Climate Change Advocacy Online: Theories of Change, Target Audiences, and

Climate change advocacy online: theories of change, target audiences, and online strategy

Widespread adoption of the Internet has transformed how most US political advocacy organizations operate, but perhaps more important has been the formation of new types of advocacy organizations. These ‘Internet-mediated advocacy organizations tend to have smaller, geographically dispersed and networked staffs, behave as hybrids of traditional political organizations, and emphasize the use of online tools for offline action.

The climate change debate has spurred the formation of many such organizations – including – that now advocate for climate action alongside legacy/environmental organizations. How do these organizations differ from their legacy/environmental counterparts? What does their rise mean for climate change political advocacy? I explore these and other questions through in-depth interviews with top online strategists and other staffers at Environmental Defense Fund,

Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, Energy Action Coalition, 1Sky, and Interviews revealed broad agreement among Internet-mediated/climate groups regarding core strategic assumptions about climate advocacy, but some divergence among legacy/environmental organizations. They also revealed connections between these assumptions, audience segment targeting, and strategic use of the Internet for advocacy. I discuss implications for the future of US climate advocacy.


In June 1988, Dr James Hansen, then-head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a US Senate committee that scientists were ‘99% certain’ that rising global temperatures seen in recent years were caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the by-products of increased industrial activity over the last century (Shabecoff 1988).

Public opinion and climate change

It is worth establishing where American public opinion stands on climate change before discussing US climate advocacy in greater detail. Although a majority of Americans (64%) believes that climate change is happening, and those who do are more certain of this fact while those who do not are becoming less certain, this majority lags far behind the nearly unanimous consensus of the scientific community (Leiserowitz et al. 2014b).

Legacy/environmental organizations and climate advocacy

Most of the legacy/environmental organizations I profile in this article are well-established players in an advocacy community that has been fairly stable since the 1970s. Although most of them began as local, grassroots-focused efforts, they have since evolved into large, national organizations that are now a permanent feature of the American political landscape (Bosso 2005).

Internet-mediated climate advocacy

Widespread adoption of the Internet has enabled the rise of ‘Internet-mediated advocacy organizations’ (Karpf 2012) whose communication and mobilization dynamics differ from the ‘armchair activism’ commonly associated with legacy/ environmental organizations (Skocpol 2003).

Unlike legacy/environmental groups, they do not depend on paid memberships for financial stability; tend to maintain a smaller, geographically dispersed staff that collaborate online; embrace multiple issue umbrellas (e.g. the environment, health care, civil rights, reproductive rights, etc.); and engage in opportunistic advocacy, also known as ‘headline chasing (Karpf 2012, p. 14).

At the core of this distinction is the level of participation that each type of organization elicits from supporters: Internetmediated organizations are presumed to seek greater levels of engagement from their supporters than the armchair activism-oriented legacy organizations (Skocpol 2013, Hestres 2014).

Political opportunities and theories of change

Social movement scholars have argued that most political movements ‘are set in motion by social changes that render the established political order more vulnerable or receptive to challenge’ (McAdam et al. 1996, p. 8), a perspective known as political process theory (PPT).

Research method

The organizations featured in this article were chosen on the basis of the representativeness of their respective advocacy communities and the level of access they were likely to provide the researcher to their staff. I chose my interview subjects because of the key roles, they have played in one of three organizational areas: online communications, field organization, and top-level leadership.


The 1Sky campaign was created to advance ‘[b]old federal action in the United States that can anchor the global movement to stop global warming and simultaneously generate millions of new jobs and economic security (1Sky 2008). It had three ambitious policy goals: reducing global warming pollution by at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben and a cohort of six students from Vermont’s Middlebury College founded after the Step It Up actions of 2007 (see Fisher and Boekkooi 2010 for more background on Step It Up) in order to build a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis ( n.d.-a). The organization took its name from a study co-authored by Dr James Hansen.


EAC was founded in 2005 by youth activist leaders from across the country to ‘build a powerful youth movement focused on solving the climate crisis and addressing environmental justice’ ( n.d.). Its key function within the climate movement has been organizing a biennial, national climate youth movement conference called Power Shift.

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