Another Gay Marriage Victory, Another Lesson for Climate Action

06/26/2015 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

The United States Supreme Court ruled today that the right to same-sex marriage is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

Having spent 10 years writing about gay rights, and the past 10 years focused on climate change, I find that the tremendous success of the gay rights movement offers many lessons in how social change happens that are potentially useful to people fighting for climate action.

Of course, there are differences between the movements. Yet there are also many similarities in how Americans have responded to the issues that make the gay rights movement an intriguing model to consider.

First, the differences:

  • Personal v. global: Gay rights appear to be deeply personal -- about one individual's love for another. Climate change, in contrast, appears to be a mind-bogglingly complex global issue.
  • Now v. the future: Gay rights have always appeared to be about right now -- the desire to marry now, raise children now, be open now. Climate change, in contrast, has often been characterized as something that will occur in the future (though this too is changing.)
  • One clear change v. many: Gay rights has one clear clarion call -- equality. Climate change, in contrast, seems to require a change in everything: the way we make things, transport things, use things, drive, power our homes, eat, and so on.

Second, the similarities:

  • Denial: In the earlier days of the gay rights movement, denial of the reality of a same-sex orientation was rampant -- in society, among families, and even within the hearts of many gay and lesbian people themselves. More recently, denial has played a similarly prominent role in discussions of climate change.
  • Fear: With Caitlyn Jenner's recent appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair, it may be hard to recall how big a role fear once played for people coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. But prior to the radical growth in public acceptance, it played a very big role indeed. Today, climate change clearly also triggers fear reactions so profound that many people prefer not to think about it.
  • Debate about nature: Remember the debates about whether sexual orientation was nature or nurture, and whether a gay or lesbian orientation was "natural"? With climate change, we have seen similar debates steeped in confusion about natural changes in the climate v. human-induced changes created by the burning of fossil fuels.
  • Shaming and stereotyping: Once upon a time, the shaming and stereotyping of gay and lesbian people was quite simply horrific. Growing acceptance has diminished this phenomenon in many (albeit not all) quarters. But similar techniques have surfaced in climate discussions, with those who work for climate action having often been labeled "doom-and-gloomers."
  • Silencing: The act of "coming out" as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is an indication of how powerful the dynamic of silencing or being "in the closet" once was. In anticipation of negative judgments and worse, it seemed for many a natural way to protect themselves. In recent years, even people who care deeply about climate change have told me they often don't bring the topic up to strangers and family members because of similar negative expectations.

Third, the strategies:

So in the face of all these challenges, what did the gay rights movement do to become the most successful model of social change in modern American history? Or to put it another way, how did those fighting for gay rights shift their own language and behavior to effectively win over the minds and hearts of so many?

Brilliant legal strategies, grassroots activism, and political acumen clearly had much to do with it. But I would like to highlight seven simpler points:

  • They encouraged people to talk about it.
  • They cultivated community.
  • They had a simple message.
  • They told personal-and inclusive-stories.
  • They shattered stereotypes.
  • They focused on individual, heartfelt human values Americans could get behind (like equality, freedom, and love.)
  • They stayed positive.

These are all strategies, I believe, that are useful for those communicating about climate action. But perhaps an even simpler way of thinking about what we can learn from the success of the gay rights movement is this: Remember the three perceived differences between the movements I mentioned above? Perhaps they are not so different after all but, in fact, point the way to how to grow acceptance of the need for climate action, namely:

1. Use the deeply personal. Far from an abstraction, climate change is about my kid, your kid, the farmer, the old man with asthma, the single mom whose house was destroyed.

2. Focus on right now. Now is the moment to act -- for our health, our children, all living beings, and, yes, future generations.

3. Express one clear message. In the gay rights movement, like other civil rights movement, the demand came down to one word: equality. Maybe this is what climate change comes down to, as well: the equal right of every human being to enjoy the abundance of natural world, and the equal responsibility of everyone of us to ensure that they do.

For more, see my article on this topic in The Daily Beast and my talk at The Garrison Institute, both of which I drew on for this post. You can also find more on my website.