Why Big Ngos Won't Lead the Fight on Climate Change
The cowardly response of prominent climate organizations like 350.org and Avaaz to the protest ban during COP21 demands accountability.
Why Big Ngos Won't Lead the Fight on Climate Change
By Belinda Rodriguez and Ben Case / roarmag.org

In the wake of ISIS’ attacks on Paris, French authorities jumped on the opportunity to revoke permits for the Global Climate March, a well-planned series of demonstrations scheduled to coincide with international climate talks. After speculation around the fate of the demonstrations, several prominent groups including 350.org and Avaaz gave in and announced that the march was canceled, while key grassroots groups announced they would take to the streets despite the ban.

These differing responses expose a long-standing divide between mainstream NGOs and grassroots groups in the climate justice movement and highlight conflicts about how the movement negotiates with power and demonstrates solidarity in the face of crisis. With time running out to secure a livable planet and many more high-stakes decisions to be made going forward, we cannot afford to let these conflicts continue to go unresolved. It is clear now that the movement requires nothing short of an internal revolution.

Historically, high-level international meetings like the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) have resulted in abstract proclamations and shiny photo-ops, while dirty energy policies continue to accelerate levels of carbon past the threshold that will raise global temperatures to a dangerous and likely irreversible degree.

Despite hosting delegates from nearly every country and claiming to seek a binding cap on emissions, the UN Framework on Climate Change has no teeth. Deals that will impact literally everyone on earth — involving policies that are a matter of life and death for hundreds of millions of people on the “front lines” of climate disasters — are being cut by the same corporations and governments that have caused and profited from climate change.

The high-profile meetings represent the best governments can do to remedy climate change while leaving global power structures intact. As such they serve as opportunities for the movement to highlight the huge disconnect between the causes and severity of the climate crisis and the solutions proposed by a capitalist world system. Accordingly, movements called for unprecedented action at COP21 to force our voices into the conversation and remind the delegations where power ultimately lies.

Despite the supposed cancelation, many grassroots groups announced that the French government’s ban on protest — which had nothing to do with fighting terrorism — would not deter them. On November 29, activists took to the streets for climate justice, and the same government that is hosting the Climate Conference responded by attacking, tear gassing, and arresting hundreds of protesters.


If the goal of mainstream groups in canceling the march was to ensure the safety of the public, they failed. Both experience and research in civil resistance tell us that our best bet against fear, intimidation and repression is to increase (not decrease!) participation. It is difficult to imagine the French government successfully arresting and detaining 400,000 people, the number originally expected to participate in the Paris march. Instead, hundreds of the 10,000 or so who demonstrated on November 29 became easy targets for arrest and violent repression by the French police.

It is well established that social movements win by polarizing the public and exercising non-cooperation to weaken and undermine power structures. Canceling the march did the opposite of these things. It demobilized would-be participants, shrank away from an opportunity to generate outrage over the French government’s cynical efforts to subdue the movement after the Paris attack, and sent a message that the movement is willing to back down in high-stakes scenarios as soon as it meets opposition.

Paris climate march 2

“We’re blocking Green Capitalism”, photo by Duc, via Flickr.

Beyond failing to apply these core strategic principles, the groups that called off the march forfeited a unique opportunity to connect imperialism and neocolonialism with climate change, and escalate as an interconnected movement against war, racism, and fossil fuels.

Attempting to cancel the march was not only a strategic mistake, it was a betrayal. It validated the French government’s attacks on protesters and it left the activists who boldly carried on with planned actions without much-needed organizational support. In the wake of events like the Paris attacks, we have a moral obligation to make meaning of the violence we see and its root causes. We should not allow the interests that are profiting from war to frame the response and set the political agenda.

This example is a case study in the ways power imbalances in NGOs reinforce systemic hierarchies and hurt movements. Beyond that, it provides a window into civil resistance in a climate-changed world. Resource wars, violence and social instability are expected to increase as the planet warms. This will not be the last time the movement needs to make a tough strategic decision with terrorism and xenophobia looming in the background.

The decision to cancel the Paris climate march sets a bad precedent, and with the stakes as high as they are we can’t afford to let the issues that caused it go unaddressed.


The tension between corporatized nonprofits and grassroots groups is not new, but the consequences are getting more serious. The mounting realities of climate change create a new sense of urgency for the climate movement.

The US provides a good example. Throughout the history of its environmental movement, most of the organizing priorities have been set by “big green” environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council. Overwhelmingly led by wealthy white men (historically and to this day), these groups have lacked the perspective and will to draw connections between environmental degradation, racism, sexism, inequality and other social injustices. They are also known for having ill-conceived ideas about challenging institutional power.

Author Naomi Klein has argued that many big green environmental groups pose an even greater threat to the planet than climate deniers because of their willingness to cooperate with corporate polluters and even invest in fossil fuels.

Groups like 350.org suffer from the same lack of perspective as older big greens, with leadership that poorly reflects the diverse communities most impacted by climate change. While they are not in bed with the fossil fuel industry, they demonstrate a hauntingly familiar weakness in power analysis and lack coherent long-term strategies.

Paris climate march 3

Police during the banned Climate March in Paris. Photo by Duuc, via Flickr.

Big nonprofits like 350.org and Avaaz also command tremendous resources and communications infrastructure. These things are not inherently bad, but they must be leveraged as tools to uplift and amplify grassroots work, rather than drown out grassroots voices.

Curiously, some of the decision-making groups composing the Mobilization Support Team of the People’s Climate Movement (one of the platforms used to announce that the Paris march was cancelled) released statements disregarding the French government’s ban on protest.

Several of these Environmental Justice groups and others under the banner of the It Takes Roots delegation released an inspiring statementthat they would continue to protest in Paris despite the ban. Additional groups openly defied the ban, including Rising Tide North America and theClimate Games (a Paris-based civil disobedience platform).

Naomi Klein, as an influential voice on climate change and global justice,called out the French government’s crackdown on protest while demonstrating alongside other activists. The widely conflicting actions and public statements of several key groups and leaders raise big questions about how the decision to cancel the march was made in the first place.


Civil resistance is contentious by nature. It can include activities that vary widely in tone, from righteous anger to outright silliness, but the key to effective action is confronting oppressive power structures in one way or another.

The emergency security powers the US legislature granted the government after 9/11 under the Patriot Act are now widely understood to have been, at least in large part, a cynical power grab by security forces. This lesson appears to have been lost on the leadership of organizations like 350.org and Avaaz.

Predictably, French authorities used sweeping emergency powers to crack down on climate demonstrators, preemptively placing dozens of organizers under house arrest leading up to the conference. Groups like 350.org, Avaaz, and others that sheepishly accepted the French government’s ban on protest were complicit in an effort to quell dissent and reinforce state power when they could have challenged or undermined it.

Paris climate march 5

Protestors sitting in front of the police line during the banned Climate March in Paris. Photo by Duc, via Flickr.

How would the French authorities have responded on November 29 if groups like 350.org and Avaaz had instead announced that the march would not be cancelled; if there were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets instead of thousands? We can only speculate on how this could have influenced the political weather in Paris and worldwide, how it could have increased public awareness around the negotiations, or put pressure on decision makers to act in the interest of the people.

The important thing now is to move forward as a movement in a way that will allow us to fight for the change we need. We cannot allow opaque, top-down decision making to shape the future of our planet.

People’s lives depend on what movements are doing. Literally everyone’s lives depend on climate action, and for frontline communities this is the case in a very immediate sense. Yet big green nonprofits attempt to play nice with the corporations poisoning the atmosphere and the governments who actively impede the kind of progress that is urgently required.

Fossil fuel companies are not taking a break from their business in respect for the Parisian casualties. The French government did not attempt to cancel or move COP21 due to security concerns. Conservatives are not taking time off from pushing their hateful narratives against refugees.

If we take a metaphoric moment of silence in our opposition to climate change every time there is a crisis (and there is always a crisis somewhere) while the agents of climate change march forward undeterred, we become their allies in shaping the future of the planet.

Without popular movements aggressively leveraging people power, the result of these international talks will always be insufficient. After endless arguing and negotiating, governments and corporations will agree on non-binding or unenforceable resolutions that will leave power and profits in the hands of those who are destroying the planet. Absent our pressure, no amount of high-profile meetings will result in the outcomes we need.

This is a moment of reckoning. Without significant changes, we can only expect to witness more bad decisions with increasingly serious consequences. If the leadership of major nonprofits associated with the climate movement is unable or unwilling to lead the type of radical action our moment requires, if it makes decisions for the movement behind closed doors and absent strategic or moral grounding, if it is unaccountable to frontline communities and organizations, then we need new leadership altogether.


Belinda Rodriguez

Belinda Rodriguez is a co-founder of the Momentum Training project and is currently the National Training Director at United States Student Association. She has worked to support youth leadership in the climate justice movement with a number of groups including 350.org, Energy Action Coalition, and New Economy Coalition.




Ben Case

Ben Case is an organizer and PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies movement strategy and civil resistance. He is a co-founder of THINK: International and Human Security, co-founder of Pitt’s Student Anarchist Graduate Association, and is a member of Organization for a Free Society.


0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 17,939 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 10,766 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 8,979 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 5,975 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
And After the Election, The Reaction
Ret Marut · 5,030 views today · Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world...
'The Climate of Fear Is Unacceptable' - Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake
6 min · 3,606 views today · Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a man who is denied disability benefit after a heart attack and who is then subsequently caught in a...
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 3,063 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 2,307 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,003 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Writers Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein Talk About Journalism and Activism
27 min · 1,974 views today · Author, Activist and Former California State Senator Tom Hayden talks in depth with the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, about the state of the fourth...
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 1,862 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Grow Heathrow: Residents Resisting Eviction Over 3rd Runway
4 min · 1,191 views today · On March 1st 2010 Transition Heathrow members swooped on an abandoned market garden site in Sipson; one of the villages to be completely tarmacked to make way for a third...
Social Geographer Shows How Much of You is Determined by Where You're From
3 min · 1,179 views today · The Professor of Geography examines social inequality and the geodemographics of the UK, using maps created by Oliver O'Brien (UCL, CASA) in 2012 and updated in 2015. You can...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 1,108 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
A Beautiful Reflection on What It Means to Be Human
8 min · 794 views today · Hello! We are Oh Wonder, a musical duo from London. We believe that everyone is equal. We are all human. We all deserve the world. And we can build that equality by sharing...
Heartbreaking Animation Reveals Plight of Animals Under Threat of Extinction
3 min · 762 views today · This stunning and heartbreaking animation gives voice to animals under threat from human activity. Made as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, it features a...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 733 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Speaking Out Against Australia's Unforgiving Refugee Policy
42 min · 714 views today · The Forgotten Children: More than a hundred child refugees are stuck in asylum limbo on the island of Nauru as a result of Australia's harsh and unsympathetic border policies...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 631 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
How Big Banks Launder Money and Get Away With It
9 min · 543 views today · 'I wrote about how money laundering was actually done... they spiked it.' Parliamentary Candidate David Malone was a popular second choice in the UK Green Party leadership...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Why Big Ngos Won't Lead the Fight on Climate Change