Should climate activists tell people to take shorter showers, get arrested — or both? Avoiding just a ‘piddly’ response to a ‘We’re doomed!’ message.

If you’re worried about the climate, should you change a light bulb? Take shorter showers? Support policy makers sharing your concerns?

How about, take a chance on getting arrested, perhaps going into the slammer?

That wide range of prescriptions — some fairly routine and others perhaps draconian — reflect the divergent approaches climate activists have been taking to engaging the public on behalf of the changing climate.

Traditionally, environmental and climate leaders have viewed small, easy actions as a sort of “gateway drug” leading to incrementally greater commitment to the movement: A person who is willing to sign a petition online, the thinking goes, might later host a house party to screen An Inconvenient Truth for 10 friends. Eventually, she might attend a rally, write letters to the editor, or lobby her legislators.

But as warnings from climate scientists have grown more dire, some environmental activists are finding that the public may be surprisingly responsive to messages that ask them to do much more than just change light bulbs, says Joshua Kahn Russell, U.S. actions coordinator for

As an example, Russell points to the 2011 protests at the White House against Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline that would transport heavy crude from Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries. Among hundreds of people who were arrested in front of the White House, some had never even attended a protest before, he said.

“That was their first action — their doorway into the movement — was coming to risk arrest,” Russell said during a December conference call hosted by Orion magazine. organizers are finding, he said, that “so many people who are concerned about the climate crisis and understand the scale of it that actually, when we take action, and ask large things of people, that people are really enthusiastic.”

A Sierra Club Shift to Civil Disobedience?

Robbie Cox, a member of the Sierra Club board of directors, says he has seen a growing number of Americans — especially young people — who are willing to take part in large-scale actions, such as organizing campaigns against coal-fired power plants and pressuring universities to divest from fossil-fuel companies.

Protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, on Nov. 6, 2011. Photo: Emma Cassidy/used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

In January, the Sierra Club’s board temporarily lifted its long-time official ban on civil disobedience, a decision driven by the “imminent danger” posed by climate change, Cox said. The one-time exception is designed to enable the organization to participate in an act of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. (The organization isn’t saying what, exactly, the act will entail or when it will take place.)

The club’s move coincides with a decline in the number of Americans who say they believe individual actions can adequately address the climate problem, a recent survey suggests. While most Americans now say they are comfortable using compact fluorescent bulbs, and record numbers report doing more walking or biking and not merely driving, only 32 percent of people say they believe such actions will reduce their contributions to global warming. That’s a 16-point drop since 2008, according to a September 2012 survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason University. (Editor’s Note: The survey’s lead author, Anthony Leiserowitz, is The Yale Forum‘s publisher.)

In a recent phone interview, Russell, the organizer, said that he is not disparaging efforts aimed at changing light bulbs or reducing driving. But he said that climate leaders should offer people more opportunities for participation in group-driven actions. “People are hungry for a credible strategy that is to scale with the climate crisis,” he said. “If we’re serious about our rhetoric, if we’re serious about the fact that this is the greatest crisis that has ever faced humanity, then we need to act like it.”

Risking Arrest and ‘Suffering’: A ‘Public Commitment to a Cause’

Cynthia Frantz, an associate professor of psychology at Oberlin College, said that for people already concerned about the impacts of a changing climate, offering the chance to take part in civil disobedience or other difficult campaigns is “a wise strategy.”

“At that point, people are motivated, and if you can give them a large action that gives them a sense of control and efficacy, and also makes them feel like they are part of a larger effort, I think that’s critically important,” she said.

She added that during civil-disobedience actions, another psychological mechanism also is at work: suffering.

“Lots of cultures all over the world and throughout history have had these grueling initiation rites,” she said. When people seek arrest in the name of climate change, “they’re making a very public commitment to a cause. They’re suffering for it. They’re giving things up for it. That’s absolutely going to make them feel very, very committed to what they’re doing.”

For a Climate Scientist, ‘Time to Escalate?’

One person who has undergone suffering in the name of the climate is scientist Jason Box, one of hundreds arrested on a sweltering late-summer day in Washington during the 2011 Keystone XL protests.

Ohio State Scientist Jason Box off Greenland — ‘willing to pay that price.’

As a researcher at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, Box has spent more than a year’s total time camping on Greenland ice, seeing evidence of climate change with his own eyes.

Before his arrest last year, colleagues had urged him not to risk his career. A media expert had cautioned him that news media might take his scientific work less seriously. And Box acknowledges that he knew that participating in civil disobedience could cost him grants — or an invitation to sit on National Academy of Sciences panels, a much sought-after achievement for scientists.

Box and James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, were the only climatologists arrested during those White House protests, where a number of celebrities (including actress Daryl Hannah) also attracted headlines for being arrested.

But in a recent interview, Box said that he had grown dissatisfied with traditional civic activities like voting and contacting politicians and policy makers.

“It was time to escalate,” he said. “I thought, well, if it’s the price, I’m willing to pay that price, because this issue is just a lot more serious than my individual science credibility.”

Box says it’s hard to know for sure whether his activism has affected his professional standing and opportunities. He says that some of his colleagues have privately expressed to him their respect for his action. And getting arrested alongside religious leaders, Native Americans, and veteran activists was a moving experience: “Seeing other people of all different stripes engaging this way — connecting with that community — that felt powerful.”

Don’t Simply Dismiss Light Bulbs and ‘Little Piddly Things’

While acknowledging the emotional power of mass citizen action, Frantz, the Oberlin psychology professor, said that messages urging the public to take small individual actions should not be discounted.

“Both strategies — asking people to do little things and asking people to do giant things — both strategies are going to work with some people, some of the time,” she said.

The key, she said, is to frame small actions in a way that helps people feel they are part of a community making a difference. For example, the city of Oberlin is aiming to become climate-neutral by 2050, she said, and individuals can help the city achieve that goal by insulating their homes and, yes, by changing light bulbs.

Above all, communicators and climate activists should know that it will not be effective to tell people to change light bulbs in the same breath as they’re told “We’re doomed,” Frantz said.

“You can’t scare people that much and then give them little, piddly things to do,” she said. “You have to give them big things to do. You have to give them an avenue for action that feels like it matches the scope of the problem.”

Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the Senior Editor of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist, and...