Here at Curious.Earth we often tell you to take part in climate action, or to join a climate group – but what does that really mean? If you don’t already have friends who are in climate groups and you’ve not taken part in activism before, the thought of turning up to a meeting can be daunting. What goes on? What do climate activists actually do?

To help make that process a little less mysterious I spoke to 6 volunteer activists about how they got involved, what activism looks like for them, and got their advice about how you can take the first steps to get involved.

Let’s meet our activists!

Jerome (he/they, age 42, based in Fife) first became aware of climate issues as a child after watching the animated show Seabert the Seal (try an episode for yourself and see if you get inspired too) and has been taking part in activism since they were a teenager. They now volunteer a lot with the Scottish Green Party. Recently, having a daughter increased their drive for taking climate action. “Since I’ve become a dad, things have only become more urgent to me because it’s so much more tangible now. When I was a teenager, all the deadlines were in 2020. Now, when we’re talking about 2020, it’s already in the past.”

Katherine (she/her, aged 30, based in London) is a member of the Stop Rosebank campaign. She has been passionate about the environment since she was a teenager (“My GCSE English oral exam was on palm oil and the orangutans, I’m that kind of person” she tells me), but first joined a climate group in 2019. “That’s when I first thought, you know, I really have to do something about this. It’s making me feel terrible and so grim and so depressed. Eco anxiety wasn’t talked about as much then, but it’s definitely what I was feeling.”

Our next activist – they asked not to be named, so for the purposes of this article we’ll call them Doug – (he/they, aged 25, based in Edinburgh) is an organiser with Climate Camp Scotland. They got involved with climate action after feeling that political leaders weren’t doing enough to address the climate crisis. “I was reading a lot about climate change and watching a lot of documentaries and stuff and then following party politics and what was going on in Westminster and just gradually losing any trust that any solution would come through the voting system or through government. I’d read a lot about activist movements in history, like the civil rights or different independence movements and I always just saw a lot of power in people coming together to fight for what they believe in.”

Stephanie, (she/her, aged 38, based in Edinburgh), helps to run Edinburgh Climate Drinks, a free social where people can get together and talk about the climate over a casual beer. She can pinpoint the exact date she became interested in climate activism, 5th April 2021 to be precise, when a change of role at work made her realise that working on climate communications was her passion. “I was so daunted. I was like ‘oh my I don’t know anything about this’ but as I got into it I just could not stop and I absolutely loved it. … eventually I became the climate engagement manager so now I specifically focus on climate, and actually communications about the climate is where my real passion lies.”

Other activists have found their way to climate activism through friends. Beedmos (he/him, aged 24, based in Nigeria) is an LGBTQ+ and social justice activist who was introduced to the climate movement by a friend online in 2020. “The climate is changing as a whole, and it is something that everybody definitely should know about. And I saw the post and thought ‘this is what I’m wanting to do’.”

Kate (she/her, aged 33, based in Michigan) joined the Green Team at her work in a biomedical research institute, after realising the unexpected climate impact of her research. “We use a lot of single-use plastic and use a great deal of energy to maintain our freezer temperatures and machines that often need to run 24/7. I joined the Green Team from a desire to improve the sustainability and environmental impact at work and increase awareness of the issues in a research context.”

None of my friends are in climate groups, how am I supposed to find one?

Some of the activists I spoke to were introduced to the movement by friends or colleagues, but others went to their first meetings alone. For Katherine, that meant easing in very gently during her first few months in the group: “When I heard about Stop Cambo on social media I went to a few online meetings and I took part in some of their digital actions and things, but I was one of those people hiding with my camera off because the whole world was scary to me. And then I just got more and more involved until I’m where I am now, which is basically every working group and meeting there is.” 

Doug also didn’t know anybody when they first joined a climate group, but found having a tangible task helped overcome that fear of where to start: “The first activity I did was with Extinction Rebellion. I didn’t know anyone, none of my friendship group at the time were involved in anything like that, so it was a bit intimidating. They were doing a welcome meeting just speaking about how they were going to organise an exhibition and trying to get people to volunteer for different slots. I’d been meaning to go along for ages and that drew me in because it was very easy; you had to actually sign up for something, so you’d arrive and have a bit of a role.”

But will it be difficult to be an activist?

Although they are now well established in their climate activism, several of our activists did face some barriers to getting involved. “I felt very much like I was an impostor and I wasn’t good enough to be there, but you learn so much by just being in the spaces that once you decide to do it, it makes you feel a lot more comfortable” – Katherine. 

Beedmos had to overcome societal barriers to take part in activism. “We all know the kind of risk we go through every single day, most especially as a person of colour. And you know, there is just natural homophobia. So that’s just the only thing. But aside all of that, when you respect people, they can sense that.” 

For Jerome, a serious medical diagnosis has impacted their involvement: “I’ve got a brain tumour which causes issues with a lack of energy and fine motor skills. As a result, my life currently is a bit on hold”.

Similarly, health problems initially meant Katherine struggled to join a climate group that was right for her: “I found in person meetings a lot harder to attend because of my health problems. So actually the pandemic did me a huge favour – not that I would wish the pandemic on all of us – but it made the world realise that you could do things online. So the pandemic actually helped lift some of those barriers.”

So, what do activists actually do?

For Beedmos, communicating about his message is the most important part of his role as an activist: “The main thing that I’m going to do is just basically let people know exactly what the current situation is, because at the end of the day we are humans. I know it’s definitely going to help us grow as a person and help the community grow as a whole. At the moment I’m just trying to like, let them know the empathy of what I’m trying to preach to them, more or less like a gospel thing, you know”

Stephanie and Kate also spend a lot of their activism communicating and making connections with other activists – “Currently it has involved talking with other members of the Green Team in varying departments about what sustainability initiatives would look like at a biomedical research institute. We have reached out to other larger universities to see how they have done it and what barriers they came up against and how they overcame them.” (Kate).  Stephanie also stressed that every day was different: “There isn’t really a typical day. It very much depends on what I’m working on. I mean, it’ll involve a lot of sort of reaching out, making connections to people that I want to speak to and the type of thing I do is all very much involved in engagement and talking to people.” 

Katherine is very much a ‘finger in every pie’ member of her climate group. “I’ve managed to get myself involved in every working group, so I do a whole variety of things” she tells me. “That varies from creating social media content, drafting and editing letters to government ministers, to being in meetings and coming up with ideas of actions and how we can progress the campaign.” Almost as an aside she adds “and obviously I target the campaign’s key target using social media, telling them to stop building a gigantic oil field.”

While many activists spend a lot of time in meetings, Doug enjoys the more hands-on involvement that Climate Camp allows. “In the past I guess I was spending more time in a lot of meetings and trying to organise things and plan different actions and things like that. At the moment I’m a bit more removed from it, so I tend to do things more like cooking and building and maybe more wholesome things that need to be there for it to happen, but they’re a bit less intense.”

Jerome also has a slightly different focus:ensuring the welfare of other activists is taken care of, as well as training them up to be better activists. “The main thing I’ve done with the Scottish Greens is setting up a whole program of welfare officers being there in every branch. That’s one of the main things I’ve made a big point of, and then afterwards we’ve expanded that welfare network. I helped them update their code of conduct and set up a conduct committee that can actually implement it. … Now that I’ve had to regroup and refocus on my health and family completely, I think that, at least for now, I’m just gonna focus on workshops and training to hopefully pass on some of the things that I learned to a new group of people.”

But I thought activism was all about glueing yourself to the road, is there other stuff involved?

Something that was brought up by almost everyone I spoke to was the range of skills required in the climate movement – and that there are so many tasks that people outside of the climate space don’t even realise are involved. 

Katherine explained “I think people still think of activists as marching on streets with placards, shouting, or giving speeches at the UN, if you’re as high profile as Greta Thunberg or something. But that’s such a small part of what we do. Most of us don’t get the opportunity to speak at the UN and we don’t need everyone to speak at the UN. We need everyone talking to their communities and doing the small actions that will build the mass movement.”

“I think the fact that there is a climate group at a research institution is perhaps surprising in itself.” says Kate.  “However there are a lot of places where a large difference could be made in research. … I’ve been surprised by how many different skill sets are represented in the Green Team. We have people from finance, HR, marketing, as well as researchers. Everyone having a different perspective and priority means we are able to address potential barriers before we come up against them, which is exciting!”

Administration and time management are also huge parts of the work within the climate movement that are hidden from view. Katherine tells me “A lot of time is spent on computers and looking at word documents and spreadsheets. You need someone to draft press releases – some people could churn out a press release in 5 minutes. It would take me 5 hours – You need someone to make sure the maths makes sense, we need fact checking, we need researching, we need everything.” Jerome adds “We are living in hard times and there’s so much that’s demanding our time and attention that time management in and of itself kind of becomes a necessary part of climate activism.”

Another unexpected role is looking after the welfare of other activists, to ensure their wellbeing and safety at events or simply to give them the free time to get some organising done. “There’s a lot of parents who are quite terrified for the world that they’re going to leave for their kids but it’s really hard to do a four hour meeting with a kid there. Some groups will offer to pay for child care but it’s expensive so more and more people are trying to actually have a little crèche so that you could bring your kids to a meeting.” – Doug

The sheer number and variety of roles behind the scenes reminds me of the quote by Michael Caine “Be a duck, remain calm on the surface and paddle like the dickens underneath”. Jerome voices this sentiment perfectly: “That’s the tricky thing about organising. If you do it right, hardly anyone notices that there’s been a lot of effort done”.

But I don’t have time to be an activist…

The time commitment required for their particular group or cause varied a lot between all of the activists I spoke to, from very minimal in order to fit around health needs, to several hours a week. 

Kate told me how fitting in some climate activism around her busy life means her time commitment varies. “When I joined I happened to be entering an intense period of my PhD, so I couldn’t really spare the time to go to meetings or be particularly involved but I was still able to be involved via email.” 

Stephanie shared this view, and reminds us that we don’t have to do everything all the time: “It can totally vary and you don’t have to be going at it full throttle all the time. We’re all busy and we all have other jobs. If people are thinking of volunteering, they should be totally aware of that. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You’ve got to protect your time and your mental health”.

Doug also spoke about how having breaks from intense activism is crucial to ensure the longevity of the movement. “A month or so before [climate camp] everyone will be doing a lot of work, getting ready for it, a lot of planning. And then things kind of peter off and winter is a bit of a break which makes it a lot easier to carry on with your life and do things outside of it. Which if you want to keep doing things long term, I think you need to do.”

Be Curious!

For this article’s Be Curious, I handed over to our activists to ask them their advice for people wanting to get involved in climate activism. 

Jerome: “What drives you? See where there’s a gap in things between what you would ideally like and what’s being offered. Because knowing where the gap is means that at the very least, you’re not disappointed by the gap being there, and maybe you can change something about it.”

Kate: “Make sure it is a group where short term goals include implementing something. One of the most motivating things is seeing something in place and working. … Also, remember that activism is draining, remember your self-care and maintain your boundaries – especially with yourself! Let’s go save the world!”

Stephanie: “Don’t be shy about reaching out and seeing what’s going on around you and just turning up – everybody’s very welcoming. Take a friend if you are really worried or shy about it! And don’t worry if you think that you don’t know enough or that you think you’re an imperfect activist. Don’t worry about the small things.”

Katherine: “Even if you think you have no skills, you will have skills, your presence and your skills will be welcomed. Honestly, it’s one of the best things. Not only are you helping to protect our planet and create a livable future, but you also meet some of the best people you’ve ever met in your life.”

Doug: “There’s tons of lovely people and people are very welcoming. I think from the outside it can look quite scary at times, but the people are really nice and everyone’s always looking for help, if you just go and sign up for a task or something.”

And finally, the perfect advice from Beedmos: “Do it”.

Featured image by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.