Dr. Eliza Nemser is a geoscientist and the executive director of Climate Changemakers, an NGO focused on making climate action a habit. She has been recognized as a 2022 Grist 50 “Fixer” and also serves on the Board of Directors at the Center for Environmental Health. She agreed to answer some of our questions before taking the stage at Aspen Ideas: Climate in a session called Living a Climate-smart Life: What Can I Do?
This article originally published by The Aspen Institute
Why is finding climate solutions a political problem?
Most of the solutions to the climate challenge have been right under our noses for a while. It’s not a mystery that burning fossil fuels emits planet-warming greenhouse gases. It’s crystal clear that clean, renewable energy sources, combined with efficient transmission and storage, are a better solution. The question is why we’ve been so slow as a society to make this transition. And that’s a pretty straightforward story about the disinformation campaigns and enormous political power of the lucrative legacy energy industry.
We’re in deep at this point, and we won’t come close to meeting our emissions targets unless we pull the biggest lever available: policy change. Maddeningly, progress has been stymied by insufficient political will. That’s why half a trillion dollars in climate provisions passed by the US House of Representatives have been stalled in the Senate. And it’s why we’re still developing new oil and gas fields and subsidizing fossil fuels when the International Energy Agency has stated that the only viable path to curbing global temperatures involves no new investments in oil, gas, or coal.
This cognitive dissonance underscores the misaligned incentives at play when policymakers are beholden to special interests. Finding climate solutions isn’t a political problem. But to accelerate the deployment of these solutions at scale, policies need to change at every level of government; the inertia is squarely a political problem.
What is missing from the current climate activist narrative?
The current climate activist narrative is multifaceted, with lots of distinct and interweaving threads. I’m grateful for all the courageous voices lifting up different angles and frames, from the environmental injustices and public health implications to the faith and stewardship-based appeals, to the business case for ambitious climate solutions.
I’ll share some thoughts about elements of the discourse that could use more daylight to foster more civic action. First, there is a problematic paradigm that requires a bit of nuance: the notion that it’s either “too late” or that “we still have time—as though it’s a binary proposition. This framing leads people to decide that they can focus on other priorities since “we have time,” or worse, it leads to resignation: “It’s too late, so why bother?” In reality, every fraction of a degree of precluded warming is a win, and “doomism” fuels individual and collective despair that hinders engagement. If we could better convey that there is a spectrum of climate impacts and that we can avoid the worst outcomes, more people would recognize their own agency.
Another deeply-rooted challenge is the widespread dependence on partisan rhetoric. We’re facing a climate emergency. Preserving the livability—the survivability—of the planet we call home should not break along party lines. In the US, climate is among the most politicized issues because it was intentionally weaponized for political division by bad actors. These bad actors relish a piecemeal, sluggish, and disorganized clean energy transition because they benefit from stringing out the fossil fuel-dependent economy as long as possible. The more we perpetuate the use of a partisan framework for describing climate action, the more we play into their hands. The climate crisis is a political problem, so we need to get political—but many people are turned off by inflammatory partisan politics.
These dynamics dampen civic action, and insufficient civic engagement is arguably among our biggest impediments to progress. The need to increase civic engagement is not missing from the climate activist narrative—it’s often in the foreground—but it’s still too muted. Climate activism and advocacy are still weirdly fringe, which is another symptom of the success of fossil fuel propaganda. Recently, scientists around the world have been engaging in civil disobedience, and those protests have hardly even been picked up by the media. The IPCC reports make headlines for a day, and then Will Smith gets heated at the Oscars and our heated planet takes a back seat.
The climate activist narrative would benefit from an even greater emphasis on cultivating more “askers,” people willing to galvanize more participation by asking their friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors to step up. It’s important to lead by example, but that’s not enough. Those of us steeped in the climate movement have a responsibility to make climate action relevant to more people and keep it top of mind. We have the opportunity to scale our impact by two, 10, or even 100 times by inviting more doomscrollers to become changemakers.
Big IdeaClimate activism and advocacy are still fringe—another symptom of the success of fossil fuel propaganda.Eliza Nemser
How is Climate Changemakers helping to connect the dots between political action and climate progress?
Climate Changemakers is a nonpartisan climate advocacy organization. We don’t use “nonpartisan” as code for “centrist” or “bipartisan”; rather, it references a commitment to omit partisan rhetoric altogether and take political action using a climate lens. We’re not trying to change minds—we’re built to serve the almost one-third of Americans who are already willing to take political action on climate but are not yet engaged. In many ways, these people have already connected the dots between political action and climate progress. But there is still a lot of dot-connecting to be done since this segment of the population hasn’t yet been asked to take action by someone they like and respect. So we’re asking. And then we’re helping our volunteer changemakers turn around and start doing the asking.
People need a place to plug in, so we’re providing a place. Our weekly drop-in Hours of Action function like a virtual, facilitated climate action cafe. Changemakers need guidance with respect to high-leverage electoral and policy priorities, and they need tips on how to be effective, strategic advocates. We help by curating productive ways to engage policymakers. We identify what we call “no brainer” candidates and policies and pair them with playbooks that make it simple and accessible to take powerful actions.
There are still more dots to connect. We help people understand “why bother?” by packaging our actions with information to convey that it’s worthwhile to advocate with your elected officials no matter what. Whether they are already climate champions or obstructionists that seemingly can’t be moved, every single policymaker can and must do more, just like every one of us can and must do more. That’s the basis of our ethos: we’re asking everyone to rise to the occasion and become a climate changemaker.
What can Americans do to become climate advocates at both the grassroots and top levels?
People need help both becoming effective advocates and staying engaged, and that’s where groups and communities come in.
My first tip is to find a group. There are a lot of great climate groups out there. Some are geared more towards young people; others are geared towards older demographics. Some are faith-based. Some are more or less disruptive. Some focus narrowly on a singular priority, while others advocate for a range of priorities. There are groups advocating through a lens of partisan identity from different points along the ideological spectrum. Climate Changemakers is a great place to plug in if our nonpartisan ethos resonates. We strive to cultivate a broad, inclusive community, and work closely with a range of partners to leverage our unique spheres of influence and the power of collective action.
My second tip is to carve out the time because effective advocacy takes longer than a few clicks. At Climate Changemakers, meaningful and productive volunteer advocacy is central to our approach. We acknowledge that this isn’t easy work, but we make it simple and accessible with action playbooks that we’ve developed using evidence-based research on best practices in effective advocacy.
My third tip is to make it a habit as sustained engagement is critical. The scope of the political work is two-fold: increasing political will can be accomplished through electoral work (changing the constellation of decision-makers) and through direct policy advocacy (influencing their behavior). Voting is essential, but it’s not enough. It’s important to proactively advocate for climate candidates at all levels of government by helping to amplify their campaigns, boost voter turnout, and raise the resources they need to be successful.
Policy advocacy can seem intimidating, so our resources are designed to remove that friction. To determine how to maximize your impact as an effective policy advocate, we have developed a decision-tree-based tool. That brings me to my fourth tip: be bold and ready to level up quickly. Phone calls to policymakers are a great starting point; even better, write a letter to the editor, an op-ed, or schedule a constituent meeting. Constituent meetings are the gold standard with respect to influencing policymakers’ opinions. Their willingness and determination to prioritize evidence-based climate legislation are fluid, and relationship-building through common ground and authentic, personalized messaging is the secret sauce. The vast majority of constituents don’t realize that they can request meetings with congressional staff. It’s not rocket science, it’s a wildly under-utilized strategy. At Climate Changemakers, we have a series of playbooks to help changemakers schedule, prepare for, and conduct effective constituent meetings.
Finally, my fifth tip is to make sure your climate advocacy casts a long shadow. Punch above your own weight by setting a visible example, inspiring others around you to do the same, and proactively asking them to join your efforts.
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.