Organizing Cools The Planet - Part 1

Cover Image of Organizing Cools the Planet

People often talk of climate change as a single apocalyptic event that may happen in the future; either humanity averts it, or we do not. The reality is that the impacts of climate change have been happening for quite a while to peoples across the planet and are now increasing in their number, severity, and location. In fact, climate destabilization accelerates and amplifies the other crises that marginalized people have been dealing with for generations.

Joshua Kahn Russel is also writer of "Organizing Cools the Planet"

Therefore, we see our main challenge as finding ways to navigate the multiple crises that are already changing our lives. What we do next will determine the scale and the scope of our transition. When we think about it that way, having hope at the center of our work makes sense in the face of such overwhelming odds. So if collapses are already here, and we see more and more coming, our question isn’t whether we can “solve the climate crisis,” but how do we navigate change? Will there be justice on the other side? That is our work together. That is where we find vision and inspiration.

This Booklet Is

• An articulation of a political framework (Climate Justice) to understand some of the challenges we face and respond to them. It isn’t static. It isn’t the only useful framework in addressing climate change, either. But while the parameters and definitions of Climate Justice are in flux, we are articulating the current framework we’ve been operating with at the moment.

• An organizing tool that groups and individuals can use to navigate the NorthAmerican Climate Justice movement led by impacted communities (primarily low income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous peoples).

• An honest reflection on the political frameworks, ideas, and practices climate activists have used, and how they have fared in making change around us. How do our models look in real life? Are they working?

• A set of tools and insights that are reflective of our personal journeys, limited by our own experience and context.

• Intended for organizers who are having similar challenges to ours. We’re writing for people like us.



The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.
—Antonio Gramsci


The World As We See It

Two days before the manuscript for this booklet was due, Japan had the largest earthquake in its history, pushing tsunami waves across the entire Pacific Ocean.4 The earthquake shifted Japan’s coastline eight feet and tilted the whole Earth’s axis.5 This year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded the highest land temperatures in human history, yet again. Immediate effects include fifteen thousand heat deaths in Russia, accompanied by record wildfires devastating crops and skyrocketing prices of corn and wheat.6 Record droughts have ravaged Pakistan. In Latin America, record rainfalls washed away entire mountainsides. While the two of us refuse to be paralyzed by the end-of-the-world-mongers, it is undeniable that we’re living in exponential times. But digging up all the carbon Mother Nature sequestered underground and burning it for energy didn’t just happen. It was the result of an ever-expanding global economy. Turns out, it’s impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. The basic logic in our economic system is bursting.

Just as the climate crisis is one symptom of our current economic system, we’re facing other ecological crises too: fisheries are collapsing, species are disappearing faster than the last great extinction, drinkable water is vanishing… The climate crisis is just one expansive element of many overlapping crises associated with the collapse of the ecological systems that support life on this planet. In fact, we’re living during a period of the most rapid transformation in human history on all facets of life: technological7, political, cultural, ecological, economic…

Okay. That’s a bit overwhelming. But it’s clear that stoking our cultural fear of some “doomsday” in the future is not useful for building organizations, community, and mobilizing people to create a livable future; or for preventing the worst impacts of runaway climate chaos.

People often talk of climate change as a single apocalyptic event that may happen  in the future; either humanity averts it, or we do not. The reality is that the impacts in the future; either humanity averts it, or we do not. The reality is that the impacts of climate change have been happening for quite a while to peoples across the planet and are now increasing in their number, severity, and location. In fact, climate destabilization accelerates and amplifies the other crises that marginalized people have been dealing with for generations.8 

Therefore, we see our main challenge as finding ways to navigate the multiple crises that are already changing our lives. What we do next will determine the scale and the scope of our transition. When we think about it that way, having hope at the center of our work makes sense in the face of such overwhelming odds. So if collapses are already here, and we see more and more coming, our question isn’t whether we can “solve the climate crisis,” but how do we navigate change? Will there be justice on the other side? That is our work together. That is where we find vision and inspiration.

Liberation struggles throughout history have always been urgent. They have always been life-or-death, but each have had their own timeline.9 For example, if you are working to decolonize your country from a European occupier, you fight until you win. The ecological crisis we face has that dimension, plus a science-based timeline that we can’t negotiate with. What we do in the next two years will determine the landscape for the next ten years, which will determine the landscape for the next one hundred years.10  

No pressure.

Because of this timeline imposed on us by Nature (and revealed by science), social movements must ask new questions that we wouldn’t be asking if we had all the time we wanted. Because ecological collapse is embedded in all aspects of life on this planet, we need to think about scale in new ways. Social movements need to make unlikely alliances that we wouldn’t otherwise make. We therefore need a political compass with which to navigate these choices in a strategic and principled way. 

This booklet is an effort to tune that compass for the task ahead of all of us. We hope it will be useful to you too, in locating yourself and your work in relation to the expanding North American Climate Justice movement. The least likely future is one in which things stay the same. One way or another, the existing culture and economy will need to shift to meet the ecological disruptions it is causing. 

We may face a scorched and lifeless earth. But they’re accountable to their shareholders first. That’s how the world works.

Some of those in power are squinting over these turbulent, unpredictable waters along with us, wondering how to make it across. Corporations are finding ways to fleece our crises, proposing schemes to make money from our disasters and calling them “climate solutions.” Pentagon projections focus on new kinds of warfare in a resource-depleted landscape driven by climate chaos.11 It’s clear that the businessas-usual crowd is thinking about scale in this transition. Their main motivation is to keep the big “status quo” ship sailing through the storm, maintaining their own wealth and power as much as they can. The “status quo” is dynamic and adaptive. Unlike the power-holders, when we gaze across the rough sea, our motivation is to create the most equitable and just lifeboats possible, so we can all live well through what will be a bumpy ride. Our task is to navigate change differently than those in power.

The Point Of This Booklet
Find your frontline12 — Align it with others’

Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.
—Dolores Huerta

We’re still wrestling with our own particular roles inside movements for social change in general, and understanding the framework of “climate justice” in particular. Unsatisfied with the notions of “solidarity” (though we also do solidarity work) or the identity of “ally” (though we also consider ourselves allies13) that used to offer us clarity, we searched for a way to think of our work that can holistically capture the nuance of our moment. We are part of a community of practice that has been thinking through useful ways to understand these concepts, and we owe a lot to the ideas of our peers and mentors. The thinking in this section is drawn heavily from contributions from grassroots organizers involved in the 2010 U.S. Social Forum EcoJustice People’s Movement Assembly14 process, the “CJ in the USA: Root-Cause Remedies, Rights, Reparations, and Representation statement,”15 the “Grassroots Organizing Cools the Planet” open letter16 (inspired by La Via Campesina’s slogan “Small Farmers Cool the Planet’), the work of Movement Generation,17 Occidental Arts and Ecology Center,and others who have been making thoughtful contributions to how we articulate our challenge. 

The fact is that climate change does affect everybody. We believe that in order to build a popular movement, we need to reach out to everyone we can to help them understand the ways that their own lives are impacted by the crisis, and that there are real ways to take action. Therefore we need to start by helping people name their own impact. But as organizers, we need to take a step back first, and understand the context we’re operating in. The slogan “We’re all in this together” is true but  misleading: climate change certainly doesn’t affect everybody equally.

Environmental Justice

Our framework starts by honoring the roots of the U.S. Environmental Justice (EJ) movement18 and how it has contributed to Climate Justice. While we all have a stake in a livable planet, the insight that EJ offers the world is understanding disproportionate impact.19 The Environmental Justice sense of “impact,” is how racism and poverty determine which communities choke on exhaust from incinerators, refineries, or which communities have their land razed and resources taken to power U.S. cities. Those of us who have the luxury of turning on our lights and not thinking about where that power came from have a lot of privilege at the expense of others. That privilege determines which communities don’t suffer from skyrocketing rates of asthma or leukemia, rare cancers, and other manifestations of toxic dumping, spewing, and pumping.


When we move from Environmental Justice to Climate Justice, the ways we think about impact become much broader. We’re not just focusing on root causes of pointsource pollution or heavy metals in the water supply; we’re taking a step back and looking at other parts of the broader climate crisis, too. From that vantage point, frontlines are all around us, and the “win” is transformation of the economy and our relationships. Ways you are impacted might be…

• Your sister or brother is stationed in the ongoing occupation of Iraq or another war to secure fossil fuel resources.

• You live in California where two nuclear power plants are sited on fault lines, just like Japan.

• You are a U.S.-born child of undocumented immigrants in Phoenix, Arizona, facing deportation. You find there are some out-of-touch environmentalists using “resource consumption” and population growth as an argument in support of inhumane anti-immigration laws.

• Your family has worked in the Michigan auto industry for generations, but no one in your town can find those jobs since they’ve been outsourced to the global economy.

• You live on the coast of Maine and the fisheries that have sustained your family for generations are no longer viable.

• You are a union teacher in Wisconsin who just lost your collective bargaining rights under the pretence of “balancing the budget” in a recession driven by chronic insecurity.

• You live in a place like Las Vegas, which will have a watershed that is incapable of supporting its population in the foreseeable future.

• You live in the Gulf Coast and the oil spills have destroyed your family’s ability to fish for a living.

As we can see, not all “impact” is equal or the same, but when we look at the economic and political roots of the climate crisis, we can all find ways we’re affected.


For now, let’s define “community” loosely as a group of people. We’ll zoom in to some of the different kinds of communities and the ways organizers relate to them on page 27.


The reason we differentiate between “frontline” communities and “impacted” communities is an added layer of action. Frontline communities are directly impacted communities who have been able to collectively name the ways they are burdened and are organizing for action together.

Frontline Solutions

Organizing for action doesn’t just mean stopping the bad stuff. We believe in building a movement that lifts up, and leads with, climate solutions from the frontlines. The communities most directly impacted on the frontlines are not only dealing with the brunt of the problem, but are also best equipped with the knowledge and skills to chart the way forward. For example, the cycle of globalized industrial extraction, production, consumption and waste, also produces chronic food insecurity.

Over one billion people struggling to afford more than one meal a day are mostly small farming communities that know best how to feed people, in their own context. Such traditional farming techniques remain sustainable and viable when freed from the stranglehold of the global economy. This doesn’t mean that frontline communities “have all the answers” or can offer a one-size-fits-all solution to a global crisis, but it does mean that when building viable solutions, we don’t need to start from scratch. Humans have known how to live in balance with their environment for the majority of our history, and many still do today. Furthermore, because frontline communities are by definition organized, they are in a position to apply their knowledge to the problem.20

Tuning Our Political Compass:

• How can taking inspiration from frontline solutions inform your own solutions where you live? 

• How do we think about the scale of our solutions to make a credible case in closing the door to geoengineering21 and other proposals that make our problem worse?

• There are lots of community solutions everywhere you look, but often people don’t see them. How can we connect them into a broader popular narrative that is accessible and compelling? 

Learning from these communities helps all of us envision what genuine solutions look like in our own communities and gives us inspiration to build them. That’s why there’s room for everybody in this movement. We need everybody in this movement if we’re going to navigate the transition. But it does mean that our roles are different depending on our impact. So what happens if I am not from an “EJ community” or a place that fits traditional notions of what a “frontline community” is? What’s my role in this work? 

Find Your Frontline

My role becomes clearer if I find my frontline. Figure out the material and systemic impact that climate change has on me and my community, name it, and get organized around it. Maybe that’s where I should take action—and maybe not. Everyone has a frontline, but not all frontlines are equally strategic. Here’s an example. Both of us writing this booklet have been relatively insulated from skyrocketing food prices or toxic emissions from the polluting industries that are screwing up our planet, and we can see that that very insulation has shifted burden further on the poor. But we also know that eventually water insecurity will hit us. In that case, that particular frontline may not feel so urgent that it’s constraining our immediate choices today. Maybe the best way to serve our own communities—to intervene on our frontlines—is to throw down directly with other folks on their frontline. 

The mantra “think globally, act locally” works for individual action but quickly breaks down when we’re thinking about systematic change, since not all localities are equally relevant to the global economy. Instead, Climate Justice calls on us to “think structurally, act strategically” (though it may not be as catchy on a bumper sticker).22 Therefore, if your frontline doesn’t offer immediate action opportunities (or if they are not impactful at this moment), you need to align it with other frontlines.

Taking Action: Aligning Your Frontline with Others’

If “finding your frontline” is about your relation to impact, “aligning your frontline” is about the relationship to our political moment. It is fundamentally about strategy. We can assess that some frontline fights are critical to all other struggles, and can help us all change the game. For example, coal is a key piece of the fossil fuel puzzle. Right now there is a critical fight happening in Appalachia around ending mountaintop removal coal mining. If it’s won, many other struggles become a little bit easier.23 The same can be said for the current union fights for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Indiana. 

Ask yourself or your group:

• What does our frontline have in common with another frontline that we want to align ourselves with?

• What is different about our relation to impact?

• What is our common ground politically? Where can we collaborate?

• How do our differences build barriers? How can we navigate and overcome these barriers? 

A key piece of this strategic assessment is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to do alone. That’s why “finding your frontline” starts with naming your impact and working in a group. With a group, you can assess your capacity and priorities much more effectively than an individual drifting in the stormy sea. Our political landscape is shifting, offering us different pressure points, where we have unique opportunities, or where our opponents are particularly vulnerable. Even though many local communities each have their own priorities and urgent fights they must focus on,24 we all need common strategic frameworks to move together or collectively assess critical moments25 that need national or international solidarity. That is why interlocking action is grounded in community organizing, but certainly not limited to it. There are many large-scale flashpoints which require other complimentary avenues for action.26 

Solidarity Organizing

If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
—Lila Watson

When you align your organizing with someone else’s frontline, you’re practicing a form of “solidarity.” Solidarity organizing isn’t one-directional. We don’t practice solidarity just because we’re ideologically committed to it; we practice solidarity because it’s strategic. Instead of trying to motivate our peers through altruism, we help them understand that this is the way we can win. This helps us move beyond patterns of paternalism—i.e. those with resources “helping” those who do not. It’s when the solidarity activist is unrooted, disconnected from their own history or impact, that the worst patterns of appropriation, arrogance, or savior complexes rear their ugly heads. You need to know who you are in order to work well with those different from you. You will be effective to the degree that you understand how your frontline relates to others. The process of “alignment” is the painstaking work of organizing—taking into account strategy, power, privilege, access, impact, difference, similarity, trust—but it produces a movement in which we’re not acting on behalf of one another; we can take meaningful action in an interlocking way. Here are some examples of what we mean:

J: In my work at the U.N. Climate Negotiations I’ve been working from the frontline of Youth. Most of the “adult” negotiators (from the Northern countries) at these conferences are debating policy that they will frankly not live long enough to suffer the impacts from (and are otherwise insulated from anyway). But young people will still be around to deal with the consequences of bad policy. Young people have been engaging these spaces to say “our future is not negotiable.” And after finding that frontline, my work has been to help align youth in working in solidarity with frontline communities. This means communities in the North and the South who are going to be impacted much more than many of the “International Youth Delegates” and who have clarity about the policies they’re advocating for. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the youth organizers to act from their position as a moral voice, to support the demands and priorities of the frontline groups who are attending and speaking out at these conferences: the peoples’ movements from the Global South, the Indigenous networks and organizations from the North, the Environmental Justice community reps, etc. “Finding the frontline” of youth does not mean pretending that simply being young means you should be in the leadership of the movement, it means you  understand your common cause with others and serve the needs of organized frontline groups. This is often a painstaking and difficult process, as many youth voices arenot advocating a Climate Justice agenda. Therefore my role is to help amplify and align youth around this agenda. 

H: To be honest, I stumbled into my frontline somewhat unintentionally. I didn’t plan it out, but I stuck with it because it made sense given my commitments. My work with the Mobilization for Climate Justice West helped clarify my political analysis, particularly around the importance of community resilience. I grew up in California where punk rock subcultures gave my life foundational meaning. Through punk rock, my relationship to place became politicized, particularly around gentrification and how the subcultural spaces that I find so meaningful in my life can pose serious threats to the viability of communities to be stable through change. Thinking about how I perpetuate gentrification, as well as fight against it, is a central piece of my role in my community. It’s one of my frontlines. I’ve stayed with MCJW because it gives me the opportunity to support similar struggles across the Bay Area (i.e. the Latino/a community fighting gentrification in the Mission District of San Francisco). MCJW has also shown me that gentrification is a housing and human rights crisis that resonates with climate refugees across the world. Living in the Bay Area is a considerable privilege, in that I am able to draw my frontline and align it with community-based organizations already taking up this work with an ecological, systemic lens.  

If our task is to navigate change, then what we’re really doing is assessing a shifting political moment to turn the increasing fractures in business-as-usual into interlocking frontlines.

We’ve begun this booklet by saying that we’re writing for people like us, who are trying to align our frontlines and find smarter ways to organize and help build a Climate Justice movement. So far we hope we’ve clarified who “we” are, and what it means for us to be thinking about our “roles.” Next, we need to define what we mean by “Climate Justice.”




4 While there are studies that connect global warming with increased seismic activity, we include it here not because the Japanese earthquake was necessarily the direct result of climate change, but because it reminds us of the power of Mother Nature. As the death toll rises, it underscores the need for resilient communities in the face of increased disasters. As Japan now faces the threat of nuclear crisis, Naomi Klein reminds us that no energy that can poison entire populations during disasters is “clean.” A turbulent future needs nontoxic energy.



7 Even the neurology of how human brains develop has changed with the advent of the internet, rapid communication, and smart phones. See for analysis on neurology and social movements.

8 Such as access to food, clothing, housing, and education; freedom of migration and mobility; and freedom from war, racial profiling, or police brutality.

9 We can learn from recent global mass struggles that had political timelines. For example, in the 1980s under Reagan, the threat of nuclear war was perceived as likely and imminent. Successful mass movements for nuclear disarmament brought about deep and long-ranging human and ecological impacts.

10 Unfortunately, some groups have mistaken the urgency of our crisis as a reason to abandon a commitment to the long-haul effort of transformative social justice. For more on the “Emergency-Mode Trojan Horse” see page 21. 

11 See Alternative Futures and Army Force Planning: Implications for the Future Force Era by the RAND Corporation for military projections,

12 The concept “Find Your Frontline” was coined by Movement Generation in 2010. 

13 If you are unfamiliar with the concept of being an “ally” or solidarity, here is a great primer of the value of this role, adapted from Paul Kivel’s book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice,

14 See the EcoJustice PMA declaration,



17 Gopal Dayaneni in particular was been pivotal to helping us work through these ideas.

18 The roots of the Environmental Justice movement are in confronting and removing the pointsource pollution that ends up accumulating in the communities of Indigenous, low-income people, and people of color. For more resources on EJ see,

19 Common examples of “EJ communities” are those suffering near coal mines, oil refineries, or uranium mines, and communities in areas prone to the droughts, famines, floods, and hurricanes that come with climate change who additionally face institutional neglect (like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina).

20 For example, forest-dwelling Indigenous communities that are negatively impacted by false solutions like offsetting schemes have been attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to advocate real solutions based on their unique knowledge inherited from generations of forest stewardship.

21 The Etc. Group recently put out an excellent primer on geoengineering that you can download at http://

22 Slogan inspired by Patrick Reinsborough.

23 Of course this is a simplification: the impact on other sectors or fossil fuel struggles also depends on how this fight is won.

24 Many directly impacted frontline communities do not have the luxury of choosing their fight. Their battlefields are chosen for them by circumstance and injustice.

25 In addition to the mobilizations in Wisconsin and Indiana around collective bargaining occurring at the time of this writing, other recent critical movement flashpoints have included fighting anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona in the summer of 2009, or internationally at the Copenhagen COP15 UN Climate Negotiations. These moments often forecast the future or set the tone for the country as a whole.

26 This could include going after various points in the fossil fuel chain of destruction, corporate accountability, federal policy work, local institution building, national media spectacle, local policy, etc.  

Editorial Comment

Next article in this series comes in a month: CHAPTER 2, CLIMATE JUSTICE

More info: