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Are NGOs Like 350.org and WWF Failing to Move the Needle?

By Boyd Cohen

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., CO2 IMPACT

A few weeks ago I was pretty critical of the potential impact of events like Earth Hour can actually have on the planet.  In subsequent interviews I referred to Earth Hour as green tokenism.

I recently read a Guardian article about Climate Week in the UK.  Climate Week, founded by Kevin Steele, was held from March 21st-March 27th throughout the UK.

What I really like about Climate Week is its focus on larger scale solutions to climate change.  While all of us turning off our lights for an hour can create a small blip in our collective impact and possibly get people to think about their actions, it will never result in large-scale reductions in GHG emissions.
Climate Week however engages the business community as well as schools and the NGO community in larger initiatives at a company, community or institutional level.  Because it lasts for a week instead of an hour, it creates the potential for more conversation to occur and a wider-range of activities and events throughout the UK.

During Climate Week, organizations are encouraged to showcase efforts that have resulted in significant reductions in emissions in the hopes of knowledge and technology transfer. The Ministry of Defence promoted its success in reducing its energy consumption by 11% through training programs and Lewisham, a London neighborhood won the local initiative award due to its more than 5,000 initiatives implemented in the community to reduce emissions and energy consumption.

Many in the UK have been critical of the role of business in Climate Week and I suspect the same would be the case here in North America.  Environmentalists argue that companies are the biggest emitters and the reason for the climate crisis.  And they are right.

BUT, the point is it will take company innovation and ingenuity to get us out of this mess too.  Unless everyone is prepared to stop buying or using their cars, stop getting on planes, stop washing their clothes in machines, stop turning on their lights (Earth Life instead of Earth Hour), stop eating food that wasn’t grown in your backyard, we will absolutely need to get business on board with the low carbon economy.

Ok, so some of you may say, yah he’s right we need business to at least start being more responsible and to be part of the solution, but that doesn’t mean they need to lead us out because business is too single-bottom lined focused to lead us out of this mess.  Yes, companies tend to be profit-focused, but they also get things done. If we could get business to see the profits in shifting to a low carbon economy than they could lead us out of this much more quickly than most any other entity, government or NGO.  This is of course why Hunter Lovins and I wrote the book, Climate Capitalism, to show the business case for companies, cities and other actors to embrace the low-carbon economy.

I have been reflecting on the role of the different actors who have been making efforts to raise awareness for climate change. One of my favorites has been 350.org. I love their grass-roots efforts and their ability to pull off a few global events per year that raise awareness of millions on the same day.  They make great use of social media and are led by a passionate, insightful and brilliant guy, Bill McKibben.  But, despite their impressive media attention and success in fostering thousands of events around the globe, I really don’t think they have been that successful in facilitating major change.  They tend to “preach to the converted.”

350.org is not that focused on the business community, but one would think that for example they could have had more impact on public policy.  We are still lacking a post-2012 agreement for Kyoto and the U.S. federal policy has gone nowhere since Obama took office. Obviously no one can put all the blame on one well-intentioned, surely under-resourced NGO, for the world lacking an effective climate policy.  That doesn’t mean that moving the needle on climate policy shouldn’t be treated as a benchmark as important as the number of events and the number of people participating in them.

Earth Hour is also organized by a well-intentioned NGO, WWF.  But unfortunately I think their impact is much less than 350.org.  Show me a non-profit that is managing to meaningfully move the needle.  I can’t think of any.

Environmental and climate change activists need to work with, instead of against, corporations.  Corporations provide our energy, make our cars and hire lots of people.  Can’t we leverage the passion, expertise, and ingenuity of groups like 350.org to make real change in public policy or corporate action instead of just turning our lights off for an hour or hosting an event on a bridge in Vancouver?

Why not start by bringing a version of Climate Week to North America?


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Read more stories by Boyd Cohen