Apr 8, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The emerging frontiers of climate activism

Illustration of a hand holding a bullhorn with an earth in the center

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The new(ish) group Law Students for Climate Accountability just launched a pressure campaign against the heavyweight law firm Gibson Dunn over its work for oil industry clients.

Why it matters: It's just one of many examples of how climate activism has been tactically evolving in recent months and years. That includes taking aim at a wider suite of corporate targets, like PR agencies and big tech, and intensifying a years-long focus on the finance sector.

What we're watching: Here's more of what we've seen, though it's hardly an exhaustive list:

1. PR and ad agencies. The Clean Creatives campaign launched in late 2020 is trying to make it uncomfortable for public relations and advertising agencies to work with fossil clients. The NYT recently dug in.

2. Wall Street. Activists have created new coalitions, such as BlackRock's Big Problem, an umbrella group formed in 2018 that pushes the asset management giant to do more.

  • Environmental groups have recently been increasing pressure on private equity heavyweights like Apollo Global Management to decarbonize their portfolios.
  • To be sure, banking and finance sectors have for many years been targets of pressure to divest from fossil companies, curb lending and more. But the efforts are getting bigger and evolving.

3. Twitter combat. Climate essayist Mary Heglar has helped popularize pushing back against big oil companies' Twitter accounts, or "greentrolling."

4. Big Tech: Recent years have brought new and organized criticism of tech behemoths over business lines tailored to oil companies and emissions more broadly.

  • The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, for instance, formed a couple years ago.

5. Racial justice. The disproportionate environmental burdens and risks that communities of color face has long been the focus of some groups.

  • But the links between climate and racial equity are now getting more focus, with the police killing of George Floyd underscoring their salience.

6. Social media practices. Environmentalists have been pressing Facebook and YouTube to stem the flow of climate misinformation.

7. The courts and agencies. A growing number of cities and states have been suing big oil companies to hold them liable for costs they incur from climate change, without success so far.

  • Environmentalists recently targeted Chevron's marketing with what they called a novel Federal Trade Commission complaint.

The other side: Big oil companies point to their increasing clean energy investments, while emphasizing that long-term demand for their core products will remain robust.

Big banks have also been touting their growing efforts around climate-friendly lending.

The bottom line: Gauging the impact of the activism is tricky at a time of growing attention to climate across the board.

  • But certainly some of targets of these campaigns been changing their actions — albeit often less than activists want.
  • Facebook is doing more to counter climate misinformation. BlackRock has stepped up its sustainability work. Banking giants like JPMorgan and Wells Fargo have been setting new climate finance targets and pledging not to back projects like coal mines and Arctic oil development.
  • On the government side, the Biden administration is responding to the pressure to achieve racial justice by trying to ensure that climate policies aid disadvantaged communities.
  • The White House's $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan aims to have 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments flow to disadvantaged communities.
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