YPCCC Partnerships: Interview with Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Tony Sirna

With an innovative approach to lobbying working to connect individuals directly with policymakers, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy organization that empowers individuals to build public and political will to take action on climate change. CCL, with chapters spread throughout the United States, emphasizes place-based strategies that integrate local culture and politics to foster shared values and prioritize community.

Climate change may sometimes seem complex and politically polarizing. CCL has not shied away from these challenges and instead employs strategic organizing and communication tactics to connect individuals and communities with policymakers to create climate action at local, state, and federal levels. CCL prioritizes consistent and respectful outreach and communication to reach people across the United States. Through their transformational organizing strategy and with support from YPCCC resources and tools, CCL has created a successful model that builds political will for bipartisan action on climate.

Alison Thompson and Joshua Low from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tony Sirna, Vice President of Organizational Strategy at Citizens’ Climate Lobby to learn more about their approach towards climate communications, mobilizing individual action to create systems-level change, and their partnership with YPCCC.

Picture of Tony Sirna. Tony is the Vice President of Organizational Strategy for Citizens Climate Lobby. Tony is a white man with glasses in a dark suit with a red tie.

Alison: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Can you tell me about your organization’s work and what role CCL plays in the climate communications landscape?

Tony: Citizens’ Climate Lobby is an international organization that trains and empowers everyday people to engage directly with their elected officials on climate solutions. Our volunteers are organized in chapters across the country in almost every congressional district. Our chapters work directly with their members of Congress on legislation related to carbon pricing, healthy forests, clean energy permitting reform, and building electrification and efficiency. We also work directly with state and local elected officials on those policy areas.

Alison: I’d love to know what led you personally to where you are now. How did you get involved in climate work?

Tony: I got involved in sustainability when I was attending Stanford. I spent twenty years focused on a project that supported reducing people’s personal climate impacts in everyday life. We were very successful in that project but also recognized that change needed to be occurring more quickly at a system level. So that’s when I decided to get involved in politics. Through policy, we can change the structures of our economy and society to create systems supporting climate-friendly choices. Nine years ago, I started with CCL as a volunteer and then quickly moved on to staff, and I’m now the Vice President of Organizational Strategy.

Alison: That is truly an inspiring journey – from volunteer to Vice President! What are your organization’s broad goals for climate action with your members and constituents?

Tony: We define our goal as passing the legislation needed to hit the targets for the Paris Agreement and keep global warming below 2 degrees C, ideally below 1.5 degrees C. Beyond that, our overarching goal is to move to a place where we have a healthy and stable climate in the long term. Our goal is to pass whatever legislation is needed to accomplish those initiatives. CCL has historically focused on carbon pricing because that’s one of the most powerful tools we can utilize to reach emissions reduction targets domestically and globally.

Alison: CCL’s goals are big but specific and actionable. Who are your people, or who is your target audience?

Tony: We want to work with anyone serious about solving climate change. We work across the political spectrum, which is uncommon for many climate organizations. We make a specific effort to reach both Republicans and Democrats. Our target audience is people who believe in climate action and believe it is a critical issue that we need to address. We want to engage individuals looking for a way to help develop solutions.

Alison: Continuing this topic, how does a supporter typically get involved with your organization?

Tony: There are two ways that people find us. One is joining our national organization and getting directed to a local chapter. The second way people connect with us is through local chapter outreach. Our local chapters work in their community, tabling, giving presentations, talking to friends and family, and directly engaging with potential new supporters. Supporters then attend local meetings and get involved with local activities. Sometimes people even sign up, attend their first meeting, and immediately start lobbying members of Congress later that week. We have a lot of opportunities for people to get training in advocacy work. We focus on what we call transformational organizing, where we provide volunteers with the training, skills, and empowerment they need to support their development and capabilities. We are one of the few organizations that invests in volunteers at that level. It has been a powerful model for developing a strong network of super volunteers across the country who dedicate countless hours to solving the climate crisis.

Alison: It sounds like CCL has a really thoughtful process and an amazing network. How has your organization utilized YPCCC resources or insights in strategic communication organizing or advocacy work?

Tony: We love using the resources from YPCCC. We use the Yale Climate Opinion Maps with our volunteer training. We use them on a district level and, on various occasions, have used them with congressional [members] showing them what support for climate action looks like amongst their constituents. It is profound for representatives to see who cares about climate change in their district. We also use the Climate Opinion Maps in community booths and outreach. The Climate Opinion Maps demonstrate to new supporters and community members the amount of support for climate action in their community.

Alison: It is amazing to hear that CCL is finding success this way. Your work demonstrates a crucial element to creating change because when community members can see high levels of support and involvement in climate action, it motivates them to join the movement and act as well. What does your organization do well that other climate communicators could learn from?

Tony: Transformational organizing is something we do well. We prioritize supporting our volunteers, training them, and empowering them. We also have done a good job of organizing our volunteers into local chapters so they can work directly in their community and build relationships. Creating team environments is also essential, and people who work with CCL get a local and national support network. Knowing that there are national and local team members and support systems to rely upon is deeply encouraging. We do a good job of finding a balance between having a coordinated strategic effort organized by national staff while providing local chapters freedom to adapt the program to their local needs.

Joshua: I want to pick up on the community piece, which seems to be the secret to success with transformational organizing. What do you do that works well to build community amongst your volunteers? What are some of the things you’ve tried that haven’t worked so well?

Tony: We have done a good job creating a culture of appreciation and respect. Our chapter leaders are helping other people become leaders, which is a big task. We appreciate that our leaders understand that their job is not just to advocate but to cultivate engagement from other members of the chapter and to build those members into leaders. It is a really powerful thing. We also support our community by providing many opportunities for communication and leadership training, including how to run meetings.

Regarding what’s been more challenging, I think we do a mixed job of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. Like many organizations, we’re not as diverse as we want to be from a demographic, social, and political aspect. We try to be very welcoming of conservatives, yet still, the majority of our supporters and volunteers are left of center. Sometimes people have difficulty feeling welcome when they are the only conservative in the room. This is something we are continuing to work on.

Alison: Thank you for expanding on how CCL centers community in its approach – that is so important in climate communication strategy. What would you say has been your organization’s single most exciting or surprising discovery you’ve made while communicating or organizing around climate?

Tony: We organized around very technical economic components of climate change for many years. And, despite the technicality of the economic policies, we were able to motivate hundreds of thousands of volunteers to get engaged around carbon fees and niche policy. That was shocking! The most exciting thing, though, is recognizing how many people are ready to give so much of their time, energy, and, in some cases, resources to address this problem. Knowing that thousands of people are willing to put their time and energy into supporting climate action is incredibly exciting. Lastly, it is exciting to see how our volunteers have built real, authentic relationships with their members of Congress.

Alison: The political landscape for climate action can be turbulent and challenging, how does your organization remain hopeful and inspired to continue building the political will of the climate movement?

Tony: At some level, each person finds their own source of hope, optimism, and inspiration. At CCL, our relationships and the community environment we’ve cultivated give us hope. In the almost ten years I’ve been working on this, there’s been a considerable change in our culture and politics. It gives me hope that we have been able to celebrate the successes that we’ve had and recognize that things are moving in the right direction but that the work needs to continue forward.

Thank you to Tony Sirna and Citizens’ Climate Lobby for their time and thoughts on climate activism and climate communication.

Editing and other support provided by Cora Hagens and Natasha Feshbach.