Chapter 11 How to Impact on Climate Action

See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire

– Introduction|
Cut Greenhouse Emissions as Fast and as Deeply as Possible
–  Whack a mole
– It is Now or Never
– Social Change and Climate: Theories, strategies, tactics and history
– Rebellious Revolution

Climate Advocacy


The first half of this book provided a fact-based introduction to climate change and key issues such as the political and economic barriers to transitioning to renewable energy, carbon pricing, false climate solutions, a Green New Deal, buildings and transportation, agriculture, and climate justice.

The second half provides an overview of how we as a society can build support for the comprehensive actions needed to limit global warming as much as possible and to take the steps toward a livable future.

Many have pointed out that it’s not science or technology that presents the biggest barriers to creating a renewable energy future, but rather political power and the role of money.

Educating our political and economic decision makers about climate change has not been enough to convince them to make the radical changes that are necessary – nor will it be. The fossil fuel industry has been one of the dominant economic and political powers of the last century. It will not willingly relinquish that power.

The next few chapters will explore the theory and practice of social change. We are taught in school about the role of the three main branches of the American government. The real world is more complex, and the role of money is far more dominant than we are taught.

The more revolutionary the changes are, the greater the disruption in the social and political order will be. This book provides insights into the traditional roles of lobbying, litigation, and education in making change. It shows how protests, art, and media can assist in such efforts. Many of those who recognize the need for system change feel that will not come from convincing elected officials. Instead, it will require more fundamental mass mobilizations, resulting in structural changes in society.

Some of those who support the need for comprehensive system change advocate for the concept of building a new economy, a new world, within the shell of the old. Another approach is to start or work for a business that is part of the clean energy transition. Others focus on reducing their personal carbon print by changing their consumer behavior.

There is no blueprint for accomplishing revolutionary change. History provides many examples of radical change being the exception rather than the rule. Many of the more successful revolutionary moments have been unraveled by a successful counterrevolution, as most recently seen in places like Egypt during the Arab Spring.

In many cases, the approaches reviewed here will be utilized simultaneously. For instance, while lobbying legislators to pass a climate bill, groups can also utilize protests, media, and public education.

Cut Greenhouse Emissions as Fast and as Deeply as Possible

The overriding need is to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That may seem obvious but focusing on building more renewable energy has not always led to a corresponding reduction in emissions, at least not at the levels one would have expected. We also need a plan to shut down / phaseout sources of emissions.

As of 2021, the increase in renewable energy is still lower than the increase in global energy demand overall, resulting in ongoing and increased demand for fossil fuels.[1]


It is usually easier to mobilize community opposition to a proposed project with clearly defined threats of negative environmental, public health, noise, water, and climate impacts, than it is to build support for initiatives that will have positive but less immediate impacts upon individuals. Harmful projects can often be defeated by only a handful of people who are willing to commit to sustained political, legal, and protest actions. This is especially true if local government – more susceptible to grassroots pressure than state legislatures or Congress – is the decision-maker.

Fighting bad local projects however can feel like playing whack-a-mole, where a defeated project repeatedly pops up someplace else, sometimes with a new lead sponsor, until it finally wins approval.

Abstract policy changes (“cut emissions” or “build more solar”) are less likely to generate the same level of passionate, ongoing support. Most people focus on their families and jobs. Climate action is often low on the list of concerns for those struggling merely to survive, starting with nearly half of America who live paycheck to paycheck. Yet if positive changes are not enacted, more negative projects driven by the desire for profit will continue to emerge to fill the void.

It is Now or Never

How you approach impacting upon climate action will depend upon your views on social change, as well as how dire you feel the situation is.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has made it clear that there is no time left for incremental change. It is now or never for governments to take bold climate action. “This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” The IPCC concluded that any further delay would force humanity to miss the “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”[2] Guterres also said the world must end its “addiction to fossil fuels.”[3]

However, at least some large mainstream climate groups – and the foundations and others that fund them – still stress the value of incrementalism despite its limitations. The core argument is that we have to get the trains turned around and headed in the right direction. Once that happens, hopefully the successes will convince officials to step on the accelerator. Unfortunately, while many officials, especially Democrats, are willing to invest some additional resources into renewable energy, battery storage and efficiency – all of which produces jobs and economic activity – they often pursue an all-of-the-above energy strategy with various fossil fuel uses and other false solutions rather than working to shut off the fossil fuel industry.

While there is a compelling case for the need for a radical transformation, indeed a revolution, few climate groups incorporate that vision or demand into their work. Of course, there is no clear path for how to accomplish a revolution. Yet most recognize that 30 years of pleading with elected officials to adequately respond to climate change has been unsuccessful.

Many feel it is long past time for the climate movement to up its game, and that targeting lawmakers, who often rely on money raised from special interests such as the fossil fuel industry, may not be a logical way to achieve the needed changes.

Social Change and Climate: Theories, Strategies, Tactics and History

When I taught a course on climate change and advocacy at Bennington College in the spring of 2022, I reached out to various professors for suggestions of books to use.

Bill McKibben, author and climate activist extraordinaire, suggested This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark and Paul Engler. The book jacket says “There is a craft to uprising — and this craft can change the world. From protests around climate change and immigrant rights, a new generation is unleashing strategic nonviolent action to shape public debate and force political change.”

The Englers ask, “Should we fight the system or ‘be the change we wish to see?’ Should we push for transformation within existing institutions, or should we model in our own lives a different set of political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society?” As the Englers have written elsewhere, “Where strategic politics favor the creation of organizations that can marshal collective resources and gain influence in conventional politics, prefigurative groups focus of the creation of liberated public spaces, community centers and alternative institutions — such as squats, co-ops, and radical bookstores.” The anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, which successfully fought the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire in the ‘70s, “established much of the current tradition for direct action. Many of its techniques — such as affinity groups, spokes councils, and general assemblies — became fixtures in the global justice movement.[4]

Many who want to build a new world seek to create democratic and cooperative institutions from the ground up. As the Symbiosis Research Collective has written, “These include structures for political democracy, such as neighborhood councils and assemblies, networked into grassroots confederations, and structures for economic democracy, such as housing cooperatives, worker-owned cooperatives, and community land trusts…New institutions of a cooperative economy can ensure that people are fed and sheltered, their human potential developed and their minds nourished, all while fostering the spirit of community and solidarity we so sorely need…By growing a cooperative economy that provides for all, we can weaken our dependence on and steadily displace the capitalist economy. By networking together institutions of genuinely democratic and participatory community governance, we can assemble a parallel political system that can challenge—and, in time, transform and replace—the various oligarchies of our day.”[5]

Another long-time colleague, Brian Tokar, suggested Shut it Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance by Lisa Fithian. The last time I saw Lisa was in October 2019 as she was being arrested by the police, as she was the one directing us with a bullhorn, as I laid on my back on the street in front of the NY Stock Exchange covered in fake blood as part of a climate die-in organized by Extinction Rebellion. In the intro to the book, Naomi Klein wrote, “It is more important than ever that our movements also stay mobilized, disobedient, and in the streets.”

In her intro, Lisa notes that “The most common way people give up their power is thinking they don’t have it.” She advocates for the use of “civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action as the primary means of dismantling and battling today’s oppressive power structure while simultaneously creating structures that embody love and liberation…Sometimes there are aha! Moments when the entire world shifts, and sometimes change is long and slow.”

David Bond, the professor who invited me to teach the course, suggested How to Blow up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire by Andreas Malm. Malm writes “The science on climate change has been clear for a very long time. Yet despite decades of petitions, intergovernmental conferences, and peaceful demonstrations, we are still in thrall to a booming fossil fuel industry.” Malm “makes an impassioned call for the climate movement to escalate its tactics in the face of ecological collapse. We need to force fossil fuel extraction to stop – with our bodies and or actions – by disabling or destroying its tools.”

This chart shows how atmospheric carbon levels have continued to increase despite decades of the present advocacy methods used by the climate movement. (From the Global Warming Policy Foundation.)

In his book, Malm, based in Sweden, outlines what he sees as three distinct phases in the history of climate activism (at least recently). The first occurred in northern Europe between 2006 and 2009, with activists organizing massive “climate camps” near airports, power plants, and financial districts, with an immense “People’s Climate Summit” in Copenhagen in 2009. Following the world financial collapse in 2008 and resulting austerity policies, a second phase emerged in the U.S. following the failure of President Obama to deliver on his climate promises. Thousands of activists launched sit-ins to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, gathered in the streets of New York for the “People’s Climate March” in 2014, and camped in the cold in North Dakota to fight the DAPL pipeline. Trump’s election in 2016 ended this phase.

The third phase began in the record heat of the summer of 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat down in front of the Swedish parliament and declared a school strike for the climate. “The picture of vulnerability and defiance,” Malm wrote, “touched a nerve in her generation.” Students around the world instigated rolling waves of school strikes in 2018 and 2019, with millions marching in “what might have been the largest coordinated youth protest in history.” At roughly the same time, British activists launched Extinction Rebellion, shutting down much of central London in a remarkable act of civil disobedience.

Rebellious Revolution

Extinction Rebellion[6] is an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an effort to halt mass extinction and stave off social collapse. While local groups have been organized in the U.S., XR has been most visible – and disruptive – in its home base of the United Kingdom. “At the core of Extinction Rebellion’s philosophy is nonviolent civil disobedience. We promote civil disobedience and rebellion because we think it is necessary. We are not focused on traditional systems like petitions or writing to our MPs… We are promoting mass ‘above the ground’ civil disobedience – in full public view. This means economic disruption to shake the current political system and civil disruption to raise awareness.”

XR cites historical evidence compiled by a Harvard professor that “nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change.”[7]

The problem with such analysis is that the change that occurs often falls short of the initial demand, which for climate change means failure to avoid climate collapse. The Arab Spring for instance was able to topple a number of political leaders, most notably in Egypt. But relatively rapidly counter revolutions largely restored the prior power structure.[8]

Probably the most successful such uprising in the United States was the civil rights movement in the sixties. However, while that movement led to a number of critical reforms and changes, especially in overt racism, it ultimately failed to end systemic or even individual racism. It certainly fell far short of the goals of ending militarism and economic inequality that Dr. King was promoting prior to his assassination.[9]

The nature of, and reasons for, a revolution have long been debated by scientists and philosophers.

National Geographic Society says “a revolution is a radical change in the established order, usually the established government and social institutions. The people who start revolutions have determined the institutions currently in place in society have failed or no longer serve their intended purpose. Revolutions are born when the social climate in a country change and the political system does not react in kind. People become discouraged by existing conditions, which alters their values and beliefs. A wave of revolutions took place in the 1700s. In all these countries, the revolutions not only changed the political systems and replaced them with new ones, but they altered public belief and brought about sweeping changes in society as a whole.”[10]

Revolutions emerge “from the social order becoming frayed in many areas at once. There are five elements that create an unstable social equilibrium: economic or fiscal strain, alienation and opposition among the elites, widespread popular anger at injustice, a persuasive shared narrative of resistance, and favorable international relations.”[11]

One cautionary note. Revolutions occur when the vast majority of citizens are unhappy with the present situation. Many social change movements in the U.S. highlight the need to address injustices inflicted upon minority members of the population. However morally correct that position is, by itself it unfortunately is not a path to revolutionary change. The average person must believe that not only are they also victims of injustice but that they will benefit from the proposed changes. That is what the call for a Just Transition is about, making everyone understand that we are building a future that is concerned about their well-being.

Communications psychologist John Marshall Roberts said there are “three ways of converting people to a cause: by threat of force, by intellectual argument, and by inspiration. He said that the most effective of these methods is aligning communication about your cause with the most deeply held values and aspirations of your friends and fellow citizens. Rather than trying to cajole them judgmentally or convince them forcefully, we should inspire them toward a vision that they—not we—can really care about. We need to listen to and understand the people we are trying to convince. Then, we can marshal the facts that show how our cause can help support their values.”[12]