In Brief

The climate movement is a vital force standing between humanity and climate catastrophe. The consequences at stake and magnitude of the challenge require that we maximize our effectiveness, avoid inefficient strategies, and align so that our power can be amplified. Here we provide a theory of change that can serve as a roadmap for aligning and achieving greater collective impact, along with examples of it in practice.

Climate activists share a common aspiration: to live on a planet that can sustain future generations. This means avoiding a 1.5-degree global temperature increase and the associated consequences. More groups than ever before are engaged in this work, but we still emit increasing amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs), pushing us towards irreversible tipping points and ecological devastation.

In the recent article in Solutions Journal entitled Collective Impact for Climate Mitigation,[i] R. Bruce Hull and Rich Dooley propose a Community Energy Plan template and a set of components required to achieve “collective impact,” a tool used to “organize stakeholders to address complex adaptive problems.” The model’s set of components include a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, transparent accounting using shared metrics, continuous communication, an influential champion, and adequate financial resources.

We agree that the climate movement can amplify its effectiveness through a collective impact model. This starts with a common agenda, also known as an overarching strategy or theory of change[ii] – the “how” to reduce greenhouse gas commensurate with the speed and scale of the crisis. We believe this is currently missing from the climate movement.

We offer an overarching strategy that could be adopted by networks of climate organizations. This strategy prioritizes policy solutions as the leverage point for achieving rapid, massive emissions reductions. A policy-focused strategy may not seem novel. Our research, however, revealed a general lack of clarity or consensus throughout the climate movement about how to deliver speed and scale impact.

Common strategies pursued by many climate organizations include general education and awareness-raising,[iii] and encouraging individual actions (e.g. using metal straws, recycling). These strategies by themselves are less powerful than when connected with policy, because they lack the potential to reduce emissions at a massive, rapid scale. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, these strategies should then operate in service to the primary focus on policy. In fact, they are essential to advance policy changes. While many organizations verbalize support for climate action through policy, we have found that we often diffuse this focus by also pursuing other strategies that are incommensurate with the scale of the crisis.

If other approaches are not funneled into a larger strategy focused on more powerful levers, we should be willing to exclude them. This greater rigor could help the movement increase its impact. This understanding often exists in theory, but we must improve at operationalizing it.

Ample evidence justifies the intensive focus on policy as the best solution to address climate change. Academic research[iv] shows that where emissions reductions have occurred, good policy is the biggest driver. Some philanthropic actors also support this conclusion. A 2007 report[v] by California Environmental Associates written to help foundations decide what to fund recommended investing in policy advocacy that produces the most GHG emissions reductions per dollar spent.

Policy has solved complex environmental problems at every scale: local Community Choice Energy programs boosting clean energy in the local grid mix, the first national cap-and-trade program removing poisonous lead from gasoline, and the international Montreal Protocol initiating the mending of the ozone layer.

While climate organizations share the same long-term vision, they rarely intentionally clarify and align on their long-term strategies. Our suggested approach brings organizations out of their silos, and eliminates the inefficiency of an “all of the above, follow-your-passion” approach. It aligns willing groups into one body that actively agrees on a strategy and implements it, thereby synergizing their talents and multiplying their power. The value of articulating and sharing a theory of change is that its expedites the replication of past successes without reinventing the wheel. Organizations can efficiently choose tactics, form coalitions, and organize at a higher level to amplify consensus and pool resources, such as money, people power, and political capital. Thus, as Hull and Dooley suggest with their collective impact model, a theory of change can provide the “how” to energize a committed group of actors for the greatest possible impact.

Theory of Change

We propose that the theory of change or overarching strategy that climate organizations adopt to achieve speed and scale greenhouse gas reductions is as follows:

The strategy begins by aligning leaders in the movement who catalyze and direct its energy. These leaders include individuals, businesspeople, investors, foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations. Climate leaders often exhort individuals not to act alone but collectively to increase their impact. To paraphrase a saying[vi] by international climate leader Bill McKibben, “the right question isn’t what can I do; it’s what can we do?” This also applies to organizations that will increase their impact when they act in concert with other organizations.

With stronger alignment among climate leaders including funders, the next step is for them to cultivate a growing body of climate activists. Activists create political pressure and express shared sentiments, which puts wind in the sails toward a desired policy outcome. Activists also help elect the policymakers needed to enact the desired climate policies. We refer to a critical “3.5 percent” in our theory of change. According to research[vii] by Dr. Erica Chenoweth, successful nonviolent social movements need the active participation of just 3.5 percent of a nation’s population to achieve their goals. Climate leaders could more efficiently create an exponentially growing body of activists by mobilizing them under a shared goal and a tangible strategy, stoking the will by providing the way.

Thus, the united force forged through the first two steps aims its energies at policy via direct advocacy for speed-and-scale climate policies and the election of climate-friendly legislators. Once regulators implement policies that change the rules of the game to facilitate climate- friendly behavior, practices by businesses and individuals at large scale follow suit. For example, a market- based policy like a national price on carbon would change business practices, price signals, and consumer choice. Civil rights legislation, alcohol and tobacco regulation, and past environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act demonstrate this principle in action.

Aligning in Practice

Without doing so explicitly, some successful coalitions of organizations have implemented a playbook resembling this theory of change. One such example is the RE- AMP Network which began in 2003 when the Garfield Foundation brought together a small group of organizations to evaluate the existing landscape of energy issues in the region. They found that strategies to combat energy issues in the Midwest were disparate, despite many of these organizations sharing the same long-term goals. They were in need of shared structure and reenergizing, especially given the dominance of coal as an energy source in the region.

By 2005, thirty organizations in the RE-AMP Network had created a set of objectives and they began recruiting more organizations to join. The organized body decided on four focus areas: prevent the building of new coal-fired power plants, shut down existing plants, make renewable power a viable alternative, and increase energy efficiency. To make tangible policy changes, the steering committee and participants in the RE-AMP Network established a set of criteria[viii] for their work to determine how best to pursue interventions and policy actions. These criteria target systemic change, participation in numbers, and a bias toward action.

Currently, the RE-AMP Network contains over 130 organizations from eight Midwestern states focused on securing an 80% drop in greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector by 2030 across these states. The network’s major accomplishments include the retirement of 150 coal plants with the promise of no future plants to be built. Additionally, six states with member organizations have created or improved upon existing energy efficiency standards, five states have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards, and all states have drafted energy efficient building codes. Most are working towards incentives and funding for wind, solar, and other renewable energies. Through the support that member organizations receive through RE-AMP financially and politically (as well as emotionally – working in unison on shared goals is good for morale), they are rewriting the rules in their states to ensure that their air and electricity are clean.

Another example of this theory of change operationalized by a coalition can be found in the recent passage of the Climate and Communities Protection Act (CCPA) in New York state. The political will behind this suite of laws is largely attributed to a network of organizations called New York Renews.[ix] Following the 2014 Climate March, a small number of involved organizations recognized the swell of political will to pass legislation on emissions reductions, jobs and economic activity, and equity.

They traveled throughout New York to learn what policies mattered most to individuals, communities, and local climate organizations. These listening sessions informed their legislative platform[x] and organizing principles. After securing funding through Tides Advocacy,[xi] the coalition grew over four years, reaching a peak of 150 member organizations. Though the CCPA was introduced and passed in the State Assembly in 2016, it took until 2018 for the State Senate to consider the bill. The coalition tapped into national political support for the Green New Deal and a sea change in Senate majority leadership (some member organizations were involved in electoral politics separately from the coalition) to get the bill through the Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo in July of 2019.

The CCPA lays out policy frameworks (such as green building codes) and funding guidelines to achieve 50 percent electricity from clean renewables by 2030, 40 percent clean energy funds invested in disadvantaged communities, and 100 percent human-caused climate pollution eliminated by 2050 throughout the state of New York. Congressional representatives from the state like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand praised the policy and see the value of replicating it on a national stage.

In California, The Climate Center uses the theory of change described above as the foundation for its work. The Rapid Decarbonization Campaign,[xii] pursued in collaboration with other organizations, aims to enact by 2025 in California the policies required by science to be on track for a safe climate by 2030, securing a vibrant, equitable, and healthy future for all and creating a model that spreads worldwide. These goals include doubling current California targets by aiming for 80% emissions reductions under 1990 levels, and net zero emissions, by 2030. Part of this campaign is the Advanced Community Energy Initiative[xiii] (ACE), to establish, through legislation, a program to provide funding, technical expertise, best practices, and capacity building to enable local communities to plan and implement ACE systems, starting with community microgrids. In response to recent wildfires and widespread PG&E power shutoffs, local California communities are turning to ACE as a way to make the electricity grid cleaner, safer, and more resilient and affordable.


Many organizations know that sweeping, structural change is our best hope for averting climate catastrophe. As New York Renews and RE-AMP show, a shared structure for goal-setting and decision-making can propel impact far beyond what one organization alone can achieve. These two coalitions operationalized a strategy represented in the theory of change presented above.

By focusing on the most promising solutions then collaborating on them, we can replicate this success and achieve the results we need to mitigate climate change. In other words, a sharpened focus and shared effort together lead to collective impact. Just as individual action alone will not solve the climate crisis, neither will individual organizational action. Where there’s a way there’s a will, and climate leaders need to supply that way and support activists in pursuing the most powerful levers for systemic change. Increased alignment and collaboration will yield greenhouse gas reductions at the speed and scale that science demands.

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