How Organizations (Might) Change Climate Policy

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, an estimated 400,000 people assembled in New York City for the largest climate change protest march in U.S. history (and one of the largest single protest events since the anti-Iraq-invasion protests of 2003). How did Bill McKibben and his fellow organizers generate that kind of turnout? While the particular opportunity of an international climate summit at the UN, the extensive reach social media technologies, the wide viewing of the movie Disruption, and the presence of celebrities all probably helped, the central reason seems to be good, old-fashioned organizing.

The New York Times, reporting on preparations for the march, noted that the event was “organized by more than a dozen environmental, labor and social justice groups” which cultivated connections to “1,400 ‘partner organizations’… ranging from small groups to international coalitions” along with students who mobilized participants on “more than 300 college campuses.” Rather than relying primarily on a carefully crafted message sent out via new and old media, McKibben and colleagues connected organizations to organizations, and people to people, to generate the interest, motivation, and commitment needed to get people to turn out.

Hahrie Han, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, interpreted the turnout for RadioBoston and was unsurprised at the size. As she saw it, McKibben and other climate change organizers have spent the last decade or so learning lessons of “distributed leadership.” Rather than just generating participation in events they also built an organizational infrastructure that they used to recruit and develop scores of new leaders who could then reach further out into communities to motivate engagement.

The question now is what happens next? While some of the protesters on the street in New York have probably been fighting this fight for a long time or were cultivated as new leaders for this event, many of the people marching were likely engaging in climate change activism for the first time. The event itself was the outcome of a concerted organizing effort, but if Han is right and the organizers and organizations behind this movement have really committed to transforming people who share their concerns with climate change into committed activists for this cause, the event should also be the beginning of a wave of recruiting and developing new leaders and activists.

HowOrganizationsDevelopActivistsThose leaders, and the scholars that are hopefully running out right now to study them, would be well-served by reading Han’s recent book on the topic. In How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century (2014, Oxford University Press), Han presents the results of a two-year longitudinal study of chapters of two different national civic associations which she refers to by the pseudonyms the National Association of Doctors and People for the Environment. The study focuses on three matched pairs of chapters of each association (so, 12 total chapters). Each pairing matches chapters on characteristics of the communities in which they work and the kinds of people they recruit to join them while varying in terms of their demonstrated ability to generate activism. Han then compares the experiences of new members first encountering these high- and low-engagement chapters at the start of her study, and follows them over the two years to understand why the high-engagers manage to consistently turn interested potential members into regular activists while the low-engagers constantly struggle to do so.*

The results are clear. All chapters are attracting similar kinds of people at the start; they all have core leaders who care deeply out their cause and work long and hard to promote it; they all use old and new technological tools in their efforts. Where they differ is in how they approach organizing. Both high and low engagement chapters utilize “transactional organizing” techniques; they try to create opportunities for action that present the lowest possible barriers to participation and then get the word out about those opportunities to the largest possible number of people. What distinguished the high engagers is how they dealt with who then participated. High-engagement chapters treated mobilizations as chances to identify new potential leaders. They structured mobilization activities in ways that connected interested people to the organization and—very importantly—to one another. They then actively worked to cultivate the motivation of those participants, teaching them how to mobilize others and drawing them further into social networks that provided accountability and support. This “transformational organizing” allowed high-engagement chapters to consistently renew (and expand) their ranks while refreshing the enthusiasm of existing leaders.

Han’s results will likely ring true to many experienced organizers and scholars of social movements. The beauty of the book is in both the rigor of the analyses demonstrating these impacts and the richness of the details about what these organizations were doing and how that shaped the experiences and trajectories of members and leaders. It offers both a model of high-quality comparative case study research and clear, implementable lessons for organizers (which is clearly why Theda Skocpol, Doug McAdam, and Ai-Jen Poo contributed such glowing cover blurbs for it).**

Which brings me back to the climate change protest in New York. I’ve written before about how certain contemporary mobilizations (of sorts) offered the possibility for drawing interested people into deeper engagement… and probably failed to do so (remember Kony 2012?) The thousands of organizations that mobilized people for the climate march clearly now have a giant list of new, interested people that they could start engaging. Will they bombard these people with “transactional” requests for donations and retweets, or will they truly reach out and “transform” these people into activists who will continue to press for change? The answer to this question will likely determine if and how US climate policy will ever really change.


* There are some nifty field experiments in there too.

** Full disclosure: Han and I have collaborated (with others) on-and-off on a different research project for about ten years.

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