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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Can Environmental Activism Save the World?

Can environmental activism save the world? And, if so, how? As the world continues to grapple with the cascading consequences of our global environmental crisis, the urgent need for collective action has never been clearer. Northwestern Professor of Management and Organizations Brayden King joined Illinois Sierra Club Deputy Director Kady McFadden to discuss the future of environmental activism and the role of activism in shaping global environmental outcomes, including combating climate change, in a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar. Here are four key takeaways:

The environmental movement is rooted in grassroots activism, which is critical to achieving meaningful transformation.  “It’s difficult to imagine progress on any social issue without protests and collective action,” said King, “and the environmental movement counts among the most successful social movements in the past half century.”  The movement initially gained traction in the 1960s emphasizing conservationism, but has shifted its focus in recent decades to combating climate change. “It has moved in from the periphery to become an umbrella movement within progressive activism, and the sheer number of activists involved should be a source of hope,” said King, noting that, in 2019 alone, more than 7.6 million people worldwide participated in environmental protests during Climate Strike Week.

Yet, despite a robust grassroots movement and a track record of victories, the environmental crisis continues to worsen. While there are reasons for hope, we are still “far from instituting solutions that make a meaningful dent in CO2 emissions and climate change,” said King. This is in part because environmental issues are systemic and it’s difficult to translate one-off policy gains, such as shifting local economies away from fossil fuels and towards wind and solar energy, into lasting systemic transformation. Ultimately, “this is a global problem that needs global solutions in order to meaningfully reverse the damage being done. We can’t just solve the problem in one country and ignore what’s happening elsewhere,” said King. While the movement has done a good job of encouraging governments, business and other organizations to commit to climate goals, we need a more coherent global strategy to monitor those commitments and foster accountability.

Systemic problems such as a climate change, inequality and racism are deeply interconnected–and so are solutions. The issue of climate change is fundamentally intertwined with issues such as racism and social injustice, economic inequality, and the erosion of democracy, which are all “symptoms of systems that serve to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of a few,” said McFadden. Yet solutions such as cooperation, inclusion and democratic engagement are also connected. “Grassroots organizing really is key,” added McFadden.  We need to believe “in the power of talking to people, energizing our neighbors, lobbying legislators and electing climate friendly politicians to pass legislation and create meaningful change.  We need to be strategic and tactful.”

Engagement at all levels and “radical incrementalism” are key to addressing the climate crisis. “People get involved when they feel passionate. It can feel hopeless when looking at the big picture, but people feel empowered when they can make meaningful change at the local level.  That kind of radical incrementalism is the door through which people get involved,” said King.  Likewise, “We need to listen to the communities on the front lines of the crisis and understand that building true and just relationships with them is critical. These communities are a wealth of information and solutions,” said McFadden.  This type of grassroots engagement ensures that “solutions don’t just benefit the elites, but also watch out for the little guy,” added King.

“Thanks to the efforts of activists, the business community has become more cognizant of its own environmental image,” said McFadden. While there are certainly credible reasons to be critical of the inevitable compromises, it does produce results. 


This webinar is part of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series, which focuses on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter. This webinar focused on SDG 13: Climate Action, spotlighting how effective approaches to combating climate change require unprecedented global cooperation and scientific knowledge. Winter 2021 webinars are co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and sustainNU.