elephant in a chair.Watching the remains of a movement strain our every organizational fiber to advance a climate bill we know is a travesty reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s observation about sex: the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.

Waxman-Markey ought to be opposed by U.S. environmentalists for obvious and pragmatic reasons — street arguments, if you like. In the topsy-turvy world of U.S. climate advocacy, however, political lessons wrung from decades of hard experience have been turned inside out, so that down feels like up and wrong is the new right.

Our descent into an Alice-in-Wonderland politics took more than a decade, and there has never been a defining moment when alternative strategies were considered head to head. As a result, we stand on the threshold of cataclysm pushing policy that can’t work and see no alternative.

In hundreds of conversations with friends and colleagues — senior staff and leaders in our major organizations and environmental foundations — a remarkably consistent and fundamentally illogical train of thought emerges …

What we are doing now won’t work, but we can’t do any better because we don’t have enough power to advance a real solution. We might, in retrospect, have strengthened our position — refocusing resources, energizing our base, binding together our uncoordinated efforts — but institutional barriers stood in the way, and anyway now it’s too late. We must push for the best that can be gotten, because what else is there to do? Should I just give up and become a ski bum/move to Vermont/go to graduate school/start a vegetable garden/etc.?

What a miserable choice; support a joke climate bill or give up. Both actions, it seems to me, are forms of despair. The first option is delusional, the second option is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and neither is acceptable to the human spirit.

Thankfully, intrepid folks working outside the boundaries of our major organizations have honed all the core elements necessary for an alternative U.S. climate campaign that is pragmatic and idealistic, without being naive.

Assembling these pieces will be the topic of an upcoming post (along with the case against Waxman-Markey and an outline of a functional solution, drawing on the only successful model of international action, the Montreal Protocol). There is little point in discussing such specifics, however, without first considering the elephant in the living room.

It is perhaps too late for humanity to draw back from the brink, but we do not know this with certainty. There is no doubt, however, that we have reached the final act and the decisions of senior U.S. environmental leaders this year will decide the outcome.

So why are we allowing the very same architects of our failed strategy of the last two decades to determine our future? When people talk about “institutional barriers,” what they are really mean is that the people at the top aren’t going to shift course or leave in time.

Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation aside, most of our organizations are only three decades old and still run by founders or second-generation leaders who continue to operate under the same basic assumptions, as if the world were not being turned upside down. Stated baldly, however, the assumptions are ridiculous.

  • U.S. environmentalists should make common cause with corporations like BP, Conoco-Phillips, Dow, Duke Energy, DuPont, Ford, GE, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, PG&E, and Shell rather than stand with climate scientists like Jim Hansen and others.
  • Any compromise (such as endorsing 450 ppm or exempting super-greenhouse gases from a climate bill) is acceptable in the interest of passing something.
  • Organizational interests come before effective climate action.
  • We have lots of time, that’s why it’s OK to pass a weak bill (we can always strengthen it latter), and why it would be foolish to spend our reserves.
  • Protest, disruption, and civil disobedience are harmful.
  • There is no alternative to our present course of action (the one we devised more than a decade ago, in which our organizational and personal reputations are invested).

It ought to be obvious that the truth lies in precisely the opposite direction:

  • Environmentalists must stand on precautionary climate science — major corporations (particularly energy conglomerates) are the enemy.
  • Environmentalists should speak the truth, which means we must draw a line distinguishing functional climate action from window dressing.
  • U.S. environmentalists must throw everything we’ve got into a last-minute, cooperative drive to fundamentally shift the U.S. course of climate action.
  • We have no time, we cannot fix our errors latter.
  • Cozy accommodation has stripped us of power and compromised our leadership — by not taking to the streets we have shown that we don’t really believe what we are saying.
  • There are many things we could be doing — we have billions of dollars, thousands of highly trained staff and a core of climate activists desperate for leadership.

It’s hard to accept, because our crisis is slow moving, but U.S. environmentalists stand in the same spot as other small groups throughout history who have had to choose between courageous, difficult stands with long hope of victory or going along with the flow. It’s our decision now.