagement and policy. Now, however, we have to consider that we are working within a failed system, and perhaps even a backlash to our policy successes.  
  • Mobilization and direct actions must be an important part of our near-term strategies. Marches, letters, calls, coordinated efforts to hold public officials accountable at all levels is critical.  The benefits of broad mobilization include engaging new people, creating resolve for future actions, attracting media attention, and successes we can build upon (e.g. Keystone XL pipeline).  Note that 350.org is planning a day of action against climate change denial on January 9.
  • While there is great uncertainty about specifics of climate policy and the impact of climate deniers in leadership at the national level, it is critically important to preserve and sustain gains made at regional, state and local levels. There must be resistance to roll-backs, and a unified front on climate action at the state level. States have an opportunity to lead.  Existing organizations need to strengthen partnerships with each other.
  • Leadership for the climate movement needs to represent ALL people and especially should be led by communities most affected by climate change and fossil fuel development. People of color are leading not only in frontline communities, but across the country and are further linking with global efforts. Mainstream environmental organizations and front-line activists can complement one another. It is a time for our movement to reflect the diversity in the country.  Climate justice must be a core tenet of climate action.
  • Our organizations, especially national networks, need to be sure that they, too, invest in democratic processes within their organizations so that leadership can be distributed, empowered and resilient.  We must continue to build our networks and reach across difference locally, so that we can bring a wider community to the actions we need to take at all levels.
  • This can be a moment of awakening, not only for climate justice and action, but across many of our issues.  Perhaps it is a time to promote and lift up examples of a regenerative economy and just transitions, and build infrastructure that allows marginalized communities to lead as well as join forces to create systems change while averting the loss of past progress.

We have to be ready for a marathon, not a sprint, and train up in new ways. We look forward to your continued input on how we can best serve you, our Fellowship Network, and this growing movement for action.  For more information on strategies for mobilization and resistance, please contact your local organizers of:
Climate Action Network
Climate Justice Alliance

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