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date: 20 October 2017

Internet-Enabled Activism and Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

The past two decades have transformed how interest groups, social movement organizations, and individuals engage in collective action. Meanwhile, the climate change advocacy landscape, previously dominated by well-established environmental organizations, now accommodates new ones focused exclusively on this issue. What binds these closely related trends is the rapid diffusion of communication technologies like the internet and portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Before the diffusion of digital and mobile technologies, collective action, whether channeled through interest groups or social movement organizations, consisted of amassing and expending resources—money, staff, time, etc.—on behalf of a cause via top-down organizations. These resource expenditures often took the form of elite persuasion: media outreach, policy and scientific expertise, legal action, and lobbying.

But broad diffusion of digital technologies has enabled alternatives to this model to flourish. In some cases, digital communication technologies have simply made the collective action process faster and more cost-effective for organizations; in other cases, these same technologies now allow individuals to eschew traditional advocacy groups and instead rely on digital platforms to self-organize. New political organizations have also emerged whose scope and influence would not be possible without digital technologies. Journalism has also felt the impact of technological diffusion. Within networked environments, digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production, giving rise to new paradigms of journalism. At the same time, climate change and related issues are increasingly becoming the backdrop to news stories on topics as varied as politics and international relations, science and the environment, economics and inequality, and popular culture.

Digital communication technologies have significantly reduced the barriers for collective action—a trend that in many cases has meant a reduced role for traditional brick-and-mortar advocacy organizations and their preferred strategies. This trend is already changing the types of advocacy efforts that reach decision-makers, which may help determine the policies that they are willing to consider and adopt on a range of issues—including climate change. In short, widespread adoption of digital media has fueled broad changes in both collective action and climate change advocacy. Examples of advocacy organizations and campaigns that embody this trend include 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. 350.org was co-founded in 2007 by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont. The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.

Keywords: activism, advocacy, journalism, internet-enabled activism, digital activism, 350.org, Climate Reality Project, the Guardian, collective action, divestment

The first two decades of the 21st century have brought forth two distinct yet closely related trends in activism that carry important implications for the future of climate change–centered collective action. The first trend involves the growing importance of digital communication technologies—most prominently among them the internet and mobile technologies—to the various processes and activities commonly associated with activism and advocacy campaigns. The second trend involves the growth of climate change advocacy, including the establishment and expansion of new organizations dedicated exclusively to activism and advocacy of aggressive solutions to the climate crisis, such as keeping the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million (350.org, n.d.-b, n.d.-c).

This article analyzes the trajectory of both trends, their convergence in the late 2000s, and how this convergence has changed the climate change advocacy landscape. To better illustrate this convergence, the article features detailed profiles of three climate change advocacy campaigns and organizations: 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground.” campaign. 350.org was co-founded in 2007 by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont (Hestres, 2014, p. 329). The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former U.S. vice president and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore (German, 2010). The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015 under the direction of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (Rusbridger, 2015b). After profiling these three campaigns, the article discusses the future of climate advocacy in light of ongoing technological innovation and its consequences for meaningful action to tackle climate change.

Technology and Evolving Models of Activism and Advocacy

From Union Halls to Armchairs

Social and political activism has evolved hand in hand with changes in information and communication technologies. In the decades before access to computers became widespread, face-to-face contact was the most common method of political organization (Nielsen, 2012). In the United States, it was fairly common for individuals to belong to civic and political organizations—labor unions, religious groups, civic groups like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, advocacy organizations like the NAACP, and many others—that required them to meet regularly in person to discuss civic and political issues and organize themselves to act. Robert Putnam’s influential book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) chronicles the drop of membership in these associations and argues for a significant disadvantage to the decline of such regular face-to-face contact: significantly lower levels of social capital in American society. Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (2000, p. 19). He argues that lower levels of participation in civic organizations has led to the weakening of positive forms of social capital.

Theda Skocpol (2003) partly blames this decline of social capital on the public interest group “boom” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Conceptually different from the chapter-based civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs and similar types of organizations such as professional associations (e.g., American Medical Association), public interest groups have been conceptualized as having no work-related obstacles to membership and being organized around ideas or causes (Walker, 1991). Jeffrey Berry (1977, p. 3) defined a public interest group as “one that seeks a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit the membership or activists of the organization.” Although such organizations have existed for a long time, their numbers increased markedly in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Skocpol (2003) lists a number of factors responsible for this trend, including the rise of rights as an organizing principle for policy after the Civil Rights Movement, the shift in importance from citizen input to expert lobbying in policymaking, and a change in the very definition of membership from participation to membership-by-mail.

The last factor underlines how technological change can help drive changes in activism and advocacy models. For example, the redefinition of membership from participation to membership-by-mail was made possible to a large extent by the invention of the computer and its subsequent adoption by corporations. Before this technological breakthrough, chapter-based civic associations like the ones Putnam highlights had no choice but to adopt the chapter model in order to raise funds and take action together in pursuit of the same non-rival and non-excludable common good, such as a raise of the minimum wage—in other words, to take collective action (Bimber, Flanagin, & Stohl, 2005). But after the development of mainframe computers and their adoption by businesses, it became possible to produce large-scale, database-driven direct mail appeals to individuals (Bimber, 2003; Karpf, 2012).

The organizations founded during the late 1960s to early 1970s advocacy boom took advantage of this technological leap to establish relationships with supporters nationwide—relationships based on an “armchair” or “checkbook” activism model that focused on fundraising to subsidize professional advocacy based out of Washington, D.C. or similar places, or asked supporters for relatively low-threshold actions such as letter-writing but little else (Karpf, 2012). Examples of this development include many of the large organizations that have been staples of the environmental advocacy ecosystem, a group of national organizations that often cooperate to achieve common policy goals but also compete for donors, membership, and influence, and have been active for many decades, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and others (see Bosso, 2005, pp. 19–22 for a comprehensive list). For good or ill, such a shift would not have been possible without the invention and popularization of a new set of technologies—namely, the mainframe computer and the electronic database.

From Armchairs to the Internet

Ever since Mancur Olson (1965) published his seminal book The Logic of Collective Action, the relative cost—whether measured in money, time, effort, risk, etc.—to individuals of working with others to attain a public good—a public road, clean air or water, etc.—has been at the core of the study of collective action. Olson theorized that rational individuals would be too tempted to “free ride” in an environment where it would be hard to notice an individual’s contribution to achieving the public good, and too tempted to not contribute at all if not enough individuals contributed. Olson’s solution involved the distribution of selective incentives and penalties through formal organizations. In subsequent theorizing, social movement scholars adapted Olson’s theory to explain the existence of social movement organizations (SMOs) and related groups, and their necessity for mobilizing large amounts of resources, in a theoretical framework known as resource mobilization theory (McCarthy & Zald, 1977). Although scholars have since included many other factors in their analysis of collective action, such as framing, political process, and opportunity structures (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996), resource mobilization has remained an important part of the theoretical mix.

But the technological context of modern society, anchored in inventions like the internet, the World Wide Web, wireless data networks, and mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, has led some scholars to question the centrality of organizations to modern collective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012; Shirky, 2008). The core argument is that, by reducing the costs of political participation, the internet and related technologies also reduce the need for brick and mortar organizations that typically mobilized resources on behalf of users. There is some empirical support for this proposition. Although not directly addressing the role of organizations in political and/or civic participation, Borge and Cardenal (2011) argue that by reducing participation costs, use of the internet may diminish the role of political motivation in participation, leading frequent and skilled internet users to participate in politics even without political motivation. Similarly, Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal (2008) find a correlation between voters’ online news consumption and their likelihood of voting in a presidential election. They attribute this correlation to the internet’s ability to reduce information costs by delivering news almost instantaneously, cheaply, and from a nearly infinite variety of sources.

Although researchers studying the role of digital communication technologies generally agree about their role in reducing the costs of participation, they continue to debate the outcome of this development. Earl and Kimport (2011) point out key methodological and theoretical divergences among researchers studying internet-based and internet-enabled protests who have split among two camps: broadly speaking, one argument states that internet use merely supersizes the practice of activism. For example, online petitions make the process of gathering signatures for a petition and delivering it to decision-makers more efficient and cost-effective than the analog version of this tactic, but it does not fundamentally change the tactic—it merely supersizes the petitioning process (Earl & Kimport, 2011). Others argue that digital technologies can fundamentally change the collective action process—what Earl and Kimport call theory 2.0 effects. Seemingly spontaneous flash mobs and similar instances of what Clay Shirky (2008) has called organizing without organizations would be typical examples of this effect.

Bennett and Segerberg (2012) posit an alternative logic of connective action, which differs from the more familiar logic of collective action (Olson, 1965) in important ways. Unlike the logic of collective action, which depends on strong organizational coordination and organizational affiliation being prominently foregrounded, mobilizations that reflect a logic of connective action feature only loose organizational coordination, if they feature any at all, and what formal organization there is recedes to the background (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012). The logic of connective action also privileges personal action frames that “are inclusive of different personal reasons for contesting a situation that needs to be changed” over collective action frames that require greater adherence to a movement’s framing of a social problem (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012, p. 73).

Finally, the role of digital communication technologies (DCTs) differs between the two logics of collective and connective action. While under traditional collective action organizations use such technologies to coordinate actions, under connective action individuals take advantage of pre-existing social technologies—e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Meetup, email, Twitter, open source content management systems, etc.—to engage in “mass self-communication” (see: Castells, 2007, p. 246). The Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, and the Put People First global anti-austerity movement are just some examples of variations of the logic of connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012, p. 740). All of these movements featured very loose or no formal organizational coordination, a high adoption of personalized action frames (e.g., “we are the 99%”), and extensive use of multiple online communication platforms that in essence replaced traditional organizational resources (e.g., Hopke, 2016).

For the purposes of climate change advocacy, however, one of the most important developments in political advocacy has been the rise of what David Karpf (2012) has called internet-mediated advocacy organizations. Their advocacy models stands in contrast with the “armchair activism” model exhibited by organizations founded during the advocacy group boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Skocpol, 2003). Karpf (2012) divides the new breed of organization into three categories: issue generalists, online communities of interest, and neo-federated organizations. Issue generalists communicate primarily via email and maintain sparse websites (e.g., MoveOn.Org); online communities of interests are web-based gatherings of individuals that contribute content to these communities (e.g., the community blog Daily Kos); and neo-federated organizations retain a semblance of the chapter-based structure of traditional federated organizations but focus on offering online tools for offline action (e.g., Democracy for America, founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean).

The Hybrid Mobilization “MoveOn” Model

Karpf also addressed some of the organizations featured in this article (such as 350.org), referring to them as “[i]nternet-mediated issue specialists,” which share many other characteristics with issue generalists except for their issue specialization (2012, p. 49). These groups display a hybrid mobilization model most commonly associated with MoveOn.org, (henceforth “MoveOn”), which “sometimes behaves like an interest group, sometimes like a social movement, sometimes like the wing of a traditional party during an election campaign” (Chadwick, 2007, p. 284). The “MoveOn model” is worth dwelling on because of its widespread influence on internet-enabled activism—including climate activism (see, for example, the ongoing search for a so-called “MoveOn of the Right”; Catanese, 2010; Kane & Weisman, 2008, para. 4).

MoveOn’s origins can be traced to an online petition that technology entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd circulated to their friends via email during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998–1999 (McNally, 2004). Blades and Boyd, frustrated with what they saw as “the partisan warfare in Washington D.C. and the ridiculous waste of our nation’s focus at the time of the Clinton impeachment mess,” circulated a petition to “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation” (MoveOn.Org, n.d.). Although President Bill Clinton was nonetheless impeached, the 1998 petition went viral, collecting an unexpectedly large number of signatures that Blades and Boyd used as the basis for what became MoveOn: a permanent, internet-enabled vehicle for individuals to engage with progressive issues and candidates (MoveOn.Org, n.d.; Wolf, 2004). MoveOn’s mix of online-only tactics, such as email-driven petitions, donations to candidates or its own political action committee (PAC), and boilerplate letters to newspaper editors or members of Congress, online-to-offline activism such as “house parties,” rallies or vigils, and lobbying meetings with public officials, has served as a model for other organizations, including Avaaz, Color of Change, and ProgressNow, among others (Eaton, 2010, p. 175).

Another important aspect of MoveOn’s model is its redefinition of the concept of membership (Karpf, 2012, p. 3). Unlike the organizations highlighted by Putnam (2000), where physical participation plays a critical role in membership, or the “armchair activism” groups criticized by Skocpol (2003, 2013), where membership is based on regular dues and low-threshold activism, MoveOn’s supporters become members simply by joining its email list (Karpf, 2012). Supporters are then free to choose their level of involvement with MoveOn, from quick-and-easy activities such as signing e-petitions to others that carry higher costs, such as attending rallies or hosting house parties. MoveOn can afford to make the initial barrier of entry very low for its supporters because of its internet-enabled model, which lowers the costs of building the online infrastructure that supports a variety of both high- and low-threshold activities.1 The model also allows them to draw from a rich and highly flexible action repertoire made possible by internet-enabled activism (Van Laer & Van Aelst, 2010).

Finally, the MoveOn approach and similar internet-mediated models such as the logic of connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012) fit in with broader trends in civic and political participation that are leading individuals to seek less binding and more flexible relationships with organizations that provide various kinds of support on issues that matter to them. This model of activism stands in contrast to the older models profiled above, in which concerned citizens identified strongly with one issue and organization (Bennet, Breunig, & Givens, 2008). Despite the many advantages the “MoveOn model” offers, however, it also presents challenges for MoveOn or any organizations trying to adopt it. One such challenge is building a sense of community and cohesion among supporters in the absence of the vehicles available to more traditional organizations, such as regular meetings or the incentives usually associated with dues-paying membership, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) or the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (Hestres, 2015b). Zeynep Tufekci (2017) notes that internet-enabled movements can be more fragile in terms of capacity without the backbone of formal organizational structures. In the social media “attention economy” a lack of formal organizing structures can be a challenge for movements seeking legitimacy both in the public sphere and among groups of demonstrators (Tufekci, 2017, p. 79). MoveOn has tackled this challenge partly through the rhetoric of its emails, where it tries to “manufacture” community online by deploying “identity framing” to define itself to insiders and outsiders (Eaton, 2010).

This brief chronicle of collective action from the era of chapter-based associations to the present day shows the key role that digital communication technologies have played in the definition of membership and the action repertoires available to both organizations and individuals. As information and communication technologies have advanced, the definition of membership has loosened, the range of options for organizations to engage their supporters has broadened, and individual activists have gained greater flexibility in their levels of commitment and options to engage with various causes. This flexibility is perhaps best captured in the concept of the “logic of connective action,” which makes most aspects of activism, from framing to level of commitment to vehicles for action, highly contingent on individual preferences that are mediated by digital media (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012). The next section of this article describes how the rise of climate change–centered advocacy mirrors the rise of internet-enabled activism and how the two parallel trends intersect in the mid- to late 2000s.

Climate Change and Evolving Models of Activism and Advocacy

The Pre-Internet Era Environmental Advocacy Community

Environmental and climate change advocacy mirror in many ways the trajectory of issue-based advocacy. Many of the first and most enduring environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, followed the chapter-based model of groups such as the Lions Clubs or the NAACP and remain active to this day (Bosso, 2005). As the importance of media-based and legalistic advocacy strategies grew in the late 1960s to early 1970s and mainframe computer technology became widely available and affordable, many new environmental organizations were founded, such as the EDF and Greenpeace, which are still influential. Although the organizations founded during that period coincided with the heyday of the New Left’s radical critiques of capitalism and its effects on the environment, these groups were generally more interested in reforming the system than completely restructuring it (Rootes, 2004).

By the time climate change became a salient issue in the public agenda in the late 1980s (Shabecoff, 1988), most of these environmental organizations had become well-established players in an advocacy community that has been fairly stable since the 1970s (Bosso, 2005). Although most of them began as local, grassroots-focused efforts, they have since evolved into large, national organizations that are a permanent feature of the political landscape (Bosso, 2005). Groups such as the Sierra Club, EDF, and the NRDC have incorporated climate change into their work and even made it a priority. But as dissatisfaction with politics as usual was a contributing factor in the relatively recent wave of internet-enabled advocacy innovation (e.g., MoveOn’s original petition), so was dissatisfaction with the progress made on climate change by the mid-2000s a contributing factor in the new crop of climate changed–focused advocacy organizations (Hestres, 2014, 2015b).

Perhaps the best example of the chapter-based model in the environmental community is the Sierra Club, the oldest and still one of the most influential environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 on the heels of conservationist John Muir’s work to transfer authority over Yosemite National Park from California’s state government to the federal government in order to ensure its protection from excessive commercial development (Bosso, 2005, p. 23). It has since evolved into a nationwide organization with 65 state and local chapters and more than 2 million supporters across the country—including more than 600,000 dues-paying members—that combines environmental advocacy with activities that encourage enjoyment of the outdoors, such as hiking groups and camping trips (Barringer, 2012; sierraclub.org, 2014; sierraclubfoundation.org, 2012, p. 38). The Sierra Club has been involved in climate activism for more than a quarter of a century—most recently through its Beyond Coal campaign, which focuses on retiring one third of America’s coal power plants and replacing the majority of them with clean energy alternatives (sierraclub.org, 2006, n.d.). The Beyond Coal campaign can also be viewed through the lens of the Club’s broader efforts to incorporate environmental justice principles into its organizing, such as respecting the right of the community to determine its own agenda and working with it as a supportive collaborator (Sandler & Pezzullo, 2007, pp. 325–326). The Club’s chapter-based structure is still critical to its functioning and democratic identity (Hestres, 2015b, p. 204).

EDF and NRDC are classic examples of the advocacy organizations boom of the late 1960s to early 1970s. Founded in 1966, EDF led the way in the use of the legal system as a tool for environmental protection and conservation. Its first lawsuit eventually led to a nationwide ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972 (Bosso, 2005, p. 42; edf.org, 2013). EDF has since become a large organization with a reputation for “insiderism”; for applying legal, scientific, and economic expertise to promote legislation and regulations; and for its middle-of-the-road ideology (Nisbet, 2011). It was also one proponent of cap-and-trade legislation in the United States and of a global climate treaty that embraced strong limits on carbon pollution (Pooley, 2010, pp. 97–99). In 1970, meanwhile, Yale Law School students established the NRDC, originally to work along the lines of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU (Bosso, 2005). Over the years it grew into a large environmental organization that embraced an advocacy model similar to EDF’s, building a large stable of experts who conduct legal, media, and legislative advocacy. Also like EDF, NRDC supported climate legislation in the U.S. Congress that included a limit on carbon emissions and was part of a rapid response operation operated by environmental, labor, and other progressive organizations (Pooley, 2010, pp. 419–420).

The Emergence of Climate Change–Centered Advocacy

During the first two decades of the 21st century, advocacy groups such as EDF, NRDC, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), and many others invested significant time, money, and other resources in achieving strong policies to curb climate change (Nisbet, 2011). Nearly all have program areas dedicated exclusively to climate change; depending on the organization, this may include staff that concentrate on the issue, digital campaigns, offline national, state, or local efforts, or collaboration with other groups in digital or offline campaigns (Bosso, 2005; Nisbet, 2011; Pooley, 2010). But for all these investments, by the late 2000s and early 2010s there had been few major successes. Since 2003, when the first climate change bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress, seven such bills have been introduced, but only one was approved by the House of Representatives, and all seven have died in the Senate (Layzer, 2011, pp. 368–377). When the U.S. Congress was closer than ever to passing an ambitious climate change bill in 2009, environmental and allied groups spent approximately $394 million in climate- and energy-related advocacy, with little to show for it (Nisbet, 2011). Even state-based efforts to combat climate change in the United States were starting to falter: in 2011, New Jersey pulled out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional effort to control carbon emissions along the upper East Coast (Eilperin, 2011).

Some have criticized these organizations for relying on an “armchair activism” model characteristic of many groups founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or even before then. In a postmortem of the fight to pass an ambitious climate bill in 2009–2010, Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote:

The new organizational investments made to prepare for the 2009 opportunity to pursue carbon-capping legislation focused much more on insider bargaining and within the Beltway lobbying than on building capacities in states and localities for a push from the left edge of the possible.

(Skocpol, 2013, p. 44)

Partially quoting renowned grassroots organizer and Harvard public policy lecturer Marshall Ganz, a similar postmortem about the 2009–2010 climate bill failure reached a similar conclusion:

“To think that a deep reform of our energy policies was going to happen because somehow it was going to be negotiated in D.C., it was just ahistorical, it was unreal,” he said. Part of the problem, Ganz has written, is that civic organizations such as the green groups have effectively become “bodiless heads”—professionally staffed, Washington-based organizations that are largely disconnected from the public they purport to represent.

(Bartosiewicz & Miley, 2013, p. 71).

It is difficult to overstate how much this and previous failures have served as a driving force behind the formation of new, climate changed–centered organizations—some of which embraced an internet-enabled, MoveOn-style flexibility from the early stages of their activities. For example, key staff members from 350.org and the 1Sky campaign, which was founded in 2008 and merged with 350.org in 2011, mentioned the need for internet-enabled grassroots organizing in the wake of previous climate activism failures (Hestres, 2014). These organizations, along with the millennial-oriented Power Shift Network (formerly the Energy Action Coalition), the globally oriented TckTckTck, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN, based in the Washington, D.C. metro area), and others, form part of this latest, internet-enabled climate advocacy boom.

In recent years, climate activists have increasingly utilized social media applications and other digital media technologies, such as email listservs, to organize and share information about both localized and transnational actions on climate and energy issues. In research on the role of Twitter in protest ecologies surrounding the Copenhagen COP 15 in December 2009, Segerberg and Bennett argue that the platform plays a “role as both networking agent in and window on the protest space” (Segerberg & Bennet, 2011, p. 200). They find that Twitter newsfeeds serve as “crosscutting networking mechanisms” and gatekeeping functions while also evolving an organizational function over the course of a single protest event (Segerberg & Bennet, 2011, p. 197). In research on the transnational anti-fracking Global Frackdown social movement, Hopke (2015) found that activists employed Twitter to strengthen a transnational collective identity centered on banning fracking and promoting renewable energy, in the context of concerns over climate change impacts. Global Frackdown activists used Twitter to make connections with like-minded movements and share information quickly in real-time between languages and wide geographical areas (Hopke, 2015).

In the lead-up to the 2009 COP 15, the number and diversity of civil society organizations expanded. In analysis of the network structure of civil society organizations in the context of COP 15, Jennifer Hadden (2015) finds that the Copenhagen climate talks was a tactical turning point. She finds the network to be made up of “two related but largely independent, components of a massive transnational civil society network” consisting of mainstream legacy environmental organizations and those part of the “Climate Justice Now” contingent, which got its start during the 2007 Bali climate summit (Hadden, 2015, p. 3). This increase in the organizational actors working in the climate advocacy space on a transnational level resulted in the “emergence of a divided network,” splitting those taking a more radical, climate justice approach from ones engaging in conventional climate politics (Hadden, 2015, p. 10). According to Hadden, large-scale protests are becoming the norm at international climate meetings, with a shift on the part of the more contentious civil society actors away from a focus on the UNFCCC toward targeting non-state actors, including individuals and corporations (p. 174).

Below are brief profiles of three groups and campaigns that belong to this emerging climate advocacy ecosystem: 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign.

350.org

In late 2007, environmental writer, lecturer, and activist Bill McKibben, along with six former students from Middlebury College in Vermont, founded 350.org (pronounced “three-fifty-dot-org”) after a national day of climate actions, called Step It Up, which they had organized primarily through the web the previous summer (Fisher & Boekkooi, 2010). Their goal was to start “a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis” (350.org, n.d.-a). 350.org has never spelled out a detailed policy platform: instead it endorsed the 1Sky platform, along with more than 600 other organizations, which called for creating millions of green jobs while cutting carbon emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2050 (Hestres, 2015b). 350.org’s chosen name conveys its ultimate goal. The group took its name from a scientific paper co-authored by Dr. James Hansen, then-director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a prominent climate scientist and activist. The paper argues that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere must be reduced from their (at the time) current level of 385 parts per million (ppm) to no more than 350 ppm to avoid the worst effects of climate change (Hansen et al., 2008). McKibben writes that the group chose its name “reasoning that we wanted to work all over the world . . . and that Arabic numerals crossed linguistic boundaries” (McKibben, 2013, loc. 164).

The group at first focused on movement-building actions designed to develop a global climate movement. In seeking to build a global climate movement with political strength and power, 350.org organizers sought to show what social movement scholar Charles Tilly (2004) has called WUNC (Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment). Examples include the 2007 Step It Up rallies that gave birth to the organization and the 2009 International Day of Climate Action, during which asked supporters to take pictures depicting the number “350” and post them on Flickr (Fisher & Boekkooi, 2010; Hestres, 2015a). Later, 350.org focused on challenging fossil fuel industries so as to weaken their influence on the political process, particularly in the United States, and also stigmatize them in the court of public opinion. Since the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks and the U.S. climate change bill, 350.org has launched campaigns to end fossil fuel subsidies, persuade various institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments, and train new grassroots leaders.

350.org’s most successful campaign to date aimed to block approval of the Keystone XL project—a $7 billion pipeline that would span nearly 2,000 miles and connect Canada’s oil sands to refineries near Houston, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico. The effort to stop the pipeline under the Obama administration included a civil disobedience campaign during which more than 1,700 activists were arrested in front of the White House, more than 10,000 activists surrounded it a few months later, and supporters sent more than 800,000 email to Senate offices (Henn, 2014; Hestres, 2014; McKibben, 2013, loc. 590). After years of protests, delays, and deliberations, President Obama rejected the permit to build the pipeline on November 2015 (Obama, 2015).2 350.org has also built a significant international presence in a relatively short amount of time: as of July 2017, of its 116 staff members, 66 (or 56%) were based outside the United States (350.org, n.d.-b). 350.org’s commitment to international climate activism was evident as early as 2009, when it organized an International Day of Climate Action, and continues to this day (Hestres, 2015a).

Part of 350.org’s success to date is due to its effective use of online tools to spur offline action, the results of which are documented and then disseminated via other online tools, thus creating a virtuous cycle of online-to-offline-to-online-etc. climate activism. The group has also relied on McKibben’s effectiveness and visibility as a writer to create a mutually reinforcing dynamic between traditional media outlets. For example, when McKibben’s 2012Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math,” was published online, 350.org distributed it widely through its social networks and email list and encouraged supporters to do so as well (350.org, 2012; McKibben, 2012). 350.org’s aggressive marketing of McKibben’s piece generated more than 140,000 Facebook likes, more than 15,400 tweets, and nearly 13,000 comments on the Rolling Stone website. In turn, the article and its accompanying social media activity reinforced attendance to 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour that featured climate-centered concerts and rallies (Hestres, 2015a).

After its Keystone XL success at pressuring former U.S. president Barack Obama to halt the pipeline, 350.org organized or participated in campaigns and actions more explicitly aligned with the Climate Justice Movement, which is most concerned with the disparate impacts of climate change on the world’s poor and ensuring the greatest greenhouse gas emitters bear the heaviest burden for solving the crisis (Pettit, 2004). In 2014, 350.org was a key organizer behind the first People’s Climate March, a large-scale climate activism event that took place in New York City, during which an estimated 300,000 marched through the city’s streets demanding action from an upcoming UN climate summit (Foderaro, 2014). Another Bill McKibben article in Rolling Stone announcing the march explicitly tied it to fossil fuel non-extraction and environmental justice, noting that a “loud” movement “. . . finds powerful leadership from the environmental-justice community, the poor people, often in communities of color, who have suffered most directly under the reign of fossil fuel” (McKibben, 2014, para. 11). Studying social media during the 2014 People’s Climate March, Thorson, Edgerly, Kligler-Vilenchik, Xu, and Wang (2016) show that organizers and march participants used Twitter to converge and draw broader public attention to climate issues. Employing the hashtags #climatemarch and #peoplesclimate, they co-created a sense of “shared visibility” through a “big tent” digital communication strategy (Thorson et al., 2016). 350.org also helped organize the Global Climate March, which took place in lieu of a large march scheduled to take place in Paris before the COP 21 climate talks but was prohibited after the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks. Co-organizer Avaaz.org estimated that more than 500,000 people had participated in marches around the world (Grimson & Fieldstadt, 2015).

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 350.org rallied its supporters to confront President Donald J. Trump’s support for fossil fuels and to support local fights against fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, which traverses Native American Lakota treaty lands in North Dakota and was the focus of widespread grassroots protests in the fall of 2016 (Boeve, 2016). On April 29, 2017, 350.org spearheaded a second People’s Climate March, as part of the Peoples Climate Movement, calling for “jobs, justice, and climate action” (Peoples Climate Movement, 2017). Climate march organizers used social media to mobilize supporters largely around a message of resisting Trump (Hopke, 2017).

Climate Reality Project (Formerly We Campaign/Repower America)

This organization is the offspring of a merger between two advocacy organizations founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore: The Alliance for Climate Protection and the Climate Project. Gore founded the Alliance in 2006 as a vehicle for climate-centered advocacy in the United States, while the Climate Project was conceived as a global educational project derived from Gore’s climate presentations. By merging the groups in 2010, their leaders aimed to create “one of the largest non-profit educational and advocacy organizations focused singularly on climate protection issues in the world” (German, 2010).

The Alliance’s first major intervention in the U.S. climate debate was a $110 million television and mass marketing campaign called We Can Solve It (aka the We Campaign) that Gore envisioned as “the first big-budget attempt to use the tools of mass marketing on behalf of the planet” (Pooley, 2010, p. 25). Its centerpiece was a series of television ads featuring bipartisan pairs of high-profile political figures, such as then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Revs. Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton, in which the pairs jokingly reaffirmed their overarching political disagreements while pledging their support for strong action to curb climate change (Walsh, 2008).

In July 2008, the Alliance launched the Repower America campaign to support Gore’s call to shift 100% of U.S. energy production to clean energy in 10 years (McDermott, 2008). This later became the Alliance’s chief vehicle to support comprehensive climate and energy legislation under consideration in Congress in 2009–2010 through paid field organizers and a targeted advertising campaign in swing congressional districts and states (Sheppard, 2009). Repower America’s online centerpiece was a twist on the petition tactic: the Repower Wall, which allowed supporters of Gore’s agenda to upload photos, videos, and written messages of support and featured posts from the likes of Melissa Etheridge, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), and Michael Bloomberg (Littman, 2009).

Since the failure of the comprehensive climate change and clean energy bill in 2010 and the merger of the Alliance and the Climate Project, the Climate Reality Project has concentrated on rebutting climate science denial and training volunteers around the world through its Climate Reality Volunteer Corps to educate their communities on the facts about climate change and the urgent need for action (climaterealityproject.org, n.d.; Nisbet, Markowitz, & Kotcher, 2012).

With the merger and rebranding of his campaign, Gore’s objective was to make denial of climate change as morally objectionable as denial of racism has become in modern society thanks to the Civil Rights Movement (The Huffington Post, 2011). In addition to volunteer presenters, Climate Reality has used online advertising to drive its anti–fossil fuel message, including an advertisement that ran on news sites: “when a browser clicked on a dead link, the ad said THIS PAGE DOES NOT EXIST. KIND OF LIKE CLEAN COAL” (Pooley, 2010, p. 304). Regarding the Trump presidency, Gore has expressed optimism, hoping that Trump “will work with the overwhelming majority of us who believe that the climate crisis is the greatest threat we face as a nation” (Gore, 2016, para. 4).

The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” Campaign

Along with activism, the shifts toward more fluid, internet-enabled networks are also altering the field of journalism. With networked modes of digital production, journalism is an increasingly fractured field. It is evolving toward what scholars have alternately termed networked journalism (Jarvis, 2006), participatory news, and citizen journalism (Deuze, Bruns, & Neuberger, 2007). These forms of journalism-as-process (Jarvis, 2009) emphasize collaboration between professional journalists and their former audiences, boundary crossing and shifting journalistic norms (Deuze et al., 2007), networked gatekeeping, crowdsourcing of elites, and affective, emotion-laced news streams shared through social media (Papacharissi & de Fatima Oliveira, 2012). Digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production norms through hybrid cultural practices, giving rise to “new paradigms of journalism” (Hermida, 2013, p. 295).

In March 2015, under the leadership of then-outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian, a leading British newspaper with a strong digital presence and online versions in the United States and Australia, launched a digital climate change advocacy campaign called Keep It in the Ground (Rusbridger, 2015a). The Guardian has two thirds of its readership outside of the United Kingdom and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014 for its coverage of the Edward Snowden NSA surveillance leak (Rusbridger, 2015b). In the first phase of the digital campaign, the Guardian partnered with 350.org, and its Go Fossil Free campaign, to pressure the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest financial assets from the top 200 oil, coal, and natural gas companies within the next five years (The Guardian, 2015; Rusbridger, 2015a).

Then-Guardian editor-in-chief Rusbridger decided to take a personal stand on climate change after having met climate activist Bill McKibben while both were in Stockholm to receive Right Livelihood Awards (Abbruzzese, 2015). Divestment is a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices, with roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (Ansar, Caldecott, & Tilbury, 2013). The Guardian won “campaign of the year” in the 2015 British Journalism Awards (Press Gazette, 2015).

In the first stage of the Keep It in the Ground campaign, according to former editor-in-chief Rusbridger, the publication emphasized the need for governments to take action on climate change ahead of the COP 21 climate negotiations in Paris and embrace fossil fuel divestment, as well as rescinding subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and its lobbying efforts (Rusbridger, 2015a). Targeting an audience of scientists, in Nature Rusbridger (2015b) writes that climate is a crucial news story but covering the topic is hard for journalists who are used to event-driven, episodic reporting. A goal of the campaign was to “energize and inspire people in a way that simple reporting sometimes does not” (Rusbridger, 2015b, para. 6). In its first six months, the campaign garnered support from more than 226,000 online petitioners (Howard & Carrington, 2015).

In October 2015, the Guardian shifted the focus of the campaign to an emphasis on hope in reaction to readers’ responses to the original campaign and ahead of the COP 21 Paris climate talks at the end of that year (Howard & Carrington, 2015; Randerson, 2015b). In a message to campaign supporters on October 5, 2015, assistant national news editor James Randerson wrote:

You—the supporters of this campaign—have been its backbone since the beginning. So we asked you where to take it next and your responses can be summarised in one word: hope.

We aren't abandoning fossil fuel divestment but we will now focus on solar power: the alternatives, the positive stories and its amazing growth and potential.

(Randerson, 2015a, para. 3–4)

With the second phase of the Keep It in the Ground campaign, the Guardian shifted its emphasis from divestment to investment in clean energy technologies within the context of the Paris climate talks, which took place between November 30 and December 12, 2015 (Randerson, 2015b). The goal was to show it is possible to make the transition to a low-carbon energy system (Howard & Carrington, 2015). As Randerson (2015b) wrote to readers, “A major strand of our climate coverage up to Paris and beyond will be about climate change as a story of hope” (para. 25). In phase two of the campaign, the publication focused coverage on transforming the global energy system and, in particular, on advancements in solar energy technology (Randerson, 2015b).

Conclusion

This article has traced the parallel histories of internet-enabled activism and climate change–centered activism. Some of the first and most enduring conservation organizations in the United States, such as the Sierra Club, were established during the chapter-based era of civic and political organizations. This model, which emphasized face-to-face interaction and produced relatively high levels of social capital (Putnam, 2000), was also a function of the communication technologies available at the time. Most of the large environmental organizations that comprise what Bosso (2000) has called an “interest group community” (p. 73) were established during the advocacy group explosion in the late 1960s to early 1970s, facilitated by the development of mainframe computers and databases that made large membership mailings possible (Karpf, 2012; Skocpol, 2003). Meanwhile, many of the climate-focused advocacy groups founded during the mid- to late 2000s, such as 350.org, embraced the organizational hybridity made possible by the internet and related technologies (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012; Bimber, Stohl, & Flanagin, 2009; Chadwick, 2013). The technological hybridity that allows digitally mediated organizations, regardless of their function, to share the same technological landscape can also facilitate organizational hybridity: case in point, the Guardian’s Keep It in the Ground campaign, conducted in partnership with 350.org (Randerson, 2015b).

On a tactical level, it can be expected that climate change advocacy campaigns over the next several years will have to navigate changes in the digital media landscape by following users’ enthusiastic adoption of cutting-edge digital media audiovisual features, including live video. To quote but one statistic, “[t]he number of hours people spent watching videos on mobile is up 100% year-over-year” (Waters, 2016). In fact, anti–Dakota Access pipeline activists have already used Facebook Live, a live video streaming feature unveiled by Facebook in August 2015, to broadcast their protests (Sottile, 2016) in conjunction with a Facebook location-based check-in feature (Kennedy, 2016). This trend reflects a broader move by users away from textual content and toward audiovisual (especially video) content in social media as evidenced by the growing popularity of mobile apps like Snapchat and Instagram and online video across all social platforms (Waters, 2016). This trend was anticipated by Mitchell Stephens (1998) in The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. Stephens theorized that the phenomenon described in his book’s title was due to, among other factors, the image’s ability to convey information more concisely than the word across language barriers and to its ability to arouse emotion (Stephens, 1998, pp. 61–62). Given the scientific complexity of climate change and the important role of emotions in social movements (Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2009), digital climate change campaigns are embracing this trend toward a heavily visual media environment.

On a strategic level, perhaps the biggest challenge climate change advocacy groups and campaigns face in the near future is Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States. As a candidate, Trump repeatedly called climate change a hoax that helped China undercut the United States in manufacturing (Jacobson, 2016). As president Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement (Shear, 2017) and has appointed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt is a climate skeptic who spent much of his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general fighting the EPA on climate change and other issues (Mooney, Dennis, & Mufson, 2016). Given that political science literature suggests presidents usually try to keep most of their campaign promises (Budge & Hofferbert, 1990; Krukones, 1984) and the hostility Trump seems to harbor toward his predecessor’s climate policies, it would not be unreasonable for climate activists to view the Trump presidency as a serious threat to their long-term goals. In fact, 350.org has already indicated its intention to confront Trump while also embracing local environmental justice struggles like the Dakota Access pipeline protests (Boeve, 2016).

But the challenges that climate advocates face in the near future are not necessarily a cause for panic or despondency. Attempting to explain the wave of innovation that occurred throughout the progressive advocacy ecosystem in first decade of the 21st century, which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush, Karpf (2012, pp. 142–143) has argued that political groups aligned with the party out of power have strong incentives to innovate technologically, tactically, and strategically. As one of Karpf’s respondents put it, “Storming the castle is much more fun” (2012, p. 142). If this explanation holds, the next few years may yield many setbacks and disappointments for climate campaigners but also set the stage for digital climate advocacy innovations that lead to meaningful policy gains in years to come.

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Notes:

(1.) McAdam (1986) distinguishes conceptually between low- and high-risk forms of political activism, using the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project as a case study. The two types of activism differ in terms of transactional costs associated and levels of risk. For example, signing a petition carries low cost and generally low risk, though in some cases it can be a high-risk activity (McAdam, 1986). In the case of structural and individual factors in recruitment to high-risk activism, such as that which carries risk of arrest or bodily harm, McAdam finds that in the case of Freedom Summer, individuals with a greater embeddedness in U.S. civil rights activist networks, as measured by strong-tie connections to other volunteers, were more likely to participate (1986, p. 80).

(2.) The U.S. State Department, under President Donald Trump, announced approval of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 24, 2017, with the Department issuing a permit for its construction to the company TransCanada (Dennis & Mufson, 2017). As of this writing, TransCanada was still seeking approval to run the 1,200-mile pipeline through the state of Nebraska. If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would connect Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast in the state of Texas.