How To Take Political Climate Action If You Hate Politics

Climate change is political. Not because the science of global warming is up for scientific debate – it isn’t – but because the means by which the world will need to address the problem is tied up with economics, social systems, employment, taxes, trade, lifestyle…

You get the idea. Dealing with climate change is going to require a complete overhaul of our current system. Individuals can do a lot, but the system that builds roads and manufactures medicine still currently uses fossil fuels for those necessary activities. Businesses have no incentive to change the way things are going because they’re most concerned with next quarter’s profits. Governments are made to take a longer view. The only way we’ll get ourselves out of the carbon quicksand we’re in is through coordinated government action. Once a government mobilizes on a public concern, they really move – just look at the effort that saw the U.S. out of the Great Depression and through World War II! Better yet, you can direct government somewhat through political action.

If the thought of getting political makes you cringe, then rest assured that you’re not alone. There seem to be two kinds of people in this world: people who can’t get enough politics, and people who avoid it like lava. However, politics is how climate change action will happen. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t have to hurt. Your action can be as minor as volunteering to take notes. Here’s what to do.

1. Join up!

People coming together and supporting each other

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the best way to act is to act in a group! You’ll make friends, find moral support, and see your cause gain real momentum. An action group will almost always include people with more political experience and instinct than you, and they’ll be happy to do the politicking. Let them take that lead. There’s a good chance they won’t be as adept at, say, calling bus companies and pricing out transportation costs for an action or conference. When you do that for a climate change action group, you’re fighting climate change!

If you’re at a loss as to where to find like-minded, politically savvy people, then start with 350.org. They function in regional chapters and like to partner with more local organizations. This lets them make a whopping difference in comparison to their size. (I recently wrote a profile on them for In Kind, which is just an amazing site. Go look!)

Other national groups include the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization of which I’m a member, and Mothers Out Front. Local organizations are crucial, too. My hometown of Salem supports Salem Alliance for the Environment and Coastwatch. Google your town’s name and the word “environment” to see who’s active. You might be surprised at what you find!

If you’re tentative, I’ve noticed that one way to get into these kinds of groups is to volunteer to take notes at meetings. Simple as that. People rarely want to take notes and you can provide a valuable service if you cheerfully offer to eat that frog.

2. Write letters to editors

Typing on a laptop

There’s an art to writing letters to the editor. I ought to know – I’ve written over 200. About 30 have gotten published. That’s an excellent return that may indicate how interested papers are in this issue right now. The offices of your political representatives keep a weather eye on the press. LTEs can do a lot to raise awareness.

Here’s exactly how to write a good LTE.

First, find an article to which you’d like to respond. It’s quite important that you respond to a specific, recent article. If it’s more than three days old, find another one. If you’re starved for fresh material, try setting up a Google alert (here’s how) or signing up for the excellent Climate Nexus newsletter.

Read your chosen piece and make note of its main points. You’ll need to address those in 200 words or less – usually, that’s all the space papers will give to an LTE. Be informative, concise, and polite. Thank the editor at the end. Include your full name, real address, and phone number, too, because the editor may have to get in touch with you to confirm your identity.

Finding the editor’s email can be a little bit of a trick, but it’s often something like editor@[paper’sdomain].com or letters@[paper’sdomain].com. Some papers also have submission forms on their websites.

Your local papers love to print LTEs from area residents. Major papers get a larger volume, so your rate of success per letter will be lower, but you can still safely bet on at least one in twenty making the cut. Don’t be afraid to submit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other big outlets even if you don’t happen to live in New York, Washington, or wherever those papers happen to be located. They own their status as national (and even world) media companies and acknowledge that their readership transcends geographical boundaries.

You can also take a chance on local papers that aren’t local specifically to you. Once again, some of these will accept that the Internet has made the world their readership. For example, I’ve been published in the Deseret News, even though I’ve never been to Utah in my life. Some papers, however, won’t be as generous with your out-of-towner opinion. I once submitted an LTE to a local paper and had an editor accidentally reply all to complain that I wasn’t even a townie! Needless to say, that LTE did not see publication. I did, however, place many letters after that, and several of those were in local papers.

Finally, if you want to get serious about this, keep track of your LTEs, both submitted and published, on a spreadsheet. This is partly to track your submission frequency. No paper will publish you if you email them more than once every two weeks or so. More importantly, you need to bask in your successes every once in a while. This is a great way to take action on your own time, all by yourself, and feel like a hero when you see your name in print and climate change out front. Just don’t ever, ever read the comments.

3. Make phone calls

hand using an iphone

You may already be familiar with the 5 Calls app. The reason I like this free service (aside from the fact that it’s free) it that it focuses on a few key issues and then explains them thoroughly before sending you into the fray. That’s a good jumping-off place for someone who’s not usually political. There’s no need for you to stick to the script, of course, but a lot of people like to do exactly that, and it’s totally OK and legitimate to read a prepared statement.

You may also find that individual politicians’ actions on climate change are worth addressing in a phone call. In my home state of Massachusetts, for example, there’s a carbon tax being batted around on the state level, and Paul Tucker, one of my county’s representatives, petitioned for it. Badgering him to do more on climate change without acknowledging that he already did a good thing is only going to irritate the man and make him feel unappreciated. I might want to call him up just to encourage him and tell him that I think he’s doing an awesome job. And oh, by the way, would he like to visit the Salem Sustainability Committee on Wednesday?

5 Calls will cycle you through politicians automatically. Every time you hang up, it’ll bounce you to the next number on its list. You’ll end up leaving messages or sometimes talking to an aide. Always give your full name and address and be polite. Remember, each office may field hundreds of calls per day. They don’t have time for a drawn-out discussion.

I’m not as good at calling politicians as I am at writing letters. However, experts on the subject say that you should call your representatives every day and ask specifically for the staffer in charge of your issue, in this case, climate change. U.S. PIRG has a really great summary on how to effectively badger your politicians.

When you’re using 5 Calls, keep in mind that it is something of a mill. It will eventually cycle you away from your local and state representatives and into the mailboxes of politicians from other states. Since you cannot affect those individuals’ re-elections, your call will not be well received there. Save your energy for people who are interested in your vote.

4. Show

Woman with megaphone at protest

There are a lot of ways to show up for climate change. The easiest is probably to attend a protest. You can find these by watching 350.org’s social media. However, this is by no means the only – or necessarily the best – way to move your local politician.

Lasting change starts at the bottom. Get to know your councilpeople, local representatives, and state senators. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and pay attention to where they’ll be doing events. Townhall discussions are great places to show up and hold their feet to the fire about climate change. During election season, you and your friends can punch above your weight by showing up to debates and open forums. Do your research about candidates’ actions related to climate change and press them about specific points. Livetweet the answers. Make climate change an immediate issue with your persistence.

You can also show up to sustainability committees and town council meetings. Sometimes, activist groups will show environmental movies, like Tomorrow, to the public for free. Go enjoy that free movie! You’ve heard of voting with your dollars – now vote with your presence. This is also a great way to network and find out what small environmental groups are operating in your area.

Speaking of voting…

5. Vote

Vote button America

Vote vote vote. It really does make a difference. You don’t have to vote Democrat. You don’t have to vote for the candidate most likely to win. Vote for the climate. Vote in concert with your group, friend, and/or family, and make the environment Your Thing.

If you and your friends focus on this issue, you can chip out a noticeable bloc in small local races. Never let anyone tell you that participating in politics is pointless or that your vote is wasted. In some hyperlocal elections, such as those for town mayors, as few as 15% of residents may vote! In a town of 1,000 people, that’s 150 folks deciding who runs that town for the forseeable future. If another 50 people care that climate change is causing flooding on their street, then you’d better believe your mayoral candidates will pay attention to that issue. You just need to show them that you’re a clear and present voting bloc.

At its smallest, politics is street-level. Leverage that. There is no difference too small to make.


The 5 People You Meet In A Climate Conversation

You live in a bubble. I do, too. The bubble is called my apartment, where I cook vegetarian locavore farm share food and turn off the lights when I leave the room. Here in our little rented castle, it’s very easy to be an energy warrior. My wife and cats are in total agreement with me over climate change. Everything’s perfect…as long as I stay inside.

Once I go outside and start to talk to people about this issue, I run into some serious uphill. If you’re anything like me, you, too, went through a phase where you tried to play Cassandra to the Troy of our fuel-guzzling society. Maybe you’re in the midst of that phase right now. How’s the prophet life treating you?

Ecologists, who I am beginning to think are just right about everything, have been complaining for years about how hard it is to have an actual conversation about climate change. Personally, I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into one of about five categories when I talk climate to them. Full disclosure: I don’t usually get them out of those categories and onto my side. But if I successfully start an ongoing conversation, I do see movement in their point of view. It’s slow, but so is a rock when you start rolling it toward a downward slope.

Notice that qualifying word: ongoing. It turns out that people only care about your concerns if you care about theirs first. Have a climate convo, but build a relationship, too. Figure them out and lead by example. Otherwise, you’re just another rando screaming about Judgment Day.

These tips are what I’ve gotten out of personal interactions and research. Am I a professional negotiator? Nope! And I fudge plenty of climate conversations. But in my experience,  yelling doom at people does nothing but entrench them and convince them that you’re nuts.

Here are the five people I meet when I talk about the climate.

1. The Accuser

Accuser points finger at you

This person demands to know if you drive, eat bananas, or wear clothes made of cotton. When you admit that you do own a non-hybrid vehicle, the reaction of the accuser is triumphant. What right do you have to promote climate action? What right? WHAT RIGHT? They have unmasked a hypocrite and will accept nothing less than your tears of humiliation and pleas for mercy.

This position grows from a place of deep shame. The climate Cassandra’s actions, however introductory, remind the accuser that they themselves are doing nothing to stop our slippery-slope slide toward the yawning mouth of destruction. They may be fighting you to your face, but inside, they’re a jangling ball of climate anxiety. They’re striking out at you because you happen to be the lucky winner that poked the ball with your words.

Respond to the accuser by pointing out that change doesn’t happen overnight. Your personal drawdown has to be gradual or it won’t stick. Seriously. Ask a psychiatrist. You’ll tire yourself out trying to be the Marie Kondo of fossil fuels.

You’re not perfect. The accuser doesn’t have to be perfect, either. You’re both stuck in the same fossil fuel-reliant system together. Understand the accuser to disarm them. That means listen, ask questions, and let them talk. You won’t get anywhere by ramming your opinion down their throat, but you might make a friend by letting them vent for a while. A friend can observe your drawdown and take heart because they’ve learned to trust you.

2. The Faithful

tesla electric car model s charging

The faithful believe in the ability of technology and science to get us out of this mess. I’ve met faithful excited about algae, carbon filters, and plastics made from airborne pollution, but by far the greatest number belong to the Church of Elon.

The tricky thing about the faithful is that they’re not necessarily wrong, but they may ignore achievable or individual-level action in favor of a concept. Pairing a Tesla with a solar roof, for example, is a fantastic idea that is wholly out of financial reach for most Americans. You will be tempted to argue about this.

Don’t.

Technology may save us. It could happen! Ten years ago, smartphones were toys for rich technophiles. Now they’re a solution for cheap Internet. That’s a hell of a turnaround and almost nobody saw it coming. You don’t know that tech won’t be the key to solving climate change, just as the faithful don’t know that it will be. Don’t argue about what hasn’t happened yet because there is no way to win.

Instead, engage with the faithful. Send them articles about air filters and bicycle shares while making it clear that you’re not waiting around for Elon to come through. Remember that the faithful are outside of your ability to convince because they’ve got Musk in their eyes. They may join your crunchy climate change collective activism when they become disillusioned. They may maintain their blind trust in technology forever. Either way, your ability to argue with them probably won’t have much bearing on the outcome.

3. The Bright Side Seer

hand with bracelets giving a thumbs up

This person tends to be older. They remember a time when rivers were flammable, smog suffocated London, and the ozone featured oozing wounds. They’ll tell you horror stories about lead in gasoline and paint, eventually coming around to the conclusion that history is arcing in the right direction. Finally, they’ll say that the U.S. is cleaner than China. As far as they are concerned, this will end the argument.

The difference between you and the bright sider is that you want to help the Earth, and the bright sider wants to help you. If a bright sider corners you with descriptions of how much better things are, it’s usually not because they believe that things are now perfect. It’s because you’ve been coming on too strong. They are worried about you because you seem anxious and depressed. They aren’t trying to shut you down – they are trying to talk you down.

Alternately, a bright sider may be trying to justify their own inaction a la the accuser, using their experience to shut you up rather than aggressive verbal attacks. This is pretty subtle emotional jiu jitsu, though. My experience suggests that bright siders are often just concerned for your mental health. If you’re the type to pop a blood vessel thinking about deforestation – twinsies! – then you’ll encounter a lot of bright siders in your family and friend groups. They believe in the problem. They just don’t want you to have a medical event over it.

You can make a big impression on these folks by staying calm. Take action in your life and talk about that. When you notice your word rate speeding up, your face getting hot, and your thoughts spilling over themselves on their way to your mouth, stop and take a breath. Your ability to express your feelings about climate change is not going to make or break the future of the world, much less the sentiments of the person standing in front of you. If talking hypes you up, stick to action. Arrive at family dinner on a bicycle or by train.

4. The Passive Sigh-er

man holding his head in his hands

This person believes. Your heart will leap upon meeting them. They actually believe! You’re off to the races…and then you realize that they’re looking woozy. They try to change the subject. They sure do believe, and they’re desperate to talk about anything else. They don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop doom from descending upon us all.

Humans are funny. We can ignore the fact that we’re not solving a problem if we recognize that the problem exists and should be solved, especially if it’s not immediately threatening us. That’s what the passive sigh-er is doing. They acknowledge that climate change is real, but balk at action because it’s just too much. If everyone doesn’t give up their commute, we’re still in trouble, so why bother with personal action? At worst, they think that we’re already headed for that brick wall too fast and that nothing will stop the human species from going extinct. Why not just enjoy life meanwhile?

I haven’t determined whether it’s possible to reach sigh-ers or not. Some seem open to rallying cries – It’s not over ’till it’s over! We yet live! Go down swinging! We shot the moon and we can shoot this too! Others react to the entire conversation with passive aggression. I spoke to a woman recently who went from “Oh, the climate is in terrible shape” to “It’s OK, I’ll kill myself if it gets that bad” in sixty seconds. YIKES. You’d better believe that redirected the conversation!

I’m a huge advocate of attraction rather than promotion. If you live the change, that can be a powerful statement. Better yet, it is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, energy-efficient. You’ll expend a ton of effort trying to get a single passive sigh-er to move their ass, and you may well end up with nothing to show for it.

Groups can help, too. Passive sigh-ers may get swept up in collective sentiment if they’re exposed to it for long enough, and they may be susceptible to fads and trends. If you can get together with an enviro group – or even start one of your own – draw them into something fun, like a bake-off or film festival. A lot of people resist activating because they’re afraid they’ll lose their normal, unpolarized, moderate social life. Try getting them into a new friend group to show them that there’s life on the other side.

5. The Political Line-Holder

water fight at sinset on the ocean

Now we come to the deniers. I’m grouping them all into line-holders because the social demarcations of disbelievers seem to fall closely along political lines, at least, in the States. That’s not statistically likely unless a large chunk of those deniers are denying because of the group they’re in rather than what they actually believe.

That’s why bludgeoning deniers with the science generally doesn’t work. Their denial isn’t about information, logic, or fact. It’s about social cohesion. For these folks, climate change is just a liberal talking point. The reasons that liberals want to talk about climate change are nebulous – I’ve heard Fox pundits say that climate change is a foreign plot, a tax plot, a grant funding plot, and a re-election plot – but there doesn’t need to be a reason. Climate change is liberal. That’s that the line-holder really cares about. Liberals believe in climate change, not conservatives like them.

In this case, it can help to have a few conservative names handy. Bob Inglis comes to mind immediately, although keep in mind that his belief in climate change cost him his South Carolina seat in the House of Representatives. The U.S. military believes in climate change very, very much. Conservatives in other countries don’t have the same weird hang-ups about this phenomenon that Americans do.

Then ask questions. Why do we trust the science behind GPS, but not the science behind climate change? What’s inherently liberal about climate change action? Don’t debate at first. Just keep asking and listening. Then, gradually, and without rancor, panic, or aggression, suggest that maybe we’re looking at climate the wrong way. Wouldn’t it be better for your town to make its own energy rather than being dependent on Saudi Arabia? Wind turbines and solar panels require a ton of permanent maintenance jobs that can’t be outsourced. Better yet, those jobs require factory-adjacent skills – why wouldn’t that make America great?

Don’t hammer on climate change like you’re ringing a bell. The line-holder knows that bell too well. Instead, touch lightly upon the many points around climate change and try to introduce something new to the conversation. Don’t push and don’t make it an unpleasant experience for them. Expect to leave the dialogue having not convinced the line-holder of your position. Have more conversations in the future, and as always, follow up your words with action.

 

Today’s Climate Change Bat Signal: Start a climate convo and remain calm, cool, collected, and un-evangelical throughout. Be the environmentalist you thought was cool in high school. Attraction, not promotion.