Advocate or Activist

Today more than half of Americans profess to be alarmed or concerned about climate change, yet few do much to act on their beliefs. Detailed public opinion surveys show that about a third of the alarmed Americans identify as active alarmed, based on their responses to questions about their past political behavior, their willingness to engage in climate activism or reward companies based on their behavior, and the frequency with which they converse on the topic of global warming. And yet, only one-sixth of even this most engaged 11% of Americans participate in campaigns to convince elected officials to act on climate change. It seems fair to infer that even the most alarmed citizens experience a big hurdle between worrying about the issue and actually acting on it in ways that feel authentic and work with their lifestyles and budgets.

Understanding the reasons for this large gap between alarm and action is important, because doing so could offer insight into how to mobilize many more Americans to make their voices heard. One likely reason that emerges from the surveys is that some potential citizen actors lack confidence that their actions could make a difference. Personal and structural barriers, of course, could also make it difficult for some individuals to participate. Such barriers could include difficulty in accessing communities of like-minded individuals that might help motivate action. One factor receiving attention in past surveys, however, may be particularly relevant today. This is the predisposition of many Americans to identify as “not an activist.”

It is not hard to guess why many Americans do not identify as activists: in the popular imagination, activists’ work is often associated with loud and disruptive protests. And recently there has been a sharp increase in the number of highly visible and deliberately antisocial actions by individuals professing to act on behalf of the climate. This Fall, climate protestors have glued themselves to Goya paintings in Madrid’s Prado Museum, thrown cake at the Mona Lisa, and doused Van Gogh paintings in London’s National Gallery with a bath of soup. These actions follow many disruptive protests sponsored by the UK climate protest group Extinction Rebellion, which has for years promoted climate marches in European cities. Extinction Rebellion is now taking root in the US, where its protests have already snarled traffic in Boston, New York and Washington DC. Discomfort with such “activist” tactics may be leading some alarmed Americans away from taking action themselves.

The rhetorical success of political progressives in connecting political action on climate change with other parts of the social justice agenda may be another reason why many Americans who are alarmed about climate change nonetheless do not identify as activists. A significant driver of the Green New Deal was the explicit identification of capitalism as the root cause of the climate crisis, with the clear implication that actions to promote economic and social equity are necessary elements of the climate and energy policy toolkit. This linkage, whatever its substantive merits, may well be promoting the notion that becoming an “activist” on climate also requires adopting a progressive view on issues that often appear unrelated. However, detailed political typologies developed by the Pew Research Corporation suggest that only about 6% of Americans identify as progressive. Yet progressive views appear to dominate the US climate advocacy world: some of the largest groups, such as the Sunrise and the Climate Reality Project explicitly link their climate work with activism on other social issues. This may further reinforce a view among alarmed Americans of other political persuasions that there is no place for them in the climate movement. For these citizens, “I’m not an activist” may simply equate to “I’m not a progressive.”

Alarmed Americans who are not drawn to taking disruptive, highly visible actions, and do not consider themselves progressive, should nonetheless join the climate movement. They can do so with integrity to their beliefs by adopting a simple rhetorical flourish, identifying as healthy climate advocates rather than activists. The very term advocacy already connotes a more studious and considered approach: after all, even very staid, conservative lawyers are advocates for their clients. Advocacy can be defined as offering public support for a particular cause or policy, but, unlike activism, it does not imply an outlying political view. Indeed, in American public life today, the loud voices of the activists come from the farther reaches of the Left and Right, where they dominate the public conversation and create the misleading impression of a hopelessly divided nation. Taking a stand as a healthy climate advocate is a way of making climate change a bridge issue, not a dividing wedge.

Some climate activism from the progressive Left has unquestionably been highly beneficial to the cause, because it opened new political windows and expanded the landscape of possibility for what can be accomplished. Perhaps the best example is the work of the Sunrise Movement, who helped usher in the Green New Deal with their 2018 sit-in at the office of then-future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sunrise and some other progressive groups, notably Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, are particularly effective because, as youth-led initiatives, they bring intergenerational equity to the fore. And unlike social equity issues, which are highly politically polarized, the notion that we should bequeath a healthy climate to future generations is one that can resonate across even rigid political boundaries.

However, it is one thing to open a political window, but quite another to mobilize elected officials and business leaders to step through it. This distinction is important, because much effective climate advocacy takes place in business and government settings where the nitty gritty of policy development comes to the fore. This is where deep understanding of issues – the studious, considered and politically savvy approach of the advocate – becomes particularly valuable. And the policy arena is one where ideas from across the political spectrum are entertained. Some of the advocacy groups advocating non-progressive positions include the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which tailors its messaging to a bipartisan audience, and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship and RepublicEn, who target conservatives. These organizations accept the basic principle that global warming is happening and humans are responsible, and advocate for market-based approaches to the problem. They may be good landing places for some alarmed Americans who feel uncomfortable joining progressive climate organizations.

Activists and advocates have little choice but to work together, because powerful institutionalized resistance from fossil fuel companies and their allies in Congress drives opposition to every meaningful initiative. Progressives are to be applauded for their willingness to compromise on many aspects of their agenda, allowing passage of the Inflation Reduction Act this summer – the single most far-reaching climate legislation that the US has ever enacted. With this bill, the US can plausibly claim to have reestablished leadership of the international climate movement, and to have laid at least a fair part of the groundwork needed to meet healthy climate targets. Much future work to build on these gains and fully express the potential of the bill must now take place at the state and local levels. For these efforts we can use as many healthy climate advocates as we can get.