“The situation is dire.” “There’s no time to waste.” “We need large-scale solutions to this global crisis.” “Do something already!”

These are the sentiments most often shared in conversations on climate change in the social good sector. As heavy-hitters met in Washington, DC, last week for the Climate Action 2016 summit, these now-clichés remained unchanged. The search for “real” solutions that will have global impact remains urgent, but elusive. 

What if a Western worldview has hampered our search for climate solutions? What if we can’t find solutions within the status quo? 

Grassroots solutions tend to emerge when leaders on the ground draw from and share indigenous, contextual, and collective expertise. They come from making deeper connections to the natural world, and from working directly with families as they cope with the unequal burdens and chaos created by climate change. These efforts not only assess the very real, daily implications of climate change on people’s lives, but also enable local action to protect rights to water, soil, air, seeds, food, forests, livestock, and land around the world.

Women farmers in Macina, Mali, the country's main rice-growing region, have been at the forefront of resisting land grabs and building more sustainable agricultural practices. (Photo courtesy of Global Greengrants.)

Grassroots solutions come with sophisticated, alternative approaches to “climate adaptation” and “mitigation”—visionary plans to power communities, fierce strategies to resist climate destruction in the first place, and activation of the power of advocacy and grassroots organizing for lasting social change.

Thus we have to ask, what are funders and other global leaders missing if they are not looking at what is happening at the grassroots level to contend with climate change? Below are five things:

1. Resilience as the root of innovation. When resources are scarce, people turn to creativity and perseverance. To build resilience to drought, Israeli water grabs, and destruction of water infrastructure in Palestine, for example, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees works with local women to rebuild water catchment systems, including rainwater and greywater reuse, for household gardens. What outside experts might term “innovative water management” is what some must do to survive.

2. Inherently holistic approaches. Climate change makes focusing on one issue or sector at a time a luxury. Grassroots solutions to climate change reflect social, political, geographic, and economic realities simultaneously. For example, to counter environmental degradation and promote agroecology and forest-rebuilding in Haiti, the Peasant Movement of Papaye has to address all aspects of people’s lives that depend on degraded and deforested farmlands. Their embeddedness—their day-to-day interactions in the community—means that the solutions they advance in the face of Haiti’s changing climate and agricultural conditions come from a profound understanding of how people cope and the social fabric surrounding them. 

3. On-the-ground readiness for disaster. Time and again, grassroots groups have predicted the precise infrastructural collapses and hardest-hit areas in natural disasters missed by top-down efforts. In Guatemala City, for example, the Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty works with a network of 22 community organizations developing evacuation plans and family emergency plans for recurring natural disasters. The Brazilian Movement of People Affected by Dams works with indigenous people threatened by the construction of new mega-dams along the Tapajos and the Xingu, two major Amazonian rivers, as they resist (and still must prepare for) resettlement. 

4. What binds people. People, under the direst of circumstances, can and do pull together. In Rajasthan, an already semi-arid part of India where rainfall is becoming less and less predictable. Sahyog Sansthan, a local nonprofit, works in 100 indigenous communities, helping people improve crop yields, and more importantly, work together to manage communal lands more equitably and efficiently. The organization currently works reaches more than 3,500 women and has inspired local government agencies to replicate its methods.

5. Scale, albeit from a new perspective. What if we defined scale not by reach, but by quality and effectiveness? In South Africa, Biowatch promotes seed saving and agroecology practices that enhance climate resilience. Results demonstrate long-term food security for more than 500 rural farmers, while preserving biodiversity. Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Women's Collective in Chennai, India has trained more than 10,000 women in sustainable farming, creating a new generation of localized agroecology advocates and trainers. 

A Vital Wellspring of Climate Solutions

With public and private sector commitments to the Green Climate Fund at more than $200 billion, the global climate movement has much to learn from grassroots solutions. But those holding the purse-strings too often dismiss the people implementing grassroots solutions as quaint and the efforts themselves as “feel-good” projects on the sidelines of high-level work to stem the climate crisis. They fail to recognize the technical prowess and complex innovation at the core of effective grassroots efforts.

To continue with this outlook is to doom us to groupthink. 

If global leaders continue to limit the debate to solutions such as short-term projects led by people outside communities, or market-based responses to climate change like carbon markets, they risk protecting the special interests of corporations. They risk not addressing the loss of land, territory, and resource rights, or the expansion of industrial agricultural systems, mega-dams, and fossil fuel extraction. They also risk missing the opportunity to rethink issues at the intersections of social justice, gender, race, and equity—where the root causes of climate change reside.

Imagine if we supported hundreds—and even thousands—of effective grassroots climate solutions around the world to thrive, lead, and share their models and link together? It would make so much more progress possible.

Members of La Via Campesina, a coalition of 164 organizations in 73 countries, representing about 200 million peasant, landless, indigenous, and other farmers, demonstrate at COP21 in Paris at the end of 2015. (Photo courtesy of Grassroots International)

This is not an either-or proposal. We need to embrace both high-level climate coordination and grassroots efforts. But as we do that high-level work on climate change, we also urgently need to recognize global grassroots innovators of climate solutions as rightful peers and thought leaders in this endeavor.

History that shows that powerful grassroots organizing has been a vital lever of major social change—including decolonization, civil rights, and environmental movements. Organizing strategies that include indigenous peoples, women, youth, and diverse grassroots groups across borders and boundaries can spark broad, comprehensive social change powerful enough to address the greatest challenge of our age: climate change. Funding grassroots solutions will turn our clichés into profundities.