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Top 10 Canadian NGO strategies & tactics to combat climate change

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Canadian environmental organizations play a wide range of roles in combating climate change. Some analyze and popularize the science and impacts of climate change in background thematic reports. Others challenge industry through direct action and shareholders’ meetings. Many target governments by employing electoral or legislative lobbying strategies. Others are focused on long-term public education campaigns, developing curriculum materials for teachers, grassroots initiatives like organizing community workshops and making presentations, and building the movement.


Strategy involves making choices about how to best employ resources to achieve one’s goals. For Marshall Ganz, a Harvard sociologist who had previously spent 16 years as an organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, strategic capacity is what determines a group’s ability to make good strategy. Strategic capacity concerns having high levels of motivation, access to salient information and the ability to learn and adapt. For example, highly motivated leaders will bring high energy, and be more creative and focused for longer periods of time. Strategic capacity is a function of the biographies of the leadership teams, their willingness to work with “insiders” and “outsiders,” and their possession of a wide range of repertoires of collective action. It also depends on such organizational features as running open meetings, drawing resources from many constituencies and being accountable to those constituencies. Developing strategic capacity takes a constant effort, but groups with high strategic capacity are more likely to build a strong movement and be more consistently effective in achieving their goals over the long term.


Saul Alinsky, in his classic Rules for Radicals (1971), defines tactics as “doing what you can with what you have.” Organizing for power requires tactics that are imaginative, humorous, satirical and often irreverent of the establishment and its defence of the status quo. “A good tactic,” noted Alinsky, “is one that your people enjoy.” A group’s strategy determines its tactics. For example, if a group’s focus is on community organizing, then it would be important to build solid communication with local community leaders, and to develop allies and build coalitions, including counting on support from religious, student, environmental and labour networks, different ethnic groups and business leaders. In the case of the strategy of direct action, a group like Greenpeace relies tactics like unfurling banners in unlikely spots with biting messages to attract media attention. Alternatively, KAIROS, a Canadian ecumenical social and environmental justice coalition of churches and agencies, uses its links to development agencies to advance the concept of “climate justice” in aid policies, so that these organizations will address equity issues, like how people in the Third World have less power to determine world energy policies, yet are disproportionately afflicted by the consequences of such policies.

Future Choices?

In the near term, non-governmental and community organizations will undoubtedly be involved in the battles over North American energy integration and its manifestation in projects like the proposed Mackenzie natural-gas pipeline, expansion of the Tar Sands and offshore drilling. Canadian NGOs could draw upon campaign ideas from other countries. For example, the Green Scissors project in the U.S. promotes the elimination of perverse energy subsidies. The current discussion of the Bush-Cheney Energy Plan for North American energy integration presents an important window of opportunity to debate the relative merits between this continental energy-production plan and an alternative energy-conservation model. President Bush and the fossil-fuels industry’s continual drive to increasing energy production over efficiency means they will remain targets of NGO campaigns. At the same time, grassroots and scientific literacy campaigns are essential in spreading and deepening public support for a rational energy-conservation pathway.

In the long term, more radical reductions in greenhouse gases are needed, while at the same time facing the prospect of increased ecological damage and social injustice arising out of the growing impacts of climate change. Canada needs to take a leadership role in taking seriously our collective responsibility in the North to address international-justice issues and show solidarity with victims of climate change. KAIROS, with the World Council of Churches, is working with CIDA and church relief organizations to develop funding criteria that include climate-change-related environmental and gender issues, so that victims of climate change receive priority funding. As Joy Kennedy argues, our unbridled consumerism in the North is both illegitimate and harmful to others and ourselves. “We shouldn’t feel that we can burn as much energy as we want with impunity, while trashing someone else’s front yard, like the low-level island states or the people living in the Arctic. We need to look at our own backyards.”

Canada’s Top Ten NGOs: Strategies and Tactics

  1. The Climate Action Network—Canada (CANet), formed in 1989, acts as a clearinghouse and network for more than 100 Canadian groups working on climate change. CANet’s very successful and informal listserve provides a forum for instantaneous communication on policy developments and devising cooperative strategies. CANet’s key strategy is to use information effectively, according to its executive director, John Bennett.

Like the Canadian Environment Network, CANet assists the Canadian government in finding NGO people working on climate change and selects NGO members for Canadian delegations to international climate negotiations. The network is able to pool scarce NGO resources and produce pragmatic and visionary reports, like Kyoto and Beyond, published with the David Suzuki Foundation.

  1. Greenpeace’s early focus was on strengthening the international Climate Change Convention through direct action and lobbying activities. Its subsequent focus has been on stopping any further exploration and development of fossil fuels, and launching the “Solar Century.” Greenpeace is famous for its use of direct action, a tool it employs very selectively. Although it comprises only a small portion of their activities, it is what people and politicians remember. This is not surprising, given the incredibly creative, incisive and often daring actions that get splashed on the front pages of newspapers and broadcast on television.

In March, 2000, Greenpeace Canada launched a campaign against Suncor’s Stuart Oil Shale project in Edmonton, Alberta. It set up a “Climate Rescue Camp” to bear witness and protest the expansion of Suncor’s tar-sands site. In July, 2001, Greenpeace activists scaled the C.N. Tower and unfurled a banner reading “Canada and Bush — Climate Killers.” In April, 2002, Greenpeace activists installed solar panels on the rooftop of Ralph Klein’s house in the midst of the Alberta premier’s retrograde campaign against the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Its current Stop Esso boycott campaign is gaining momentum. Greenpeace campaigners are also experienced and skilled lobbyists, making Greenpeace one of the best-connected organizations in Canada. Steven Guilbeault, Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaigner, not only heroically scaled the C.N. Tower, but also attends Canadian consultations and most international climate negotiations.

  1. Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, says the group’s “niche on climate change is to provide detailed analysis that holds governments to account on the full spectrum of climate policy; pay close attention to industry, which is responsible for more than half Canada’s emissions; and inform the public.”

Pembina’s key approach is conducting analysis and research for publication with an eye to get media coverage to influence government decision-makers and public opinion. Last year alone they published comparative analyses of implementation of climate-protection strategies in Canada and the U.S. and how ratifying the Kyoto Protocol could benefit Canada’s competitiveness, a critique of Alberta’s climate-change plan, and trends in Canadian industrial greenhouse-gas emissions over the last decade.

Founded by high-school teachers 17 years ago, Pembina also runs workshops for teachers and develops curriculum material. The institute’s website allows schoolteachers to download material on renewable energy. In May, 2003, this site had 26,000 visitors and a phenomenal 22,000 downloads. Their interactive website at had 24,000 visitors that month. Pembina also advises industry to help firms, including tar-sands projects, reduce or offset their environmental impacts. Their critiques of voluntary-measures programs help hold governments accountable.

  1. There are three key areas of concern for the David Suzuki Foundation: emission reductions, climate science and impacts research, and a strong international climate-protection regime. Of these, the most important is emission reductions. The DSF has designed a rational work plan focusing on areas with large amounts of greenhouse gases. It produces reports outlining the problems and solutions related to the rapid expansion of the oil and gas industry (including very energy-intensive forms of fossil-fuel production like the tar sands), from which one quarter of the growth in Canadian emissions has come; urban sprawl; shifting freight from road back to rail; and strengthening automobile efficiency through efficiency standards. The DSF has also launched the Nature Challenge, an ambitious social-marketing effort aimed at lifestyle change on the part of the average Canadian. The Nature Challenge involves 10 steps people can make in their lives that have most impact on reducing their ecological footprint. Media celebrities have helped promote the initiative at public events organized by the David Suzuki Foundation across Canada.

The second area the foundation works on is climate science and impacts research. This is based on the notion that building support for solutions requires people acquiring greater literacy for climate science. It helps explain strong support for Kyoto and for lifestyle changes.

Finally, the group works to ensure that there is a strong international climate-protection regime in place. It has campaigned to strengthen the integrity of the Kyoto Protocol and is now looking toward the long term, beyond Kyoto.

  1. The unique federal structure of the Sierra Club, with its national office and five regional offices, allows the group to take advantage of grassroots action and professional, national and international environmental campaigning. John Bennett, the organization’s national climate campaigner, now seconded to CANet, says the group’s main climate-change strategy is to exert public pressure on politicians to act. Media is used as the primary tool to let politicians to know that the public is scrutinizing what they are or are not doing. When interviewed for the climate post, Bennett told Elizabeth May that his theory of media is “opportunism” — that is, moving and getting involved in a wide range of topical issues, willing to change the direction but not the target. The objective is to get your issues constantly discussed.

The Sierra Club has long successfully employed the strategy of having recognized spokespersons on climate issues, from Louise Comeau to Bennett to May. Complimenting national campaigns are teams of really good organizers at the chapter level. The West Coast Chapter of the Sierra Club is opposing a natural-gas plant on Vancouver Island; the Atlantic Chapter is fighting offshore oil-and-gas exploration and development; and the Eastern Canada Chapter is promoting the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural-gas plants and has mounted an annual Car Free Day in downtown Toronto neighbourhoods.

  1. The broad range of strategies and tactics employed by KAIROS (Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives) is reflective of the group’s strong strategic capacity. Its repertoire includes community organizing, advocacy, shareholders’ actions and promoting climate justice in North-South relations. KAIROS takes a long-term view. Joy Kennedy, their ecological-justice program officer, calls it “spirituality for the long haul.” “This is about transformation, how we build sustainable communities. To do so we need commitment from our various membership.”

KAIROS reaches out to Canadian church communities by organizing workshops across the country. In one year alone, between June, 2000 and June, 2001, more than 4,000 people attended over 100 workshops on “creating a climate for change,” promoting energy efficiency in religious buildings and reducing human ecological footprints. Many local people were trained and empowered to deliver these workshops at the local level. Furthermore there were over 60,000 postcards demanding ratification of the Kyoto Protocol sent to the prime minister and the provincial and territorial premiers.

In 2002, KAIROS successfully lobbied the federal government to amend the Canadian Business Corporations Act. Shareholder activists, including churches holding pension funds and shares in portfolios, can now bring forward shareholder resolutions that address social or environmental concerns, not just the economic bottom line. KAIROS used the new act to coordinate a church shareholder action at Imperial Oil. It presented a resolution on climate-change risk, or “carbon risk,” asking the company to do a risk analysis of the impact of their activities on climate change. The resolution was voted on. Exxon Mobil, which owns 70 per cent of Imperial, voted against the resolution and, astoundingly, of the remaining 30 per cent owned by pension funds and others, 29 per cent voted for it, making it the largest vote for a shareholder resolution ever seen in Canada.

  1. In 1999, the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), the Sierra Club of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation launched the OntAIRio Campaign with the goal of increasing public awareness, and then using that awareness to put pressure on public officials. Working in concert is the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a coalition of health, environmental and consumer organizations, faith communities, unions, utilities and municipalities. They’ve effectively secured commitments by the Liberal Party to phase out coal by 2007 — that’s within Premier Dalton McGuinty’s current mandate. Ontario’s prior government led by the Tories had only agreed to phase out coal by 2015 — three government mandates away.

  2. The Ontario Electricity Coalition is a two-year-old labour-environmental coalition, including the Toronto Environmental Alliance, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Communication Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). It is calling for a renewed, publicly owned system in opposition to the earlier Tory government’s preference for privatizing electricity generation and distribution. They propose a massive conservation program to reduce demand and a renewable-standards portfolio. In opposition, the Liberals have agreed to a 10-per-cent renewable portfolio by 2010. In B.C., the Citizens for Public Power, which includes former premiers Harcourt and Vander Zalm and environmentalist David Suzuki, are fighting a similar battle. Labour unions also support environmental-justice campaigns. For example, the CEP and the Canadian Labour Congress were very vocal in their support of the Kyoto Protocol. The CEP agrees that our climate will profoundly change our economy and, thus, a “just transition” for workers is needed. In Vancouver, the Bus Riders’ Union links poverty issues to the need for accessible, affordable and environmentally sound transportation. It advocates investing in more buses instead of capital-intensive projects like rail. This would reduce greenhouse gases and give better access to low- and middle-income working people. However, Alex Boston of the David Suzuki Foundation cautions that, although the Sky-Train in Vancouver is too costly, it is a good illustration of how transit can effectively spur high-density residential and commercial development around its nodes. There are less expensive forms of “hard-wired” transit infrastructure like light rail, and such investments should not preclude investing in buses.

  3. A host of effective provincial groups have strong climate programs. For example, Equiterre runs sophisticated transportation and home-audit programs in Québec. Clean Nova Scotia offers Home Energy Evaluation, a student-driven energy-efficiency program in schools, and hosts the Climate Change Centre, which undertakes public education and outreach efforts in Nova Scotia.

  4. The Vancouver-based group Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) is one of Canada’s most important watchdogs on municipal transportation. BEST advocates bicycle lanes and car displacement through investment in buses and light rail, and runs a trip-reduction program for large offices. Its policies are being articulated by new members in Vancouver City Council’s COPE (Committee of Progressive Electors), a Green/NDP umbrella group that represents advocacy groups including anti-poverty, environment, labour and social-justice organizations in Vancouver.

Anita Krajnc is a Skelton Clark Post-Doctoral Fellow in Canadian Affairs in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University.

Larry Wartel holds an M.A. in urban planning and is a prison abolitionist working on the freedom campaigns of Lori Berenson, Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This article appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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