Why 350.org's Climate Change Day of Action Could Be So Much More

Today is 350.org’s climate change Day of Action. Nearly 7350 events in 188 countries have people coming together to promote the slogan “if we can get to work, so can you!” in an effort to push governments towards responsible energy policy. Events will be taking place in the expected places such as Portland and Berkeley. But there are also unexpected locales like Kabul, Afghanistan where people will be asking for climate action. The question is will governments listen?

In the invitation, 350 founder Bill McKibben writes “Since we've already worked hard to call, email, petition, and protest to get politicians to move, and they haven't moved fast enough,  now it's time to show that we really do have the tools we need to get serious about the climate crisis.”

Malcolm Gladwell recently had a piece in the New Yorker about the failure of social media to actually bring about social change. 350.org represents an interesting mix of the good and the bad of social media for a good cause. On the one hand, you have a lot of the “send an email asking for…” type of action, which isn’t really action at all. On the other hand, McKibben seems to realize that on-the-ground action is essential to bringing about the change needed on climate policy.

Last year, 350.org had a climate change Day of Action similar to this one. While the projects brought benefits to local communities, they didn’t inspire the body politic to reduce emissions. Copenhagen failed to bring about a binding climate change treaty, and the US hasn’t budged on climate policy.

So what’s missing? 350.org is clearly a motivated organization with worthy goals. The problem is the tools 350.org uses. The Day of Action features events that offer free bike tune-ups and rallies against coal. These aren’t realistic political actions to truly solve climate change. They’re individual changes that, while they get people to think about their personal contributions to solve climate change, do little to affect policy. And realistically, people attending a rally against coal already support climate change action. What’s another rally going to do?

These grassroots efforts have yet to sprout beyond seedlings. I’m not saying 350.org doesn’t have the power to create real change on climate policy. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

But events like the Day of Action don’t push people to act. And by act, I mean elect officials that actually care to do something about climate change. The bottom line is that while these events show regular people (and a few dignitaries such as the president of the Maldives) getting to work, they don’t actually offer any incentives for politicians to do the same because there’s no consequence for inaction.

The only way to actually get politicians to care is to show that their actions (or inactions as the case may be) have consequences. Instead of choosing the snappy 10/10/10 date as a day of action, why not schedule a day of action that falls a little closer to Election Day in the US (I know I’m being US-centric here, but that date is going to affect this country, its hope for a sensible energy policy, and the world’s hope to reduce the causes of climate change for at least the next two years.). Get people energized with local activities and invite progressive candidates to come talk about their commitment to solving climate change. And remind people about local ballot initiative such as California’s Proposition 23, which would overturn the state’s landmark climate change legislation, and the tangible benefits of voting against it. The progressive base is incredibly demoralized. By getting them excited about a single issue and pushing that to the front of their minds, the chance for real change increases.

Focusing on the US election might slight countries in the developing world or where real action is being taken. But I’m sure most activists, whether in the US, Ukraine or Uganda, would agree that actions in the US are essential to averting catastrophic climate change. We’re all in this together, and for better or worse, actions in the US matter a lot more than in developing countries.

I’m not knocking free bike tune ups or installing solar panels on the presidential residence in the Maldives or picking up trash on the Ute Reservation (though that has little to do with climate change). But if we want a real solution to averting climate change, there have to be consequences for those in power if they continue with business as usual. 350.org has incredible sway with young people. Galvanizing them to vote on the issue of their time, which will affect everything from the environment to the economy to national security, will reach much further than they could ever pedal their tuned up bike.

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