The Growth of The United States Climate Movement In the midst of environmental setbacks in the U.S., grassroots organizations associated with the emerging climate movement continue to grow

By: Kristina Gutchess

The future of sustainable changes in the current era of environmental setbacks – that of widespread climate change denial, the approval of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and major budget cuts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health– is unclear.

In 1999, the infamous “Hockey Stick Graph” was published Mann, Bradley & Hughes in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters. The graph depicts the global mean temperature record over the past 500 - 2000 years determined by climate reconstructions and is revered as awakening the public to human-induced climate change. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the Third Assessment Report for Policymakers, in which the Hockey Stick Graph was included. Since then there was been an increase in individual interests in green practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This concern has become so prominent in some U.S. communities that a new movement has branched out from traditional environmentalist groups - The Climate Movement.

Reconstruction of infamous "Hockey Stick Graph," originally published by Mann, Bradley & Hughes (1999). Points signify the 30-year average of the new PAGES 2k reconstruction. The red curve illustrates the global mean temperature (HadCRUT4 data from 1850). The blue line represents the original hockey stick and uncertainty range. Source: Wikimeda Commons.

Sustainability-based grassroots organizations have sprouted up across the United States in the 21st century – from Sustainable Tucsan to Sustainable Pittsburgh. Since the mid-1990’s alone, well over 50 independent organizations have established their roots in over 30 states. Individual community members are coming together to initiate sustainable changes across economic, ecological and societal sectors. Instead of relying on elected representatives to initiate a traditional top-down response, individuals, businesses and communities across the U.S. are taking actions to lessen the impacts of humans on the climate and in doing so, strengthening the roots of this movement.

Left: U.S. Map showing locations of community-based non-profit organizations motivated by sustainable living. Right: The growing number of sustainable non-profits in relation to major breakthroughs in climate science

Even in places as seemingly remote as upstate New York, community based non-profit organizations geared towards educating the public about sustainable living have begun to develop. At the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, one of the longest and deepest of New York’s eleven Finger Lakes, lies the city of Ithaca, New York. Sustainable Tompkins, a citizen-based coalition working towards long-term well-being of local communities began in Ithaca in 2004 as an idea that has since grown into a well-established forum for social, environmental and economic change.

Left: Map of New York State showing location of the City of Ithaca. Right: City of Ithaca location relative to Cayuga Lake, the second deepest of New York's eleven Finger Lakes. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“It all grew out of a conversation,” Dr. Gay Nicholson, Sustainable Tompkins president and co-founder states.

Successful grassroots organizations, like Sustainable Tompkins, place emphasis on integrating not just environmental issues, but social and economic needs as well. This framework directs the focus toward understanding interconnectedness of all groups in order to make the most effective decisions.

“A lot of our work has been about exposing people to new things,” says Dr. Nicholson.

Grassroots movements are characterized by bottom-up decision making. Motivated by collective action, individuals facilitate change at regional to national levels. As the name implies, grassroots movements originate in the base of society, much like the roots of grass plants.

Sustainable Tompkins utilizes the bottom-up approach of many grassroots organizations, but compliments the traditional method with a unique twist: by seamlessly integrating top-down and bottom-up approaches combined with education and infrastructure initiatives. Dr. Nicholson credits the success of Sustainable Tompkins in the organization’s efforts to engage and educate community members but also encourage policy makers and businesses to make changes and to recognize systems level problems.

Every component of Sustainable Tompkins serves to relate sustainable development at social, economic and environmental levels. Even their logo symbolizes the triple bottom line (typically an accounting framework broken into three intersecting parts representing society, the environment and the economy) woven into a fabric of mutual responsibility – the green fabric.

Sustainable Tompkins is currently involved in two distinct projects – the Neighborhood Mini-grant Program and the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.

The Neighborhood Mini-grant Program was introduced in 2008, to support individual grassroots initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for Tompkins County residents. In less than a decade, almost $70,000 has been awarded to support as many as 160 innovative, sustainability-oriented projects throughout Tompkins County. Projects address a diverse array of community needs, from start-up funds for community gardens, to the installation of recycled bike-racks across the county and money to offset the costs of hosting sustainable cooking classes.

The costs to install bike racks, like those pictured here, have been offset by through Sustainable Tompkins' programs. Since 2008, the Neighborhood Mini-grants Program has awarded funding for the installation of approximately 7 bike racks in Tompkins County.

In 2012, the Ithaca Health Alliance was awarded $500 to install forced-air hand dryers to eliminate paper towel waste.

Start-up funds for sustainable community gardens and composting projects are commonly funded by the Finger Lakes Mini-grants Program.

Many mini-grant awards serve to educate the public about sustainable living practices. In 2008, $400 was awarded to the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute for launching the Maple Sugaring Education - an educational program which included hands-on syrup tapping.

The Finger Lakes Climate Fund is a local carbon-offset fund that individuals can use to help those that are in need join the transition away from carbon energy. Grants are awarded to low-income households to fund projects to reduce their carbon footprint that would not otherwise be possible given their financial constraints.

Carbon offset donations are used for grants to fund energy efficiency projects that would be unlikely to be implemented otherwise in low to moderate income households in the Finger Lakes region. These grants help pay for insulation, air sealing, energy efficient heating equipment, and other upgrades to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are just trying to support people in making these changes. We are at risk of leaving lower income people behind stuck on fossil fuels. It’s a way of helping the community and the local economy in general,” Dr. Nicholson adds in regards to the success of the Neighborhood Mini-grant program and the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.

Solar farm located in the Town of Ulysses, New York. This is the first community solar project in New York State. The panels are owned by a combined 47 households and were installed by local company and Finger Lakes Climate Fund partner, Renovous Solar. Photo Courtesy of Sustainable Tompkins.

Dr. Nicholson in part credits the success of Sustainable Tompkins to the City of Ithaca’s longstanding reputation as being especially socially progressive, while maintaining a certain amount of environmental awareness - essentially a recipe for sustainability success.

“When we started, Sustainable Tompkins was the only sustainability group around. As a result of our activities, people started thinking about what they were interested in doing,” says Dr. Nicholson.

“One of the key roles that we’ve had is about being the pioneer – introducing people to what’s out there in the world of sustainability. If you are going to wake people up, you need to be ready with some infrastructure to support them.”

Just east of Tompkins County, another sustainability-based group has established its roots and emerged as a forum for social and environmental change in Upstate New York. Sustainable Cortland, founded in Cortland County in 2010, grew out of a conversation about community issues related to climate change, energy depletion and economic instability.

“It became apparent that we needed a sustainability organization that would focus on educating community members about sustainability topics including climate change,” current president Dr. Beth Klein comments.

Sponsored events hosted by the organization range from lectures by invited speakers to a series of Do it Yourself (DIY) workshops to encourage participants to reduce consumption habits by creating their own resources and keeping materials out of landfills. Lectures typically focus on climate change and sustainability related topics, while individual workshops may range from mozzarella making and bread baking to upcycling, making a compost bin and even solar panel installation. Workshops in the DIY series focus on educating the public on how prior generations used to live – by growing and canning their own food, reusing materials, etc.

“That’s really what people want to see,” says Dr. Klein of the DIY series.

Photos taken throughout the construction of City of Cortland community garden in part facilitated by Sustainable Cortland. Photographs courtesy of Sustainable Cortland.

Sustainable Cortland board members are as varied in their backgrounds as the events that the organization hosts, ranging from farmers, to members of the local soil water conservation district and university professors. This diverse array of individuals unites across their common interest of integrating sustainability into their communities. Equally as diverse as Sustainable Cortland’s board members, are the participants in the organization’s events. Cortland County is home to a broad array of people who would not typically be drawn to the same events. However, Sustainable Cortland is able to overcome these social boundaries by spinning events in a way to attract individuals from all crowds (e.g. as farm visits, tours, canning classes).

“Sustainable Cortland pairs normal people with things that they can do that are sustainable,” Vice President of Sustainable Cortland, Jared Popoli says. “We have removed the stigma and transformed it to being something that real people can embrace and benefit from.”

Sustainable Cortland recently joined forces with a non-profit solarize initiative, Solarize CNY, which stemmed from regional planning and development in Central New York. In 2016, Sustainable Cortland worked to educate the residents of Cortland County about solar energy, through collaborative workshops and lectures featuring local solar panel installers. A number of Cortland County residents have signed up for home solar assessments after attending these events. Workshops have continued into 2017, with a recent event offering attendees the opportunity to meet with seven different solar panel installers from the area. By attending this event, residents are granted three free solar assessments from local installers.

“We had really good turnouts,” said Dr. Klein, in regards to the solarize campaign events, adding that workshops centered around educating the public about solar energy typically draw the largest crowds.

Sustainable Cortland's DIY workshop series are one of the most popular events that the organization hosts and often focus on introducing people to diffferent aspects of sustainable living - such as bread baking.

Cheese making is another popular workshop in the DIY series.

A recent solarize event co-hosted by Sustainable Cortland attracted over 60 attendees from throughout the county. Representatives from seven local solar panel installation companies were available to answer questions about going solar. Meeting attendees were able to sign up for up to three free solar assessments for possible installations at their homes.

Sustainable Cortland has worked closely with the City of Cortland Environmental Advisory Committee and the Cortland Area Chamber of Commerce to ensure the promotion of sustainable practices across the city. A joint initiative with the Downtown Partnership and the Cortland Area Chamber of Commerce, entitled “Local to Our Core,” was a campaign to encourage businesses to provide local products by educating individuals of the benefits of buying local.

“Since that kicked off there have been more local foods in restaurants,” Dr. Klein states, regarding this initiative as particularly successful.

Throughout the growth of the organization, Dr. Klein emphasizes that education has remained their primary mission,

“When you are forming an organization, people like to get together - when they actually are able to create something that they can use - those kinds of things bring people together.”
Photos of sustainable energy in Cortland County. Left: Windmill. Right: Solar field located at Twin Oaks Dairy, Truxton, NY. Photos courtesy of Sustainable Cortland

Although the organizations vary in their approaches, the objectives of their roots remain the same – to educate and encourage communities to pursue sustainable living.

The increasing emergence of grassroots sustainability-based organizations will be essential for environmentally friendly, sustainability-oriented, living for generations to come. We are entering a new era of environmentalism in the United States, with community-based organizations comprising the roots of the larger climate movement.


Created with images by Alexas_Fotos - "meadow field green" • LollyOhMy - "Bike Racks on the Trail" • Sean MacEntee - "Dyson Hand Dryer" • Cara Harpole - "Composting Bin" • The D34n - "Where maple syrup comes from (0307)" • Editor B - "Loaves" • - "Cheese making demo" • MariaGodfrida - "solar panels placement green energy"

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.