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Environmental Activists Adjust Their Tactics Since First Climate Talks

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to Paris and those climate talks there that are being hosted by the United Nations. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that after almost 20 years of battling climate change, the environmental movement has learned a few lessons.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The negotiations here in Paris have their own language. And if you don't know it, you'll be lost. There's that CMA and the LPAA and something called the Warsaw Mechanism, which is different from the Cancun Framework and the Durban Platform. But environmentalists have learned how to interpret.

RIA VOORHAAR: Good morning. Thank you for coming. My name is Ria Voorhaar. We're from Climate Action Network. We're here to give you a briefing on the state of play and the negotiations with ministers arriving.

JOYCE: The climate action that represents like-minded environmental groups, like-minded meaning they all want a global climate deal, but each has its own pet project, protection of forests or indigenous peoples' rights or life in the oceans or tax breaks for green energy. They want official delegates to support their particular agenda, get businesses to listen, and the press to write their story with email blasts every day. But their modus operandi is the result of years of practice. John Coequyt of the Sierra Club explains that the environmentalists have changed their strategy since the first climate meetings in the 1990s.

JOHN COEQUYT: We used to have much bigger disagreements over what the nature of the agreement would be.

JOYCE: They've been trying to put aside differences over what the details of a climate agreement should include. Instead, they're focusing on building local support for climate action well before these meetings.

COEQUYT: We focus a lot more now on what's happening back at home. We don't come into these meetings thinking that we're going to change everything, change negotiating positions, change red lines nearly like we used to. We think about how we set up the negotiations by our advocacy back home.

JOYCE: Back in the U.S., the Sierra Club has been campaigning to replace coal-fired power plants with renewable sources of electricity. It's a strategy they've brought here in hopes of exporting it to India, where coal use is expected to increase dramatically. Another big change for environmentalists is the U.S. government is no longer the antagonist it once was.

COEQUYT: In the past, our mode was to beat up on President Bush.

JOYCE: Now he says, many former environmental activists are part of the U.S. delegation here. Many of those who are not part of the official delegation in Paris can be found at the cafe in the conference media center. That's where I talked with Molly Moore. She's a former journalist who now councils environmental groups on how to get their message out.

MOLLY MOORE: I think that environmental groups in terms of the U.N. climate conferences become more realistic.

JOYCE: Moore says they aren't shooting for the moon as they once did, insisting on a long-term treaty that solves the world's climate problems in one fell swoop. And many no longer see business as the enemy but rather as the source of finance that will pay for remaking the world's energy economy. And one more thing, she says, their style has changed.

MOORE: Environmental groups have gotten a lot smarter about how they go about trying to do their job in protecting the environment. They realize you can't scream at people. You have to find ways to bring people along with you.

JOYCE: Many of those people weren't even born when the first climate conference had started in the early 1990s, and that's also changed environmental tactics. Lawyer Annie Petsonk was at those meetings in the 1990s for the Environmental Defense Fund. She says her audience and how to reach them has changed a lot.

ANNIE PETSONK: The environmental community has really turned to social media to broaden the outreach to millennials who care about the future of the planet that they're going to live in and translate that into action at local levels, across the United States, and in many countries around the world.

JOYCE: And you can see that here in Paris. Now the activists don't have to wait outside meeting rooms for someone to come out and brief them. All they have to do is watch their Twitter feed. Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.