Blog 10: Lessons from the Climate Movement


The Dutch newsplatform De Correspondent, shows us what we can learn from the successes of the climate movement. Want to know what’s in it for you? Here’s a little homework assignment from WCbC.

Just consider: over the last 50 years sustainability has become a key requirement of many of the assets important to our lives. Also, the initial disinterest in the environment and climate change has transformed into it topping most policy-agendas (that is, for a majority of policy-makers in the western world and worldleaders who are not called Trump).

The climate movement did so much more than muddle through, despite operating in quite a hostile environment: they significantly influenced behavior and opinions all around the world.


As any movement, the climate movement is a many headed dragon that set out to address multiple targets in a range of campaigns and initiatives. It did not put all eggs in one basket, and that worked because of creating.

1. Urgency

The climate movement has succeeded in establishing the climate ‘problem’ as a collective and a shared moral issue that needs to be resolved for the people on this planet to survive. At the start this was communicated by using images of doom and disaster. In hindsight, however, we can say that trying to get their point across by generating fear and guilt have been counterproductive. The debates stagnated and polarized while people stopped looking for alternatives, they would rather just look away. Also, the problem became such an abstract negative entity that it became an untouchable ‘hairy’ problem. ‘We’ (the people) could remain passive as there was no way of fixing it. ‘They’ (worldleaders) just needed to sort it out.


If you emphasize death and destruction people will react with denial, pushing the problem away to some far future or by extreme rationalization of the reasons why it is not their problem. Everybody’s problem became nobody’s problem.

If you turn this into a story about positive change, however, people feel empowered to work on it. Also, positive framing can even motivate them to find solutions as it has the potential to be fun instead of frightening.

2. Set Limits

Working on solutions, seeing alternatives, begin creative, all of that is great, but in a multi-stakeholder setting it does need to happen within some agreed upon limits to be effective. For instance: agreeing upon a limiy of 1,5% for the degrees that earth could rise in temperature made it possible to identify where we are at and what needs to happen to change the situation.

Also, forming any group is greatly helped by having a common enemy. If you have set limiys it is so much easier to find out who is the biggest ‘rule-breaker’ that you should act against. Having the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ in your framework makes it so much easier to mobilize resources and to set agendas with measurable goals.


To be a group and facilitate collective action you need to know who your audience is, who you are (the good guys) and who you are trying to change (the bad guys). All of this can be established by framing situations, socially constructing causes and consequences and effective communication of goals and required actions. Work on it!

3. Continuity

What needed to happen is for the issue of impacts on climate change to institutionalize, to become part of our considerations in everyday life. For climate change, the UN has played a large role in turning the issue into a stabile factor on all policy agendas. An issue that requires continuous attention on the long-term.


While it seems that most of the things we can learn from the climate change movement are about communication, there is more to it. Yes, framing the issue makes a contribution to public acceptance and effectivity, on the other hand, you need to practice what you preach to be any kind of convincing. So the best thing to do is to be open about your agenda, restrictions and interests. Truly engaging with all of your audiences, hearing them, working with them and learning from your mistakes is the most effective way forward.

As the world faces more and more of the complicated ‘big hairy problems’ these lessons on making change happen will surely prove their value in the future. I hope we can work on it together 🙂