A Climate Change Activist on Why Giving Up Isn’t an Option

An increasing number of young people are identifying as activists, but to call this a new trend would not only be naive, it would also be a missed opportunity. Older generations offer an important perspective on what it means to be politically and socially active. In an effort to soak up their knowledge, we’re speaking to activists who have been doing this work for decades. We’ve previously learned from 74-year-old Sally Roesch Wagner, 66-year-old Jackie Warren-Moore, 71-year-old Felicia Elizondo and 68-year-old Faith Spotted Eagle. Today, we speak with 67-year-old Nancy Cole.

Though she considers herself more of a “behind-the-scenes type of activist,” there’s no doubt Nancy Cole deserves to stand in the limelight. Cole has spent over 25 years working in outreach and activism with the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she focuses on climate and energy issues. She oversees the group’s campaigns, which hold corporations responsible for climate impact and unite scientists to incite policy change. She’s not afraid to publicly call out companies that are detrimental to the earth and demand better, and while she’s not a scientist herself, she supports them by translating their knowledge to the public.

Cole admits that her job can be frustrating in our current political landscape, with people in power trying to undermine the credibility of climate science despite the research being clear. Her number one piece of advice — essentially, “power through the hard times” — comes as no surprise then. If her decades of campaigning tirelessly for the future of the planet have taught her anything, it’s that none of us has the luxury to quit.

What first sparked your interest in activism?

One thing that was important to my mom and is now important to me is that we all leave the world a better place. I’ve always had a lot of interest in science, but in the ’60s, women were not encouraged in [science, technology, engineering and math]. I grew up on a farm in Illinois, and my small-town high school’s guidance counselor told me girls just didn’t do science. So I wound up being a teacher for my first job.

After I realized I wasn’t going to be a very good teacher, I went to work at the Legal Aid Society, where I was kind of like a paralegal. I really enjoyed that work, and I thought that social change happened through the law, so I decided to go to law school. But three years of law school taught me that that’s not how it works; I realized that social change really comes from activism, citizen engagement and people who care passionately about making things change. That’s where I wanted to be. Law school gave me important skills, really valuable friendships and the self-awareness that I wanted to work in grassroots organizing.

Cole protesting Nestlé in Boston in 1983.

What was your first activist endeavor after law school?

Around 1980, I started at an organization called INFACT [now named Corporate Accountability], which stood for Infant Formula Action Coalition. INFACT ran the Nestlé boycott, which was a campaign to stop infant formula companies from peddling a product in developing countries that they knew could not possibly be used safely there. It was killing hundreds of thousands of babies every year. I thought that transnational corporations really got away with murder, and they weren’t being held accountable for what they were doing. We had a successful conclusion to that campaign — it resulted in the first International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes through the United Nations’ World Health Organization.

I became the executive director of INFACT, and our next campaign focused on companies that were making nuclear weapons. That was in the early to mid-’80s, when we were really worried about nuclear war. We thought we could try to reduce the influence of the big nuclear weapon makers, focusing on General Electric. I worked on that campaign for several years.

How did you transition from corporate accountability activism to climate activism?

I decided I wanted to be a parent and needed a different style of organizing, so I got a job at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 1992. It was perfect for me to work on issues at the intersection of science and policy because I could work with scientists and bring my skills as an organizer and activist to this arena. UCS helps [scientists] take this complicated stuff and communicate it to the public. One of the contributions we’ve made in the world is helping scientists find their voice and speak it powerfully.

Cole in ’92 organizing support for a renewable energy campaign with UCS.

What is the biggest challenge you face in climate activism?

I’ve been working on the climate issue for what seems like forever, and it is just beyond frustrating to see where we are today. If we, as a country, had taken steps just a few decades ago to reduce our carbon emissions, we might not be seeing storms like Hurricane Harvey. We would not be seeing sea level rise ravaging our cities. We would not be seeing climate migrants around the world. That’s one of the most challenging parts — figuring out how to keep going and how to keep being creative enough to find new strategies. We have to tap into what we think might move the public to care about climate and energy issues. In the face of the terrible political climate we’re in today, it’s really a challenge.

When you face those constant frustrations, what motivates you to keep going?

I look at the beauty of the planet that we live on, and I look at the kids. All along, this has been principally a fight for our children. Around the world, there are children and grandchildren who are going to be profoundly affected by the changes that are coming if we don’t do something fast. Every time I get discouraged, I look at a picture of my daughter, or I think about children around the world and what they face. I don’t have the luxury of giving up — I don’t think any of us do. That doesn’t mean I don’t get upset and feel terrible about the mess we’re leaving our kids, but I have my cry or I go walk by the ocean or sit under a tree or work on my garden. I do the things that sustain me, and then I get up the next day and carry on.

What has been one of your proudest achievements at UCS?

In 1995, along with a couple other people here, I envisioned and made real this concept of what we now call the Science Network. The idea at that time — you will laugh at this — was to use this cutting-edge technology called email. We would be in touch with scientists around the country who told us they were interested in working on the issues we were working on. Today, it includes about 25,000 scientists around the country, and we’ve gone way beyond email, of course. The strategic importance has been demonstrated over and over throughout the past couple of decades of working with the scientific community to bring scientific knowledge to important policy decisions.

What have you been working on lately at UCS?

We now have a campaign to hold the big fossil fuel companies accountable for the tremendous damage their product has done, so I’ve come full circle back to corporate accountability.

To have a successful campaign, one of the first things we do is set a list of demands — what behavior we want to see changed. Things like: We want you to stop deceiving the public about climate science; we want you to stop influencing and trying to stop legislation that would reduce emissions; we want you to pay your fair share of the damages caused by a changing climate; we want you to disclose your climate risk to your investors; and we want you to adjust your business model to align with a carbon-constrained world.

These companies have been told by their own scientists since the ’70s, if not earlier, that climate change was real, that the impacts were going to be serious and that the damage comes from burning their products. They have known that for five decades. Instead of doing something different, like turning to renewable energy sources or figuring out how to advance carbon capture and storage, they set out on an active campaign to deceive the public and policymakers about climate science. It is the direct reason we are where we are today. There are reams of evidence that have been uncovered that show they knew how dangerous their product was and that they continued to promote it.

We created a report called The Climate Deception Dossiers in 2015, where we took about 10 different examples of corporate deceptions and packaged them all together to paint a picture of what the companies knew and when they knew it. We then began campaigning on that — generating media coverage, asking supporters to put pressure on the companies and holding briefings for shareholders and policymakers. We also put out a set of criteria by which we could measure the top fossil fuel companies against the changes we wanted them to make so that we could evaluate progress being made. The Climate Accountability Scorecard of 2016 is a meticulous piece of work where we ranked the companies. We then began to engage directly with the companies, participating in investor meetings through allies in the business community. The scorecard became a valuable tool for the divestment movement.

Cole, her spouse Catherine (far left) and two friends at the March for Science in the Boston Common, March 2017.

How do you respond to people who still refuse to recognize climate change as a critical issue?

At UCS, we have a climate science campaign that works hard to protect climate scientists and climate science information in the federal government. At this point, a significant majority of the American public knows that climate change is real and that we’re causing it. I’m really more interested in motivating those people to be active and to have a voice and to be engaged in meaningful strategies than I am in trying to convince the few remaining people who don’t think this is a problem. That’s a strategic decision to make the best use of resources.

Do you consider your work political?

UCS is a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) organization, so we don’t support candidates for office. Sadly, what has happened in the age of the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil’s deception is that the issue has become deeply politicized. You could argue that anyone who works on the issue of climate change is political. But it shouldn’t be that way. Sea levels are rising, no matter what your party or belief system is or what group you affiliate with. It’s going to affect trillions of dollars in property assets, and it’s going to affect people’s lives and livelihoods. We’ve seen the fires in California, which can be traced at least in part to changing weather precipitation patterns from climate change. We’ve seen the extreme rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, which scientists have already attributed partially to climate change. We’re now even seeing some weather events that scientists are able to say wouldn’t have happened at all if not for all the CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere. It’s puzzling to me that this issue has become a political football because in the end, we’re all going to be impacted.

The People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., April 2017: (L to R) Cole, spouse Catherine, daughter Amelia, Amelia’s partner Eliot.

What do you love most about your work?

I love that my daughter is proud of my work, and I love mentoring colleagues younger than me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so there are now a lot of them out in the world doing amazing things, partially because I provided some mentorship or an opportunity or an insight that was useful to them. It’s important to make sure there are people behind you who carry the torch.

I love the dedicated people at UCS who are smart, funny and incredibly committed. I really love working with scientists. They’re crotchety and crazy-making a lot of times, but I have so much respect for the work they do.

In the current political situation, where all of us are called to resist, to make a difference and to project a different vision than what’s being put out there by the current administration, I am so grateful that I have UCS to come to every day. I feel like I am doing my part here and that I make a difference.

What advice do you have for the next generation of young activists?

Despair is a luxury, not an option. Every day that emissions go up, the situation gets worse. Even though there are now some impacts that we can’t avoid, we can still stop the worst impacts from happening, and we need to fight with every fiber of our being to do that.

A second piece of advice is to be kind. Take care of each other because it’s going to be a pretty difficult slog. I think we owe it to ourselves to take time to love, play in the ocean, walk in the woods, climb the mountains, appreciate what we’re fighting for and be grateful for what we have and what we’re holding onto.

Photos via Nancy Cole. 

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan is a journalist, writer, and proud owner of an indoor s’mores maker for the rainy days.

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