Why Climate Action Won’t Be Like Civil Rights

Not being served a cheeseburger because you’re African American is about as in-your-face as it gets. Climate change, while increasingly omnipresent, is never quite so personal. And that’s why calling for a civil rights style revolution on climate might not be the best analogy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve used the comparison myself, and we certainly need to achieve the same scale as civil rights. But how we get there will be different.

When you’re denied service in a restaurant, there’s no questioning the level of effrontery. But when it’s extra hot, or when a corn crop fails, or if disease spreads or food prices go up, or even if you house gets burned down by a wildfire or flooded by a hurricane, it’s still one-off from obvious, even if it shouldn’t be.

That plausible deniability — fires and floods happen; it’s been really hot before — means it’s going to be harder to mobilize at the grassroots than it was for civil rights. Climate science is just too mercurial: it can be greased out of a layperson’s hands too easily; it falls prey to doubt and poor reporting far too readily. The same level of confusion could not be created around, say: apartheid, taxation without representation, or gay marriage. And therefore it’s going to be hard to generate the same outrage, a key ingredient of grassroots movements.


So if the civil rights model won’t work for us, how do we get the change we need as temperature records fall and a year long drought batters our families, food supply and economy?

The revolution will have to be led by those entities that are not being served cheeseburgers, the “lunch counter constituents.” By definition, these are not grassroots citizens, but more like treetrunk elements of society — much bigger, much more powerful. Treetrunk entities are equipped to understand climate, viscerally feel its impact, and drive big scale change. What, or who, are they? In particular, they are corporations — and their CEOs — who are seeing the threat posed by climate to businesses in every realm.

Last week, I had dinner with a friend who works for AT&T, which has great hopes for business development in Sub-Saharan Africa as governments become more stable. Their work there will create jobs, improve people’s lives, and make money. But not if we don’t fix climate change, which has a bullseye on Africa. International telecom is being denied its cheeseburger, and it should be pissed!

Other treetrunk activists include the insurance industry (Munich and Swiss Re have been active on climate for years), snowsports, agriculture, and coastal resorts. As an example, Mammoth ski resort lost $30 million last year and laid off a quarter of its employees, including their energy efficiency guy. The whole U.S. ski and snowboard industry got a taste of a climate changed world last winter. The industry’s hair should be on fire! Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are already quite active because of the threat posed by climate. Nike has been cranking on climate for years now. Other treetrunk mobilizers include professional athletes and celebrities. The Portland Trailblazers, crazily, are outspoken advocates of climate action. Citi has some of the most innovative financial solutions to climate change going, though it isn’t an activist on the issue…yet.

A group I serve on the board of, Protect Our Winters, is trying this sort of activism within the snow sports community (a part of the even bigger outdoor industry, worth some $650 billion) by mobilizing enormously influential and sexy winter athletes who care about climate change (all of them do), as well as the industry’s business leaders and event sponsors, to create pressure for policy change. Town governments are also taking charge, with many municipalities creating their own movements. New York, painting its roofs white, fully groks climate’s threat and key solutions, along with other leading cities like Chicago, Seattle, Austin, and Portland.


As we burn and flood and dry out, it’s time to move beyond the notion that average individuals are going to anchor this revolution. They will play a role, but in the era of Citizens United, they need fire support. In the same way that the Syrian rebels need air backup, the climate movement needs powerful voices and dollars, because right now it’s fighting tanks with Kalashnikovs.

The good news is that something like this happened before in human history, when a revolution emerged not through a grassroots explosion but by the actions of a mighty few. Once, a small group of smart and powerful people (they were sexy too, I guess, at least to me) set out to reform society and advance knowledge. They changed the way we looked at the world; improved lives with new ideas and political innovation, replacing superstition with science; weakened abuses of power by church and state with intellectual dialog; and in many ways helped free large parts of the world from the tyranny of ignorance. Sound familiar? It was called the Enlightenment. And it wasn’t a grassroots movement, not at first. As Karen O’Brien at the University of Oslo has pointed out, it was made up of only 150 or so people who had the power, outrage, smarts and will to remake the world.

The names ring through history as chimes of freedom: Liebniz, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire. If we can solve climate change, and realize the profound benefits of doing so, greater than all the rewards of the enlightenment, children might one day view a list of names with similar awe: Munich Re, Howard Schultz, The Trailblazers, Michael Bloomberg, Chicago, Nike.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.