It takes effort to suit up in the quasi-business/academic garb of the professional environmentalist and enter the lion’s den of DC politics or the state houses. Our beliefs are so fundamentally at odds with the very fabric of civic life that it requires an effort of will, particularly in the early years, not to scream bloody murder and run for the door.

Over decades, layers of accommodation and polite behavior have built up by accretion, while our rough edges have been worn down. The net result is a worldview — we may call it the “Climate Policy Paradigm” — that is so universally accepted that it goes unnoticed, yet its power is so great that we have abandoned the precautionary principle, environmentalism’s central guide for action, with barely a murmur when the two came in conflict.

Two hundred people turned out to hear Ross Gelbspan speak at the Jamaica Plain Forum a couple months ago. He gave us an hour of unvarnished truth, summarized recent climate science, and drove home the reality that nothing short of immediate, transformative, global action is sufficient.

Climate campaign staff followed up at a “Global Warming Café,” presenting our standard three-part story:

  • first, we can turn things around, indeed we are already starting to do so;
  • second, sound energy policy is good for America, because it will reduce dependence on foreign oil and create green jobs; and
  • third, there are two things individuals can do: urge members of Congress to support emissions reduction bills and reduce our own carbon footprints.

The audience joined in small group discussions, contributing their own tips on mulching and insulating hot water pipes, but the disparity between the terrible picture Ross painted and the flimsy action activists were invited to take left a palpable pall in the auditorium.

If the purpose of campaigning is to raise hope, spirits, and courage in the face of long odds, and channel that energy into productive political change, then we are failing. Participants in the reduce-your-carbon-footprint workshops were not joined to some larger purpose and few appeared to leave more energized then they arrived.

To the growing and increasingly sophisticated climate core — anxious individuals responding directly to climate scientists, who now address them directly via op-eds in The New York Times — our invitation to lobby Congress for tepid legislation is un-galvanizing, to put it mildly. Gifted with 200 potential activists in a national election year, our best idea is to engage them in private carbon-emissions navel gazing.

Common sense and organizing experience ought to tell us that we are beginning to lose touch with our base, but we no longer think much in terms of building the environmental core. In the long, strange trip between Earth Day 1970 and the Global Warming Café, the transformative vision of environmentalism — which spoke to people’s fears (as well as their hopes), sketched a vision in broad strokes of society rebuilt (in addition to lobbying for reforms), thought in terms of movement and belief (not just organization and policy), and saw environmentalism as outside the left/right spectrum, equally appealing and equally challenging to all traditional politics (and not just one of the progressive herd) — has morphed into something cramped, Balkanized, and self-conscious.

Our eco-fundamentalist vision is still there, but it is buried. The way we see the world, on a day-to-day basis, is through the lens of our Climate Policy Paradigm, an internally consistent body of beliefs which guides and structures our actions. U.S. environmentalists, from self-avowed critics to the most mainstream, agree on three things, the cornerstones of the Paradigm:

  1. our most important work is to advance climate policy;
  2. we must be optimistic, and;
  3. climate must be put in terms other than environmental interests.

Policy is our business

Most of our time and creative energy is bent toward policy. Books on climate, organizational manifestos, and Gristmill posts argue the finer points of carbon taxes versus cap-and-trade and other, often arcane, details. Little of our thinking or resources goes into social change theory, political strategy (aside from elections), organizing and campaigning, applying lessons from U.S. history, public communications, or insights from cognitive psychology, sociology, theology, economics, or any number of other arts and sciences.

We elevate climate policy above other avenues because we believe that it is the primary responsibility of environmentalists to craft the climate change solution.

Why so? Because we think that if we hit upon just the right formula — the perfect blend of incentives, quasi-free market trappings, tax breaks, and so on — we can accomplish the political equivalent of changing lead into gold, and pass effective climate legislation without major opposition.

But political power is immutable and we are not alchemists.

Policy — a plan of governmental action — is an outcome of power, not a means of achieving it. We do not have enough power to win functional climate policy in the U.S., and until we do so, there will be no global climate solution.

For twenty years we have approached the problem by pre-negotiating with ourselves on behalf of our opposition. We don’t think about it in those terms, but that is what climate policy is all about. We calculate what concessions are necessary to placate whichever interest, power, or nation it is thought must be mollified, and then devise a scheme to fit within those limits.

There are powerful arguments against the anything-is-better-than-nothing philosophy, but there is an even more basic problem with our “policy-first” approach. The world can only draw back from the climate tipping point by transformative political action. The details (i.e. policy) of that action are unknowable to us because we are unaware of, and cannot predict, the conditions, resources, and timetable that will dictate the terms of action when America does accept responsibility for global leadership.

It is possible for us to talk about what America can do when we mobilize to face a global threat, by drawing on U.S. history. The Marshall Plan and post-WWII reconstruction are often used as analogies for a climate solution, but the U.S. gear-up for war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is more useful example of the potential speed and scale of American mobilization.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government told Detroit to stop manufacturing automobiles for private use and start building tanks and other war materiel. Automobile production was 162,000 in 1941, and zero in 1942. Tank production was <300 in 1940, and 25,000 by 1942.

When the U.S. does act decisively on climate, our government will tell the private sector to stop burning coal and start getting power from renewables within one year, and they will do it, because it feasible. The U.S. can’t solve the climate crisis unilaterally, so we will pay for China to go solar in exchange for shutting down its coal mines (the two nations control 40% of the worlds coal reserves), just as we couldn’t win the war alone, and paid the Soviet Union to keep the second front open.

Our agenda must aim for that level of action. Nothing short of it is sufficient, and the details will not be worked out beforehand. Our present agenda, focused on U.S. domestic emissions and anything-is-better-than-nothing, has more in common with the pre-war policies of isolationism and appeasement.

The people sitting on folding chairs in low-carbon-footprint workshops are much more sophisticated than they were a few years back, and they’re not easily snowed by charts and graphs peppered with labels — “wedges” this and RPS that — purporting to show how emissions can go down without our power first going up.

What we have going for us is truth and righteousness. What we need is a disciplined, committed climate core. Both are compromised if we keep flogging flimsy policy that cannot solve the problem.

We must be upbeat

Every day we we receive communications from our organizations enthusing about this or that victory. Here’s one:

Great news. Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a strong renewable energy standard requiring utilities to provide 12.5% of the state’s electricity from clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2025.

If the world must immediately shut down coal plants to get below 350 ppm, as Hansen advises, then the utilities mentioned in the blurb above have just won themselves a great victory.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are on the fast road to cataclysm and nothing short of massive, global transformation is meaningful, then we must stop seeking and celebrating dinky achievements. At the very least, we must rephrase how they are trumpeted:

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a renewable energy standard requiring utilities to provide 12.5% of the state’s electricity from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2025. That is 1/6 of total cuts utilities must make in coal emissions to pull back from the climate “point of no return.” We believe it is crucial to get the renewable standard language onto the books, and have accepted the low percentage. [Our campaign] is pledged to immediately return to the legislature to speed up the transfer from coal to solar and wind.

Climate must be pitched to other interests

Climate programs spanning the gamut from Rising Tide to Apollo and NWF assume that people won’t respond to direct calls for climate action.

Whether this mass communications approach is advisable is neither here nor there, because it is certainly a disaster for the climate core — and it is a terrible bargain to trade a small but deeply committed base for a supposed majority that is paper thin.

The folks at the Global Warming Café heard two different stories. Ross talked about the end of the world, yet managed to encourage hope in the face of darkness. The gist of our story is that we don’t believe climate change is nearly the problem Ross and the scientists say it is.

We convey our skepticism in two ways. First, we blur our descriptions of the problem so as not to be too alarmist, and second, we put the primary case for climate action in terms other than avoiding disaster.

To cry catastrophe! and then list benefits like green jobs and reduced oil imports to be gained if we take preventative measures is odd and confusing behavior, like running into a crowded movie theater and shouting “Fire! … and don’t forget to buy popcorn on the way out; with all the unexpected traffic, it’s on sale!”

Unmoored from principle

We are in crisis because the Climate Policy Paradigm has demonstrably failed to solve the problem. It also prevents us from perceiving that we are in crisis. One unambiguous signal that we have sailed into murky waters is our abandonment of the precautionary principle — environmentalism’s central assumption — without debate.

Environmentalists won inclusion of precautionary language in the Rio Declaration on the Environment and the Kyoto Protocol. Climate scientists consistently refer to this language as the benchmark for deciding are necessary and appropriate responses to climate change.

In 2005, Jim Hansen published "On A Slippery Slope" (PDF), laying out the case for a 450 ppm “bright line” and outlining a scenario of glacier surface ice melt leading to ice shelf break-up and rapid sea level rise. Hansen’s position was significantly more conservative — that is, precautionary — than the 550 ppm Kyoto target, and was not endorsed by any major U.S. environmental organization for several years (even, ironically, as U.S. environmentalists rushed to support Hansen when the Bush administration sought to gag him).

Three years later, Hansen has circulated a paper making the precautionary case for a swift return below 350 ppm atmospheric carbon. Once again, nothing is heard from U.S. environmentalists but a deafening silence. As a matter of intellectual honesty, we have two options: endorse or refute. As a matter of environmental principle, there is no option, and the longer we remain silent, the greater the moral burden, the tighter our grip on the familiar, and more impossible the task that can commence only when the way is cleared.

A second unambiguous example that our thinking is out of whack is that we have yet to take even the simplest of steps to join forces. The Paradigm evolved from decisions of energy advocates and program officers, whose calculus of environmental power was organizational, rarely coalitional, not institutional, and never movement-based.

Ten years ago, that kind of thinking might be excused, but today? Where is the gathering of Green Group leadership to plan strategy? Where is the national training conference for our core? Where is the proposal to create infrastructure (communications center, training academy, fundraising, technology, etc.)?

An organization or foundation that represents itself as addressing climate change based on its own resources and program alone has not accepted reality.

Easing out from under the paradigm

We can keep plodding down the dark road of deepening despair, rigid defense of inadequate policy, and preservation of organizational power at the expense of common purpose until our base disintegrates and/or an internal flash point is reached.

Or, we can acknowledge that our Climate Policy Paradigm has failed, experiment with new program and campaigning, and craft a more robust approach. (I have argued that we might bridge the gap by creating an in-house, experimenting campaigns center to germinate and test new ideas.) Even small steps in this direction will be instantly rewarded, as a new atmosphere of creative ferment supplants sterile labor. When reality — however terrible — is accepted in place of false optimism, we will tap a wellspring of courage, joy, and hope.

How we choose to act at this critical juncture determines whether environmental principles and our institution will survive; whether a just and sustainable climate solution will be put before the world; and whether America will be mobilized to lead a last-minute global drive to avert collapse of civilization and eco-cataclysm. To achieve these things — to save the world — we must do what may be the hardest thing humans are ever called upon to do: give up deeply held beliefs of which we are barely even aware. In our case, the challenge is made easy because we have merely to unearth the values and principles we already hold but have held too long in secrecy.

Which vision will go over best at the next Global Warming Café? Two years back it would have been a tough call whether the climate core preferred terrible truth + long odds but functional global solution, or buffered truth + personal action and comfortable but ineffective politics. Now, if offered an alternative to civics by pre-packaged constituent email and activism defined as refusing junk mail, there is little doubt they would seize it, because they have accepted reality, and it terrifies them.