GRANTEE SPOTLIGHT: Climate Changemakers bets on virtual organizing to reach the climate curious and Big Tech

Colin Sullivan

September 9 2021

When the Yale Program on Climate Communication last year reported evidence of a demographic shift within the groups that make up “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” Climate Changemakers Executive Director Eliza Nemser knew she had her hook.

That study conducted a series of surveys that found 26% of Americans were “alarmed” about climate change, while 29% described themselves as “concerned” and 8% were “dismissive”.

Yale added that the U.S. population has shifted over the last five years, from 17% alarmed and 10% dismissive in October 2015. That means the alarmed now outnumber the dismissive by 3 to 1, according to Yale’s work.

The study also found that only 1% of Americans “are currently participating in a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming.” But 9% indicated they would “definitely participate,” while 20% said they would “probably participate.”

It’s that 29% Nemser wants to target by arguing for more aggressive climate activism through her organization, Climate Changemakers, which sponsors virtual meetings and follow-up actions encouraged by her staff. These actions target “the high-leverage, low-hanging fruit that has broad support,” she said, if only those in Congress would hear more often from constituents about that support.

On that topic, Climate Changemakers wants to help. To Nemser, more powerful environmental groups in Washington are more likely to move the goalposts on big policies, so she wants to aid their efforts by “watching those goalposts and bringing as many people as possible” to the debate.

Such policies, in her view of low-hanging fruit, include clean energy tax credits, subsidies for electric vehicles, removing fossil-fuel subsidies, a clean electricity standard and promoting democracy process reforms.

Or let’s restart the post this way: Let’s say you’re sitting at your desk and you’re “climate curious” but have yet to do anything about it. Let’s say you’re outraged, saddened or even panicked by the doom, gloom and disaster-reporting that tend to define the global warming news cycle. Let’s say you’ve been paying attention and have decided you’d like to act, likely for the first time.

Where to turn? Climate Changemakers has you covered.

The group was launched last year with a simple but powerful idea: that the consensus to solve the climate crisis already exists but needs an organizational shove. The Yale study fit within that paradigm precisely. Let’s dig into how it works.

How it works

In short, Climate Changemakers offers a cleared path for anyone looking to activate and organize. They want you to contribute an hour a week, and that’s it, for starters. They offer a flexible template to help you begin, with a range of available actions. They suspect that by getting more optimistic souls in the mix, a community stone will start rolling, with better-prepared believers trained along the way.

Climate Changemakers’ fledgling-activist audience so far has skewed towards the tech industry and climate scientists, though they want to attract good humans from any and all backgrounds. The project has also been managed and run virtually, given the group’s launch in the middle of the global covid19 pandemic, and that seems to be working as a savvy approach to community-building.

The group’s model is a bit like dealing with procrastination. Procrastination gurus say “just work for five minutes” if you have that problem, because often we forget our hesitation once initial hurdles are overcome. Point being: It’s safe to say Climate Changemakers wants us to stop procrastinating about climate change and join the offensive, without delay. 

“We’re trying to make climate action into a team sport,” explained Nemser, who worked for ten years as an earth scientist before she became a virtual organizer full time. “We have pioneered this idea of an hour of action, which means accountability so you actually do it. How many people really pick up the phone and call their senators? We’re trying to change that and get folks over that hump.” 

Nemser has spent the last year getting a skeleton staff on board (the group has two full-time employees) and holding weekly virtual meetings open to anyone. They have “taken action with” 369 volunteers in that time, meaning that many new activists have been trained for at least one hour of action. Nemser hopes to attract 5x or 10x that number in 2022.

Gabrielle Jorgensen, advocacy director for Changemakers and one of its full-time employees, offered details on how the group designs its programs with an intentional order.

First, she said, it’s “really important for volunteers to build a personal story around a policy issue,” so the first week of participation (the first hour) is about learning and crafting personalized talking points, often about “which policy speaks to you.”

“Our belief is that personalized messaging resonates the most with people in power,” she said, adding that often it’s far more effective if that narrative comes directly from a constituent, as opposed to a policy professional or lobbyist.

In week 2, the newly trained activist reaches out to policymakers, using phone scripts, letters or social media to contact them directly. In week 3, Changemakers tries to get influential people to talk to members of Congress, with designed actions that might call out a utility company, a prominent bank or a pipeline operator, to name a few.

In week 4, the group tries to talk to policymakers in a more direct way, by perhaps meeting with congressional staff on Zoom. This is how a recent Zoom meeting with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal came about (more about that below). The group asked his staff if he would appear, and he said yes.

Jorgensen said she was attracted to the approach after working for an advocacy group in Washington as well as a public affairs firm. In early 2020, she decided climate is not a technology problem so much as a political struggle.

She found out about Nemser through a Slack channel and podcast called "My Climate Journey and initially joined as a volunteer. She noted that about two-thirds of those who join Climate Changemakers had never taken part in a political organizing effort before this, and that’s why she believes it can work, with the majority of those enlisted so far coming from ages 25 to 45.

Teaming with ClimateVoice

The group also plans to roll out a pilot project this month, in partnership with ClimateVoice, which is an organization that attempts to mobilize employees at tech firms to pressure their companies.

The pilot is an attempt to get employees at Amazon, Alphabet (formerly Google), Apple, Microsoft and Facebook to mobilize. The organizations want to prod influential tech executives who claim they care about the effects of global warming but haven’t applied much political pressure on policymakers.

That effort builds on a campaign launched by ClimateVoice this spring that urges major tech companies to commit more resources to lobbying Congress and states for pro-climate policies. That project is called “the 1 in 5 campaign” for the notion that these companies should devote one-fifth of their lobbying muscle to climate.

Nemser explained that for the pilot’s first week this month the groups will target the tech giants to urge them to lobby, using relational organizing (through LinkedIn and other sites) “to identify and recruit friends who work at Big Tech and invite them to the second week.”

“That second week, Sept 22/23, will be focused on raising your own climate voice at work, with options to press at a Big Tech company either as an employee or as a consumer (everyone with an iPhone, etc.) and/or getting organized in your own workplace to ask your employer to devote lobbying capital to climate policy,” Nemser wrote in an email. “We expect (and will recruit) a lot of tech employees. This pilot collaboration is slated to become ‘evergreen content’— likely a once-a-month collaborative hour of action.”

Nemser added that she is contemplating the launch of a separate 501(c)(3) organization since ClimateVoice is a c3 project. She is actively looking for funding, though she added that raising money when “we’re unapologetically doing the work that’s political in nature” is substantially harder than raising funds as a different sort of non-profit.

“We would love to bring on a marketing and communications director,” she said, while crediting Preston-Werner Ventures for granting enough seed money to incorporate. “We are very actively fund-raising, and honestly we’re bursting with excitement about where we’re headed.”

‘There’s no such thing as neutrality’ on climate — Sen. Blumenthal

The demand that tech firms ramp up lobbying on climate is separate from promises those companies have made to go electric, purchase renewable energy or address energy consumption by data centers. ClimateVoice founder Bill Weihl, a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook, says it’s time for those firms to put up or shut up, especially with far-reaching climate provisions still alive in the congressional budget process this fall.

“We’ve got a window politically,” Weihl told Grist recently. “We’ve got an opportunity in Washington where we could pass major climate legislation. Big tech companies have the resources and ability, if they choose to, to really dig in here and make a difference.”

Weihl is also a participant in Climate Changemakers and recently joined a Zoom call the group staged with Blumenthal, a leading progressive, during which several activists were able to quiz the senator on climate progress in the Senate. Previously, the group hosted Jena Marie Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of State, as well as several members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Blumenthal seemed very much on board with the Changemakers model during an open-ended Zoom chat with the group’s volunteers. He offered the crowd a rallying cry about the budget process this fall and even managed to break a little news, suggesting that several “pay fors” that have been proposed alongside climate policies could survive the legislative process.

Repealing subsidies for fossil-fuel industries, for instance, would help raise money for other provisions, and doing so might make climate provisions more palatable to fence-sitters in the Senate, Blumenthal told the group.

“Those subsidies are a way of saving money,” he said. “If you’re looking for ways to pay for new programs, what better way than to eliminate those subsidies.”

Blumenthal also urged the group to pursue “tried and true ways” of reaching lawmakers like petitions, phone calls and letters. He added that contacting state officials can be just as crucial, because “a lot of these state laws can have an impact nationally.”

“If you pass state laws in three states, five states, eight states” then you’re more likely to affect the federal process, he said. “And run for office,” he added, admitting it’s not always fun to do so but “certainly it is a way to educate the public.”

Blumenthal then said he remains “very hopeful” about a clean electricity standard in the budget reconciliation process. He stressed the need to approach Republicans about such policy ideas to win in Congress, noting that “even Nixon was instrumental in establishing the [U.S.] EPA.”

“The planet is on fire; there’s no such thing as neutrality,” he said. “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who reserve their neutrality in times of great moral crisis.”

Editor’s note: If you’d like to chat with PWV’s Jae Pasari about why he decided to fund Climate Changemakers, he’d like you to know he’s available to talk. Please reach out to this newsletter, and we’ll set you up. Thanks for reading.

— Colin Sullivan