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Corbin Hiar

Corbin Hiar

Posted: October 11, 2010 12:03 PM

Sunday is a day of rest for many people. Not so yesterday, when hundreds of thousands gathered at 7,347 events around the globe to send a simple message to politicians about climate protection: "We're getting to work, what about you?"

Speaking with the AFP during 350.org's "Global Work Party," the organization's co-founder Bill McKibben said, "The only countries that aren't taking part, we think, are Equatorial Guinea, San Marino, North Korea, so it's clearly the most widespread day of environmental action. And as far as we can tell, the most widespread day of civic engagement on any issue ever in the planet's history."

So how did 350.org and its many partner organizations manage to organize such a coordinated, widespread series of events? Last week I spoke with 350.org to find out how it is using social media to press for climate action.

A full-length version of this piece is available at PBS MediaShift.

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world's second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce a binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

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By using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd title, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single-issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the "first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change."

It was a surprising success. On April 14, 2007, tens of thousands of Americans held simultaneous rallies in some 1,400 places across the country telling Congress to "step it up" and reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Their grassroots pressure likely helped convince presidential-hopeful Barack Obama to co-sponsor an ultimately doomed bill in the Senate.

After a second successful Step It Up event, McKibben and the Middlebury graduates created 350.org. Co-founder Phil Aroneanu told me that leading up to the 2009 UN climate convention in Copenhagen, "we realized there was this space to have a public show of force and show that folks really care about this issue when most of the leaders didn't really feel that."

Using a handful of foreign contacts they'd made at previous UN climate conventions, the team began planning the "International Day of Climate Action" on Oct. 24, little more than a month before delegates were due to meet in Denmark.

Organizing via Skype, chat, and text messaging, and via activist social networks like Change.org, the 350.org team mobilized more than 5,200 actions in 181 countries, as you can see in this video:

Put Solar On It

"There might have been one person from Malawi," Aroneanu said, "and as long as we kept communicating with them and showed them how this could be a great way to build up networks in their own countries, they did the hard work of organizing and reaching out to people who didn't have access to the Internet."

In one recent initiative, 350.org set up an online petition encouraging world leaders to install solar power on the roofs of their official state residences. It has been signed by tens of thousands of people. This was combined with blog support from Change.org and others, as well as a high-profile road trip from Maine to the capital with the first White House solar panel, a relic from the Carter administration.

Although McKibben and other 350.org members were initially rebuffed in their meetings with Obama administration officials, on Oct. 5 Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that new solar panels would be installed, making the White House "a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future." So far, leaders in India and the Maldives have also agreed to take up 350.org's solar challenge.

In an article calling McKibben one of the world's top global thinkers, Foreign Policy magazine described the 2009 Day of Climate Action as "the largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind." Yet, despite the unprecedented organizing success of 350.org and behind-the-scenes pressure from countless other environmental organizations, diplomats in Copenhagen failed to agree to a plan that would reduce CO2 to that magic number. A half-year later, a much discussed climate bill also died in the U.S., the world's largest historic greenhouse-gas polluter.

10/10/10

With international negotiations at a standstill and U.S. legislation at a stalemate, 350.org, Greenpeace and others in the environmental community are using every new media tool available to them to share their climate protection message and recruit new organizers.

The most visible display of this renewed focus on digital organizing was the "Global Work Party" on Oct. 10, when activists from around the globe will "pressure our leaders to Get To Work themselves by passing strong climate policies promoting clean energy and reducing emissions," as 350.org's website explains.

Two days before 10/10/10, the group had registered nearly 7,000 events in 188 countries. Coordinated online outreach by 350.org and its partner organizations has made the immense scale of the Global Work Party possible. Jess Leber, editor of the environment blog at Change.org, has worked with 350.org to feature a Get To Work series of guest posts from its organizers around the world. Chris Eaton, an online community organizer for Greenpeace, spent all of last Friday calling and emailing people in the climate movement to get them involved in one big social media push ten days before the 10/10/10 event, which like previous 350.org events, his group is co-sponsoring.

"I've found that's really effective," Eaton said. "If you get everyone to do the same thing at once online it's like a wave that gets a lot of attention."

What's Next?

Maintaining their new media momentum in a changing technological landscape will be a challenge for the climate movement. While Change.org's Leber told me how her site is aiming to become the "YouTube of social change," Greenpeace and 350.org have both deployed new media tools experimentally rather than tactically. This makes sense to some extent, but their better financed opponents in the fossil fuel industries are not leaving the development of social networks to chance. (For example, read this remarkable New Yorker article about the Koch Industries-fueled Tea Party movement.)

The climate movement is seeking low cost, easily accessible online tools. 350.org is interested in "boot-strap solutions that we can use extremely cheaply and scale up," Aroneanu said. His organization recently ditched their iPhone app in favor of a simple mobile website.

"We're not looking for things that we have to own, we're looking for things that our organizers can use effectively," Aroneanu said.

Greenpeace's online organizer Eaton said his number one rule is "organize where people are at," and he pointed out that there simply aren't a critical mass of activists on Foursquare yet.

Regardless of the precise new media mix, the climate movement is committed to continuing the push for climate protection with what Aroneanu called "open-source" activism. Social activism sites like Change.org feature blog content about environmental challenges and online petitions that can recruit activists for 350.org and Greenpeace. The organizers at those groups can then mobilize high-impact online climate campaigns or on-the-ground distributed actions across the nation and around the globe. The big, one-day march on Washington has been done so many times, no one notices anymore.

"We really focus on developing grassroots leaders," Aroneanu explained. "And we feel like that grassroots leadership is what's going to lead this movement to a place where we actually are able to pass the kind of legislation we need to pass."

Legislative deal-making is worthless without deep pockets or a broad base of public support. The failure of the recent climate bill proved that environmental groups cannot outspend or outmaneuver the fossil fuel industry.

"Everybody understands that we need to build a movement beyond just this piece of legislation," 350.org's Aroneanu said.

The successes his organization, Greenpeace and others have had organizing in the expanding digital space has made activists realize that savvy use of new media is required to construct a lasting climate constituency.

Click here to see a slideshow of Global Work Party events.

 

Follow Corbin Hiar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/corbinhiar