This is not another story about why you should feel bad about your carbon footprint. The idea of “doing your part” for climate change has become synonymous with changing your personal consumption — your diet, travel, and habits. It’s too narrow a mindset to focus on your household footprint, because it doesn’t begin to tackle how entire industries and economies profit from fossil fuels. It’s also an argument that has been debunked repeatedly by academics and scientists. The United Nations’ climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has described individual action as “insufficient,” unless it is “embedded in structural and cultural change.”
But this is also not another story about how individuals don’t matter to climate change. Blaming the crisis entirely on the politicians and fossil fuel companies who keep us in this mess and throwing up our hands is too easy an out when the stakes are so high. Unless you’re a Fortune 500 executive or have a taste for flying on private jets and owning supersized yachts, your biggest capacity for change probably won’t be as a consumer. It will be as a citizen, worker, and community member.
Action matters more than ever because the world needs to take aggressive action to avert the worst of climate change. The planet is fast approaching the catastrophic global temperatures that countries have promised to avoid. Every fraction of a degree beyond that will wreak havoc on the livelihoods of millions of people, potentially destabilize economies and political systems, and dramatically reshape water access and ecosystems as we know them.
The idea of stepping up for effective change can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the abstract cycle of inertia we’re stuck in is also made up of individuals who have the capacity to jolt the system. To understand our power, we have to take a close, thoughtful look at who we are in the world. The key is thinking in terms of collective power — like a climate activist — to make a difference.
Step 1: Think about how your skillset and interests can contribute to climate action
Breaking out of a consumer-only mindset for climate change action takes some work. It can mean thinking about your identities, your workplace, your networks, and your privileges, but also, a little more abstractly, understanding what sorts of action lead to policy change. All this will help you identify the appropriate community to link up with. In other words: You can always do more by not acting alone.
There’s a vast and diverse landscape of groups working toward a collective goal of addressing climate change, many of them working at the intersection of labor rights, racial justice, and gender activism. They just have different methods of getting there.
Every activist I spoke with acknowledged that climate activism looks unique for everyone. Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director for the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, suggests thinking locally and looking for grassroots power. “What we think really works is a hard-hitting multiracial campaign holding a specific decision-maker accountable,” he says.
To find the right group for you, the professionals suggest thinking about a series of questions to get to the bottom of an organization’s approach to political change.
- Is the group volunteer-powered, or is it staff-based?
- Is it a big national nonprofit with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars? Or is it small and scrappy?
- Is it a locally focused group with tangible goals, like blocking a pipeline or trying to electrify one’s community? Or is there a powerful entity you’re pushing to reform, like urging a big bank to divest from fossil fuels?
There are no wrong answers here, because it’s really about showing up in whatever way you can.
It’s also important to consider how much time you’re willing to invest and how much risk you’re willing to tolerate. For the time-pressed, for example, the organization Climate Changemakers offers activities that take between two minutes and an hour, like contacting your representative.
Margaret Salamon’s Climate Emergency Fund helps incubate emerging climate campaigns that promise bolder tactics like striking and blockades. She points out one skillset that is typically overlooked in supporting the climate movement: fundraising on behalf of campaigners who need resources for their ambitious endeavors.
Activism doesn’t always have to mean going on strikes or other escalated action. Elizabeth Yeampierre, director of the climate justice-focused Uprose, based in New York, points to volunteers who have cooked meals to support a protest or led learning circles to educate fellow members on issues like gender justice within the climate movement. She argues many climate groups tend to be siloed in how they think about building community power, but climate justice groups are “really more centered on community itself.”
“People show up in a lot of ways,” Yeampierre says. “They show up to support direct actions. They show up to testify at hearings. They show up to write letters and make phone calls and do that kind of stuff. They show up on social media, but they also show up with ideas of things to do.”
Step 2: Identify your target
Climate change tends to be discussed as an existential crisis and a failure of capitalism — academic concepts that are hard to connect to real-world action. To make the abstract more tangible, activists use a power map, a simple X-Y axis chart widely used in all kinds of grassroots campaigning. The purpose is to figure out how to reach a clear and specific end goal, and come up with an actual path for reaching it.
Take what a group of Amazon workers did in 2019, when 900 employees signed a petition and ultimately walked out on the job over three demands: that Amazon stop donating to politicians and groups that reject climate science, stop allowing oil companies to use its cloud computing services for oil extraction, and accelerate its net-zero climate ambitions to 2030. Like many campaigns, this one delivered mixed results. But the company continues to face growing pressure over its environmental impact. In 2021, it also fired two leaders of the group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, later reaching a settlement with them.
Hopefully, when you’re thinking about that end goal, you’ve already found some allies in your fight like the Amazon employees did (see step 1!) who can help you work backward to figure out what it would take to win. The first move is figuring out who in the organization, city, or entity you’re targeting is the ultimate decision-maker of your ask. It might be the CEO or board of directors, or it might be an elected official or an appointed regulatory body.
That person or group — the target of your campaign — is going to go on your power map. They’ll be pretty high on the Y axis, which plots people based on their position of influence or power. The X axis represents the level of allyship. Then you start to fill in more points on the graph: the people that person listens to, where you can gain a foothold (like exerting pressure through voters, shareholders, or customers), and your own networks. If you’re a newcomer to activism, it can help to play around with this and actually write out a chart.
Activists use power mapping in fights across the country to identify the flow of decision-making, the sources of resources and money, and the places where there might be points of intervention. It breaks down insurmountable-seeming goals into manageable steps by pinpointing the people, with names and job titles, who are in positions of power.
Thinking in terms of power was what guided climate campaigners in New York City to fight to keep gas out of new buildings. They wanted to mirror the success that dozens of cities in California had banning gas connections in new construction. A coalition of racial justice and climate groups, including New York Communities for Change (NYCC), New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Food and Water Watch, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, came together to break down the lofty goal into concrete targets and identify the individuals they’d have to influence in order to get the policy made.
Digging into their power map, they realized plotting “elected officials” or even “city council” on the chart was too broad. They drilled down to specific positions, identifying that the person they needed was the speaker on the council, who directs what legislation comes to a vote. Now they had a name: Corey Johnson.
To bring attention to their cause among competing priorities, the activists needed some leverage. So they pinpointed allies, like Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, a central Brooklyn Democrat, who helped them advocate to Johnson. They also started organizing small photo ops and rallies targeting Johnson, and had dozens of people make calls to their council members, directing them to talk to Johnson.
NYCC’s Sikora wrote a detailed accounting of how all these tactics came together thanks to a multiracial coalition that managed to get the bill passed in 10 months, making New York City the biggest city in the country to transition new buildings away from gas, affecting 2,000 new buildings each year.
Here’s what the campaign looked like once plotted out — an exercise that is more art than science. Vox adapted Sikora’s account of the campaign as a power map.
Activists have replicated and adapted these techniques for local fights throughout the country, urging pension funds and universities to divest from fossil fuels, slowing major petrochemical projects along the Gulf of Mexico, and blocking gas export terminals in the Pacific Northwest using a similar set of strategies.
“If you become an activist and become part of this world, you’ll end up encountering this practice or trained to think like this,” Sikora explains. But he warned that it’s important not to get too caught up in activist theory, because “it’s the doing and winning campaigns that teaches you the set of techniques.”
Step 3: Bring climate change discourse offline
What most activist advice comes down to is showing up, in every way you can, and bringing effective tools to the process. That means extending online communities to in-person meetups, rallies, and protests, but also introducing activism to a taboo area: the workplace.
Jamie Alexander of the climate-solutions-oriented nonprofit Project Drawdown works to help push climate goals inside people’s offices. “Everyone has felt that climate change is not something that you bring in the workplaces,” she says. “It’s emotional, it’s anxiety-provoking, it’s political. You check it at the door when you come into work. That’s not serving anyone.”
She has seen people in all lines of work bring a climate-conscious mindset to implement change at their job or in their field. By “zooming out and seeing your discipline or job function more broadly,” she explains, you can consider how it can be put to use on the crisis. “How can this job function be leveraged in service of the climate?”
Again, it starts with finding allies. In large companies, Alexander says, there might already be an employee resource group focused on the environment, or perhaps a Slack channel devoted to climate change. If neither exist, consider starting one yourself. Thinking about power and how to leverage it comes back into play once you find like-minded colleagues. Identify who in the company makes key decisions, then who is whispering in the ears of those people and what messages they typically get.
It may not be immediately obvious what you can do from your own perch, but there are real-world examples of people thinking creatively about the ways their work intersects with the climate. There are tech workers, cafeteria workers, and marketers all trying to make a difference, pushing their companies or fields to adopt clean energy targets, cut down on food waste, and change their messaging around fossil fuels.
In this incredibly destabilized world, showing up in more ways than just with your wallet builds a belief in the power to enact change. Organizational behavior expert Thomas Bateman and climate scientist Michael Mann have written about the importance of believing in one’s powers, or self-efficacy, which can make you “more likely to persevere, rebound from setbacks, and perform at high levels.” In other words, action protects people from burnout, nihilism, and despair over feeling helpless to stop climate change.
Just as importantly, grassroots power builds collective strength. There’s a surprising amount of hope in grassroots action, Uprose’s Yeampierre says. “We need for people to know that there’s hope and that there are solutions that are transformational. It’s important not just to focus on the problem and the challenge, but for people to look at what we’ve already accomplished despite all the challenges.”