Civil society strategies to address global climate change

By Matt Burdett, 2 April 2018

On this page, we look at civil society strategies to address global climate change.

What is civil society?

It’s easier to define civil society by what it isn’t than what it is. It is not:

  • The state (the government)
  • Businesses
  • Loose connections of individuals e.g. families and friends

According to the UN, civil society is described as “the associational activity of citizens (outside their families, friends and workplaces) that is entered into voluntarily to advance their interests, ideas, ideals and ideologies. It does not include associational activities of people for profit-making purposes (the private sector) or for governing (the state or public sector)” (UN, n.d.).

An alternative, and perhaps clearer, definition is: “Any organization or movement that works in the area between the household, the private sector and the state to negotiate matters of public concern. Civil societies include non‑governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, trade unions, academic institutions and faith‑based organizations” (IBO, 2009).

A big triangle showing the different types of organisations in Civil Society.

  • Civil society organisations in the UK and their respective incomes. The graphic positions the organisation according to what it most closely associated with; e.g. the NHS is the government-run National Health Service so it is placed near the ‘State’ corner of the triangle; it is civil society because it is not directly controlled by the government but instead by individual healthcare trusts. Source: NCVO, 2012.

Therefore, the following are features of civil society:

  • Mass organisations such as those representing women
  • Trade related organisations such as Trades Unions
  • Faith based organisations, including organised religion (e.g. Catholic Church)
  • Academic organisations such as universities
  • Public benefit organisations such as NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charities. Note: sometimes the charitable sector is known as the ‘Third Sector’ after the Public Sector (government) and Private Sector (private business).
  • Social movements such as Occupy, the anti-globalization movement
  • Pressure groups such as Greenpeace
  • Interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce in the USA

These last two types are important in helping to direct the policies of governments and private businesses.

Civil society and climate change: Pressure groups

Pressure groups are an important type of civil society group. Pressure groups aim to change the way governments, businesses or the general population behave. There are many civil society organisations that campaign on the issue of climate change. They range from very small scale and niche organisations to global operators such as Greenpeace.

An example of a climate change pressure group: Greenpeace

Greenpeace is a major campaigner on many issues, including climate, forests, oceans and world peace (Greenpeace, n.d.a). The organisation began in 1971 and today works in over 40 countries, and claims it has 2.8 million supporters worldwide (Greenpeace, n.d.b). Greenpeace has been involved in high-profile action against governments and commercial entities, such as its intended interference with French nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific in 1985. In response, the French government sank Greenpeace’s ship ‘The Rainbow Warrier’ in New Zealand (Ministry for Culture and Heritage [New Zealand], 2017).

Greenpeace states it aims “to bring about change through political lobbying, citizen action and consumer pressure…[with] core values of independence, internationalism and personal responsibility” (Greenpeace, n.d.c). It campaigns on specific climate issues that are determined by the national-level Greenpeace leadership. In the UK, there are four main campaigns at the time of writing (Greenpeace, n.d.d):

  • Clean energy
  • Fracking
  • Air pollution
  • Oil drilling near the Great Barrier Reef

Typical campaigning techniques include petitions, protests, email/letter campaigns (writing to the head of an organisation to ask them to change their policies), and direct nonviolent action to interrupt the operations of governments and companies. An example is the direct action by activists in 2007 who climbed the chimney of the Kingsnorth coal fired power station in the UK. The ensuing news coverage contributed to the decision not to renew the power station and in 2013 it was shut down, with much of its electricity generation replaced by renewable sources.

Greenpeace has been criticised for several reasons including specific factual inaccuracies on some campaigns and having a rigid and non-democratic internal structure, amongst other things. For example, its position against genetically modified crops has been criticised by leading scientists as being anti-technology and anti-science, and holding back the benefits of increased food production for poorer countries (Achenbach, 2016).

Civil society and climate change: Interest groups

Unlike pressure groups that aim to make changes, interest groups usually defend and promote an existing group or idea. They do this through legal methods such as challenging government policies in court, and through political lobbying.

Lobbying is when people attempt to change government policy by convincing the politicians in government. It is a very expensive activity because it requires experts who can create the reports and research needed to convince politicians; it also needs people who have the right connections to ensure that the interest group can actually get to meet the politicians to be heard. For this reason, much lobbying is done by professional lobbying companies. These are dealt with on the next page as part of the corporate response to climate change.

It’s important to note that lobbying is not only done by the groups that want to maintain the use of fossil fuels – often called the ‘oil lobby’. There are lobbyists on all sides – for a list of lobbyists on climate related issues in the UK, see the Renewable Energy Centre’s list here. Even so, since the vast majority of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, it’s generally the case that the oil lobby is defending its position and is therefore an interest group, while the ‘green lobby’ is trying to persuade governments to change to a more renewable-focused policy and is therefore considered a pressure group.


Achenbach, 2016. 107 Nobel laureates sign letter blasting Greenpeace over GMOs. Washington Post. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d.a. Our vision. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d.b. Questions. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d.c. About Greenpeace. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d.d. Stop climate change. Accessed 2 April 2018.

IBO, 2009. Diploma Programme Geography Guide. International Baccalaureate, Cardiff.

Ministry for Culture and Heritage [New Zealand], 2017. Rainbow Warrior sunk in Auckland. Accessed 2 April 2018.

NCVO, 2012. UK Civil Society Almanac 2012: What is civil society? Accessed 2 April 2018.

UN, n.d. Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships: The diversity of actors within the UN System. Via Accessed 2 April 2018.

Civil society strategies to address global climate change: Learning activities


  1. Define ‘civil society’. [3]
  2. Give four examples of civil society organisations. [2]
  3. Outline the background of Greenpeace. [4]
  4. Describe an example of the work done by Greenpeace. [3]
  5. Distinguish between pressure groups and interest groups. [2]
  6. What is meant by ‘lobbying’? [2]
  7. Is Greenpeace a pressure group or an interest group? Explain your answer. [3]

Other tasks

This page is about civil society organisations and their response to climate change, with a specific focus on the pro-environment group Greenpeace.

  1. Do you think this page is biased in favour of Greenpeace, biased against it, or balanced? Consider your answer from multiple perspectives e.g. an environmental pressure group volunteer; a government representative; and a fossil fuel lobbyist.
  2. Is it ever possible to be free from bias? Explain your answer with reference to your own position on climate change.