What would inspire you to use your body to block traffic or go on a hunger strike? Some profound, personal injustice that was being overlooked by seemingly everyone around you?

The driving force behind many of history’s greatest social movements — whether for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, or racial justice — is the energy generated in the space between an injustice not being acknowledged and the recourse that it demands. 

For a growing movement of young people around the world, the most salient injustice is the climate and biodiversity crisis. And the gap between people in power acknowledging its severity and taking appropriate action is enormous.

So these young people are doing everything they can to disrupt the status quo with the means available to them.

But it’s not easy to keep protests going for weeks and months at a time. Often, protesters and organizers face arrest and harassment, lose their jobs, and have to pay for everyday expenses out of dwindling bank accounts. This additional burden — of having to afford survival — leads to high attrition rates in social movements. 

Now, the Climate Emergency Fund is working to ease this financial burden by giving organizers and climate groups timely grants, resource support, and networking capabilities. Insulated from money concerns, organizers can focus on carrying out actions, building the movement, and making sure their message is heard loud and clear. 

“Movements are how societies make important changes,” Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, told Global Citizen. “And in this case, in this absurd situation, as the movie Don’t Look Up portrays, we are at this point of horrible existential risk, a truly catastrophic situation, and the vast majority of Americans and people in other countries are still in normal mode, acting like things are basically fine and we should continue as is."

“But more and more people are waking up from that, through organizations like Extinction Rebellion and others who engage in civil disobedience and high stakes actions to fight public complacency,” she added. 

Waking Up 

Demonstrators hold up posters outside the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon during a climate strike of school students as part of the Fridays for Future movements Friday, May 24, 2019.
Demonstrators hold up posters outside the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon during a climate strike of school students as part of the Fridays for Future movements Friday, May 24, 2019.
Image: Armando Franca/AP

Protest movements, while guided by big-picture concerns, often need to act swiftly in response to current events, especially when it comes to local chapters who depend on teams of volunteers. 

Receiving a grant can be key, but the process of actually getting one can be lengthy and complicated, with applicants having to fill out various forms, undergo rounds of interviews, and then wait to be vetted before a final decision comes through. 

By the time money clears, objectives may have changed, teams may have fragmented, and momentum may have stalled. 

The Climate Emergency Fund operates in this space, trying to get money to action-oriented groups as fast as possible to ensure momentum accelerates. 

Formed in 2019 by three millionaires — Aileen Getty, Rory Kennedy, and Trevor Neilson — the organization seeks to turbocharge protests as they’re happening now in order to bolster the larger movement and secure decisive grassroots victories. 

“The smartest place for philanthropists to invest is in this new generation of activists who refuse to accept the excuses of the adults whose lazy approach to climate is leading us off a cliff,” Neilson told the New York Times. “The era of gradualism in environmental activism is over.” 

The founders perform advisory roles nowadays, alongside a host of environmental advocates, while the day-to-day work of supporting climate organizations and identifying grantees falls to a small team of four women —  Salamon, Development Director Rowena Koenig, Operations Manager Sophie Tong-Try, and Grants Manager Ananda Ambrose. 

The team’s nimbleness means that they can maximize the amount of money that goes to frontline activism and organizing. 

Taking cues from groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Emergency Fund perceives the climate crisis as a siren going off, demanding immediate intervention. 

“We need to enter into emergency mode collectively,” Salamon said. “It’s not a choice. It’s transform or collapse time.

“If we want to continue on with the human experiment and work toward a better future, there’s just no alternative to getting to zero emissions as quickly as possible and I think we can do it,” she said. “The other option is just genocidal, catastrophic collapse.”

Since 2019, the nonprofit has supported 71 organizations, trained 12,495 activists, and mobilized 1 million more. Last year alone, 35 grantees received $1.5 million in funds.

Current grantees are grouped among five categories: building pressure on policymakers; strategic action at COP26; confronting deadly climate science on TV news; building movement infrastructure; climate emergency campaigning; and bringing the movement back to the streets. 

The overarching theme, however, is growing the global movement so that it can fully meet the challenges ahead. 


Protesters from from the environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London July 15, 2019. Environmental campaigners are blocking some roads across the UK on Monday, as they protest against what they allege is "inaction" on climate change.
Image: Kirsty O'Connor/PA/AP

Before joining the Climate Emergency Fund, Salamon was a Climate Emergency Fund grantee working at The Climate Mobilization, an organization that helped to get more than 2,000 municipalities to declare a climate emergency. 

Declaring an emergency is step one. The next step is taking action. 

“Social movements at their heart are about spreading an uncomfortable truth to the public,” she said. “It’s a factual truth and also a moral truth. Like the abolitionists, we say ‘look at what this system actually is.’ So it’s an anti-denial campaign. Atrocities are being justified in the name of silence and normalcy, but if we really shine a light on it and make people confront these things then we can get the political motivation for transformative change.

“It’s fundamentally democratic,” she said. “People are taking back power, and in terms of tactics and high stakes organizing, definitely one thing that distinguishes the Climate Emergency Fund is our willingness to fund the vanguard, the hunger strikers, and the Extinction Rebellion and so forth.”

Roadblocks, hunger strikes, digging tunnels underground, kayaking out to deepwater oil rigs, shutting down coal plants — these are some of the tactics of the vanguard of the movement, the people who are standing in the way of heavy industries stripping the Earth bare for fossil fuels and then burning them to turn the atmosphere into a gauze of smoggy heat.

Salamon argues that these actions gain their power as a kind of symbolic rupture of norms. As onlookers get awoken from a state of complacency, they might recognize the gravity of the situation for what it is.  

“They’re nonviolent in character, but they’re frequently subjected to violence. What a horrible thing — who would want to go sit in the road to face down angry drivers and then get arrested and sit in jail? This is such an extreme act that it sends a clear message to the public.” 

In recent years, climate protest movements have proliferated around the world, driven mostly by young people. Millions of students have participated in Fridays for Future school strikes, following the example of Greta Thunberg.

Government and corporate leaders have increasingly adopted the language of climate activists and the movement for zero emissions has gained pledges, but in the words of Thunberg, all of this amounts to “blah, blah, blah,” or empty signaling, without an immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. On the contrary, emissions are rising and show no signs of slowing down

What would it take to actually transform the status quo?

The political scientist Erica Chenoweth reviewed hundreds of social movements over the past century to find markers of success. She found, for example, that nonviolent protests are twice as likely as violent protests to achieve their goals. In that same vein, size seems to matter. Once a protest movement gets to 3.5% of a given population, the odds of success are greatly amplified.

The 3.5 rule guides a lot of Salamon’s thinking. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and is keenly interested in understanding what it takes to nudge people from indifference or avoidance about the climate crisis into active embrace of the movement. 

“I’m basically coming at it from the question of, ‘What is wrong with us psychologically that we are letting this happen and how do we wake up and treat this like the emergency that this is?’” she said. “Social movement is the answer to that question.”

Think about it like this: All of these actions — stopping cars in rush hour traffic, halting industrial construction projects, subjecting your body to extreme deprivation — carry the same fundamental message: stop!

There are different objectives, of course, but they’re all calling for the state of environmental decline to stop. 

And the more onlookers stop, the more likely they’ll take a look around and see the situation for what it is. And the more they do that, the more likely they’ll join the movement. 

Then, if and when that 3.5% target is reached, the “transformative change” Salamon spoke of might actually be possible. 

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