Top Down or Bottom Up Climate Action?

By Mary Cappelletti

Climate change is a complicated topic, as we all know, and this can mean it is a difficult problem to tackle. As people are becoming increasingly more aware of the topic, they also strive to get involved in the issue. However, the more people that get involved in the issue, the more differing opinions are developing on the best way to combat it. As part of my senior project with Program on the Environment at UW, I am not only completing an internship, but I am also conducting research. My research was initially on whether top down or bottom up climate action was more effective, but it is quickly evolving into more of an exploration of the differences between the two. I’m only in the preliminary stages of this research, but over the past few weeks I’ve been learning a bit more about the contention between the two approaches. Through reading articles, interviewing leaders in climate action, discussing with peers, and listening to podcasts I have learned a bit about the various opinions and the pros and cons of each. It’s been incredibly fascinating to hear such differing opinions on the best approach to climate change, and for me it is beginning to shed light on the need for both approaches. 

I have always been very invested in bottom up action. I’ve never been of the opinion that top down wasn’t equally as important, but to me it seemed there was something especially crucial about the foundation of bottom up change. If we think about the United States as a business, we can think about top down change as executive driven and bottom up change as employee driven. Of course, sometimes executive changes are necessary and very important. However, these changes can also cause resentment as well as defensive, self-justifying behavior from the employees that worsens the problem and ultimately creates an unproductive work environment. Employee driven change does more to alter the culture of a business and drive change in a more holistic way that allows it to last longer and be more effective. For a long time I’ve felt that the latter was the better way to approach most problems, including climate change. However, more and more as I explore this topic, my stubborn attitude toward the subject is being chipped away. Although, top down change isn’t always the most holistic approach, it is a necessity in order to stop climate change. 

I was recently listening to a podcast that Mary Manous shared with me about the straw ban in which two individuals argued about the pros and cons of removing straws from the market. One of the speakers discussed the problems the ban has, including the creation of a new sippy cup by starbucks that actually uses more plastic than the straws had. Ultimately, she points out how little good the ban will actually do, and she therefore believes it is “random” and derives from motivations other than environmental concerns. On the other hand, another speaker points out what the ban symbolizes. Environmentalists and everyday people are demanding a change. Seattle’s general public is widely in favor of the ban and eager to see the products disappear from the market. The ban signifies a shifting culture that is beginning to demand policies that favor the environment. 

The straw ban is in some ways an example of both top down and bottom up action. It is a ban, therefore a policy change, but it was pushed for by the public as well as environmentalists. It may not be the answer to climate change as it does little to actually reduce plastic production, but it seems to me that it is a step in the right direction. It shows that if people start changing the demand, the supply will change. Plastic is just one product that is harming the environment and there are so many other products we need to reduce or abolish. Pooling our efforts to not only limit our consumption of these products, but also to demand they are made more sustainably or eliminated altogether seems like it might be the best route. I don’t think anyone knows for sure what the best way to end climate change is, especially in this political climate, but if we can all make an effort hopefully change is on the horizon. 

Notes. There will likely be future posts that explore this topic further as my research advances. I wanted to introduce the topic with novice thoughts on the subject first. I would also love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the topic. Thanks for reading!

Link to the Podcast- Culture Gabfest: Grasping at Straws Edition from Slate Daily Feed in Podcasts.