The Climate Advocacy Landscape

The scope of climate advocacy in the US is very large and includes organizations from across much of the political spectrum. Some of the groups are entirely dedicated to climate work, but many also engage other issues such as air and water pollution, environmental justice, and land and wildlife conservation. For the new advocate, it is especially valuable to connect with nearby chapters of organizations that also have national scope. It is then possible to become immediately immersed in the local advocacy community while simultaneously gaining access to the resources of the larger group. Four highly accessible grassroots organizations with cross-country local chapters stand out:

  • The Sunrise Movement is a youth-led initiative that emerged in the past few years to exert a decisive influence on the Democratic climate platform.[1] Sunrise adopts the values of the Green New Deal, holding that solutions to the climate crisis must be coupled with social equity policies.[2] The group embraces a strategy of direct action, joining with other organizations in large-scale climate strikes and organizing protests in the US Congress. Sunrise has rapidly become a highly influential player in climate politics, so much so that the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates were unable to avoid the issue of climate change, instead making it prominent in their campaigns and debates.[3]
  •, the organization founded by the author and activist Bill McKibben, is a grassroots movement looking to end fossil fuel use and facilitate the renewable energy transition.[4] It places a strong emphasis on linking climate change solutions with social justice. Individual chapters engage state, county, and city politicians and other leaders on the most relevant, climate-related local issues. Stopping the proliferation of local fossil fuel infrastructure is a common theme among many of the chapters.
  • The Climate Reality Project, initiated by former Vice President Al Gore, is a progressive organization built around a unique event that all volunteers participate in—the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training.[5] The three-day training includes lectures and question-and-answer sessions on climate science and policy, as well as participatory exercises that build skills in climate communication. Graduates connect to a large global network while working in local chapters to catalyze change close to home. They also get access to the Vice President’s signature slideshow on climate science and are encouraged to build the skills necessary to give their own presentations.
  • Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), now 200,000 strong in the US and internationally, is a non-partisan group organized around a single issue: developing the political will for Congress to enact an aggressive, economy-wide fee on carbon emissions.[6] Citizen lobbyists convene in Washington, D.C. twice a year for conferences, followed by intensive lobbying in the Senate and House. Over 500 active chapters around the country plug in for monthly calls with the national office in Washington, D.C. Like volunteers with the Climate Reality Project, CCL members also benefit from training on lobbying skills and communications strategies.[7]

The first three of these groups are progressive, emphasizing linkage of climate change policies with social equity. Other progressive groups—Extinction Rebellion, Zero Hour, and Fridays for Future (the school climate strike movement founded by Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg)—also have this emphasis. They are distinguished by their focus on direct, highly visible actions to galvanize public opinion.[8] In particular, the symbolism of youth walking out of classrooms to demand action for a livable Earth has inspired climate advocates worldwide, earning Thunberg recognition as Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year.[9] There are many other progressive climate groups with national scope who are working through policy advocacy, legal action, voter mobilization, and other venues. However, the scope of grassroots citizen involvement with these organizations is more limited.

The more traditional face of environmental advocacy in the US is represented by groups with the moniker Big Green. Many of these nonprofit organizations were traditionally focused on stewardship of the land and wildlife but have now also developed programs on climate and renewable energy. Big Green organizations are distinguished by large staffs, yearly budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, and well-developed relationships with business and political leaders. Although all of these organizations have many donors, they are not grassroots groups, but rather insiders working to effect change from within the political system. This is an important role but has also exposed some of the organizations to criticism from grassroots progressives, who accuse them of cutting too many deals with business interests.[10] The influential progressive author and activist Naomi Klein has even suggested that, through their willingness to accept business-friendly approaches, which she sees as flawed, Big Green groups have caused more damage to the climate than right-wing denialism.[11]

Two Faces of Climate Advocacy

On November 13, 2018, following the blue-wave midterm elections that returned the House of Representatives to Democratic control, two advocacy groups converged on Capitol Hill. Sunrise Movement protestors joined by just-elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York staged a sit-in at future Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand more aggressive action on climate change.[12] At the same moment, 500 impeccably dressed Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers hustled to their lobbying appointments to push a new bipartisan carbon pricing bill with the potential to sharply cut fossil fuel production.[13] Sunrise and CCL did not coordinate actions on that day, but their distinctive approaches illustrate the strength and diversity of the climate advocacy movement, and speak to its potential to catalyze change.

The Sunrise Movement promotes an agenda of direct action with a compelling, easily understood message: climate change threatens our air, water, and communities, but solutions are available. And while the greedy few are driving us toward catastrophe, we are indivisible, and we will win. Sunrise envisions a five-step strategy culminating in mass noncooperation to force enactment of the Green New Deal.[14] The contrast with conventional advocacy could not be more stark: this is not an attempt to work within the system, but a movement to transform it.[15]

In contrast, CCL has worked for over a decade to gain credibility and insider status in Congress while simultaneously cultivating and expanding a grassroots network of citizen volunteers from both political parties. Its volunteers are now well-known on Capitol Hill for their knowledge, diligence, and respectful style.[16] CCL held lobby meetings in November 2018 that represented a culmination of many years of effort but yielded little in the way of tangible success. In retrospect, however, these meetings laid crucial groundwork for the new bill.[17]

CCL volunteers do not lack sincerity and diligence, yet their approach has not been enough to win the day. The bipartisan introduction of an aggressive carbon pricing bill in both houses of Congress was certainly noteworthy, but the bill could not garner further Republican support in the following session. This means that more pressure from Sunrise and its allies is needed to open a larger political window, so that all climate advocates can be more successful in their push for durable solutions. With that combined effort, CCL’s insider credibility may allow it to play a fruitful, mediating role.

Whether CCL’s carbon pricing vision becomes part of an overarching federal climate policy or not, further growth and especially solidarity of the climate advocacy movement is crucial. A large and well-founded countermovement with several coalitions is challenging the legitimacy of climate science, and advocates against policies to mitigate climate change.[18] This movement is not limited to a few rogue groups, but includes virtually all carbon-intensive US industries, as well as the organizations that represent them in state and federal government.[19] To combat this, greater coordination among climate advocacy groups is needed. Disagreement over style and substance among progressives, Big Green groups, and other advocates limits the growth of the pro-climate movement by feeding the doubts of many Americans who—while alarmed and potentially recruitable as advocates—also believe that no solution is possible.[20]

[1] See See also Ella Nilsen, “The New Face of Climate Activism is Young, Angry—and Effective. Vox, September 17, 2019, 

[2] David Roberts, “The Green New Deal, Explained,” Vox, March 30, 2019, 

[3] “Impact of Climate Policy on 2020 Election,” All Things Considered, NPR, September 1, 2020,

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See

[7] CCL’s efforts bore fruit with the introduction of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in Congress. See Chapter 7 and

[8] See  and Alleen Brown, “Can Extinction Rebellion Build a U.S. Climate Movement Big Enough to Save the Earth?,” The Intercept, October 12, 2019,

[9] See  For inspiration, try Greta Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, (London: Penguin Books, 2018).

[10] “Big Green,” SourceWatch, The Center for Media and Democracy,

[11] Jason Mark, “Naomi Klein: ‘Big Green Groups are More Damaging Than Climate Deniers,’” The Guardian, September 10, 2013,

[12] Ryan Grim and Briahna Gray, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Joins Climate Activists in Protest at Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Office, The Intercept, November 13, 2018,

[13] Joseph Robertson, “Bipartisan Carbon Fee and Dividend Bill Now Before US Congress,” Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, February 4, 2019,

[14] It is unclear what forms the noncooperation would take. See

[15] Ella Nilsen, “The New Face of Climate Activism is Young, Angry—and Effective,” Vox, September 17, 2019,

[16] David Bornstein, “Cracking Washington’s Gridlock to Save the Planet,” The New York Times, May 19, 2017,

[17] The bill is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which will be discussed at length in Chapter 7. See Joseph Robertson, “Bipartisan Carbon Fee and Dividend Bill Now Before US Congress,” Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, February 4, 2019,

[18] C. Jones et al., “Project 1: Briefing Paper on Climate Countermovement Coalitions,” in: T. Roberts et al., “Brown’s Climate and Development Lab Begins New Chapter to Uncover Networks of Denial,” Climate and Development Lab,

[19] Scott Waldman, “Research Finds Broad Array of Groups Fighting Climate Policy,” E&E News, October 22, 2019, See also Hiroko Tabuchi, “How One Firm Drove Influence Campaigns Nationwide for Big Oil,” The New York Times, November 11, 2020,

[20] Jennifer R. Marlon et al., “How Hope and Doubt Affect Climate Change Mobilization,” Frontiers in Communication, May 21, 2019,