Changemaking in Challenging Times: Lessons from the Climate Movement

Changemaking in Challenging Times: Lessons from the Climate Movement

David Levitus's picture

Image: A Climate Cents project:  MEND's "Grow Together" Program, empowering low-income families to grow their own food

As people who care deeply about making the world a better place, it’s easy to slip into a focus on the negative, on the depth of the problems we face. This has been true of profound challenges like climate change for many years. In the face of such a daunting problem — abstract, long-term, global and intertwined with every aspect of how we power our daily lives — far too many people have turned away, resigned to their inability to make change.

I co-founded Climate Cents as a way to bring people back into the movement.

Rather than shout from the rooftops about the dark, tangled roots of the problem and the disaster that awaits if we don’t move quickly enough — which believe me, I’m often tempted to do—we recognized that what the world needed was something very different.

My co-founder Nick Karno and I believed that we could reach disengaged people if we lowered the barriers to initial participation and increased the rewards for getting involved. People would respond to positive opportunities to take action if they could see and feel the tangible impact of their involvement.

We’re creating Climate Cents as a digital platform that enables people to back nonprofit projects that make their own communities a better place and reduce greenhouse gases — think Kickstarter for fighting climate change. Participants can track progress and get instant feedback on the carbon reductions their donations make possible.

In the process, we’re doing three key things:

  • Welcoming new people into the movement and moving them up the “engagement curve,” from hands-on volunteering, to proposing their own projects, to pushing the major forces of government and business to pursue systemic climate solutions.
  • Converting a wave of participation into new resources for meaningful local environmental and community improvement projects.
  • Generating a stream of positive stories about climate solutions in social and traditional media to counter the drumbeat of despair.

 That was our instinct: empower, change the narrative, and make the results tangible.

As we later learned, psychological studies and polling back this up. When an issue feels personal, urgent and moveable, people are drawn to take the first steps. And if you help people take those steps — in ways that are simple, consistent and visible to their social circle—they’ll often keep at it, creating new positive habits.

There’s a broader lesson here.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the wave of authoritarian, xenophobic nationalism proliferating across the globe. My initial temptation is to fixate on the depth of threat to liberal democracy and the need to fight back relentlessly — at least until I burn out. Unrelenting bad news and a bleak analysis of the structural underpinnings of the problem may motivate some, but more often, they lead people to give up.

That’s why so many social innovators and activists emphasize the importance of self-care. You’re not going to be able to make any impact if you’ve rapidly burned out.  Taking days off, exercising, spending time in nature, with friends and family, exercising, enjoying entertaining diversions is one part of the puzzle.

But we also need to keep investing time, energy and resources in “mid-range” projects, between the definitely personal and the explicitly political,

And we need to do this together. It’s more important than ever to meet new people and move forward with a sense of purpose and camaraderie. Together, we must plan projects with tangible local impacts that we can feel good about, even though we understand how challenging the overall situation is.

Working with others in our communities to advance our values and improve each other’s lives is what will sustain our spirits in these tough times. And it’ll spin the web of civil society that’s more necessary now than ever.

So at Climate Cents, we are forging ahead with our plans — positive, audacious, solutions-oriented — amid all the challenges.

As my co-founder Nick likes to say, it’s like our boat’s sprung a leak and while we patch the hole, we all need to be bailing water.

We’re giving out buckets. Who wants one?


David Levitus is Executive Director and Co-Founder of Climate Cents, a crowd-source funding platform for local projects to address climate and environmental issues. The son of a leading climate scientist, David’s been grappling with the challenge of global warming for almost as long as he can remember. Climate Cents fuses his early fascination with tech solutions to environmental problems with his adult enthusiasm for building movements that make the world a better place for all people. He is an alum of the 2016 American Express Emerging Innovators Bootcamp in New York City.