Campaigning for change
How do we make politicians take action on the climate crisis?
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Maybe you’ve been following the developments at COP26, the international climate summit ostensibly to prevent catastrophic climate collapse, but which in reality seems to just make it look like we’re preventing catastrophic climate collapse. When the world’s eyes are on them, the most powerful leaders, the ones whose countries have done the most damage, can’t commit. They’re the bad boyfriends who “just don’t want to put a label on things” but are definitely super into you, very committed, stop being weird about it.
And boyfriends they are, because you may have noticed that COP26 was a sausage party: roughly 130 presidents and PMs gathered and fewer than 10 are women. Why does this matter? Sarah Lazarovic summed it up well: “Canadian women believe it’s an emergency at much higher rates than men. Women worry more, women leaders have lower carbon emissions, women experience more adverse climate effects than men, women are more attuned to climate risk, and women take more action.”
The average age of delegates was 60, meaning they’re deciding on a future they won’t live to see. There were also twice as many fossil fuel advocates as Indigenous representatives, and many of the nations most vulnerable to climate change were unable to attend because of global vaccine inequity.
Despite some promising commitments, the end result, according to Climate Action Tracker, is that we’re still way off the policy we need for a non–Mad Max future: they still predict that by 2030 we’ll be emitting twice more than we should to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. Right now, 2.4 degrees is more likely, 1.8 a best-case scenario. (If you need a reminder why these half degrees make a big difference, check out these New York Times animations.) One massive disappointment: wealthy nations continued to delay the US$100 billion annually for climate mitigation promised to those who will suffer most as seas rise and droughts and hurricanes become even more frequent. They also resisted a “loss and damages fund,” aka climate reparations. These delays could spell the end of countries like the Maldives — lives, histories, entire geographies lost. Climate action isn’t enough: we need climate justice.
In short, the bad boyfriends insist they really are trying, and they’re sorry your feelings are hurt, and stop asking about the scarf they really don’t have it.
Which brings us back to regular life, and what we can do besides weep quietly in a dark room. When the politicians return home, how can we prompt them to keep ambitious climate action a priority item?
There are some key insights from a 2012 study of members of Parliament in European countries that ranked effective public actions. The top ways we puny individuals can grab politicians’ attention?
Creating media attention (writing op-eds, creating media-attracting actions)
Writing letters or emails to politicians
Ones that can have an effect but are easier for them to ignore:
Internet discussions (i.e., your latest angry tweet or Facebook screed)
Interestingly calling your representative isn’t on this list, but calling is often considered more effective than writing. Since writing and calling are the easiest of the heavy-hitting actions, let’s break down how to do these for maximum impact.
Make a politician your pen pal.
You can write your representative through email or snail mail (and in Canada, if you’re writing to the PM or your MP, no postage is required). Some officials say a handwritten letter has a bigger impact, but if you’d like a response, email is a better bet.
For the best chance at making an impact:
Identify yourself as a constituent. If you’re writing to your elected official, tell them you’re in their riding. If they need your vote, they’re more likely to pay attention. If you’ve voted for them in the past or donated to or volunteered with their campaign, let them know.
Tell them what it’s about. In your first paragraph, let them know why you’re writing. If it’s about a specific piece of legislation, name it.
Tell a personal story. Why does this issue matter to you? Be as specific as possible. (If you don’t have a personal story, don’t worry about it.)
Don’t send a form letter (but you can crib from one!) Listen, sometimes we’re all tired, and it’s easiest to take the 10-second solution. Sending a form letter is better than nothing. But if it’s an issue that you really care about, an original letter is going to be harder to dismiss. That said, if I’m in a hurry, I’ll often look at the key points and facts provided by an NGO template and simply paraphrase.
Keep it short. Someone is tasked with reading all these: do them a favour and keep it under 250 words. Try to focus on no more than three key points.
Ask for a response. Don’t let them ignore your email or letter. Tell them you expect to hear back from them. Sadly, there’s a good chance you’re getting a form letter.
Include your address, or at least your postal code, with your signature. It offers a reminder you’re a constituent.
Share your letter. If you feel comfortable, post your letter online, which may prompt others to follow your lead.
Dial for a difference.
Legislators say phone calls have an even greater impact than letters, because a ringing phone and a human voice on the other end are harder to ignore. Former congressional staffer Emily Coleman, who wrote a downloadable guide to contacting U.S. reps, noted on Twitter that not all letters could be responded to, and most often they replied with form letters. “But phone calls! That was a thing that shook up our office,” she tweeted.
Maybe this prospect liquefies your insides. Hard same! But first, know that you’re probably not going to get into a policy debate with the person on the other end. They’re just there to record your opinion, and they also probably want a speedy end to the call. Second, if you really don’t want to interact with a human, call after hours and leave a voicemail. (I have 100% done this.)
When you call:
Be polite. Chances are, if you’re willing to call a stranger, this is something you care about a lot. But be courteous: the person you’re talking to probably isn’t making the decisions and may have to field dozens of phone calls a day.
Identify yourself as a constituent, for the same reasons as above.
Have talking points ready. Whatever your main points are, have them in front of you so you can hit them quickly and concisely. If that is too stressful, it’s okay to read from a script created by someone else, but that can work best if you’re leaving a voicemail.
Again, be personal. “What representatives and staffers want to hear is the individual impact of your individual story,” Coleman told the New York Times. “I couldn’t listen to people’s stories for six to eight hours a day and not be profoundly impacted by them.”
For an even bigger impact, participate in a coordinated calling campaign, or organize a phone zap, which usually means prepping with others before the call, a period of coordinated calling, and then a short debrief after. The buddy system! If you need help with accountability (*raises hand*) give it a try.
Whatever you do, remember this kind of civic engagement has the potential to be a high-impact eco action. It might not give you the quiet satisfaction of patching a hole or planting a garden, but these calls and letters may mean at next year’s COP, the bad boyfriends can’t cop out.
To sway politicians, the most important actions are: creating media attention (writing op-eds, creating media-attracting actions), writing letters or emails to politicians, making calls, and attending political demonstrations.
Calls can be more effective than letters, since they require more time and attention.
For most effective communication, keep it polite, personal, and to the point.
Wins of the Week
“Anything else you are interested in is not going to happen if you cannot breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out! Do something! You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” — Carl Sagan
This week, I’m sharing an XL wins list, because it turns out you guys love to repair! Shout-out to the people embracing this month’s challenge and quietly mending what’s broken in this world.
Susannah learned how to repair her bathroom fan with the help of YouTube.
Jessica got her work computer fixed, and since other integrated parts had to be upgraded, got a way better computer for a quarter of the price.
John sleuthed out the wiring in his house and figured out how to electronically close a vent that lets cold winter air into the basement.
Jimmy fixed a friend’s stroller that was landfill-bound.
Sarah Joy is darning socks and mending PJs.
The month is not over, so keep up your fix-it projects, and share them with me by hitting reply or posting them in the FB group. Other wins also always welcome. Also: if you write to your reps, please let me know! And if you want to share your wording with the group, you’ll help us all be better democratic citizens.
As 2021 winds down and so does my second FMFP yearlong cycle, I’m thinking about where to go next and how I can be of use. I won’t do a survey this year, but if you have thoughts about what you find useful, what you don’t, and what phase 3 FMFP might look like, please click reply. I love hearing from this green gang.
P.S. As we’re entering peak gift-buying season and Black Friday propaganda is in full swing, maybe revisit my (first!) post, on how to have a greener, and less stressful, holiday while avoiding malls and supply-chain convulsions.