5 Lessons the Climate Movement Can Learn From Marriage Equality

EqualsSignMarriage equality is often hailed as the shining example of how a social movement can transform society in a few short years. Just 10 years ago, only one state, Massachusetts, allowed same sex couples to marry. Today, 17 do. How did this change happen? Grist’s Heather Smith sat down with key marriage equality leader and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Timothy McCarthy to talk about why marriage equality succeeded, and what climate advocates can learn from it. Here were some of the his takeaways:
 
1. Embrace pop culture. Support for marriage equality and LGBT issues was aided enormously by shows like
Modern Family and Will & Grace. Could this same type of engagement benefit climate?
 
2. Leverage language. Many people don’t realize that the term “marriage equality” is relatively new. A few years ago, it was “same sex marriage.” It was only after extensive public opinion testing and polling that the movement revealed its current name, made up of two things Americans like a lot: “equality” and “marriage.”
 
3. Show people why environmental issues are important for humans. With marriage equality, it’s immediately clear who is being harmed by the status quo. But this isn’t the case with climate and environmental issues. Advocates need to figure out ways to help people understand that inaction on climate and environmental issues will specifically harm people.
 
4. Beware doom and gloom. Apocalyptic messaging may mobilize people in the short term, but over the long term, optimism and hope are much more effective motivators.
 
5. Be careful about borrowing messaging. It’s tempting for advocates to borrow frames and messages from other successful social movements. But this can backfire. For example, advocates found very little success when they tried using a civil rights frame to build support for LGBT issues among African Americans. Instead, advocates should develop frames and messages that uniquely fits their particular issue.

 
To read more about what climate advocates can learn from other social campaigns, check out ecoAmerica‘s latest research report: Campaigns II: Recent Learnings from Other Social Movements.
 

Why Green Change is Hard: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marriage Equality

Heather Smith, Contributor to Grist
 
Timothy McCarthy teaches history; he’s also been a part of it. McCarthy is a historian of radicalism in America — especially those radicals who were later written out of more official histories. He was a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council, and gave expert testimony to the Pentagon Comprehensive Working Group on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also teaches at the decidedly non-radical Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I recently heard him give a remarkably thoughtful and detailed talk on the art of public speaking.
 
During the talk, he name-checked the “Hope” speech by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk: “When in doubt, give people hope. Not a false hope. But we can be better than we are.” Then, he added, as a caution: “A lot of people who give hope in the world get shot. Which perhaps contradicts my thesis. Being shot is a terrible thing. But people tend to remember you well.”
 
At Grist, I write about green activism. I also try to think about what environmentalism can learn from other great social movements of our time: civil rights, feminism, and gay rights. That’s why I asked McCarthy to sit down and talk about what he’s learned, how movements evolve, and what environmentalists might be able to learn from other movements.
 
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