The movement to stop climate change is no longer just a brainy collective of scientists and greens — it’s now a fighting force of more than one million activists from every corner of the planet.
Behind the scenes, the digital organizers of international environmental group 350.org have been raising this army and directing it to put pressure on several key fronts. While the majority of Congressional Republicans are still waffling over the reality of climate change, 350.org’s legions have been busy filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of protesters, shutting down major pipeline projects and killing billions of dollars’ worth of investments in fossil fuel companies.
As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris approaches this December, when a new international agreement on global warming is expected to be drafted, it looks like this new wave of people power will have enough clout to push decision-makers to do the right thing.
But what’s really surprising here is how far the group has gone with so little. Founded in 2008 and with a current staff numbering less than 100, 350.org has grown a network that now encompasses more than 4,000 groups in more than 180 countries. No social cause in history has marshaled so great a following with so few resources in just seven years.
Their secret? An emerging activist strategy called “distributed action.”
Distributed action is an approach to movement-building that encourages self-starting local groups. Over the last 15 years, this strategy has grown in parallel with social networks, which now make it possible on a larger scale. It has been used by subversive media group Adbusters to encourage the replication of its Buy Nothing Day event across the world, and the Global Justice Movement, which set up an activist reporting network in 35 countries.
Most famously, it was the driving force behind the spontaneous spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement from a single New York protest to 951 cities.
350.org, for its part, has taken on the distributed action model by handing control of its digital platforms over to its followers, letting them build their own local chapters and even plan their own events.
This is quite an unconventional move for an environmental group, but according to 350.org’s digital director, Jon Warnow, innovation was the only way to go when fighting on an issue as far-reaching as climate change.
“There’s no way our relatively small staff could have effectively run a ‘command and control’ program that relied on top-down administration,” he says.
350.org started using distributed action from its early days, mostly to pull supporters together around events such as its first International Day of Climate Action in 2009. The strategy seemed to really hit its stride in 2011, when the group turned its energies to thwart the U.S. government’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. It was at this time when 350.org organizer Sara Shor coordinated a “bird-dogging” campaign to hound President Obama wherever he toured to drive home the idea that approval of this tar sands oil pipeline would be bad news for climate change.
More than 750 actions protesting the Keystone Pipeline have taken place since 2011. Explore the efforts via this map here.
To manage these complex logistics from a distance, 350.org emailed its targeted supporters across the U.S. and encouraged them to intercept the president as he came through their communities, with actions of their own making. In this way, 350.org seeded 750 anti-Keystone XL protest actions and, according to Shor, “has successfully shown the president that there is a movement against Keystone XL in every town and in every state.”
In the last three years, 350.org has upped its game and started to create a more robust digital support system to push distributed action further. At the core of this strategy are customizable local “hubs” — turnkey blogs, basically — that are made available to anybody willing to start and lead a local 350.org chapter.
This is augmented by training and guidance for setting up connected local Facebook Pages, Twitter accounts and Google groups. Once a hub is activated, it shows up on a dynamic global map of active chapters.
The hub model has proven especially effective in two recent campaigns: the People’s Climate March, which took place in September 2014, and the Fossil Free divestment movement, in which activists push their universities, governments and banks to drop their investments in carbon-heavy industries.
Several weeks prior to the People’s Climate March, 350.org’s social media manager, Thelma Young, was busy facilitating a vast constellation of hubs self-activated by volunteer march organizers of all stripes. The wide variety of groups that could self-identify as march organizers and customize their hubs, including a group of skaters against climate change, allowed different kinds of people to “see themselves in the movement” and was key to the march’s success, Young says.
350.org’s divestment campaigners have similarly used the power of hubs to bring together a Global Divestment Day earlier this year, which sparked 450 events in more than 60 countries.
Overall, the power of 350.org’s distributed approach is best measured by counting the impressive victories its movement has achieved. The Keystone XL pipeline is now stalled, thanks to President Obama’s recent veto. The People’s Climate March blew away all expectations when it sparked 2,646 events in 162 countries, and drew a crowd of 400,000 onto the streets of New York City. The Fossil Free divestment movement is on a roll, and has so far taken $50 billion out of the pockets of the fossil fuel industry.
Still, 350.org has found that running things with a distributed model is not without its challenges. For one thing, the balance between local autonomy and central control must constantly be re-examined and readjusted.
Those who have studied the rise and fall of movements such as Occupy Wall Street warn of the dangers of too much autonomy. In Digital Rebellion, a detailed look at networked protest groups, Rutgers professor Todd Wolfson argues that an overemphasis on autonomy made these movements hard to sustain, and led to their early demise.
A distributed model also has to rely on the resources of central command, and there are times when 350.org seemed to overstretch its capacities.
For example, even though the People’s Climate March was largely deemed a success, people were drawn to organize through the march’s online hubs with the promise that the network would be maintained after the event. But 350.org left the hubs on autopilot. In a critique written in May, Civicist writer Jessica McKenzie asks: “After all of the hype, where is the People’s Climate Movement?”
This fade-out does not surprise advocacy expert Dave Karpf, who points out that a distributed network is hard to hold together when a collective action has passed. According to Karpf, one of the central questions that will keep emerging for organizers at 350.org is: “What we are going to give all these groups to do?”
Though these kinks still need to be worked out, the advantages of distributed action seem to outweigh the challenges in the minds of a good number of cause-based organizations that are now trying their hands at it.
Some, such as Avaaz.org and Democracy for America, help their members launch their own local online petitions. Others, such as Hollaback, the Brooklyn-based network against street harassment, encourage the startup of autonomous international chapters and help train their leaders. Then there is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which sparks grassroots protests wherever there is racial injustice, with little or no central leadership.
All of these groups currently experimenting with the new possibilities of distributed action are helping develop a way to unleash grassroots action and tackle big issues with little funding or central staff. Do-gooders everywhere should take note: There is a long list of underfunded but worthy causes around the world that could use a dose of this people power.
In the meantime, the movement to stop climate change continues to serve as an impressive example.