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  • Writer's pictureKrista Kurth, Ph.D.

How Do You Know if Your Climate Action Makes a Difference?

Learn How Align Your Action with an Effective Theory of Change.

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If you are like me, you want your climate action to make a difference. You want what you do to lead to positive and significant social change. After all, if we are going to turn the tide on climate before 2050, then we have to change almost every system that touches our daily lives.

Eager to take part, we try all kinds of actions, often never knowing if they will actually lead to the change we want and need. As individual everyday folks, we typically don’t know how to evaluate the effectiveness of our actions.

Don’t worry. You don’t need to have a sophisticated evaluation process to know if you are being effective. Instead, you can base your actions on what the sociologists say are the most effective ways to transform society. You can align your actions with an effective theory of change.

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Theory of Change

A theory of change, a term popularized by Carol Weiss, describes how and why you think change happens. "If we do X, then Y will change because..." It brings our underlying assumptions on the impact of our actions to the surface.

The Center for Theory of Change states that a theory of change, in its fullest form, should also provide evidence of why you think one action will lead to another. An example they share is, "if you think increased knowledge will lead to behavior change, is that an assumption or do you have evidence to show it is the case?"

Examples: Simple Statements of Theories of Change

Here is a variety of different high-level theories of change, most of which just describe the how" of the theory:

> People change when they have enough of the right information. Information leads to knowledge, leads to informed decisions, leads to changed behavior.

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> People can be persuaded to adopt new values and norms. Emotional appeals and scientific evidence lead to changes in beliefs and behaviors.

> Change begins from interactions with others. Social change “starts at the bottom and works its way up, first to society on a mass scale, and eventually, lawmakers and people in power.” (Theo Spanos Dunfey)

> People change attitudes, values, behaviors when authorities force them to change. Using economic, political, and moral authority leads to change. Policies and laws need to be changed for people to change.

> Societal change happens through the courts. You need to use legal action, in the litigious sense, to counter social problems.

> Violent uprisings and revolutions bring about change.

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> Non-violent protests (pickets, strikes, marches, demonstrations, rallies, consumer boycotts, teach-ins, sit-downs, civil disobedience, public meetings, press releases, newspaper articles, radio ads, cultural performances, arbitration and negotiation, educational campaigns) change attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviors by morally appealing to injustice/unfairness/cruelty.

> A socially just and environmentally sustainable society is created when consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace harness their economic power. Consumers demanding change is the pressure point for economic change. Small businesses are the innovators and job creators. Direct engagement and collaboration across major supply chains create solutions at scale.” (Green America)

> “Count it; Change it; Scale it. Rigorous analysis identifies risks, unveils opportunities, and informs smart strategies. Strong evidence leads to change on the ground. Research results can influence government policies, business strategy, and civil society action. Working with partners leads to wider adoption and expansion of efforts.” (WRI)

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> We must institutionalize change across a system. We must transform the function or structure of the system to address the root cause of complex problems. (NRDC article by Stephanie Gigigbi)

> We need mass social movements to speed up large-scale change. We must create the conditions for change by organizing and mobilizing action. (John Kotter’s approach described in the NRDC article listed above).

> We must identify key influencers and barriers to make the case for why change is needed. Transformational change requires a plan that communicates to the hearts and minds of people who invariably influence the systems that affect our lived experience as a society. (NRDC article)

> We cannot solve deeply rooted, dynamic, and complex problems easily, quickly, or alone. Robust and impact-focused strategies are a keystone of addressing the “biggest barriers to people living healthy and productive lives.” (Gates Foundation)

Which of these did you resonate with?

Which theories of change have you been operating from?

You might be thinking, “That’s a lot of different theories of change. How do I know which one(s) to align myself with for the climate crisis?”

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Yes, the list of theories of change is long, and there are many more you could find if you looked. However, with “wicked problems” like climate change, the field of social sciences has some clues on what might be most effective.

(Note: in case you’re wondering what a wicked problem is, John Kolko defines it as a social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because it has densely interconnected sets of causes; incomplete or contradictory knowledge; many people and opinions involved; and /or a huge economic burden.)

An Effective Theory of Change for the Climate Crisis

As we all know, climate change is hard to solve because of its magnitude, interconnected causes, economic burden, and resistance to change around the world. However, there is an approach that we can take that will give us the best chance to tackle this crisis: Recognizing and working at the intersection of people and systems to change social structures, individual behavior, and societal norms.

I agree with Masuma Henry, a writer for Fast Company, who tells us that while systems thinking approaches, like top-down laws, government initiatives, and global non-profit efforts, have produced sweeping and wide change for some massive social changes in our recent past, their success “is often undermined by slow adoption.”

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He thinks that is because we have not considered “the motivations, needs, and values of the impacted individuals.” He proposes we combine a systems-change approach with a human-centered design (HCD) approach that involves people most affected in all steps of the problem-solving process. After all, every time we act as individuals, we are contributing to the running of the systems that we live in with our local and global neighbors.

Given Masuma Henry’s idea, an overarching theory of change that we might align ourselves with to tackle the climate crisis could be:

A multi-pronged approach that recognizes and works with the interplay of people and systems to change social structures, individual behavior, and societal norms at all levels of our society will create the global change we need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

So, what does this mean in practical terms?

It means that we learn how experiences drive individual actions and then use that knowledge to plan activities to engage many people in taking action to change our systems.

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Masuma Henry’s suggests that in our efforts to transform our world, we should:

  • Provide individuals, especially those who are underserved, or marginalized in society, a sense that they can decide and take action in a way that is appropriate where they live.

  • Make it easy for people to take action because we have removed barriers standing in the way.

  • Guide people towards effective action they will take.

Leslie Crutchfield, another social scientist who writes about social movement success factors in her book, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't, suggests we focus on:

  • Grassroots efforts

  • State and local efforts

  • Changing norms and attitudes, as well as policy

  • Reckoning with adversarial allies

  • Working with businesses willing to be key allies in the effort

Image by Matthew Ball, Unsplash

While all of this is a tall order, Kendra Shaw, author of many social change articles on Missionbox, reminds us, in her article on social change, that we don’t have to get everybody on board. We just need, as the 20 Percent Rule that came out of a Stanford University study determined, to get 20 percent of the population taking action. Then the change will be unstoppable.

How will you take action this year to help the transition to net zero carbon emissions in 2050 become unstoppable?

Thanks for being a committed climate action taker and part of the 20 percent.

All the best,


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