Part of the Climate Steps Politics page series.
Believe it or not, you can often work through your representative to create change, with success depending on the strategies used — and on your representative, of course.
At first, the complexity of the political process and the influence of special interests can create apparent or real barriers towards getting involved in your democracy beyond voting. Special interests rely on those obstacles to prevent ordinary people from advocating for policy in the public interest. While representatives do tend to listen to industry, interest groups, and the party base more than to their general constituents1,2,3 this is because of those groups’ active involvement in politics (and their money). But the number one metric an elected official looks to is votes. If you can demonstrate that an issue will curry the politician favor with their voters, you can be extremely influential. Plus, studies have found that politicians respect voters who are active via certain actions within politics.4 So what are strategies you can adopt? Which ones are effective in different circumstances? (We’re still building out the answers to this last question, but we point out some of the most impactful strategies below.)
- Local to Global Scales
- Communicating with Current Reps
- Getting the Right Folks In Office: Campaigning
- Getting the Right Folks In Office: Voting
- Fighting Big Money Influence
- Organizations that can help (separate page under development)
First, let’s talk about what scale you think you need to work at, what you want to work at, and what’s most effective.
Local to Global Scales:
All scales of representational democracy – from local to national to global – could use our help to highlight the need for climate action, no matter in which country you reside. However, in certain countries (uh, the U.S.?) the federal system is a hard nut to crack at the moment; so is the United Nations. So, to find the scale that works and has the most impact for your region, you could:
1) First do some quick research to see how often your Representatives meet with their constituents at the various scales, support environmental bills, etc. Get to know who they are – some might surprise you in what they support; and even if they don’t support all that you hoped for, interacting with them can have an effect. Ballotpedia is a great resource for identifying your political reps in the US, from federal to local: https://ballotpedia.org/Who_represents_me. You should also check out a) your Representative’s official website, b) Vote Smart. https://justfacts.votesmart.org/, and 3) the U.S.’s Issue Voter website.
“For those of us in some areas, where it’s next to impossible to get people of a different party elected, trying to work with those we have realistically is an important component – and it involves finding out what matters to them and trying to link our issues to their major concerns. For example, our senator cares very much about farmers – so appeals could focus on risks to farmers.”A Climate Steps Participant in Arkansas
2) You could check out/communicate with some useful organizations like Indivisible Group (https://indivisible.org/; U.S.-based); the Sunrise Movement (for youth), https://www.sunrisemovement.org/; and Citizen Climate Lobby (CCL; https://citizensclimatelobby.org; mostly in the U.S., but also now with chapters in many countries). All of these organizations work at federal levels, but also have local chapters that can have a local/regional emphasis. They can help match your volunteer efforts to a scale in a way that may actually make headway. Note: CCL primarily focuses on bills supporting a carbon fee. CSteps will work on finding sources that help you find more of these useful organizations.
3) Or go with the best default: small-scale, local city/county/district/precinct/ward representatives, from school boards, to city managers, to attorney generals, are often very approachable and are the ones dealing with the actual problems and implementation; they often value help and insight!
“Constituents,” are more than the people who voted for a Representative; instead, they are the complete set of people within a Representative’s jurisdiction that the politician is supposed to represent. Even if you didn’t vote for a rep (and they shouldn’t know who you voted for anyway – though they do know if you are registered in a particular party), you have the right to talk to them. So, gather your information, and your COVID mask, and go for a chat!
Communicating with Your Representatives:
How do we go about doing this? When I was beginning to write this section, one of the members of the FB Climate Steps Group noted that he has no information about his Representative within his African country and how to find her, noting that Representatives do not meet with constituents there. I’m urging him to find a way, but some countries have much more established means that make it easier. As Climate Steps grows, we hope to link to/build out resources for many countries to help make it easier for you to find how to contact and communicate with your Representative.
In the U.S., all local-to-federal Representatives have mailing addresses, offices where you can set up meetings with at least their staff, email accounts, phone numbers, and they also sometimes have town halls – meetings in a public venue (like a school gymnasium) open to everyone from their city, district, etc. Sometimes, however, is the operative word.
But here are some hints for how to get hold of them; hopefully, it works in your own country:
Personal, handwritten letters/postcards. These are more effective compared to emails and phone calls, because they provide such a personal touch. Your handwriting – and telling your story – really shows you put some thought into this. And goodness knows everyone is aware of how our hands cramp up from writing with a pen nowadays – far earlier than they do by typing – Representatives appreciate that.5
See below for some Communication Guidelines.
CCL often does letter campaigns, as do many other groups, standing on the street and asking people to write a quick postcard or letter to their Representative about an issue. When COVID is solved, you yourself could even host a letter-writing party, providing envelopes and stamps for friends. Oh, and hand-massages after letter #1.
“Many constituents ask if their letters are making a difference. “Is anyone listening?” they want to know. While a single letter rarely sways a legislator, several dozen people’s letters supporting the same policy can definitely make an impact, especially if they are about a small, specific action.”(Ari Melber, a Senate staffer,4)
Emails. Every Representative should have an email address, no matter at what scale they work. Go online to find the latest, as politicians do change. (But see note above that handwritten notes have more impact.)
Phone calls. Some organizations provide scripts, but if you follow the basic communication guidelines below (e.g., be polite, show how a bill would affect you, etc.), you should be fine.
Addresses, Phone numbers, and Websites of Representatives. U.S. (local to federal): https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials, https://www.commoncause.org, https://ballotpedia.org/Who_represents_me; Canada, U.K., Australia, Mexico, ….
Social Media. Many, but not all officials, including the main Tweeter of the U.S. (aka Trump), have social media accounts and pages. Some will just be FB pages, where you really don’t have an opportunity to comment, but some pages and other platforms, e.g., Twitter, and Instagram, are all about commenting. As social media platforms usually aren’t part of official addresses, it’ll be up to you to search for them online.
Polls and Issue Trackers
– not only tracks your Congressional Representatives history in voting, but allows you to keep track of which bills are coming up for vote and to then designate which way you lean on that bill. That information on which will made available to the Representative somehow.
Polls. On this one, the best polling companies, pollsters randomly select who to poll so as to get the best, unbiased representation on issues. And being contacted for a poll is rare, though one can occasionally get one. There can be survey companies that wants your opinion, but it is a company, and its results will likely be biased to those that want to speak louder than others. https://today.yougov.com/join-community/.
Protests and Petitions. With enough people or signatures, a protest or petition can demonstrate to a representative that an issue is worth spending time on. We are building a Politics > Protests and Petitions section for C. Steps – coming soon. You can also checkout the guidance on effective petitions on Change.org.
In-Person – Offices
At all levels in the U.S. and most other democratic countries, you can schedule a meeting with your particular Representative(s). At the federal level, though, you sometimes don’t meet with the Representative themselves, but you do get to meet with staff, who often help steer what bills actually get written. Make an appointment, so they genuinely have time to listen. When you do meet in person with a rep or staff, you can come out with a sense of “empowerment and pride” in taking direct action in your government (says Naomi Warren,4)
If you go as a group with other visiting constituents, you form contacts and also share the experience across and learn from everyone’s diverse backgrounds.
If you are unable to make an appointment, have a third-party, someone who knows the Representative, introduce you and/or set up the appointment.
Also, if you go to political campaign events and meet staffers, they often have connections and suggestions about how things work in your area.
While meeting with your representative – be polite but ask questions. Interview them, don’t just let them interview you. They are your employees.
“Before I got into politics, I thought lobbying was only for slick-talking silver-tongued professionals. What I learned is that open-ended questions followed by genuine listening is the best way to learn a legislator’s priorities.”Max Broad, DC Chapter Leader, CCL
In-Person – Town Halls.
U.S. folks, check out: https://townhallproject.com/, which provides a listing of all public town halls at different political levels. Unfortunately, in these partisan times, federal Representatives on both sides have cut their town halls by a third to a half, especially after frustrated constituents shouted, and a few threw things or otherwise vented extreme frustration. At least one Representative literally ducked out the back of his town hall. But some public meetings still go on – so look for one in the link above! Sign up to speak, politely ask questions, and make your voice actually heard. It might encourage other Representatives to open back up to town halls.
In-person – Events
Go to their bill-signing events, Congressional open houses, etc., start a conversation, and let the Representative know your concerns. See the guidelines below for more.
Here’s a powerful one – invite them to your own climate event. Make it known a whole bunch of their constituents will be there. A template for such an event can be found here: https://hftf.squarespace.com/template-letters.
Be timely. But how does one know when best to contact your Representative? There are some tools for that, such as Issue Voter (For U.S. federal Representatives, sign up for the service IssueVoter, or similar services for your country. It highlights what upcoming bills your particular Representatives will soon vote for, and how they voted for past bills. Check it out: www.issuevoter.org.)
Whether in person or via a letter or even on social media, start with a clear statement on your objective near the top.
Highlight some of your knowledge on the issue. Acknowledge the work your Representative has already done (says 350.org), even if small. It shows we pay attention to what they do.
Be specific. Talk about the specific bills coming up, flagged by services such as IssueVoter, or outline how a law will specifically impact a community and its resources. Illustrate with a story – be personal. “Be heartfelt” or humorous in places – make your letter [or conversation] stand out (Ari Melber4)
Be polite – otherwise it can cause a well-studied backlash effect. For in-person meetings, make it a true conversation and dialogue about concerns.4
If posting a public comment on a Representative’s website or on social media (versus sending them a direct message through social media), be very careful about the wording, as not only the Representative will see it, but the entire public, and some may not respond well. Be prepared for some inappropriate comments, but don’t waste too much time responding to those who won’t listen. Focus instead on communicating with the Representative; they are the ones you want to win over.
For handwritten letters and emails:
Take only one page, no more than two if necessary. (350.org).
If you’ve recently visited or called the office, while writing a letter, or vice versa, mention it.4 It shows dedication.
Send to their home office in their state/district/precinct, rather than the legislature body offices. It becomes clearer that way that you are their constituent.
Asking for a reply can be motivating to the staff to put thoughts on paper.
Also, if you see any candidate or official at a function, like a ribbon-cutting, don’t be afraid to go up and say, first, “Thank you. I’m glad you’ve chosen to serve this community. For your next project, I just wanted to let you know that I’m very, very concerned about what climate change and its heat waves/sea level rise/etc. are going to do to this community. We need for you to address this in every way possible…”
After an event, write them afterwards, thanking them for hosting you or for attending yours.
Luckily, some sites have already created templates for letters, phone calls, and meeting requests:
Although this letter has a particular U.S. Representative listed, the guidelines and talking points it provides regarding the climate crisis are excellent for any politician anywhere. http://world.350.org/pensacola/files/2015/01/Letter-Guidelines-Senator-Rubio.pdf.
This site provides a general framework: https://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/climate-change-letter.html.
U.S.: The group Elders Climate Action, https://www.eldersclimateaction.org/sendaletter/, has templates/scripts for U.S. members of Congress and state legislators that are sent through their website, as well as letters to banks and finance groups, businesses, and newspaper editors. You will probably want to edit the letters (finish filling out your name, etc., first), as, uhm, there are typos and some old versions; also, I’m not a fan of all caps in some of these. And please remember to personalize, as mentioned above. Include your story in this.
U.S. – specific issues: Some others can be found here: CCL (regarding the carbon fee legislation: https://citizensclimatelobby.org/write-congress-now/#/14/) [under development] ….
Australia: https://www.climateforchange.org.au/mpegs_writing; this second one is more of a guide than a template: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/how-to-write-an-effective-letter-to-your-mp/.
Did you know that the people living within Washington DC do not have a voting Representative in Congress? We have a non-voting ‘Delegate’ instead. It was thought in the early days that the city was mostly there to support the federal government – but we have outgrown that, now with six universities, thousands of homegrown, businesses – and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t lobby! I have lived in the region for 28 years now, 13 in DC itself, and I have only once met one Representative – by accident on a plane. It is why our DC license plates say: Taxation without Representation.
So, remember, I don’t really have a voting Representative in Congress to go talk to. It sucks. Value your ability to talk to your Representative.
Getting the Right Folks in Office: Campaigning
It’s easier to “work through your Representative” when you choose the ones who will help address climate change and so help get them into office.
- So a critical step, that will take a bit of effort, is to discover what’s really happening with your current Representatives and the folks who are running against them, i.e., what bills they have voted on, not just what they campaign about! Do the research so you can choose someone who is not going to lie to you – who is on the people’s side, campaign, and then vote. A good source to start with is https://justfacts.votesmart.org/.
- The next step is the easiest of all – put up signs for your choice – starting in your front yard.
- You can then….
You can even set up a website with info about candidates, issues, voter resolutions, etc. To be part of an official campaign, be sure it is nonpartisan and meets the rules of your jurisdiction for the best effect. (See below under #8).
Start campaigning for “your chosen one(s)”5 early – not the last day. With COVID-19 happening, mail-in ballots will be requested and sent in early so as to ensure they don’t arrive too late to be counted due to a lockdown or another crisis. So start approaching people early with your facts.4
Form a meet-up (www.meetup.com) of supporters to discuss, or host a campaign party. Discuss concerns and needs (I am going to lecture here: “don’t lecture!”), highlight issues your candidate could address, and if it’s a campaign party, then start the postcard/letter writing. Have folks read some of theirs out loud, to give each other ideas. You may be able to fund-raise at these parties as well but check your campaign’s rules.4
Attend or even host a candidate meet-and-greet – on time. I once arrived dreadfully late to an in-person meet-and-greet, interrupting the candidate’s speech as I had to cross the dining room to sit down, but everything was laid back and very personable once we settled in. A meet-and-greet really gives you and your guests an opportunity to ask questions, which alone makes an impact if you choose your questions right (climate change, climate change!). A greater impact will be made when others in the room (now the virtual room) nod their heads if you talk about your concern about climate change.
Nowadays events must be outdoors and socially spaced or online, so outline beforehand suitable activities and some brief talking points.
Be sure to invite friends who may be underrepresented voters.
Volunteer for campaigns, be a part of a team:
You can help collect the signatures to help put the person on the ballot! Following strong guidelines, of course. (If the person doesn’t get on the ballot, you can then organize ‘write-in’ campaigns; most ballots have a blank line where a person can be written in.)
Join the Environmental Voter Project to pledge to vote, register to vote, to volunteer, and to get training. The goal is to get those “stay-at-home” “enviros” to vote on election day, in order to increase awareness and prioritization of environmental issues. (c/o Max Broad, Leader for CCL – DC Chapter) https://www.environmentalvoter.org/.
Join phone banks.
If allowed despite COVID, work with others to go door-to-door. In the U.S. at least, one can get a registered voter list from your precinct/county that provides the addresses of registered voters, so you then can independently go door-to-door, but if canvassing with others, you can bond/learn/have fun. Gather your talking points, wear a COVID mask, wear identification, take a water bottle, wear walking shoes and sunscreen, don’t forget to wash your hands, and then knock. Let people know what your concerns are and why you think your candidate will help find solutions.
Other things you can do include coordination, designing themes and signs, providing food for the volunteers, placing signs, fund-raising, talking to the media, joining the official planning committee, etc.4
Finally – you could run yourself. We will write more about that under another page about Ambitious Political Actions.
create your own ballot recommendations, with concise explanations, and give to people you know. Don’t forget to provide resources so they can conduct research themselves (Michael Rosenthal.4)
Getting the Right Folks in Office: Voting
- Make, make sure you get registered way beforehand4: https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.
- Help others register! https://www.eac.gov/voters/national-mail-voter-registration-form.
- “Contact your county office that manages elections…to learn the rules for registering voters in your county,” such as who can deputize others to register folks.4
- Get deputized/certified for registering voters in localities where needed – fyi, one can often be certified in the U.S. for more than one locality.
- You can do some fundraising from various organizations for your voter registration drives.
- Recruit friends/family to help. They’ll love you for it!
Set up drives at farmers’ markets, busy sidewalks, churches, events, student unions, and even bars. Stay COVID-safe and don’t forget pens!4
Voter drives can be issue-specific, btw. (Hint, hint: climate change!) But they still should provide issue-specific info about each candidate – create a spreadsheet of all candidates’ records, for instance.
You can even set up a registration drive at your office – but talk to your Human Resources (HR) Department first.4 Of course, you realize you can’t promote any particular candidate at your office without risking your job, but just registering as many people as possible supports democracy.
Send care packages to friends with register-to-vote cards.4 I like this one.
Before you turn in your registration lists, do doublecheck your lists to make sure folks are not already registered.
Critically – help ensure that underrepresented voters have opportunities and the support to learn the climate issues and to vote. All the steps above will work, just tailor for who you want to work with. As Lillie Coney said in MoveOn, 2004, registering entire families “encouraged neighborhoods to vote at record numbers.” Find friends who speak other languages to help.
Then help people get to the polls:
Support mail-in ballots
Ask your HR department to give time off for people to go vote, organize a voting lunch, and/or give rewards for the “I Voted” sticker.4
Finally, hold an election day party to help encourage/rev up people to vote. If your person loses, don’t leave people feeling like their effort was for nothing – note the positive outcomes, and then turn it into an opportunity that night or the next day to discuss and take next steps to change the political system. If your person wins, you can still turn it into an opportunity to get your friends/families active in next steps to help the winner take action on your issues!
nonpartisan information about voting drives in places like coffee shops, restrooms, etc…4
Fighting Big Money Influence:
“Identify the institutions that an opponent needs to survive and then deny them that source of power.”https://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_raqib_the_secret_to_effective_nonviolent_resistance#t-531039.
Money in Campaigns (under development)
- Help support campaign finance reforms, aka “clean elections,” that minimize campaign money (and influence) coming from just a few, rich individuals/corporations. See here for a current list of organizations involved in this issue: http://reclaimtheamericandream.org/organizations-public/.
- Donate and fundraise from the people. Small amounts of money from hundreds/thousands of people can make a difference! Former President Obama ran a successful social media campaign and raised beaucoups of small donations (REF).
Money in Lobbying (under development)
- https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B; https://www.vox.com/2014/4/18/5624310/martin-gilens-testing-theories-of-american-politics-explained.
- Re: Swiss Parliament.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ajps.12183.
- Re: U.S. Congress. https://media.proquest.com/media/hms/PFT/2/uYx8G?_s=wy7OLRwZzP%2FIYwhlJ88R1U6GA0A%3D
- MoveOn, 2004. MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country. Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc.`
- A Buffy the Vampire reference. Of course. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer.