Last month, more than 500 youth from the Sunrise Movement staged a protest along the perimeter of the White House, holding signs that read “Biden, You Coward, Fight For Us,” after he endorsed an infrastructure deal that didn’t contain the climate provisions they hoped for.
Since then, deaths from a historic heatwave have risen, an Exxon lobbyist was recorded saying the company funded anti-science “shadow” groups, and Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Austrian World Summit re-energized the environmental community.
After this recent accumulation of momentous climate-related events, young activists are itching to make their next move. But before they get their striking placards and climate chants ready, I encourage them to pause and hear me out.
I’m a young environmentalist, too. And for the last several years, I served the climate movement in both a volunteer and professional capacity. Throughout college, I was fortunate to have worked for an international climate organization where I lobbied elected officials, founded youth climate groups, launched a state-level campaign in Colorado, and more. Early on, I was also a proud climate demonstrator.
Allow me to share a reflection: In all of my climate advocacy career, protesting was the least valuable and impactful use of my time, by far.
It’s true that protests and public demonstrations play a measurable role in helping issues rise on the political and public agenda. But, there are serious limitations to this avenue for advocacy that I encourage young activists to consider.
First, they often fail to include key voices in the climate space, such as fossil fuel workers, farmers, the business community, energy companies, and more. These are influential players shaping climate policy outcomes, and you aren’t doing yourselves any favors by not engaging with them.
Second, they are hyper-partisan progressive echo chambers that repel even the most climate-conscious conservatives, polarizing an already catastrophically divisive issue.
Third, they do not encourage activists to critically evaluate policy solutions. Shouting “Green New Deal or No Deal” gets us only so far in devising a smart, comprehensive plan for decarbonizing our economy.
Young activists can do better than this. We should rebrand our style of advocacy and retool ourselves with skills and objectives that better meet the challenge climate change presents us.
How do we do that?
The first step is self-education. People of all ages often lack knowledge on policy, our governmental institutions, and our energy system. This lack of knowledge leads young activists to place their faith in ideas and proposals that are too simple or politically infeasible to be viable solutions to climate change.
Second, we should learn to sit down with, not shout at, our lawmakers and explore promising legislative paths together.
Third, we should actively partner with energy companies in creating a strategy for achieving a low-carbon future. We all want to keep our lights on at the lowest cost to our wallet and the environment. If we want the best of both worlds, we need to work alongside the very people powering our communities today.
Lastly, we should work toward depolarizing climate change and building broad, bipartisan coalitions in the climate space — an essential step in passing any long-term emissions-reducing legislation. This requires divorcing climate change from a suite of other partisan, progressive proposals and issues that are regularly attached to it.
Imagine: highly competent, skillful young activists who embrace climate change as the not-so-black-and-white issue it is, grasp the policy landscape, renounce partisanship, and engage with a broad range of stakeholders. Those activists are a force to be reckoned with — more so than the ones camping outside the White House.
So, the next time you’re asking yourself how you can best serve the climate cause, take a rain check on that protest.
You have so much more to offer.
Kelsey Grant is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the former conservative outreach coordinator and co-founder of the Young Conservative Caucus for Citizens Climate Lobby. Her views are her own and are not meant to represent the views of Citizens Climate Lobby.