See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire
– Mobilization vs. Community Organizing
The first part of this chapter examines the difference between mobilizing support for climate action and focusing on long-term organizational development and membership building. It explores the role of direct action and public education. It provides basic information on how to organize climate groups and develop and implement campaign plans.
I became a full-time activist in the spring semester of my first year at college, co-founding the Ralph Nader inspired Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), first at my college (RPI – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), then statewide in New York, and finally as the first chair of national PIRG in 1977. By the time I graduated from law school, the limitations of the legislative process had become all too clear to me.
Politicians throughout human history have been dealmakers that the wealthy and powerful utilize to further enrich themselves. There is a reason why politicians are held in such low regard by the public (though people tend to like the local ones they personally know). Money is the universal language of politicians. My work with the PIRGs convinced me of the need for outside community organizing to make change.
After law school, I hitchhiked to Texas to become a community organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an outgrowth of the National Welfare Rights Organizations that followed the organizing strategies of Saul Alinksy. Throughout my activist career I have employed the lessons I learnt from PIRG and ACORN.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. As abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass wrote on the eve of the Civil War, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
Power is central to the debate over whether it is better to focus on organizing or mobilizing. Community organizers understand that the level of changes needed will require their members to have far more power to make critical decisions than they presently have. They focus on a long-term strategy to build that power, rather than just on winning the next issue.
Each of us must answer the question of how to balance incrementalism versus fundamental reform. That balance can shift depending upon the issue and circumstances. It is important to win concrete changes today that improve the lives of the average person and protect the environment. But such changes are often Band-Aids that provide some relief but fail to cure the underlying illness. Winning the needed radical change is invariably a long, complicated process with no guarantee of ultimate success.
One key lesson I have (only slowly) learned is the importance of social skills in organizing and advocacy. I feel I have seldom made mistakes in the policy positions I have taken, as I have come to acknowledge that the more radical solution is usually the correct one. Far more often, my mistakes have been in not investing the time and attention needed to bond with allies. We must treat our fellow activists with respect and kindness, build trust and solidarity – become friends. We can disagree with fellow activists’ positions, but we should recognize that they are usually motivated by a desire to do good. We need to be willing to challenge ourselves and others, to take risks and move beyond our comfort zones, and always be willing to listen, learn, and grow. We should be mindful of our own privileges and work to help lift up the voices of those who are often ignored and dismissed.
Always be willing to speak truth to power – including in activist circles.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead said.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to show up. Speak up, speak out, and find a way to get in the way and get in trouble,” Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis said. “Good Trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Mobilization vs. Community Organizing
One of the philosophical debates within the climate movement is whether climate advocacy should focus on mobilizing climate activists to advocate on specific issues or invest in community organizing to build long-term power for the group and its members.
The two approaches reflect different assessments about how best to influence decision makers: whether to work within existing power relationships or try to change those relationships. Many groups seek to blend the two approaches together.
This debate is often more relevant for groups with significant resources, including staff. To date, much of the foundations funding climate work have favored groups that focus on staff advocacy and mobilization rather than community organizing. Frontline communities that are directly impacted by climate change, such as communities of color, have also been largely underfunded, though that is slowly changing.
Mobilization campaigns focus on a specific demand – pass a bill, deny a permit for a particular project, increase funding for renewable energy. They usually have a core group of leadership and/or staff develop the campaign plan, tactics, and strategy. Their target is largely the traditional decision makers – legislators, agency executives, business owners. Such campaigns then focus on mobilizing individuals and groups concerned about climate to participate in the various campaign activities – call-ins to lawmakers, rallies or marches, showing up for lobby days. The participant is helping the cause but is making a minimal time commitment and not developing a long-term relationship with the group.
Mobilization is a numbers game, so groups that focus on mobilization try to recruit a lot of supporters. They can be recruited through fundraising, emails, events, or social media. One of the primary techniques is circulating online petitions. Elected officials tend to give little weight to petitions, since signing a petition is a low-level commitment; instead, petitions have primarily become data collection tools. National groups (e.g., Sierra Club) with large memberships may have local chapters with core groups that engage in organizing but mobilize their much larger membership base on issue campaigns.
Most groups that focus on mobilizing do recognize the value of developing the skills and commitments of their supporters. They often hold meetings (via Zoom these days) to brief participants on the issues. While they generally work to make the presentations dynamic with a focus on diversity, the flow of information tends to be one way (even if they break participants out into chat rooms).
In contrast to campaign-based mobilization, community organizing is a long-term approach to social change, with a focus on building organizations and power, and a commitment to democratic principles and empowering individuals.
Many community organizing groups that work on climate started as multi-issue groups, working to improve the economic status of their members. They are often launched with a geographic focus (e.g., a neighborhood), with a number of local chapters or affiliates. As the group develops, the membership realizes how climate impacts their broader agenda. That evolution may be driven by an extreme weather event, opposition to a local polluting facility (e.g., fossil fuel infrastructure) or the recognition that investing in climate action is a job-creation strategy.
Community organizing has a central focus on empowering individuals, with actions that involve mass participation rather than relying on a delegation of leaders.
According to the Center for Community Change, “Community organizing is the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to those problems that they desire; identifying the people and structures that can make those solutions possible; enlisting those targets in the effort through negotiation and using confrontation and pressure when needed; and building an institution that is democratically controlled by that constituency that can develop the capacity to take on further problems and that embodies the will and the power of that constituency.”
Pete Sikora, the climate change organizer for NY Communities for Change, a low-income multi-racial group, explains it this way: “Having public opinion on your side and electing Democrats isn’t nearly enough. For one thing, you’re up against a gauntlet of lobbyists defending corporate profits and executive compensation. They hire ex-governors, ex-legislators, and Albany insiders. Especially if you don’t wield a giant checkbook for campaign contributions and Super PACs, there’s only one reliable way to overcome this resistance. You have to make the issue so publicly prominent that politicians know that if they don’t act, they might lose their jobs. The inside game will never work on issues that seriously threaten deep-pocketed corporate interests. For major change, you need relentless outside mobilization.”
The Role of Direct Action
One of the most influential books on organizing is Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals by community organizer Saul Alinsky. It is a how-to guide for low-income communities to win power and enact needed change. The key focus was on direct action: identifying the person (not institution) that has the ability to deliver the change that it is need and then create a campaign using a variety of creative tactics, often utilizing humor, to pressure the target publicly and directly to agree to the changes.
In my organizing days with ACORN in the late 70s, several times a week I would organize an event, often at a site in the neighborhood, at which local residents could meet directly with government officials or business to demand action, often with signs and media in tow. This might include disrupting a place of business or work until the target comes out to negotiate. One ACORN rule was that residents, never the staff organizer, did all the talking with the target and public officials.
Alinsky’s 13 rules are:
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
“Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also, it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
“Keep the pressure on.”
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself. “
“The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”
“If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.”
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. “ – Probably his most famous rule.
Three fundamental principles of direct action include: Win concrete improvements in people’s lives; make people aware of their own power (by winning some quick victories); and alter the relations of power between people, the government, and other institutions by building strong permanent local, state, and national organizations. One of the controversial things about ACORN was that if it came to a choice between winning an issue or building power for the organization, the latter was preferred since the real goal was fundamental change in the lives of people, which requires power, not winning a short-term issue.
Giving people “a sense of their own power” means that people themselves are involved in winning the issue. If an advocate goes out and speaks for you, or if a lawyer sues for you, you get a sense of their power but not your own. Direct Action Organizing brings people directly into the situation in large numbers so that they know that they have won. People who develop a sense of their organized power are more likely to stay active and take on larger issues. When we say that we want to “alter the relations of power,” we mean building organizations that those in power, at all levels of government, will always have to worry about, even after the initial issue is resolved.
Climate activists tend to have a different concept of direct action than traditional community organizers. The latter focuses on direct engagement with the person able to make the needed decisions. Climate activists often use direct action to refer to civil disobedience.
One note. As a community organizer, it was relatively simple to get low-income people and people of color engaged in the group. That was because we went directly to the person’s door, asked them what they were concerned about, listened to the response, and then asked them to join to worked with their neighbors to prioritize the local problems we could work on together to solve, via direct action. And then we would win. And then win another issue. And they were the spokespeople, giving them ownership of the group.
That approach is harder to accomplish if the initial recruitment effort is on a pre-selected issue such as climate – unless you are organizing around a specific project (say, to stop the siting of a polluting facility). But as noted earlier, groups can incorporate many of the democratic organizing principles developed by prior movements, such as the ani-nuclear Clamshell Alliance – affinity groups, spokes councils, and general assemblies.
Building Your Climate Group – Organizing Guides
If you are new to the climate movement and are looking for how to get involved, there is a good chance there is already a climate organization in your community that could use your help. Some groups that work on climate – Sierra Club, Climate Reality Project, Citizens Climate Lobby (focused on carbon tax / fee and dividend), 350.org, Third Act – have chapters and affiliates all over the country that welcome members. It is probably a good idea to work with an existing group initially before launching a new organization, partially to avoid duplication of effort and spreading people too thin in trying to maintain multiple groups with small numbers of members.
There are many good books, manuals, and how-to guides that outline how to build an organization and run campaigns and explain the various activities. Si Kahn’s Organizing: A Guide for Grassroot Leaders, though initially written in 1982, is a very good basic introduction (you can buy a used copy online). 350.org has a free, downloadable Climate Resistance Handbook online, as well as a wealth of training materials at https://trainings.350.org. Sierra Club has a downloadable Movement Organizing Manual. MomentumCommunity.org and midwestacademy.com/training provide trainings in movement organizing.
After a half-century of organizing, I don’t usually learn much new from such trainings, but they are invaluable reminders of the steps and planning process that groups should follow in any campaign.
A few key points:
You should develop a plan to build both membership (ownership) in your group and engage in leadership development. Volunteer recruitment and retention is often key. One of the first lessons I was taught in community organizing is to ask people as soon as possible to do something with your group – stuff envelopes, make phone calls, hand out leaflets, etc. Volunteering to do something builds an individual’s commitment to, and ownership of, the group. Actively recruit members to play a role in meetings (e.g., rotate facilitation). Having people passively listen breeds boredom and may cause participants to drift away.
A second lesson I was taught was to provide positive reinforcement to the people that do show up, rather than focusing on complaining about who is not there. Attendance at regular meetings invariably drops off as the group becomes older. Think of ways to generate more interest (e.g., invite a well-known speaker, or an official you are trying to impact upon). Personal communication works best. People are more likely to show up when they receive a call from someone as opposed to a mass email.
Too many groups and individuals equate meetings with action, a false perception. Initial meetings can serve as a recruitment device, explaining to new participants about what the group is about, and outline ways to get involved. Larger groups may hold a regular general membership meeting for members and then smaller committee meetings (e.g., coordinating, fundraising, outreach) to focus on the details of planning, brainstorming and work activities. But some sort of concrete action should always be the goal.
Meetings should have clear agendas, preferably with timelines. Meetings need to move the group towards action, not have open-ended rambling discussions with no end product. Have someone take notes. At the end of the meeting, review the agreed-upon action steps and repeat who has agreed to do what. Follow-up is key in determining whether a meeting has been productive.
Encourage everyone to participate, and avoid having a handful of people dominate the discussion at meetings. Groups may use “progressive stacking” to give priority to hearing from members who are underrepresented or who tend to be quiet. Many climate groups utilize the Jemez Principles (more info in EJ section).
Climate groups generally understand the need for diversity. While they work to diversify the speakers at their events, they are usually less successful in diversifying the audiences. (A big exception are campaigns led by frontline groups to address problems in their own community.) One approach is for local climate groups to “adopt” some area low-income and/or EJ community groups. Mobilize your membership to support their causes. By showing up over time to offer support, you gain their trust and build the relationships needed to attract them to help with your climate. Look for opportunities to show how climate impacts on their own lives and communities.
Groups need a means of communicating with their members. A lot of groups have two listservs. One is a low-volume (e.g., once a week) one for group announcements, promoting events, call-ins, etc. Generally, only the group’s leaders have posting privileges. Then there is a second, higher-volume listserv, for day-to-day coordination of the group’s work and/or open-ended discussion. Listservs that allow unmoderated postings should have some general guidelines to promote civility and respect, and to avoid ceaseless back and forth among a few individuals that can drive others to unsubscribe. Many groups use Facebook for general updates, which are quicker and easier to modify than webpages. Some groups utilize communication platforms such as Slack or Discord.
It is helpful to designate a few individuals to assist with volunteer recruitment and retention. When a new individual attends a meeting or otherwise joins your group, have a process to welcome them, find out what they are interested in and what skills they may have, and make them feel part of the group.
One way to promote leadership development is to offer skills training to your members on an ongoing basis – how to work with media, how to do research, how to speak in public.
Other key coordinating skills to recruit for include database management (keeping track of your members and contacts), social media, media, financial, secretary, graphic design (leaflets, signs at rallies) and web manager.
Always have sign-up sheets at your events. At rallies, have someone carry the sign-up sheet around to ask people to fill it out. Name, email, and phone are essential, and it is also helpful to have at least some address information (zip code) to help identify who lives in what legislative districts.
Most climate groups do at least some work in coalition with other groups. The easiest coalitions to build are around a single event or issue. However, coalitions created to organize major one-time events like a rally seldom endure past the particular event, even if the desire is to be ongoing. Many climate groups work in informal coalitions with other groups in their area, cross-endorsing each other’s rallies, etc. Coalitions are easier to pull together for such events once the groups have had the experience of working together.
Coalition members are normally organizations rather than individuals (at least for decision making). The more successful coalitions are the ones that are clear upfront about what being a core member of the coalition entails in terms of commitment of time and resources. It is generally a good idea to establish basic decision-making rules early on in the coalition. While many coalitions operate with an informal sense of “consensus,” there may be moments when decisions have to be made. You should determine how the coalition will vote and who gets to vote (e.g., one vote per group?) before the need arises.
Coalitions sometimes adopt a loose collaboration model that seeks to foster increased cooperation and communication among groups working on a similar issue but avoids taking formal positions. Such an approach allows groups to work together but also empowers them to sometimes take their own organizational approaches without violating the group process.
A written campaign plan should be developed by your members, using an inclusive process. An outside facilitator can help with the planning process.
Your plan should answer the following six key questions: 1. What are your long- and short-term goals? 2. What are your organizational strengths and weaknesses? 3. Who cares about this problem? 4. Who are your allies? 5. Who has the power to give you what you want? 6. What tactics can you use to apply your power and make it felt by those who can give you what you want?
Key first steps in developing your campaign include identifying the problem you are addressing and then what action / solution you want. Campaign management involves developing a campaign strategy; identifying who you are targeting; determining what advocacy methods you plan to utilize; creating a timeline for each step, including who will take responsibility; and, determining what resources or funding you need to mobilize. A campaign should clearly identify what you are trying to win while prioritizing building your organization.
Successful campaigns generally utilize multiple tactics to win.
The Toxics Action Center and RE-AMP (a Midwest network of 160 groups working on energy) have downloadable campaign planning guides. Also useful is Path to Power by Community Change, which works “to win economic justice, racial equity, and immigrant rights, building the power it will take to achieve bold, structural change in light of the disruptive forces that are reshaping the world.”
Midwest Academy is among the oldest and best-known training centers. I first worked with them half a century ago to provide training to the nationwide student PIRG movement. They support the building of infrastructure in the progressive movement for social justice, which ”means fostering the creation of democratically governed organizations which win real improvements in people’s lives, give people a sense of their own power to improve society, and alter the unequal relations of power to build more democracy and participation for freedom and justice for all. The Midwest Academy advances movements for progressive social change by teaching strategic, rigorous, results-oriented approach to social action and organization building.”
One of the most widely used Midwest Academy tools is their strategy chart (aka power mapping). Groups answer a series of questions to create a roadmap for action: goals; organizational considerations; constituents, allies, and opponents; targets; and tactics.
Educating the Public about Climate Change
The more people understand about climate change and the threats it poses, the more likely they will be willing to support action to address the problem – and hopefully, invest their own time and resources to support climate advocacy.
The United Nations says that education on climate change is as important as making progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and formulating effective government policies.
350.org is one group that believes it is more important to build public support for the need for climate action, rather than focusing on winning specific policy changes.
Most Americans (72% to 14%) believe that climate change is occurring. A smaller percentage (57%) believe that it is being caused by human activity (30% believe it is natural). Only 57% however believe that scientists agree that warming is occurring (23% believe there is significant disagreement). There are generally high levels of support for various government actions to deal with climate change (ranging from 2/3 to ¾).
Some 64 percent of Americans say that reducing the effects of climate change is “a top priority,” even if that means less resources for resolving other problems. Less than 40 percent gave that response five years ago. However, there are strong partisan differences. 87% of Democrats want action on climate change to be a priority, while 61% of Republicans say that efforts to reduce climate change need to be a lower priority. There are sizeable generational divisions among Republicans, with about half of younger Republicans wanting climate action to be a priority. Only about 1/3 of Americans support phasing out fossil fuels, though there are sharp differences based on age and party affiliation.
However, when polls are done for elections, and voters are asked to choose among various priorities, economic issues (including gas prices) continue to dominate, with only minimal support for climate.
The 2022 midterm elections showed increased support for climate, though pollsters still frequently fail to directly ask voters for their positions on climate. Young voters, who strongly support climate action, overwhelmingly voted for the Democrats, enabling them to avoid the expected national Republican landslide. Although many Democrats were lukewarm in their support of climate action, it was at least a positive sign that Republicans largely avoided campaigning against climate. And several Democrats with strong climate agendas won Governors’ races – a particularly good development, since state-level climate action is more likely in the near future than any action in a very divided Congress.
Many climate activists contend that the American corporate-owned mainstream media has inaccurately portrayed the level of scientific disagreement as to the reality of climate warming. However, recent studies have found that 90 percent of media coverage now accurately represents the scientific consensus that human activity is driving global warming. (See chapter on media).
It is extremely unlikely that America can move forward with effective climate action when there is such stark partisan division among voters and elected officials. Certainly. the dramatic swings in climate perspectives from the Obama administration to Trump and now Biden are not helpful in building the long-term support needed for effective climate action. Other countries in Europe and South America are also seeing such major policy shifts between liberal and conservative governments.
Increased public understanding of climate change could help overcome the radical culture divide America has experienced in recent decades. This is one reason why the concept of a Just Transition is so critical: making people feel comfortable that their quality of life will be protected and improved by a transition to a clean energy future. Surviving climate change will require a radical transformation of our present society and economy, with massive investments in new infrastructure and technologies, and that requires a high level of broad public support.
Educating children on environmental matters and developing a culture of caring for the climate is critical. One report from the University of Stanford that examined teaching pupils from nursery school through high school on such issues found that 83% of pupils improved their environmental behavior. Education of course is also needed to train workers for the new clean energy economy. It also requires increased teaching of math and science skills.
One concern is that attempts to educate the public about climate change sometimes relies too heavily on scare tactics, focusing on superstorms, massive floods, and extreme weather to generate fear. Such fear can inhibit the desire to learn more and act – particularly in young people.
Probably the best-known climate education effort in the U.S. is the Climate Reality Project, started by former Vice President Al Gore. Gore estimates that he has shown his PowerPoint presentation An Inconvenient Truth to more than 1,000 audiences. In addition to its education efforts, Climate Reality trains” people to become powerful activists, providing the skills, campaigns, and resources to push for aggressive climate action and high-level policies that accelerate a just transition to a cleaner and greener world.”
Education starts with educating yourself about climate change, its causes, and the solutions. There are many resources for this, starting with this book. You can also contact a group like Climate Reality Project to give a presentation about climate change at a community center, school, place of worship, or your own home.
Once you’ve educated yourself, you can then share what you’ve learned. Reach out to existing groups to see if they would like a presentation. Consider contacting civic groups, social organizations, business associations, faith groups, etc. that might not normally present such a program to their members.
Various groups have suggestions about how to talk to an audience. You want to create a safe space for both you and your audience, which starts with listening. You want to encourage people to ask questions and engage. Avoid guilt shaming them for not doing enough. Realize and respect that there will be some differences of opinions. Admit that you don’t know everything and offer to follow up with them when you can’t answer a question on the spot.
If you use PowerPoint (some climate groups provide them for local use), don’t just read words from the screen but use the slides to make visual points and then talk to the audience. Avoid over-reliance on technical terms and statistics. Try to make the issue personal for your audience. The public responds better to how the issue impacts them and their grandchildren, less so to the polar bears.
Tell your story: how you became engaged and why you are concerned are some of the most powerful tools you have. Find out what climate change means to them. Give space for reflection. Listen and show you have heard. Respect your audience and find common ground and shared values. Focus on building trust, not on having an argument. Emphasize how climate change affects us here and now, in our everyday lives. Focus on benefits of climate change engagement. Creatively empower people to take meaningful and purposeful action.
How you communicate about climate change will impact how your audience accepts the message. Facts alone are not what compels most people to act. Facts may tell the impacts of climate change, but a story shows how climate change affects real people and what can be done about it. People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Through emotion and connection to common values, stories create empathy and understanding. Stories make climate change relatable by drawing on common experience, generating empathy and understanding. They need to offer a sense of hope that inspires positive change.
George Lakoff is a well-known college professor who has written several books (Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant) contending that liberals and conservatives have very different ways of responding to information. Lakoff described conservative voters as paying attention when the message is framed by the “strict father model,” while liberal/progressive voters are influenced by the “nurturant parent model.” For example, “conservatives think that adults should refrain from looking to the government for assistance lest they become dependent,” while liberals want the government to make sure that all citizens are protected and assisted to achieve their potential.” These mindsets and preconceptions will influence how the message will be heard.
One challenge is how to convey the grim reality of climate change and the need for radical action now without creating a sense of fear and despair that paralyzes the listener into inaction.
Some are critical of the scientific community for not being more assertive in conveying how desperate the situation really is. This led to the creation of XR Scientists, scientists who agree with Extinction Rebellion that it is time to take direct action to confront catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown.
Climate change is already happening, so the real questions are how bad will it be and to what extent humanity will be able to adapt to it. And the sooner we act, the greater the chance that future generations will have an opportunity for a decent quality of life. We can never know exactly how the planet will react to ever increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but climate activists must spur far more dramatic action while also conveying a sense of hope rather than doom.
 https://www.hennepin.us/climate-action/what-we-can-do/talking-climate-tips; https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-to-talk-effectively-about-climate-change/; https://apha.org/-/media/files/pdf/topics/climate/climate_storytelling_guide.ashx