Widgets Magazine

Sociology professor sheds light on reasons for lack of grassroots climate change activism

In a paper in the Annual Review of Political Science, professor of sociology Doug McAdam gives insight into why climate change has not received much grassroots attention in the United States.  By reflecting on 40 years of American movements, he states that for a bottom up climate change movement to gain momentum, people must feel that they are directly and negatively affected by climate change and that they would actually be able to create sizable positive change by joining a movement.

Despite the importance of climate change, it has not received the sort of grassroots support that other political issues have.

McAdam argues that people must feel personally threatened by an issue and hopeful that they have the power to make impact in order to contribute to a grassroots movement. What sets climate change apart from other current immediate political issues is that for many, climate change is a long term threat, but it is not as immediately threatening as other issues such as immigration, racism, sexism or income inequality. McAdam says that political opportunities and constraints, mobilizing structures, and the framing of an issue are the major factors that feed into people feeling strongly threatened and hopeful enough to join a movement.

According to McAdam, political opportunities and constraints depend upon the polarization of our politics and willingness of our leaders.

In an article in Stanford News, McAdam attributes the “lack of grassroots activism on climate change” partly to “increasing gridlock in Congress, making bipartisan action on any issue difficult.

In addition to political opportunities, McAdam argues that strong mobilizing structures are needed for a successful grassroots movement.

McAdam calls strong mobilizing structures “collective vehicles through which people initially mobilize and begin to engage in sustained collective action” in his paper. He argues that strong mobilizing structures require resources and sustainable organization.

Lastly, much of framing around climate change relates to how politicians and newsgroups talk about the environment and how people witness the effects of the changing environment in their own lives. Many people might not yet feel climate change as a direct threat to their own personal safety and health which could cause them to believe that it will not be a threat in the future.

“The mistaken extended ‘time horizon’ associated with the issue, reassures many that the impact of climate change is still off in the nebulous future,” he said.

McAdam more specifically examines how oil companies have influenced politicians’ and the public’s stance on climate change. According to him, companies pour money into campaigns which not only manipulate the framing of climate change but also have the possibility of creating more gridlock in government. This leaves potential individuals of movements less threatened and less hopeful of their position to make real impact.

Despite political gridlock, McAdam believes that our current political situation is a possible opportunity for grassroots climate change movements to gain momentum because people feel more threatened than they have in the past.

“As unthinkable as President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement is, it presents a clear opportunity for climate change and other environmental groups to mobilize around the threat to the planet proposed by his actions,” he said.


Contact Lauren Traum laurentraum33 ‘at’ gmail.com.