« Return to this article

Know the West

Climate change activism needs anybody

Neighbors find common ground in fighting global warming


I’ve made some unlikely new friends since becoming a climate-change activist. One of them is an 83-year-old retired engineer who is passionate about electric vehicles and doesn’t shy away from an argument. Another is a dairy farmer turned college student, who is so quiet it’s hard to know what he is thinking. Others include a retired pilot, a graduate student in economics and a retired science teacher, who are all still puzzles to me, as well as a guy who works at a homeless shelter and gets everywhere by bicycle, although he lives at the end of a long steep road in the soggy Pacific Northwest.

There is not a single person I would have identified as obvious friend material. I do not mean this unkindly, and in fact, they have taught me a thing or two about what this movement needs to succeed.

Two years ago, when I decided to launch a chapter of the nonprofit Citizens’ Climate Lobby, I pictured working with people I already knew and liked, or at least people I would be easily comfortable with because we had so much in common. But instead of my friends coming to the monthly meetings and lingering afterward to socialize, strangers filled my living room. Not only that, these strangers made me nervous.

I didn’t feel equipped to run meetings with these people. Many of them were retired men. Was the radical guy judging me for being too mainstream, the moderate guy thinking me too far left, the detail-oriented engineer criticizing my poor leadership skills, the cyclist disliking my two-car family?  I hated being in charge, worried no one would show up to the next meeting, and felt awkward and self-conscious. I nearly quit. 

Then about eight months in, I began to see that we did have one thing in common.  We all understood that we are living in extraordinary times, and that everything we needed and loved was at risk. We all wanted — or perhaps needed — to do something about it. Some of us were cynical, some optimistic, some moderate, some radical, some angry, some just searching. 

But we were united because we had all reached a threshold and knew that we had to take action. People said, “We work on climate for our children. We do it because not doing it would leave us with a world of regret. We do it because there is a chance taking action might make things better. We do it because living an ethical life requires it.” We might not have used the exact same words, but I understood that we felt the same way.

This awareness allowed me to stop worrying about whether these people liked me and whether I liked them. If they would come to the next meeting, help write the next letter, plan the next event, lobby a congressman, that was what mattered.

It’s a sad fact that we humans like to band together with people who share our views, values and politics to fight a common enemy. You can see this in our communities and our statehouses, and most dramatically, in our national politics. In recent years, the Republicans have been bound together by their hatred of Obama; the Democrats by their hatred of the Koch brothers and their contempt for the Republican Congress. I wanted to join with my friends to fight climate change, but my friends didn’t want to come to the meetings. So I had to find other people, and they had to adapt to me, too.

Our common enemy today is the destabilizing climate. If we can’t get over our clannishness and unite as humans to stabilize the climate and adapt to the changes we’ve already set in motion, we will all fall together. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby I’ve chosen to work with is nonpartisan, and I was drawn to that approach. Yet I had my own clannishness to overcome. 

Now, every time the engineer, the student, the pilot, or the science teacher arrives at a meeting or volunteers for a task, I feel gratitude.  I still don’t know them the way I know my close friends, and they don’t really know me. Yet as long as they want to help fight climate change, I am truly happy to see them.

As a conflict-avoiding introvert, I’ve spent most of my life carefully choosing who I spend time with.  Now, I’m ready to join forces with anyone who wants to work on stabilizing Earth’s climate. Anyone at all is welcome -- you are all on my team, you are all my friends. I think the future of humanity may depend on it.

Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an environmental writer who lives in Oregon and volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has 200 chapters around the country.