How Donors and Civil Society Organizations Can Better Support At-Risk Climate Activists

Our new report, Understanding and Responding to the Protection Needs of Climate Activists and Movements: A Guide for Donors and Support Organizations, reveals a gap in meeting the protection needs of climate activists and movements. We identified ways to bridge it.

Climate protests
Written by
Cassidy Giordano
Danya Greenfield

Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in November, there will be a robust policy dialogue on climate justice issues across the globe. At the national and international level, fierce debates will surface between federal, state, and local governments, private sector, lobbying firms, and public interest groups –and those who advocate for climate justice will make their case. 

These are welcome developments, certainly. But we cannot overlook the needs of grassroots-level climate activists, organizations, and movements that place themselves at risk on a daily basis fighting back against policies and practices that harm the environment. They are often unseen, unrecognized, and unprotected.

Activists on the frontlines of climate justice face increasing risks from restrictive laws, judicial harassment, and physical violence. While these intimidation tactics are a worldwide phenomenon, communities in the global south are often subjected to the most violent and destructive attacks. Indigenous and rural communities face particularly heightened risks as they fight against powerful interests that prioritize profit over people.

Moreover, people fighting for Indigenous, environmental, land, and resource rights may hold other important identities that drive their rights-based activism, including ethnic or religious affiliations, gender, or LGBT+ status. This means that the challenges and risks they face are deeply complex and context-specific. And while many of these climate activists may not define themselves as human rights defenders (HRDs) or situate themselves within the human rights community, they are advocating for fundamental human rights and should have access to the same type of protection and support as other HRDs.

To this end, the Lifeline Fund for Embattled CSOs (a consortium led by Freedom House) partnered with the Universal Rights Group­–Latin America (URG) to produce a new report on climate activists. The report, Understanding and Responding to the Protection Needs of Climate Activists and Movements: A Guide for Donors and Support Organizations, identifies the greatest needs of this diverse community and concrete ways to more effectively meet those needs.

The research revealed a communications gap between climate activists and environmental human rights defenders on the one hand, and the broader human rights community and donors working to support and protect them on the other. The disconnect limits efforts by both sides to strengthen the protection of fundamental freedoms and civic space.

It’s important to note that the context in which climate defenders are working will impact the type of threats they face. For example, threats against activists working to halt pipeline construction in the United States have been mostly legal, while anti-logging activists in Brazil contend with physical violence and death threats. But the support that all environmental defenders and climate activists need is essentially the same: flexible funding; stronger networks and information exchange (in local languages), psychosocial support, digital and physical security training, and collective protection, among other support.

With this report, Lifeline’s objective is to foster greater connection, networks, and information flow between international human rights organizations and climate justice activists and movements so they are aware of what protection support is available and can effectively access it when needed. To that end, our partners at URG have developed an extensive resource list for climate activists and movements to access support for their protection, digital security, well-being, advocacy, and other needs.

We’ve also identified ways that donors and international civil society organizations (CSOs) can strengthen support for climate activists. They include:

  • Increasing outreach and enhancing communication. Donors and CSOs should proactively join climate activists’ online and offline spaces, nationally and internationally, and increase the visibility of available funding, calls for proposals, or training opportunities. Donors and support organizations, including Freedom House, should design outreach materials specifically oriented to the needs of climate activists, and ensure that climate activism is clearly defined and the type of support offered is described in ways that will resonate.
  • Increasing accessible support to climate activists and groups that work on behalf of Indigenous, rural, and more marginalized communities. To do this, donors should simplify application procedures, allow flexibility in the required documents, translate documents into local languages, and revise stringent eligibility requirements, including minimum-age requirements. This will enable youth and Indigenous peoples to more easily apply for assistance. Our report also highlights the importance of attending to activists’ well-being in order to sustain climate activism in hostile environments. Donors can play an important role by ensuring that psychosocial support is included as a critical component of holistic security.
  • Building bridges and coordinating action with other organizations and donors. Donors and CSOs need to establish effective referral pathways so that local organizations supporting climate activists can more easily provide support via emergency grants and technical deliverables, and broaden their trust networks. They should begin by identifying local organizations engaged with climate activists that can function as intermediaries to bridge the gap between international supporters and local grassroots activists, particularly those from Indigenous and rural communities. At the same time, support organizations that are not directly focused on climate activists can be included as allies, including groups that carry out valuable work on digital security, and narrative-change work.

With this action plan, URG and the Lifeline Consortium, in partnership with the Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED) coalition, will be working with like-minded organizations to put these steps in place to ensure that we better protect those working to ensure that future generations will inherit a clean and healthy planet.