Your step-by-step guide to large-scale change

March 30, 2021

A note from Executive Director Todd Paglia

First you do A, then you do B, then you do C, then a miracle happens and you win your campaign. Welcome to the niche genre of campaign humor.  😉

This is, of course, a joke about how to develop a theory of change – or, rather, how not to develop one. The road toward large-scale change is often non-linear with periods of no movement – for months or years – followed by a breakthrough where a company or a government suddenly takes steps to reform. It is challenging but you need to map out at least one, and usually several, pathway(s) to connect your demonstrations, advertising, scandal reports, media work, etc., to your ultimate goal. We also call this “thinking in straight lines.” If you are at you will hear the phrase “theory of change” a lot. And, a number of bad jokes about what qualifies as an effective theory of change.

So, why do we talk about it so much? 

If you are, say, publishing a report about old growth forests being destroyed and you secure media attention about that fact, the media attention alone is not necessarily a theory of change. Reports, all by themselves, rarely are (though the environmental movement releases a LOT of them). As a movement, we have been on the right side of history for several decades when it comes to climate change, the impacts of deforestation, and more. But, like a report, “being right” is not a theory of change.

However, if a report is published just prior to a government announcement on annual policy priorities, and the media attention surrounding that report generates controversy, and if members and our networked partners call elected officials in response to the controversy, and the resulting media coverage, phone calls, emails, and social shares motivate the inclusion of a province-wide old-growth policy before the government’s announcement of its annual priorities…Well, that is a theory of change in action.

This past week, the team at has seen several of our theories of change in the oil and gas sector at work. With 85% of the world’s new fossil fuel production proposed in the US and Canada, our now decade-long interventions to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry have reached a new level of urgency.

First, a zombie pipeline: The fight to stop some of the biggest tar sands pipelines over the last decade has been a swirl of twists and turns – a seemingly never ending cycle of government approvals, followed by public opposition and legal interventions, and then delays. Rinse and repeat – Line 3, Keystone, and Trans Mountain being the big three zombie projects that are still out there.

When the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline seemed all but sealed with construction imminent, we focused on moving insurance companies to cut their ties with Trans Mountain. No insurance, no pipeline.

Zurich Insurance, the primary liability insurer for Trans Mountain, cut its ties to the pipeline in 2020. This was a major, albeit interim, victory. But, we didn’t have a sense of the impact of our tactical shift until last week.

We learned that Trans Mountain filed a request asking the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) to keep the identity of its insurers a secret. The document explicitly name-drops and credits the pressure from our movement as the reason why the company is struggling to find insurers to back the project.

Trans Mountain is right to be afraid: without insurance, the pipeline is dead. Their costs are rising and they are losing support. But what Trans Mountain doesn’t understand about campaigning is that when you get crystal clear evidence that your strategy is working, you don’t back off – you go even harder. And we will.

Second, if we are shifting to electric vehicles do we need more gas stations? No! For the last several years we have been building a movement of local citizens and elected leaders that want to stop further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure from oil by rail terminals to pipelines to gas stations. Fast Company and Axios were the first of now dozens of news outlets to announce that the California city of Petaluma became the first municipality in the United States to ban the construction of new gas stations on February 22nd.

Our SAFE Cities program team noted that the small group of city council members and local activists who were fighting for this ban needed communications support, and our team was able to connect local voices with national media and amplify this important policy win – which is now being reported on as far away as Italian Forbes, as well as news outlets in Chile, Romania, Poland, and Norway.

Small communities that want to do the right thing are often under-resourced and volunteer-led, but when we aggregate and amplify their work, it can both uplift important local action and inspire other communities to follow suit. We see this time and time again, how a community like Baltimore can learn from action in coastal Washington to put a moratorium on fossil fuel expansion – and then use those tools to do the same.

In addition to helping Petaluma tell their story on a national stage, we plan in the coming weeks to host a webcast featuring local officials and activists to inspire similar action throughout our SAFE Cities networks.

Third, what if we can drive banks out of financing the trade of Amazon oil? Since we brought one of the best supply chain research teams into (now the Research Group), we have integrated great strategy and amazing research in all our teams. Along the way, we have discovered all kinds of things, including the previously unknown practice of European banks (which have published climate and forest policies) financing the trade of oil from the Amazon Sacred Headwaters. We identified six banks that represented 85% of the money used to finance oil sales from the Amazon Sacred Headwaters to US refineries. Last week, we persuaded Natixis to stop this practice – which means 5 of the 6 banks are now out of that business. One bank – UBS – remains…but not for long. We have much more work to do and a complex theory of change with many elements, but drying up the money fueling the destruction of this area is coming along.

All of these theories of change took months or years to put into place, but these benchmarks of success all landed in the span of a week. Such a flood of movement is rare, but even the smaller moments warrant taking the time to celebrate the design of an effective theory of change. Which reminds me of another one. A Theory of Change and a Miracle walk into a bar…

– Todd