How to Advocate for the Environment in a Hostile Political Climate











Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of thousands of activists. Joining a cause larger than yourself. Marching, demonstrating, protesting. These can all be memorable, exhilarating experiences. And they can help advance the policy issues you care about.

Still, advocates for particular public policies are faced with a challenge: How to harness this "protest power" once the slogans and signs fade? How to move from marching to implementing meaningful legislative or regulatory change? 

The effort to combat polluters and protect the environment is a useful case study for examining this question and developing potential answers. That's because:

• The Trump Administration announced earlier this month that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, undermining efforts to reduce global warming.

• During the first 100 days of his presidency, Donald Trump launched an assault against policies designed to safeguard the environment while appointing an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who has spent much of his political career fighting against EPA’s efforts to regulate fossil-fuel emissions.

• Environmental advocacy groups are preparing for battle: the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth and others have kicked off campaigns to "resist", "end", "fight", and "stand up to" Trump's various plans to undo Obama Administration environmental protections.

• Industries and organizations that chafed at restrictions imposed by Obama's EPA are flexing their advocacy muscle in an effort to free themselves from legislative and regulatory restraints.

We’re at a unique moment in environmental policy. Government's role in protecting the environment not only is being scrutinized, but also may be dramatically reshaped, as both sides in the debate try to exert their will.

If you're passionate about the environment, how can you advocate effectively despite the most hostile political climate in years? How can you design and implement persuasion campaigns that produce tangible results - e.g., withdrawal of proposals you oppose, adoption of policies you support, enactment of funding levels you consider sufficient - while drawing supporters from public events like protests?


Using individual examples of the consequences of particular cases of environmental contamination, pollution, poisoning, etc. are essential. Such specific instances force audiences to move beyond reflexive acceptance of partisan talking points.

There’s evidence that some EPA staff already are starting to employ this strategy, framing their job as “defending public health.” Referring to an EPA community involvement coordinator, this recent press report notes that “[U]nlike the politicians and talking heads who routinely accuse the agency of undermining the American economy, the people he meets tend to have more immediate concerns.”

In the article above, the EPA staffer is quoted as saying “If you just listened to TV, the negative messaging out there is that we kill jobs and over-regulate. That’s not the message we hear on a day-to-day basis while we're out in the community, doing things like showing people how to install a water filter or explaining what's next with a soil-remediation project."

Tie funding cuts and/or the elimination of EPA programs to the impact the policy changes will have on specific projects.

Advocacy Case Study

Learn insider techniques for advancing your priorities in Congress


Tip O’Neill’s mantra is still relevant today: “All politics is local.”

As noted above, identification of individual EPA projects in Members’ Congressional Districts or states is the indispensable toe-hold for beginning to gain traction in pursuit of congressional support. Prioritize the districts/states with Representatives/Senators on these committees: House and Senate Appropriations; House Natural Resources and Senate EPW. The area of responsibility of these panels includes environmental policy and funding - the right policy levers for advocates to pull.

The common saying "There's no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole" applies to environmental problems, too. If you live in a community with a Superfund site, for example, you want it cleaned up as soon as possible - partisan politics isn't on your radar screen.

In this example from South Carolina, members of the same political party and state congressional delegation are on opposite sides of President Trump's recent Executive Order to make it easier for offshore drilling on the Atlantic and Arctic shelves.

That's because Members representing coastal districts in SC like Hilton Head are concerned that expanded drilling would hurt tourism at SC beaches within their Congressional Districts. But Members from inland communities don't share this view - they're more interested in promised economic benefits of increased drilling.

It's essentially a case of "Where you sunbathe is where you stand."  


Contrary to popular belief, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in December 1955, she was not merely “tired”. Martin Luther King wrote of Parks’ unique local stature in his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, in which he talked of how her character and dedication made her widely respected in the African American community.

In fact, Parks wasn’t the first African American traveler to refuse to move to the back of the bus for a white passenger: nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, and in October 1955, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith had been arrested under similar circumstances.

But both cases failed to stir Montgomery’s black leadership to help launch a mass protest.  It took a longtime activist for equal rights who was trusted and admired by the black community's leaders to trigger the boycott.


Get press attention and policymakers notice. Use visuals (press conference at contaminated sites, glass of water discolored due to chemicals, etc.) to demonstrate the need for EPA action. Inclusion of a sympathetic local victim of the environmental problem you want fixed is a powerful way to make your point.

It often takes persistent citizens, pressure from nonprofit groups and the glare of media attention to force action. Social media, op-eds in the local papers or posts in widely-read blogs are all useful tactics for getting attention.


Build a coalition to empower and expand persuasion efforts. Choose coalition partners likely to have influence with the decision makers you want to persuade: Physicians? Developers? Clergy? Political supporters?

When engaging elected officials, it's essential to involve constituents. Elected officials need support from the voters in their district or state to keep their jobs. When you call on your Member of Congress to take a particular position, you're one of his or her "bosses". That gives you outsized influence - use it to your advantage.


The key to effectively advocating for environmental protection is to force opponents to engage beyond talking points and abstractions.

It's easy to smear government agencies in general and charge the EPA in particular with red tape, job-killing regulations and caring more about habitats of obscure creatures than saving jobs that people depend on.

Delve into the specifics; you'll defuse the partisanship and focus on how real people would be affected if environmental protections were slashed. That's how you transform the policy climate to your advantage, creating the right conditions to take your stand.

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