Associations and Climate Change: The Time Is Now

 Alcorn Engel - Associations and Climate Change March 14, 2024 By: Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE and Shelly Cumbie Alcorn, CAE

Sustainability has become a hot topic for the association industry, as association executives realize that climate change is not just a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative.

To quote from ASAE’s well-attended May 2023 webinar, Associations' Role in Climate Change: The UN Climate Conference, COP27 & Beyond: “Either as part of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives or looking at impact and legacy, associations are increasingly grappling with the role sustainability plays in supporting their work and advancing their missions.” 

Climate change is real. It’s happening. It’s caused by human action, and it’s accelerating. However, taking action presents a challenge for a variety of reasons. The problem is so overwhelming that it can be hard to know where to start. Humans have some built-in cognitive biases that make it hard for us to even think clearly about existential risk and complex change—and climate change is both.

Many of the solutions that are presented to us are either very large-scale (e.g., the annual U.N. COP meetings, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement) or are narrowly focused on consumer choices (like upgrading to an electric car, installing solar panels, eating less meat). The majority of human life, including being part of an association, takes place somewhere in between those two extremes.

What Role Can Associations Play in Addressing Climate Change?

Associations need to develop resilience (the ability to bounce back when bad things happen) and learn to adapt (fundamentally change how we live and work) in their internal operations, their member-facing programs, products and services, and as leaders and representatives of the professions and industries they exist to serve.

What might that look like? As an obvious example, according to the American Institute of Architects, “Buildings contribute nearly 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.” This includes your office building and your staff has to get there in the first place. Can your association adapt to a different way of working?

Meanwhile, weather patterns are becoming less predictable, weather incidents are becoming more extreme, and extreme weather incidents are becoming more frequent. Your crisis planning and risk management systems and practices need to adapt as a result.

The Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Planning Association recommends focusing on four critical stages in your crisis planning:

  1. Mitigation: thinking long-term to reduce risk

  2. Preparedness: having an emergency plan and making sure it’s up to date

  3. Response: marshaling resources so you’re ready to act during a crisis

  4. Recovery: helping your organization or community get back on its feet after the crisis

How Can Associations Help Staff and Members Develop Resilience?

Climate disasters affect everyone’s emotions and mental health, but your youngest employees and members are particularly at risk of negative mental health outcomes. The American Psychological Association recommends offering programs that promote “a sense of meaning or purpose, coping and self-regulation skills, self-efficacy, social connections, community cohesion, practical preparations for disasters and other climate impacts, and taking productive action on climate change.” Associations are natural nexus of the exact types of social and community connections the APA recommends., a membership and advocacy organization that works to shift industries out of fossil fuels, protect old-growth forests, and mobilize people to advocate for climate change-friendly government policy, has developed those types of programs, placing a particular emphasis on staff mental health via traditional employee benefits like fully paid health, dental, and vision coverage for staff and their dependents and generous personal leave, and via innovative efforts like offering sabbatical leaves, creating a BIPOC wellness fund, and instituting an organization-wide meditation and mindfulness practice.

Together, We Can Take Action

Different professions and industries are all operating at different levels of knowledge about the

implications of climate change, and that affects the space the associations that represent those professions and industries have to act. But the continued survival of those professions and industries depends on their ability to adapt quickly to this rapidly evolving situation.

Fortunately, that’s why people build associations in the first place: to solve a problem collectively that they’ve been unable to solve individually. Associations are perfect social laboratories to hold conversations and develop change agendas to create a better world for all of us. Association executives are pros at tailoring communications to groups with different levels of knowledge and information, regularly mobilizing members and the public to encourage group action and influencing policy and policymakers. We can do this, together.

To learn more, download our free whitepaper, The Time Is Now: Association Resilience and Adaptation and the Anthropocene Climate Disruption.


Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, has been a member of the association community for more than 25 years. She is currently chief strategist at Spark Consulting.

Shelly Cumbie Alcorn, CAE

Shelly Cumbie Alcorn serves as the principal futurist for Michelle Alcorn and Associates and a convener of the Association Climate Action Coalition. She is laser focused on the global climate emergency and obsessed with the idea that associations can make a significant difference.